Tuesday, February 26, 2013

"She was asking for it!": Victim-Blaming and Damsels in Distress

The "damsel in distress" is component of storytelling in many different kinds of media. From the oral story to the novel, from the theater to the big screen, women have often played the role the kidnapped, the beaten, the victim. Video games are a different spin on this trope. Rather than being passive, watching a hero rescue a damsel, video games allow the person playing to have an active role in the rescuing.
A response to Princess Peach victim-blaming

In some games, rescuing the kidnapped damsel is accepted as such an key part of the game-play and storyline that it is taken for granted. These titles include the Legend of Zelda games and the Mario games, both of which hinge on rescuing a captured princess. In the Mario titles, Princess Peach's kidnapping has become so predictable that the developers don't even make it creative or, frankly, important, anymore. In Paper Mario: Sticker Star, a new title for the Nintendo DS, Peach is kidnapped unceremoniously by Bowser, but that issue isn't even really discussed-- of greater concern in the missing stickers. It has gotten to the point that simply rescuing Peach is predictable and boring, so other elements must be added-- and yet Peach's kidnapping remains. Why preserve something that now serves very little narrative purpose?

Similarly, Princess Zelda is captured in almost every iteration of the Legend of Zelda games. While she does play some stronger roles in some titles, overwhelmingly her role is that of a victim.

It is important to note that these characters are always captured by men and saved by men. There is a gender dynamic here. Women are being used as essentially objects to serve as the hero's motivation or goal.

I think the most key result of these dynamics and storylines is seen within gamer culture. In the Mario and Zelda fandoms, many players take saving the damsel one step further. They believe that it is unfair that Link and Mario (the heroes) never receive any physical compensation for their heroism. These fans think that Zelda and Peach owe their male "saviors" romance, affection, or even sex. They blame the Princesses for their own kidnappings ("they were asking for it!") and say that Mario and Link are being "friendzoned".

Princess Peach saves Mario with powers of emotion in Super Princess Peach.
It is clear that video games are not the source of these victim-blaming sentiments. However, video games perpetuate these ideas. Since so many games do not represent women well, or at all, this has obvious effects on gamer culture. Sexism and misogyny in gaming circles can be overwhelming for many women. The victim-blaming that occurs in many fandoms can isolate women and make them feel threatened and frustrated, particularly women who have survived trauma.

I think that a solution to these problems is turn these tropes on their heads. Take these loved characters and give them their own titles. Let the damsels (from these titles and others) do some saving. Super Princess Peach attempted to do exactly this, but it was criticized for the game-play mechanics. Peach's powers in the game involved using her emotions  to manipulate situations (why can't she fight too?) and the game was said to be much too easy.

Nintendo, and game developers as a whole, can and should do better. Not only would better representations and role reversals shift the dialog about damsel characters, it would also be new and different. As a gamer, and a huge fan Mario and Legend of Zelda, I would enjoy the change!


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