Indie Games Are Full Of Helpless Women But Critic Finds Some To Praise

Feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian has good things to say about a bunch of games in the third part of her analysis of the rampant use of "damsels in distress" in video games. She spends a lot of this one checking in on how indie games and modders handle things.

Oh, but before that praise, she first gives Super Princess Peach a proper skewering — well-deserved for a game about a woman who saves a man with the use of superpowers based on her PMS-y mood swings.

On to happier things...

While Sarkeesian notes that a witheringly long list of indie games are actually also trading on helpless-female stereotypes, she finds a batch, including Aquaria, Fez, Braid, Where Is My Heart, and Sword & Sworcery that either avoid it or do something new with it.

She's also got a lot of nice things to say about the non-indie Beyond Good & Evil. But the parts of her analysis this time that I found the most interesting were 1) her guarded enthusiasm for gender-flipping mods of Mario and Zelda that make their female characters the stars and 2) her look at how indie games, in seeking a retro vibe, are dragging some of the gender clich├ęs of old into widely praised new games.

Have a look at the video above. There's some interesting stuff in there.

Now, stepping back, folks, I know that Sarkeesian's videos tend to result in strong reaction for and, loudly, against. Let's keep it civil please and focused on this video.

Anticipating some of the responses these video posts usually get, yes, it's lamentable albeit somewhat understandable that Sarkeesian doesn't address public criticism directly, that she closes comments on her videos — so, yeah, it can feel like she's lecturing and not listening.

And, yes, we have not given prominent exposure on Kotaku to her critics, some of whom just attack her outright and invite being ignored but others who do find exceptions or flaws in her argument. The latter is something we intend to get to on the site.

Bottom line: I believe games and gamers can withstand some scrutiny about an aspect of gaming. She's not saying all of these games aren't fun, and I think we'd all agree that no game, aside from The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, is perfect.


    Why is she focusing on the damsel in distress trope in videogames and not EVERY form of media _EVER_.

      Because that's not the subject of the video...?

        I dont mean in the video, I mean that the damsel in distress is a common trope across all media, and just because its a trope doesnt mean it cant be useful or used without attracting the 'sexist' catchcry.

        Last edited 03/08/13 7:14 pm

          Because she is doing a series based on how these tropes are used in video games.

          She isn't saying that it is only found in video games: if it weren't a common theme then it wouldn't be a trope, and therefore wouldn't be a subject for a series called "Tropes vs. Women in Video Games".

            That point just flew way over your head, didn't it Jason? :p

    I think the problem with her argument is the assumption that the trope is inherently bad, rather than the degradation of women often found within the trope instead.

    If people include the trope to reference the trope itself, it doesn't necessarily degrade women. The example of Spelunky uses a sprite which carries the likeness of a female human being. The massive differences between the the sprite and a an actual women (the non-physical, cartoonified, sprite based nature, the lack of a personality, etc.) that it does not alter nor perpetuate any gender inequality. I think it should also be noted that a cartoonified character can most definitely portray women as weak or objects.

    It would have been much easier to critique if it was planned out in a more clear manner. It feels like it was written as a passive-aggressive flame-bait piece, as not to be criticisable but to instill anger.

    degradation is bad, trope isn't always
    some of the examples she uses don't necessarily degrade women
    Her videos seemed to be designed to anger rather than provide an argument against the trope.

    Last edited 03/08/13 7:16 pm

      Her videos seemed to be designed to anger rather than provide an argument against the trope.

      Disagree. Her videos are designed to generate conversation on the subject rather than to let the subject go on unchallenged. As males, we view it from one standpoint, as females, they from another. Another example, the lack of strong Black/Asian/Middle Eastern characters in videogames until recently vs the overabundance of stereotypical musclebound caucasian stereotype footballer guy. It's easy for us to ignore the issues existance if we aren't on the receiving end of the joke or the issue, if we're on the giving end, we're fairly oblivious to it.

        Very good point, I certainly wouldn't have commented on it without the creation of her videos. She's certainly succeeded in that regard, but I think that the conversation would be better led with a more distinct spark.

        I stand corrected, though.

