Debate of the Day: Anita Sarkeesian’s Damsels in Distress


I’ve written about this elsewhere, but it’s something I wanted to bring to you guys here as well. Anita Sarkeesian has been a controversial figure lately after raising $150K to make a series about “Tropes vs. Woman in Video Games.” She dropped off the map for a while, causing some to thing she scammed everyone, but that isn’t the case. Rather, she had indeed come out with her first video in the series, and it’s a fascinating watch if you ask me.

Her video series will cover many topics, but this first one gets at the root of the first major trope about women in games. They’re damsels in distress. The idea that Miyamoto took an age old idea seen in everything from mythology to King Kong and made it the basis of three of his major titles, Donkey Kong, Mario Bros. and the Legend of Zelda. That’s all fine and good, but with dozens of installments of these games, the female character just keeps getting kidnapped, imprisoned or something similar. What started in those games spread to many others, and so the trope became a firmly entrenched part of gaming.

I know there are some of you who seem to get offended by the word “feminism” (*cough* trashcanman *cough*), but I’m curious to hear what you all think of this video. Trust me, it’s worth the full 20 minutes if you take as nothing else but an interesting history lesson about video games. If you disagree, please state your rebuttal in form of an answer that has nothing to do with Sarkeesian herself, just the ideas she puts forward in the video.

Similar Posts


  1. I thought this was her ! Caught this earlier today and couldn’t find anywhere about this being ‘that chick’ that caused all the whining and whatnot.

    It was great. She did a really good job on the tropes and really look forward to seeing the next area. People (especially butthurt guy gamers) will always create a big hubub but I’m glad to see she finally came out with this.

  2. So far so good, nothing particularly enlightening for those who are engaged in such discussions already, but it’s still a great idea to get these videos out there, more exposure is always a good thing, and will in theory open up the discussion to more people. Looking forward to the coming entries in the series!

  3. While most of what Sarkeesian says is true, I think a hefty “so what” is in order. How about the flipside of this cliche where women are so valued by men that the protagonists will drag themselves through hell and die a hundred deaths just to see them again? That isn’t exactly oppression, portraying that the most important thing in a man’s life is and will always be the well-being of a woman. The only problem with that scenario other than being played-out is crappy writing, and that problem is being addressed as gaming evolves as a storytelling medium. Everything you need to know about that vid is in the title. 23 minutes (and just part 1 !) is a more than a bit self-indulgent.

    We all know about the trope being lame, but Sarkeesian herself is a leech who should return every penny of the $150,000 she swindled from those naive idealists. Many quality feature films exist with budgets less than that and this parasite has the nerve to take that money, spend a couple hours editing video game footage over herself telling us things EVERYBODY ALREADY KNOWS and aggressively seek internet fame? Look at that vid. It cost her nothing more than the amount of time any of us might spend researching and writing a college paper. Even if she bought every system and game she used as an example, she’d still be looking at a six figure profit. And she got many of those donations after trolling /v/ on their own board into harassing her with the usual 4chan brand childish shock tactics and then becoming the “damsel in distress” herself begging for money to combat this horrible hornets’ nest she kicked. PAY ATTENTION!

    And for the record, I often choose to play as badass female characters given the choice. There’s plenty out there, and it’s partly the role switch and underdog feel that makes them compelling. But before arguing that women are not in any way weaker than men (as Sarkeesian does) you need to answer the question “why is it a social taboo to strike a woman?”. It’s either because they are more likely to suffer harm as the gentler sex or because they are holy ambassadors of our female overlords who must never be struck lest we condemn ourselves to the eternal pits of Hades for our audacity. I’m going with door #1. There is no shame at all in being less physically strong, and this fact of life does not in any meaningful way render women inferior to men. In a modern, civilized society unless you are a blue collar worker or a professional athlete, brute force is pretty overrated in it’s practical usefulness. You can’t fight bullshit with bullshit, and that’s what Sarkeesian does towards the end of her unnecessary verbal feminist schlickfest. Again, until she returns the money she solicited to “research” her zero budget series, her credibility is less than zero and I won’t be watching another of her overlong recitations of common knowledge. Peace and equality for all. Fuck the politics.

