In almost every single game you can think of where there is a one-dimensional, “Damsel in Distress” character with zero purpose other than to be saved by the protagonist, you will find that the protagonist himself is a one-dimensional, unchanging and undeveloped character as well.
The two most pervasive examples she harps on are The Legend of Zelda and the Super Mario games. In both of these, the main “Damsel in Distress” (Zelda/Peach) is a pretty faceless, boring character that doesn’t change or grow at all, and has only incredibly minimal influence over the actual plot of the game. However, to be fair, the protagonist of both games (Link/Mario) is equally boring. Can you honestly think of Link or Mario as anymore than one-dimensional characters whose sole purpose for existing is to save the aforementioned damsels? One could argue that their raison d’être is equally dehumanizing: they exist only to fulfill their role in freeing the captured woman. While it’s true that the Damsels themselves have no agency or influence over their own actions, the agency that the protagonist has over himself is still incredibly limited as every single action he partakes must ultimately lead to the salvation of said Damsel.
It’s important to note, again, that these games are not games that deal in plot. No one says that the Ocarina of Time was one of the greatest games ever created because of its deep and intricate plot. In fact, most high school kids could write up a more detailed and interesting plot, or characters that weren’t horrendously one-dimensional. I’m not sure if its fair to analyze the trope of “Damsel in Distress” as being so incredibly detrimental to the development of female characters in games where there is zero character development anyway.
The problem, according to Anita, is that “this is a form of objectification because as objects Damsel women are being acted upon, most often becoming or reduced to a prize to be won, a treasure to be found or a goal to be achieved. The brief intro sequence accompanying many classic arcade games tend to reinforce the framing of women as a possession that’s being stolen from the protagonist.” Well, “reduced” is a very strong word. I would argue that women are used in place of objects or trophies in order to avoid said “reduction” into an object: people inherently care more about rescuing people than objects, it’s just human nature. Just because we’re talking about rescuing a woman in these circumstances doesn’t really “reduce” her to an object. If anything, women are used BECAUSE they are not objects, thus providing a quick and easy (albeit incredibly lazy) way to get people emotionally connected to the game. Would you say that the daughter in “Taken” was “reduced” to an object because she was the primary motivation for the protagonist’s journey through the film? What about the little girl in “Man on Fire”? What about Nemo in “Finding Nemo”?
Anita claims that “the hero’s fight to retrieve his stolen property then provides lazy justification for the actual game play.” This is true, but…so what? The purpose of Zelda or Mario games aren’t to explore rich, detailed worlds with incredibly complicated plots and characters; the games are mainly action adventure games. In fact, it would detract from the game play for them to spend a lot of time fleshing out characters because it’s not what the game was ever originally designed for. Same for the aforementioned movies as well – they are simply set up as entertaining revenge flicks, why would we talk about “character development” in reference to ANY character involved?
“At its heart, the Damsel trope is not really about women at all. She simply becomes the central object in a competition between men.” When Anita makes statements like these, I feel like she’s completely missing the point of these video games. They are incredibly simple games, from a plot perspective. Why inject so much subtext into such a mind-numbingly simple narrative? Link and Mario have to save their respective princesses. That’s it. There is no “competition between men” for Zelda or Peach. The games are puzzle games where the player has to solve puzzles to advance the plot. There is no complicated back and forth between Link and Gannon where Zelda was a previous lover to Link who is now being brutally raped by Gannon. It’s not like Mario is teetering on the brink of insanity after being separated from Peach and Bowser is constantly taunting him by torturing Peach. The plot in these games is non-existent, so why focus on it so much?