8 Things Anita Sarkeesian Says That Gamers Should Come to Terms With

Tropes Vs. Women Screenshot

I had the good fortune of being born in 1979, and thus living through the golden age of video games. I received an Atari 7800 for Christmas, which sort of sucked actually, but it was replaced the next year by the hallowed Nintendo Entertainment System. I also had the fortune of growing up in an area where arcades were popular and spent summers living the birth of Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat and my personal favorite, Time Killers. In more modern times my wife, daughter and I all game and frequent our local Gamestop. The game I am most looking forward to this year is Dragon Age: Inquisition, and I plan to take a long weekend to get into it.

Why say all that first? Well, there seems to be an opinion that growing up loving video games and thinking that Tropes Vs. Women is total crap and that Anita Sarkeesian should be banned from the internet are inseparable. Honestly, this is only the beginning of the online rage as you can see from this Patreon with a $5,000 a month payout vowing to fight her movement because apparently “Recent evidence suggests they have far larger powers of censorship than anyone would suspect; this is what we want to uncover.” Because obviously a secret cabal of feminists is controlling all media. Hadn’t you noticed?

Is Tropes Vs. Women perfect? Not at all. One simple complaint I have is the lumping of games with a karma system like Fallout or games that reward pacifist play-through like Dishonored with the Grand Theft Auto games of the world. Sarkeesian states that these games all have a similar punishment/reward system for offing random innocents, and this is factually incorrect. However, we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater and having actually watched these videos, I have to say they bring up some really simple and valid points.

1. Tropes Are a Real Thing and They’re Everywhere

Don’t tell any of the angry critics, but all of the tropes invoked in Tropes Vs. Women are cataloged on TV Tropes. TV Tropes has been around for about a decade, cataloging tropes and repeated themes in works of all kinds. Four episodes of Tropes Vs. Women cover female characters being constantly taken prisoner or used to motivate characters (damsels in distress) as well as female characters that are total copies of a male character with the only difference being gender. I think is pretty bland stuff in general. Certainly Tropes Vs. Women is not creating the idea of these tropes.

People seem to think she is making these tropes up, and I’m really not sure why, as this is pretty familiar ground. No one is trying to gather funding to stop TV Tropes or the cruel conspiracies that apparently center around it. People think of it as being a bit super-nerdy or obsessed with the mundane, but it doesn’t seem to hit critical mass as something that enrages the Internet. Why? Well, part of it is that Sarkeesian is seen as a bit of an outsider to the gaming world and that TV Tropes keeps a carefully neutral stance as a chronicler of tropes. That is fair enough, but my point is it’s a simple fact that these videos are talking about commonly accepted tropes that are really low-hanging fruit. It’s really nothing revolutionary or terrifying here.

2. Tropes Are a Shortcut and Can Be Lazy

Repeated narratives and motifs are part of storytelling. They help people buy into a narrative faster and get the story moving, which is why movies in particular are so fond of them. Used on their own they aren’t necessarily harmful, though they can be a little distancing if someone finds a narrative too familiar or rehashed. Games have an advantage here in that really unoriginal or boring stories can frame gameplay that is enjoyable or even revolutionary. Dragon’s Dogma and Dark Souls were both games that I have played with irritating NPCs, opaque story lines, and deliberately confusing game play. However, the actual experience of playing the game was deep and interesting enough that it could still be enjoyable.

A game can be a total rehash of another game and still be fun as long as the actual play changes. All of the Double Dragon games have the same plot, but they play differently because you get a wider variety of jump kicks and other ways to smash in faces. Thus, you can have a substandard or even slightly bad game plot and still have a good time with it. On the other hand, I don’t think that somehow writing bad or repetitive plots makes the game better. Having a call for game designers to write better stories does not also call for them to make bad games. This is actually something that Sarkeesian seems to be aware of herself.

