(Trigger warning for images of violence towards women in Batman: Arkham Knight. If you would like to read my piece without seeing the images used to illustrate my argument then click here to view a version without any images, just the text. Also, spoiler warning.)
One of the side quests in Arkham Knight has you trying to save Catwoman from the Riddler, who has strapped an explosive collar to her neck. After completing one of the eight trials Batman and Catwoman are talking. Batman says “You must be honored.” Catwoman replies “At being what? Your motivation?” This exchange reads like a subconscious acknowledgement on the part of Rocksteady at the role of women in Arkham Knight: motivation for the player.
Every single female character of significance in Arkham Knight is made into a damsel-in-distress at some point. If you read my review you’ll know I railed on Rocksteady (the developers of Arkham Knight) for this, but let’s go in depth and really examine all the ways in which they devalued women into things to be saved or plot devices to fuel angst and make things feel serious. As a note, this piece contains spoilers for Arkham Knight related to its female characters, but I do not mention the Arkham Knight’s identity or the game’s ending.
Not even thirty minutes into the game Rocksteady lazily falls onto the damsel-in-distress trope with the very first onscreen female character, Poison Ivy. Batman learns of one of Scarecrow’s hideouts, but upon arriving instead finds Poison Ivy tied to a chair. Of course, she is also wearing what amounts to a thong and a shirt with a single button fastened. The guard removes her from the chair and shoves a gun in her face, telling Batman that the two of them are leaving. She is then freed, not because she has super powers that would’ve allowed her to free herself, but because Scarecrow decided to show Batman an example of his fear toxin by using it on the guard. This leaves the impression that she would have remained in captivity indefinitely had Batman not shown up. Immediately after being freed from Scarecrow’s men, though, Batman captures her. She tries to resist for about five seconds and when Batman doesn’t immediately fall over she gives up and this is played for laughs. Her lack of resistance towards Batman has no real motivation from her character or the plot and more likely seems to have been done to give the player a sense of power over her.
This is the first example of how Rocksteady used the damsel-in-distress trope to depower a female character. Poison Ivy is a super villain with control over all plant matter. She should have been able to free herself. The game even acknowledges how powerful she is later on when she not only helps Batman take out several legions of armored tanks, but saves all of Gotham by absorbing Scarecrow’s released fear gas. However, for no legitimate reason, Rocksteady chose to remove her agency as an individual and introduce her to the player as a damsel-in-distress. Her inability to save herself from either Scarecrow or Batman does not even make sense within the game’s own narrative and is simply blatant objectification.
“Let me go or she dies”
Rocksteady then decided to turn one of the most loved and awesome female characters in the Batman universe, Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl, aka Oracle), into a damsel. She is captured by Scarecrow for the sole purpose of getting to Batman. Scarecrow wanted to hurt Batman and so went after Barbara. She is reduced from personhood to a means of causing pain. To make things even worse, when Batman returns to Barbara’s base of operations after her kidnapping, the fear toxin that he was exposed to earlier causes a flashback to one of the worst moments in Batman’s history (worst for readers and female representation that is) – when Barbara was injured and disabled by the Joker in The Killing Joke. In The Killing Joke (written by Alan Moore, 1988) Barbara is shot by the Joker (causing her to become disabled) in an effort to try and drive her father, Commissioner Gordon, insane. The Killing Joke is the absolute epitome of hurting and depowering a female character for shock value, fake emotional sophistication, and furthering a male character’s arc. Even Alan Moore has gone on record in recent years calling his writing in The Killing Joke “shallow and ill-conceived.” The fact that Rocksteady would recreate that horrid scene is another example of how they regard female characters as little more than objects and plot devices.
When Batman comes out of the flashback the Joker (which is a literal extension of Batman’s psyche due to the fear toxin) prods Batman about his guilt over Barbara’s disappearance. Commissioner Gordon arrives and expresses the immense guilt he feels. Batman reveals that Barbara worked for him and then Gordon blames Batman, punches him, and storms out. Their exchange further shows that Barbara does not exist to be an interesting character on her own, but rather to create conflict between the male characters and make them feel guilty for not fulfilling their manly duty of protecting her.
“Of course it is [my fault]. I should have been here. Crane’s done this to get to me.”
At that point during my playthrough I was extremely annoyed with Rocksteady for objectifying a character I love in such a way, but I just wanted to get through what I presumed would only be a section of the game during which Barbara was a damsel. Batman/the player eventually finds Barbara, but as soon as they do a cutscene begins in which Scarecrow gasses her with his fear toxin. I then feared that Rocksteady would do the worst and turn her into a woman-in-the-refrigerator (a female character that is killed off to further a male character’s arc, for shock value, to move the plot forward, or any combination). But that would be unthinkable, I thought; they would never do that. The fear toxin was torturing Barbara and giving her hallucinations as Batman tried to break through the glass separating them the. She grabbed a gun next to her and pointed it at Batman. And then she pointed it at herself and fired. I was shocked and horrified, not at Scarecrow, but at Rocksteady. Rocksteady killed off Barbara for the shock value and to give the story weight. Her death and the player’s reaction to it was of more significance and value to them than her life.
