Anita Sarkeesian is a feminist writer and critic, and creator of the video blog Feminist Frequency. Her videos have included the series Tropes vs. Women, and since 2012, Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. In response to this latter series in particular, she has been the target of a campaign of misogynist abuse and harassment, including death threats, hacking attempts, release of personal information, and the disruption of speaking events by bomb threats.
I decided to watch some of the videos to see what all the fuss was about. I started with Damsel in Distress from the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series (parts 1, 2 and 3 here). In this episode, Sarkeesian describes the history of the “damsel in distress” trope in video games, from Donkey Kong to the present day, examines the more violent and disturbing variations of it which have become common in recent years, and considers examples of games which lampshade or subvert the trope.
Sarkeesian’s arguments are intelligent, solid and well-researched, her presentation is slick and engaging, and she comes across as sincere and passionate (though in a restrained and cogent way). The videos are both entertaining and though-provoking. In short, they’re excellent. If you’re the sort of person who can get lost in TV Tropes for hours (unsurprising revelation: I am), you’ll thoroughly enjoy them.
The outraged reaction to Sarkeesian’s work can be seen by scanning the “related videos” which pop up next to them on Youtube. The response is somewhat surprising, given the nature of the videos: a calm, rational delivery of what is basically an academic piece of cultural analysis. What’s really astounding is the contrast between how enraged the response to the videos is, and how uncontroversial her thesis would be in academic circles. It isn’t radical feminism of the Andrea Dworkin school, let alone “militant” feminism, which doesn’t really exist except for the occasional troubled soul like Valerie Solanas, and in the fevered dreams of reactionary frat boys. All Sarkeesian is saying is, “a lot of video games use disempowered women as motivation” while playing clips of a lot of video games using disempowered women as motivation. If this is militant feminism, then “militant” means nothing more than “having a voice”.
The irony is that many gamers say they want games to be taken more seriously as an art form, but apparently have no idea that this is what being taken seriously as an art form means. Homer, Shakespeare and Philip Roth all get the same treatment. Academics don’t sit around simply agreeing with each other about how great their works are. They critically analyse and discuss them, from differing perspectives. There are whole journals, conferences and professorships devoted to the sort of analysis found in Feminist Frequency. The only difference in Sarkeesian’s work is that she’s made it more accessible to an uncomprehending mob, which is angered by things it doesn’t understand.
The most prominent rebuttal videos display an amusing lack of self-awareness. There’s the man who tries to prove that violence against women isn’t a significant feature of video games, and doesn’t influence gamers’ thought patterns – while framing his argument in terms of violence against women (“‘Feminism’ Vs FACTS. Anita Sarkeesian DESTROYED!“). And there’s the guy who’s so incensed by the claim that women are objectified and judged on appearance alone, that he attacks Sarkeesian for her choice of make-up and jewellery (“Anita Sarkeesian isn’t worth your attention.“). But comfort can be taken from the fact that these videos will, at worst, affirm existing opinions. They’re not going to persuade anyone of a more sympathetic viewpoint that their uneasiness about video game misogyny is unfounded: to anyone already leaning the right way in this debate, they just come across as dicks.
On the other hand, the millions of meat-headed gamers who’ve watched Sarkeesian’s videos are not going to forget the new ideas they’ve been presented with. However much they try to deny their validity, every time they play a game with a damsel in distress trope from now on, they’ll remember Sarkeesian and think, “oh no, not this again” before they can catch themselves. And Sarkeesian’s growing influence on major players in the gaming industry, including developers, marketers and journalists, is undeniable. It’s unfortunate she’s had to pay such a high personal price to achieve it.