It’s OK to admit there’s sexism in a lot of video games (no, really!)

Paolo Uccello’s rendering of Saint George and the dragon, c. 1470

Media critic and Feminist Frequency creator, Anita Sarkeesian, received both praise and criticism for her videos highlighting the Damsel in Distress trope in video games. If you haven’t seen her videos, it’s definitely worth checking out. You can view part one here and part two here.

Now, full disclosure, I don’t play video games nor do I know much about video game culture. Therefore, I’m not in a position to say if the people who criticized Sarkeesian’s research for not being thorough are right or wrong. What I do know however, is that based on the responses to her videos, a lot of people seem to either dismiss the significance of this trope being prevalent in video games, or they don’t understand how the Damsel in Distress trope is sexist. These critics do this by making one of the following arguments:

1. These are just video games and shouldn’t be taken so seriously because it’s just escapist entertainment for gamers.

2. There are video games out there that depict strong women.

3. How can the Damsel in Distress trope be sexist against women, when it’s all about a man loving a woman so much that he risks his life to save her?

OK, *deep breath* I’m gonna take a stab at addressing these arguments.

The “chill out, it’s just a video game argument”: It might just be fantasy, but the symbols and depictions of humanity in even escapist forms of entertainment still reflect cultural beliefs.

For example, the sole purpose of an advertisement is to compel viewers to buy a product, but in order to do this advertisers have to tap into conscious and sometimes unconsciousness cultural beliefs.

The main objective of this ad, for example, is to simply sell perfume and cologne.  However, in addition to showcasing the product, the ad also reinforces popular beliefs about masculinity and femininity.


The “there are video games out there that depict strong women” argument: To counter Sarkeesian’s argument, people have mentioned video games that depict ass-kicking females as the protagonist. Again, since I don’t play video games, I’m in no position to say if featuring an ass-kicking female protagonist is the norm or mostly an exception. However, trotting out a few examples of strong female characters doesn’t mean the Damsel in Distress trope isn’t pervasive. Some critics have called Sarkeesian’s Damsel in Distress videos misleading, but so far I haven’t come across anyone who solidly backs this claim up. For example, I haven’t come across any criticism that says something like “out of x amount of video games featuring someone being held captive and someone acting as the rescuer, only x amount use the Damsel in Distress trope.” Sure, there are probably video games out there featuring strong women, but in the very specific Hero Rescues Captive storyline, I suspect gender roles are much more rigid than Sarkeesian’s critics care to admit.

The “Damsel in Distress tropes can’t be sexist since it’s all about helping women” argument: Helping women (or anyone) is always a good thing, but if the Damsel in Distress trope is pervasive it’s problematic. This is because it reinforces the idea that in the face of danger, men are action oriented while women remain passive. This is a form of benevolent sexism (you can read more about that concept here). The Damsel in Distress trope infantilizes women by showing that they aren’t capable of saving themselves, let alone being capable heroes. Oftentimes, this trope paints a woman’s helplessness as being alluring. Sarkeesian explains this  idea perfectly when she says:

So narratives that frame intimacy, love or romance as something that blossoms from or hinges upon the disempowerment and victimization of women are extremely troubling because they tend to reinforce the widespread regressive notion that women in vulnerable, passive or subordinate positions are somehow desirable because of their powerlessness.” 

“The Knight Errant” an 1870 painting by John Everett Millais is said to be a perfect example of the “erotic subtext” in the Damsel in Distress trope.

So does this all mean that people shouldn’t enjoy playing video games anymore? Sarkeesian doesn’t say that at all, in fact she’s a fan of video games and states:

It’s possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy a piece of media while also being critical of some of the more problematic aspects of that same media.”

The reason I mention this, is because I often see a reflexive hostility from fans whenever someone points out racism or sexism in a piece of media they enjoy. I believe the hostility stems from the belief that media with any hint of racist or sexist elements is by default not capable of having entertainment or artistic value.  It’s entirely possible for a piece of media to be so entertaining and effing brilliant it makes you want to squeal (or maybe that’s just me), while also not doing such a great job of depicting a certain group of people. The people pointing out things like sexism or racism aren’t a bunch of angry killjoys (well, to be fair a few might be). Most likely they’re hardcore fans themselves, and their aim isn’t to diminish a piece of media or genre. Their aim is to make it better by making it less cliched and more inclusive.

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