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Academic Analysis and Unintentional Subtext

This is not an article on feminism, it’s an article about how we talk about feminism. Academic analysis goes into many other directions, it’s just that feminist critique is what has been most associated with video games for various reasons…most of them unfortunate. It’s only in the last few years that games have really started to undergo this sort of analysis and a lot of gamers don’t have a clue what to make of it. Other media, like books or movies or music, have been getting examined this way for decades. The fact that games are now included is actually a sign that the world is taking them more seriously as an art form, which is something a lot of us have wanted for a long time.

So why does academic analysis of games, feminist or otherwise, get met with such an angry, defensive reaction? Well, I can’t totally explain that, but I think part of it is just a general lack of knowledge of how this kind of analysis even works. That doesn’t make anyone stupid by any means (although sending someone a death threat is definitely stupid), it’s just that there’s no reason for most people to ever get exposed to this stuff. My first taste of it was my freshman year at college, when I became a student of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. This was different than studying film production, which is the technical process of making a movie. This was pure academia – learning about the history and theory of the medium.

I considered myself a major film buff, but I had never engaged with movies quite like this before. It was no longer just looking at the decisions of the creators, like cinematography or subject matter, it was going even deeper and looking for messages hidden far beneath the surface of a film. It was pretty bewildering at first, but I grew accustomed to the concept and even came up with my own name for it – unintentional subtext. It helps me remember to distinguish this stuff from intentional subtext that writers use to support their story’s theme.

The struggle is real!

So when someone says something like “the whole damsel in distress thing in games is sexist,” your initial reaction to that may not reflect what the person actually means. It’s not an accusation of sexism against the developer or people who enjoy the game. After all, it’s pretty rare that a developer will intentionally insert sexism or racism or any “ism” into a game, especially a big commercial one. They’re out to make money, not to provoke people. I highly doubt Shigeru Miyamoto and the rest of the Nintendo team sat around and table and said “You know what? Women out there are getting too brave. Let’s have the princess kidnapped by a giant reptile, that will teach them a lesson!” That kind of thing isn’t what happens and academics know this.

Whatever sexism exists in the damsel in distress trope is communicated through unintentional subtext. Pointing out its prevalence in games is a way to demonstrate just how deeply ingrained this stuff is. Casting women in roles where they need to be rescued by men has been a staple of entertainment and mythology for centuries. It’s no wonder it comes so naturally to writers. Pointing that stuff out and making us think about it is the whole point of this sort of analysis. It’s not an accusation against anyone in particular, but against the big picture.

Keep in mind too that there’s no law that says you have to buy any of this. Everyone’s got their own threshold. I hit mine when I read an essay on the Disney version of Pinocchio. The author was claiming that the relationship between Figaro the cat and Cleo the fish was a metaphor for the way men look at pornography. Yes, I’m serious. (Although the cat does kiss the fish right on the lips near the end, hmm…)

We don’t all have to agree, but we do have to accept that this sort of analysis is out there and will only grow more prominent. Video games are hanging out with the big kids now and this is part of the package, like it or not. There is a lot more I could say on this subject and maybe I’ll return to this topic at a later date. For now, what do you think of all this? Have you ever read an academic analysis that really blew your mind? How about one that made you roll your eyes? Let’s share them in the comments!

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