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A rebuttal to Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes Vs. Women” Episode 1: Damsels in Distress

During my unhappy year in Japan, a favorite method for passing the days was collecting CDs of Japanese clip-art. Like many foreigners, I had been overwhelmed by Japan’s dizzying array of holidays and festivals, and hoped studying clip-art could offer a crash course in their traditions and symbols. What more condensed summary of a holiday is there, after all, than the cartoons found on a hastily-made pool closure sign?

Japanese mothers
Japanese “mother” clip-art

Browsing these cartoon archives, what immediately struck was the bizarrely retro depiction of women. If a CD contained a stock image of a “mother,” she was probably wearing a kitchen apron (a pink one) and holding a frying pan or a duster or some other tool of domestic life. Sometimes even at the park. There were no clip-art pictures of female executives, female athletes, female cops, female construction workers, or basically any female in a physically demanding or otherwise non-stereotypical job. Everyone had long hair. Everyone was in a dress. Coming from a culture where even the back of board game boxes are painstakingly crafted to create a perfectly politically-correct tableau of gender and multicultural empowerment, the contrast was striking.

I asked some of my female Japanese co-workers about it, and they seemed nonplussed. “That’s just how women are seen here,” they said. But then again, many of them were only working to kill time before marriage.

This is the sort of cultural context missing — in fact, aggressively not present — in Anita Sarkeesian’s recently-released and much-watched YouTube mini-documentary on video games “Damsels in Distress,” the first of what promises to be a long series of feminist critiques of depictions of women in gaming, or as she puts it, “Tropes Vs. Women.”

Sarkeesian spends 23 minutes criticizing the gross and cliched way females were depicted in video games during the 1980s and ’90s, which, as her thesis/title suggests, was primarily as passive victims captured by villains, and thus shiny objects to be collected by the game’s hero, rather than characters with any sort of agency of their own. It’s an accurate observation, but considering almost every game she cites in her catalog of “Damsels in Distress” are Japanese titles produced by Japanese developers for a primarily Japanese market, there’s an obvious cultural commonality here that goes inexcusably unexplored.

I’m no master of Japanese sociology, but it’s hardly an obscure fact that Japan has one of the worst track records of any major industrialized democracy when it comes to rates of female participation in the workforce, female political participation, female representation in corporate leadership, female university enrollment, and female income equality. Until very recently, the Japanese classified pages openly stated that women need not apply for certain jobs. A deliberate lack of childcare options ensures the working single mother is virtually non-existent.

The social limitations Japanese women face in daily life obviously manifest clearly in Japanese popular culture. I suppose until you’ve been there, it’s hard to fully appreciate just how entrenched and uncontroversial the image of the hysterical, weeping, fragile, dependent, know-nothing female remains. You see her constantly in soap operas, in anime, in music, in advertisements, even in politics. (I was once handed a flyer by a supporter of a woman who was running for mayor. The thing was entirely pink and offered little argument beyond “why not a woman?”)

Thanks to the perennial western fascination with Japan’s more depraved subcultures, most of us are also now well familiar with the grotesquely vicious and misogynist images that abound in the robust Japanese industry of highly-specialized cartoon fetish porn, and the soft-prostitution racket known as “maid cafes,” which feature women serving men cookies and drinks clad not only in skimpy outfits, but absurdly fawning and servile attitudes even a Hooter’s waitress would find demeaning.

In her 23 minutes, Sarkeesian says the word “Japanese” exactly once. Completely disinterested in the cultural roots of her subject matter, to her, “video games” are simply things that randomly emerged from some neutral ether, as opposed to a particular sort of corporation run by a particular sort of person living in a particular sort of country.

This is not an uncommon perspective for white progressive-types to take, of course, loath as they are to offer any critique that could possibly smack of bigotry or ethnocentrism. But the uncomfortable fact remains that feminism, of the sort we in the west are most familiar with, is simply not entrenched in Japan the way it is here. Any worthwhile critique of female video game depictions in the 1980s and 1990s would thus have to focus on the extent to which these images arrived in our households through a “perfect storm” of culturally regressive variables, in which the industrialized world’s most dominant creator of video game software was also the nation with some of the most unapologetically un-American views towards what is and isn’t a culturally permissible way to present women.

And for that matter, we should recall that these insensitive depictions didn’t go unnoticed in the States. Far from blindly embracing the oft-offensive female “Damsel in Distress” images Japan offered in their games, the degree to which American business aggressively sought to soften and tame the harsh sexist edges of Japanese video games after import is a fascinating story in its own right, and an absolutely critical component of any larger discussion of gaming from a western, feminist perspective.

At one point, Sarkeesian passively notes that the female “Damsel in Distress” in Double Dragon (a 1987 offering of Tokyo-based Technos Japan) has her panties involuntarily exposed in “several versions” of the game. She neglects to mention that those “several versions” were the Japanese ones — at the time, Nintendo of America had a stated policy banning images “which specifically denigrates members of either sex,” and so Double Dragon‘s damsel, like many other female video game characters of the time, was forced to cover up prior to the game’s U.S. release. Nintendo of America was actually quite the little moralizing busybody in those days, removing strippers, Playboy bunnies, scantily-clad fairies, and even bare-chested Greco-Roman sculptures from all manner of Japanese titles during the 1980s and ’90s, lest any impressionable young Americans be subjected to such crass depictions.

Sarkeesian similarly opts to ignore the heavy-handed American role model-ization of otherwise sexist and forgettable female video game stars that defined the era she purports to document.

She sneers derisively at the fact that Princess Toadstool only appeared as a playable character in Super Mario Bros. 2 “kinda accidentally” because the real Japanese version of SMB2 was considered too difficult for American audiences, necessitating some other game be released stateside. So Americans got a different game with a playable Princess, which was also the last time she appeared in a starring role. The exception that proves the rule, in other words.

And that’s true. No other Mario game was ever again explicitly designed for an American audience. I don’t think anyone who grew up with the American Super Mario Bros. 2 can forget how enormously popular playing as the Princess was — I have fond memories of my father dogmatically insisting there was no better character, thanks to her gimmicky long-jump power — and I think it’s fair to say her inclusion was actually something of a positive watershed moment in the way Americans perceived women in games. Not that a playable female character was anything particularly new for U.S. audiences, of course — America was also the country that created Ms. Pac-Man, lest we forget.

It’s also worth noting that while Princess Toadstool’s Japanese personality — the whiny, weepy, petticoat-wearing airhead depicted in the Mario games — is undeniably cringe-inducing, her American image was always significantly different thanks to a vast American-made canon of Mario Bros. comic strips, coloring books, choose-your-own-adventure novels, television shows, educational software, and even a feature film that collectively broadened her personality well beyond that of a one-dimensional prop. In American media, in fact, the Princess was basically a leading example of one of the great feminist media tropes of the 1990s, the cliched “Wise Woman,” who stands alone as an island of adult sanity amidst a supporting cast of bumbling, infantile men.

American Mario fans who read the Valiant comic book series or watched the Saturday morning cartoon met a Princess who was calm, collected, and sensible, a savvy political ruler of a vast kingdom (the Japanese games never take her role as “princess” this literally) and “definitely no old-fashioned damsel-in-distress,” in the words of the TV show’s writers’ bible. I recently re-watched an episode of The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3 animated series I remember quite liking as a child — the plot featured a workaholic Princess taking a “much-needed vacation” in Hawaii while her kingdom fell into predictable chaos with dopey Mario and Luigi in charge.

Princess Zelda
Princess Zelda as the Japanese knew her (above) versus how Americans did (below).

The same was true of the other damsel singled out by Sarkeesian for particular disdain, Princess Zelda of Legend of Zelda fame. Once again we see a pattern: a sexist and corny Japanese in-game depiction softened by aggressive American attempts to establish the Princess as a competent and self-possessed heroine via an extended universe of comics and cartoons.

Zelda’s American makeover was even more dramatic than Toadstool’s. While the Japanese games depicted Zelda as a stereotypical princess in a flowing pink gown who did little more than sit around waiting to be rescued (in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link she spends literally the entire game under a Sleeping Beauty-style curse), the American comic book and cartoon version of the character was an athletic, aggressive bow-and-arrow slinging warrior-princess with knee-high boots and an all-business attitude. She was, in fact, a vastly more likable personality than the stupid and surly Link, the franchise’s supposed hero, whose pointless California accent and annoying catchphrases grate to this day.

In the case of Sonic the Hedgehog, a series Sarkeesian mentions only briefly, Sega of America’s merchandising department was so desperate for Sonic to have a strong female counterpart they created out of whole cloth: Princess Sally Acorn. The cuddly pink Amy Rose Sarkeesian cites as Sonic’s sexist answer to Toadstool and Zelda, though popular in Japan, was largely unknown to American audiences until quite recently. As was the case with the Zelda and Mario series, American Sonic fans who consumed the larger folkloric canon surrounding their gaming hero were repeatedly reminded that their on-screen male protagonist owed a lot to his “better half.”

