Anita Sarkeesian and the Damsel in Distress Trope
In early 1986 Nintendo released the action-adventure video game The Legend of Zelda, and when I, a geeky eight-year-old, first got my hands on a NES controller and, with the press of a few buttons, took the sword from the grammatically-challenged old man in the cave, my gaming life changed forever. Even at eight, though, I wondered briefly why the game was named after the kidnapped princess and not the heroic Link in whom I placed my thoughts and hopes and fears.
As much as I love the early games in the Zelda series (I haven’t played any after A Link to the Past), I share many of the concerns of media and culture critic Anita Sarkeesian, who has a new video examining the “damsel in distress” trope in video games, even enjoyable and worthwhile ones.
Sarkeesian is at her best when drawing attention to problematic trends in pop culture that escape notice or too easily get a dismissive hand or defensive excuses. I’m less impressed by her assessments of individual works–she despised the show Dollhouse because the characters in the show, specifically the employees of the morally abominable dollhouse, were too sympathetic and well rounded. Because apparently human beings in evil institutions should be undeniably evil and repulsive. Like Buffy‘s vampires or something. So, well, we have different approaches to literary art.
Her first video in the series Tropes Vs. Women (embedded below) is quite good and worth the twenty or so minutes of your time. I had long noticed the “damsel in distress” trope myself, but hadn’t really thought of it as endemic or terribly pernicious. Alas, even my dear Vagrant Story, the greatest game that will ever be made, makes use of the trope, although, in its defense, the agent and inquisitor Callo Merlose, once taken hostage, uses her talents and skills to gain intelligence on her captors. She’s never really in distress, and the hero Ashley Riot doesn’t have to rescue her. She has an active, if minor role to play.
I don’t get the opportunity to play new video games these days, but I would love to see a big screen Legend of Zelda movie with Princess Zelda as the main protagonist, wielder of the Master Sword, bane of Ganon, and hero of Hyrule. I envision Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Acker or Ziyi Zhang in the part. Maybe she’d have to disguise herself as some point in the plot, in which case you have your Link.