This video explores how the Damsel in Distress became one of the most widely used gendered cliché in the history of gaming and why the trope has been core to the popularization and development of the medium itself.
As a trope the Damsel in Distress is a plot device in which a female character is placed in a perilous situation from which she cannot escape on her own and must then be rescued by a male character, usually providing a core incentive or motivation for the protagonist’s quest.
- Check out this site full of videos, images and character bios for Dinosaur Planet
- The Secret History of Super Mario Bros 2 by Chris Kohler at Wired
For more examples of the Damsel in Distress see our Tumblr for this series:
ABOUT THE SERIES:
The Tropes vs Women in Video Games project aims to examine the plot devices and patterns most often associated with female characters in gaming from a systemic, big picture perspective. This series will include critical analysis of many beloved games and characters, but remember that it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of it’s more problematic or pernicious aspects.
Clip- Princess Peach: Mario! Ah! Help!
Welcome to our multi-part video series exploring the roles and representations of women in video games. This project will examine the tropes, plot devices and patterns most commonly associated with women in gaming from a systemic, big picture perspective.
This series will include critical analysis of many beloved games and characters, but remember that it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of it’s more problematic or pernicious aspects.
So without further ado let’s jump right in to the Damsel in Distress.
Let’s start with a story of a game that no one ever got to play.
Back in 1999 game developer RARE was hard at work on a new original title for the Nintendo 64 called “Dinosaur Planet”. The game was to star a 16 year old hero named Krystal as one of the two playable protagonists. She was tasked with traveling through time, fighting prehistoric monsters with her magical staff and saving the world. She was strong, she was capable and she was heroic.
Clip- Dinosaur Planet Trailer Footage
And who might you be, animal girl?
My name is Krystal!
Pretty cool right? Well it would have been, except the game never got released. As development on the project neared completion, legendary game-designer Shigeru Miyamoto joked about how he thought it should be the 3rd installment in his Star Fox franchise instead. Over the next two years he and Nintendo did just that. They re-wrote and re-designed the game, and released it as Star Fox Adventures for the Game Cube in 2002.
Clip- Star Fox Adventures
In this revamped version the would-be protagonist Krystal has been transformed into a damsel in distress and spends the vast majority of the game trapped inside a crystal prison, waiting to be rescued by the game’s new hero Fox McCloud.
The in-game action sequences that had originally been built for Krystal were converted to feature Fox instead. Krystal is given a skimpier more sexualized outfit.
Clip- Star Fox Adventures
Wow. She’s beautiful! What am I doing?!
And yes, that is cheesy saxophone music playing to make sure it “crystal clear” that she is now an object of desire even while in suspended animation – to add insult to injury Fox is now using her magic staff to fight his way through the game to save her.
Clip- Star Fox Adventures
The tale of how Krystal went from protagonist of her own epic adventure to passive victim in someone else’s game illustrates how the Damsel in Distress trope disempowers female characters and robs them of the chance to be heroes in their own rite.
The term “damsel in distress” is a translation of the French “demoiselle en détresse”. Demoiselle simply means “young lady” while détresse means roughly “Anxiety or despair caused by a sense of abandonment, helplessness or danger.”
As a trope the damsel in distress is a plot device in which a female character is placed in a perilous situation from which she cannot escape on her own and must be rescued by a male character, usually providing a core incentive or motivation for the protagonist’s quest.
In video games this is most often accomplished via kidnapping but it can also take the form of petrification or demon possession for example.
Traditionally the woman in distress is a family member or a love interest of the hero; princesses, wives, girlfriends and sisters are all commonly used to fill the role.
Of course the Damsel in Distress predates the invention of video games by several thousand years. The trope can be traced back to ancient greek mythology with the tale of Perseus.
According to the myth, Andromeda is about to be devoured by a sea monster after being chained naked to a rock as a human sacrifice. Perseus slays the beast, rescues the princess and then claims her as his wife.
In the Middle Ages the Damsel in Distress was a common feature in many medieval songs, legends and fairy tales. The saving of a defenseless woman was often portrayed as the raison d’être – or reason for existence – in romance tales or poems of the era involving a ‘Knight-errant’ the wandering knight adventuring to prove his chivalry, prowess and virtue.
At the turn of the 20th century, victimized young women become the cliche of choice for the nascent American film industry as it provided an easy and sensational plot device for the silver screen. A famous early example is the 1913 Keystone Kops short “Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life” which features the now iconic scene of a woman being tied to the railroad tracks by an evil mustache twirling villain.
Clip- Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life
Around the same time, the motif of a giant monkey carrying away a screaming woman began to gain widespread popularity in media of all kinds. Notably, Tarzan’s love interest Jane is captured by a brutish primate in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1912 pulp-adventure “Tarzan and the Apes”. In 1930, Walt Disney used the meme in an early Mickey Mouse cartoon called “The Gorilla Mystery”.
