Why Anita Sarkeesian can only do harm to gaming

Anita Sarkeesian Kickstarter

Recently, the name of a self-proclaimed popular culture critic has been all over the major game sites. Anita Sarkeesian has managed to take the full attention of the gaming press by storm. Her site is called Feminist Frequency, and she tries to be a warrior of justice defending the oppressed women in the world of gaming. Fighting for her righteous cause, she focuses on both the harassment women have to endure while playing games online, and the portrayal of women in games, which is, according to her, usually overly sexualised. Recently, her Kickstarter project aiming to gather funding for a video series presenting just how badly women are objectified in games, raised over $160,000 – a large part of which came not from women, but from “white knights” – an embarrassing portion of male gamers internet users that feel the urge to defend a woman whenever they think she needs defending. Now, I hate to be confrontational in any way on this site… But, as a relatively objective, not to mention male gamer with quite some experience with not only gaming, but also the way it is portrayed in media, by both game journalists and ones not very familiar with what gaming really is, I am sure you can already tell that I think Anita Sarkeesian is full of crap.

I give credit where credit is due, and Anita does deserve quite a bit of credit. For one, I have a great doubt whether she’s even really much of a gamer – her videos so far have not really proven that, the fact she decided to buy a bunch of games with part of the Kickstarter money she got only further shows it. Yet, she’s managed to make herself into the speaker of female gamers, she’s been invited to comment on the problems women face in gaming on several major websites and even on TV. And, again, the Kickstarter. She managed to strike a chord with her presentation, and not just any chord, but a $160,000 chord. Nearly 7000 people actually donated. Fame (15 minutes of it, but hey, a vast majority of people never get that far), check. Money, check. Anita is a success. But how does that affect gaming, the very tool leading to that success?

Anita Sarkeesian claims male gamers are misogynists that consider women sexual objects, sandwich makers and little more. She portrays women in gaming as victims, often talking about how she herself has been harassed online because of her feminist activities. She even had a TEDxWomen talk recently, telling how awfully harassed she was, and how that harassment also got her sympathy, ultimately leading to the Kickstarter success. She tried to turn her story into something motivational, into a sign of things to come, claiming it signifies a huge change about to happen in gaming, as emerging masses of gamers and game developers want to see women in gaming treated differently.

Yes, Anita does also target developers. In her view, they aren’t much better than the people men playing their games, as they portray women in their games as weak, dependent, in need of a man to protect them. They’re either damsels in distress (Princess Peach, Yorda in Ico, Ashley in Resident Evil 4, etc.), or, when they can actually hold their own, they’re still reduced to eye candy for the male players (Tifa, Lara Croft, the Dead or Alive girls, etc.). You know better than I do what a load of crap such a claim is, considering how many games have strong female protagonists or sidekicks (Samus, Terra, Elena Fisher immediately come to mind, not to mention the very girl on Anita’s final Kickstarter “Thank You” picture, Faith from Mirror’s Edge – though I hope that was kind of the point, maybe Anita sees Faith as an outlier). Obviously, most games have male protagonists, but to claim that women are always portrayed as inferior is just a lie.

Metroid Ending

The sexualisation is, of course, a valid point. It’s there, no way around it. We know how even Samus, once (before she was given an actual personality) perceived as the pinnacle of the female game protagonist, looks underneath her suit. But is this sexualisation proof of misogyny in the industry in any way? No, a thousand times no. It’s not any worse than in other visual media. The reason behind it is trivial – money. “Sex sells,” pretty girls in your game may not bring it a fantastic financial success, but they certainly wouldn’t hurt. And, of course, the more important the girl is in the game, the better she looks, as nobody wants to play as some average-looking chick, right? Guess what, absolutely the same goes for the male protagonists, they are also designed to be sexy. So much for this proving supposed misogyny in the industry in any way.

Anita likes to pretend she’s an expert on video games and how women are portrayed in them, and I really don’t see how she would know more about that than, for instance, the thousands of women who have actually worked in the industry. In her Kickstarter campaign, she asked for money so she could buy games to make videos about and expose the female stereotypes in them… Surely, you can see that this just doesn’t click somehow – other YouTube gaming channels do not ask you for money to buy games, mostly because they’re gamers and they already have the games. They make their videos because of their own desire, because gaming is a passion for them. While Anita used an innocent excuse to take a lot of money from the people who believed her.

Anita Sarkeesian Games

In short, Anita Sarkeesian’s claims are unfounded and plain bogus. It doesn’t even take much thought to prove them as such. She is trying really hard to present herself as some kind of hardcore gamer while she really isn’t, that cute little photo she showed at the TED talk only further proving that. Her success is based on her ability to spin the facts and present them in a way that somehow resonates very well with people who already have some degree of bias on the matter. I highly doubt that more than a few neutrals have supported her Kickstarter campaign, and any that have must simply not be very informed about the state of gaming in relation to Anita’s claims.

All the while explaining how the insults and harassment she endures only prove her points, Anita also censors the comments to a lot of her videos in YouTube, at times she even disables Like/Dislike ratings. It’s not hard to see why – it’s extremely easy to take her points apart, and a lot of people in the comments do it – it’s not all misogyny and hatred as she would have you believe. There are already quite a few YouTube videos absolutely destroying her views in a calm and collected manner, supported with facts, quite far from the angry mob of women haters she likes to present the ones that don’t agree with her as (this one being my favourite: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lERF9q40iS0).