Sarkeesian ignores absolutely all this, and instead asks for a feminist evaluation of the cultural impact of ’90s-era video games in a bizarre, vacuumed-sealed context in which countries, culture, politics, economics, and history simply do not exist. Hers is a sophistic argument in which a thoroughly American critique is given to a foreign nation’s cultural products as a way to draw some larger point about female rights in her own country, while simultaneously ignoring the large role progressive-minded American corporations — sensitive to decades of activism from American feminists — played in seeking to curb the very elements of Japanese sexism she finds so problematic.

I understand Sarkeesian’s video series was controversial when first proposed, generating both exaggerated contempt from defensive males unwilling to have their playthings insulted and exaggerated support from righteous feminists convinced that any self-proclaimed feminist critique of anything is always an unquestionable good.

I personally don’t know if we need a feminist critique of Japanese video games released nearly 30 years ago. In her video, Sarkeesian certainly makes no effort to explain why I — or anyone else — should care, since her confused muddling of cultures, ignorance of context, and disinterest in impact results in a “critique” without a clear target or purpose.

Something is not always better than nothing.




^ 103 Comments...

  1. robito

    "Not that a playable female character was anything particularly new for US audiences, of course — America was also the country that created Ms. Pac-Man, lest we forget." SNAP! JJ, this is a fantastic article. I have not seen the offending video, and probably will not watch it. This piece stands on its own. Well done.

  2. Nick Wood

    This makes me desire a better written analysis of women in video games. It's a topic that screams out for a more competent writer to tackle.

  3. Jen

    While your approach is definitely interesting and has value, I'd argue it isn't really a rebuttal. I don't think Anita Sarkeesian's video is at fault by not including a critique of Japanese society/culture. The Tropes Vs Women in Video Games was always about Anita Sarkeesian advocating for change in the way women are portrayed in video games, so a video saying "hey, here's a common problem in the way women are portrayed in video games" and then listing examples pretty neatly fulfills the goals she's set out.

    If you'd like to write or vlog a feminist critique of Japanese video games throughout history in the context of Japan's perception and treatment of women, more power to you! I'll be sure to check it out.

  4. Dan

    "Sarkeesian ignores absolutely all this, and instead asks for a feminist evaluation of the cultural impact of ’90s-era video games in a bizarre, vacuumed-sealed context in which countries, culture, politics, economics, and history simply do not exist."

    Damn, that hits the nail on the head. You could apply that verdict to a good number of Sarkeesian's works; lots of indignation, plenty of victims, no real substance or discussion.

  5. Eddie

    J.J., I have to disagree with you here.

    The cultural context that spawned the Princess Toadstools and Zeldas may be important, but even if their panties got some extra pixels when they came to America, their role as characters with little agency in their respective “worlds” was brought forward entirely intact.

    Your comments about the “American” cartoon versions is interesting, but they aren’t “canon”; Princess Toadstool continues to play the role of the captive princess, and all present (and we can assume, future) appearances with her continue portray a character who is only good at two things: baking and solemnly sitting around waiting to be rescued. What good are the American “versions” if they’re for all purposes, ignored?

    Furthermore, before patting America on the back, the “Damsel in Distress” tropes is not a Japanese phenomenon, nor stuck in the 80s (see numerous examples: http://tropesversuswomen.tumblr.com/). Did you read no stories of knights rescuing princesses when you were growing up? If we wanted to belabor the point further, there are Japanese games from the 80s that manage to portray female characters positively. Metroid – forgetting Other M – is often cited, but we can add games such as Dragon Quest IV, and Legend of the Ghost Lion.

    My point is that “damsels in distress” is not a Japanese phenomenon: it’s simply lazy writing.

  6. Eddie

    (one correction/apology: Dragon Warrior IV was released in 1990, not the 80s.)

  7. MJA

    I'm not sure I buy the basic argument here: even if it were the case that this problem (and you seem prepared to acknowledge that this treatment of women is deeply problematic) were limited to video games emerging from Japan, that phenomenon would still be worthy of critique.

    I'm also not sure I'm persuaded that a refutation of a single example is evidence that the critique writ large is deeply flawed, and–perhaps more importantly–is it not the case that, in this era, the vast majority of video games being played in the West were being designed in Japan?

    I'm reminded of a point someone recently made in a TED talk: whenever someone starts talking about "idealized white beauty", someone else inevitably points out that, well, aren't there black and asian models? (Tyra Banks?) How can we be obsessed with white beauty if people of colour appear on the catwalk?

    And it's a valid point: there are nonwhite models. But statistical analysis of a year's worth of Fashion Weeks (New York, Paris, Milan, Venice, Florence… the works) suggests that the proportion of nonwhite models actually getting hired and working on catwalks is about 4%, leaving the profession 96% white.

    In a similar way, the ability to point out specific instances in which female characters are empowered is fine and well–but if we're finding one or two outliers within a massive tidal wave, especially if (as Sarkeesian does) we can find specific examples within which potentially-strong female characters have been explicitly and deliberately kneecapped in favour of more "accessible" (read: victimized, marginal, unimportant, disempowered) roles, this whole exercise of finding examples just isn't very compelling.

  8. @Cristiona

    It's not that a critique can't be made, it's that making a critique of a historical period using only the mores and sensibilities of the modern era is… well… stupid and lazy. If you're going to criticize games of the 80s and 90s while completely and utterly ignoring all context, you're more interested in beating a drum than doing anything useful. She wasn't interested in criticizing Japanese culture, she just wanted to bitch about 20 and 30 year old games.

    Well, take that, Zelda 2: Adventure of Link! I bite my thumb at thee, Double Dragon!

    What's her next target? Aggressive bravado, irresponsible alcohol consumption, and male infidelity in Beowulf? Perhaps she could put the screws to Antigone; all that whining about being entombed alive.

  9. J.J. McCullough

    Perhaps it is lazy writing, but it's also a style of writing that's vastly, vastly more prevalent in Japan — where it's a symptom of an engrained cultural attitude — than it is in post-1970s America. I'm fully willing to firmly state that I simply don't accept the premise that this is a realm in which American pop culture is "just as bad." I don't think you can look at any popular, post-1970s American-made children's book, comic, movie, or television show and not see at least some attempt — half-hearted or otherwise — to make the female protagonists relatively intelligent, thoughtful, and sophisticated. Even someone like Ariel in the Little Mermaid is an endlessly more respectable feminist heroine than most female J-RPG characters of the same era.

    Also, I don't know how you can say the American "extended universe" fleshing-out of characters like Princess Toadstool was ignored or irrelevant. As a kid who grew up in that era, I completely took it for granted that the characters in the comics and the characters on the video game screen were one and the same. If Princess was passively being kidnapped in the games, well, whatever. I knew she was a strong, independent character outside of them. Using periphery merchandise to deepen a character's image was a deliberate strategy of American video game companies in the 80s and 90s and I think it worked very well.

  10. J.J. McCullough

    I'm glad you mentioned the issue of outliers because I think imported Japanese video games are starkly regressive cultural outliers within a broadly progressive America. Video games are the "black models" here, they're the least representative pop culture product when viewed in the context of what else American children were consuming in the 80s and 90s, as I note in the reply to Eddie above. That's why it's so important to acknowledge their foreignness.

  11. MJA

    Yeah… no.

    Setting aside the sheer ludicrousness of the argument you're setting forth ("Jeez, I don't understand why people feel compelled to stick it to the Nazis. It was bad, it happened, get over it! What do you think you're going to do, really stick it to Goebbels? I bite my thumb at thee, Hermann Göring!"), you're blowing past three important facts:

    1) This is part one of an ongoing series. See, it even says "part one" in the title. The purpose of this exercise is not to excoriate or shame the past, the purpose is to lay down terms and historical precedents in order to make subsequent discussions more coherent and productive. That part one of (what I understand to be) a 23-video series is not in and of itself a full and complete critique is neither surprising nor evidence of incompetence nor evidence of malice nor evidence of misunderstanding.

    2) This is new material. If it were the case that this critique had already been done to death and she was just going through the motions, you might have a smidge of a half of a point: beating a dead horse is a poor basis for a kickstarter campaign. But this critique, in this form, has probably only been explored on the interminable pages of TVTropes, and not to nearly the depth that she's exploring here, nor with an eye towards the audience this project targets.

    3) She isn't criticizing Japanese culture at all, and she shouldn't–for reasons I'll go into in response to JJ's comment below.

  12. Deansdale

    Thank you for proving there are reasonable people out there.
    Also, I think another piece of the context is missing. The target audience, ie. the buyers of those japanese games in the 80's were mostly boys. It is only natural that developers offered games which were designed with those boys in mind. Who would have bought a game in which you play a princess to save a prince??? These games are mostly based on the archetypical dreams and aspirations of young boys – saving the princess, defeating evil (who is always a man(!) of course, if not a monster, and even if it's a monster it's still a male monster), fighting with dragons and other similar stuff. And to be honest, there are not many young boys out there dreaming about their asses being kicked by butthurt grrrl power princesses.

