Saturday, March 09, 2013

No Comment, Sarkeesian?

WvTiVG: Damsel in Distress (Part 1)

The first episode of Women vs Tropes in Video Games is... well, it's certainly better than her previous projects. It talks about the history of the trope in question, details the vast number of titles that adhere to it, and even bothers to fact check the source material, which is substantially more than can be said for HER FIRST ATTEMPT* at critiquing sexism in a video game.

At best, I'd say it's inoffensive, impersonal, and has all the charm and passion of a high-school oral report. All this controversy, public outcry and calls of shenanigans, you'd either expect something expansive and mind blowing or maybe just a total train wreck. In the end, all you get a single person speaking in carefully measured tones, explaining (at goddamn l-e-n-g-t-h) about the origins of the Damsels in Distress trope, and even what raison d'etre means, assuming her audience is too stupid to know a rather common phrase from one of the few languages English regularly pinches quips from.

In other words, it's basically the same all all of her other videos, just longer and more accurate. And if you'd like to see what's, effectively, an alternate take on this whole subject in relation to the Super Mario Bros. universe in particular, here's an older, more concise, self-aware, and clearly fandom-driven exploration from everyone's favorite MovieBob**:

Game OverThinker V2

The information presented in Women vs Tropes in Video Games 1.1 is - with a few things I'll contest in a moment - accurate enough, and a wide variety of examples are cited to show how firmly entrenched the trend is, but beyond pointing out that Damsels in Distress exist in video games (and have been for a long time), she doesn't have much else to say about it, other than suggesting that maybe these more popular DiD's should get adventures of their own - and apparently hand-held side games aren't good enough for those purposes. She also suggests that popular culture can reinforce stereotypes and attitudes on a subtle but damaging level, which is a fairly common argument to be sure, but also skirts dangerously close to the nonsensical arguments that video games lead to mass shootings or that pornography leads to sexual abuse. Granted, that's perhaps the whole underlying point of this series, so while I strongly disagree with her on the broad strokes, I'm still holding out hope that she'll have more interesting research suggesting she's on to something (aside from the anecdotal evidence of 4chan's casual backlash, of course).

Granted, there's every possibility that this is because this is Part 1 of the subject, laying ground work, while Part 2 will have some more in-depth content... but still, after almost a year of controversy and a small fortune to have fallen into the project's lap, I expect... well, something bigger. Interviews with game critics? An attempt to get some of the designers responsible for these titles a chance to say what they did, and why they did it? I'm all for random assholes on the internet having their say - heck, it'd be hypocritical for me not to -  but I don't need $6,000 to look into a camera and do it, and if I were given $150,000 on top of that I'd try to have *SOMETHING* more to show for it. Ah, well... c'est a vie. Which is French for "who gives a fuck", and I never had to tell you that because I know you're all adults and capable of using the google.

To her credit, Sarkeesian has a handful of interesting ideas to cover here, such as how Donkey Kong started out as a licensed Popeye the Sailor game, and how Starfox Adventure was originally a completely unrelated original property, "Dinosaur Planet", and the ever popular sammich' munching furry icon Krystal was originally one of two protagonist in the game rather than a mere macguffin to be freed at the end. She doesn't, however, point out (at least not explicitly) that Krystal's brother Sabre was planned to have at least equal play time, leaving Krystal as a co-protagonist rather than the protagonist, and that a large part of the game would have been completed with a masculine avatar anyway. A minor distinction, perhaps, but one worth making if your whole argument is that said character's role was being "minimized" to begin with.

She also asks why Princess Peach is not a playable character in the "NEW!" Super Mario Bros. franchise entries, despite the Wii versions supporting up to 4 simultaneous players - two of which are Toads. Personally, I think that's a damn good question; what's the point of having two interchangeable toads? Mario and Luigi are basically a pallet swap, always were, but there's no reason you need to have the entire supporting cast be as bland as possible. Peach doesn't have to have different abilities; that was a hold over from Doki Doki Panic!/Super Mario Bros. 2 International, and with the whole point of this being one giant nostalgia trip fueled expansion pack to the Super Mario Bros. name, why not toss in one more throwback and let Peach do her thing? I don't think anyone actually playing these games requires Bowser to kidnap her as a plot device, mostly because playing platform-adventure games is the reward; the story is basically a non-issue.

She gets one otherwise interesting detail flat out wrong, claiming that Zelda has never once been the star of her own adventure. If we're only looking at games develop and released by Nintendo, this is true, but this also suggests that she doesn't even know these "games" exist:

Cenobites don't have shit on the unending pain a CD-i can deliver to you.

Look, it's obvious that we all wish the Zelda CD-i Trilogy didn't happen, and even Nintendo itself has disavowed all knowledge in their fancy pants hardcover Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia compendium, but ignoring those infamous, meme-spewing atrocities against interactive video entertainment existed - especially when you've gone out of your way to acknowledge that you're talking about both core games and spinoffs in your research - kind of makes you look like you're either clueless, or manipulating the facts to suit your own argument. I'll let Anita's many vocal defenders decide which.

