If you ever want to get the Internet’s blood boiling, there’s no better surefire way than going on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, or any gaming message board and uttering these two words: Anita Sarkeesian. Over the past year, Ms. Sarkeesian, founder and producer of the YouTube channel Feminist Frequency, home of the web series “Tropes vs. Women” and “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games”, has become one of the most controversial and polarizing figures in the gaming community in recent memory. Both she and her videos have become the subject of both praise and outrage, with supporters claiming her to be a crusader against the rampant misogyny and sexism in the gaming industry, while her detractors see her as a radical feminist whose philosophy is borderline extreme and is more in it for monetary gain and attention than for promoting any kind of social or societal change. This war came to a peek when Anita’s Kickstarter campaign to fund the “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” series raised nearly $160,000 (26 times her original goal of $6,000), and was met with a deluge of hate mail and even death threats. As a result, Anita, who already heavily monitored the comments on her videos, disabled both comments and ratings on every single one of her videos.
I never liked Anita Sarkeesian or her videos, even before the whole controversy. I think her videos are poorly researched, incredibly biased, based more on sensationalism than objective analyis, and are usually one sided straw man take downs that oversimplify the problem while rarely offering a reasonable solution. Essentially they’re fear mongering opinion pieces disguised as academic analyses. She also seems to be convinced that the entire gaming industry is conspiring to bring women down and are employing these tropes with the sole intent of objectifying them, showing ignorance of how the industry and business work in the first place. Now don’t get me wrong, I think a project like this had a lot of potential and does address a serious issue. Is she wrong by saying there’s a problem is sexism in gaming culture that must be addressed? No. Did she deserve all of those death threats? No. Am I against a project that objectively analyzes these problems? No. What I am against is this project being helmed by someone like her. But I’m not her to nitpick every single disagreement I have with her because there are dozens of people online who have already called her out and thoroughly eviscerated a lot of her claims and there’s nothing new I can add to that conversation. No, I’m here to ask a question that’s been on my mind ever since this whole fiasco started, because recently, Anita Sarkeesian did something I never thought she’d ever do. She actually offered a credible solution (or at least came very close).
A few days ago she released episode 3 of “Tropes vs Women in Video Games”, which was the third part of a long look at the “Damsel In Distress” trope. I found the whole video to be dull, frustrating, and contradictory to a lot of her past statements, and didn’t need to be divided in three 22 minute long segments. Where parts 1 and 2 focused on the 8 and 16 bit era and the AAA era respectively, Part 3 aims its guns at indie games. In it she condemns games like Castle Crashers and Super Meat Boy for perpetuating the trope popularized in the 80’s, and claims they’re even worse because some of the humor is played for laughs at the princess’s expense. She also condemns Damsel Swapping (the option to switch out the princess in favor of something like a kid, a dog, or even a guy), saying it dehumanizes the damsel even more. It wasn’t all negative, though. She does commend games that subvert the trope like The Secret of Monkey Island (where the damsel was able to escape her captor without the hero’s help) and Braid (where it turns out that you’re the monster and the princess is actually trying to run away from you), but then she completely undermines them by claiming they’re not truly empowering to women because the games are primarily focused on the male protagonist. It was then that I had enough and was ready to throw in the towel, when suddenly she brought up this little chestnut.
That looks awesome, right? Not only does it show a subversion of the Damsel in Distress trope that Anita seems to loathe so much, it actually looks like a great premise for a game. I mean, let’s face it, a game where the princess takes matters into her own hands and breaks out? I’d buy that in a heartbeat. But that’s the sad part. It’s not a real game, it’s a flash animation that demonstrates a hypothetical scenario for an acceptable use of the trope. She even got Jennifer Hale to narrate. Well at least now we know where all that money went.
But this only begs the question that’s been itching in the back of my mind ever since this series began: Why doesn’t Anita just make her own game?
