Monday, 3 June 2013

Lies, damned lies and statistics

Anita Sarkeesian admits that she ignores context of particular games in order to analyse a more systemic problem. That's certainly the first thing her fans will throw in your face when you start to argue how the context Anita ignores actually refutes her argument. However the problem with doing these kinds of global overviews while ignoring context is that you can twist anything you find to say whatever you damn well please. After all, don't you think that if you can explain away practically all of the individual examples, your overall conclusion has to reflect that rather than reach the opposite conclusion?

Since this is meant to be understandable by people who don't know anything about Borderlands, I shall try to be as complete as possible. There will be spoilers for Borderlands 2.

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics
(Tropes vs Women part 2, Borderlands 2)

So Anita Sarkeesian uses Angel from Borderlands 2 as an example not just of a Damsel in Distress, but a Euthanized Damsel. This being a Damsel in Distress who can't be saved and who has to be killed instead to be put out of her misery, thus subtly promoting violence against women (sigh..., here's a video of how well a male domestic abuse survivor takes such a disgusting notion). Frankly, the previous video merely annoyed me because of the bad information. This one offends me because of Anita's utterly disgusting statements. She does not get to tell men how they supposedly feel as a man when confronted with certain scenes or what they take away from it. For someone preoccupied with analyzing the underlying messages, she should really pay attention to what she is saying herself.

For reference, here's a link to the full Angel section:

Damsel in Distress?

"Another popular Gearbox game, Borderlands 2, also uses this plot twist when Angel asks the player to murder her as a way to thwart the villain's evil plan."
- Anita Sarkeesian

 Let me first point out that Angel is not a Damsel in Distress in the first place. Let's pull up her first video and take a look at her definition of what a Damsel in Distress is according to her:

"A female character is placed in a perilous situation from which she can't escape on her own, and must be rescued by a male character, usually providing the core incentive or motivation for the protagonist's quest"
- Anita Sarkeesian

Perilous situation? Not really. She was never in any physical danger considering she was the daughter of the game's antagonist. He cared about her safety so much that not only had he placed her in a bunker, but created a huge, aerial battle station called BNK3R on top of the bunker. She only gets put in a perilous situation when the vault hunters arrive to retrieve the vault key they need.

Must be rescued by a male character? Nope. At no point was there even the hint of a plan to rescue her or any intention to do so. In fact until the moment we actually get to meet her, we are led to think she's just a very advanced AI. In the first game we know even less about her. Furthermore, Borderlands has multiple protagonists and not all of them male, more on that later.

Motivation for the protagonist's quest? Nope. The vault hunters weren't motivated by a desire to rescue her at any point. As I said, nobody was aware that she was an actual person. Instead they infiltrated her bunker to get the vault key back.

The only thing left is her inability to escape on her own, but that still has the problem that she wasn't planning on escaping. She was merely tired of having her powers abused by her father to serve his insane plan and considered the odd friendship she had with the vault hunters to be more important. Furthermore, I don't consider the ability to control practically every single piece of mechanical equipment on the planet to be particularly lacking of agency.

So yeah, even from the big picture, global overview that Anita wants to analyse, one of her more prominent examples shouldn't even be on the list at all.

That's not to say Borderlands 2 doesn't use damsels in distress though, it's just that one of them is named "Roland", who gets kidnapped while being kidnapped and gets shot through the chest seconds after Angel dies. But I'm sure the fact that Lilith gets captured afterwards nullifies any of that. I'm also sure that the option to have Lilith literally liquidate Handsome Jack at the end of the boss battle is just a token gesture of pseudo-empowerment, because her being a player character in the first game doesn't count as empowerment. Distress is only problematic when it happens to women after all. It happening to both genders and the player characters being whatever the player desires apparently isn't "gender equality" when it can be framed against larger issues.

Anyway, notice how she puts emphasis on you requiring to murder Angel without actually showing it like she does with some of her other examples? That's because you don't actually murder her. Her life support simply gets turned off when you destroy the machine connected to her. Which, like Anita cutting out the dialog between Jen and Tommy in her footage of Prey, only serves to deepen the disgust of Anita's fans who happen to be unfamiliar with the games in question. Another tactic I consider to be at least a bit dishonest.

On Player Characters

Here's something else I think was funny. The "Vengeful Beast" under the experience bar and special ability icon on the left clearly indicates that Anita (or whoever she got the footage from) was in fact playing as Salvador, the Gunzerker. What this means is that Anita created or chose footage of male-on-female violence in a setting where she actually had the ability to pick a female character.

As of writing, there are 6 playable characters you can pick from the start (although 2 of them have to be purchased): Axton, Salvador, Zer0, Maya, Gaige and Krieg. Out of those 6, 2 of them are female (there goes Smurfette Principle). The game itself is also meant, or at least capable, to be played with several people at once. What this means is that the narrative has to reflect that. The interaction with the player has to be as neutral as possible, which includes gender neutrality. The player character is only ever referenced in singular and as "vault hunter".

In other words, not only is there no actual male-on-female violence considering you don't actually have to harm Angel yourself, it's also very possible to not be playing as a male character at all.

