Yesterday pop culture critic and Kickstarter success story Anita Sarkkesian released the 3rd video in her Tropes vs Women in Video Games series. This video wrapped up Anita's in depth look at the “Damsel in Distress” trope, and predictably the internet man babies were out in full force to threaten her life and “debunk” her claims with aneurysm inducing ignorance.
Anita Sarkeesian is in the interesting (and unfortunate) position of being stuck in a self-sustaining media loop. When her Kickstarter campaign was announced over a year ago to little fanfare it was stumbled upon by a vocal group of male gamers who sought to silence her opinion through intellectual discourse threats of rape and violence. These threats lead to mainstream press coverage for the Kickstarter campaign, which lead to Sarkeesian not only meeting her initial $6000 goal, but exceeding it to the tune of $150,000+. Seeing how effective their initial misogynistic internet blitzkrieg was, detractors escalated the threats by launching DNS attacks on her website, flagging her social media accounts for terrorism, vandalizing her Wikipedia page, and repeatedly emailing her images of herself being violently raped by various prominent male video game characters. One individual even went so far as to develop a simple Flash based game where players repeatedly punched a graphical representation of Sarkeesian in the face. All of this because she dared to raise money for a series of lecture videos examining the negative portrayal of women in video games.
The online abuse that Sarkeesian has faced as a critic for committing the heinous act of having an unpopular opinion is, as far as I can tell, unprecedented. Even Armond White, contrarian film critic extraordinaire has never experienced this level of vitriol despite a steady stream of fanboy rage inducing reviews. So what makes Sarkeesian different?
The underlying issue that many people seem to have with the Tropes vs. Women series is a complete lack of understanding for what Anita Sarkeesian is doing. Feminist/Gender criticism is a lens. By using this lens (or any number of another lenses) we can view a text, film, TV show, or video game in a different way that may yield some valuable insight. Sarkeesian's detractor's were quick to point out that her conclusions were formulated well before the videos were produced, thus invalidating the conclusions on the basis of her simply “looking for sexism and finding it” instead of viewing her subject in a completely objective way.
To which I say: Yeah? So what?
Anita Sarkeesian is an academic using a critical lens that has existed for over a century and applying it to a relatively new form of media in order to make us think critically about the games we're playing and their cultural implications. There's no need for Sarkeesian to justify the idea that men and women are not equal. The fact that our society is dominated by heterosexual white males is nothing new or shocking, and the plots and characters in games reflect this. Recent studies have shown that 45% of games are played by females (up 5% from a 2008 study) while less than 4% of games actually feature a female protagonist. Meanwhile, games that do feature female protagonists have less than half the marketing budget of their male counterparts which often dooms them to fail. The facts here are quite clear: The video game industry has a serious problem
The negative knee-jerk reactions to Sarkeesian's work stem further from confusion related to how we identify sexism in games. Yes, those gigantic jiggle tumors were made for you white heterosexual male gamer. Those muscular and bronze bodied male characters? Those are for you too. Believe it or not, that hulking space marine was not made to titillate a female audience. You're supposed to want to be that guy so you can get that girl. In an industry where hard data points to a clear market for characters that appeal more to women, it's puzzling to say the least that these characters are practically non-existent while jiggle physics remain in high demand.
There are a lot of points made in the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series that I respectfully disagree with, ranging from her choice of games to cover/not cover all the way to some of the conclusions she draws based on her data and analysis. Ultimately though I have immense respect for what she's doing because she's bringing attention to an issue that usually gets swept under the rug by both the game industry and the gaming community. These videos are excellent tools for generating discussion and thought, and it's shame that a very vocal misogynist minority has made it difficult to openly discuss the role of women in games in a civil manner. Oddly enough, this same group has criticized Sarkeesian for disabling comments on her videos and use this fact as another tent pole in their campaign to discredit her work. Obviously if someone can't endure hundreds of threats of murder and rape from psychotic man-babies driven by paranoid entitlement they must not have anything worthwhile to say. Let's not forget that plenty of people googled “Joseph Campbell” and awarded themselves an honorary doctorate so they could create Tropes vs. Women debunking videos. The comment sections for those videos offer a wonderful forum to spew delusional hate rhetoric if one is so inclined.
The most outlandish part of the controversy surrounding Tropes vs Women is that ultimately both Anita Sarkeesian and the individuals that would rather see her dead than produce another video want the exact same thing: Better video games. The “Damsel in Distress” trope is a lazy cliché, and in a medium where images and sound combine with user interactivity to create a wholly unique platform for storytelling, I think we can do a lot better than “the monster kidnapped the princess so go get her.” We're all tired of the same characters and the same story and yet developers have barely even cracked the surface of the creative possibilities within the medium. This is why being critical of art and viewing art from different perspectives is important, and trying to silence an individual like Anita Sarkeesian is the sort of regressive behavior that fuels negative stereotypes and causes further complacency in the industry.