  13. sillypunk

    I think you have broadly missed the point. It doesn't matter which cultural context these games came from but the fact that the were all imported to North American markets and dominated them, setting up the same tropes for the next generation of video games designers – which seems to be the premise of the next video

    It isn't like she just looked ay one or two games – she looked at some of the most influential games there had been at the time.

    Remember – she loves these games too but can see their weaknesses.

  14. MJA

    The top 20 best-selling SNES games of all time are (listed in descending order by units sold):
    - Super Mario World (Produced in Japan)
    - Donkey Kong (Japan)
    - Mario Kart (Japan)
    - Street Fighter II (Japan)
    - Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past (Japan)
    - Donkey Kong II (United Kingdom)
    - Street Fighter II: World Warrior (Japan)
    - Star Fox (Japan)
    - Super Mario II (Japan)
    - Killer Instinct (United Kingdom)
    - Dragon Quest IV (Japan)
    - Donkey Kong III (United Kingdom)
    - Dragon Quest V (Japan)
    - Chrono Trigger (Japan)
    - Final Fantasy VI (Japan)
    - Final Fantasy V (Japan)
    - Super Mario All-Stars (Japan)
    - Pilotwings (Japan)
    - Super Street Fighter II (Japan)
    - Secret of Mana (Japan)

    By my count, that's 17 out of 20 produced in Japan. It should also be noted that there's an appreciable decline in sales as you go down the list: Super Mario sold nearly 5 times more copies than the first non-Japanese game.

    With all of this in mind, it is manifestly unreasonable to expect her to cleave off a criticism of Japanese video-game culture from video-game culture generally. In the period she's examining in this first video (and, again, we're talking the very first, foundational video of a much bigger series), the Japanese and western video-game cultures are indistinguishable.

    I'm happy to entertain your suggestion that she may be failing to account for how women are treated in the expanded universe, but these considerations are irrelevant to a criticism framed specifically around video games and representations of women within this specific medium. (It's also the case that, to my knowledge, not a lot of the games on that 20-game list *had* expanded universes, at least in the west.) She's not critiquing the position of women generally, or the position of women within expanded universes, she's critiquing their portrayals within a specific form of art.

    You might feel that this critique only presents half a picture, but that doesn't make the project unworthy–in fact, trying to discredit the entire exercise on this basis involves asking her to shoulder an impossible burden.

    Because, truthfully, would considering expanded universes be enough? Or would this still only be half a picture, lacking an understanding of important elements like, say, portrayal of women in the "mainstream" [non-video-game-related] media with which these expanded universes are competing for attention? But even this is only half a picture, and it just balloons and balloons and balloons until you're effectively demanding that she critique every portrayal of a female character in every conceivable form of media since forever–an unproductive exercise, and not one she's set out to complete.

    There's virtue in these bite-sized chunks, as incomplete as they may be on their own. It's not incumbent upon every author to attempt a theory of everything, and there's every reason to believe that this approach can have the effect of bootstrapping a broader conversation, insofar as you really can't begin critiquing broad notions like popular portrayal of femininity until you've got this kind of more practical legwork in the proverbial can.

  15. MJA

    "I'm fully willing to firmly state that I simply don't accept the premise that this is a realm in which American pop culture is "just as bad.""

    Nobody's saying it is. Critiquing something does not preclude it from being preferable to alternatives.

  16. Jen

    All due respect, you can say the same thing about most video games being made these days–they're designed with boys/men in mind, and more specifically what the industry believes boys/men will buy. That's kind of the point.

  17. w00062016

    I think my big problem with the video is that it’s an incredibly shallow and meandering analysis of an extremely complex subject. In school they tell you that a persuasive essay consists of a hypothesis followed by examples backing up the hypothesis which is then capped off by a conclusion. Of course this leads many students to write a hypothesis and a conclusion and then fill in between with whatever examples immediately spring to mind until the minimum page count is reached. Throw in a few bits of semi-related trivia and the report is done!
    This video reminds me of those papers, complete with pointless trivia (did we really need the word origins for “damsel” and “distress”?) and useless padding (a surprising number of the video clips were generic game play or retro commercials, unrelated to the thesis). Beyond that the analysis was tea tray shallow (basically “ video games objectify women by treating them like sex objects and trophies”), the examples were near random (from Greek mythology to medieval folklore to silent movies to apes menacing women to Popeye cartoons before finally getting to a small handful of video games) and the conclusion (video games should have more strong females) is so widely agreed upon that only the most abysmally ignorant frat boys could find it enlightening.
    The video is further weakened because the threat to female empowerment from the “damsel in distress” plot device is taken as a given. She discusses no counterarguments, fails to bring up any complexities, makes no attempt to ascertain how common “damsels in distress” are, either in relation to competent female characters or within video games as a whole; and cites no studies on how (or if) video games affect human behavior . Maybe Ms. Sarkeesian is in the right, but when you ask people to join your cause you should at least attempt to establish how big the problem is. Maybe future videos will deal with the broader issues more, but this first one was a major disappointment.

  18. Jen

    Honest question: do you know of any studies regarding video games and their place in American pop culture in the 80s and 90s? Because while many–or most–of the games we played as kids arguably weren't products OF our pop culture, I'd argue they still played a pretty significant part in shaping our pop culture. (Hollywood adaptations of video games, anyone?)

    That said, I've gotta admit I'm kind of side-eyeing your starkly regressive Japan vs broadly progressive America comment. That's a pretty huge generalization to make, and besides, American companies (or American branches of Japanese companies) apparently found a pretty easy foothold in America selling these "starkly regressive" Japanese games, tweaked or not, which I think says just as much about our culture as anybody else's.

  19. Deansdale

    Well, I don't see anything wrong with having a specific target audience. If you want to create something and sell it it to somebody you should be allowed to do exactly that without any gender police forcing you to be 'inclusive'. For example if anybody wants to create games for girls, they can do it, and I doubt Sarkeesian would object to that. It's only wrong if it's for boys, and then again, it's only wrong according to feminists.
    Developers are not idiots, they are in the business for money. They create games for which there are demand. Feminists don't like the fact that boys buy a lot of games and that developers take this into account. This is madness. It's like Sarkeesian finds out that boys like chocolate cakes but girls like strawberry ones so she demands that every chocolate cake should contain strawberry to be 'inclusive'. But not the other way around of course.
    The good solution is: if anybody sees an opening in the gaming market, they should seize the opportunity, ie. start making games for girls. If there really are gamer girls willing to pay the company will be succesful. The bad solution is to take away what boys have and force developers to cater to girls' needs, who will buy their games in much smaller numbers anyways.

  20. Jen

    Deansdale: It's not all or nothing, man! You can make video games that have female characters who are just as interesting and have just as much agency as the male characters without it becoming a "girl" game. (Look at the success of Mass Effect!)

    There's nothing wrong with having a specific target audience, but it's leaving money on the table to not consider broadening the field of view, to not consider that there's a wider audience out there than 10-25 year old boys/men. It's not about taking away games from boys, or making games specifically for girls: it's about making games that both boys and girls (and men and women) can enjoy. Cake buffet.

  21. Deansdale

    Okay, then let it be the problem of developers and software companies. If they leave money on the table it's their business, they don't need feminists to shame them into changing their ways. At the most tell them what you think, what Sarkeesian spectacularly overdid already.

    Also, I'm perfectly fine with balanced and/or grrrl power games. To each her own, or something like that. What I'm not fine with is somebody attacking the other side, ie. Sarkeesian trying to discredit, censor or ban anything that caters to boys. And don't tell me she's not up to that, because that is clearly her aim: to change games so "both boys and girls (and men and women) can enjoy" them, but she plans to do this by removing things boys enjoy and inserting things boys DO NOT enjoy. It will not be 'inclusive', it will not be enjoyed by all, it'll just be grrrl power forced down the throat of boys. And this is because boys and girls are not the same, they enjoy different things. You can not force them to like what they don't.

  22. Jen

    I'm all for Anita Sarkeesian telling the video game industry and the entertainment industry at large what she thinks until she's blue in the face. That's her prerogative. If you want to call that "shaming" I guess that's your baggage. The industry is run by grown people with brains and maybe they'll see valid points in what she's saying, maybe they won't. Obviously I hope they will. I don't think it's too much to ask for something approaching equal and positive representation in the entertainment that plays a huge part in forming our culture.

    I'll say it again–it's not all or nothing.

  23. Guest

    This woman was paid over $150.000 to write these videos. I know, it's quite sad.

  24. Victor

    I just have to bring up that Super Princess Peach also starred Princess Peach. So Super Mario Bros. 2 was not the last time she had a starring role.

