“Save us!” The Objectification of Women in Video Games

“Damsel in Distress,” is a popular term utilized and personified in media such a literature, movies and of course, video games. But what does it actually mean?  According to Urban Dictionary, there are three definitions:

1. A stereotype of portraying an unmarried female who needs to be saved.

2. any female in need of aid

 3. A usually beautiful, virginal, virtuous, and hopelessly passive young woman constantly in need of rescue by the dashing hero.

None of which are all that flattering…


This ever popular term can been seen in games as early as “Sheriff,” (pictured above) which was an arcade game developed by Nintendo in 1979 which displays a “female” character referred to as “The Beauty,” who must be rescued from a group of bandits. (1)



Another popular game who’s gameplay revolves around this idea of “The Damsel in Distress” is the famous Donkey Kong (1981) in which the game’s hero “Jump man” must rescue the female character referred to  as “The Lady” from the giant ape. Later on “The Lady” is referred to as “Pauline.”


Princess Peach is also one the most iconic “Damsels” in Super Mario Bros.   The princess appears in “14 games of the core Super Mario Brothers platformer games and she’s kidnapped in 13 of them.” (1)

The utilization of the stereotypical “Damsel” in video games portrays women as mere objects that act as rewards for the leading character and in turn leave “the female characters disempowered and helpless without the aid of the empowered male.” (2)


And in games in which women aren’t shown as the “Damsel,” they’re still overly sexualized which consecutively objectifies them (as seen in the photo above).



Though there are games that employ a female leading character such as Lara Croft, Portal, Resident Evil (2 and 3), Silent Hill, Nomad Soul and Perfect Dark, they’re widely overshadowed by games that employ a male protagonist.


The popularity of this topic can be seen in the YouTube Series “Tropes vs Women in Video Games” is a project that “aims to examine the plot devices and patterns most often associated with female characters in gaming from a systemic, big picture perfective.” (1)  The series really goes into detail and examines examples of the “Damsel” in video games.

The noted objectification in video games doesn’t necessarily deem the games as “sexist,” but instead shows the must needed character evolution for women in video games.  Yes, “sex sells,” but the gaming world has expanded far beyond young teenage boys, and according to Nielsen Entertainment’s third annual Active Gammer Benchmark Study, 64% of the nation’s 117 million online gamers are actually women. (3)    It’s important for the objectification of women in video games be address because it’s not only a significant problem in the video game world, but it speaks volumes about women’s social roles.


The creator of the YouTube series Tropes vs Women, Anita Sarkeesian stated the following:

“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.” (1)

Women are in fact still treated differently from men, whether we want to fact it or not, and by the utilization of this common “Damsel in Distress” theme in video games which are so universal just instills the idea that women are in fact inferior to men. I believe that video game developers need to expand along with their demographics, and create games that  properly and equally represent women, who make up more than half of their target audience.



Sources used:





Image sources:

1. http://www.arcade-history.com/images/game/2412_1.png

2. http://www.ratewall.com/cpics/abf87dc5-9227-4203-a64a-d1cae2e096aa_classic_arcade_donkey_kong.jpg



5. http://game-flush.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/resident_evil_5_2-wide.jpg

6. http://gamechurch.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Tropes-Vs-Women-in-Videogames-2.jpg


  7 comments for ““Save us!” The Objectification of Women in Video Games

  1. March 20, 2013 at 10:28 pm

    I’ve always found it unfortunate that women in video games are largely either helpless, sex symbols, or both. Granted, women such as Chell and Zelda (in some incarnations) manage to defy these tropes, but these characters alone are not enough to spark major reform regarding character design.

    Another example of the bias against female characters can be found in the development of “Remember Me,” as defined by this article: http://www.crunchyroll.com/anime-news/2013/03/19/publishers-turned-down-remember-me-due-to-woman-protagonist. Apparently publishers had a problem with the main character being female, saying it would never sell. Worse yet, upon learning that the main character would be exploring relationships, certain higher-ups said they had a problem with games that would effectively force men to make out with male characters.

    The fact that this is even an issue is deplorable. Men are being used as the primary demographic, and that’s not right. Furthermore, if enough men in the gaming community feel so strongly as to bash “Remember Me” for making them kiss a man, then I have no hope for my sex as a collective.

  2. Evan
    March 20, 2013 at 11:21 pm

    I’d have to agree with your points on the “damsel in distress” theme that is employed time and again. Unfortunately many of the most memorable female characters such as Peach and Zelda. As previously stated, there are some interesting examples in a few Zelda games.

    In “Ocarina of Time”, Zelda is represented in two forms: Sheik (whom players assume to be male) and in her normal, princess attire. When she is masquerading as this male Sheik, she seems like a force to be reckoned with, guiding Link on his journey and fending for herself throughout the course of a few years. However, when she turns back into Zelda, she is immediately captured by the antagonist, Ganondorf, and relies on Link to save her and defeat Ganondorf/ Ganon by himself. It is debateable, however, as whether this is empowering for women or playing into the gender roles, depending on how one analyzes the Sheik/Zelda characterization, as she is indeed a formidable character throughout the game, but she dresses as a man to do so.