(talking to Alfred) “Barbara. Scarecrow was punishing me. He killed her”
“I should’ve protected her, Alfred. She’s dead because of me.”
After that I put the controller down and turned my PS4 off. I didn’t want to play anymore. I couldn’t believe Rocksteady would do such a thing. I still had a hint of doubt that they actually did it. I was so pulled out of the experience that I barely cared about the game anymore, so I went online and saw if Barbara actually was dead or if she came back later on. I found out that that scene was a hallucination caused by the fear toxin used on Batman. However, this is more of a plot convenience and doesn’t change much. For all intents and purposes regarding the player, Barbara was kidnapped and murdered and was “dead” for the majority of the game. Rocksteady wanted to have their misogynist cake and eat it too in the sense that they wanted to kill a female character to motivate the player to want revenge against Scarecrow but they didn’t want Barbara to actually be dead so that the player could feel the empowerment of saving her later on.
The objectification of women and the damsel trope’s presence in Arkham Knight does not stop there. Catwoman, another female character skilled in combat and known for her quick thinking, is kidnapped by Riddler and fitted with an explosive collar. Ridder uses her to get to Batman as a way of forcing him to complete trials. This isn’t even the first time Rocksteady has turned Catwoman into a damsel for Batman to rescue. In Arkham City she was captured by Two-Face and had to be rescued by Batman then as well. Rocksteady continues to disempower Catwoman as a way to empower Batman and the presumed male player. Her sexualized outfit is just icing on the cake.
“Perfect. What little girl doesn’t dream of being bait for her strapping Dark Knight?”
Finally, Harley Quinn appeared and at first seemed to finally buck this misogynist trend, as she is the leader of Joker’s old gang. This makes her continued obsession with the physically and emotionally abusive Joker even more glaring. But she gives Batman and Robin a run for their money and isn’t presented as totally helpless like all the other female characters up until this point. Batman and Robin predictably defeat her, but Rocksteady couldn’t just let things end like that. You see, as part of her obsession with the Joker, Harley Quinn was trying to release people imprisoned by Batman that had been infected with Joker’s blood. One of them, in a bid for freedom, grabbed Harley, put a gun to her head, and used her as a hostage. And with that, Rocksteady had used the damsel-in-distress trope on every single female character.
In the last hour or so of the main story, it’s discovered Barbara is still alive and still a damsel-in-distress, this time being used to get to Commissioner Gordon. Scarecrow tried to use Barbara to coerce Gordon to turn on Batman. Then Rocksteady had Scarecrow toss Barbara off a roof to allow Batman to make the last second daring rescue of the damsel, once again empowering the player at the cost of a depowered and objectified female character.
Some people looking to refute my argument on how horribly Arkham Knight handles its female characters might bring up the fact that several male characters are also taken hostage, including Commissioner Gordon, Robin, and Nightwing. However, a male character being taken hostage is very different from the damsel-in-distress trope. There isn’t a tradition of helpless male characters needing rescuing, whereas the damsel-in-distress has been reinforcing negative gender stereotypes since ancient Greece. The appearance of male characters being taken hostage does not reinforce any false notions about the male gender. Female characters being turned into damsels-in-distress, on the other hand, continues to reinforce the sexist notion that women need protection and that they are the weaker gender.
Anita Sarkeesian, in her great YouTube series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, says that “At its heart the damsel trope is not really about women at all, she simply becomes the central object in a competition between men.” I cannot think of a better way to sum this up myself. Barbara isn’t a person for the vast majority of Arkham Knight, rather, she is objectified into the motivation and point of conflict between Batman, Gordon, and Scarecrow. The idea of her, or any of the other women-turned-damsels, saving themselves is never even considered. Rocksteady has done nothing to subvert these harmful gender stereotypes in Arkham Knight. Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, Catwoman, and Barbara can all be great, independent, and flawed female characters. This goes beyond Arkham Knight however. These sexist representations are still prevalent in video games as a whole (and, to be honest, all other media). These portrayals of women as helpless damsels in need of their paternalistic male saviors needs to end. Games are so much better, more interesting, and more inclusive when they subvert these tropes and include legitimate female characters.
What are your thoughts on Arkham Knight’s portrayal of women? Comment below! If you are interested and want to know more about the damsel-in-distress trope along with other harmful, sexist tropes in video games and other media, head over to Anita Sarkeesian’s YouTube channel, Feminist Frequency. Follow me on Twitter, @TotallyKyle95, and stay tuned here, GamesWithFriendsWrites.WordPress.com, for more of my thoughts and writings on video games. Check out my YouTube channel, Games With Friends, for my Let’s Plays of great games, both recent and old, and for The Games With Friends Show, in which my friends and I get together and talk stuff out for your amusement.