Anita Sarkessian of Feminist Frequency recently posted part three of “Tropes vs Women in Video Games” video, which deals with the “Damsel in Distress” tropes. It is a classic trope (warning: Tvtropes.com see you in 6 hours) that Sarkessian (author/presenter of Feminist Frequency) demonstrates is as prevalent in gaming as it is elsewhere in culture.
One of the games Sarkessian discusses is Super Mario Bros (SMB). The brothers Mario and Luigi are two of the most identifiable video game characters in the world. The original game is a simple platformer. Indeed, it is probably the platformer of all time, perhaps not the best, but almost certainly the most iconic. It spawned a huge franchise including numerous sequels, racing and fighting games and a movie. [What is a platformer?]. Great Giana Sisters [GGS] is a little more obscure, but has seen some recent and unexpected franchise releases.
So, why are these two games significant? Well, they show how easily tropes against women (i.e by situating female characters as passive objects of male action/intervention… that is, damsels) can be easily without compromising on gameplay. There is barely anything between the two in terms of how they actually function as games. In fact, they are so close that Nintendo (publisher of SMB) forced Rainbow Arts (publisher of GGS) to withdraw the game from sale. The screenshots below show Mario on the left and Giana on the right.
Full Disclosure: I Fucking Hate Super Mario Bros. And pretty much every platformer. Except for Great Giana Sisters and most notably Bubble Bobble – I mean, for god’s sake Listen to the music, how can you not like it! And I fucking hate the Super fucking Nintendo Entertainment System. And regular Nintendo Entertainment System. The Wii was okay.This is likely because at the time kids were playing Mario Bros on the S/NES, I was playing The Great Giana Sisters on the C64 and later the Amiga. Like, actual computers.
SMB is implicated in the Damsel in Distress trope because the “storyline” of the game is that the brothers have to rescue Princess Peach (aka Princess Toadstool) from a castle. The connection to the actual gameplay is tenuous at best, but merely by its presence the narrative becomes significant (especially for the future of the franchise). GGS subverts this trope, not by simply changing the gender of the protagonists (though that is a start) but by replacing the trope with a narrative that makes the female protagonists agents of their own emancipation.
The sisters in GGS find themselves trapped in a dreamworld (given the similarity to SMB, I would say a nightmare) from which they must escape. Making their way through the dangerous landscapes they must find for themselves a special crystal which will wake them up. In this way the female characters move away from being a static object-prize and become self-liberating actors. The change in narrative, which marks the most significant point of distinction between the two games, is clearly an easy one to make. The simplicity of the change then leads to the question of why can’t this happen more often? And more particularly, why did SMB fall into the troupe to begin with?
These questions give some ideas about how gender works in cultural production. It isn’t something which is necessarily a conscious decision to choose men over women or to cast women in particular (static, inactive, object-prize) roles, though in some cases it can be this (or indeed deliberately not doing this). Instead gender, and the politics of gender, often works by making itself invisible. Common-sense becomes the means by which gender differences are explained (away). In discussions of the work Sarkessian is doing for example, critics will often take a multitude of approaches to ensure that the problem she identifies is seen to not exist. These range from arguments about making simple narratives to arguments about what gaming audiences identify with to arguments about since it doesn’t matter whether we have the Giana Sisters or the Mario Bros, then why not just leave it as the Mario Bros (also known as “it is just a computer game!” argument. Other arguments are of the gendered nature of gaming & technology (there are no girls on the internet!) to anti-feminist “what about the mens” complaints (there are tropes of men too!).
The simple narrative argument runs into trouble because there are limitless numbers of simple narratives to choose from, yet they are rarely used. This argument amounts to claiming that game developers are simply lazy. Yet supposes that the “struck in a dream” narrative is significantly more creative than the damsel-in-distress trope. Even if creative laziness was behind the defaulting to male-gendered protagonist, this reveals that gender does matter – defaulting to a male confirms the claim of sexism. If the idea of laziness was extrapolated across the entire industry (or indeed, across all cultural production), then the question would be how could so much effort be placed into creative narrative (in books, cinema, games etc) only to have it fail spectacularly on gender. This criticism is particularly pertinent to the fantasy and science fiction genres (of which so many games fit into) which despite their magic, silicon-based aliens, underworld monsters, intergalactic space-time bending devices, non-human intelligences and so on, manage to repeatedly replicate modern Western gender values.
