Anita Sarkeesian’s video series, Tropes vs Woman in Video Games, has become something of a hot topic in the video game community as of late. In it, Anita breaks down tropes pertaining to woman that are commonly used in video games and argues that they should be removed from games because they are damaging to woman and the image of woman as a whole. The gaming community at large has more or less decried her video series and taken a firm “Anti-Anita” stance of varying degrees. Some have out-right threatened or insulted her, while others have simply shaken their heads in shame when they saw the “facts” she was claiming in her videos. For the record, I’m in that second group.
Now I’m only a (not-so) humble Psychology Major/Communication Minor with a Bachelor Degree, so I’ve got nothing on Anita’s Master’s Degree in Social and Political Thought. But even I can see some major issues with both the arguments Anita makes in her videos and the way in which she makes them. That being said, that’s not why I’m here today; but a quick search on Youtube will net you all the critical analysis for her videos that you’ll ever need for those of you interested in them.
Today isn’t about picking apart Anita’s videos though. No today I’d like to construct my own trope, “The Infested Damsel in a Fridge”, and use it as an example for how and why tropes as a whole do have a place in video games; and how judging a character by tropes alone does both yourself and the character a disservice. I will be bringing up some of Anita’s point though, as they are sometimes a perfect example of the kinds of things I’m trying to speak out against. This is going to be a long one folks… so buckle up!
Most of you are probably familiar with the “Damsel in Distress” trope, as it’s used all the time in pretty much every medium known to mankind. A girl is in trouble and a guy has to go save her, it’s as simple as that. But the “Damsel in Distress” trope isn’t the only one that exists out there, and the “Woman in the Refrigerator” (which isn’t actually limited to just woman) is just one of the other examples that Anita brings up in her video. Anita then merges the two into a ‘new’ trope that she calls the “Damsel in the Refrigerator”. Which is more or less when a female character is killed, yet their soul is kept around and the main character has to then go save it. It’s a double whammy, so to speak, and fuses the two tropes into one.
For those of you wondering what exactly a “trope” even is, it’s more or less a stereotype or situation used in storytelling so often that it becomes predictable. Or as Webster’s defines it: “A common or overused theme or device.” If you’re interested in exactly what kinds of tropes exist out there, then let me point you towards one of my favorite sites on the web, TVTropes.org. If you’re willing to waste a few hours of your life losing yourself on a wikipedia site, than look no further!
It’s at this point that I’d like to finally mention the star of this post: Sarah Kerrigan. Sarah is perhaps the most important character in the entire StarCraft franchise, and just like any character, is the subject of more than a few tropes. What’s important though, is that she serves as the perfect counter example to a number of the tropes Anita mentions while at the same time playing to them. So let’s start at the beginning… with the first StarCraft.
WARNING: HEAVY SPOILERS for both StarCraft games and their expansions are about to follow. Get out now while you can!
In the first Starcraft game, Sarah is introduced and more or less serves as a typical “Action Girl” who runs around being awesome with her psychic powers, sniper rifle, and ability to cloak herself and become invisible. She’s a side character of sorts, played off as the hot, red-headed space assassin ninja that the story’s “main character”, Jim Raynor, falls for. Indeed, the first time the two of them meet one of the first things she does is call Jim a pig, as she could read his thoughts and knew he was checking her out. That little hiccup doesn’t stop these two love birds though, and the two of them managed to get along fabulously…
At least until they are betrayed by the man they are working for and Sarah is left to die as swarms of Zerg (evil bug aliens) overwhelm her position and kill her.
Jim isn’t very happy with all that, and eventually ditches the d-bag that betrayed them (Arcturus Mengsk) and vows to take him down. Seems like a pretty clear cut case of “Woman in the Refrigerator”; Kerrigan is killed and Jim’s story arc is all the better for it. Only, it doesn’t actually work out that way. See, Kerrigan isn’t actually dead.
In reality she was taken by the Zerg and remade into a unique human-zerg hybrid. The reason? She’s got awesome psychic powers and the Zerg wanted a piece of that action. Now dubbed “The Queen of Blades”, Kerrigan is now an unstoppable and sadistic monster that rampages around and does what she wants. Jim eventually learns of Sarah’s fate, and does his best to reason with her and convince her to stop being so dang evil. It doesn’t work of course, but he does try.
