ONTD Political

A Rebuttal to Anita Sarkeesian's "Tropes VS Women" in video games.

7:01 pm - 03/13/2013
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 quickly overwhelmed by Japan’s dizzying array of holidays and festivals, and hoped studying clip-art could offer a bit of 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?

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, we’re also all 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.

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.

Source: Filibuster Cartoons

Video: Video ONTDP
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(no subject) - Anonymous - Expand
zeonchar 14th-Mar-2013 07:27 pm (UTC)
ayashi 14th-Mar-2013 06:11 pm (UTC)
I understand that Japanese vs American culture is very different (though I really don't feel like that excuses sexism), but I also don't really understand why that is a "rebuttal" to her video? The stuff she said is still valid whether it was made in Japan or not...?

(Disclaimer: I only skimmed this article because long.)

Also this line, wtf: "But then again, many of them were only working to kill time before marriage."

Edited at 2013-03-14 06:12 pm (UTC)
hey_kayla_jay 14th-Mar-2013 06:40 pm (UTC)
I came here to say this exact thing. The argument that these games originated in Japan is less off a rebuttal and more like something to be noted in Anita's argument. Its something to consider, but it doesn't make the sexism excusable.
flake_sake 14th-Mar-2013 06:11 pm (UTC)
No, cultural relativism is not an excuse for sexism.

But I have to say, that while don't agree at all with him, this at least is a civilized contribution to the debate, adressing her points and not herself. Considering that she was mostly only trolled and mobbed by the people who do not agree with her, this gives me at least some hope for humanity and civilized debate.
brucelynn 14th-Mar-2013 06:19 pm (UTC)
People kept bringing up that point and I don't think anyone is excusing what goes on in Japan but they are just simply pointing out that she is automatically applying a western mindset to games that are developed in Japan.

I think it's interesting that it was pointed out because she never took that into consideration .

TBH I don't even think she gave it thought considering how she didn't really do any research.

Edited at 2013-03-14 06:27 pm (UTC)
wikilobbying 14th-Mar-2013 06:16 pm (UTC)
i feel like i can't comment much on the accuracy of any of this given i don't really do video games. however, i went to the source page and found something... off. on the original source page, the author of this posts these pictures of princess zelda with the caption, "Princess Zelda as the Japanese knew her (above) versus how Americans did (below)." again, i mostly don't play video games but princess zelda is a pop culture icon i know and the first/top picture of princess is how i recognize her. when you google princess zelda and look at the images tab, those images are long flowy feminine gown-heavy depictions. nearly nothing that resembles that latter image that the author argues is the way american audiences best know her.

so my question is for other americans who are more into video games and more familiar with the depictions of popular characters - which version of princess zelda do you associate most or more immediately with her?

(edited to fix my html fail)

Edited at 2013-03-14 06:17 pm (UTC)
catbrooks 14th-Mar-2013 06:20 pm (UTC)
I associate Zelda with the Ocarina of Time/Smash Bros./can turn into Shiek version, which is a fairly bad-ass version.
bowtomecha 14th-Mar-2013 06:16 pm (UTC)
“That’s just how women are seen here,” they said. But then again, many of them were only working to kill time before marriage.

Really? I found among the Japanese women that I know and rumor in general, that many Japanese women aren't very keen on marriage interrupting their careers and expect them to continue even after settling down with a family. I don't think its that frivolous to them, given the expenses and competitive work conditions for many Japanese.
soundczech 15th-Mar-2013 01:33 pm (UTC)
This. I had to wonder when he lived in japan, as most of the women I met when I was living there were very ambitious, even the ones that were happy to project a 'I'm such a helpless female' image to men. It's pretty rare now to retire once you hit marriage, most couples just can't afford it even if the women wanted to.
brucelynn 14th-Mar-2013 06:17 pm (UTC)
Hmmm I liked this rebuttal

ayashi 14th-Mar-2013 07:18 pm (UTC)
Someone linked this video to me the other day.

(Note that "you" in this comment is the general you, not you specifically)

Anita didn't mention the male main character in Dinosaur Planet, that's true - but you still can't just say "well duh they just replaced the male character with Fox, that's all they did!" Krystal was still (iirc) unplayable and definitely trapped in a crystal for most of the game. An argument can be made for marketability, money, etc, but I don't think it is as simple as "oh they just replaced the male character with Fox, NEXT!" She was a cute female character sharing the spotlight of main character with another and then they made it into a Star Fox game and she became a damsel in distress instead.

I don't think it was a problem that Anita didn't mention games with female characters or games that didn't fit the Damsel in Distress trope because that is the whole point of the original video - the damsel in distress trope. It doesn't have to make games bad and you don't have to hate games that use it (honestly one of my favorite games in the world is Shadow of the Colossus and the whole point of the quest is to save the woman you love) but it's still a commonly used trope that could use some investigation.

