A Feminist Critique of Video Games versus Misogynist Backlash

Bobby Miller

Anita Sarkeesian, a 28-year-old resident of San Francisco, Calif., defines herself as a “feminist, pop-culture media critic,” according to The Globe and Mail. On YouTube, she hosts the channel Feminist Frequency. Since 2011, she has been analyzing how women are portrayed in various forms of media—everything from TV shows and movies to books.

Many of her videos are a part of the series “Tropes versus Women.” In her videos, she defines a trope as “a common pattern in a story or a recognizable attribute in a character that conveys information to the audience.” Examples of this include the damsel in distress, the knight in shining armor, and more.

Nvate “Tropes versus Women,” “Tropes versus Women in Video Games” Feminist Frequency YouTube by Anita Sarkeesian

Sarkeesian analyzes how various tropes are used in media to relegate women to the status of background characters, stereotypes or objects. For instance, in one video, she looks at the “Smurfette Principle,” named after the only female character in “The Smurfs.” This refers to media in which there is only one significant female character, who often embodies a number of female stereotypes. Examples of Smurfettes include Ms. Piggy of The Muppets and Princess Leia of Star Wars.

Sarkeesian’s goal in making these videos is to promote “media literacy,” our ability to think critically about the material we take in, as she told CBC Radio. She believes this is important because, as she told Destructoid.com, “the media does play a big role in helping to shape individual and society-wide values and belief systems.”

By constantly placing women in stereotypical or minor roles, media subliminally reinforces the message that women should be the same way in real life. Sarkeesian chose to make online videos because she believed that would be the best way to reach her generation. She also prioritized making the videos accessible to the average person, not just those with feminist academic training.

With roughly 80,000 subscribers, Feminist Frequency has attracted a great deal of attention. However, in recent months, the video gaming community has started scrutinizing her because her latest series promises to analyze different tropes against women found in video games. Although Sarkeesian firmly believes in the importance of her project, she has received a tremendous amount of backlash from the online gaming community.

The Video Game Project

In May 2012, Sarkeesian launched “Tropes versus Women in Video Games,” a Kickstarter project where she asked for $6,000 to fund a series of 20-minute videos depicting how women are stereotyped in the ever-growing medium.

As she said in the promotional video, video games are “loads of fun to play.” However, “many games tend to reinforce and amplify sexist and downright misogynist ideas about women.” She wants to examine various roles women fall under in video games, such as the damsel in distress, background decoration, the sexy villainess and man with boobs. As a fan of video gaming herself, Sarkeesian’s goal is not to demonize the medium. Rather, she emphasizes that “it’s OK and even important to simultaneously enjoy a piece of media while also being critical of some aspects of it,” as she told GamingAsWomen.com.

Nvate “Tropes versus Women,” “Tropes versus Women in Video Games” Feminist Frequency YouTube by Anita Sarkeesian

Sarkeesian believes that this project is especially important now because the video game market, contrary to popular belief, is not an all-boys club. As she told GamesIndustry.biz, between 30 to 45 percent of gamers are female. On top of that, she rejects the idea that all male gamers are fine having stereotypical women in their games. She believes that excuse is “a disservice to male gamers as well as to female ones,” as she said on her Kickstarter page. She wants people to recognize how media shapes our perceptions of women, and she hopes that entertainment will represent “women as full and complete human beings rather than as sex objects or shallow stereotypes,” as she told Destructiod.com.

Her first video in the series, posted on March 7, 2013, explores how the damsel in distress trope is used in video games. Princess Peach and Princess Zelda, for example, virtually always end up being kidnapped, and they cannot save themselves, rather it takes a man like Mario or Link to come to their rescue. This is quite interesting considering that, in video games where the male protagonist is captured, he can often escape from the enemy using his own cunning. Since she is entirely helpless without this hero, the female character ends up becoming a “ball” in the game played between the hero and the villain, both of whom try to take possession of her.

Nvate “Tropes versus Women,” “Tropes versus Women in Video Games” Feminist Frequency YouTube by Anita Sarkeesian

Sarkeesian points out that, in all but one of the core Mario games, Princess Peach has been kidnapped.

In an interview with CBC Radio, Sarkeesian confessed that she thought $6,000 might have been too high of a goal for her Kickstarter project. However, she was pleasantly surprised to find that she reached the goal in less than a day. And by the time funding ended a month later, nearly 7,000 backers provided her with almost $160,000. This allowed her to expand the project from five videos to 12. In light of such support, one would think that this is a popular project. While that might be so, it has received backlash.

Criticism

Sarkeesian told CBC Radio that, as a feminist on the Internet, she’s no stranger to online harassment. However, even she was shocked to find how viciously some misogynistic gamers behaved.