          I'm not trying to correct you, everyones allowed to have their opinion as long as the discourse is civil. The best part about her videos is, that removing even the videos themselves from the equation, people are talking about the actual issue at hand and that's the equal representation. I don't think the trope itself ever has to be removed, but it wouldn't hurt to see the reverse of the trope explored as well, or more varieties of it for instance.

            not sure if this is the case, there's the accusation by association that a certain game fails because it includes this damsel in distress trope regardless of how this trope is handled, which you find everywhere. the amount of "bioshock infinite is sexist" bullshit i read on release all because it had a damsel in distress was silly, in many ways this damsel in distress came to be the only "hero" of the game.

              The trope could be explored more, could be turned on its head, but in our overuse of the term 'trope' one does have to wonder if at the same time we're giving this more attention than it deserves. Personally, I find a more important issue the 'whiteout' of videogames. Bar for a handful of games, videogames tend to be a caucasian playground. This is slowly changing, but it's still got a fair way to go.

              Bioshock Infinite has to have a few things taken into account.

              1. The time period it was set in. Women were a subjugated gender.
              2. Elizabeth was held in a tower and made to believe she was elsewhere. She was the 'all powerful' character of the game, not Songbird, not Booker Dewitt, but Elizabeth, only Elizabeth.
              3. By the end of the game, this was very apparent. The idea of Bioshock infinite being sexist, is quite silly. I found it to be one of potentially, the most empowering games out there. She is at once, a damsel in distress, a strong character, a noble character, a tyrant (alternate timeline) a caring figure, a love interest potentially, everything you could possibly think. Yet Booker is, for all intents and purposes, continually the same realistically bar one or two changes to his actions.

              tl:dr: No way is Bioshock Infinite sexist. No way at all.

              Last edited 03/08/13 10:16 pm

                The "white out" occurs in games produced in Caucasian countries. Let's have a look at games produced in China and Japan and see if they have the same "white out", eh?

                It's like complaining about "white out" in cinema from Caucasian countries. Do you see people complaining that Bollywood is dominated by Indians?


                There's nothing wrong with producing a product which represents the majority of your market - in the US and Australia, that's white men.

                Should products exist that cater for the outliers? Yes. Absolutely. The more gamers the better. But criticising an industry for catering to their core demographic is shallow minded at best.

                  There's nothing wrong with producing a product which represents the majority of your market - in the US and Australia, that's white men.

                  In the 90s I'd say you may be right, but this theory has been debunked time and time again in more recent years. Women play games, black people do, asian people living in western countries do, Middle Eastern descended people living in western countries do too. (Aware people in eastern countries do too, this is concentrating on the idea that people in western countries are predominantly white gamers as indicated above...) There is indeed something with producing a 'whited out version' of a product constantly, you're killing a section of your potential demographic when you could be reaching out to a larger audience. Some games are doing a great job of this in more recent years granted, especially with character generators, but there's still a long way to go. But the idea that 'its the core audience' is a misnomer. There's a rather large audience of all varieties that make up all countries. Let's look at America for instance:

                  America alone represents, lets see:

                  Japanese, Hispanic, African, Chinese, Korean, Indian, Caribbean, Russian, Irish, English, Scottish, Australian... the list goes on. These cultures have all, in the past, gone to America for example (one way or another, forced or voluntarily) to eventually make up the boiling pot that is a MULTICULTURAL society.

                  As of July 1, 2013, the United States had a total resident population of 316,364,000. 12.6% of this population is Black or African American for example. 4.8% of this population is Asian American, 6.2% of that also comprises of 'other races', i.e. take your pick. 16.4% of the American population is Hispanic. (The sad fact is, that in statistical analysis, 'hispanic' is usually rolled into the 'white' category, it should not be. It should always be kept seperate. Mexico would get pretty pissed off if you told them they were 'Europe...')

                  Already we're at around 33% of the population being non-white. There's also more races to throw in there. While the core bulk of the race will end up being 'white', the fact is, your kind of reasoning is what has led to the situations where races get ignored, races get kept in the proverbial dark and not explored fairly in this sort of media.

                  Should Lee in Telltales THE WALKING DEAD just have been WHITE by your logic? After all, Americas majority population is white in the sixtieth percentile, Telltale is an American company and surely their core audience is white going by your logic you've posted... surely that dark fella would've been better off served being a whitey? Should've had muscles. A shaved head. Should've been walking into flames on the cover of TWD too... cause you know, core audience and all.

