In Feminist Frequency’s video essay “Damsel in Distress (Part 1),” Anita Sarkeesian discusses the iconic, but highly problematic, Damsel in Distress trope and its widespread employment in video games of all kinds. Inspired by the abundance of damsels of distress in everything from mythology to film to propaganda, video game creators have frequently used women in need of rescue as motivation for their games’ protagonist. Sarkeesian points out that this trope, which portrays women as objects, rather than actors, is perpetuated not just because of continued misogyny, but also because of nostalgia for these formative, yet sexist, games. Fans of classic video games will pay good money to revisit the games of their childhood, guaranteeing that games based on the Damsel in Distress trope continue to be played and loved by new generations of gamers. I didn’t grow up on video games, but, as I reflected on my childhood medium of choice—books—I realized that I too am nostalgic for misogynistic stories.
Growing up, I absolutely loved Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorenson. The Newberry Award winning story focuses on Marly, a young girl in 1950s America whose father suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. In attempt to heal her father, Marly’s family decides to move to her grandmother’s old house in rural Pennsylvania. As Marly observes the changing seasons and the change in her father, she grows to love her new life on Maple Hill. I’ve reread this book multiple times, and I’m always captivated by its quiet simplicity and reverence for the natural world. And yet, this last time I reread it, I noticed something that I hadn’t before—sexism. And a lot of it. An abundance of 1950s-style gender roles that continually impact Marly and her mother.
For example, when the family first arrives at Maple Hill, Marly is about to set off and explore the house, when her mother reminds her to get back in time to clean the old dishes before dinner, saying: “Marly—this is the first place we women have start to dig.” Marly expresses her pride at being included in “we women,” but I only wondered where Marly’s dad and brother were. (They obviously weren’t included in dish-duty.) Another time, Marly tries to go exploring with her brother, but he won’t let her come, because she’s a girl. Marly laments the fact that she, as a girl, is always too afraid to explore by herself, while her brother does it all the time. Later on, Marly’s brother won’t let her help make maple syrup because she’s too weak to carry the buckets, an idea that Marly protests until her brother gives in. While I’m sure that as a little girl I was already aware of these kinds of harmful stereotypes, I now wonder how much Miracles on Maple Hill further contributed to my own internalized misogyny.
And yet, I still love it. Nostalgia will forever tie me to it, the favorite book of my childhood, in the same way I imagine that gamers will forever love The Legend of Zelda or Mario Brothers. Though the Damsel-in-Distress sexism of those games is fundamentally different than the sexism in Miracle on Maple Hill—Marly is less objectified—they both still perpetuate outdated ideas about women.
After the last time I read Miracles on Maple Hill, I wondered what I would do if, someday in the distant future, I have a daughter looking for something read. Would I recommend Miracles on Maple Hill, knowing the idea of womanhood it perpetuates? (Would there be any books left to recommend?) If I were to pass Miracles on Maple Hill on to my future daughter, I can’t magically get rid its sexism. Although I hope I’m wrong, I doubt society itself can get rid of its own sexism by then either. And this is where video games come back in. Books are static. There’s no new version of Miracles of Maple Hill scheduled to be released in the future. You don’t have to constantly upgrade books as the technology to experience them advances. Video games, however, are constantly updated and revamped. If FIFA and Madden can change their players and graphics every year, why can’t countless Damsel in Distress games change their portrayal of women? The constantly changing nature of video games provides the perfect opportunity for at least one medium to leave its sexist past behind and create a new kind of nostalgia, one that can fully embrace the past without hesitation.
(I posted this before 9 but I forgot to include the image cred, so here it is: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Miracles_on_Maple_Hill_1956_cover.jpg)