One of the earliest memories video game-loving children of the ’80s share is playing Super Mario Brothers on Nintendo. It was an opportunity for kids to step into the skin of a very tiny Italian plumber as he plunged into a series of adventures. The objective of Mario’s mission was simple: he had to save the princess from the big bad in the castle. It would prove to be a prescient model for women’s place in video games in the future. Unfortunately, the plight of these damsels in distress has since became even more distressing.
The latest video in the “Tropes vs. Women,” series, which examines the portrayal of women in games, revolves around the subject of “Women as Background Decoration” and comes with a trigger warning at the top, about the graphic violence against women to come. Indeed, some of the clips that follow should be unbelievable to anyone who hasn’t been exposed to the darker recesses of the video game universe in recent years. Created by Anita Sarkeesian, who runs Feminist Frequency, a series that examines how women are portrayed in pop culture, the video deconstructs the many ways women are depicted as rescue-bait, token victims, devices to establish just how “dark” a game is, and gatekeepers of gratuitous T&A.
Sarkeesian begins making her case with the following straightforward definition of the “Women as Background” trope: “The subset of largely insignificant non-playable female characters whose sexuality or victimhood is exploited as a way to infuse edgy, gritty, or racy flavoring into game worlds. These sexually objectified female bodies are designed to function as environmental texture while titillating presumed straight male players.”
While the first entry in the series focused on the objectification aspect, and had plenty to work with, this time the scope extends to women’s roles as the recipients of male violence. Over the course of the video, we see how games like Assassin’s Creed, Bioshock, and L.A. Noire feature dead or mutilated, but still sexualized, female bodies as world-building props to emphasis each game’s darkness factor, sometimes even in the marketing. It’s an important lesson for those who are steeped in these games, and for those who had no idea what was in them. Grandmaster of all things nerdy and cool, Joss Whedon, has tweeted about the video, urging followers to watch it.
Of course, some of the lesser enlightened souls who grew up on these tropes don’t take kindly to being told that some of their beloved games are inherently misogynist. Sarkeesian had to flee her house earlier this week, in response to some particularly specific threats. It must be terrifyingly unsatisfying to be proven right this way.