Clip- The Gorilla Mystery
The imagery was even exploited by the US Military in this recruitment poster for World War I.
But it was in 1933 that two things happened which, 50 years later, would set the stage for the Damsel in Distress trope to become a foundational element in video games as a medium. First, Paramount Pictures introduced their animated series “Popeye the Sailor” to cinema audiences.
The formula for most shorts involves Popeye rescuing a kidnapped Olive Oyl.
Clip- Popeye the Sailor
Oh popeye, help!
Second, in March of that year, RKO Pictures released their groundbreaking hit film “King Kong” in which a giant ape abducts a young woman and is eventually killed while trying to keep possession of her.
Clip- King Kong
Fast forward to 1981 when a Japanese company named Nintendo entrusted a young designer named Shigeru Miyamoto with the task of creating a new arcade game for the American market.
Originally, the project was conceived of as a game starring Popeye the Sailor, but when Nintendo wasn’t able to secure the rights, Miyamoto created his own characters to fill the void, heavily influenced by the movie, King Kong.
Clip- Donkey Kong
The game’s hero “Jump Man” is tasked with rescuing a damsel, named “The Lady” after she is carried off by a giant ape. In later versions she is renamed “Pauline”.
Although Donkey Kong is perhaps the most famous early arcade game to feature the Damsel in Distress it wasn’t the first time Miyamoto employed the trope. Two years earlier, he had a hand in designing a 1979 arcade game called Sheriff.
In it a vague female-shaped collection of pixels, referred to as “The Beauty”, must be rescued from a pack of bandits. The hero is then rewarded with a “smooch of victory” for his bravery in the end.
A few years later Miyamoto recycled his Donkey Kong character designs; Pauline became the template for a new damsel named Princess Toadstool and “Jump Man” became a certain very famous plumber.
Clip- Super Mario Bros: The Great Mission to Save Princess Peach
Princess Peach is in many ways the quintessential “stock character” version of the Damsel in Distress. The ill-fated princess appears in 14 games of the core Super Mario Brothers platformer games and she’s kidnapped in 13 of them.
Clip- Mario 25th Anniversary Video
The North American release of Super Mario Brothers 2 in 1988 remains the only game in the core series in where Peach is not kidnapped and also the only game where she is a playable character. Though it should be noted it wasn’t originally created to be a Mario game at all. The game was originally released in Japan under a completely different title called Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic which roughly translates to “Dream Factory: Heart-Pounding Panic”.
Clip: Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic Japanese ad- [Japanese Dialogue]
Nintendo of America thought that the original Japanese release of Super Mario Brothers 2 was too difficult and too similar to the first game so they re-skinned and re-designed Doki Doki Panic to star Mario and Luigi instead.
Clip – Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic
Clip- Super Mario Bros. 2
However the Japanese game already had 4 playable characters, so the designers opted to include Toad and the Princess to fill the two remaining slots, building directly on top of the older pre-existing character models. So really, if we’re honest, Peach is kinda, accidently playable in this one.
Clip- Super Mario Bros 2
Still, she had the awesome ability to float for short distances, which came in really handy especially in the ice levels.
Sadly Peach has never been a playable character again in the franchise. Even with newer games that feature 4 player options, like New Super Mario Brothers Wii and Wii U, the Princess is still excluded from the action. She’s been replaced with another Toad instead as to allow Nintendo to force her back into the damsel role again and again.
Clip- New Super Mario Bros U
Peach does of course appear in many spin-offs such as the Mario Party, Mario Sports and Mario Kart series as well as the Super Smash Brothers Nintendo Universe crossover fighting games. However all of these spins-offs fall well outside the core Super Mario series of platformers. She is the star of only one adventure and we will get to that a little later.
One way to think about Damsel’d characters is via what’s called the subject/object dichotomy. In the simplest terms, subjects act and objects are acted upon. The subject is the protagonist, one the story is centered on and the one doing most of the action. In video games this is almost always the main playable character and the one from whose perspective most of the story is seen.
So the damsel trope typically makes men the “subject” of the narratives while relegating women to the “object”. This is a form of objectification because as objects, damsel’ed 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 tends to reinforce the framing of women as a possession that’s been stolen from the protagonist.
The hero’s fight to retrieve his stolen property then provides lazy justification for the actual gameplay.
At its heart the damsel trope is not really about women at all, she simply becomes the central object of a competition between men (at least in the traditional incarnations). I’ve heard it said that “In the game of patriarchy women are not the opposing team, they are the ball.” So for example, we can think of the Super Mario franchise as a grand game being played between Mario and Bowser. And Princess Peach’s role is essentially that of the ball.
Clip: Super Mario Galaxy 2
Princess Peach: Mario!
