Damsel in Distress (Part 2) Tropes vs Women

May 28, 2013

TRIGGER WARNING: This video contains a handful of graphic scenes involving violence against women. Parents should preview the video first before sharing with young children.

This is the second in a series of three videos exploring the Damsel in Distress trope in video games. In this installment we look at “dark and edgy” side of the trope in more modern games and how the plot device is often used in conjunction with graphic depictions of violence against women. Over the past decade we’ve seen developers try to spice up the old Damsel in Distress cliche by combining it with other tropes involving victimized women including the disposable woman, the mercy killing and the woman in the refrigerator.

Watch The Damsel in Distress Part 1


For more examples of the Damsel in Distress see our Tumblr for this series: http://tropesversuswomen.tumblr.com

The Damsel in Distress: As a trope the damsel in distress is a plot device in which a female character is placed in a perilous situation from which she cannot escape on her own and must then be rescued by a male character, usually providing an incentive or motivation for the protagonist’s quest. This is most often accomplished via kidnapping but it can also take the form of petrification, a curse or demon possession. Traditionally the woman in distress is a love interest or family member of the hero; princesses, wives, girlfriends and sisters are all commonly used to fill the role.

Damsel in the Refrigerator: A combination of the Women in Refrigerators trope and the Damsel in Distress trope. Typically this happens when a female character is killed near the beginning of a story but her soul is then stolen or trapped and must be rescued or freed by the male hero. Occasionally time travel or some other form of resurrection may be involved in the quest to bring the women in question back from the dead.

Disposable Damsel: A variant of the Damsel in Distress trope in which the hero fails to save the woman in peril either because he arrives too late or because (surprise twist!) it turns out she has been dead the whole time.

Euthanized Damsel: A combination of the Damsel in Distress trope and the Mercy Killing trope. This usually happens when the player character must murder the woman in peril “for her own good”. Typically the damsel has been mutilated or deformed in some way by the villain and the “only option left” to the hero is to put her “out of her misery” himself. Occasionally the damsel’ed character will be written so as beg the player to kill her.

The Tropes vs Women in Video Games project aims to examine the plot devices and patterns most often associated with female characters in gaming from a systemic, big picture perspective. This series will include critical analysis of many beloved games and characters, but remember that it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of it’s more problematic or pernicious aspects. This video series is created by Anita Sarkeesian and the project was funded by 6968 awesome backers on Kickstarter.com

SPOILER WARNING LIST: Major plot points or endings in the following games:
· Bionic Commando (2009)
· Borderlands 2 (2012)
· Breath of Fire IV (2000)
· Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles (2007)
· Castlevania: Lament of Innocence (2003)
· Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (2010)
· Dante’s Inferno (2010)
· The Darkness II (2012)
· Dead Space (2008)
· Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs The Soulless Army (2006)
· Double Dragon Neon (2012)
· Gears of War 2 (2008)
· God of War: Ghost of Sparta (2010)
· The Godfather: The Game (2006)
· Grand Theft Auto III (2001)
· Hotline Miami (2012)
· Ico (2001)
· Infamous (2009)
· Inversion (2012)
· Kane & Lunch: Dead Men (2007)
· The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (2006)
· MediEvil 2 (2000)
· Ninja Gaiden 3 (2010)
· Pandora’s Tower (2011)
· Prey (2006)
· Resident Evil 5 (2009)
· Shadows of the Damned (2011)
· Tenchu: Shadow Assassins (2009)



Welcome to the 2nd episode in our multi-part series exploring the roles and representations of women in video games. This project examines the tropes, plot devices and patterns most commonly associated with women in gaming systemic, big picture perspective.

Over the course of this series I will be offering critical analysis of many popular games and characters, but please keep in mind that it’s both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy a piece of media while also being critical of it’s more problematic or pernicious aspects.

I just want to caution viewers that as we delve into more modern games we will be discussing examples that employ some particularly gruesome and graphic depictions of violence against women. I’ll do my best to only show what is necessary but this episode does come with a trigger warning. It’s also recommended that parents preview the video first before sharing with younger children.