                  No. Because what it did was explore a brilliantly written character, shattering a few stereotypes along the way. With logic like yours, we would never see this sort of writing, this sort of exploration. The 'white out' comes for the same reason Jake Gyllenhaal was cast as The Prince of Persia, that a white kid played Ang in the Avatar live action movie and that Goku was played by a terrible, terrible actor of caucasion descent in Dragonball. Hollywood fears what is different. They assume the audience will react that way too. (Granted the individual is smarter than this, however the masses prove time and time again alas they are not...) So does the gaming industry. Playing it safe with a big budget usually guarantees sales. You won't see 'Waseem Hassoneh' as your main character in a COD shooter any time soon, but bet your ass you'll see 'JAKE MCSHOOTENSTUFF' every time, same goes for MEDAL OF HONOUR et al.

                  tl:dr? Rubbish.

                  Last edited 04/08/13 12:15 am

                  Can't reply to @weresmurf for whatever reason, but do you usually resort to straw man arguments? I simply said there was nothing wrong with a company catering for the majority of their market - and the market remains MOSTLY white and male.

                  You want rubbish? Look at the position you're inventing to argue against.

                  Sorry @berym there's no straws there but the ones you're grasping at for that reply. Note how many people seem to agree with me for instance... and not you, consistently? Have a good night. Btw, it's been what, 4 days? Dude. It's *over*. Move on to new articles.

                  Last edited 08/08/13 11:16 pm

                  Sorry, @weresmurf, some of us don't check this place every second of every day. I have a life, and actually play games.

                  You invented a position to argue against because mine, as it was, was eminently reasonable. Well done, you've failed internet arguing 101.

                  Consistently? One post, where you've flooded with a wall of PC friendly tripe that misrepresents my position? I hardly call the acclaim of your brigade a worthy sign - just evidence that some people can't spot a strawman.

                  But I won't keep arguing with you - I actually have things to do, unlike you that seems to live here.

                  Last edited 08/08/13 11:24 pm

        Nicely said. Particularly about the trope going unchallenged. The most frustrating arguments I hear against this lady is the 'shut up there's no sexism in games, move along everybody ignore her'. I wish people could have a more open mind because she's got some really fascinating and smart things to say even if you don't agree with it all.

      I know, she seems to have the most negative tone about her videos as if she's trying to say "Every game ever that has a guy saving a girl is so wrong, the man should have his gear cut off and be fed to the enemy boss for his sexist ways."

      The other issue here is games do represent our real life cultures, it is well known fact that in REAL LIFE women are abused more then men, teaching men to stand up and save women is a good thing is it not?

      She says there that men just treat women as objects, but in a case of needing to save someone there becomes an emotional connection and reason to why this person requires to be saved.

      I dunno but I just get the feeling of hatred and sexist and offensive feelings towards men from this lady, if she never wants to be saved by a man I'd lol at her house being burned down and refusing a fireman to come save her because she's too stubborn.

    I think the vital flaw in her argument is the claim that the "damsel in distress" trope specifically means that a woman needs protection. Which I don't think it does. It's motivation - a character must rescue another character who is important to them. If the character needs rescuing, then I think it's safe to assume that, female or not, that character cannot free themselves. This comments not on the gender but the situation.

    Having said that, I would love to play the hypothetical game she describes.

      Well biologically speaking women do get physically protected by men - men are larger and more heavily muscled, and women are far more valuable than men when it comes to continuing the species/gene line.

      Well, actually, I'd say that's the problem in a nutshell. The damsel in distress trope reduces female characters to motivational tools for the male protagonist. It turns them into objects and so denies them agency. In essence: a damsel in distress is property that needs protecting or, more acurately, recovery. And it's the loss of the property that motivates the male character to do things. A damsel is a macguffin. A plot device. Not a character in their own right.

      As I believe she mentioned in her last video, there *are* inversions of the trope - where the male is damselled. There are also, increasingly, attempts to make the trope more palatable, by showing the damsel at least trying (but failing) to escape. But the fact of the matter is that use of the trope reduces the (usually) female character involved to objects used to motivate a (usually) male character. And what is so terribly problematic is that, in a good many franchises, *there are no other female characters than the distressed damsels*.