(I think I only watched the first half of the video but those were the main things that stuck with me at that point)

I love video games; playing them is my main hobby and when I watch videos like Anita's Tropes vs. Women in Video Games a part of me wants to defend them because I grew up with them and I've loved them forever. It is really easy for me to get a kneejerk of reaction of "No I love this thing, it can't be doing wrong!" but with all of that I can't disagree that it's a trope that an awful lot of games used to use and still use today. I don't think it makes something bad automatically but I think it's valid to investigate it as a trope, and nothing I have read or watched really invalidates the stuff that Anita says in her video. Adds to it or provides more clarity, but not a real rebuttal.
halfshellvenus 14th-Mar-2013 06:17 pm (UTC)
I'm not a gamer at all, and have only the barest cultural awareness of some of the particular games mentioned here at all.

But this rebuttal seemed incredibly well-written to me, and it's interesting that while so many women still find a lot of video games ridiculously sexist, there were concerted efforts to counteract that in many of the U.S. versions. SOMEBODY, at least, was thinking about this in contrast to what they were offered to pass on wholesale to the Western market.
rex_dart 14th-Mar-2013 06:19 pm (UTC)
They didn't write Mario spinoff comics to combat misogyny, contrary to popular belief.
bmh4d0k3n Nice Try?14th-Mar-2013 06:17 pm (UTC)
 photo tumblr_mhgrpcYRy61qgb5p1o1_500_zps9bef22be.gif

(found a more appropriate gif)

Edited at 2013-03-14 06:37 pm (UTC)
rex_dart 14th-Mar-2013 06:17 pm (UTC)
o i fucking c, the insidious, pervasive sexism I grew up mired in was actually just fine and even a positive because THINGS ARE DIFFERENT IN JAPAN. Thanks for that pseudo-academic faux-intellectual laughably fallacious explanation, shithead.
halfshellvenus 14th-Mar-2013 06:23 pm (UTC)
Great, I can't edit my original comment now that it's been replied to. Not fast enough on the draw!

Reading the comments before mine, it appears that not knowing games well enough may be an issue!

I'm certainly not doing to downplay video game sexism (and heternormism)-- not at all. But I do see some merit in saying that criticisms of games from the wayback past, and primarily produced by a heavily sexist culture, is not necessarily a meaningful discussion. Now, more recent games produced in the culture of the last 5 years or so? Totally fair game, and a worthwhile discussion to have many, many times over.
teacoat 14th-Mar-2013 06:31 pm (UTC)
The video released last week was part 1 of Damsels in Distress, and is meant to provide context for the second part which talks about more recent games. Which is exactly what she says at the end of the video.
alexvdl 14th-Mar-2013 06:23 pm (UTC)
Maybe I'm confused but the article seems to say that the Japanese character depictions are HORRIBLY misogynistic, and the American ones toned it down so they're only mostly misogynistic, therefore, Anita's critique is invalid and no1curr? *scratches head* That's fucked up logic.

Also, " 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" Defensive? I would hardly define the fucked up bullshit, doxing, and even death threats being pointed the way of Anita and her supporters as "defensive". That's straight out attack. The biases of the article's authors are pretty well shown by that line.
moiread 14th-Mar-2013 08:03 pm (UTC)
Amen to all of this.
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rex_dart 14th-Mar-2013 06:28 pm (UTC)
You realize that this exact same bullshit and far worse is pervasive in American-made media and that objectification is not okay no matter what ANY GIVEN patriarchal society says?
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evilnel 14th-Mar-2013 06:33 pm (UTC)
I used to be into video games but haven't been for a while, so my knowledge is a bit rusty, but I think it's a valid point that the original video doesn't address the context. However, that's not a pass for the sexism that still exists in video games. When we're making/selling games where people get points for killing prostitutes, there's something very wrong with our attitudes toward women. I see where the author was going but 'well, Japan is more sexist than us' isn't a good excuse for us to still be sexist. I do find the comment about the complementary cartoons and comics significantly developing the women characters more pretty interesting, but I think that's not just an acknowledgement of sexism, but a necessity for translating a somewhat flat story made more interesting by interactive gameplay into something that's meant to be passively watched. If the women remained as boring, there would be basically nothing going on in those cartoons.

tl;dr: interesting article, but not really helpful.
teacoat 14th-Mar-2013 06:41 pm (UTC)
The thing that irritates me about this article (aside from the fact that it's written by a presumably white, male westerner who spent a whole whopping year in Japan, which of course makes them an ~expert~) is that it doesn't even seem like they watched the whole video! At the end Anita clearly states that this video was part one, with part two talking about games from the past ten years. She also says exactly what the purpose of the video is - to establish just how prevalent the trope was in the games of the 80's and 90's.

Edited at 2013-03-14 06:46 pm (UTC)
gothic_hamlet 14th-Mar-2013 06:56 pm (UTC)
Right? The crux of her argument obviously lies with modern videogames that continue to perpetuate that trope (despite not being made in Japan, shocker of shocks), and she hasn't released that part yet. I'm guessing all of these dudebros aren't paying attention as per usual, and/or they're so desperate to disprove her that I guess they're willing to try picking apart whatever little argument crumbs they can find in this first part.
shoujokakumei 14th-Mar-2013 06:55 pm (UTC)
While this is totally wrong, at least the writer managed to express their opinion without using any gendered slurs.
alexvdl 14th-Mar-2013 08:17 pm (UTC)
It's pretty fucked up that is seen as an accomplishment these days.
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