In our previous episode we explored the history of the Damsel in Distress and how the trope became so pervasive in classic era games from the 80s and early 90s. We also explored some of the core reasons why damsel’ed characters are so problematic as representations of women. So if you haven’t seen it yet, please check that one out before continuing to watch this one.

As a trope the damsel in distress is a plot device in which a female character is placed in a perilous situation from which she cannot escape on her own and then must be rescued by a male character, usually providing an incentive or motivation for the protagonist’s quest.

Now it might be tempting to think the Damsel in Distress was just a product of its time, and that by now surely the trope must be a thing of the past. Well, while we have seen a moderate increase in the number of playable female characters, the plot device has not gone away. In fact the Damsel in Distress has even seen a bit of a resurgence in recent years.

Clip – Montage

The Bouncer– [Screams]
TimeSplitters 2- [Screams]
Rygar: The Legendary Adventure– “Rygar!”
Maximo: Ghosts to Glory- “Silence!”
Castlevainia: Harmony of Dissonance- “Nooo!
Grabbed by the Ghoulies- [Muffled screams]
Resident Evil 4- [Screams]
Red Steel- “You’ve got to get me out of here”
Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword– [Screams]
Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones- [Laughter]
Devil May Cry 4- “Come and get her”
Prototype- “Alex!”
Ghostbusters: The Video Game- [Screams}
Splatterhouse (2010)- “He’s…He’s hurting me”
Alan Wake- [Screams]“Alice?!”
Deadlight- “Help, Please!”
Hitman: Absolution- “Bullet in her head!”
Ninja Gaiden II- “What a dear little bird you are”

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg; suffice it to say the trope is alive and well even today.

Clip- Devil May Cry 4
“Let her go!”

And since the majority of these titles focus of delivering crude, unsophisticated male power fantasies, developers are largely unwilling to give up the Damsel in Distress model as an easy default motivation for their brooding male heroes or anti-heroes. Remember that as a trope the Damsel in Distress is a plot device used by writers, and not necessarily always just a one-dimensional character type entirely defined by victimhood.

Now and then Damsel’d characters may be well written, funny, dynamic or likeable.

Clip- Psychonauts
“I’m just trying to set you on fire through this stupid hat!”
“What a delightfully mean little brain you have.”

However this extra character development tends to make their eventual disempowerment all the more frustrating. Damsels on the more sassy end of the spectrum may struggle with their captors…

Clip- Hitman: Absolution
“Get away from me!”

… or even attempt an escape on their own but inevitably their efforts always prove futile. Occasionally they may be allowed to offer the hero a last minute helping hand or to kick the bad guy while he’s down but these moments are largely symbolic and typically only happen after the core adventure is over or the danger has passed.

These token gestures of pseudo-empowerment don’t really offer any meaningful change to the core of the trope and it feels like developers just throw these moments in at the last minute to try to excuse their continued reliance on the damsel in distress.

Periodically, game developers may attempt to build a more flushed out relationship or emotional bond between Damsel’d character and the male protagonist. In the most decidedly patronizing examples depictions of female vulnerability are used for an easy way for writers to trigger an emotional reaction in male players.

As we discussed in our first episode, when female characters are damsel’ed, their ostensible agency is removed and they are reduced to a state of victimhood.

So narratives that frame intimacy, love or romance as something that blossoms from or hinges upon the disempowerment and victimization of women are extremely troubling because they tend to reinforce the widespread regressive notion that women in vulnerable, passive or subordinate positions are somehow desirable because of their state of powerlessness. Unfortunately these types of stories also help to perpetuate the paternalistic belief that power imbalances within romantic relationships appealing, expected, or normal.

Ok so we know that the Damsel in Distress is alive and well in gaming but that’s not the full picture, there’s even more insidious side to the story. Over the past decade game companies have been desperately searching for ways to stand out in a market increasingly oversaturated with very similar products. As a consequence we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of games attempting to cut through the clutter by being as “dark and edgy” as possible.