      Last edited 03/08/13 9:02 pm

        "The damsel in distress trope reduces female characters to motivational tools for the male protagonist. It turns them into objects and so denies them agency"

        That's a flawed argument. Guys like to rescue girls cause it's a good thing to do. The fact that it's a trope is irrelevant. You're trying to find how this could be sexist, not realizing there's a good reason it is a trope. Game designers could have more different kinds of plot sure, but I think it's crazy to assume wanting to rescue a girl makes your game objectify women. It shows you value their well-being and care for them, not view them as objects...

        If the women is portrayed in a sexualized way then yes it degenerates women, if not I doubt it.

          Again, you've actually kind of described exactly what the problem is there. You're thinking about it purely in terms of the male narrative. Guys like to rescue girls because those guys are good people and it makes them feel good and is a way of demonstrating that they care. As for the woman's perspective... well, it doesn't really matter why she's there, does it? She's an object there to be rescued to make the guy feel good. So he can show what a caring fellow he is.

          Objectification doesn't necessarily equal sexualisation. Someone can be objectified without being sexualised (though the inverse is harder to achieve). When I say that the damsel trope turns women into objects, what I'm saying is that you could subtitute the woman for another thing (the example given in the video being Spelunky, where you could swap the princess for a *dog*) and the fundamental core of the story wouldn't change. Man has thing. Man loses thing/has thing taken from him. Man undergoes trials. Man overcomes trials. Man gets thing back. What the thing itself is doesn't matter. The thing has no purpose or point other than to be rescued.

          Finally, if this storyline only appeared every now and then, we wouldn't be having this conversation - see the discussion of why the dude in distress isn't anywhere near as problematic. But, as Sarkeesian points out, the trope is incredibly, incredibly common; the damsel is one of the primary ways in which women are depicted within video games. What does that say about how the medium views women? What does that say to the legions of games out there who aren't men? Where are the stories where women rescue themselves?

            And you're thinking about it purely in terms of the female narrative. You say it doesn't matter why she's there; she's just an object. Like a dog is just an object, or a cheeseburger? Oh noes, the villain has captured a solitary french fry. I must then cross the known world, and go through 18 levels of hell to rescue it. Rubbish. The stakes are much higher. Look at that Castro guy who had locked up 3 women in his house as sex slaves for how many years. There is your real life trope. Would it have mattered as much if it were 3 french fries, or 3 dogs? Nobody would care if it were 3 french fries. If it were 3 dogs, people would have been disgusted and he would have gotten in trouble as well... but nowhere near to the extent as the 3 prisoners. While it would also be abhorrent with dogs, dogs are considered to be animals and are frequently denied liberty and are also euthanized, while it is accepted they do not have the consciousness or sentience of a human. It would also be terrible if Castro kept 3 males as sex slaves.

            Look at the Matrix movies. Neo rescues Morpheus. Neo rescues Trinity. Trinity is pretty kick-ass. It doesn't really matter. What matters... is that personally, and I assume for many others, their heart catches in their throat when he announces that he's going to save her. She is his love interest(and he, hers). It's not about whether Morpheus can save himself. He can't. It's not about whether Trinity can save herself. She can't. What matters is that all the sexist nitpicking is unenjoyable. Like the song lyrics "I would walk 500 miles", it's an expression of what people would do for love and/or to do the right thing.

            Lastly, it's about money. The male rescuing the female is a popular and successful trope. If there is a market where people can make money from: a male wants to rescue a male, or a female wants to rescue a female, or a female wants to rescue a male... then that's what it's about. But generally, it's simply not as popular, or people haven't found it to be as popular for hundreds of years. Don't like it? Find the ones catering to that or make your own. The bulk of the population do not have a problem with it.

          The idea of it though, is the woman is portrayed as something to achieve, a prize, an end goal etc. She's portrayed as useless and unable to do anything herself in those games. Not all games do this and some games, it's perfectly fine, but there comes a point where women do indeed, have the right to say 'Oh for fucks sake, can't you do better than that?'

    It was good! I love this series. I can't understand why so many man-babies are crying. I imagine gamers are instantly defensive by anything that tells them there's a problem with the things they love. They're so used to clenching their butt cheeks when people like Jack Thompson show up to criticize their hobby, they must just unleash their silly fury at Anita because they think: "Here she comes to wreck the daaaaay" . But this is intelligently presented and true!