I think one of the main reasons people took umbrage with this whole series is because a lot of money went into them, and eight months after the announcement, all we got to show for it was a longer version of her usual videos with a better camera and updated special effects. Granted, this was before The Legend of the Last Princess came out, but even Anita’s most vehement supporters should be able to understand why a few of us felt duped. If she only raised $6,000, I’d probably be a little more forgiving. But with $160,000? Unacceptable. I mean, there’s no real reasons she couldn’t do something more. She obviously has the money, the resources, connections, and a big enough following to help make it at least a marginal success. If she was able to shill out enough cash to get Jennifer Hale to talk into a microphone for 30 seconds, she can sure as hell pay for some developers and programmers. At the very least she could’ve snagged some interviews with women in the industry and get an inside perspective on the prejudices they face in their chosen profession.
Another reason making a game would’ve been more beneficial is because Anita would be leading by example. Like I said before, one of my biggest problems with Anita is that she spends so much time and energy focusing on the negative that she rarely offers a solution or an alternative. Almost every closing statement I’ve ever seen her make in her videos can be summed up as “This is sexist, stop it.” If she’s honestly thinks that sitting around and waiting for the industry to cater to her whim is going to make any kind of change, she’s going to be waiting for a very, very long time. Actions speak louder than words. Change doesn’t automatically happen when people complain loudly about it. Change happens when you take matters into your own hands and do something about it. With a game, you can show people how a positive female-centric game can be done, which would be way more effective than beating your audience over their head with the message with what’s boiled down to an eloquent rant. Like a good movie or book, a good video game with a message gets it across but subtly weaving it into the gameplay rather than flashing it in giant neon lights. From the looks of that little bit of animation, it looks like she could pull it off. Anita may be a lot of things, but stupid is not one of them.
Which is precisely why it will probably never happen.
Maybe at some point there was some integrity behind this project, but as soon as that Kickstarter skyrocketed past the $6,000 mark and the hate mail and death threats came flooding in, Tropes vs Women in Video Games stopped being about campaigning for equal representation of women in video games and started becoming a publicity machine. The cold hard truth is that Anita Sarkeesian doesn’t want to change the industry, she wants to get her series attention in the most outrageous way imaginable. And what could be an easier way of doing so than collectively pissing off one the most prominent demographics on the Internet? I know Anita will never ever see this and this probably amounts to nothing more than me venting out my frustration that such a talented and intelligent person is abusing her authority in such a flippant and patronizing way, but in the end I still think this project could’ve turned out so much better if left in the hand of someone with more respect for intellectual honesty and not just in it for the attention. If there’s one thing she and I can agree on, it’s that there is a problem with sexism in our culture and we need to fix it. But the answer is not so simple, and this is not the way.
I don’t want to end this article on a sour not, so I’m going to draw your attention a series that gets right what I think Feminist Frequency gets wrong. Count Jackula from The Agony Booth started his own series called “Misogyny in Horror”, a hard look and analysis at the accusations of misogyny and sexism in horror films. The set up is somewhat similar to that of Tropes vs Women, except he laces his delivery with a bit of humor every once in a while, he backs up his research, and he actually knows what he’s talking about when discussing these movies. So far he has only released two videos, a two part analysis of I Spit on Your Grave, but it’s really interesting and the conclusion isn’t as black and white as Feminist Frequency’s videos. If there is one response I think should be looked at by her, it should be this. And she should be taking copious notes.
Tropes vs Women in Video Games Part 3: Damsel In Distress: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=LjImnqH_KwM
Misogyny in Horror: I Spit On Your Grave Part 1: http://www.agonybooth.com/video914_I_Spit_on_Your_Grave_1978_Misogyny_in_Horror_Part_1.aspx
Misogyny in Horror: I Spit On Your Grave Part 2: http://www.agonybooth.com/video960_I_Spit_on_Your_Grave_1978_Misogyny_in_Horror_Part_2.aspx