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Criticisms of Anita Sarkeesian's first Tropes vs. Women video. Better late than never.

Mary Scoville, Blogger

April 5, 2013

8 Min Read


When I discussed the idea of this blog and the idea of the game based on some feminist ideas, my mother asked, "Do you ever think that you take this sort of thing a little too seriously?".  Of course I had! All I do is think about stuff! In my thinking I knew that I wasn't taking it too seriously, mostly because I can still joke about all of it.  I like to think that it helps me keep a level head. That said, being a woman in this industry is important, and right now, it is a really big deal.  A big issue women sometimes have is NOT speaking up.  It is as though they are afraid to be lumped into a group with those "crazy feminists".  Please... Anything but that... There is a strange mentality that says that if we ignore the problem, then it will go away but deep down, everyone knows that doesn't work.  Blood must be spilled!  No really, I'm reasonable and while I know that the world isn't exactly a fair place, I would like to point out that that is no reason not to fight for it.  So here I am, adding my voice.  I might not be qualified somehow, but since I'm a woman who plays and makes games, I qualify myself to comment on the "Women Who Play and Make Games" discussion.  

This brings me to Anita Sarkeesian's video series (a little late to the game for me, but better late than ever I suppose).  What happened to her is now common knowledge for those who follow gaming news (and even quite a few that don't) and pretty much everyone agreed that it was appalling...  So when her first video came out, I had really hoped I would enjoy it.  All that money and all that hubbub... I needed it to be REALLY GOOD.  It wasn't.  It wasn't a tragedy or anything and while I liked parts, and am super glad it exists, I had some serious problems with it.

First, here is what I liked.
Sarkeesian has a pretty sizable following at her blog Feminist Frequency and she's even done a TED talk! So she was in a good position to reach a lot of audiences that wouldn't normally hear anything about the difficulties for female gamers.  This is WONDERFUL!  Spreading the knowledge is important and I'm glad she's doing it.  She also keeps a Tumblr on the subject which I love.  The shear volume of images of women as objects is really excellent to see assembled.  It is a striking sampling of how we are viewed in video games and makes it easy to see how things could do with a bit of shaking up.  I appreciated the revealing story of Krystal and how her game was completely revamped and scrapped in order to put a dude in the lead and the story of how Princess Peach was given her only ever important role in a Mario game.  Those are interesting things and I was surprised to learn them, they added to my arsenal of reasons video games need to grow up, and go along quite nicely with the more recent tale of Remember Me almost not making it due to the female protagonist   Finally her extended criticism of Mario was really great.  There is no longer a reason at all for Princess Peach not to have a more important role, and in fact, there is no reason at all in this modern age of gaming that we can't tell a more complex and interesting story.  Tech no longer limits us, we're just stuck with bad habits.  As Sarkeesian says, these damsel in distress roles aren't necessarily the only roles these game women occupy but in her opinion, they are the predominant ones.
This is where my problems begin.  

Here is what I did not like...
While I understand that her larger goal was to capture the interest of those less involved in games, she didn't do much for the men and women interested in the topic that already knew a thing or two about the problems.  With the exception of the Krystal and Mario 2 examples she wasn't telling me much I didn't already know.  In addition, if this is the only impression you have of women in games you might be left with a pretty rotten taste in your mouth that isn't 100% deserved based on the games that Sarkeesian mentioned.  

One of Sarkeesian's central focuses is the Legend of Zelda series.  There are many entries to this series and through so many games it is worth noting that Zelda has occupied some less than fortunate roles, especially in older titles.  For example, as Sarkeesian mentions, Zelda wasn't exactly useful in Ocarina of Time until she pretended to be a dude and within seconds of revealing her true identity to Link (and once again donning her feminine regalia) she is a damsel in distress again and is recaptured by Ganondorf.  Agreed, Sarkeesian... Lame.  Another more recent title suffers a similar misfortune.  In Wind Waker Zelda's spirit resides in a young and rambunctious (and highly capable) Tetra.  Like Sarkeesian says... Tetra becomes completely useless as soon as she dons the feminine attire and learns of her royal princess-y bearing.  This aggravated me even when I was young playing the game, Tetra was so awesome!  Why does she need to stop wearing awesome pirate clothes and quit being an awesome pirate because of this knowledge?  No reason, again Sarkeesian... agreed, 'tis lame.  
In light of all of that Sarkeesian fails to mention the roles of women in more recent games or the powerful female characters in some of the older games.  This does the games an injustice as they are clearly working towards a better and more equitable gender dispersion.  In Ocarina of time, Zelda's main protector is the Sheikah woman Impa, who remains a pillar of strength throughout the series.  In fact, in this entry she is a wise sage.  What's more, the sages that help Link reseal the sacred realm are composed mostly of women.  Including Nabooru (who leads a badass tribe of women), Ruto (who proves to be quite tough), Impa (previously mentioned badassery), Saria (Link's best friend in childhood and a constant guide on his quest), and finally Zelda herself.  Your constant (albeit historically annoying) companion is a tiny fairy who clearly rules your roost.  Several other important female characters exist in the game and though it is unfortunate that they are clearly in supporting roles, they aren't really in distress either...  

Wind Waker has no excuse (neither does Mario really).  

Twilight Princess on the other hand is fairly glossed over in Sarkeesian's video which is so very unfortunate.  Midna is an amazing female character.  Although she is once again limited to a support type role, she does it wonderfully and at the end of the day, she and Zelda do a lot of heavy lifting in terms of saving the day.  Midna is a very strong character and in a lot of ways she really drives Link's actions throughout the tale.
Finally, in the most recent entry, Skyward Sword, your sword (the master sword) is a girl.  The spirit of your sword? Woman.  You know that sword you need to use to save the day, totally a female.  Big deal right?  Sword's important in Skyward SWORD.  Not only that but you spend a lot of the story chasing after Zelda and Impa (who reappears as a wise and strong guide for the central characters) who are really showing you up in terms of progress and capability.  That being said, you do end up having to save the damsel in distress Zelda at the very end, but you do it with your lady sword.
All of the Zelda ranting aside (I only do so since Zelda made up a big chunk of Sarkeesian's argument), I really wanted to see more new and interesting information.  Maybe some numbers, maybe some scholarly research, maybe some female guests from the industry who are trying to change things.  The whole video had a tendency to feel as though I was being schooled and chided with information that I mostly knew already... with some clever masking trying to convince me that there were no shades of gray in the damsel in distress category.  I wanted other informed opinions with all that money she got, not just her, other women.  Sarkeesian isn't the only voice, but it sounds at times as though she is.

In conclusion,
I can't wait for her next video.  All rants aside, Sarkeesian is doing something important, she's getting us talking, she's making us think, and anything that keeps the conversation going is a good thing.  Also... her Mario observations have led me to make a princess focused game where the princess saves herself.  Look forward to meeting Princess Pomegranate.

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