    Also, Super Mario Bros. 2 was not designed for American audiences. Nintendo simply reskinned the 4 main characters from Doki Doki Panic. That's why none of the mechanics or enemies are similar to any other Mario game.

  25. Justin Brough

    The points about the way the American branches responded (the comics, fleshing out Peach in the movie, other products, disallowing fan service, etc) are good though. It is definitely the fault of Anita to not provide such context. If the discussion is about the reality (the good and the bad) of the issue, it becomes far more complex and nuanced (and much more useful as a tool to be used in advocating real and effective change). No one is helped and no worthwhile change will happen if we don't actually understand the reality of the issue,but are confused that only one side exists.

  26. guest

    that's not the amount she asked for though. people wanted to support it so she ended up with far more than she had asked for or needed. this is a tired comment.

  27. Eddie

    Right, Super Princess Peach was a real page-turner in female writing. This time, the Princess will rescue Mario!

    Through wild mood swings.

    (How progressive!)

    J.J., I have to agree with MJA on pretty much everything, but to your point about the “expanded universe” of the NA cartoons/comics: those cartoons and comics ran for a relatively short period in the life of Mario games. Now, it’s not uncommon for cross-media products (like Super Mario Bros.) to influence one another. A character gets introduced in one media, and later becomes formally canonized in the other (a great example would be “Harley Quinn”, who originally premiered on the Batman: TAS cartoon).

    What examples from the Mario and Zelda cartoons from North America can you point to as influencing future (Japanese made) Mario and Zelda games?

  28. oooss

    this is article was very well written and thought out. and though it was written as a short rebuttal and without the aid of $150,000 in kickstarter funds, it is by far the more valuable and meaningful analysis when compared to sarkeesian's first entry in her series.

  29. @Kisai

    In the video she focuses on "the core series" basically everything with "Super Mario Bros" in the title. This excludes the RPG's, the Smash Bros and Mario Party games and all the comics, movies and cartoons, despite showing a clip from the hard-to-find anime.

    I found the video to be more of "This needs to change / Please avoid using this trope, here's why." Hopefully in a later piece she covers the more egregious eyecandy-only / pointless-use-of-PhysX-processing and also ventures into games produced on this side of the ocean.

    *hopefully this comment doesn't show 20 times as the login keep looping.

  30. @Kisai

    More like Nintendo recycled the entire game except the original leading characters and put it into the rest of Mario canon. http://www.mariowiki.com/Yume_K%C5%8Dj%C5%8D:_Dok
    The original cast was:
    Imajin (Mario)
    Mama (Luigi)
    Lina (Peach)
    Papa (Toad)

    That's TWO female characters. Both the Hover skill that Peach got in this game and Luigi's higher jumping skill was reused in later Mario games.

  31. James

    Great article, I especially like the references to third-party / "non-canon" stuff.

    I remember infinitely better my days watching the Legend of Zelda / Super Mario Bros. cartoons on Saturday mornings (and then spending years desperately flipping channels trying to find them again) than I do the video games.

    I don't know how appropriate Samus as is an example, as you had to pretty well ace the first game to find out she was a lady (or Justin Bailey), at which point she ran around in a swimsuit or something, which is hardly as liberating as you might think. The newer games as well, I think, are even poorer examples, as for some reason her suit is made more form fitting and more feminine, along with her girlish screams.

    Great post, JJ.

  32. Eddie

    There’s no doubt that Samus’s image was pretty battered by “Other M”, but to your point, part of the reason the reveal was so “progressive” for the era was precisely because it portrayed a woman who could fight an entire planet to achieve her mission, without needing to rely on a man to help her out.

    Again, the point that Sarkeesian was trying to make is that female characters too often lack agency in their actions compared to their male counterparts. Samus was defined first as a bad-ass bounty hunter who was completely in charge _before_ someone else could define her differently (see: Princess Peach and Zelda). That the player’s reward was to see her in a swimsuit doesn’t somehow negate the whole “I just had to kill an entire planet of aliens” that came before it (and the point should never be to shame women for wearing a swimsuit).

  33. hehhhehehe

    Amazing article! It really hits the nail on the head, and actually is articulate (unlike the content it critiques.)

    One tiny criticism: might want to check the definition of "nonplussed." It's often accidentally used to mean "non-pulsed," as if a dead or uninspired reaction, whereas it really means something more like "surprised/bewildered so much that one cannot think or speak properly." You could be meaning the actual definition, but contextually I think you meant the first. Sorry, gotta fix everything on the internet <3

  34. Jeff

    Well written JJ. The fact that most of these games are Japanese import is an interesting point. I would say that her videos are specifically looking at gaming tropes affecting the perception of women in a North American context. Importing titles from a less progressive nation like Japan has its own effects and would be worth exploring. Though its admirable that the US did as much "clean up" as they did. From a woman's perspective there is more that could be done to improve the image of women in pop culture. I don't think you can cite the books and TV shows, her debate is specific to the games, not the surrounding mythology.

  35. Bullseye

    You have to admit, these games are sexist. Men, apes and foxes brutally kidnapping woman. And men, apes and foxes can help them only whit brutality. Thes games are enforcing the stereotype that men (and apey and foxes) are primitive agressive creatures…

    I think the other claims of this lady should be considered with the same indepth analitical debate. Especially with all the current distressed damsels such as fem-Shep, Lara Croft, Bayonetta and all the MMO's gender-customizable protagonists.

  36. guest

    That does not mean she can't be expected to step up the quality of her work given the extra money she received, like a stretch goal that many Kickstarter campaigns utilize.

  37. MJA

    " Who would have bought a game in which you play a princess to save a prince"

    Considering that the vast majority of games made seemed to follow this plotline, we'll never KNOW who might have bought or played other types of entertainment.

    More importantly, you're completely missing the point. The fact that there were good economic reasons for making these games doesn't matter: she's critiquing the EFFECT of these games, at which point their economic basis is irrelevant.

  38. MJA

    You're rejecting her because the first video in a 23-video series isn't a complete critique in and of itself. That's silly.

    As to demanding that she catalogue every game ever made in order to produce statistical analysis of whether or not the trope is used, do more research before you condemn her: http://tropesversuswomen.tumblr.com/

  39. Dono

    Too many people these days seem to be "into video games" not for the sake of playing and having fun but for the sake of being social warriors forcing their desires and their "ideologies" (more like religions).
    When you watch a movie you either like it and watch to the end or don't like it, stop and move onto the next one.
    Same goes with music.
    However i can't get why this doesn't work in the video game industry and all these social warriors are vocally raping my eardrums everywhere i go thinking their ideologies take priority in games over gameplay and the rest.
    I swear that Liberals and these so called "progressives" have become no different than hardcore Christian Conservatives. Both have their own religions, ones just have an ideological religion while the other has simply a religion.
    I swear that there exists a massive Superiority complex radiating from all this political correctness and moralism and it is starting to get on my nerves.

  40. Deeb

    I wouldn't rush to dismiss the alternative media that these characters are featured in as part of this study; note that AS is quick to use a piece of advertising that aligns with her point (and I agree with her – it's a particularly dreadful slogan), whilst having nothing at all to do with the content of the game.

  41. guest

    For less than the amount of money she got from kickstarter, Michael Moore produced a documentary that won him an Emmy. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_%26_Me

    Just sayin'

  42. MJA

    What, and it's *her* fault people backed her project?

  43. MJA

    You know what *isn't* like rape? People saying things you don't like to hear.

  44. Deansdale

    Considering that even now – 3 decades later – men play more games we actually know quite well. Of course it is not PC to admit it, now that we live in make-believe-land. We have to pretend that men and women are the same and so we have to entertain the thought of women spending as much or more than men on fictional japanese video games 30 years ago.

    The effect is only half of it. The other half is the cause. And it is quite obvious that Sarkeesian wants to blame sexism. This is the reason for this whole tropes vs fiasco, isn't it? To blame the patriarkee for its evil sexism. And this is where my point comes in, sheding some light on the real reason not being misogyny or other such nonsense, but 1. boys having normal and healthy "boyish" dreams and aspirations, 2. a basic recognition of supply and demand.

    Also, if the aim was to critique the effect, I have to agree with others here stating that Sarkeesian's video was shallow and did not present any in-depth studies or real proof on video games having any effect on people whatsoever. All she has is unproven feminist assumptions and non sequitors.

  45. TJ

    Yeah because, unlike rape, if you don’t like it, you could just stop and move on.. oh wait.

  46. J.J. McCullough

    I don't know if you can, but that's not really my point. My point was that the sexist images the Japanese were trying to import into America during the 80s and 90s were often deliberately tamed or softened or countered by American localizers prior to their release. Has Japan gotten less sexist? Have American localizers kept up their efforts? I don't know, but that's a debate about another era.