3. You Can Like Something Without Liking Every Part of It

The Tropes Vs. Women videos start with this disclaimer, “Remember that it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of its more problematic or pernicious aspects.” This quote not only shows that Sarkeesian is more moderate than she is credited for; it is also a litmus test for the fan boys among us. All media has problematic aspects, and they bother some people more than others. Man of Steel, for example, is a problematic movie. Between its bizarre take on Pa Kent, Superman not really being much of a rescuer, and all of the other stuff, a lot of people hated it. I still liked it because I like Superman, and I was happy to see a movie where he actually had an all out fight with two other Kryptonians. I have no intention to take up my keyboard and battle others all over the web, though, as I understand those are real problems.

Gender issues are exactly the same. I’ve already pre-ordered Assassin’s Creed: Unity because we are looking forward to some family multi-player time during the holidays. Would my wife and daughter prefer to play female assassins? Sure. We are excited enough about the game to buy it anyway but it’s certainly a downer. It’s also lazy, lazy programming since apparently the different protagonists are all palette swaps like Scorpion and Sub Zero but in 2014. I think the fact that Ubisoft didn’t make provisos for the many female fans of this series, and then followed up with some pretty lame arguments show that things could improve on the gender front for this series. I still expect to enjoy the game overall, but this particular aspect is not a credit to it.

4. Saving the Princess Is Getting a Little Boring

Honestly, gamers, why are Princesses Toadstool and Zelda still getting kidnapped? It’s getting a little weird at this point. Sure, Super Mario and Legend of Zelda games are loaded with so much unique and fun content that they don’t seem like playing the same game over and over again, but seriously the plot is recycled. Why? We enjoyed it when Zelda was a bad ass as Sheik or when Princess Toadstool got to fly in Super Mario Bros 2. Can’t they just be cool characters like the bad ass ladies in Borderlands? If not, why not? Why is it an intrinsic part of Mario and Zelda that they involve kidnappings and passive characters? The Princesses hold their own in Super Smash Bros and Mario Kart, don’t they? The Tropes Vs. Women video documents that this particular quirk has deeply infiltrated into the storytelling DNA of video games. The “Damsel In Distress” trope is featured in dozens of games and shows no particular sign of letting up, especially since it is such a useful trope as far as getting a game started. These guys took your girl! Kill everything between you and her!

This is honestly a bad one, I think. it makes the main male character into the dynamic one and the main female character into a prize to be won. It’s not a constant and in-your-face thing. Clearly plenty of women have enjoyed playing Mario or Link anyway. But the message it sends overall is still one that celebrates men over women. Of course, for all of its disturbing implications (what if the Princess doesn’t like the person that “wins” her?) at least it leaves the woman alive.

5. Let’s Keep The Women out of Fridges

“Women in Refrigerators” is not only a topic for Tropes Vs. Women; it happens to be a phenomenon traced back to a particular Green Lantern comic issue and coined by Gail Simone, a comic writer of some success. Basically DC Comics decided back in the day that all of those aliens in green were boring and things needed a shakeup. They made Hal Jordan go nuts and kill all the other members of the Green Lantern Corps with only one Green Lantern left in the whole world named Kyle Rayner. He was sort of a slacker Gen X/Y type, so he was inspired by a super baddie shoving his non-superhero girlfriend into his fridge. Classy!

Killing women to motivate men is another extremely old trope and it has been used in all sorts of media, with my personal favorite probably being Gladiator. Want a taciturn, murderous hero that is bad ass but still has a sympathy factor? Murder his wife and kids. It has the nice side benefit of letting him screw around because it’s all just a way of acting out the grief of losing his family. While this is a very handy trope (I must admit that I’ve used it here and there when role-playing or writing), games with no female characters except evil ones and virtuous wives who die at the beginning of things clearly aren’t all that female friendly. I don’t have a clear reading or sliding scale.

Dishonored starts with the Empress dying and Corvo setting out to avenge here, but their daughter is a very real and interesting character, so does that balance out? I’m not sure, but I definitely think we could have a few more women that contribute more than dying in an inspiring manner to the canon.