    Fortunately, there are games such as Skyrim and Mass Effect in which the main character can be male or female (and from what I understand the female Shepard in Mass Effect is the more appealing option due to the voice acting being sharper and more skillfully-done throughout), which I think is a game-aspect that she be explored more often.

    I also found a pretty great list of damsels in distress throughout video game history: http://tropesversuswomen.tumblr.com/

  3. Bekka
    March 21, 2013 at 1:09 am

    I read the article dryer linked a few days ago and was shaking my head the entire time. I think it’s ridiculous that the idea of a strong female protagonist is still something that is questionable. More and more women are playing games and, honestly, I’m sick of damsels in distress. For years women have had to see themselves as helpless, over the top sexy, or both while playing as a male protagonist. Is it really that hard to have men do the same – play as the opposite gender? It shouldn’t be. Playing as a girl shouldn’t be hard to market or sell. There are plenty of female gamers that would buy the game and I’m sure male gamers too even if, shocker, the protagonist wasn’t overly-sexual. (Well, I’m trying to be optimistic here…)

    More games are starring women, or are allowing the choice to play as a woman – a trend I hope continues. But we still see so many female characters objectified, which is relevant to societal ideas about women like you said. Media reflects current values and ideas. And women in movies and games are still shown as needing help from a male figure. Women don’t need saving. They’re just as capable as their male counterparts who don’t need rescue. I wish that would be recognized.

  4. bharris
    March 21, 2013 at 1:35 am

    Ok so I figured it might be fun to play devil’s advocate here. To be clear, I agree with what you’re saying, I just figured having some discussion here would be fun. 🙂 Please don’t hate me.

    There are two ways I would go about doing this.

    Phrasing and framing are extremely important parts of any discourse, so let’s take what you’re calling “objectification”, which evokes the idea of treating an individual female as a treasure chest, and what if we were to call it, say, “noncharacterization”. Rather than treating the female as an object, as something without rights or a humanity, you’re just not focusing on them. For the most part in these mainline Mario games Peach is not on screen for more than 90% of the game. I won’t deny that she’s rescued by Mario in the end of all of them, but for the most part I’m pretty sure that’s all you know. She’s not the focus, she could be planning and executing escape attempts all the time for all you really know, only to eventually be recaptured. The point is, the game isn’t about her or her struggles. Her identity as a person is irrelevant just as Bowser’s is irrelevant because he’s just a bad guy. Does the very existence of the phase “bad guy”, in addition to the fact that most villains are male, mean that society believes guys are evil? Even Mario’s identity is irrelevant because he’s an avatar with no character development, no identity and no dialogue. There isn’t really a comment on her personhood so much as it isn’t ever explored.

    The other thing you might say, which is actually pretty much the opposite of that argument, is that pretty much everything is objectified in media, because that’s how we relate to it. Love is objectified. We don’t love Rachel McAdams, but (some of us) watch The Notebook because that idea of love is something that we want. If the idea of chasing after a girl is demeaning to women, is the idea of wanting to date a boy? Not wanting to date Johnny, mind you, the feeling that “Man, I wish I had a boyfriend” that something like The Notebook evokes in one. Is that not objectifying and devaluing the romantic connection between two people? If repeated depictions of damsels in distress is damaging, then you’re implying that sparing depictions of damsels in distress are still lightly damaging, but not enough to be problematic. Is this different than violent video games, which are generally accepted by gamers to be ineffective at affecting general behavior, with the scientific evidence leaning in that direction as well (if it affects it at all)? If somebody decides that they want a relationship with another individual and value having a relationship over who their relationship is with, we write that person as an individual off as ignorant or shallow. Why should we not adopt the same behavior to individuals who think that women are weak and need to be saved?

  5. jaustin
    March 21, 2013 at 4:11 am

    I read this twice because I have two opinions about this situation all together. On one hand I feel like women are not “Damsels in Distress” because women are more powerful and stronger than people realize. Just like the urban dictionary says “stereotype” that is what game makers do to women I feel like they do not go out and do research on how females act and how strong they actually can be. When we stereotype women it is just like stereotyping any race, it is bad and unfair to whoever is being judged. On the other hand I can understand it would be hard to make a game that equally represented women. I feel like most games that have a Damsel in Distress if we were to treat women equally those games would disappear I mean yes you can rescue a child do not get me wrong but then there is only one real reason to take a child and that is for ransom money and that gets old. While you can kidnap a women and make it out of several things, for example jealousy, anger, or in the end she left to be with someone else. I think that back in the older times when games were coming out they viewed women as this delicate flower that needed to be protected and rescued. I feel like from what we were back in the 70s and 80s women in video games are changing and having more women as the main character instead of the distressed one I believe that the gaming industry for women in distress is changing but not as fast as people would like but still moving and we have to give them credit for that. And let’s be honest here how weird would it be to see a male in distress, does not even sound cool.

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