So we’ve seen developers try to spice up the Damsel in Distress cliché by combining it with other tropes that involve victimized women. I’ve identified a few of the most common of these trope-cocktails, which join together multiple regressive or negative representations of women including the disposable woman, the mercy killing and the woman in the refrigerator.

The term “Women in Refrigerators” was coined in the late 1990s by comic book writer Gail Simone to describe the trend of female comic book characters who are routinely brutalized or killed-off as a plot device designed to move the male character’s story arc forward. The trope name comes from Green Lantern issue #54, in which the superhero returns home to find his girlfriend murdered and stuffed inside his refrigerator.

This trading of female characters lives for something meant to resemble male character development is of course part of a long media tradition, but the gruesome death of women for shock value is especially prevalent in modern gaming. The Women in the Refrigerator trope is used as the cornerstone of some of the most famous contemporary video games. It provides the core motivational hook behind both the Max Payne and the God of War series for example.

Clip- God of War
“My wife…my child…”

In each case the protagonists’ wife and daughter are brutally murdered and their deaths are then used by the developers as a pretext for their inevitable bloody revenge quest. It’s interesting to note that the reversed scenario, games hinging on a woman vowing revenge for her murdered boyfriend or husband are practically nonexistent. The gender role reversal is so unusual that it borders on the absurd, which is one of the reason’s why this scene from Disney’s Wreck it Ralph is so humorous.

I could do a very long video just exploring this one trope in gaming, but today I want to look at how the Woman in the Refrigerator is connected to the Damsel in Distress and specifically the ways game developers have found to combine these two plot devices. One popular variation is to simply use both tropes in the same plotline so as to have the male protagonist’s wife stuffed in the fridge while his daughter is damsel’ed.

In Outlaws (1997) your wife is brutally murdered and you then have to rescue your daughter.

Clip- Outlaws
“Who did this?”
“They’ve taken Sarah”

In Kane & Lynch your wife is brutally murdered and you then have to rescue your daughter.

Clip- Kane and Lynch
“I’ll find them all before they find Jenny”

In Prototype 2 your wife is brutally murdered and you then have to rescue your daughter.

In Inversion your wife is brutally murdered and you then have to rescue your daughter.

Clip- Inversion
“Leila, where is she?”

In Asura’s Wrath your wife is brutally murdered and you then have to rescue your daughter.

Clip- Asura’s Wrath
“Save her.”

In Dishonored the empress is brutally murdered and you then have to rescue her daughter – though it’s heavily implied that she is your daughter too.

Clip- Dishonored
“Find Emily. Protect her!”

It’s no coincidence that the fridged plot device and the damsel plot device work in much the same way, both involve female characters who have been reduced to states of complete powerlessness by the narrative. One via kidnapping and the other via murder. The two plot devices used together then allow developers to exploit both the revenge motivation and the good old fashioned “save the girl” motivation.

Believe it or not there is another more insidious version of this particular trope-hybrid, which I call the Damsel in the Refrigerator. Now you may be asking yourself how can a fridged woman still be in distress?  Since by definition being fridged usually sort of requires… being dead. Well here’s how it works — The Damsel in the Refrigerator occurs when the hero’s sweetheart is brutally murdered and her soul is then trapped or abducted by the villain. This ‘oh so dark and edgy twist’ provides players with a double dose of female disempowerment and allows developers to again exploit both the revenge motivation and the saving the damsel motivation but this time with the same woman at the same time.

This trope-combination can be traced back to old school sidescrollers like Splatterhouse 2 and Ghouls’n Ghosts but the Damsel in the Refrigerator has definitely become a more popular trend in recent years.

In Medievil 2 your murdered girlfriend’s soul is stolen and you must fight to save her.

Clip- Medievil 2

In The Darkness 2 your murdered girlfriend’s soul is trapped in hell and you must fight to free her.

Clip- The Darkness 2
“Her soul is mine!”

In Shadows of the Damned your murdered girlfriend’s soul is trapped in hell and you must fight to free her.

Clip- Shadows of the Damned
Yes, help her!”

In Dante’s Inferno your murdered wife’s soul is trapped in hell and you must fight to free her.

