So, Anita Sarkeesian has a new series of videos that is out to address the use of the Damsel In Distress trope in video gaming.
Here’s Part 1.
I fired it up and started watching, hoping to hear an interesting and nuanced discussion. I’ll give it this; she definitely does pick out many examples of games where you have to Rescue The Princess or Save The Girlfriend. To the exclusion of anything else. But, even when she’s addressing the Legend of Zelda series — one of the more traditionally mythic storylines — she never seems to address the one critical point.
The heroes are saving the princess because the princess is important.
The fact that she misses that point is… bad. Quite bad, really.
I’ll probably write about Zelda some other time, because there’s quite a lot to dig into there — and it’s my favorite story in gaming, anyway. But today I’ll rebut her ‘argument’ by focusing on one classic NES game — THE classic NES game, one could argue. A game with a rich and symbolic story, telling of powerful magic and the great mystical connection between females and the power of nature itself. Yes, today I’ll be writing about… Super Mario Bros.
What, didn’t you ever read the manual? Check out Page 2!
Or, I’ll summarize: The Mushroom Kingdom has been overrun by black magic turtles. Under their sway, the good Mushroom citizens have been turned into stones, bricks, and plants. To make matters worse, Toadstool, the Princess of the Mushroom Kingdom, has been kidnapped by the Koopa King, a towering spike-shelled reptilian named Bowser. But why does he kidnap the princess? It’s not just because “that’s the plot.” It’s not just to give Mario a reason to defeat Bowser. In fact, it’s not about Mario at all.
Princess Toadstool is “the only one who can undo the magic spell on the Mushroom People and return them to their normal selves.”
Mario is not the one who saves the world here. The Princess is. Mario is just some schlub who has to fight his way through level after level, obstacle after obstacle, in order to find and free the person who has the actual power.
Not only does Mario not have the power to save the Mushroom People, his own greed and power actually destroy the people. Remember what that manual said about bricks?
Remember getting the power-up mushrooms and smashing the hell out of those bricks to get more points or find some coins?
Mario’s a blundering greedy murderer!
Assume Mario knows that the Mushroom People have been turned to bricks, and that’s why he’s saving the Princess. Assume you play like usual — stomping on enemies, smashing bricks, gathering powerups, all that jazz. Congratulations! You’re a monster! I mean, think about it. You can jump over all of these enemies. You don’t actually have to kill them. But you probably do. You don’t actually have to break bricks and take power ups. But you probably do. I mean, that’s the point of the game, right?
That’s just the thing. IS it?
Yes, it is possible to rescue Toadstool and beat the game without smashing a single brick, or squishing but one single Goomba. Disregarding the time it takes to let the clock run out, it’s actually faster and less dangerous. If the point is to Save The Princess — and, more precisely, to NOT DIE before you save the princess — that enemy-avoiding method would probably be the best idea, yeah? After all, these enemies aren’t pursuing you. Except for the Hammer Bros. and Bowser himself (and his decoys — whoops, spoiler alert for any time-travelers from 30 years ago,) most of them don’t even direct an attack at you. They only hurt you if you touch them. Which, again, they aren’t going to do unless you goof up and walk into them, or unless you stand there and let them walk into you. Even Bowser can be defeated passively — and much more easily, at that — by grabbing the axe at the end of the lava-moat bridge. You just let gravity do all the work.
However, that’s not as fun.
When you play the game normally, all Mario can do is smash things, kill enemies, and gather — more accurately, steal — coins that he never can spend. In his world, Mario may be a plumber who makes his living by using tools, getting dirty, fixing problems, and providing services to others in need — but in this world, the Princess’s world, Mario is an oblivious agent of destruction, desecration, and greed. It’s hard to even see him as brave or noble — what kind of coward would kill something he can so easily avoid? What strength does it take to jump on something’s head until it dies? Mario’s most significant trait isn’t strength or courage or bravery or love. It’s just endurance. He can run and run and run without stopping; he can jump for hours without his legs giving out. And that’s it. Every other power he gains, like shooting fireballs or becoming invincible or becoming, well, super, he gains from the magic powers of the world he’s invaded — powers which, one might suspect, have the Princess as a source. (So far as the story goes, only Bowser and the Princess are magical agents — and if the Fire Flowers and Invincibility Stars are Bowser’s work, you’d think his minions would use ’em.)
