Growing up and playing games, I’d always play female characters (if available) – and I still do today. Perhaps I did this to satisfy my underlying desire to subvert and test social boundaries, but when a female playable character wasn’t an option, I’d get disappointed. I remember playing Golden Axe 1 and 2 and always choosing Tyris Flare, the only female playable character out of three options. Albeit scantily clad, I loved that Tyris could hold her own in battle against Death Adder and his skeletal minions. As for women in comics or games in skimpy outfits, well, it’s so common that I’ve come to expect it and merely roll my eyes or laugh at how ridiculous it is. But I digress, for the impractical female armor argument is a whole other can of worms.
When I was younger, I’d play fighting games like Mortal Kombat, and religiously use my go-to girls: Jade and Melina (again, we know how absurd their outfits are.) In recent years, I love the expanded options to play a female leads – for example, in Dragon Age 1 and 2, I relished the opportunity to guide my own narrative as a kick ass female Grey Warden or as fem!Hawke of Kirkwall. Of course, I’d love to see more of this, as I am prone to liking games, books, and movies focusing on strong female leads. Furthermore, all the stories I write focus on female leads. What I’m getting at is that I think it’s great that Anita Sarkeesian is creating a dialogue to encourage people to think critically about the games they play and make. And it seems her videos have worked, as I’ve recently read she was asked to talk to developers at Bungie (gamespot) on how to create more dynamic female characters. I’d like to take a closer look at Ms. Sarkeesian’s arguments in the academic context and the conversation she has started online, which has resulted in unfortunate backlash.
Unsurprisingly to most, Sarkeesian has faced ample negativity since starting her media critique videos. There have been accusations that go from lack of transparency in the use of her kickstarter funds, to lack of citations, to flat out claims that she didn’t even play the games she discusses. Women in any professional capacity inherently face more scrutiny and criticism, with qualms about physical appearance to mental capacity as common points. Sarkeesian is not exempt in this, as naysayers claim that because she’s a woman, she couldn’t have possibly played any of these games! On the contrary, women make up nearly half of gamers – a fact that most developers choose to ignore by continuing to portray women as hyper sexualized by catering to their presumed 100% male consumers. But back on point, Sarkeesian has been bullied online and has been the object of a “punching game.” She has posted the youtube comments she has recieved on her blog (http://www.feministfrequency.com/2012/06/harassment-misogyny-and-silencing-on-youtube/) many of which are, sadly, not surprising. In an internet culture of rabid anonymous trolling and hate, one would expect uncreative comments like, “get back in the kitchen” or “stop being on your period,” etc. but the comments Sarkeesian receives seem much more alarming. With this harassment, I can understand why Sarkeesian decided to disable comments on her youtube videos. That being said, I’ve seen sites like Kotaku post her videos and there are actually valid discussions going on in the comments. This might also be indicative of certain sites, whose niches tend to cull the general crude populace of youtube. But then again, disabling comments, in a way, gives the bullies what they want. Sometimes the best thing to do is to not acknowledge the hate being splattered around. Were I in her situation, I honestly don’t know what I’d do. Part of me thinks I’d either viciously argue with naysayers until I was blue in the face, or I’d choose to just disable comments and not deal with it.
The immaturity Sarkeesian faces with her commenters is also exemplary of video game culture she critiques. As a self-proclaimed “geek girl,” I and countless others have faced rude behavior from men on the internet and at conventions (i.e. see the whole “fake” geek girl debate.) Again, there is a lot of overlap, but I think Sarkeesian deals with the same people who believe in the “fake” geek girl persona. These people, for some reason, feel threatened by those who do not fit a certain mold or social norm.
Harassment aside, some of Sarkeesian’s critics have called for the transparent use of her kickstarter funds. Yes, her videos do seem to be of higher quality as far as the editing and effects go. She even got Jennifer Hale of Mass Effect fame to narrate her hypothetical video game (which is probably where most of the money went.) But, does one really need thousands of dollars to critique something? Realistically speaking, no. One would just record a video via computer or phone and upload it. But I will say that as there is professionalism and prestige attached to music produced by a large record label or a book published by a well-known publishing house, youtube videos produced with quality with inherently attract more viewers.
