Damsel in Distress (Part 3) Tropes vs Women

This is the third installment in our three part mini-series exploring the Damsel in Distress trope in video games. In this episode we examine the rare Dude in Distress role reversal and then take a look at the use of “ironic sexism” in retro inspired indie games. We conclude with an investigation of titles that attempt to subvert or deconstruct the traditional damsel narrative.

Watch The Damsel in Distress Part 1
Watch The Damsel in Distress Part 2
Watch “The Legend of the Last Princess” mini animation

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

Read the full article…

This is the third installment in our three part mini-series exploring the Damsel in Distress trope in video games. In this episode we examine the rare Dude in Distress role reversal and then take a look at the use of “ironic sexism” in retro inspired indie games. We conclude with an investigation of titles that attempt to subvert or deconstruct the traditional damsel narrative.

Watch The Damsel in Distress Part 1
Watch The Damsel in Distress Part 2
Watch “The Legend of the Last Princess” mini animation

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

Links & Resources

For more info on Ironic Sexism:

For more on gender hacks:

For more on Fat Princess:

Other links:

Some games mentioned in the video that we recommend:

Damsel in Distress Trope Series by the Numbers

Number of episodes: 3
Minutes of video analysis: 73
Games referenced: 192
Total views so far: 2.2 million

About the Series

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

48 Total Games Referenced in this episode

Those with Spoilers are marked with an asterisk (*)

Super Princess Peach (2006)
Balloon Kid (1990)
Kya: Dark Lineage (2003)
Primal (2003)
* Beyond Good & Evil (2003)
Aquaria (2007)
Spelunky (2012)
Donkey King: Pauline Edition (2013)
Wind Waker: Gender Pronoun Mod (2012)
Zelda Starring Zelda (2013)
Gish (2004)
* Castle Crashers (2008)
* Eversion (2008)
Machinarium (2009)
Super Meat Boy (2010)
Frobot (2010)
I Must Run (2010)
Flying Hamster (2010)
Rochard (2011)
Sideway: New York (2011)
Zack Zero (2012)
Bean’s Quest (2012)
Hotline Miami (2012)
Labyrinth Legends (2012)
Sang-Froid: Tales of Werewolves (2013)
Gunman Clive (2013)
DLC Quest (2013)
The Other Brothers (2013)
Fist Puncher (2013)
Fightback (2013)
Tiny Thief (2013)
Knightmare Tower (2013)
Guacamelee (2013)
Adventures of Lolo (1989)
Cloudberry Kingdom (2013)
Hoard (2010)
Dokuro (2012)
Fat Princess (2009)
Fez (2012)
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP (2011)
Where is my Heart? (2011)
Rayman Origins (2011)
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (2011)
* Earthworm Jim (1994)
* The Secret of Monkey Island (1990)
* Braid (2008)
Thomas Was Alone (2012)
Donkey Kong (1981)


Welcome to the 3rd 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 from a 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 pernicious aspects.

In our previous two episodes on this topic we’ve discussed how the Damsel in Distress trope has been, and continues to be, one of most pervasive representations of women in gaming, showing up in hundreds of titles from old school classics to more modern day blockbusters.

But what about the reverse? Are there games starring heroic women who must go on a quest to save a dude in distress? Well yes, they do exist. However since female protagonists starring in their own games are already few and far between, adventures in which women work to save men in peril are extremely rare.

Back in our first episode I mentioned that Princess Peach is the star of exactly one platformer. That game is called Super Princess Peach (2006) and it was released in 2006 for the Nintendo DS handheld system.

Clip- Super Princess Peach Ad
Once upon a time princesses were called to rescue two captured plumbers. They trained intensely to master the skills necessary for survival. If you can stand up to really mean people, maybe you have what it takes to be a princess.”

The premise is a simple inversion of the standard franchise formula with Bowser abducting Mario and Luigi, while Peach is tasked with their rescue this time. So finally, after being kidnapped in 13 separate Super Mario games, Peach gets to be the hero for once! But don’t get too excited because everything else about the game ends up in a trainwreck of gendered stereotypes. Nintendo introduced a new gameplay mechanic for Peach where the player can choose from 4 special powers or vibes as they’re called… and you know what those powers are? Her mood swings. That’s right, Peach’s powers are her out-of-control frantic female emotions. She can throw a temper tantrum and rage her enemies to death or bawl her eyes out and wash the bad guys away with tears. Essentially Nintendo has turned a PMS joke into their core gameplay mechanic.

