I’ve been watching Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, and have generally enjoyed it. You know who doesn’t? A Mister, um, DanimalCart on the Kotaku forums. To be fair, his complaint is more eloquent than some of the crap Sarkeesian has dealt with, so I thought it was worth further examination:
I don’t agree with the majority of Sarkeesian’s work and many of the examples she brings up don’t strike me as overtly based in sexism. However I also don’t begrudge Sarkeesian for trying to point something out and she deserves respect just like any other human on the planet. I can even agree that some sexism does exit in gaming I am just trying not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
If it’s not clear which baby is being thrown out with the metaphorical bathwater, it will be shortly.
Sarkeesian typically shows evidence and uses examples that only go in service to support a thesis she has already made before researching a topic. She does not consider financial issues, publisher/developer relations and other factors that contribute to story/character decisions.
It seems to me that Sarkeesian’s approach boils down to 1) discuss a basic androcentric cliche and 2) cite a dozen or more instances where video games have utilized same. I’m not sure how much more research DanimalCart thinks she needs to do to justify her position, or how he knows she is cherry-picking data to support a predetermined conclusion.
As far as mitigating factors are concerned, I think she thoroughly addressed the way financial issues and publisher-developer relations affect the use of, say, damsels in distress as a plot device. Video game publishers have a financial issue in that they want to make money. Video game developers are obligated by their publishers to make games that will sell. Games about male characters rescuing helpless female characters are reliably easy to sell to male audiences. This is a motivation for sexism, not an excuse for it.
If you have played ICO, you will know that the character Yorda works with ICO as an equal to escape together throughout most of the game and she has mystical powers that ICO does not, is taller than ICO and more mature as ICO is a boy. Yorda even saves ICO’s life at the end of the game, and is no mere damsel. The game also features beautiful environments, great atmosphere and is a truly unique and beautiful experience. Sarkeesian reduced one of the greatest games of the PS2 into another example of sexism, which may be why some are so put off by these videos.
I’ve never even heard of Ico before this week, but nothing in this paragraph proves that Yorda is not a damsel in distress. From what I can find online, Yorda is helpless to escape her plight, in spite of mystical powers (or height I guess), without the help of a male character controlled by the player. It may be more complex than Mario saving the princess, but the male is still the subject and the female is still the object of his efforts. Acknowledging that is not tantamount to dismissing everything good about the game.
Frankly, I don’t sense that Sarkeesian is arguing that the games she criticizes are necessarily bad, or even that the tropes she discusses are inherently bad. Her main point is that the tropes are used excessively, with little thought given to what they say about the video game industry’s treatment of female characters. The Legend of Zelda can be an awesome game and a rather un-feminist game at the same time. There’s no harm in admitting that, unless maybe you think it’s awesome because it’s not feminist, which would be kind of weird.
Women don’t want to be portrayed poorly or reduced to sex objects and Men don’t want labeled as misogynist pigs. Sexism is bad, everyone can agree to that and no one wants to be accused of it or have it applied to them. When tensions start at such an elevated height, a certain level of tact is required when trying to talk about them on a larger forum. To gamers, Sarkeesian displays all the tact of an uninvited construction crew coming in your living room at 5:30 in the morning and Jackhammering.
Here’s where we get to the root of the backlash against Sarkeesian. Like I said, I enjoy Tropes vs. Women, but when I watch it I find myself becoming defensive. I know she’s going to challenge my preconceptions, and I don’t want her to suggest that behavior I take for granted is sexist. If I played more of the games she discusses, the show would probably make me uncomfortable, so I can see why gamers would liken her to an unwelcome interruption. DanimalCart’s fallacy, though, is to suppose that Sarkeesian ought to maximize his comfort while lecturing him about feminism, when he would be most comfortable if she didn’t lecture him at all. There is no fun way to be told “your favorite games aren’t very good at depicting women,” and she isn’t obligated to make it fun.
Notice that it’s DanimalCart’s living room and Sarkeesian is the uninvited pest, even though she clearly enjoys video games as much as he does. Because she’s questioning the sacred cow, whereas he’s reflexively guarding it. The gaming community, like any other fandom subculture, is devoted to the purity of a common interest (in this case video games) and tends to be pretty insular and jingoistic, especially if they feel bullied by outsiders. In this worldview, you’re either with gamer culture or you’re against it:
The gaming media is running a giant game of guilt by association. By running articles and putting a spot light on these nasty comments [by gamers against Sarkeesian], perceptually they were not outliers anymore; they were the voice of the community. How in a span of 20 years did the stigmata of gamers go from “nerds who live in their parents basements” go to “every white male gamer is a sexist, misogynist asshole”?
Simple: Twenty years ago people didn’t know what nerds in the basement were saying or thinking, but now you can go on the internet and see. The issue isn’t so much that gamers are all misogynists, though. It’s that, far too often, their response to stories about misogyny in gaming is to circle the wagons and defend gaming from external criticism, rather than address internal ugliness. Thus: Sarkeesian criticizes video games, gamer culture harasses Sarkeesian, gamer media critcizes gamer culture, therefore the problem is Sarkeesian and the media!
Look at how this very site trashed Katie Couric for her uneducated and research viewpoint on video games. Kotaku ran four articles about “Couric-Gate” calling her one episode “one-sided, fear-mongering”, encouraged gamers to tweet at her with challenging viewpoints and did a victory lap when she offered a mea culpa. Where is that for Sarkeesian’s work? Couric ran one 40 minute episode on gaming; Sarkeesian plans to run 13 parts each over 60 minutes in length making just as grandiose claims of the ramifications of gaming. Where is the analysis in the gaming media?
“Analysis” here may be read as “knee-jerk defense.” Whenever someone suggests the entire medium of video games is to blame for something–Joe Lieberman, Jack Thompson, Katie Couric–the community rises as one to protect gaming from the ignorance and fear of outsiders. It’s a comfortable position to take, hunkering down with one’s “countrymen” against some boogeyman in the name of an unimpeachable cause. It also reduces a fandom’s capacity for self-examination. Gamers who are uncomfortable facing Sarkeesian’s arguments choose instead to pretend they’re a persecuted minority, under attack from all sides and finally betrayed by their own news outlets. They want her to be the next Jack Thompson, because that simplifies the conflict.
So here’s where we get back to that “throw the baby out with the bathwater” business; in this rush to reduce the debate into absolutist terms, Sarkeesian’s critics end up accusing her of dealing in absolutes. She thinks games aren’t feminist because she doesn’t understand them! She identifies sexist tropes in games because she wants those games to be eradicated! Combating sexism is fine, but this nut thinks all gamers are sexist, and she wants to destroy all video games! Absolutely none of this comes across in Sarkeesian’s videos, but since she doesn’t go out of her way to deny it hard enough, gamers feel free to assume it’s true.
I do think DanimalCart is right that Sarkeesian would do better to take into account the extraordinarily thin skin of her audience. Nevertheless, the greater onus is on her audience to grow the hell up.