In Castlevania: Lords of Shadow your murdered wife’s soul is trapped on Earth and you fight to free her.

The Damsel in the Refrigerator is part of larger trend of throwing women under the bus in increasingly gruesome ways in an apparent attempt to interject what I’ll loosely refer to as “mature themes”. Developers must be hoping that by exploiting sensationalized images of brutalized women it will be enough to fool gamers into thinking their games are becoming more emotionally sophisticated, but the truth is there is nothing “mature” about most of these stories and many of them cross the line into blatant misogyny.

Since what we are really talking about here are depictions of violence against women it might be useful to quickly define what I mean by that term. When I say Violence Against Women I’m primarily referring to images of women being victimized or when violence is specifically linked to a character’s gender or sexuality. Female characters who happen to be involved in violent or combat situations on relatively equal footing with their opponents are typically be exempt them from this category because they are usually not framed as victims.

As I mentioned in our last video the damsel in distress doesn’t always have to be accompanied by a heroic rescue.

Clip- Max Payne 3
“Here I was again, with all hell breaking loose around me, standing over another dead girl I had been trying to protect”

Sometimes the hero fails to save the woman in question either because he arrives too late or because (surprise twist!) she has been dead the whole time.

Clip Montage
Dead Space – “Nicole has been dead this whole time”
Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones (2005)- “No! Kaileena!”
InFamous- “All my powers…and I couldn’t do a thing”
Deadlight- [Cries] “Kill me”

Or in the case of the 2009 version of Bionic Commando, not only has your wife been dead the whole time but, turns out she’s also part of your bionic arm.

Clip- Bionic Commando
I never wanted you to be involved in this”
“It’s okay, I’ll always be by your side”

Yes you heard that correctly, his wife IS his arm.

But the most extreme and gruesome variant of this trend is when developers combine the damsel in distress with the mercy killing. This usually happens when the player character must murder the woman in peril “for her own good”. I like to call this happy little gem the “Euthanized Damsel”. Typically the damsel has been mutilated or deformed in some way by the villain and the “only option left” to the hero is to put her “out of her misery” himself.

We can trace this one back to the original 1980s arcade game Splatterhouse in which your kidnapped girlfriend is possessed and the player is forced to fight and kill her.

After saving his bitten beloved in Castlevania: Lament of Innocence (2003) the hero must then kill her to gain the power to defeat Dracula.

Clip- Castlevania: Lament of Innocence
Thank you”

In Breath of Fire 4 (2000) Elina has been turned into a hideous monster and then begs you to kill her.

In Gears of War 2, Dom is motivated to rescue his captured wife Maria. When he finds her, she has been starved and possibly tortured into a catatonic state; and so he shoots her.

In Tenchu: Shadow Assassins…

Clip- Tenchu: Shadow Assassins
“Do it, you must”

…the princess meekly asks the hero to cut her down to get to the villain, which he does.

A particularly egregious example can be found in Grand Theft Auto III (2001) when after you’ve rescued Maria Latore it’s implied that the protagonist suddenly shoots her because she is talking about stereotypically “girly things”.

Clip- Grand Theft Auto III
I broke a nail, and my hair is ruined! Can you believe it? This one cost me $50!” [Gunshot]

The writers deliberately wrote her character to annoy the player so in the end, the violence against her becomes the punch line to a cheap, misogynist joke.

Sometimes these killings happen via cutscene while other games ask the player to participate directly by pulling the trigger themselves.

In the Castlevania: Dracula X Chronicles remake if you don’t rescue Richter Belmont‘s beloved Annette, she will turn into a vampire and you’ll then have to kill her.

Clip- Castlevania: Dracula X Chronicles
Oh my God, Annette, I’m so sorry I didn’t save you. But you know what I do to vampires. What I have to do.”
“No! I’ll make you mine forever!”

The captured women in Duke Nukem 3D beg you to kill them throughout the game. This misogynist scene is regurgitated and actually made worse in the 2011 follow-up Duke Nukem Forever developed by Gearbox.