To go even further into the potential symbolism, you could even draw a parallel between the gauntlet Mario runs and the elaborate, painful, arguably unnecessary rites of passage many cultures require for a young male to become a “real man.” Moreover, there might be a parallel between the abduction and isolation of Toadstool due to her life-restoring power and some cultures’ ritual seclusion of women, often in darkness — where, at menarche, the woman is treated with the same mix of reverence and fear as divine kings, and given to think about the immensity and significance of her capacity to bear life.
But let’s reel it back in a bit.
Some people – even in this modern Western culture – want to portray Super Mario Bros. as an anti-feminist fantasy because the Princess is passive and takes no part in her own rescuing. That’s technically true, but, well, given that she’s trapped in a pit in a castle, she isn’t able to rescue herself — and, again, that’s kinda the point. Yes, the Princess is trapped and rendered powerless — and that’s exactly what’s caused all the problems in the world.
The moral of Super Mario Bros. is this: Bad Things Happen When Women Are Stripped Of Agency.
Mario isn’t better than Toadstool; it’s hard to say anything more complimentary than that he performs some necessary evil in order to restore the balance of the good. The Princess doesn’t have to fight monsters or kill anything in order to be powerful enough to save the world. She just has to BE, and the world becomes as it should be.
And that’s where things get weird.
If a game were made where a female character could only be successful in proportion to how well she embodied certain negative female stereotypes — like vanity, ditziness, helplessness, etc — and oh, they have been — critics would rightly argue that the game perpetuated those stereotypes and was to some extent anti-woman.
But it’s vanishingly rare for one to look at a game where a male character is successful only in proportion to how well HE embodies certain negative male stereotypes — like violence, rashness, crudeness, etc. — and to call it anti-male. (And, yes, I get that a male who lives up to male stereotypes is likely to be more successful than a female who lives up to female stereotypes. That embodying male stereotypes is seen as “better.” But isn’t that a problem, too? Isn’t that THE problem?)
Ultimately, Super Mario Bros. says worse things about males than about females. It says worse things about what males will do, when given the opportunity – smash and kill, even when it’s not necessary, even when it’s more dangerous, even when it makes it more unlikely that they’ll meet their ultimate goal. It says worse things about what males value – money and rank, even when they’re not necessary, even when they’re arbitrary. It says that they value power, even when they only gain that power from an external source. It says worse things about what males have to endure in order to matter — miles and miles of peril, whereas all a woman needs to do is EXIST to be powerful. It says that players — mostly young men, at the time the game came out — should aspire to a self-destructive sort of heroism.
And it says worse things about what men find rewarding.
What happens when Mario gets to the end of a level? All he gets to do is lower Bowser’s flag from the flagpole. He doesn’t raise his own. There’s no little victory dance. He doesn’t do the Mario. The only celebration that happens is if you happen to finish with 1, 3, or 6 seconds left on the timer’s last digit — and then there’s a corresponding number of fireworks from the castle. And then he just walks in there.
(I always wondered about those fireworks, though. Who was setting them off? Was there still some Mushroom Citizen holed up in there, celebrating Mario’s victory? Was it some traitorous Goomba?)
What happens when Mario reaches the Princess? Do we get to see her save the world and bring the Mushroom Kingdom back to balance? Do they kiss? Do they even make contact?
Nope. The text you see is this:
“Thank you Mario! Your quest is over. We present you a new quest. Push Button B to select a world.”
Mario doesn’t win the Princess.
Mario doesn’t save the world, doesn’t even get to see it saved.
Mario wins nothing but another fight.
And when he gets to the end of that one, when he meets the Princess again, does he “win her” then? Does he save the world then?
Nope. You see the same text.