Borderlands 2 Playable Protagonists

In The Face

"These damseled women are written as to subordinate them to men, they submissively accept their grisly faith and will often beg the player to perform violence on them, giving men direct and total control on whether they live or die. Even saying thank you with their dying breath. In other words, these women are asking for it. Quite literally."
- Anita Sarkeesian

It's really hard to take a statement like that seriously when using Borderlands 2 of all things as an example (especially when seconds earlier she mentions you have to murder Jen from Prey by shooting her in the face). Not just because heroism in Borderlands is gender neutral, but because this game literally has a (male) character named Face McShooty who gives you the quest to shoot him in the face (and he's very specific about where he wants to be shot) and will shout out "thank you" with his dying breath. It's almost as if Anita is mocking us with the fact that she can get away with saying absolutely anything and she'll still be taken seriously. The "Shoot This Guy in the Face" quest is admittedly a side-quest, but it happens before we get to meet Angel, and anyone paying a bit of attention would have noticed the guy waving his arms yelling to be shot in the face.

... Okay seriously, I'm not making this up.

It's not the only one either. Much earlier in the game we find a cult dedicated to the Firehawk. One of the more insane followers (although that's not saying much) asks to be set on fire to honor her.

Borderlands simply takes place in a very messed up world and Angel was the victim of her father's messed up sense of morality. That's why he's the bad guy. Of course Anita bunkers herself in from arguments like this with the nonsense that individual examples do not count because of these elusive larger problems. I obviously disagree very strongly. Context matters.

A Man Chooses, A Slave Obeys

In the original Bioshock, when we finally catch up with Andrew Ryan (the bloody king of Rapture), he starts a monologue about what separates a man from a slave ("A man chooses, a slave obeys"). Up until that point we think he is going to be a boss we'll have to fight. However, something very different happens. Knowing his time has come, he simply orders the protagonist to murder him. The entire thing serves as a huge plot twist so I won't spoil everything (unless you don't care or have already played Bioshock, in which case click here), but the point is that the player character is not allowed any other option than to kill Ryan. The brilliant writing allows a murderer to become a slave and the murder victim to be 'a man'.

In essence this is exactly the same what happens to these women who force the protagonist to kill them for whatever reason. What Anita qualifies as women subordinating themselves to men by putting their lives in their hands, is actually the reverse situation. We as the player often have no other choice but to shoot, and heart-wrenchingly we sometimes are forced to pull the trigger ourselves, but the women have elected to die on their own terms. I find it somewhat astounding how this is not discussed. When a man does it, it is considered one of the best and most powerful scenes in recent gaming history, but when a women does it suddenly it becomes problematic BECAUSE she is a woman? Even when the gender of the player character is not an issue? How are Angel and Andrew Ryan different, aside from Ryan's monologue about the situation? 

Now let's hope something interesting happens in the next couple of weeks so I can talk about something else than Feminist Frequency.

Links / References:

In Response to:

Other people speaking on the same topic:
eacaraxe: Tropes vs Women vs Context
eacaraxe: Tropes vs Women vs Context Part 2  (Also about Borderlands 2)


  1. Completely agreed. what more do I need to say

  2. You sir are a gentleman and a scholar.

  3. Actually I don't see a contradiction. Sarkeesian looks at games in general and at awfully repetitive patterns. You look at BL2 specifically and think that this one game by itself has more variety regarding damsels than what Sarkeesian sees in the overall market (I can't really tell because I haven't played BL2 and won't rely on anyone else's opinion).
    What I find most interesting is the way you try to set up a 'counter-example' with Bioshock's Andrew Ryan. You ignore a lot of context there yourself.
    Andrew Ryan is and has been in control the whole time up to and including his death. He has not 'elected' to die by the player's hand, he has *forced* him - and there's a key difference whether the "game itself" forces you to do something because it won't progress until you do it, or if also the plot is about your character *not* having any choice (because someone mindcontrols you etc.)
    So, to bring another example to the table, the Andrew Ryan situation would be a little more comparable to Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (spoiler alert): Desmond is forced (e.g. body-controlled!) by Juno, a female god-like entity to kill his love interest Lucy, who up until this time has been anything *but* a damsel in distress (saved Desmonds ass several times). And guess what? No, I don't view this as 'problematic' at all. It could have explained better to the player *why* Juno wanted Lucy dead, but that's another matter. This is completely different than what most other games have offered (still waiting for a female assassin as main character in a 'real' AC game though - portable spin-offs don't count).

    So, to respond to your assumption:
    "When a man does it, it is considered one of the best and most powerful scenes in recent gaming history, but when a women does it suddenly it becomes problematic BECAUSE she is a woman?"
    No. Not at all. Even *if* one game played the whole damsel and "kill me"-Trope straight, it would not be a problem by itself, no matter the gender of the damsel. The actual problem is, that it's almost *always* women, who are almost *always* not in control of the situation, and that it's a largely preferred trope for lazy (and mostly male) writers.

    1. It's not about having a direct parallel with Andrew Ryan, it's about the women, like him, having the choice of going through with the sacrifice or not instead of this just being a mindless display of violence against helpless women. It makes no sense to make these character out to be weaker than they are.

  4. Insightful post. You deserve more comments!