As if that weren’t bad enough Peach is not even featured in any of the game’s narrative cutscenes. Instead they all focus on the back story of her parasol – who it turns out is really a cursed boy named Perry.

So while it’s definitely nice to see Peach starring in her own adventure, the Dude in Distress role-reversal premise here feels like it’s just intended as a lighthearted joke or niche market novelty.

Similar gender inversion plot devices have been used in a handful of games over the years including Balloon Kid (1991) for the original Game Boy in which Alice must search for her lost little brother. Part of the plot of Kya: Dark Lineage (2003) revolves around finding Kya’s half-brother Frank.

Clip- Kya: Dark Lineage
“How did you-“
“Are you ok?”
“I never thought I’d see you again!”
“Frank! I’m gonna get you out of here!”

In Primal (2003) Jennifer Tate travels to demonic realms in an attempt to save her kidnapped boyfriend, Lewis. In one of my favorite games of all time, Beyond Good and Evil (2003) Jade’s sidekick, uncle Pey’j, is captured and held prisoner for a portion of the adventure.

It’s probably not a coincidence that the majority of these titles were produced and released during the run of the popular TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) which lead the “girl power” trend in mass media entertainment that briefly took hold in the late 1990s and early 2000s. You might remember Charmed, Sabrina the Teenage Witch or the British pop sensations the Spice Girls who, in many ways, exemplified the phenomenon.

Clip- Spice World
“We’re the Spice Girls yes indeed, just girl power is all we need. We know how we got this far, strength and courage in a wonder bra.”

Over the past decade, however, games featuring the dude in distress gender inversion have been few and far between. One rare example is the 2007 indie game Aquaria, in which Naija travels through an underwater world, making sushi, learning about her past and must eventually rescue her love interest Li.

So what is the difference between traditional narratives that place female characters in powerless positions and stories in which a male character requires rescuing by a woman?

On the surface the Dude in Distress and the Damsel in Distress may appear similar — however they’re not actually equivalent. To understand why they are different we need to examine the broader historical and cultural implications of the two plot devices.

First there’s been no shortage of men in leading or heroic roles in video games or in any other creative medium for that matter. In fact one recent study found that only about 4% of modern titles are exclusively designed around a woman in the leading role. Since men are still largely the default for protagonists, the rare dude in distress plotline does not add to any longstanding gendered tradition in storytelling.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, damsel’ed female characters tend to reinforce pre-existing regressive notions about women as a group being weak or in need of protection because of their gender, while stories with the occasional helpless male character do NOT perpetuate anything negative about men as a group since there is no long-standing stereotype of men being weak or incapable because of their gender.

To help illustrate this point let’s quickly take a look at the indie game Spelunky. Originally released in 2009 the game included a stereotypical damsel in distress as a gameplay mechanic whose rescue rewarded the player with bonus health. The 2012 HD remake of the game for Xbox Live again features the stock character damsel (complete with newly upgraded boob jiggle). However, this time an option was added to the menu that allows players to select a replacement for the default woman in peril by switching to either a Chippendales-style hunk or a dog instead.

Setting aside the fact that – if a female character is easily interchangeable with a dog then its probably a pretty good indication that something is wrong – Merely providing an optional gender-swap is not a quick and easy fix, especially where stock character style damsels are concerned.

The two may appear the same, but they don’t mean the same thing in our culture.  This [damsel] is still a problem while this [dude] is not. Again because one reinforces pre-existing stereotypes about women, while the other does not re-enforce any pre-existing stereotypes about men.

In recent years, we’ve also seen a number of news stories about fans who’ve taken it upon themselves to switch the gender roles in classic era games by manipulating the code. There’s Mike Mika‘s Donkey Kong hack in which Pauline works to save Jumpman. Mike Hoye’s gender bending version of Wind Waker and Kenna Warsinske’s Zelda Starring Zelda, which transforms the princess into the protagonist.

