One is the launch of Anita Sarkeesian‘s video series on Tropes vs Women in Video Games, the first episode of which covers “damsels in distress.” You may recall Sarkeesian as the person who launched a Kickstarter for funds to make this video series, and was promptly attacked in vile ways, up to and including threats of violence. (This would be why comments are disabled on the video, I presume, though that hasn’t stopped the nastiness from returning in a number of comment threads all over the Internet).
The other is the story of game developer Mike Mika, who hacked Donkey Kong for his three-year-old daughter, so that she could play as Pauline instead of Mario. This has resulted in lots of accolades for “best dad ever” all over the Internet.
Pauline is of course a prototypical damsel in distress — as Sarkeesian points out, one of the very first in videogames. From time to time, games have subverted the damsels in distress trope in various ways (in Karateka, the princess seems like a damsel in distress the whole time, but at the end, if you approach her wrong, she kills you; in Metroid, the protagonist famously turns out to have been female the whole time, concealed in battle armor). But by and large, it’s alive and well.
So lots of accolades for Mika, and a lot of vitriol for Sarkeesian. And along the way, a lot of apologia for the damsels in current games. We’ve seen people saying that rescuing women is a male instinct driven by hindbrain biology. We’ve seen the argument that it just costs too much to provide alternate gameplay modes. We’ve seen the case made that games already have a predominantly male market, and that’s why the games are designed the way they are, to maximize revenue — essentially a tautology (and one that ignores early games like Ms. Pac-Man, not to mention the enormous boom in the female audience that came with more casual play). And of course there’s the fact that it is undeniably a classic plot device used in many classics of literature.
My wife Kristen is an as-yet unpublished romance novelist. She’s got one novel out there right now being looked at for full-length publication (e.g., she got past the query and sample chapters). She’s been working on this stuff for years… and I first started paying attention closely back when I did that Love Story Game Design Challenge at GDC back in 2004. And I think there’s a lot we can learn from romance novels — and it doesn’t mean that the plot device has to go away.
Few genres are as rigid as romance. They are incredibly formulaic, and often exist as sheer wish-fulfillment. Many feminists will dismiss them outright as regressive.
Now, formula and genre go hand in hand, and to state that they are formulaic isn’t intended to denigrate them. Mysteries are equally formulaic, after all. A reader of romance novels has expectations: they want a Happily Ever After. They want an interesting story. They want challenges along the way to true love. This is no different than the various tropes around detectives, the expectation of actual science in hard SF, or all the various bits cribbed from Tolkien in fantasy novel after fantasy novel after fantasy novel.
And yet, here’s this genre that is all about finding a good husband — but it does a way better job of avoiding “the pattern of presenting women as fundamentally weak, ineffective or ultimately incapable” that defines “damsels in distress” (to use Sarkeesian’s words).
One of the core tenets of this genre is that at some point “the guy rescues the girl.” She is almost always an actual damsel (“a young unmarried woman of noble birth”, though sometimes she’s not actually noble and the class gap is one of the plot points to overcome), literally in distress: about to be married off to someone wrong, about to become penniless, whatever. But sometimes, she just needs rescued from herself: from a an emotional problem or “character flaw” that she must overcome. In other words, in romance novels, the arc is about a woman growing as a person.
Except that another core tenet is that at some point the girl “rescues” the guy. Romance novels don’t work unless both protagonists have a “critical flaw” that they must overcome, and find that the other person is the means to doing that. What makes a romance novel a satisfying story is that the couple helps each other grow. They “rescue” each other (in the broadest sense).
Generally, the woman is the viewpoint character. Oh, you can have the guy’s viewpoint too, and many novels do. But one of the commonest reasons romance novels fail is because the male character is cardboard, and takes no action other than worshipping the woman. Those tend not to get published, and the romance novelist forums are full of discussion on how to avoid this pitfall.
Having the female viewpoint also means that there is no way for the female protagonist to be passive. If she is, then nothing happens in the book — something must occur while the guy is offstage, after all. So passive protagonists are usually considered to be poor writing. (Many of the critiques around the Twilight series revolved around this… and yet, Bella is way less passive than the typical videogame princess!)
The female characters tend to be shy but spunky, feel constrained by their social roles, almost always do something that violates social convention quite badly (i.e., they play against the damsel trope)… in fact, you could see the entire genre as being a manual on how to deal with the fact that the world sees you as a helpless damsel. (In fact, one of the commonest “character flaws” for the female protagonist is an unwillingness to accept help!).
It is also typical that the actual slave to societal mores, the actual coddled princess, is usually an older female antagonist who is pushing the younger woman to conform to expected socially constructed gender roles (“you must come out at the ball!” “Don’t go there unescorted!” “Heavens, what will they think?!?”). It isn’t unusual for this character to have a moment sometime in the book where “she remembers the girl she used to be” or the like, and joins the protagonist in rebellion (often in a quiet way).
Of course, the biggest convention is HEA: Happily Ever After. Romance novels end there because what comes after is much harder and much more complicated. They are fairytales, after all.
But I think they have a lot to teach us as we think about the “damsels in distress” trope. If a romance novelist had written Donkey Kong, Pauline would escape sometimes. She’d save Mario’s bacon at least once. When he got to the top, maybe she’d reject him at least once (romance novels usually have a “cold feet” moment, sometimes many). It wouldn’t even be hard to do these things, and the game wouldn’t have to change one whit.
There’s a difference between telling the fairy tale and the sexist trope.