  4. I think Anita need to look at the history that she mentioned. Damsels in Distress starts with literature, then movies, now games. Look at what are going on in Literature and movies today, these have evolved over time, and when females became more involved in the subjects. People write about what they want to read. Women in gaming is still a vast minority, a fact that I dislike, but its a fact non the less. As the pool of people that play games get older and broader, so will its stories.

  5. “Sexisim” is a term that suggest malice of behavior, their isn’t any malice here, just misunderstanding. Everything that Ms. Sarkeesian mentions as sexist, are in fact natural behaviors that thousands of years of social evolution has programed into us. Men are pre-programed to be the savior and the noble warrior. Men also have a natural instinct to “impress” a women. In this modern day world, games are just a reflection of those ancient instincts that still exist in the heart of men. I even dare to say that these tropes help boys reconcile their masculine inclinations with a society that is increasing devaluing masculine contributions.

    I can see how a women might look at those tropes and feel marginalized by how women are perceived. But It’s not like their aren’t plenty of female protagonist and strong self sufficient female characters.

    These games were designed by men to relate to male sensibilities. If women want to play those games, more power to them, but they shouldn’t take offense to the themes and tropes that weren’t meant for them to relate too.

    It’s like me getting mad at Project Runway (one of my favorite reality shows) because they never deal with mens fashion. The fashion industry is skewed female and Project Runway is designed to target their key demographic. But that doesn’t make the show sexist.

  6. Well, I’ve gotta go against the tide of comments here and say I thought it was an intelligent, well presented video.

    I also appreciated her point that you can look at these trends critically and discuss what is problematic but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the games too.

    It’s hard to see beloved characters and games criticized, but it’s important to do so. It’s sometimes the sexism that isn’t as blatant which is the hardest to identify, but it’s what still shapes wider–and sometimes worse, attitudes. And just because it isn’t intended maliciously does not mean it isn’t problematic.

    Trashcanman, yes it’s true that the male characters are going through hell to save the woman, but that’s what (male) players typically have wanted. The going through hell part of the game *is* the game and what people are enjoying. It’s what we imagine and create and we enjoy those challenges. The passive woman waiting at the end is just the excuse of the play. I mean, would you enjoy a game more if it was flipped and your role was to wait in a cage the whole time until eventually a computer player came around and released you? If you’re being honest, do we truly pick up a game because we value women so much we want to save them, or because the journey and action and “going through hell” part of the game is fun.

    Carmelo, I would say your point is actually why videos like this need to be made. Because such things do socialize us, and the only way to break out of them is to first identify them. Yes, there are more female protagonists who are smart and resourceful, but I could probably name most of the ones I know on both my hands. I’d run out of fingers just naming off the male protagonists from games made in any given year. It’s a chicken and the egg kind of thing. There’d likely have been more female gamers if games hadn’t been designed “by men to relate to male sensibilities.” Your point that the themes and tropes aren’t meant for woman is exactly what’s problematic and needs to be discussed and challenged. And if there’s starting to be more woman role models in video games it’s in part because of videos like this.

    Anyway, that’s more than my two cents worth when no one was looking for any change.

  7. @ Alec

    This video isn’t about embracing female protagonists, as a matter of fact, she purposefully and conveniently says nothing about the substantial amount of female heroes, who have already starred in their own games. Her video is only about lambasting erroneous perceptions of female oppression, and pointing a figurative finger at our “oppressive patriarchal society”.

    Why do we need to break out of anything? Why do so many people act like the blurring of gender differences is automatically a good thing? Why are you assuming that it is a bad thing that certain games are targeted to men? Especially since their are tons of games targeted for women.

    The reason there don’t seem to be that many female leads in games is clearly obvious, most female gamers are casual game players. iPad, smartphone, Nintendo DS type games. Puzzle and logic games are the biggest sellers. On the other hand, men make up the vast majority of hardcore gamers. Tomb Raider aside, most female protagonist don’t sell well to men. It’s not because men don’t respect female heroes, it’s because of the unique nature that video games have. Video games give the player a bit of self projection, they allow the player to momentarily put him/herself into the virtual world, and for men it gives the briefest chance to be the”strong male hero” that his tribal mind craves. For a man, virtually projecting onto a female hero is a bit harder to do.