Before she even made the first video in her “Tropes versus Women in Video Games” series, gamers decided to attack the YouTube video associated with her Kickstarter campaign. They bombarded it with comments ranging from typical women jokes to violent attacks. “I’ll donate $50 if you make me a sandwich,” one individual posted. “I hope all them [sic] people who gave her money get raped and die of cancer,” another commented. Both of these comments received some thumbs up from fellow YouTube members. And these are only two examples of hundreds of vicious posts.

Nvate “Tropes versus Women,” “Tropes versus Women in Video Games” Feminist Frequency YouTube by Anita Sarkeesian

Sarkeesian with a pile of current-generation video games she plans to research.

As NewStatesman.com reported, this is only the beginning of the harassment Sarkeesian faced. Someone from the adult website 4chan.org posted her personal phone number, e-mail address and real-life address, along with the comment “this is going to be fun!” A number of people have sent her images of video game characters raping her. Also, one individual made a game online that began with a normal picture of Sarkeesian. Every time the player clicked the image, Sarkeesian received an injury, such as a black eye, bloody nose, or swollen lips. The player could continue clicking until her entire face was injured, and then the screen turned red. Fortunately, the game was removed from its host site, Newgrounds.com, after just a day. Finally, until it was locked from anonymous edits, her Wikipedia page fell under attack, associating her with Nazi Germany, terrorism and negative Jewish stereotypes—though she’s not Jewish.

Sarkeesian herself has posted openly about this harassment on her Feminist Frequency website. Some people have accused her of trying to paint herself as a victim in order to receive attention. However, according to her, it’s important that we do not trivialize online harassment as “trolls being trolls” or “just how the Internet works.” She wants to illustrate “how serious, threatening and pervasive Internet harassment can be,” as she told GamingAsWomen.com. “I am certainly not the first woman to suffer this kind of harassment and sadly, I won’t be the last.” This is, in her eyes, an issue that feminists cannot ignore.

Sarkeesian has also thanked her supporters for being so loyal to her. As she shared with CBC Radio, some members of the gaming industry have even backed her up. She has also received a number of emails from male gamers apologizing on behalf of their immature peers. Plus, it should be noted that most of the support for Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter project came after the harassment began. According to Destructiod.com, $100,000 of the $160,000 raised came in the last five days of the campaign. Clearly, the attempt to silence her backfired.

That is not to say, however, that all of Sarkeesian’s critics are acting in this way—others are calmly questioning her project. Some people have taken issue with her asking for funds. Many YouTube users make videos roughly the same quality as hers for free, and her videos did not undergo any significant improvement after she received the funding. It is also disturbing that her video output has decreased appreciably since the Kickstarter campaign ended. Plus, how could it possibly cost $160,000 to make a series of a dozen videos? Perhaps all donors did was pay for her massive collection of video games.

She has told Destructoid.com, however, that she asked for funds so that she could turn her “Tropes versus Women” project into a full-time job as opposed to “a passionate side project.” She hopes that the additional time to research games and to construct her arguments will make the videos more engaging overall. In addition, there are a number of other Kickstarter campaigns that have far surpassed their funding goals, and donors voluntarily gave their money to her even after she had received more than enough.

Nvate “Tropes versus Women,” “Tropes versus Women in Video Games” Feminist Frequency YouTube by Anita Sarkeesian

This is Sarkeesian’s recording studio.

People have also taken issue with how, ever since the online harassment began, she has disabled comments and ratings on most of her videos. To some people, this seems cowardly. Yet, in the video promoting her Kickstarter project, there were dozens upon dozens of hate-filled comments for every one comment that attempted to make a rational response. She believes that these haters have “unfortunately made constructive conversation impossible here on YouTube.” She went on to say, however, that “we encourage you to embed this video on your blogs, forums and social networks in order to facilitate discussions on the topic with your own communities.”

People have done just that. Her first video in the “Tropes versus Women in Video Games” series has received some video responses on YouTube. Although she never replies to these videos, many of which are trying to make rational arguments, the last video in her “Tropes versus Women in Video Games” series is entitled “Top 10 Most Common Defenses of Sexism in Games.” She will probably address some of the criticism against her views here. Unfortunately, we could not contact Sarkeesian for further comments on the criticism against her.

Most gamers take their hobby seriously, so it can be difficult to admit the shortcomings found in the medium. However, Sarkeesian hopes that her series of videos will help viewers to approach games with a more critical eye to how females are portrayed. If the gaming community becomes more sensitive to how women are portrayed in video games, then perhaps we will find more nuanced female characters in the medium. This is simply a part of the evolving industry, which has gone from a few simple games with a handful of pixels on the screen to games with cinematic flair that can tell compelling, interactive stories.

Visit Sarkessian’s YouTube page to watch the “Tropes versus Women in Video Games” series.

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