The Damsel in Distress Trope – And Why “But She’s Bad-Ass!!” Is Not An Excuse

To the two fellas currently duking it out over this post on Reddit: play nice, kids – stop looking like idiots.


Let’s take a look at this series of tweets, where the gaming world’s no.1 boogey-woman Anita Sarkeesian laments the inclusion of a “Damsel in Distress” trope in some video game or other. You know, as she does.


Edit: As I was lazy, I originally hotlinked this image and it shifted location. The gist is that Anita Sarkeesian said “this game has a Damsel in Distress in it so it sucks”. and TotalBiscuit responded with “but men get captured too, so you’re wrong”.

Now, a little bit of additional context.

Firstly, I don’t have the game, and I don’t know the details – and I literally couldn’t care (that’s further hammered to death below) about the details. This is absolutely not the point I want to make. The plot details of a specific game lie outside my area of interest.

Secondly, what Sarkeesian is referring to by “Damsel in Distress” (DID) is very extensively covered in one of her Tropes vs. Women videos. The first one, in fact. Which was released about two years ago. So you’ve had plenty of time to, you know, watch it if you want to know where she’s coming from.

To cut a long story short, “but men get rescued too” is not a refutation nor is it a particularly good excuse for implementing an over-used trope in your script. Not least because it’s not a competition between men and women, and if one gets more abuse than the other they win the Oppression Olympics. What I want to point out is how you go about refuting the existence (or otherwise) of a particularly pervasive and over-used storyline.

Again, because I have to lay these things out several times and people still miss it – I don’t care about the individual details of this one game, only that whoever is refuting Sarkeesian’s accusation actually uses DID on the right terms, not ones just made up. I.e., you should refute what she is actually talking about and not something completely different.

Cue the GamerGator wangst…

What DID Entails

DID tropes have nothing to do with being straight-up rescue missions or who saves who. Whether something qualifies as a particularly bad instance of DID depends on far more interesting things such as why the plot point is being used and, because we’re talking about video games, what you “win” in exchange.

If the rescue mission simply moved the plot on and makes sense, then it might not be DID. Rescue missions happen all the time, and yes, men and women get rescued.

If the captive actually does something productive and isn’t useless, it’s probably not DID. If you give them some agency in their escape they’re not exactly playing the damsel. This latter point is particularly true if your captive is an actual character rather than faceless background noise or part of a crowd.

If you take a quick tour around fiction, rescuing of male characters more-often-than-not falls into one of these not-DID categories, and I imagine that TotalBiscuit’s mention of a female character saving a male character falls into these categories, too.

Let’s consider what DID actually includes – or in other words, what are the dysfunctional and over-used plot points surrounding capture-and-rescue plots. Which bits do we considered negative, and are to be found under the banner “Damsel in Distress”, which is convenient short-cut that describes them?

(By the gods, I wish that last sentence wasn’t necessary, but the amount of argumentum ad dictionarium on the internet is one of the most astoundingly bad things about it.)

So that’s the basics of it. Not just “what is DID?” but “why is it bad?” We’ll go into some detail in a moment.

As you can see from TotalBiscuit’s response above, he’s just re-defining the trope as Anita Sarkeesian might use it to mean something more superficial, and declaring victory. It just means “women are captured” and so it doesn’t count as a bad thing if men are captured, too.

Also, did I mention I don’t care about the game itself, only that people argue the right use of DID? Good.

Consider the following: if the prize for going through the game is “getting” the girl, and the only motivation for completing the quest is “getting” the girl, and the reason she’s captured is just a cheap emotive plot device for no other reason than to get the dashing hero to the gorgeous girl, and her capture is something you have to seriously suspend your disbelief over, then it is absolutely textbook DID. In fact, it doesn’t matter whether it “is” or “is not” DID, those aspects of a plot are simply terrible; overused, boring, demeaning to the concept of characterisation, and absolutely disproportionately levelled against women. I’m sure there are hours of video that bludgeons these points to death, or a ton of other blog posts describing the trope in detail and the non-trivial and non-superficial attributes that make it asinine, but it isn’t exactly something you can explain in 140 characters or less.

So the trouble with Sarkeesian’s point is that she didn’t have the word-count to point this out (something you might term “The Dawkins Defence”). Meanwhile, the trouble with TotalBollock’s response is that, despite his claimed intelligence, he decided not to refute her point using her own terms and definitions.