The question of audience identification reveals a disjunction between how we think we behave (and how developers think audiences behave) and how audiences actually do behave. The research into the constitutive processes and cultural complexities of audience identification with characters shows that far from a simple one-to-one relationship between audience and character, the way the audience members represent their own identity and how relationships are formed with characters is complex and trans(gender/sexual/class/race). Clover argues in Men, Women and Chainsaws that within the horror/slasher genre, for example, the female figure of the “final girl” – the last remaining victim who (usually) manages to escape, is a character that upsets one-to-one gender identification. While young males may at first identify with the (usually) male villain, it is the “final girl” that they ultimately come to root for as she out smarts, out maneuvers and often dispatches her antagonist. Similarly, Shively’s empirical work on audiences of Westerns suggests that different ethno-racial groups don’t necessarily relate to their representations in narratives. Shively’s research shows that male Native American audiences identified with the (white) “cowboys” more than with the “Indians” in Hollywood Westerns. Likewise, the success of the Tomb Raider series (featuring Lara Croft) shows that gaming is not excluded from the complexity of audience identification, as does the cross-gender play found in games where player characters can be customised by the player, including gender selection (e.g the Fallout, Elder Scrolls and Saints Row series).
I think the notion that there is an essential relationship between technology and gender is an area that deserves some particularly historic research (or if it already exists, I’d like to read it). The development of geek subcultures, including gaming cultures, has a long history, one that begins I think long before computing technology appeared. My (largely unfounded) sense is that the material conditions for the development of these subcultures stretches back so far that it is impossible to draw a connection between the technology and gender except in the most stupidly evo-psych ways. What I mean by this is that geek subcultures (coding, hacking, phreaking, gaming etc) developed out of very specific historic and geographic locations and to be present in those locations depended on access and capital (cultural, financial, etc) that was at the time available almost exclusively to men. The lineage of work in tech development was decidedly patriarchal – men would pass knowledge, practice and culture on to other men. This wasn’t because women were not interested, but I think a combination of explicit exclusion (from workplaces, places of research etc) and lack of cultural contact that resulted from this exclusion. So, not only were women not able to access the technical competencies, they were not able to access the cultural and social networks that both required and reinforced the technical competencies. Excluded from these places women could never develop the historical and cultural sensibilities, habitus and narratives that would ultimately develop into contemporary geek cultures. To give a made up example; a young woman graduating from high-school in the 1950’s and 60’s isn’t going to have had the same experience and opportunities to be involved in say, a class about basic electronics. This would be the result of the “natural” expectation that she wasn’t interested, so by coerchsion (social pressure, explicit exclusion) she didn’t build social networks in electronics class, didn’t build technical competencies etc that would carry her into say the phone phreaking communities of the 1970’s and 1980’s. There is also another aspect to this [Warning: Flagrant Conjecture Ahead]. The masculinity of geek cultures (in that they were cultures of hetero-sexual men) tended to ignore their counterparts in feminised cultures. By this I mean our sense of what hacking, for example, is (in the sense of lifehacking, rather than say network [in]security exploitation of Lulsec, Anonymous etc) one that privileges the masculine history of hacking to the detriment of a [possible] women’s history of hacking. This would include both technology (computing, electronics etc) and non-technology hacking (lifehacking, workhacking, getting around systems which inhibit you etc).
The narrative of the Great Giana Sisters is pertinent here. What is that crystal they were looking for? Contrary to the Mario Bros, which was an exercise in the maintenance of the status quo (made doubly so by the revelation that Our Princess is in Another Castle) the Giana Sisters are looking to upset the boundaries of the system they are stuck in. Whatever the intended nature of the crystal is, it is a McGuffin that represents a moment/event where the sisters beat the system. The acquisition of the crystal (the vote, access to education, financial independence etc) brings the sisters into a implicitly freer reality – the nightmares of bricks and tubes, the linearity of the side-scroll are over. Directions become multiple. It is a simplistic, lazy narrative, but one of emancipation of the subject rather than imprisonment of an object.
With gender being the only significant difference between SMB and GGS there is opportunity for a kind of “twins experiment”. What happens when gender changes? For those that think gender doesn’t matter, then they ought to be willing to accept the transformative narrative of GGS with as much regard as they do the conservative narrative of SMB. That this doesn’t often happen suggests that gender does matter, but perhaps not in the way they expect. The bind that those who make these arguments find themselves is that on one hand they want to claim that gender doesn’t matter (there is no sexism) and on the other they want to claim that gender doesn’t matter (it is okay for characters to always be men), this disjunction leads them to make an ethical claim on the status quo – that it ought to remain as it is. We should neither question it nor entertain the notion that there is anything to question.
The ongoing abuse and threats towards Sarkessian for the series she is making demonstrates the very thing those making the attacks seek to deny – that gender matters.