The two men are tossing her back and forth over the course of the main series, each trying to keep and take possession of the damsel-ball.
Clip- Mario Sports Mix
Even though Nintendo certainly didn’t invent the Damsel in Distress, the popularity of their “save the princess” formula essentially set the standard for the industry. The trope quickly became the go-to motivational hook for developers as it provided an easy way to tap into adolescent male power fantasies in order to sell more games to young straight boys and men.
Help me! Help me! Help me! Save me! Help! Please help me please!
Throughout the 80s and 90s the trope became so prevalent that it would be nearly impossible to mention them all. There are literally hundreds of examples showing up in platformers, side scrolling beat-em ups, first person shooters and role-playing games alike.
Many of these games drew inspiration from the historical myths that we discussed earlier. Medieval legends, Greek mythology and Arabic folk tales were all popular themes.
Let’s take a quick moment to clear up some common misconceptions about this trope. As a plot device the damsel in distress is often grouped with other separate tropes: including the designated victim, the heroic rescue and the smooch of victory. However it’s important to remember that these associated conventions are not necessarily a part of the damsel in distress trope itself.
So the woman in question may or may not play the victim role for the entire game or series while our brave hero may or may not even be successful in his rescue attempt. All that is really required to fulfill the damsel in distress trope is for a female character to be reduced to a state of helplessness from which she requires rescuing by a typically male hero for the benefit of his story arc.
This brings us to the other famous Nintendo Princess. In 1986 Shigeru Miyamoto doubled down on his Damsel in Distress formula with the NES release of The Legend of Zelda. This was the first in what would become one of the most beloved action adventure game franchises of all time.
Clip- Zelda 2 The Adventure of Link Ad ! The legend of Zela continues
Rescue the princess! Zelda! Zelda! Zelda 2 The Adventure of Link! Nintendo! Now you’re playing with power!
Over the course of more than a dozen games, spanning a quarter century, all of the incarnations of Princess Zelda have been kidnapped, cursed, possessed, turned to stone or otherwise disempowered at some point.
Zelda has never been the star in her own adventure, nor been a true playable character in the core series.
However it must be said that not all damsels are created equal and Zelda is occasionally given a more active or integral role to play than her counterpart in the Mushroom Kingdom. Unlike Peach, Zelda is not completely defined by her role as Ganondorf’s perpetual kidnap victim and in a few later games she even rides a line between damsel and sidekick. Remember the Damsel in Distress as a plot device is something that happens to a female character, and not necessarily something that the character is from start to finish.
Once in awhile she might be given the opportunity to have a slightly more active role in facilitating the hero’s quest – typically by opening doors, giving hints, power-ups and other helpful items. On rare occasions she might even offer a last minute helping hand to the hero after all is said and done at end of the journey. I call this variant on the theme “The Helpful Damsel”.
Indeed Zelda is at her best when she takes the form of Sheik in Ocarina of Time (1998) and Tetra in The Wind Waker (2003).
Clip- The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
In Ocarina of Time, Zelda avoids capture for the first three quarters of the game. Disguised as Sheik she is a helpful and active participant in the adventure and is shown to be more than capable, however as soon as she transforms back into her more stereotypically feminine form of Princess Zelda, she is kidnapped within 3 minutes. Literally 3 minutes, I timed it. Her rescue then becomes central to the end of Link’s quest.
Clip- The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
Similarly, in The Wind Waker (2003), Tetra is a feisty and impressive young pirate captain. But as soon as she is revealed to be, and transformed into her more stereotypically feminine form of Princess Zelda, she is told that she’s no longer allowed to accompany Link on the adventure because it’s suddenly “too dangerous” for her. She is ordered to wait in the castle, which she does until she is eventually kidnapped, while waiting obediently in the same spot. It is noteworthy that in the very last stage of the boss battle, she does help Link fight Ganondorf, for a few brief minutes, which is a refreshing change.
Clip- The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
However the next time Tetra’s incarnation appears in 2007’s The Phantom Hourglass she is kidnapped immediately during the intro. Later she is turned to stone and then kidnapped for a second time.
It’s disappointing that even with her moments of heroism, Zelda is still damsel’ed – she is removed from the action, pushed aside, and made helpless at least once in every game she appears in.
Clip- The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time Original Ad
This brings us to one of the core reasons why the trope is so problematic and pernicious for women’s representations. The damsel in distress is not just a synonym for “weak”, instead it works by ripping away the power from female characters, even helpful or seemingly capable ones. No matter what we are told about their magical abilities, skills or strengths they still ultimately captured or otherwise incapacitated and then must wait for rescue.
Distilled down to its essence, the plot device works by trading the disempowerment of female characters FOR the empowerment of male characters.