    This modern day obsession with deluding ourselves into thinking that men and women are the same is ridiculous. Physically, emotionally, and psychologically men and women are different and we always will be. Men shouldn’t have to change in order to appease women, any more then women should change to appease men. So instead of fighting against our natures, we should acknowledge, respect, and embrace our differences.

  8. Carmelo, social factors play a much stronger role in our views and preferences than anything innate. You just have to look at how different various societies are. A one year old doesn’t care if you paint their walls blue or pink, give them a truck or a doll, but we start very early telling them what is right. And typically boys are given the stronger, more active items.

    So many of your arguments read the same as what people used to say about minorities. And the same reason minorities often complain about how few non-white heroes there are apply with women.

    If it seems like men want to be the active hero more than women it’s only because society has told them that, over and over again. The fact that so many women gamers are casual gamers as you say is because those are the games they’ve been told to like and are available to them. It’s a chicken and the egg argument.

    Let’s say you’re correct that the two genders are so drastically different. The point she is making with her video is that the innate nature of women is not helpless and passive. Those are traits society, not nature, has put on them. If you think these traits are innate to them, then it’s in part because of the constant depictions, such as from video games.

  9. I don’t disagree with what this video is saying, but I concur that it doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. These tropes have been ingrained in our society’s mythology for thousands of years, and they’ve been debated and discussed to death even before video games came on the scene.

    Why exactly did she need to Kickstart $150K for this?

  10. Paul, you trolling? đŸ™‚ I saw this on your Forbes blog and resisted commenting. But since you’re bring it up again (understandably), I’ll leave a little bit. To be honest, I did not watch the video, I don’t have 20+ minutes to watch it and I have no speakers at my work comp.

    Here’s what I will say based off what limited information I have and what I’ve read from others. Largely, men and women are just different and I see no issue with this. Damsel in distress is a trope that has been with us since civilization began and I fail to see how it is an incredibly damaging trope as it encourages men to move mountains to help women. This seems like a better thing then just treating women like “one of the guys”. Honestly, if you’re worried about misogyny, it seems like you would be far better off attacking the multi-billion dollar porn industry in this country.

    Games are going to make what sells so people are free to make games with strong female protagonists, and they have. I see no reason why everything can’t co-exist and people can just enjoy what they want. Men and women are not the same and this is not a bad thing. I think we should learn to embrace and celebrate our differences rather then try to force everyone into some androgynous mold. Basically, just because men and women are different and portrayed differently in various media, does not immediately equal inequality or sexism. You need a little more evidence and like I said, I think there are far worse issues out there when it comes to the mistreatment of women, such as human trafficking or porn.

    Finally, considering that even in other cultures we see different roles for men and women which often mirror how men and women behave here in the US, I think we can safely posit that at least some of the gender differences are innate and biological. Not all, clearly, as we can see from looking at other cultures, but clearly men and women have some innate differences and this really should be celebrated rather then denigrated.

    1. That’s an interesting point. I think the porn industry is far more responsible for modern misogyny than video games ever will be. That said, I think at the very least, it’s an informative video, and seems like it will be a worthwhile series. I’m not sure why people seem to take a different stance than their used to seeing as somehow offensive. Nor do I get why people begrudge her raising money on the back of a bunch of personal attacks on her, whether she was “trolling” or not. The problem isn’t with her, it’s with those who reacted to her the way they did. $150,000 didn’t just come out of thin air. Enough people thought this was a good idea and they wanted to hear more from her.

  11. This looks the same as the videos before she got all the funds, that makes me scared. Also, I personally dont see how a character in a video game would ever affect me so I dont care if it’s a male or a female in trouble being saved by either.

    One thing I do have to say is that whilst she speaks for 20min, she only ever repeats the title, by just reading the title you know everything she has to say. Her points are a bit weak

  12. @ Alec

    “I think I just threw up a little.”

    Sorry to hear that your not feeling well.