  47. J.J. McCullough

    Thanks for this vivid description, w00062016. I think you very deftly captured my other big problem with the video, which was its obvious padding with pseudo-academic filler. My intent was to offer a mostly cultural, American-centric analysis, but there are some other good rebuttals out there discussing Sarkeensian's bias towards the superficial and tendency to use a parade of context-free "examples" rather than actual insight.

    For example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p6gLmcS3-NI&fe… and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cj29-hepBiA

  48. ASM

    Are you seriously implying that sexism in videogames is a new and novel discussion? My Lord, you're nearly as insulated as Anita. And if you believe these videos are doing anything outside of a relatively small viewer base to open the eyes of the wider masses, you're just as wrong.

    Tropes, cliches and stereotypes have been well-known and documented in criticism circles for decades now. That the WWW offers that information to even the lowest common denominator pseudo-academic is a grand step forward. If you were to ask any 20-year-old in the United States what a damsel in distress is, and what some examples are, they would offer them up instantaneously. This is not privileged, arcane knowledge. This is not even an analysis- it is simply "Look, there's these games and they do this thing that is bad."

    That's not useful. If academia is the, say, New York Times, then this video is TMZ level stuff. I hope she expands to ask actually pertinent questions and discuss real themes. But I have no reason to believe she will from her previous, equally shallow work.

  49. RJN

    What a shame that such a broader conversation is stifled within her own videos because she's afraid of mean people on the internet saying mean things and "ruining the debate." Newsflash of the century here, but if you intend to modify a culture which does not engage in the wider media culture, you need to have that debate in their court. And that means dealing with assholes.

  50. MJA

    If it were the case that the impact of these games were limited to the games themselves, yes: you could just move on. Sarkeesian is going to argue that the impact of these games extends far beyond the Quit button.

  51. Psudo

    Here's a better argument re:feminism and video games. And it's a video! http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/the-b

  52. Nope12

    Have you even looked at her other videos?

    If she say that main character in True Grit, Mattie Ross, is 'too manly', what makes you think that she's not going to say the same of Samus?

    <iframe width="560" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/MbiP3wxImAY&quot; frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>

  53. Dono

    You know what *is* rape and sexism? The stuff that happens in the Middle East and Africa.
    You know what *isn't* sexism? Spoiled 1st world "feminists" living off welfare money like queens and living such nice and privileged lives that their life problems are reduced to crying sexism about irrelevant and insignificant stuff like for instance the imaginary and digital worlds.
    Do you know what is *hilarious*? When the same 3rd wave feminists go to a University with bellow average SAT scores where you only needed a 450 each on the 2 sections to get into Anita's undergrad and then make videos full of logical fallacies and contradictions that copied everything from http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/HomePa… and which don't elaborate on anything, for all that money they garnered.
    Do you know what's sad here? That proper feminists doing some good in the world get bad rep from people like Anita and that women with actual issues in this world laugh at the things online game feminists throw the word "sexism" at.
    Do you know what's frightening? The word sexism being reduced to a buzzword.

    Do you know what's intelligence insulting? When Anita makes up an array of videos
    Damsel in Distress – Video #1
    The Fighting F#@k Toy – Video #2
    The Sexy Sidekick – Video #3
    The Sexy Villainess – Video #4
    Background Decoration – Video #5
    Voodoo Priestess/Tribal Sorceress – Video #6
    Women as Reward – Video #7
    Mrs. Male Character – Video #8
    Unattractive Equals Evil – Video #9
    Man with Boobs – Video #10
    Positive Female Characters! – Video #11
    Top 10 Most Common Defenses of Sexism in Games – Video #12

    where contradicting trope videos are categorized far apart from each other so she can evade being too obvious in her inevitable contradictions depending on the short memory span of the viewers.
    The bigger hilarity will be when she describes a positive female character and it inevitably takes up traits from at least one trope listed above that she argued against.
    But that won't happen because her "positive female" video will be vague so as to evade this.

    Do you know what's sad? That she is lining up video games and characters and then calling sexim and "competition among patriarchy where the female character is the ball" on them without even elaborating on the true relationships between characters or the meaning of the female character in relation to the world existence and safety.
    So she relies on the ignorance and uneducated brains of many who haven't even played these games or forgot them completely to "appear" right or spot on.

    Do you know what else is hilarious? The irrelevant and even false use of French in an effort to appear educated and cultured which doesn't have anything in reality to do with the topic at hand and it certainly doesn't enforce arguments.

    Do you know what's the highest level of comedy? When Anita claims that females being weaker than males is a "myth" and when she poses that as a "fact" when in fact she didn't elaborate on the statement of whether she meant "physically weak" in which case it is a biological fact that males are stronger or "mentally weak" in which case she is completely correct.
    The problem being that the "mentally weak" part being incorrect is actually supported by the characters she portrayed in the video such as Zelda for instance in which case she has said nothing really.

    But what's the saddest of all is that somebody thinks that they can order how Developers should make their own games or that someone think Developers should be making games not for entertainment but as political extensions of ideological jerking.
    The saddest part is when you imply, like Anita does, that gamers by majority aren't capable of discerning the real world from the digital world and that they can't think for themselves.
    This is the most pretentious and saddest sin of all.
    The idea that if i like the sexualizing in games or whatever, that i must suddenly be some woman hater who is prone to rape and beat up women the first moment i step outside my house and isn't capable of treating females as individuals first before their gender in real life.

    Oh please. Fifty Shades of Grey. Over 60 million books sold.
    That is all i have to say in retort to everything.
    Sex positive feminists are bros and rational at least, sex negatives like Anita are just an added fuel as to why western countries will go extinct from negative birth rates.

  54. TJ.

    NoScript was messing with the reply feature. The comment was intended to suggest that maybe Dono could follow his own advise. But he seems very upset now about this harmless discussion so maybe not.

    Sorry for the confusion.

  55. Dono

    Right TJ, i should follow my own advice and turn into a submissive omega male and give leave to a woman insulting the intelligence of a whole industry and making generalizing implications that border on personal attacks en masse.

    Here is how my own advice works: Feminists and females make their own developer firms and games.
    If i don't like them, i won't play them and move on. I won't criticize them, i will simply move on.
    Here is how my own advice doesn't work: Feminists like Anita get money to "point out" things, half of the time being contradictory and fallacious and expect the existing industry that i love to change itself to serve their bidding,
    instead of pooling up the 150k to make a video game which would incorporate well written female characters and sent the message and point across in a creative and functional way through the medium she is trying to criticize.
    And i have to "follow my own advice" and be quite and submissive.
    I think not TJ, i think not.
    If "harmless" discussions means everyone posting by the rules of your own desires and conforming to your views of how discussions should be then this little part of human nature called individualism would like a word with you.

  56. J.J. McCullough

    That was definitely a much more coherent argument, but again, there's an enormous cultural dimension that's being ignored. When the vast majority of your examples come from a culture that's notably behind our own in almost every measurable indicator of female equality I think it's wrong to frame this as a "video game problem" as opposed to a "Japanese problem."

  57. Ben

    I disagree. Context is very important in these instances and Anita's failure to recognize the context severely damages her arguments to those who are learned.

    Many Japanese developers are internally minded, and still are, when developing a game. Being so internally focused leads to many problems throughout a localization cycle. Take a look at 'Streets of Rage 3' otherwise known as 'Bare Knuckle 3' in Japan, the game saw many localization changes to better accommodate a North American audience. Gone were the panty shots of Blaze Fielding, completely removed was the flamboyantly homosexual character Ash, all this to better accommodate North American audiences.

    Flash forward to now. Japanese developers still create intrinsically sexual characters with little redeeming qualities, like those in Tekken and Street Fighter because the entire socio-political climate is different there. Do these games specifically create harm? That's an entirely different discussion. Let's look at North American developers, who walk a very tight rope in terms of how they try to placate the many groups of people out there. Bioware created many successful RPGs who include well defined female protagonists like Commander Shepard from Mass Effect, but also Revan (who is canonically female) from Knights of the Old Republic. Dragon Age also has it's share of strong female characters.

    North American developers have made leaps and bounds dealing with femininity in video games, but also have a very difficult road to tread with understanding their core and tertiary user bases, they are not always successful, but they try and no one ever gives them any praise for this (Bayonetta excluded, I still don't see why she is a likable protagonist tbh).

    The industry is a vastly different beast than it was when I was a fledgling gamer and I still expect to see many strides taken in the future, Anita would know this if she were a gamer, sadly she is just in it for the pay check.

  58. TJ.

    Is this an argument for censorship of criticism? Sorry I am not a native English speaker so I might have misunderstood.

    So if I understand correctly, if this series was instead a game which promotes the same contradictions and fallacies, you would not criticize them and simply move on? I think no, right? Then it is just a subjective matter what people react to and complain/criticize about in different forms of media. So you can't just expect people to silently absorb content in games and move on if they don't like it.