Eventually the Zerg are ‘defeated’ when the other races ban together and kill of the Zerg hivemind, a creature aptly named “The Overmind”. Unfortunately though, killing the Overmind only leaves a power vacuum that needs to be filled; so Kerrigan steps up and decides to fill it. What follows is what’s known as the “Brood War”, and all that you really need to know is that in the end of it all Kerrigan became the ruler of the Zerg and killed off anyone who tried to stop her. This includes killing off a good friend of Jim’s, Fenix, a fact that Jim does not take very kindly too as it causes him to swear vengeance on Kerrigan for all she’s done.
Skip ahead a few years and Kerrigan is “laying low” while Jim and his rag-tag group of freedom fighters are waging a rather pitiful war on Mengsk and his Dominion. Being our plucky protagonist though, Jim is eventually thrust into conflict and soon meets an old friend of his, the Protoss Zeratul, who brings grave tidings…
Now we have ourselves a good old fashioned “Damsel in Distress” scenario, with Jim now knowing that he must somehow spare/save Kerrigan’s life in order to save everyone else from some unspeakable evil. Alternatively, you may consider this a full on “Damsel in the Refrigerator” situation; with the Kerrigan we all know and love having died long ago when she became the Queen of Blades.
“But wait!” you might say. “If she’s actually dead dead then it can’t be a “Damsel in the Refrigerator”, because some part of her has to be ‘alive’ for that to be true.” And you’d be right. Only Jim, being the upstanding guy that he is, believes deep down in the cockles of his heart that somewhere within the Queen of Blades lies Sarah Kerrigan. And as luck would have it, he’d have the perfect chance to find out! As he eventually learns of a way to use an ancient artifact to un-infest Kerrigan and turn her back into a human! And, sure enough, he’s put into the exact situation that Zeratul said would happen…
So there you have it, a once overwhelmingly strong and damn near unstoppable female character is literally stripped of her status as “Queen bitch of the Universe” and made into a cowering weak thing suspended in the strong arms of her man. That’s pretty damning right there, and more or less proves everything Anita is arguing for.
Only the games don’t end there, and neither does Kerrigan’s story.
Cue StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm, the expansion to the first installment of StarCraft 2 that features Sarah Kerrigan as the main protagonist of the story.
The game starts with Kerrigan under lock and key while being poked an prodded by scientists trying to get a handle on just what exactly she is now (as she looks human but still has awesome psychic powers and Zerg dreadlocks). Sarah plays along, even though it becomes painfully obvious that she could break out anytime she wanted too. This touches on another trope Anita talks about in her second video, where so often times a male character will just break himself out instead of waiting to be saved. Well when the shit hits the fan and Mengsk’s Dominion finally catches up with Jim and Sarah, she does just that. Sarah even murders a few of her attackers in the process before having a lovely little reunion with Jim…
Of course our characters don’t get off scotch free though, and it turns out that Jim got kidnapped. Oops. Only it doesn’t stop there. See in her brief search to try and find Jim Sarah then learns that Mengsk didn’t just capture him, but had him executed. Uh oh. Do I smell a “Man in the Refrigerator”? Sure do. Sarah sure seems pissed about the whole thing…
Now you remember that prophecy that Zeratul was talking about earlier though? Well Kerrigan is off to go fill her place in it, even if she doesn’t realize it at first. Indeed, a large chunk of the story in Heart of the Swarm revolves around Kerrigan eventually returning to her Zerg armies and trying to unite/lead them once again. Although she’s pretty much just as powerful as she was when she was as the Queen of Blades, more than one scene shows that she hasn’t truly lost her humanity, despite what she may want her enemies to think.
Oh, and remember when I said that Jim was dead? Yeah. Turns out he was actually just kidnapped. “Damsel in the Refrigerator” much? Oh well. Looks like it’s up to Sarah to go save him!
“But wait! I thought Sarah was human again?!”
Well she was. But in order to save Jim, Sarah had to re-infest herself once more and become a ‘purer’ Queen of Blades unhindered by the Overmind’s previous influence. While biologically a Zerg once again, she still retains the morals and personality of her human self; she is now a literal fusing of both the Queen of Blades and Sarah Kerrigan.