This practice of gender-hacking game ROMS has actually been around for decades. Offering enterprising players the chance to play as a female version of MegaMan or as Princess Peach rescuing Mario with her mermaid power. And thanks to the Internet, game mods and emulators are now much more widely accessible.

Gender hacks like these illustrate how female characters taking on the role of heroic rescuer can directly challenge the status quo and interrupt the established male dominated pattern in gaming.

That said I don’t necessarily think equal opportunity damseling is the answer. Simply reversing the gender roles of a problematic convention so that more men are damsel’ed in more games is not the best long-term solution, even if the practice might be subversive in the short term to help demonstrate a very real gender disparity in the medium. Ultimately we need to think beyond the cliché altogether.

Over the past several years we have seen an explosion of independent development with many new titles drawing inspiration from classic era games. This is an exciting and vibrant trend with enormous potential for innovation — but have games produced outside of the mainstream studio system managed to break the gender mold and avoid damsel’ing? Well we see the trope reproduced in indie, mobile or retro-inspired games like Gish (2004), Castle Crashers (2008), Eversion (2008), Machinarium (2009), Super Meat Boy (2010), Frobot (2010), I Must Run (2010), Flying Hamster (2010), Rochard (2011)…

Clip- Rochard
“Skyler! You okay?”

Sideway: New York (2011), Zack Zero (2012), Bean’s Quest (2012), Hotline Miami (2012), Labyrinth Legends, Sang-Froid: Tales of Werewolves (2013)…

Clip- Sang-Froid: Tales of Werewolves

…Gunman Clive (2013), DLC Quest (2013), The Other Brothers (2013), Fist Puncher (2013)…

Clip- Fist Puncher
“You must hunt down the kidnappers. And rescue the missing women”

…Fightback (2013) Tiny Thief (2013), Knightmare Tower (2013) and Guacamelee (2013).

Not to mention the myriad of other mobile games for tablets and smartphones which recycle the excuse plot ad nauseum.

Far from being a thing of the past, the trope now appears to be more popular than ever.

And since mobile, indie and retro inspired games are built upon a legacy of inequality in the medium, the new wave of 80s and 90s nostalgia has brought with it the resurrection of the worst of the old-school Damsel in Distress stereotype. Indeed many of these new titles essentially function as love letters to the trope as a way of paying homage to classic games of years gone by.

This approach is no doubt intended as a kind of shallow meta-commentary on the tired old convention, suggesting developers are only employing the trope because the games that inspired them did so. But this type of “ironic” self-awareness does not challenge or disrupt what the damsel in distress trope says about the role of women in such narratives.

Fat Princess (2009), Hoard (2010), Dokuro (2012) and the aforementioned Spelunky (2009) all include patronizing damsel jokes built right into the gameplay mechanics which turn damsel’ed characters into very literal objects, instead of just narrative ones.

In Spelunky the damsel can be knocked out, picked up, carried around and thrown at enemies before rewarding the player with an extra heart via a smooch of victory (if you manage to get her limp unconscious body to the end of each level while still alive that is).

Fat Princess is essentially one big game of capture the flag but with princesses instead of flags. Teams of up to 16 players work together to rescue their kidnapped princess from the enemy’s castle before the opposing team can save their own princess from your castle. Even worse is the other game mechanic, which allows players to feed their captive princesses slices of cake. The more she eats the heavier she gets, and the more difficult for the other team to carry her back to their own base. Her voice also becomes deeper and less traditionally feminine sounding the bigger you make her.

Clip- Fat Princess

Players are meant to find all of this hilarious of course. So the entire premise of this game is basically built around one big sexist fat joke.

Sometimes this type of self-referential humor is referred to as “ironic sexism”. It’s this “I know that you know that I know this is sexist” where the underlying assumption on the part of media makers seems to be that as long as the sexism is overt, obvious or “over-the-top” then it somehow loses its cultural power and is suddenly no longer a problem.

Ironic sexism is dependent upon the false assumption that “people no longer really hold retrograde sexist beliefs” and therefore the very idea of sexism is now just a hilarious joke; but nothing could be further from the truth.