Let’s compare the damsel to the archetypal Hero Myth, in which the typically male character may occasionally also be harmed, incapacitated or briefly imprisoned at some point during their journey.
In these situations, the character relies on their intelligence, cunning, and skill to engineer their own escape — or, you know, just punching a hole in the prison wall works too.
The point is they are ultimately able to gain back their own freedom. In fact, that process of overcoming the ordeal is an important step in the protagonist’s transformation into a hero figure.
A Damsel’ed woman on the other hand is shown to be incapable of escaping the predicament on her own and then must wait for a savior to come and do it for her.
Clip- New Super Mario Bros Wii
In this way the Damsel’s ordeal is not her own, instead it’s framed as a trial for the hero to overcome. Consequently, the trope robs women in peril of the opportunity be the architects of their own escape and therefore prevents them from becoming archetypal heroes themselves.
Today many old-school damsel games are being resurrected for modern platforms, services or mobile devices as publishers are in a rush to cash in on gaming nostalgia and capitalize on any recognizable characters from years gone by.
For example- SEGA’s 1993 platformer Sonic CD featuring a damsel’ed Amy Rose has been enhanced and made available for download on a wide variety of modern platforms
Clip- Sonic CD
Jordan Mechner’s famous (1984) Karateka and Prince of Persia (1989), originally released for the Apple ii home computer in the 1980s, have both seen modern HD remakes.
And the 1983 animated Laserdisc game Dragon’s Lair with ditzy Princess Daphne has been ported to just about every system imaginable
Clip- Dragon’s Lair
Daphne: Please save me! The cage is locked! With a key! The dragon keeps it around his neck! To slay the dragon us the magic sword!
Remember Pauline, damsel from the classic Donkey Kong arcade?
Clip- Donkey Kong
Well she has also been revived, first in 1994’s Donkey Kong for the Gameboy and later in the Mario vs Donkey Kong series for the Nintendo DS. Each game features a re-hashing of the old excuse plot with Pauline is whisked away by the giant ape during the opening credits.
Clip- Mario vs Donkey Kong: Mini-Land Mayhem- Mario!
Pauline: Please help me!
The now iconic opening seconds of the 1987 beat-em up arcade game Double Dragon has Marian being punched in the stomach, throwen over the shoulder of a thug and carried away. In several versions her panties are clearly shown to the player while being abducted.
Clip- Double Dragon
The game has been remade, re-released and ported to dozens of systems over the last 25 years, ensuring that Marian will continue to be battered and damseled for each new generation to enjoy. Most recently Double Dragon Neon in 2012 re-introduced new gamers to this repressive crap yet again, this time is full HD.
Clip- Double Dragon Neon
The pattern of presenting women as fundamentally weak, ineffective or entirely incapable also has larger ramifications beyond the characters themselves and the specific games they inhabit. We have to remember that these games do not exist in a vacuum, they are an increasingly important and influential part of our larger social and cultural ecosystem.
The reality is that this troupe is being used in a real-world context where backwards sexist attitudes are already rampant. It’s a sad fact that a large percentage of the world’s population still clings to the deeply sexist belief that women as a group need to be sheltered, protected and taken care of by men.
The belief that women are somehow a “naturally weaker gender” is a deeply ingrained socially constructed myth, which of course is completely false- but the notion is reinforced and perpetuated when women are continuously portrayed as frail, fragile, and vulnerable creatures.
Just to be clear, I am not saying that all games using the damsel in distress as a plot device are automatically sexist or have no value. But it’s undeniable that popular culture is a powerful influence in or lives and the Damsel in Distress trope as a recurring trend does help to normalize extremely toxic, patronizing and paternalistic attitudes about women.
Now I grew up on Nintendo, I’ve been a fan of the Mario and Zelda franchises for most of my life and they will always have a special place in my heart, as I’m sure is true for a great number of gamers out there. But it’s still important to recognize and think critically about the more problematic aspects especially considering many of these franchises are as popular as ever and the characters have become worldwide icons.
The good news is that there is nothing stopping developers from evolving their gender representations and making more women heroes in future games. It would be great to finally see is Zelda, Sheik and Tetra as the protagonists at their own games… and not just mobile DS games, I’m talking full-on console adventures.
Ok, so we’ve established that the Damsel in Distress trope is one of the most widely used gendered cliché in the history of video games and has been core to the popularization and development of gaming as a medium. But what about more modern games? Has anything changed in the past ten years? Well, stay tuned for part 2 where I’ll be looking at more contemporary examples of the Damsel in Distress trope. We’ll look at all the dark and edgy twists and turns and see how the convention been used and abused right up until today. And then we’ll check out some games in which developers have tried to flip the script on the Damsel.
I would like to extend a big thank you to all my backers on kickstarter who have continued to support me and helped to make this video series a reality!