    But I am pretty sure that if Anita had not gotten ammunition to play the victim card so to speak, she would not have gotten the exposure and the amount of money she got. So simply ignoring her wouldn't exactly be a submissive omega thing to do.

    However, instead of the 6000$ or something she asked for, she got a lot of money and now people are upset. It seems like they do not understand the nature of Kickstarter. Anita has no obligation to do anything else than what was stated in her initial pitch and stretch goals. It's a gamble, a pledge of trust. Quality not up par of what was expected? tough fucking luck.

    Now they complain that she shouldn't have gotten so much money, she is not qualified, they make fun of her degree etc.. I can only write that down to jealousy. Because why the fuck care about where gullible people decide to spend their money. Blaming Anita for getting money she wasn't asking for is unjust and pointless.

    I call it harmless, because believing that a youtube series will have a big impact on the game industry is laughable. And what are you afraid that will happen anyway? The end of male gaming?
    What I got out of the video was that Damsel in Distress is a form of lazy writing and mainly games that have no plot or character development use it. So maybe there might be a bit more cool girl characters in games? Is that bad?

    So maybe we shouldn't care so much.

    However, I have learned more about actual feminism from J.J.'s article and comments from MJA and you and elsewhere than the actual video. That's whats interesting. Because anytime there is something that is flawed, you can make damn sure that someone will point it out, and that why I don't worry.

  59. Guest

    Not him, but also the reason she claimed for the six month delay was because she was "bumping up the quality of the videos to reflect the amount she received". Neither the production nor the writing quality went up as claimed, so the initial amount isn't really a proper excuse.

  60. @Cristiona

    Right to the Nazis. Wow. Not only is comparing damsels in distress with Nazis grossly inappropriate, you completely and utterly missed my point. Here's a hint: genocide being wrong isn't an artifact of the 2000s. "Slaughtering a bunch of people because of their ancestry" isn't a uniquely modern sensibility, so applying "don't slaughter millions" to a WWII era government is perfectly acceptable.

  61. @Cristiona

    Um… is Mass Effect really a shining example? Didn't they pretty much write the game for a male and then reskin to bolt on female playthrough?

  62. @Cristiona

    You're right; the money doesn't matter. But people had higher expectations to go along with the higher budget. If you went to a fancy restaurant and spent $100 on dinner, you'd expect more than pork-n-beans.

    But, sure. She's not in violation of her Kickstarter agreement nor is she required to do anything beyond what she explicitly promised. And no, there's no guarantees of quality. But that's a pretty weak excuse, and a flimsy shield to use against criticism.

    Alothough, I guess it's pretty ironic that she attacks the tropes for being lazy while being lazy herself. Perhaps it's a meta work.

  63. Amfortas

    Kinda interesting that someone who lived a year in Japan manages to completely misread the culture. I guess that's what happens when you try to learn about the culture through clip art. Really reeks of white ethnocentrism.

  64. @AshburnerX

    Revan's canonically male. The Exile was female. This is confirmed in The Old Republic. Your point still stands however.

  65. Jake_Was_Here

    Kinda interesting that someone would tell us that J.J. managed to "completely misread the culture" without bothering to inform us in what ways he supposedly got everything wrong. Really reeks of progressive sanctimony.

  66. cypherhalo

    As a Christian, I definitely have to agree with you. Many liberals do seem to have their own religion and I don't see why they feel the need to impose it on others. I like to enjoy my video games without the healthy helping of political correctness. If you don't like something, don't buy it. No one is forcing it on you.

  67. J.J. McCullough

    Which one of the statistics I cited showing the below-average status of women in Japanese society was wrong?

  68. J.J. McCullough

    Those are the titles for the upcoming episodes? That doesn't give me much hope for the future of this series. Sounds like we're in for more videos like the first one, which is to say long strings of examples without any effort to provide context.

    Video number two sounds like its going to be about fighting games, which would be an excellent time to raise the Japanese component of the sexist depiction problem, considering that this is a genre Japan almost completely dominates. But I suspect it won't.

  69. TJ.

    Isn't it more like going to burger joint and buy a burger for 5$. While there 19 other people also want that burger and add 5$ each. So when you finally get your burger you are upset that you didn't get a fancy 100$ restaurant dinner… Nope that analogy doesn't work either, as you are not actually buying something. You are not even investing really as a 5$ pledge is equal to a 100$ pledge in terms of quality returned. (except some reward tier fluff)

    Otherwise, I agree with you. It should not make it immune to criticism like this article. But stating that it should not be made or that people should just be silent when one could simply not listen is what I object to.

  70. StormI

    Well firstly just shouting off number Your still just a white person talking about people at the end of the day . Where are the people from Japan discussing anything ? Why don't you get a Japanese woman here to speak and less about your high minded opinion . Less I need to hear of a self-righteous white American talking about the vast superiority of themselves and other egocentric ism . Talking to woman from japan the problem is far more complex , For one thing Working in Japanese capitalism isn't seen as some Western sense of liberation ,but a akin to forced servitude ,Not some individual liberation that frees you by working for company , it The job you for society a Salary man job is an awful one .There no sense "I am individual I am proud and liberate That middle class white American praise. One of the reason for lack of participation in the work force in japan is essentially it is forced servitude , in Japan the wife controls the house and the husband give her his paycheck this is consider harmonious by there cultural standard . Many Japanese woman don't want to work in the extreme conditions of Japanese work. Nor do they view it as liberation . Hell the men don't even feel it liberation that whole concept is Alien to Japanese society individual liberation through work . But let me guess your Whiteness let you speak for the world ? Hard to take any of this serious when it just another middle White Western talking about how they right and know the world.

  71. @neoookami

    It's interesting that you primarily criticize her for working in a cultural vacuum, and then spend the bulk of your rebuttal talking about the American portrayals. I realize that it's largely to show the dichotomy but it still seems somewhat ironic doesn't it?

    You're not really off mark either, cultural context is very much important in understanding the whys of things. I remember being horrified when I learned that in Japan it wasn't uncommon for games (in particular ones aimed at girls like the Sailor Moon games,) to have two difficulty modes. Boy, and girl. You can guess which one's easier.

    However to be fair to Anita, she's not really focusing on the why, but what is. The American portral of these characters is rather limited when it comes to the video games, which is what most people are going to be exposed to, and outside of major franchises there aren't quite that many short lived cartoons. (What I would do for more of the Saturday morning Sonic cartoon..) The bulk of the exposure is all through games, and Anita is explicitly looking at how video games have portrayed women. Not satellite media (often loosely) tied to these video games. You can definitely walk away with the idea that "Yes, Japan is pretty sexist." (It is.) But that doesn't discount the point she's trying to make either.

    In fact I'm not gonna be surprised that as we go on in the series, the bulk of the more positive portrayals of female characters in video games is going to come out of Western developers.

    Now all of that aside, it would certainly be nice if she touches on all of this, the cultural factors that is. But they don't really negate her points, merely explain what influenced their creation in the first place.

  72. J.J. McCullough

    Fair points, but I guess at the end of the day I just dislike the premise that all video games deserve to be lumped into one giant category and analyzed collectively. I can't think of any other cultural product that would be generalized this way; when we talk about movies, TV shows, books, artwork, etc, it's always considered very important — first sentence important — to establish some context of where the thing came from and thus what culture produced it.

    Likewise, if Anita's gonna be condemning some games for containing bad messages and praising some for promoting good ones, I think it behoves her to explicitly acknowledge the cultural roots of that good/badness, particularly if, as I'm arguing, the presence of gross sexism in gaming is largely a "Japanese problem," rather than a "gaming problem."

  73. pitchguest

    USA! USA! USA!

    Oh, sorry, wasn't that the tone of the article? My bad. Anyway. You seem to pound your chest a bit too proudly about the "American" take on the characters. But as far as I'm concerned, that's just one take. The Nintendo characters are but one spectrum of a larger square and if your focus on the apparent sexism in them because they originate in Japan, then you betray your own scepticism. The presence of sexism in gaming is hardly a "Japanese problem" at all, nor is it a "gaming problem" – it's an individual problem. It's a developer problem.

    Sure, there are cultural differences to consider. But you're only going to get a skewed image if you don't look at the bigger picture. For example, look at some American cartoons and then look at some Japanese anime. The Japanese artists obviously think their audience are more mature, able to accept more mature themes in their equivalent "cartoons", while the American artists do not. Usually. There are exceptions to each and every medium and the anime/cartoon market is no different. Now if we're to consider the gaming community, then I have to say they're equally skewed. For instance, Anita Sarkeesian mentioned Bayonetta as a damning example but removed it once she found out how terrible her analysis of the game had been. She had clearly not played it, nor did she intend to by her tone. But Bayonetta is one of those games (developed by Japanese) where if you just look at it, you might think it'll just bank on the sex appeal. But it doesn't. Not to spoil anything, but it definitely doesn't. It certainly wasn't a "Japanese problem" as you profess here.

