Two Games that Subvert the Damsel in Distress Trope

Earlier this month Anita Sarkeesian released the first installment of her 12-part series “Tropes vs Women in Video Games”. Six months ago she ran a successful kickstarter to fund it, despite the constant threats and harassment from angry, angry nerds. Since its release, she has still had to put up with constant threats and harassment from people absolutely furious she mentioned that the Legend of Zelda series has never let you play as Zelda.

Sadly, this is all too common a tactic by MRAs and other privileged individuals. Even if they can’t find any flaws in her argument or tone, if they rant and scream and threaten enough the debate will change to be about them rather than about the actual issue Sarkeesian is discussing.

So for this blog post I will ignore the sexist dregs of the gaming world (for now) and focus on the actual issue of gender tropes in gaming. Specifically, I want to look at two games which subvert or even dismantle the trope. I mean, its a low bar and I’m not claiming either of these games are pinnacles of gender enlightenment, but we can still learn from them.

Lilo and Stitch (Gameboy Advance)

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Lilo and Stitch isn’t quite the norm for a Disney movie. Its a story largely built around the relationship of two women of color and, off the top of my head, is the only classic Disney cartoon that easily passes the Bechdel test. The other main character is a detested outsider learning to trust and feel empathy as well as how to build a family and purpose of his own in the face of a world that expects him to be a monster. It asks some very pointed questions about identity and family, at least by the standards of highly marketed children’s cartoons. So in that sense, I suppose out of any licensed video game, it would be Lilo and Stitch that does the most interesting inversion of the common “Damsel in Distress” trope.

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The damsel trope reduces women to passive objects, they exist solely to provide motivation and reward, and have no effect on the story or game themselves. Like most video games using this trope, the player controls a male character on a mission to save a female character from danger. However, the game also does something interesting here. Lilo is not passively waiting rescue. After every Stitch level, the player is able to control Lilo as she escapes her prison and wreaks havoc in the alien ship. At the end of the game, Stitch doesn’t rescue Lilo, but rather encounters Lilo as she is escaping. Then together they battle the final boss.

So remember, when you use the damsel in distress trope, you are literally being less subversive than DISNEY. Let that sink in.

Bahamut Lagoon (Super Nintendo)

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Speaking of games that surprisingly subvert the damsel trope. At first glance, Yoyo appears to be your typical stock jrpg damsel in distress. The game opens with her capture and she is held in front of the player as a carrot. She is the childhood sweetheart of the player’s cipher Byuu, and the player will almost certainly take for granted that she will always be romantically available to them. She has great power inside her, but has trouble controlling it and therefore cannot wield it without constant validation and help from the male characters. Even the dragons she is supposed to be able to command call her weak to her face.

But then something changes. Yoyo rejects this role, starting with Byuu. She finds a kindred spirit in Palpaleos, an enemy general who has joined your side for the greater good of the world, and develops an intimate relationship with him instead of the player. There is no action the player can do to change this. Byuu is a blank slate, one of many generic silent rpg protagonists. His only dialogue is from the simple answers the player chooses, most of them “yes/no” questions. Through Byuu, the player may accept it, try to guilt her, try to win her back, try to stay friends, or rage at her. But nothing will change it. It doesn’t matter that you saved her or that you’re doing all these wonderful, nice, heroic things. Yoyo is not going to be a prize. No one is owed love (or sex) just for being “the good guy”. As Yoyo chooses her own role and is given agency, she is able to control her powers on her own. By rejecting the narrative chosen for her, the woman gains both mechanical power in the game and narrative power in the story. Yoyo becomes the protagonist, and the player is merely an actor in her story. All the player can control is how Byuu reacts, and how they interprete this story.

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Update: I’ve been told that this post can be read as an attempt to “disprove” Sarkeesian’s arguments. That is 100% not the point of this, so let me just clarify. I think the Feminist Frequency video is great and am looking forward to the rest of the series. By highlighting these two games I am not attempting to show that the trope doesn’t matter or that Sarkeesian’s video is wrong. Rather I am simply trying to show what games *could* be doing to subvert the trope and contribute to her point that the trope is unnecessary and lazy.

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3 Responses to Two Games that Subvert the Damsel in Distress Trope

  1. chris says:

    I usually associate the damsel in distress with the story of “Saint George & the Dragon” where a virgin is fed to a falsely worshiped dragon. The story was a religious analogy for God killing Satan and saving pagans from being idiots- I think the damsel in distress story type is probably based on this or similar stories. There is a long history of shitting on women in religion and I think it should be mentioned when talking about this subject because I think it’s directly affiliated.
    They could come from the same human condition though- Now I sound like an idiot. Nevermind.

  2. riulyn says:

    I never knew that about Bahamut Lagoon. Now I’m really interested in that game.

  3. Shawn says:

    When I played Bahamat Lagoon, I thought Yoyo actually had Stockhome Syndrome and was falling in love with her kidnapper (she literally falls in love with him in the jail cell). In addition, Palpaleos is a carbon-copy of Byuu (your character and Palpaleos are the only Something-Knight characters and they have the same powers), which to me, made me think she was settiling for him because you weren’t around because he was exactly like you (he should have been a completely different character type to make the moving on in relationships aspect work better). Would have interpretted differently if she a) wasn’t in a jail cell when she fell in love, and b) had Palpaleos not esentially been your character already. Otherwise, it’s wierd that she seems psychologically mature to control the dragons, but psychologically messed up in terms of love and relationships.

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