“Hold up, you mean to tell me that it took saving Jim, a male character, to finally push her to accept herself and embrace herself as a whole?”
Yep. In much the same way that every other male character who quests to save a princess only ever reaches his full potential while on his journey. Sarah is now ‘one of the boys’, while Jim has joined the lofty ranks of Princess Peach and Zelda. Heck, in her journey Sarah even has one of those quirky “boss” battles against a shape-shifter who likes to turn into loved ones and mess with your mind. If that doesn’t get her membership into the ‘Save the Princess Club’ then I don’t know what else will. Anyway…
Following Jim’s release from incarceration, both him and Sarah decide to set aside their differences of opinion for the time being and do the one thing both of them agree 100% on: killing Mengsk…
And there you have it! That’s all we really know about Kerrigan’s fate until the next expansion comes out.
Now before you try to point out that Kerrigan still had to be saved by Jim at the last second, I’d like to make it known that Mengsk is one of those paranoid tyrant types who is ALWAYS prepared. Always.
And let’s be honest, it would be even worse storytelling if Kerrigan just flew around killing whoever she wanted with zero risk what-so-ever. Hell, that’s practically what happens anyway. So I think we’re going to have to give this one to Mengsk. Besides, Jim was only there because Kerrigan broke his drunk ass out of jail in the first place.
And come on now… Jim and Sarah are a couple! They’re allowed to help each other out. Or would you have rather have had Jim just stand in the doorway and yell “Come on Sarah! You’re a strong independent woman that I care about! You can do it!”? Jim would never have been able to reach Mengsk without Sarah’s help, and she would have been stopped by Mengsk had Jim not been there to intervene.
That’s kind of the point of it all. Two characters, that care for each other, are capable of helping each other out and being there for each other regardless of gender or social stereotypes. It doesn’t matter who saved who, or who is the protagonist of what story arc; all that matters is that at the end of the day they care for each other and they are both willing to sacrifice for the other.
Anita is very found of saying that the games that feature all these tropes don’t exist in a vacuum; and that’s true! But neither do the characters themselves. I could have stopped telling you Kerrigan’s story at a number of points and framed her to be a perfect example of how video games use tropes to harm woman; but if I did that I wouldn’t be giving you the whole story.
Sarah is just one of many characters in the StarCraft universe, and to ignore the setting and other characters that inhabit Sarah’s world would be robbing both you and Sarah of all the great conflict that she goes through. Yet, ignoring all that is precisely what Anita wants you to do! As she puts it…
“Just because a particular event might “makes sense” within the internal logic of a fictional narrative – that doesn’t, in and of itself justify its use. Games don’t exist in a vacuum and therefore can’t be divorced from the larger cultural context of the real world.” – Anita Sarkeesian
That’s all well and good Anita, but if we stop using the internal logic of a fictional narrative then nothing will ever make sense. That’s the whole POINT of a story; to draw the reader/viewer/player into its world and make you believe that the characters you’re reading/watching/playing as are a living part of that world!
Could you imagine if real-world politics played a bigger role in who killed who in A Game of Thrones than the in-setting politics? That’d be 100% absurd. Fiction and storytelling offers us an escape from the real world; that’s why it’s fiction.
So yeah, tropes can be bad. I don’t think any of us are denying that. But they can also serve as the most relatable conflicts to pit characters against; and stories can’t exist without some kind of conflict. Sarah Kerrigan is a perfect example of how one character, and a female character mind you, can both suffer from and be empowered by the tropes that drive the conflicts in her story. She isn’t defined by them alone, but they do help shape her into a complex and interesting character.
So keep Sarah in mind the next time you hear someone spouting a bunch of rhetoric about gender stereotypes in movies or games; because sadly the focus is so often placed on what media does wrong instead of what it does right. A stereotype will remain a stereotype until the norms of a culture change and new stereotypes are created; that’s just how it works. So focus on the positive, and talk about the games or characters that you love! Only then will we be able to change our cultural outlook and finally do away with these remnants from ages past.
Thanks for reading everyone!