Deconstructing Damsels: Hacking sexism in the game industry

Posted on: Wednesday, March 13 2013

By Matt Sussman, Marketing & Development Associate

Feminist Frequency's Anita Sarkeesian is back with the latest installment in her YouTube series on deconstructing sexist tropes in video games. This episode, co-produced by BAVC Next Gen Instructor Jonathan McIntosh, examines the figure of the "Damsel in Distress" and asks why so many games feature female characters as passive objects to be rescued rather than as active agents.

Recently, programmer Mike Mika took matters into his own hands when his young daughter expressed disappointment that Pauline, the damsel in distress in arcade classic Donkey Kong, wasn't a playable character. As The Verge reports, "after a few late-night hours spent hacking the NES version of Nintendo's classic, [Mika] accomplished the role reversal his daughter had wished for." Mario was now the one in need of rescuing and Mika's daughter had an active protagonist she could identify with.

Unfortunately, there aren't enough Mike Mikas in the world. In a recent longread on The Bold Italic, former video game journalist Chris Holt writes about the puerile atmosphere that enabled much of the sexism he witnessed while covering the industry: "People keep saying the video game industry is sexist because it's dominated by men," he writes. "They've got it wrong: The industry is sexist because it’s dominated by immaturity."

Being mature would require being able to heed Sarkeesian and Holt's respective calls for accountability without resorting to the very same trolling that Sarkeesian has been subject to and that Holt labels as symptomatic of the industry's current "'douchebaggery teenage' phase." Given all the cries of "reverse discrimination" in the comments on The Verge article, that day still seems far off.

In the meantime, it's important for critics like Sarkeesian and Holt to keep calling the game industry out and to encourage more progarammers and insiders to follow Mike Mika's example.