Anita Sarkeesian released the latest in her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series recently, the humorously titled “Strategic Butt Coverings.” The video is a marked divergence from her previous work, being far shorter and a good deal lighter in tone. Also, it’s funny to hear her say “butt” 29 times in eight minutes. At one point she almost can’t get through a sentence without laughing. It’s actually quite adorable.
Which is good because the video was released with a Kickstarter update laying out plans for Feminist Frequency over the next year, eight smaller, more focused videos and an educational resource pack for classrooms. It also revealed the toll that being one of the Internet’s most hated people has taken on her. If you follow her videos closely, you can see it in her face. In “Women as Reward,” she looks downright haunted, as she desperately makes sure that not a single word or fact comes out wrong lest it make the inevitable wave of harassment even worse. All this over a woman saying things on YouTube about a video game.
In many ways, it’s become impossible to talk about Anita Sarkeesian the YouTube personality without discussing Anita Sarkeesian the face of video game feminism and targeted online harassment. Many of her detractors claim she’s protected from any criticism of her work because all feminists will rush to defend her as a symbol. Likewise, I know feminists who just don’t like her show but find it impossible to articulate that out of fear of being accused of internalized misogyny. Others more contrarian in nature just resent the idea that there is anyone they perceive they’re expected to fall into line to support or agree with, or they feel that her fame is a result of the harassment and not an indicator of her work’s worth.
That approving of her has become a dividing line between feminism and misogyny is in and of itself a valid criticism, though obviously not anything Sarkeesian herself can do anything about. People seem to have forgotten that simply not liking a show just because you don’t find it appealing is a perfectly valid viewpoint that doesn’t require justification. Academic talking-head analysis of geek culture isn’t everyone’s cup of tea any more than Jenna Marbles or Red vs. Blue is. It’s okay to say, “I watched a little bit of it and didn’t really get into it” provided that you realize it means any attempt to voice a deeper opinion of something you didn’t actually watch is foolish and unhelpful.
I have watched her work, all of it since the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series started (I haven’t watched her earlier work except the video on the marketing of LEGO because I just don’t find the production values very high and her delivery is somewhat awkward). There are valid criticisms to be made, and the sky won’t fall if you make them.
For instance, her work is very basic. I know that a certain class of clueless dude-bro thinks Sarkeesian represents a radical feminist agenda, but nearly all of her opinions and analyses are Women in Media 101. If you take a Women’s Studies class at any college in America, you’ll find that what she’s saying is quite literally the ground floor and established academia. It has been for a long time. Sarkeesian coins new phrases and explores new ground, but literally nothing she says is in any way in conflict with conventional information.
Likewise, her citations of cultivation theory are also well-established by peer-reviewed science. That the media we consume can affect the way we think and behave is an idea that is nearly half a century old, and there has been continuous scientific study done on how. No, violent movies and video games won’t turn you into a serial killer, and no one with a real understanding of sociology or cultivation theory would ever say that, but they can alter your perceptions. There is a wealth of science behind that, and you can find links to studies in the Feminist Frequency show notes.
Unfortunately, constantly having to bring up the basics ends up making her video feel slow. Her need to anticipate every possible, elementary question from her audience makes things drag. It also prevents her from galvanizing the audience into any action the way someone like Jim Sterling does. She’s so busy describing the phenomenon that she rarely encourages anyone to seek a solution.
There’s also the fact that until very recently, much of her work was very focused on white feminism. She specifically mentioned stereotyping minority women as exotic or the embodiment of sex tourism in her “Women as Background Decoration” video, but otherwise commentary about women of color and their specific needs in feminism has been scarce. Lately, she’s mentioned future videos that will address this, and she helped spread the word on a similar Kickstarter series, Invisibility Blues, aimed at more fully addressing race in games, but I can see why minority women might not have found the series as appealing as white women.
Likewise, there’s little discussion of alternate sexualities, disabled women or trans women. Granted, she might be at the mercy of the medium in which I can name only a handful of lesbians and can only think of a single major on-screen female character in a wheelchair (she’s in Life is Strange but it’s a spoiler so I’ll shut up). Her recent review of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate did go out of its way to mention the trans character Ned Wynert, so things are improving. This is important because the media, myself included, tend to focus very much on the white women who ended up in targeted, gaming-related attacks and focus less on the white supremacists who use online raids to go after minorities.
Another criticism from the feminist side of the fence concerned her use of the term “prostituted women” in “Women as Background Decoration” since it's usually a code phrase for feminists who consider sex work to be inherently victimizing. Views on how sex work does or does not help women as a whole are many and varied, though most feminists will agree that the various industries and the laws surrounding them are desperately in need of oversight and reform. In Sarkeesian’s case, she was discussing women being literally objectified as non-playable characters that dispense power-ups from sex for money, many of whom the player can act violently toward with little to no repercussion, and many of whom are clearly in their positions against their will as possessions of pimps. So it’s not necessarily inaccurate, but it’s not very progressive either.
Some people see it as evidence that Sarkeesian is inherently sex-negative, but there’s no real indication in her work that’s the case. Nobody who goes on and on about Gone Home the way she does can be totally against the idea of sexual relationships in games. It’s pretty clear, though, that she’s interested in sex in media as an expression of intimacy, and not necessarily as an act of revolution or empowerment. I would love to hear her opinion on something like Catherine, though.
The claim that she’s pacifistic is closer to the truth. This came out when she criticized referring to Mad Max: Fury Road as a feminist movie. Her argument was that the violent rebellion seen in the film should not be what you think about when you hear the word "feminism" because it has little application to how gender equality is being achieved in the real world. It’s a fair, if somewhat pedantic, point. Parity in earning potential between men and women is probably not going to be accomplished with gunfights and car chases. Still, she’s made it subtextually clear in her tone and side commentaries in her videos that she’s not a fan of Triple A gaming’s default habit of using violence as the solution to most problems.
I like Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. It makes me think and consider the hobby I have loved for three decades. I avidly await every new episode, but they aren’t without flaw. The harassment of Sarkeesian began before she’d made a single video, and therefore long before anyone could actually consider her work rather than the shadowy bogeyman her work was assumed to be. People call her a thief and a liar and threaten to kill or rape her, and it’s gotten to the point where you can assume any “valid criticism” of her is going to be the same old collection of conspiracy theory nuttery because it always is.
Underneath all that is a discussion that most of us, and I’m certain Sarkeesian herself, would rather be having. How does her work advance feminist ideas? How can it be improved? What are some of our assumptions about race and violence and sex work, and what is the effect of those assumptions? What do the latest studies of cultivation theory tell us about gaming content? Instead, like Sarkeesian once again going over the basics of women in media in her videos, we’re stuck patiently re-explaining that, no, she’s not recruiting the United Nations to end free speech in America.
Calm, rational discussion of Feminist Frequency is possible. You just have to stop taking its existence as a personal insult or Sarkeesian as symbol reluctantly thrust on feminism that must be applauded. At the end of the day she’s just a media consultant and public speaker with a YouTube show. If everyone would have remembered that in the first place, maybe none of this awfulness would have happened.
Jef's collection of stories about vampires and drive-thru churches, The Rook Circle, is out now. You can also find him on Facebook and Twitter.