I’m genderfluid, which means I identify as both male and female, depending on a variety of factors (including what side of the bed I woke up on that morning). This often leaves me with a feeling of whiplash because, as someone who enjoys video games, I can’t help but notice how many of the video game tropes that screw over women manage to screw over men as well (and how very few people are talking about that side of the coin).
There’s been much discussion of the “Damsel in Distress” trope and how harmful it is to the perception of women in our society. And let’s be honest, it is harmful — it reduces women to prizes to be won. And, while I think there’s nothing inherently wrong with a story in which a princess needs to be saved, I do think that we could do with a few more stories about the princess saving herself.
However, this trope is also harmful to men. (This isn’t an attempt to say that women’s problems are really men’s problems and so women should suck it up; it’s actually about how certain gender tropes harm absolutely everyone, just in different ways.)
See, the Damsel in Distress trope uses women as objects to be fought over and won, but it also forces men to have to fight over women and win them. This might not sound like a problem, since it puts men in the dominant position, allowing them to be strong and capable. However, it creates an unrealistic social expectation, turning the act of romance into a grand, epic battle in which a man simply has to defeat the evil King Koopa to be rewarded with the romance that is his natural due.
If you’re not familiar with White Knight Syndrome, it’s a concept in which a man feels a desire to constantly come to the aid of women. It’s become sort of a slang term for when guys go around trying to protect women just to get laid, but it’s a real concept that psychologists study and publish research on. You may notice that most of the articles you’ll find if you Google the term refer to this as being a distinctly male problem; they don’t talk about female White Knights.
The closest thing to a female White Knight gender trope involves women trying to help a man be a better person. If you try to translate that into an actual relationship, you’ll notice the woman is still socially expected to be a partner to the man. She may love the man because she thinks she can “fix” him, but she still requires the man to actually be a thinking, feeling human being that has his own agency. Otherwise, the entire trope falls apart. If the man can’t have his own agency, then there’s nothing to “fix.” The entire trope rests on the idea that the man can think, feel, and most importantly, change.
Meanwhile, the White Knight trope has nothing to do with the woman herself; it doesn’t require any particular woman or any particular personality trait save passivity. In Super Mario Brothers, you could literally replace Princess Toadstool with — let’s pick a random thing here — an ancient artifact (à la DuckTales), and it would be 7 levels of the exact same thing.
Trying to translate the White Knight trope into an actual relationship is impossible, because there’s no relationship between the man and the woman; the woman literally does not matter. The only thing that matters is the rescuing.
Far too many video game stories involve saving a woman in some way instead of working on an actual relationship. There’s also an implication that a man should be able to get sex as a reward for being heroic. While fiction in general has long had an issue with taking the focus off heroism for heroism’s sake and putting the focus on the reward you get for heroic acts, this becomes especially problematic when the reward is another human being.
Do I think that playing video games where you save the princess turns all men into White Knights? Of course not, no more than playing Grand Theft Auto turns you into a murder-hobo. I do think, however, that we tend to absorb life lessons from the fiction we consume. When we constantly see women used as objects, and we constantly see men rewarded with romance for fixing their problems, then we internalize that idea, at least on some level.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Many more modern games have taken steps to make it work right. Dragon Age Inquisition makes you invest time into interacting with a party member before relationship options happen. The very recent Fallout 4 forces you to build up karma points with companions by committing actions of which they approve before they’re romance-able.
There are even older games that have handled dating and relationships well. Harvest Moon includes streamlined dating sim mechanics, letting you woo a potential partner over time by bringing her gifts and spending time with her. Fire Emblem has you win hearts by fighting alongside someone in battle. These examples are all a bit simplistic, sure, but they still make an attempt at getting things right.
That said, gamers can — and should — demand more from video game relationships. A woman can be more than just an object of rescue, and a man can be more than just a rescuer. Sometimes, it can even be the other way around.
Let’s face it, the Damsel in Distress trope needs to be retired for a bit. Not only because it reduces women to objects, but because it also reduces men to unthinking automatons into which you can place promises of romance and get enemy murder in exchange.