After all, I need to make clear, you have to discuss “Damsel in Distress” in terms of the actual trope, not just “women getting rescued”. Because that’s my point, I don’t really care about the individual details of the game itself. Still clear?

Further Details

First of all, let’s brush up on the use of the Damsel in Distress throughout fiction in general. Conveniently, Wikipedia has a fairly comprehensive article on the subject. Note the points about objectification of the hostage, the motivation for the hero, the general uselessness of the princess stuck in the tower and so on and so forth. The fact that DID is also a specific a fetish tells you that there’s far more than just “it’s something to do with women” involved in it. Overall, it’s an interesting stock trope in fiction.

The facial hair isn’t optional. That is, of course, a core aspect of DID. If the baddy doesn’t have a ‘stache, it’s fine… really…

However, the Wikipedia article on DID does lack a distinct sub-section for video games (for reasons I don’t think warrant going into) so let’s outline the additions to the trope exclusive to, and principally used by, video games.

And let’s remember, my point is that you have to get this bit right and can’t just refute something that Sarkeesian isn’t actually talking about by taking your own definition of “Damsel in Distress”, simplifying it down, and saying something silly. I just thought that was worth pointing out, just in case it wasn’t clear.

The main thing to add on top of the stock character analysis, which you can gleam from reading general fiction, is that games allow the damsel to act as a reward for the player. The interactive nature of a game is really what makes the medium way more interesting to study than a straightforward novel or film. A game has to be written for the player to act out, it has to appeal to them as motivation, and authors/writers need to get savvy to this.

This is why, back in the days of Mario and Donkey Kong, video games often had the stock storylines such as DID that were totally devoid of any exposition. When you simply don’t have the disk space, or the processing power, or your audience is paying by the level in an arcade, you can’t spend time on the story. Think Time Crisis here – which I think shows my age way too much – where the plot is “rescue the President’s daughter… by shooting all these people as fast as possible”.

This aspect of a character being reduced to a mere, near-faceless, personality-free reward is what arguably is the fundamental property of DID in gaming. Sometimes this is quite literal – the original Mario literally went after a pixellated princess with zero back-story. Sometimes, it’s a bit more subtle. As in, she might even get a name. And if she’s really lucky some realistic boob-jiggle physics.

100 pixels of unadulterated sexual thrill… Hey, someone will be turned on by low resolution.

Okay, so seriously for a moment – you can have a “bad-ass”, you can have a “well-rounded” character. Can she still suffer from many aspects of the DID trope?

Absolutely.

As the asinine and regressive aspects of the DID trope don’t have anything to do with that.

Is she a feckless captive? Is she out-of-character in getting captured? Is she mostly a reward tacked on to make the plot vaguely interesting? Is her capture actually relevant to moving on the story? Again, these are subtle, and just to make it clear, you need to understand these subtleties and points because you can’t simply refute the existence of the DID trope with “men are rescued too” or “but she’s kick-ass”.

It doesn’t work that way, and that’s my point – not any specific details of this one example game. Just so long as it’s clear that I’m not talking about specific details of this particular game, because I’m not talking about the specific details of this game, only the general idea of what DID entails and how you should… fuck it, I’m not typing this out again, if I get any comments along these lines, you’re going in the fucking spam filter.

So once you understand that the core parts of the trope that are considered bad, you realise that “damsel in distress” does not just mean “girl gets rescued”. I won’t go into detail listing every example, that’s been done and it’s not my place to repeatedly prove that it’s out there in the wild, getting over-used, any more than it’s my place to prove atoms exist before discussing novel X-Ray crystal structures.

Can you swap genders in DID? Sure. Feckless idiot of a man gets kidnapped while a woman goes after him purely because it’s her boyfriend. Does that sound like a terrible plot? Yes, it does.

But do you really ever see it qualitatively reproduced that way? Really? I mean, not just the “hey, I found one example after an hour of Googling!!” I mean, like, is it common? Do you regularly see a strong and brooding and deep woman, the one holding the gun on the movie poster or game cover, go searching for a cardboard-cutout man who was locked up by the Big Bad for no other reason than to make the strong and deep woman brood a little bit more and go after him?

Not really.

You can give FFVII a pass because of course Aeris is going to be captured since she’s constantly being chased by Shinra. Of course, conveniently they only ever capture her when Cloud is around to save her, but let’s give it a little leeway. It does, after all, have the audacity to be a good game.