      It's because her arguments are poorly-structured, poorly researched and she's successfully trolling a community that hates change. If she actually wanted to make a difference, she'd be doing so.

        I don't agree that her work is poorly researched. Where did you get this opinon? Do you simply enjoy repeating popular opinions you hear?

        She doesn't troll at all. Why should she not state things as they are? Must she rub the wounds of butthurt male gamers constantly by softening her legitimate criticisms? No. If a community can't handle change, then the problem is with the community.

          Because I've done research on her for a university paper I wrote on sexism in gaming. She cherry picks games without completing them to use said "damsels" in her arguments to prove her point without looking at the context or looking at their entire role.

          There are better ways to engage the community in making changes than simply, and quite crudely, pointing out their flaws and that's why she's getting some backlash. A lot of it is people who don't like change, but they're idiots anyway. However, there are many women in gaming that I know who feel that she's doing more harm than good by releasing these videos and not having a clue what she's talking about and acting like a damsel in distress herself; which is another reason why she's getting some backlash from the more intelligent areas of the community.

    God she is irritating.

      Pot, kettle...

        Yeah okay. So I'm irritating? Maybe you know me to form that opinion, or maybe you don't. And it could be a bit hypocritical about me to just throw that "irritating" comment out there without backing up why, but it seemed kind of self-explanatory. So...

        Let me just say that I'm all for the rights of women. But there is a big difference between women's rights and defending female integrity/respect to being a misandric feminist. It's an extreme, and is discriminating, and should be frowned upon just as much as misogyny is.

        The "trope" of rescuing a damsel in distress is a successful formula. It happens in cartoons, movies, tv shows, books, comics, you name it. Is it a bad thing? No. Testosterone makes men physically stronger than women. There are exceptions. Women bodybuilders. Individual women being stronger than individual men. But scientific FACT says that in general, males are physically stronger than females. Video games are also predominantly played by males. I don't really have any evidence for this, but I'm sure that it's similar to physical strength... with it being generally true, but you'd have some women that play video games and men that don't. So if you take the natural power advantage aspect that males have... how do they direct that energy? As a primal survival characteristic, there is an inherent tendency for males to protect their mates. The general formula is that the damsel is in distress due to being captured by a male protagonist(who again overpowers the female). It is essentially one good male(the player) vs one bad male(the villain). These are good, positive qualities to instill in young males. Chivalry. Helpfulness. For Love?

        I play video games. A lot of video games. I don't really care if I'm a female rescuing a male or a male rescuing a female... if the game is good. Because it's the game that I care about. I'm heterosexual, and as per my male vs female comparison above... I identify logically with the "trope" of a damsel in distress. I respect women too. I'm sure there are many out there in the world that could kick my ass... and I'm no pushover at all.

        If Anita wants to play games, more power to her. If she wants to campaign for games to have more female heroes and role reversal or whatever, fine. As a gamer I am friendly and encourage female players. But if she wants to take a misandric approach, then she can go to hell. I'm sure someone would go to rescue her anyway... whether they're male or female.

        Edit: And let me also say that I'm impressed that she made money from doing all this, even if I don't respect her viewpoint. I respect her research, I respect that there are a lot of true things, but true does not mean wrong. Not at all.

        Last edited 04/08/13 3:13 pm

          Actually she didn't do any research.

          The gameplay videos she shows are all ripped from Let's Play YouTube videos, and not credited I might add.

          Anyone who thinks this is academic in any way shape or form, and not simply a petulant opinion piece parcelled with some Kickstarter fraud, is deluding themselves.

    It was cool to see her mention the game Primal. It was an awesome puzzler with a really cool story and great level design.

    Also I'd play the heck out of that proposed game

    Every time I mention this woman's name, someone jumps down my throat about it but damn it, I'm having a crack here!

    I have issues with the way Sarkeesian presents herself in these videos and the way she presents her criticisms in these videos. Not only does she rely on people viewing her as a damsel in distress to get people to watch her videos, she's hypocritical about it too. People will run to her defense when she's clearly a big enough girl to defend herself, but she doesn't say anything about these people white knighting her.