6. Women Characters Deserve More Than Pink

In the old days, video games were a bit more primitive and depended on really simple differentiators. Mario was red and Luigi green. I’ve already mentioned Scorpion yellow and Sub-Zero blue, which later became an entire bizarre palette of color coded ninjas (sort of like G.I. Joe). This particular mindset has carried over into male/female differentiators as well, with the first being Pac-Man and Ms Pac-Man with a bow and a beauty mark making the difference. I’m going to go a bit past Tropes Vs. Women and say this particular trope is really an artifact of the days when the technology required it. It really should go away for everybody. It often seems more pointed on the gender front, though, as video game designers sometimes hedge their bets with over sized eyelashes, hourglass bodies and pony/pig tails without bothering to provide any more differentiators. Think Supergirl, who too often is just like Superman but female.

Sarkeesian calls out the Koopalings from Super Mario Bros as an example of characters where the female character doesn’t have any features beyond being female. Compare this to Command And Conquer: Red Alert 3. As shown above, this game is full of sexy female bad asses in semi-revealing clothes but they all have different powers, sensibilities, voices, personalities and backgrounds. Natasha and Tanya play completely differently in almost every particular despite both being special forces veterans who primarily spend their time destroying buildings. On the other hand, a less sexually-charged and probably more feminist-friendly version would be the new female soldiers in Gears of War 3, who just look kick ass while wearing full body armor.

7. Sexualized Violence Is Creepy

I’m generally pretty socially permissive. However, I do think that when Tropes Vs. Women calls out sexualized murder as a problem in video games I have to agree, at least a little. The idea of either being turned on by or trying to get people turned on by dead women is a little outside my comfort zone, which is generally larger than most. Pictures of sexy women in lingerie with bullet holes in their foreheads and taglines about how they were “beautifully executed” certainly catch the eye and get a lot of attention, but I’m not sure what kind of message they are supposed to be sending to me as a straight guy. “You can shoot this girl but she’ll still be fuckable,” I guess. A little dark, I think.

What is this ad selling?

If I think these ads are creepy, I wonder what message they would send to a woman who watched them, especially if she looked like the woman in the ad. “This game kills people like you and then lets the player look at them naked and dead!” I know that the game has more to it and really playing games like this is a lot more of an exercise in problem-solving and patience than a snuff film but that’s not what the ad is saying. I think you really have to stretch and prevaricate to not admit this is really hostile to women on multiple levels. Maybe that isn’t a big concern to the fans of the franchise. Maybe the people who made the game thought the advertisements were creepy too. I don’t know. I do know that the fact that a woman challenging this sort of thing is considered controversial says bad things about the dudes who are so angered by it.

8. Feminism Concerns Are Real Concerns

Historical Accuracy: Dragons and Magic, no problem. Eliminating rape? How dare you suggest such a thing!

There seems to be a major conflict these days wherein geeks, who generally were ignored by women back in the dark days of the ’80s, turning to video games and RPGs as a substitute, are now trying to come to terms with women crashing their party. This is a simplification but it does have some teeth to it. It’s almost a trope in its own right. Ultimately, though, people have to move past these concerns and move towards making gaming fandom a better place. Will feminists ever be completely happy? Probably not since concerns evolve and the needle moves back and forth.

Feminism has long been a type of poor cousin to other concerns. I don’t see a lot of video games loaded with, say, people saying the N word because it is racially offensive. As time goes on, you also see a lot less racial stereotypes (one reason I think a Final Fantasy 7 remake may never come is the way Barret talks like Mister T’s slightly dumber cousin). I also doubt you’re going to pick up any medieval games that involve beating or torturing homosexuals to cure them. But somehow, even though all those things are real, they are still left out of our entertainment. On the other hand, sexually subjugated women are “too real” to be ignored, leading to rape scenes, sex slaves and abused prostitutes (by players and others).

Why is it that this oppression is special and must be protected to make things “real”? I’m not sure there is a good reason. I think people need to think about it, really think about it. That’s all Tropes Vs. Women seems to be asking, and I think gamers need to have a much better reaction to the question.

Previously by David N. Scott

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