It’s not always a bad thing that must be avoided provided you have a decent excuse or rationale to do it. Aw, hell, you can even play it totally and perfectly straight and ramp it all up to 11 with comical rope and train tracks if you want to go all post-modern and make a commentary on the trope itself. That’s a fun possibility, though I dare say you’ll be stomping all over a very fine line between intentionally regressive crap played for post-modern laughs and just being a complete dick to your heroine like everyone else.

But played without irony, DID is over-used, and it is still sad-as-fuck that this is the go-to option for an easy motivation for Whitey McStubbly to get off his ass and kill bad guys.

Whether the game TotalBiscuit is raving about with Sarkeesian actually involves any of the godawful, asinine, over-used and cheap DID crap, I don’t know. I have no clue about the details of this game. I can’t even remember the name without looking at the screenshot. I literally have not heard of it until this week. I have neither the time, money, nor inclination to buy a PS4 and play something that looks exactly the same as every other game released since they discovered they could implement real-time normal mapping in console graphics. But here’s the point that the tirade from the inevitable mob of ass-hurt Gators and Gamers will probably not read: I really don’t care. Because that’s not the point as I’ve hopefully covered.

I’m going to play the probabilities game, go out on a limb, and make a crazy assumption that one of the plots broached within said game satisfies the DID criteria outlined above, while the other rescue missions really don’t. Why? Because if it wasn’t the case there’d probably be a better rationale excusing it than “because men get captured too”. Hence TotalBiscuit’s counter example isn’t the iron clad refutation he might think it is.

So this is my point: if you want to refute it (and I’m open to refuting Anita Sarkeesian, I have to throw my hand sup and admit I’m not actually a fan for various non-trite reasons), approach it this way:

  • Is the character relevant or central to the plot? I.e., if you replaced her with a bag of gold it simply wouldn’t work.
  • Are there motivations for the player character rescuing her beyond just getting his leg over?
  • Does she have any involvement or agency in her escape, assuming she’s conscious at the time?
  • Was her capture consistent with the character?
  • Is the rescue and the plot leading up to it more relevant to the plot than just getting the hero out of bed that morning?

Although that’s not entirely comprehensive, if you could honestly say “yes” to many or all of those, then it’s not DID. If you can do it for the game in question, Sarkseesian is wrong, and just tilting at windmills with this one specific example. Which, yes, she has an unfortunate tendency to do. And I’m very open to that being the case, but that evidence has not been presented (if anyone can point me in the direction of an adult discussion on this, please do).

Edit: See the addendum below.

A little bit of reading suggests the developers have tried to avoid it, and fleshed out their female characters, but whether they succeeded isn’t really up to them. Again, that’s detail that people can debate over, providing that they’re doing it on reasonable terms.

E.g., not just excusing it with other equally asinine tropes.

A 100%, absolutely realistic female character – stuck in a zombie-infested apocalyptic wasteland and still has time to put on on eye-shadow. Yeah, sure.

Again, for good measure, I don’t care about the details, at all, only that people doing the refuting fight it on the actual terms established. Got that? I mean, I’m serious about the spam-filter thing, I’m not even sorry.

A Non-Damsel in Relevant Distress

Just to underscore that DID isn’t just “woman gets rescued”, let’s ask the following question: is it possible to have a woman captured where it isn’t particularly damsel-ish? Yes. It very much is, and I think non-examples are as illustrative of the trope as examples are.

Take this classic set of cut-scenes from Command & Conquer: Red Alert – something of the high-point of 1990’s real-time strategy gaming.

Woman getting captured? Yep. Rescued by the player? Yep. She’s a bad-ass? Yep.

But let’s consider the questions above as applied to these two scenes:

  • Tanya is effectively a core character that is central to the plot (as far as Red Alert can get, at least). She’s as close to a player-character as is possible in the top-down, faceless-commander format of Command & Conquer.
  • The player is motivated to get her back because you’re getting your commando back. Sure, that’s effectively a “reward” for the player, although it’s closer to unlocking a Mammoth Tank in gameplay terms. This makes her an object, yes, but an object in the context of the gameplay, not an object in the context of the story (objectification in the context of being able to physically command and control a character, which is by the game mechanics non-consensual… games are a little complicated and weird when it comes to this stuff). You’re not winning a date with Tanya at the end, the player’s key motivation is still hitting the Soviets over the head as hard as possible.
  • She features a lot of agency in her escape. She does a lot of resistance, and in fact does most of the hard-work once your spy (who is a nameless NPC at this stage, rather than a proxy for the player’s over-active but under-utilised genitals) has infiltrated the base.
  • The capture is actually within the character’s operational parameters. She goes into dangerous situations constantly, and capture by the USSR is an occupational hazard. Tanya is, indeed, a bad-ass character, and tough-as-hell, but being captured in enemy territory, on a dangerous mission, in the middle of a war, isn’t exactly out of the realms of possibility for people in that position. It’s when your “bad-ass” characters catch the idiot ball, or seem to be targeted with the bad guys coming to her that you’re going to have a problem with this point.
  • Well, the rescue in the plot happens after she gathers intelligence, so I suppose this is about the only point where it slides into DID territory. It’s not, say, a side-effect of the rescue of Einstein or anything else, it’s literally just a new bit to move the story forward for another couple of missions. Although she does fuck up the Soviet’s shit just afterwards, so, fair play.

Above all, though, if you gender-reversed Tanya’s story it would absolutely not sound absurd at all. Whereas, say, Time Crisis, if you were the dashing heroine trying to save the President’s son by shooting terrorists, it might have people wondering if it was a comedy (or shouting about SJWs and making weak men and strong women).

So the Red Alert example doesn’t fall into many, if any, of the standard asinine DID plot-lines. Woman is captured, she’s a bad-ass, but it’s far from destructive or demeaning to anyone. Overall, the scene plays pretty powerfully, and the story doesn’t succumb to treating the female commando like a piece of sex-meat at any point throughout the story.

Isn’t it great that the Red Alert series kept that up?


Addendum 1: It has been pointed out in a comment elsewhere that the definition given of DID here actually makes a few of the examples given in Tropes vs Women or marginally damsel-ish or not DID at all. And I agree. On the one hand, this says that Anita Sarkeesian has something of an unfortunate tendency to cherry-pick, which is noted above. This is bound to happen when you start squeezing details to make a point. On the other, it also underscores that a trope is a fuzzy set, which is sort-of implied above given that there are multiple criteria and no hard-and-fast yes/no membership of the trope. The membership criteria needs to be considered in a more holistic sense than “she does X” and with a slightly more marginal degree than “therefore trope X”.

Addendum 2: A discussion of the individual details in a non-moronic fashion can be found tucked away on r/GamerGhazi. That’s actually a brief but interesting read. Could it be that Biscuit and Anita are wrong in their knee-jerk laconic responses? Yeah, probably.


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10 thoughts on “The Damsel in Distress Trope – And Why “But She’s Bad-Ass!!” Is Not An Excuse

  1. Anita doesn’t need to explain again and again what she means by DID because she already did it in her video. Anyone who criticizes her without basing his citique on the videos is useless. Her videos are a fantastic analysis of video games and storytelling, and you’d expect that with so much content that the reactions wouldn’t have been so emotional.

    Anyway, you explained Anita’s view really well. Girl getting rescued is natural. It’s not necessarily the problem – the problem is the girl’s character.

    I’m sick of hearing about ‘strong female characters’. I don’t want any kind of ‘strong characters’. I want interesting characters. I want characters who are flawed or weird and have to deal with these things. Most of the ‘strong female character’ is just a fetish for girls with guns, instead of dresses.

    Reply
  2. This is a great way of explaining the difference between “female character needed rescuing!” and the actual DID trope.

    This is why I didn’t feel like it was cheap when, for instance, Alyx gets incapacitated in HL2 – she’s not a Sexy Lamp, she’s an actual person, and she has a hell of a lot to do that doesn’t just involve Being Useful For The Player. As opposed to f’n Leah from D3…

    Reply
  3. As much as it has overused negative portrayals, I find myself enjoying any form of the trope when I feel I should save the person because that is just what a good person should do.

    Reply
    • It’s an interesting thing to note given that the usual course of action in video games is the way of the empathy-free sociopath, and to callously shoot your way through. But to take it as some sort of morality tale of what you should do surely relies on the siltation being somewhat realistic rather than manufactured?

      Reply
      • If I simply told you someone innocent is in trouble, you’ll likely run to their aid if you think you can help. if someone of great importance was put in harms way, an able bodied person would dash to their side. While the situations can often make me re-evaluate that stance and question why they should care, I believe at a core level human beings want to help out people in trouble.

        Reply

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