Another popular Gearbox game, Borderlands 2, also uses this plot twist when Angel asks the player to murder her as a way to try and thwart the villain’s evil plan.

Clip- Borderlands 2
“Destroying the iridium injectors that keep me…alive…will stop the key from charging and it will end a lifetime of servitude”

The end of Alone in the Dark (2008) gives the player the choice between killing your girlfriend yourself…

Clip- Alone in the Dark
“Chose quickly, carrier. Kill her or let her live. You alone can decide!”

…or letting Satan kill her, by being reborn in her body

The Wii game Pandora’s Tower includes one ending in which Elena begs you to kill her before she completes her transformation into a monster.

Clip- Pandora’s Tower
Please…I beg of you”

“Help me, I’m so afraid!”

In the 2006 shooter Prey, when the hero finally reaches his abducted girlfriend she has been hideously mutilated and fused with a monster, which you must fight while she screams for help over and over again

Clip- Prey
“Get away from me, Tommy! She wants me to kill you! I can’t stop it! [Screams]

After being incapacitated she begs you to kill her…

Clip- Prey
“Please, Tommy, let me go”

… and the player can’t advance in the narrative until you shoot her in the face.

These damsel’ed women are written so as to subordinate themselves to men. They submissively accept their grisly fate and will often beg the player to perform violence on them – giving men direct and total control over whether they live or die. Even saying “thank you” with their dying breath. In other words these women are “asking for it” quite literally.

The Euthanized Damsel is the darkest and edgiest of these trope-hybrids but it’s also an extension of a larger pattern in gaming narratives where male protagonists are forced to fight their own loved ones who have been possessed or brainwashed by villains.

When Kratos finds his mother in the PSP game God of War: Ghosts of Sparta, she morphs into a hideous beast forcing you to fight and kill her. An act for which she thanks you with her dying breath.

Clip- God of War: Ghost of Sparta
“Finally, I am free”

After your girlfriend is transformed into a green ogre in Grabbed by the Ghoulies she chases you around trying to get kiss. Later you beat her unconscious before she can be returned to normal.

The final boss in Shadows of the Damned turns out to be your own girlfriend…

Clip- Shadows of the Damned
Where is my freedom?!”

 …who you must shoot down.  Similar scenarios are replicated in dozens of other tittles as well:

Clip Montage- Resident Evil 5
“Get that device off her chest!”

Although the narratives all differ slightly the core element is the same, in each case violence is used to bring these women “back to their senses”.

These stories conjure supernatural situations in which domestic violence perpetrated by men against women who’ve “lost control of themselves” not only appears justified but is actually presented as an altruistic act done “for the woman’s own good”.
Of course, if you look at any of these games in isolation, you will be able to find incidental narrative circumstances that can be used to explain away the inclusion of violence against women as a plot device. But just because a particular event might “makes sense” within the internal logic of a fictional narrative – that doesn’t, in and of itself justify its use. Games don’t exist in a vacuum and therefore can’t be divorced from the larger cultural context of the real world.

It’s especially troubling in-light of the serious real life epidemic of violence against women facing the female population on this planet. Every 9 seconds a woman is assaulted or beaten in the United States and on average more than three women are murdered by their boyfriends husbands, or ex-partners every single day. Research consistently shows that people of all genders tend to buy into the myth that women are the ones to blame for the violence men perpetrate against them. In the same vein, abusive men consistently state that their female targets “deserved it”, “wanted it” or were “asking for it”,

Given the reality of that larger cultural context, it should go without saying that it’s dangerously irresponsible to be creating games in which players are encouraged and even required to perform violence against women in order to “save them”.

Even though most of the games we’re talking about don’t explicitly condone violence against women, nevertheless they trivialize and exploit female suffering as a way to ratchet up the emotional or sexual stakes for the player.

Despite these troubling implications, game creators aren’t necessarily all sitting around twirling their nefarious looking mustaches while consciously trying to figure out how to best misrepresent women as part of some grand conspiracy.