Sure, Joseph Campbell’s idea of the Monomyth may be overly simplified, but it’s still interestingly apt here. Given the Princess’s powers, this would seem to be the Meeting With The Goddess, the sacred marriage, the unity with the anima. But does that unity really happen? The penultimate step of the Monomyth, usually, is becoming Master of the Two Worlds, coming to power both in the outside world one’s done all the adventuring in, AND the domestic world of their home. Mario has to master two worlds all right — but they’re both alien, both dangerous; he never gets that final step of Freedom To Live. There’s no credits roll, no “The story is over,” no closure.
Mario never gets to stop running that torturous gauntlet. Toadstool never gets to bring the world to balance. Or, at least, it isn’t shown. They’re never even shown to leave the castle.
Mario only gains the illusion of freedom by accepting a second, more agonizing quest.
The usual interpretation says that Mario gets to Do Things and act upon the world, whereas Princess Toadstool just sits there in distress and waits to be rescued. That this supports the idea that males are powerful and strong and active; females are ineffectual, weak, and passive. That the Princess exists only to be saved.
But, if anything, it’s the opposite. Mario exists only to save the Princess. Everything else he “gets to do” doesn’t matter. The coins don’t matter, the kills don’t matter, the points don’t matter. He doesn’t have any dialogue. He doesn’t display any emotion. Mario has no personality whatsoever. He’s a total proxy for the player. Nothing done by Mario matters, except for rescuing the Princess and returning her to her full potential.
You want to talk about video games setting weird examples of gender roles? The Damsel in Distress has occurred in fiction of all sorts, for ages — but it’s only in video games that the hero, the male protagonist, is so stripped of personality and humanity. It’s a game mechanics thing, I know — early on, it had more to do with memory demands; even in modern games, the silence of the protagonist is a space that the player can fill with his or her own thoughts and emotions. If we don’t feel like we’re in control of the player character, we don’t feel like we’re playing a game, and the whole point is stripped away. So, it’s not like it’s done for no purpose. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be interpreted, can’t be seen as symbolic, or can’t have ramifications on what players come to think about the nature of heroes and heroism.
Personally, I think a player would come away from Super Mario Bros. — and, potentially, most other damsel-rescuing / world-saving games — less with a toxic impression of females and their roles, and more with a toxic impression of the purpose of males. That males want to — or should — attack anything that moves, and that they can’t or won’t solve problems peacefully. That males are expected to fix any problem, by whatever means necessary. That males should not need help. That males should not ever show fear, nor any other emotion. That males should not ever get physically tired. That males are greedy, and will gather money or points or anything else just for the sake of Having The Most. That males cannot make a mistake without it meaning their death, and the probable end of the world. That males should suffer intense pain, without displaying emotion, just to be considered men at all.
Sure, games downplay the mythic significance of the Princess, the way she’s important to the unity and order of the entire world. But they also downplay the practical, worldly issues of the hero — playing him up as something more than just himself, all the while disregarding the absolute trauma that prettymuch any given game puts the guy through. What’s worse, honestly — being kidnapped and held in a pit, or running for miles, forgoing food, water, and sleep, and fighting off battalions of enemies at the risk of life and limb? That we’d see the one as problematic and the other as perfectly natural, even desirable or glorious, is telling.
In the end, anyone who thinks the Damsel In Distress trope is inherently misogynistic just doesn’t have a good enough imagination. I’m not saying it’s inherently misandrist, either. It’s just a method of telling a story, and it’s not inherently problematic to -anyone-. But I do think it could be used in more interesting ways than it currently is. And I’m not just talking about sprite-swapping and pronoun-editing, either, fun as those are. I have ideas for a game where the intro makes you believe it’s a standard rescue-the-princess game — but, in actual gameplay, you ARE the princess, you know it’s a setup, you escape, and you have to try to reach the ‘hero’ before he destroys himself. Or a game where the young male protagonist does have to face dangers to save a female who’s important to him — his mother. He’s not the only person in the world who’s capable of it — he’s just the only one who cares enough. It might have different gameplay, as well – sure, you could hit the enemies with a bat, but implicit in the entire story would be “What would your mother say?” Or, just a straight-up Save The Princess / Goddess / World one where it gets a little more heavyhanded with that symbolism — and a lot more sympathetic to the trials the hero goes through.
Women don’t have to be damsels in distress. But men don’t have to be heroes in distress, either.