    I also wouldn't go so far as to say "Damsel in Distress" is an example of lazy writing as one commenter pointed out. It's a story device. If you happen to have a female character that has always been able to take care of herself, assertive and confident, but should happen to be taken captive and need to be saved for one reason or another, then I wouldn't say that's sexist. The story device has befallen many male characters as well over the years, since the time of Homeros, and it's just a way to change gears. If you remove a story device in a book, film, game or a painting, just because it could be perceived as "sexist", then in my opinion you're not cut out for that kind of industry.

    In conclusion: there are some developers who tend to stick with what they think will sell games, like focusing on the sex appeal of characters or use overly clichéd themes like the damsel in distress. That's a problem. When you just keep using the same theme over and over, then that I believe to be lazy writing. One of my favourite writers in gaming, Amy Hennig, always changes it up and that's what I love about her writing. Which is why the Legacy of Kain and in particular the Uncharted series became so adored. But in my opinion it's a problem with developers and not to do with cultural differences or biases at all; individual and not systemic. It's up to each developer to make their own game, with their own story, and let the coin land where it lands.

  74. Eddie

    I think there are too many examples of lazy female character writing in American games to be satisfied with a “well it’s just because Japan”. That itself seems like a very reductionist argument to a very complex problem.

    If anything, I think it’s important to make the distinction between the “obvious stuff” (i.e. covering up enemy sprites in Final Fantasy games to show less skin), and the stuff that is often overlooked precisely because it’s such a common trope (like issues of female agency in video games).

    As to the point that it’s strange to try and analyze the medium as a whole (when books, movies, etc. wouldn’t warrant such an analysis), I think there are few things that really separate video games from other media that allow this sort of analysis. For one, the medium is quite “young” comparatively, which – coupled with the relatively small number of games that are released each year compared to books, movies, etc. – means that it’s a lot easier to examine the work as a whole. The rise of the internet shortly after the explosion in video games (history wise) also means that compared to other media, I think it’s simply been better chronicled (including discussion and dissection) as a whole. Where it would be an IMMENSE task to look at the entire medium of movies under a feminist lens, it’s merely a “really big” task.

    One last thing to the people on here who are complaining about “the games she hates sell so tough cookies”: I assure you that Anita’s critique is not going to change video games. At best, perhaps it gets a small number of independent developers thinking more about the way they treat female characters, and I can’t help but see that being a bad thing (as it leads to stronger writing overall).

    But let me assure you that there will be video games featuring manly men rescuing helpless women for many many more years to come, precisely because people (like some of the commenters here) will pay for it.

  75. Eddie

    “I also wouldn’t go so far as to say “Damsel in Distress” is an example of lazy writing as one commenter pointed out. It’s a story device.”

    That was me, so let me expand a bit.

    There’s nothing wrong with writing a female character who is good at cooking and cleaning. Many women are very good at cooking and cleaning, and shaming a female character for being a whiz in the kitchen is, well, stupid. The problem is when the writer uses those traits – so closely associated with femininity, for good or for ill – as stand-ins for characterization. THAT’S the lazy writing.

    The problem that Anita identifies with the “Damsels in Distress” trope is not with the story device, but rather, how the story device ends up defining the characters.

    If I might borrow a bit from Harry Potter franchise (simply because many have read it), there is a scene in one of the books where the lead female – Hermione – is captured by the bad guys.

    The reductionist way of looking at this and saying “AH HA! Damsel in distress! Harry Potter is no better than Super Mario Bros!”

    Such an analysis ignores that before Hermione became “in distress”, there were several books of her being a well-rounded and competent character. Her being captured didn’t define her as being a “damsel in distress”. Same “story device”, but completely different context.

    J.J. has an interesting point that “hey, characters like Princess Toadstool and Zelda were treated with much more respect in America”. I think in a vacuum, one could certainly craft a narrative that there is more to Peach than her ability to bake cakes and wait patiently to be rescued. But two decades and numerous Mario games later, Princess Toadstool is still little more than a piece of lazy writing, an object for Mario to rescue.

  76. MJA

    "Those are the titles for the upcoming episodes? That doesn't give me much hope for the future of this series."

    Or, in other words, "Filibuster Cartoons"? What is this crap? Who would waste their time on cartooning about arcane political gamesmanship? (And can you imagine the losers who might READ something like that? UGH!)

  77. bigbuffguy95

    Exactly. I wish I could have given that multiple down votes. Anyone who goes to the Nazis to back up their lame arguments (I wasn't aware that 80s platformers featuring Damsels in Distress is akin to genocide) has almost automatically lost the debate.

  78. bigbuffguy95

    Agreed. I like your point about how the video resembles high school persuasive essays. The thing is, when we go to college (or maybe in high school if we had a good teacher–I can't remember from my own experience), we learn that an essential part of persuasive writing is acknowledging the other sides' counterarguments and preemptively rebutting them. If it's a particularly strong point, we have to acknowledge that, even if we think our argument is better on balance. That's the difference between a high school essay and a college (let alone a professional) one. Just ignoring the other side's best arguments is a sign of a writer who is lazy, intellectually dishonest or both. Unfortunately, that's exactly what Sarkeesian has done here.

    And I don't want to hear about how this is just the first video in the series. So what? It wouldn't have killed her to acknowledge that there were strong female characters even as far back as the era that the video covers. When discussing a future video about trope-defying female characters, she shows a picture of Governor Marley from the Monkey Island series. The picture is from one of the newer games, but she's not a 21st-century invention. She's been around since the very first game in 1990, and she's been strong the whole time. If she wants her videos to be taken seriously by people who aren't her boosters, she needs to discuss the issue in a nuanced and fair way. She didn't.

  79. J.J. McCullough

    Calm down. What I said is that there's little to suggest upcoming episodes will offer more than laundry lists of examples, a la video number one. There's no episodes with titles like "the economic motives of sexism in games" or "the cultural roots of sexism in games" or hell, even something as broad as "why are games sexist." I forsee exclusive argument-by-example. And, if this first video has proven nothing else, it's that you don't get a very deep thesis from that.

    But yes, of course I will actually watch them and ultimately form my opinions based on that.

  80. Aiddon

    ethnocentrism is one thing I always worried about with this series. The fact of the matter is that the grand majority of games in the 80s and 90s were produced by Asian companies and while that ratio has become more even in recent years, Japanese culture still influenced a LOT of stuff in gaming. For Anita not to at least acknowledge that she's looking at stuff from a Western point of view looking at a different culture is highly misleading.

  81. @xombiehamster

    Considering that the video is part 1 of many, yes, there will be more talk of eyecandy only games, and games produced in the US.

  82. MelChan

    It would be beyond Sarkeesian's ability to look at 80s and 90s video games from a cultural standpoint as you've outlined here. Looking beyond the vitriolic comments that spout from the fingertips of some seriously socially repressed individuals, there have been serious and carefully thought out criticisms of her research (or complete lack thereof) and her credibility as the "face of a cause," considering that for someone who hates the "damsel-in-distress" trope, she tends to wrap herself up in it quite a lot. Let me be clear: I agree that there are many games in which female characters are not properly developed and hyper-sexualized, all to suit the male gaze. I agree that there should be some educated discussions about this trend, in order to facilitate progressive change. However, Sarkeesian is not interested in having a discussion or a debate. She has arrived at her own conclusions, and they are the only conclusions that matter to her. Much like a 7 year old who decides they want ice cream for dinner and will hold their breath until they get it.

    I'm one of many female commentators who have had such constructive criticisms deleted from her videos in a blanket purge that highlighted the fact that she does little to no research for any of her videos, which was evident in her "Bayonetta" upload. She ended up removing this video because it was pointed out by viewers that she had no idea what she was talking about, and in truth it was obvious that she had not even played the game. This is the problem with radicalism and, more importantly, her brand of feminism. I'm talking about that anti-sex, anti-sensuality feminism that in the end really ends up being MORE anti-woman than the original subject could ever hope to be, because it finds something negative in any and everything it looks at. Again, BAYONETTA. Secondly, strong female characters in Sarkeesian's world would probably wear a nun's habit, sneakers and gloves. Heaven forbid a female character even appear to be somewhat feminine; the character may be incredibly intelligent and have abilities equal to/superior than the male characters, but this is all negated (according to Sarkeesian) by the fact that said character may wear high heels and tight pants/suits, i.e., Miranda Lawson from Mass Effect 2/3. Her Facebook posts on early gameplay videos and screenshots for the new Tomb Raider made mention of the fact that Lara sounded and looked like some wimpy girl who threatened to fall into the D-in-D trope, completely ignoring the fact that that game is basically an origins game and that Lara Croft has never needed rescuing. All these little snippets mysteriously disappeared once it was revealed that Rhianna Pratchett, a woman, was the primary writer for Croft & Co this time around.