Most probably just haven’t given much thought to the underlying messages their games are sending and in many cases developers have backed themselves into a corner with their own game mechanics.  When violence is the primary gameplay mechanic and therefore the primary way that the player engages with the game-world it severely limits the options for problem solving. The player is then forced to use violence to deal with almost all situations because its the only meaningful mechanic available — even if that means beating up or killing the women they are meant to love or care about.

One of the really insidious things about systemic & institutional sexism is that most often regressive attitudes and harmful gender stereotypes are perpetuated and maintained unintentionally.

Likewise engaging with these games is not going to magically transform players into raging sexists. We typically don’t have a monkey-see monkey-do, direct cause and effect relationship with the media we consume. Cultural influence works in much more subtle and complicated ways, however media narratives do have a powerful cultivation effect helping to shape cultural attitudes and opinions.

So when developers exploit sensationalized images of brutalized, mutilated and victimized women over and over and over again it tends to reinforce the dominant gender paradigm which casts men as aggressive and commanding and frames women as subordinate and dependent.

Although these stories use female trauma as a catalyst to set the plot elements in motion, these are not stories about women. Nor are they concerned with the struggles of women navigating the mental, emotional and physical ramifications of violence.

Instead these are strictly male-centered stories in which, more often than not, the tragic damsels are just empty shells, whose deaths are depicted as far more meaningful than their lives. Generally they’re completely defined by their purity, innocence, kindness, beauty or sensuality. In short they’re just symbols meant to invoke the essence of an artificial feminine ideal.

Clip- Shadows of the Damned
“Help me!”

In fact these games usually frame the loss of the woman as something that has been unjustly “taken” from the male hero.

Clip- The Darkness II
“So now I take from you”
“Jackie, this is not your fault”

The implication being that she had belonged to him – that she was his possession. Once wronged the hero must then go get his possessions back or at least exact a heavy price for their loss. On the surface victimized women are framed as the reason for the hero’s torment, but if we dig a little deeper into the subtext I’d argue that the true source of the pain stems from feelings of weakness and/or guilt over his failure to perform his “socially prescribed” patriarchal duty to protect his women and children.

Clip- Max Payne 3
“And I hated myself for allowing this to happen to her, and our little girl”

In this way these failed-hero stories are really about the perceived loss of masculinity, and then the quest to regain that masculinity, primarily by exerting dominance and control, through the performance of violence on others.

Consequently violent revenge based narratives, repeated ad nauseum, can also be harmful to men because they help further limit the possible responses men are allowed to have when faced with death or tragedy. This is unfortunate because interactive media has the potential to be a brilliant medium for people of all genders to explore difficult or painful subjects.

So to be clear here, the problem is not the fact that female characters die or suffer. Death touches all of our lives eventually and as such it’s often an integral part of dramatic storytelling.  To say that women could never die in stories would be absurd, but it’s important to consider the ways that women’s deaths are framed and examine how and why they’re written.

There are some games that try to explore loss, death and grief in more genuine or authentic ways that do not sensationalize or exploit victimized women. Dear Esther, The Passage and To The Moon are a few indie games that investigate these themes in creative, innovative and sometimes beautiful ways. These more contemplative style games are a hopeful sign but they’re still largely the exception to the rule. A sizable chunk of the industry is still unfortunately trapped in the established pattern of building game narratives on the backs of brutalized female bodies.

Violence against women is a serious global epidemic; therefore, attempts to address the issue in fictional contexts demands a considerable degree of respect, subtlety and nuance. Women shouldn’t be mere disposable objects or symbolic pawns in stories about men and their own struggles with patriarchal expectations and inadequacies.

The “dark and edgy” trope-cocktails we’ve discussed in this episode are not isolated incidents, or obscure anomalies; instead they represent an ongoing recurring pattern in modern gaming narratives. In most cases the damsel’ed characters have simply gone from being helpless, to being dead. Which is obviously not a huge improvement from her perspective.

I know this episode has been a little bit grim, but please join me next time for the 3rd and final installment covering the Damsel in Distress where we’ll take a look at some titles that attempt to flip the script on the damsel and then we’ll go on a quest to find some examples of the elusive “dude in distress” role reversal.

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