Words like “parody” and “satire” are often thrown around to describe or defend these comedic depictions of yet more helpless female characters. But a simple wink and nod to the audience acknowledging a sexist trope, while actively reproducing that trope, does not automatically grant a free pass to continue exploiting the trope.

Clip- Cloudberry Kingdom
“You call this a rescue?”
“Who said I was here for you, Princess?”
“Um, every medieval fairytale ever written?”

More often than not the ironic humor is just an excuse used by developers as a way try to and have their cake and eat it too (so to speak). They want to use the trope, but not be held accountable for the inherent negative gender implications that come with it.

Incidentally a few games might have the option to play as a woman in multicharacter lineups, but just because you could choose to play her does mean that this is then magically ok.

A handful of other games attempt to get away with reproducing the Damsel in Distress by offering the ability to unlock and play as the damsel’ed character but typically only after the game has first been completed with the default male hero. However these types of token role reversals do absolutely nothing to diminish the issues inherent in using the trope in the first place.

Now, of course, some of the games we’ve been discussing may also be well made or super fun to play (aside from their regressive gender representations) but the widespread resurrection of old school style Damsels in Distress is still an unfortunate trend because it’s absolutely possible to create indie games that appeal to the retro feeling of the 8 bit or 16 bit era without regurgitating the helpless woman as plot device. There are other ways to pay homage or shout out to the past through art style, game play mechanics or level design. Games like Sword & Sworcery (2011), Where Is My Heart (2011), and Fez (2012) are all beautiful and creative retro style games that appeal to a sense of nostalgia without replicating or falling back on the Damsel in Distress.

Of course games attempting to make light of the damsel in distress are not limited to recent indie games but are part of a long tradition in the medium that continues today with popular mainstream titles like Rayman Origins (2011) and Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (2011) for the Nintendo DS. Since comedy, in and of itself, is often confused for subversion or deconstruction in our current media culture, let’s take a moment to unpack the various ways humor has been employed in relation to the trope.

In the 1994 platformer Earthworm Jim the woman in peril waiting at the end of the game is officially called “Princess What’s-Her-Name”. A reference meant to humorously acknowledge the fact that many damsel’ed characters in classic era titles were so unimportant that they either remain unnamed or were otherwise entirely unmemorable.

So the developers of Earthworm Jim noticed that sexist trend, thought it was hilarious and proceeded to make another game in which a woman is completely unimportant. To add injury to insult, when Jim finally reaches Princess-What’s-Her-Name and is preparing to collect his reward, she is randomly killed by a falling cow.

The bad ending of the indie game Eversion (2008) features a similar joke; when the hero finally reaches the princess, she turns into a monster and eats you alive.

A similar end game punchline can also be found in Castle Crashers (2008). After you’ve saved the 4th princess, and then fought and killed your friends over who gets to claim her, it turns out that she has horrible clown face.

In each case the joke derives from the fact that after completing the long and perilous journey to save his woman, our hero is hilariously cheated out of his “rightful” reward. In other words the comedy comes at the damsel’s expense.

These titles may be attempting to make fun of gaming conventions like the “heroic rescue” or the “smooch of victory” but they don’t fundamentally change, challenge or subvert the Damsel in Distress trope itself. The damsel’ed women remain as disempowered as ever.

Clip- Castle Crashers
“Ah! Help me!”

Now, some will no doubt contend that jokes have no cultural power or significance and should just “not be taken seriously”. This is nothing new, making light of and dismissing gender issues is a sad time honored tradition. But I would argue that this reaction fundamentally misunderstands how humor functions as one of the primary means by which the culture of sexism is maintained and perpetuated.

Mass media entertainment doesn’t just reflect our culture it also works to create it. Sexist jokes in particular serve as a form of cultural permission, which help entrench toxic preexisting attitudes and opinions.

Of course, humor can also be a powerful tool with which to challenge or break down harmful gender myths, but that is much harder to pull off and must be done with careful intentionality.

There is a clear difference between sexist parody and parody of sexism. Sexist parody encourages the players to mock and trivialize gender issues while parody of sexism disrupts the status quo and undermines regressive gender conventions.