    Is that the message she wants to send then? That a strong and intelligent female lead, who also happens to be good-looking, is only acceptable if a female writes/designs the character? Right. Then how can we expect her to look at anything objectively, and from all angles, such as cultural and historical backgrounds? Sorry for the long post, but the number of debates I've had with people, both gamers and non-gamers alike, about this topic and this woman has hit an all-time high, and I think in the end, she does more harm than good. There can be no real progress without actual constructive debate, and that means discussion with more than just her rabid fans.

  83. Hentgen

    The thing that you're missing here is that people American audiences were consuming large numbers of Japanese games was because they were industry leaders. They produced the most cost-effective and high tech gaming consoles and the most technically-challenging/fun games.

    Super Mario World was popular because it was a meticulously-crafted, amazingly fun game. No one ever played the game for its story. This is true for most 8-bit and 16-bit games, particularly Mario and Zelda games.

    The latent sexism of Japanese-originated games was, as JJ notes, somewhat dampened in the localization process and it was largely something a player doesn't really notice or puts up with because the reason to play is the gameplay, not the story.

    That's ultimately why you can't use these games to judge North American cultural norms: they weren't, strictly speaking, designed with North American audiences in mind. That the west was completely behind Japan in this sector and it took almost a full decade to catch up. There wasn't a commercially successful American-made console on the market until the Xbox. The market for interesting, fun, challenging games was in the west, there just wasn't the know-how to fill the need exactly.

  84. Hentgen

    Hollywood adaptations of video games, particularly Japanese games, have taken great liberties with the source material to synchronize them with North American cultural norms. The Super Mario Bros. movie features a strong Princess Toadstool. The Legend of Zelda cartoons feature a confident, competent princess and make Link an idiot.

    " I've gotta admit I'm kind of side-eyeing your starkly regressive Japan vs broadly progressive America comment."
    First of all, JJ obviously means "comparatively," and again he's comparing North American cultural norms with Japan, which he says in his posts are shockingly regressive.

    Secondly, I have this feeling that you don't really remember late 80s/early 90s cartoons/movies for kids. They were almost obnoxious in their attempts to check off all of the gender/race/disability boxes, in order to present themselves a "modern portrayal" of real life. These days, the media is a lot more adept at portraying these things without making it feel tacked on or heavy-handed.

    Finally, the reason Japanese games found a market in the west was because they were the best games out there. Back then, story was mostly a secondary issue, often only explained in the game manual and not the game itself. They may not have been perfect for an American audience, but the west couldn't produce such high-quality gameplay for competitive prices.

    Basically, Japanese games sold in America because they were the only ones out there, not because American audiences preferred them to games with more culturally-sensitive premises.

  85. Hentgen

    Recent market research shows that 42% of gamers are women.
    SOURCE: http://www.g4tv.com/thefeed/blog/post/713502/esas

    In fact, there has been a massive push by developers to cater to this growing market. It is done through the push for casual games, which seem to have more appeal to female demographics.

  86. Hentgen

    And what American alternatives were being shunned in favour of Japanese games? That's the point of *context.*

  87. Bilabus

    This was a fantastic point, and one that I wish was introduced more often when people argue the merit of Sarkeesian's work. The way she presents her examples implies that video games are spontaneously generated from American culture, therefore analyzing specific examples is looking into our own psychology. I'm very grateful you pointed out that nearly all of her examples are borrowed from a completely different culture.

  88. Mythodea

    You handpicked an outdated Japanese console, that had mainly Japanese companies designing games for that system.

    The two most selling PC games are: The Sims and The Sims 2. Can you tell how the damsel in distress stereotype shows up in those two games? Or how the treatment of male and female characters in The Sims and The Sims 2 is unequal?

  89. Ursus

    It's her fault that she wasn't able to produce anything worthwhile with the money.

    The main reason for the importance of this criticism is that nobody will be so ignorant that they will fund any of her further projects.

  90. Ranillon

    That's just it — her superficial approach to the topic, how she seems to be oblivious to much of its cultural history, and how many (if not all) of the examples of game play she shows are from trailers and other easily obtained sources (as opposed to the sort of material you could only get by going through the entire game) suggests that ultimately Anita DOESN'T "love these games," but sees them merely as a means to an end.

    Honestly, when she shows off her pile of computer/console games I had to wonder if she had only bought them for display purposes or even just borrowed them from friends for her video! She'd have to be a dedicated, even fanatical game player to have thoroughly gone through so many games, but does anyone actually believe that she is such a gamer?

  91. Jess

    Having visited Japan only a month ago, I cannot deny that you are right about the culture difference regarding women's roles. And I certainly agree that a great many games are made in Japan – particularly games that are popular with kids and casual gamers in North America (Mario, Donkey Kong, Sonic, Pokemon, etc).

    Here's the thing – just because it conforms to another culture's standards, does it make sense to ignore it as a problem? Remember that these games are being played in North America (and often by young kids). If these games show a regressive pattern about female roles, they can influence the way players think and slowly serve to change their values, and probably not for the better. I'm glad to hear that to some extent, the American side of Nintendo have made changes to their games to improve the portrayal of women for western audiences. That being said, it doesn't change the fact that there's still way too many damsels in distress in need of rescuing.

    I think Anita isn't wrong to point this out and ask for some better female characters in games. It would be great if Nintendo and other Japanese companies would go the extra mile to develop games that do this for the north american markets. I'd also like to point out that in Anita's part 3, there are non-Japanese examples of the video game damsel in distress as well (gears of War, Dante's Inferno, Max Payne, etc), so it's safe to say that Japanese culture aside, there really is a Damsel in Distress problem with video games.

    So the problem isn't the Japanese culture – it's that far too many games available in North America today (Japanese or not) are relying too heavily on the Damsel in Distress as a plot device and are lacking examples of capable female characters.

  92. Alan K

    Great ! Another advocate of self-censorship ! You game designers out there, if she succeeds should all probably get Anita's (and people like her) approval before even think about sharing your ideas with a publisher… I can imagine a new role in every publisher company, a professional censorship role…

  93. mike

    Thanks for clarifying.

    There are a lot of cultures that, to USA eyes, appear to oppress women, but in fact, give women the distinct "privilege" of having none of the burdens placed on men. And the alleged "freedom" of men, is freedom to toil away endlessly and thanklessly, because they bear the burden of providing for their family, and would face shame if they shirked their duties.

    Still, I don't think it negates the central argument that Japan, especially 30 years ago had a VERY different male-female dynamic than the US at the time (for better or worse), and the media is reflective of that.

  94. Ryan

    Actually this is a terrible argument that actually supports the video rather than rebuttals it. By giving examples of Japanese still very sexist culture all he did was show why we should demand a change in the media's portrail of women. Besides Anita was talking about video games and only video games. She was not going to dive into the history of Japanese sexism because that was not what this video was about. Besides just because it is from Japan does not make it any less sexist. Finally she does bring up Ms.Packman in a later video and why she is just Packman with a bow. So go and watch her videos and then decide your opinion.

  95. Ryan Dooley

    Why does it matter what culture a video game comes from? Sexist is sexist. Honestly I am starting to believe that this whole "rebuttal" (which by the way it is not because it ends up supporting her argument due to you exposing Japanese sexism) is just an excuse to attack a feminist for bring up an actual problem in media.

  96. Ryan

    Her videos are meant to show people sexism in video games not Japan. Yes she could have gone into the culture of Japan but that was not what her videos where about, that is a discussion for another time place. And in all her video she brings up real issues for women, such as her video about violence towards women which connects real life violence and violence in video games directed at women.

  97. Ryan

    One she is talking about video games and sexism. Not Japan and sexism or America and sexism, but video games and sexism. It does not matter what country they come from, they are still sexist and she just wants to get people aware of that when they are playing them.

    Two, she brings up newer and more American games in her next video. So if you want to talk about out of context then reread your last post and watch both videos.

  98. MarkKB

    It matters in how we are to redress the problem. It makes little sense, for example, to ask Western developers to rectify a problem they don't have. Contextualising the issue allows us to target social change where it is most needed – in this case, Japanese culture.

  99. Techni

    But his point is, that change was already made before she got to the games.

  100. neotechni

    Actually she's admitted she's not a fan of games. She does not love them or she wouldn't lie about them

  101. Techni

    What about the ape brutally murdering the guy over and over?

  102. neotechni

    He's not dismissing them cause they are from Japan. He says they were altered/fixed in the USA. Thus she's being deceptive.

  103. Eric

    The video this article is describing is almost exclusively about Japanese games, made in Japan by Japanese people who live in a Japanese culture. As the article above states, American corporations did their best, better than anyone could expect from them, to make these games more palatable for American audiences who demanded much more from female characters. Sarkeesian simply ignores this and critiques Japanese games, made in Japan etc… as if they were representative of gaming as a whole.

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