    Anyway, I don’t understand why it’s taboo to suggest that men might have psychological needs that “the Knight in Shinning Armor” tropes might address. We used to be the “Tribal” warriors and protectors. and mother nature saw fit to wire into us a “craving” to be the hero and to rescue and defend those amongst our tribe that we perceive as weak (not calling women weak just making a point).

    These hard wired instincts didn’t just go away during to outset of feminism, instead men have been trying (with varying degrees of success) to channel these feelings into other avenues, and yes one of those avenues is video games.

    I am not some sexist thug who hates any attempt at female empowerment. I embrace equality in all it’s forms. However I don’t think mens needs should be sacrificed to make women feel better.

    And lastly as a Black person myself, I am well aware of what it’s like to not feel adequately represented in the game industry. You said that you could count the number of female heroes in two hands, well I can count the number of Black main (not sidekicks or sports simulator) characters in one.

  13. Short response: nothing that I didn’t already know. Nothing that’s not starting to change in the VG world (slowly, but surely). Video games market to male adolescents. Games (especially early ones) don’t have a lot of space to give story or motivation, and damsel in distress is an easy way to do that. The first episode didn’t live up to all the hype.

    I wish she had started with a topic a little more eyebrow-raising, something people wouldn’t think about. Like female heroes vs. female villains, video game “rape culture” (if that’s a thing), sexuality in video games, video game Bechdel tests, facets of female characters, women’s role in each genre (war, JRPG, platformer, horror, etc), games that got it “right” (Beyond Good and Evil, Half-Life 2), games that people think got it “right” but got it wrong (Metroid: Other M), harrassment, games aimed directly at girls (and what’s good and bad about them). She could probably do an entire episode on Samus or Lara Croft.

    I hope she branches out because she’s not saying much other than examples — no results, no consequences. And I can get the same effect from Extra Credits (S1E12: Diversity, S1E20: Sexuality Diversity, S2E7: True Female Characters) with cuter pictures. They talk about the “why” and “what can we do about it”, not just the “what”.

  14. Eric, I’m fairly certain her later installments are going to address all or nearly all the suggestions in your second paragraph. I think she might be easing into things with this first one. Might as well start at the beginning with one of the oldest (as other commenters pointed out) narrative tropes.

  15. As lots of people have been saying – her video just did not have anything about it that justified the HUGE amount of money she received to produce it.

    She just reels off a list of obvious and trite examples and it looks and sounds exactly the same as her old videos – so she doesn’t seem to have even bought a new camera or anything.

    It’s starting to look worryingly like the Kickstarter money was just for her to spend 18 months without having to go to work.

  16. Jesus Christ, who cares? She asked for $6,000 dollars. A lot of people said “shut up and take my money” and gave her a lot more. Her videos (together, as a set—this is a series, remember) should look like they cost $6,000 to produce. End of story. I don’t care if she wants to use the rest of the money to up the production value, or if she wants to use it to buy out ThinkGeek’s entire inventory, or if she wants to use it to set up scholarships for girls to study game development, or if she wants to hire me to write an original video game script, or if she wants to use it to live off of for the rest of the year.

    Also, I didn’t glean that she was accusing the gaming industry of being misogynistic, but rather sexist. And yes, she’s starting with one of the oldest sexist tropes in the entire history of art for as long as we’ve been a society. She isn’t saying otherwise. In fact, she goes on at length in the video about how this is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, sexist tropes in the entire history of art for as long as we’ve been a society. Then she moves on to specifics of the gaming industry—the focus of this series. And I do think it still needs to pointed out and talked about, simply because it still happens all the time.

    If you think we don’t need to talk about this anymore because the damsel in distress trope has been around forever, or you always play a badass female character when given the chance, or you think the flip side of the coin is women not appreciating the fact that they’re portrayed as being so valuable that men will go through difficult trials to save them (because trashcanman, I like you, but can you really not see how incredibly objectifying that is?) or you feel like your sacred tribal instincts are being suppressed in the name of progress, or you think she doesn’t deserve to have far surpassed her fundraising goal simply because the first video in a series doesn’t have your subjective stamp of approval in terms of production value, then you might want to take a minute to examine where exactly the offense you’re taking from the project is coming from. Because many of these comments, especially those attacking her for raising a lot of money, sound like they’re coming from a threatened, defensive place.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.