You don’t need to have seen Anita Sarkeesian’s second video to follow along here. I’ll clip out the parts I’m referencing and try to keep it short and to the point. If you want to watch it, and haven’t, I highly recommend it, you can find it here.
I’m not going to debate the whole of the piece. If Damsels in Distress is a trope that exists. If it’s a problem. I’m not justifying it, or going over any 101 level discussion. Put on your big-kid pants, we’re skipping right ahead to one specific and important point that matters to you, be you a game designer, a GM, or someone who actually bothers with character background when building your character. Ready? Good. Let’s do this.
The meat of it is this: if you want to avoid the damsel in distress trope in your stories, at your table, or in your game, you might need to look at your system itself.
There are a hundred reasons to avoid the damsel in distress. Why? Anita covers that better than I can. Simply put, though, without getting too deep into gender politics and gender roles, you might want to avoid it strictly because it’s a trope. And a trope is something a million people have done before a million times a million ways. Can you bring something NEW and FRESH to a trope. Probably. If you’re really clever. But what if you aren’t? Or worse yet, what if you only THINK you are, but ha ha, turns out you actually aren’t as clever as you thought.
Case in point, and in specific, ‘spicing up’ the Damsel in Distress by turning her into the Euthanized Damsel. Sarkeesian defines her in this way;
A combination of the Damsel in Distress trope and the Mercy Killing trope. This usually happens when the player character must murder the woman in peril “for her own good”. Typically the damsel has been mutilated or deformed in some way by the villain and the “only option left” to the hero is to put her “out of her misery” himself. Occasionally the damsel’ed character will be written so as beg the player to kill her.
Aside from the fact that this is UBER creepy, it has been done a million different times. So if your thought was to change things up by making the object your character is chasing a woman and a woman who’s gonna have to be killed in a surprise twist at the end. Maybe don’t. Because it’s been done.
So the question is, why has it been done? Why has the Damsel and the Euthanized Damsel in particular been such a fall back for game designers and campaign writers as well as character authors.
Again, Sarkeesian goes into the gender politics there very deeply. You should see what she has to say. But she also brings up one point that I find very salient, and very fixible. Something you should really look at. Here’s what she says:
Despite these troubling implications, game creators aren’t necessarily all sitting around twirling their nefarious looking mustaches while consciously trying to figure out how to best misrepresent women as part of some grand conspiracy.
Most probably just haven’t given much thought to the underlying messages their games are sending and in many cases developers have backed themselves into a corner with their own game mechanics. When violence is the primary gameplay mechanic and therefore the primary way that the player engages with the game-world it severely limits the options for problem solving. The player is then forced to use violence to deal with almost all situations because its the only meaningful mechanic available — even if that means beating up or killing the women they are meant to love or care about.
So what? Am I saying that if you like a good bit of sword slinging in your gaming that you abuse women?
Uh, no. Not even a little.
Rather, I’m saying look at what options you have at your table. What choices are you giving your characters. What are you presenting as the most desirable option on an out of character and meta level? What are you rewarding the most mechanically as well as emotionally?
What kinds of tools are you giving your characters and your players in dealing with their potential damsels? (If you must.) If your game has a mechanic for stabbing things, and a mechanic for picking locks, when you tell them there’s a woman in trouble, they can and will unlock doors and stab people. That’s pretty much it. You’ll get your creative types who will find a way to justify unlocking a person or stabbing a door, but in general, you can assume, they will unlock doors and stab people. That’s what the game tells them they can do, that is what they will tend to do.
If all you need is a McGuffin for the characters to chase, an object for them to run around trying to acquire/win/free, must it be a Damsel? If what you need is an object, why must it be a woman with all the complicated gender politics that implies? If it has to be sentient, must it be helpless? (Choice choice choice!) If you must design your surprise ending to involve killing the McGuffin, what are you saying if you insist that it must be a wife/daughter/female/lover, and what are you saying if she HAS to die, or HAS to be beaten and beg for death?
Look to your system here, your mechanics. Have you given your players mechanical outs? Skills they can use. Evidence they can find to change the final conflict? What other parts of the system, the game, can be utilized to have the tension of ‘oh shit, we gotta kill someone we love’ without the predetermined, ‘well, she was corrupted, we had to kill her. Brutally. And she begged.’ What’s in your GM or designer toolbox to give your players a myriad of choices so that, in the end, they have options beyond euthanizing a helpless damsel.
And building from that, the next level question. You have your scene with your helpless (or surprise monster!) damsel, and you have character options available to your players. They can use the blessed stone of billy! They can talk their way through the badguy! They can sneak in and out and end run the whole damn thing! Awesome.
Are any of those choices boring? Are any of those choices stupid for the growth of the characters? Are any of those choices sneered at a bit when you describe them? Does your system devalue some of those choices by making them fidgety, weak, or otherwise unfun? Is it just easier/more fun/more valuable to character growth mechanically to just storm in there and kill people?
Because if the answer is yes to these questions, a lot of tables are going to shrug and rush to killing and brutalizing your damsel. Which puts you in that creepy place. That dull place that’s been done a million times before. And now you run the risk of being a boring game master or designer.
And no one wants that for you. Or your table. Seriously.