For as long as I can remember, a princess has been in another castle somewhere, in need of some saving, in need of me–the man, the big damn hero.
Growing up, there was nothing strange about this, and I didn’t question it. We all like to think of ourselves as heroes, so it only seemed natural; at such a young age, I didn’t consider the gender inequalities inherent in my favorite video games. The damsel-in-distress as default plot device.
That Donkey Kong had kidnapped a maiden and it was up to a man with a mustache to hurdle barrels to save her…
That The Legend of Zelda was all about the adventures of a boy named Link…
That it was a girl getting punched in the stomach and kidnapped at the beginning of Double Dragon, and it was up to two dudes to save her…
That Princess Angelica needed the Battletoads, that Annabelle Lane needed Bayou Billy, that Princess Prin Prin needed Sir Arthur in Ghosts ‘n Goblins to save her from fucking Satan himself…
That all the boss robots on Mega Man were always ____ Man and never ____ Woman…
That there was no Papergirl or Bombergirl or Mega Girl or Vectorgirl or Earthworm Jenny…
It all seemed par for the course. It all seemed normal. (I didn’t know any girls who played video games at the time, so I couldn’t imagine them being personally bothered. Later I would meet dozens of girls, all avid game players, who were considerably bothered.)
Then, even later, I would come to realize this assumption of ‘normal’ as just one of a thousand different ways in which my mentality had been framed, wired, subtly socialized against the opposite sex.
The first time I played Minecraft with my girlfriend, I remember watching a rectilinear lemon-rind sun rising as she shouted from another room, Hey, how do I be a girl?!
You can’t, I shouted back. Not without going to some website and downloading a skin.
But this IS my skin, I thought I heard her mumble.
That it was her who had to go to the trouble of downloading a skin just so she could look like herself and not me didn’t really seem strange.
That’s because it was something I had the privilege of never experiencing before, and for her it was perfectly normal to have to adjust, to have to take extra measures and do more work just for the privilege of feeling like herself. Of being represented as herself within a game.
My favorite game growing up was Metroid because I thought Samus was a badass.
I remember going to school one day and overhearing two boys talking about beating the game, a feat I couldn’t yet claim.
Did you know Samus is a girl? one of them said.
Oh, the other replied disappointedly. That really sucks. Why’d they do that?
To my shame, I remember feeling a little let down as well. But why? Why did it even matter?
Why did I feel less cool now when playing as Samus. She had a POWER SUIT and a HAND CANNON and could morph into a sphere and roll around! I couldn’t parse my reaction, other than the fact that I wasn’t used to the idea. Because I had never played games as a female before. I had been well educated–in ways both spoken and unspoken–by my culture to see the possibility as wholly unrealistic. The education went all the way back to storybooks. To Little Red Riding Hood getting eaten by the Big Bad Wolf. To Little Miss Muffet being frightened of the spider. To all those Disney princesses needing the magical kiss of a man or for him to bring along a shoe to save her from some curse. To Princess Leia needing Luke Skywalker and Han Solo to save her from the Death Star. To Willie Scott needing Indiana Jones to save her from some freaky, still-beating-heart-extracting cult. They had always been the victim.
Again, much later I would come to see the game as revolutionary for offering us our first female video game protagonist. However, it was no surprise then that the original Metroid ending offered three different views of Samus with fewer articles of clothing on depending on how fast you finished the game. It seemed you could have a female protagonist but not without sexualizing her. (Can you imagine them subjecting Mario to that shit? Or Sonic? Nothing says victory like a blue hedgehog stripteasing.)
I vaguely remember overhearing another conversation regarding the game Tomb Raider.
I can’t get into that if I have to play as Lara Big Boobs or whatever her name is, seemed to be the thesis of one of the boys.
By then, though, I was working hard to unravel, untangle and rewire the misconceptions my brain had accumulated over the years about women.
Against the advice of a friend, I bought the game. I loved it.
Their loss, I figured.
Even if they couldn’t see it, Lara Croft was a badass.
These things may seem innocuous, I know. Small-scale. Harmless. But they’re not. When they add up, the sum is vicious. They influence our attitudes and approach to everyday life if we let them, unless we actively fight them and question the little assumptions and implications that are fed to us through our cultural diet, like those candyesque Flintstones vitamins.
Though there may be far more female heroines in video games today than yesterday, we have only to pop in something like Grand Theft Auto 5 to see how far we’ve still yet to go.
Shit. You only need to glance at an advertisement for the game to see that.
And though a lot of people (men) might argue that the game is intentionally misogynistic because it’s satire, to all those pre-pubescent boys unequipped to “get” the sophisticated satirical commentary, playing it just to race around in stolen cars and run over cops and girls in bikinis, the message is likely missed, but the mental programming regarding the role of women isn’t.
My girlfriend is still pissed that at no point in the game can she play as a female, though I’m not sure why you would even want to in the Grand Theft Auto universe.
On the flip side, the Saint’s Row series is equally exploitative of both sexes, and offers the option to play a transgender character. Portal offers an all-female cast. The Resident Evil series continually offers us strong female presences: Jill Valentine, Claire Redfield, Ada Wong, and though she only appears in the movie version, Alice as portrayed by Milla Jovovich is anything but a victim. Indie game Braid cleverly subverts the princess savior paradigm, so that its male protagonist Tim–and therefore you, the player–are revealed to be the sinister monster threatening the princess in the first place. Even the Gears of War series, once overtly masculine, has evolved to include women, but strong female protagonists still exist as an exception to the rule rather than the rule, it seems. Omission of playable female characters in a major franchise like Assassin’s Creed: Unity is still to be expected. In games like Bayonetta and Lollipop Chainsaw and Rumble Roses and the Dead or Alive series, we get more females, but with the same ridiculous amount of oversexualization.
To this day, if you pop in Super Mario Bros 2 and ask me to pick a character I will fight you to the death to play as the princess. Sure, Mario is even at everything and Luigi looks funny when he jumps and Toad is the quickest, but the princess can fly.
She can fucking fly, dude.
Like, she is by far the best.
Someday soon, a princess is going to arrive at a pixel castle and be told, I’m sorry, princess, but your plumber is in another castle, and this won’t seem so strange.
These days, damsels are no longer in distress.
The truth is, they never were before.
We just like to think of ourselves as big damn heroes when we save them–when we falsely rationalize that they couldn’t possibly save themselves–which is exactly the kind of mentality that traps them in towers to begin with.
Matthew Burnside‘s work has appeared in DIAGRAM, Kill Author, PANK, Hobart, NAP, OmniVerse, and others. He is the author of a few chapbooks, which can be found online at www.matthewburnsideisawriter.tumblr.com. He gets his blog on at www.Thisisnotaliterarymagazine.wordpress.com