Clip- The Secret of Monkey Island
“I’ve come to stop you from marrying Governor Marley”

So for instance when wannabe pirate Guybrush Threepwood finally reaches the kidnapped Elaine Marley in the 1990 adventure game The Secret of Monkey Island, she already has a plan to escape and he ruins it with his attempt to rescue her.

Clip- The Secret of Monkey Island
Oh, Guybrush, you mad fool! I’m impressed you came to rescue me, but it really wasn’t necessary. I had everything well in hand”

The joke ends up being directed at the protagonist, rather than making fun the damsel’ed woman.

There has been much discussion over the ultimate meaning of the 2008 indie hit Braid but it’s notable as an example of a more dramatic game that plays with the trope. Although the narrative is somewhat abstract, it eventually becomes clear that the damsel has actually been trying to get away from the protagonist the whole time.

Both of these games offer some interesting commentary on the heroic rescue formula. Monkey Island asks, what if the damsel is perfectly capable of orchestrating her own escape and attempts to rescue her just make things worse. Braid asks, in part, what if by trying to save the damsel, it actually makes you the villain?

While these types of games are a refreshing departure from the standard formula, and something I’d generally like to see more of, the focus is still squarely on the male characters and so at their core these games are really deconstructing the player’s assumptions about the traditional hero archetype.

A true subversion of the trope would need to star the damsel as the main playable character. It would have to be her story. Sadly, there are very few games that really explore this idea. So as a way to illustrate how a deconstruction could work let’s try a thought experiment to see if we can create a hypothetical game concept of our own.

Clip- The Legend of the Last Princess- Mini Animation

“Like many fairy tales, this story begins once upon a time with the kidnapping of a princes. She dutifully waits for a handsome hero to arrive and rescue her. Eventually, however, she grows tired of the damseling and decides it’s high time to save herself. Of course if she’s going to be the protagonist of this particular adventure she’s going to need to acquire a slightly more practical outfit. After her daring escape, she navigates the forbidden forest, leveling up her skills along the way. Upon reaching her kingdom, she discovers the inevitable yet unexpected plot twist; the royal counsel has usurped power and were responsible for her kidnapping. Branded a traitor and an outlaw in her own land, she unlocks new disguises and stealth abilities to infiltrate the city walls. She makes her way through the final castle to confront the villainous council, and abolish the monarchy forever.”

A story idea like this one would work to actively subvert traditional narrative expectations. The princess is placed in a perilous situation but instead of being made into the goal for a male protagonist, she uses her intelligence, creativity, wit and strength to engineer her own escape and then become the star of her own adventure.

Now I’m certainly not arguing that all stories must include completely fearless hyper individualistic heroic women who pull themselves up by their bootstraps and never need anything from anyone.

Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with offering or occasionally needing assistance.

Clip- Beyond Good & Evil
“Jade! Hang on, Jade! I’m comin’. Free yourself, Jade, I’ll create a diversion.”

The human impulse to help others in need is certainly not a negative thing. It only becomes a problem when acts of altruism are repeatedly presented in heavily gendered ways that are bound up in harmful myths about women as perpetual victims and men as paternalistic saviors.

In fact cooperation and mutual aid are concepts that hold an enormous amount of gaming potential. True co-op games, MMOs and some RPGs offer gameplay possibilities that, if done right, can facilitate a mutual aid style adventure involving people of all genders cooperating. Where is My Heart and Thomas was Alone both employ innovative examples of mutual aid by having a single player control multiple characters working together towards a common goal.

As we’ve established The Damsel in Distress is part of long tradition of mythological narratives dating back through the ages. But those historical roots are no excuse for the continued use of a trope that perpetuates regressive and patronizing myths about women. It’s been 100 years since a woman was first tied to the railroad tracks in this 1913 Keystone Kops short. And it’s been over 3 decades since the hit arcade game Donkey Kong helped entrench the damsel in distress as a default motivation for male heroes in video games as a medium. Yet here we are, still seeing the same old cliche trotted out again and again. It’s long past time to disrupt the established pattern – break the cycle and create new gender paradigms.