Several of Sarkeesian’s opponents have argued that she does not cite her game video sources (http://victorsopinion.blogspot.be/2013/07/anitas-sources.html,) nor does she include anyone’s opinion or critique but her own. As for her footage sources, Sarkeesian includes this text credit at the end of her Damsel series videos:
She also includes article sources for the concepts she discusses, an example seen here:
The only thing I can surmise about Sarkeesian’s critics is that they are not only indicative of the very things she is speaking out against, but there also exists a universal law in which it is impossible to please everyone. I will also say that many of her bullies have probably never watched her videos and just make assumptions, or they watch the first few seconds and think that she’s just some “feminazi” and turn it off, thus making an assumption.
I will admit that I had held some pre-conceived notions about the Damsel series videos before I actually sat down and watched them. For the most part, I thought perhaps she was taking things “too seriously,” however, as I watched her Damsels series, I found myself agreeing with much of what she said. I feel it is important to note that Sarkeesian recognizes that game writers and developers do not consciously aim to perpetuate sexism, but rather do not think critically about the games they put out. I’d like to think that the damsel and fridge tropes are more so a product of lazy and/or bad writing, rather than the conscious promotion of gender inequality. As a writer, I must also note that some narrative choices are made for the story, and not to perpetuate gender inequality or sexism. Context is very important to take into account with this notion in mind. In part two, Anita says regardless of context the means in which a plot is developed (ex: violence against women) still matters because it trivializes domestic abuse, for example. Not only do we need game writers and developers to think critically about gender roles in their games, but we also need talented and creative game writers a la Drew Karpyshan with Dragon Age or Knights of the Old Republic (both of which feature strong female characters.)
Sarkeesian claims that games hinging on a female protagonist seeking revenge on a murdered man (think Kill Bill) are virtually non-existent. While this is mostly true, I can’t help but think of Aveline’s killed husband in Dragon Age 2. Aveline aids Hawke (again, you can choose to be a man or a woman) in fighting the darkspawn and goes on to have her own successful life and career as head of the city’s watch. However, as Sarkeesian often notes, female characters who break the norm are often not the main character. She also points out that there are games that subvert the typical narrative formulas, but argues that “equal opportunity damseling is not the answer” and that game developers must “think outside the cliche.” I’m surprised that more game writers and developers have not departed from the cliches, but I suppose this is indicative of mainstream mediums vs. indie mediums. Sarkeesian even notes that indie games seem to try more at having a female protagonist or a “damsel” who does not need saved.
While I agree with most of what Sarkeesian says, she’s preaching to the choir with those who agree with her. However, one must take into account who her audience actually is. Of course she intends to reach all types of gamers, but I feel like the people who watch the her videos are either actually interested in gender roles in video games or are watching with the intent to dislike it and pull it apart. I’m sure there is a large, apathetic gray area, (as there is with anything) but the buzz that is being generated from these videos might be enough to attract those who might not usually watch media critiques. One must also assume that many of Sarkeesian’s audience include feminists. This is not to say that Sarkeesian speaks for all feminists, as her own “brand” seems to subscribe to the kind in which women are not allowed to be sexualized at all. On the contrary, I feel feminism should include both “tom boys” and and women who enjoy dressing very feminine, or even sexy. The important difference to remember is that women who dress sexy for themselves vs. women who dress sexy or men or men portray women in a sexualized way for their own enjoyment. Essentially, feminism also encompasses the notion that women must own her sexuality.
It is these very women who are masters of themselves in which Sarkeesian wishes to see in games. In order to attract a larger audience and call even greater attention to gender roles in video games, Sarkeesian’s next series should focus on the female protagonists that actually exist. By focusing positively on strong female leads, Sarkeesian might finally be able to shut up the naysayers and highlight the fact that certain genres, such as Sci-Fi, often have more room for female leads than other genres. It is important to note that Sarkeesian states that female protagonists in games do not need to be hyper tough or unwilling to accept the help of others (i.e. the “feminazi” stereotype.)
I am curious to see what Sarkeesian does next in terms of critique videos or even in response to her naysayers. An important thought to consider is that even if some games are subtly sexist, I do not think people are going to take it in the literal sense. I might be having great faith in the general public with this notion, but I’d like to think most people are for gender equality. Games aren’t going to necessarily make men go out and be sexist pigs, in the same sense that violent games aren’t necessarily going to make people go out and shoot up a public space. What’s important to remember is that good or bad, right or wrong, Sarkeesian has injected new life into the video game gender role debate–and that’s better than not talking about it at all.
Damsels in Distress three part series