    Secondly, am I the only one who thinks that she's not trying to change the way the industry views women in gaming but is merely bitching about it? She never seems to approach the situation with solutions in mind, but seems to criticise (YES, IT'S HER JOB) the industry without offering ways for said industry to better itself.

    Now, if you plan on jumping down my throat, be kind; I've just gotten over a terrible throat infection and things are still kind of gross.

      The first step in fixing the problem is helping people understand that there *is* a problem in the first place. Judging by the comments here and elswhere, there's still a long way to go in that regard.

      Eeeeew gargle saltwater, then some hot lemon water. Then menthol drops!!!

      Not sure what you mean Rade, it doesn't seem at all that she's presenting herself as a damsel in distress, and she does offer a way for said industry to better itself -- towards the end of the video.

        Her Kickstarter for this series is a perfect example. She pretty much told the people who support her that the Internet was being mean and they rushed in to protect her. It's how she's managed to stay in the public eye.

      Haha, well said.

      Has she ever heard of, or played the latest Tomb Raider? Tomb Raider is the opposite of her point.

      Is chivarly really all that bad anyway? Knighting aside.

        Chivalry went where ever being ladylike buggered off too.

        Tomb Raider is only one example. She was talking about that Fridge trope in the last video and mentioned Borderlands, completely disregarding that you spend the first few hours of the game rescuing Roland from the Bloodshots.

        Last edited 05/08/13 9:53 am

          She hasn't played a single one of the games she is talking about, so it's not surprise that she cherry picks whatever suits her argument and ignores what doesn't.

            What makes you say that?

              People have looked into it in some detail:


                Her use of lets plays (while uncredited is completely skeezy) doesn't mean anything.

    Lets examine the historical and scientific background of why dudes are the protagonists of games. In the past men have exclusively been soldiers, with women not permitted to be in the military. This is because men are simply stronger than women.
    Games are also aimed at a target audience, one which is predominately male, and obviously a male gamer would prefer to rescue a female. A female gamer would likewise prefer to rescue a male. You are reading too much into this for no reason.

      This. The simple rescue story is used in games, movies, books, basically all media ever because it is easy. Men are usually the protagonist because historically they were the ones in those situations. Like Luffy has said for the most part women were excluded from military combat in most countries until relatively recently so men were the fighters. Due to testosterone men are also bigger, stronger and more aggressive than women. Studies also show that men have higher spatial awareness. These traits make men better suited to play this role.

      There is nothing nefarious going on here. Both sexes have their areas of expertise and men just happen to be better "rescuers".

      Besides, Lara Croft is one of the most baddass video game characters ever and she's a woman.

      Last edited 04/08/13 10:30 am

      women not permitted to be in the military. This is because men are simply stronger than women.

      Women are actually just as capable as soldiers on any modern battlefield, and the biggest issue with having them on the frontline is the men not being capable of psychologically handling female casualties.

    Put into a historical context: Women are the enemy always have been always will be, we need to make them avid consumers and ignore the things that matter in life other wise we are all doomed.

      That vid was just awesome!

      Last edited 04/08/13 12:32 pm

    Short version:
    She's right.

    Long version:
    Game designers should spend more time thinking about what their games say rather than just adding a lick of paint to old formulas.

    Reading about Anita is like reading the same book every week since 2002 when team ninja released a volleball game.. It only took 11 years of petty arguments for a for a very bland straw to break the camels back

    Bottom line: I believe games and gamers can withstand some scrutiny about an aspect of gaming. Yeah but obviously not about their deranged, misogynistic, sadist, abuse, and all round deplorable behaviour.

    Last edited 05/08/13 6:04 pm

    Mostly the damsel in distress is just a form of sloppy storytelling - nothing malicious or malevolent is there, just lazy writing...
    Mostly, games are made by men (white, black, Asian) for males...
    Rarely (if ever) does the dude get to the end and bitch slap the damsel, he is trying to save her (note: a positive caring action)...
    Lastly, if women (or men) have such an issue with this trope, go and make games that fit your taste and you believe are more appropriate representation of women/females.

    p.s. if you want to see a really well done damsel in distress game that (IMO) justifies the trope and does it well, do yourself a favour and play Neir. Only a heartless bastard (is that sexist that I assume all heartless people are males?) would not be moved by the relationship between the male protagonist and the damsel.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now