While we're on the subject of everybody's favorite non-shrooming Nintendo Princess, I also took some issue with the notion that... okay, so I'm going to spoil the living shit out of Ocarina of Time here, but it's been over 15 years since that particular chapter of the franchise came out - and over a year if we include the 3DS re-release, even - so eat a dick if you're going to get upset over this. She briefly mentions that when Sheik reveals himself to be Princess Zelda in disguise, reverting back to a typical feminine form, she's captured by Ganondorf literally three minutes later.

This sounds like a fair argument if you want to apply the DiD trope to Ocarina of Time and all, but this is ignoring two very important factors: One, that Sheik is physically a separate entity from Zelda, a more muscular, less curvy and darker-skinned person that is, by all appearances, a member of the Sheikah race while Zelda herself is a Hylian. In other words, the only reason Ganondorf didn't capture Zelda while she was hiding as Sheik was because he had no reason to assume that Zelda was a larger male of a completely different race, not to mention the fact that she'd been hiding in plain sight as a double agent for Ganondorf for the better part of seven years. It'd be like the villain trying to capture Marilyn Monroe when, without his knowledge, she'd been magically turned into Yul Brynner. You can use this convenient plot twist to make a case against progressive feminism, there's also a lot of narrative weight behind it that Sarkeesian ignores, painting the game as perhaps less clever than it deserves. Suspension of disbelief, and all that jazz.

Case In Point: Link looks more like a girl than Sheik.
Hell, Ganondorf probably thought Link was Zelda in drag.

Another minor issue I take is the suggestion that they're pumping retro games out on modern consoles as a "fast cash grab", leaving the DiD Trope intact without any thought to how future generations will interpret it. Sarkeesian herself acknowledges that these sales are being driven by nostalgia, and nostalgic fans are already familiar with the fact that, for example, Princess Peach is typically a captive to be rescued. Now, while I can understand the idea behind "improved" HD remakes (and some are done exceptionally well) I don't want the actual game to be affected. I'd rather be offered a cheap download of a classic 8-bit game totally unmolested than have it be modified for modern sensibilities, and I've felt this way since... hell, the Ninja Gaiden Trilogy release on the SNES? Marketing material that might have aged poorly to adults edited to suit the current cultural landscape of today's children is... well, frankly, it's kind of fucking stupid. She's either suggesting that these games should be lost to the ages and made unavailable in any meaningful capacity, or that they should be censored to meet a more modern point of view - one which, as far as I'm aware, isn't that dramatically different from when those games were introduced in the first place.

She didn't win any bonus points for getting her knickers in a twist over the iconic Double Dragon opening gut-punch, and she saved her one real moment of snarky deadpan silence for a clip from Dragon's Lair (ie: one of the most imaginative, beautifully realized, and intentionally braindead video games ever made). But this is kind of her shtick, so whatever.

At the end of the day there's one thing that really sticks in my craw, and that's the disabled comments (and video ratings, which I'm less concerned with). Disabled, fucking, comments. On the one hand I get not wanting to sift through the inevitable shit-storm of trolls who didn't nip this in the bud the first time, but on the other hand it, intentionally or not, confirms what I've always feared about Anita Sarkeesian: Her interest in "discussing" these matters begins and ends with her telling you what's what. There is no conversation, no feedback, no raison d'etre apart from her stepping up on a YouTube soapbox and assuming everyone in ear shot agrees with every word of it. How is that useful to improving and expanding any culture? She's an academic for crying out loud; she understands things like "debate" and "discussion". Without providing an avenue for anyone to try and ask her for clarification, or engage in anything resembling civil disagreement, she's basically locked herself in the role of being a teacher reading from a manuscript that's not changing any time soon.

As I've said, I have no problem with the study of gender roles in popular culture, and I think categorizing, exploring, and perhaps even updating it could be a good idea. Unfortunately, Sarkeesian doesn't want any of us to talk to her about what we think; she's happy to throw her ideas out into the wild and then ignore what anyone might have to say as a rebuke.

I was hardly expecting the first episode to be an hour long interview with Shigeru Miyamoto ending in a brutal Feminazis United decapitation. I just expected something, given all the controversy that came before it. If you have anything to say about it, I can't speak for Anita Sarkeesian, but my comments are always open. I'm curious what you guys think, considering how big a deal this thing somehow became.

UPDATE: Apparently the Feminist Frequency site has an option for comments. And yet, there are none after six days. Curious, that...

* For the record, Bayonetta is not a single mother, and the game sold less than 1.5 million copies in 4 months, not 3 million. Her opinion that the game is a worthless waste of time and money is her own, but the above are facts, and would have been apparent had the actually bothered to spend 5 minutes looking up either of these things. With that in mind, I'm damned willing to bet she never actually played it, which seems... disingenous, at best.

** I really like MovieBob. He's got a certain admirable, unapolagetic quality about his love and over-thinking for nonsense, but also approaches material like movies, comic books and video games with a level of humble, realistic detachment, acknowledging that they are pretty gooddamn silly, whilst pointing out that this doesn't mean we can't still love them for what they are, rather than what they aren't.


Anonymous said...

I think it is a wrong move on her part not allowing feedback. Hey, I absolutely support women's rights, but I also enjoy hentai and porn. Does that make me a bad person?

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