Anita Sarkeesian TEDxWomen

Needless to say, Anita’s campaign and media appearances, where she mostly speaks about the dreadful online harassment she’s endured, only further solidify gamers as “bottom of the barrel” people in the eyes of those outside the gaming community. She portrays her critics and, by association, the average male gamer, as an uneducated, primitive misogynist with absolutely no regard to women’s feelings, and, naturally, the media eats that right up. And this comes at the end of a generation which helped a lot to bring gaming more into the mainstream and mend the bad reputation gamers have always got a little bit… Certainly, people like the one who made a game where you can “beat Anita Sarkeesian up” (screenshot) deserve to be chastised by society, but, unfortunately, all gamers get a bad name because of these overly exaggerated exceptions.

To make matters worse, the big gaming site Kotaku recently announced Anita as one of the gamers of the year 2012, complete with a tear-jerking write-up repeating her side of the story. Considering everything stated above, this only solidifies my opinion about how bad “professional” gaming journalism is. It’s a resounding slap in the face of your audience to give such an award to an individual who is not only alien to gaming, but exploits the medium to make money without actually contributing anything to it.

Feminist Question

Is this the way feminists would want their points portrayed? Does Anita truly deserve to be the figurehead of feminism, or at least feminism in gaming today?! Someone who obviously values money more than any “cause,” and has proven to be extremely superficial in her “analyses” of the portrayal of women in gaming? Or do feminists just flock to the loudest one of the bunch, regardless of what’s beneath the surface? Feminists, please take a moment and think if this woman really deserves to be your voice.

Also, must anything really change? Are women really represented in a negative light in video games? What drives this, like any other industry, is money. Macho male and well-endowed female characters sell their games, so that’s what developers aim for. That will not change. If they tried to meet Anita’s demands somehow (that she focuses mostly on criticism instead of actually suggesting something better is another story), that would result in feminist ideas being forcefully put into games to serve a purpose quite different from the developers’ initial concept of the game – much like adding sexy women only for the sake of it. I can certainly understand why some women would be angry when they see the Dead or Alive girls and how their entire franchise is based around their sex appeal, but that doesn’t undo the hundreds of female game characters where sex appeal is a complementary feature at best, next to physical and spiritual strength, intelligence, wit, kind-heartedness…

Anita Sarkeesian Tropes

So why, exactly, does Anita Sarkeesian’s work only harm gaming? Here are the three key points, in short:

  1. Her media appearances focus mostly on the harassment she’s received – this is particularly bad in non-gaming media, as it paints the average gamer as a villain, a blabbering idiot, a heartless woman hater – further hurting gamers’ already shaky reputation outside the world of gaming.
  2. Her obnoxious, militant approach towards games, gamers and game developers provokes a justified, but often rude backlash, bringing the worst out of many gamers – which she subsequently uses as an excuse to continue her crusade.
  3. Even if women in games were to be represented according to Anita’s, and other feminists’ desires, games would only suffer because it would be a forced insertion of ideas tainting the genuine game concepts – much like the very thing Anita’s fighting against, adding sex appeal for the sake of it.

Anita Sarkeesian’s goal to rid gaming of misogyny and make male gamers be accepting towards women is a good thing on paper. Some of her points in pursuit of this goal do have a degree of truth to them. Anita’s net contribution to gaming, however, will definitely be negative. She’s clearly not someone who loves gaming, this whole campaign is just a nice fame and money-making niche she’s discovered and is now exploiting to her heart’s content. So do not be fooled into giving a single cent to her, even if you consider yourself a feminist or if you just share her views.

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8 comments on “Why Anita Sarkeesian can only do harm to gaming

  1. I couldn’t agree more that in games sexuality is exploited not only for female, but also for male characters – the Prince of Persia protagonist comes into mind instantly. While there are a few games that really have an awful attitude towards women – like Duke Nukem Forever, I believe that most games are rather moderate and not worse than your average movie or video clip.

  2. I’m getting sick of people stationg that Samus’s outfit at the end of the first game “proves” she’s a sex object or that she was just a reward for the player.

    1) It’s not like they teased it for the player all through the game, or she did some stripper minigames to get the morphball. Samus being a woman was an afterthought, just like the Justin Bailey code and the space bikini.

    2) She wasn’t really posing to the player or teasing with her body. The swimsuit was really just to emphasize she was a woman through NES hardware limitations.

    If Samus wants to kick off her armor and lay around the ship in a leotard after a long day of blowing up pirates, more power to her.

    I really don’t see how this diminishes her. The most thing about her is that she’s a bounty hunter. Nothing about the post-game sequence makes her look weak, and she’s not being a cocktease or striking a sexy pose.

    Honestly, It wouldn’t have been all that different was had she been wearing a Hillary Clinton pantsuit. The big message of Metroid was that “the robot you were playing as was a woman the whole time” not “if you beat the game quick enough you’ll see her in a bikini.”

    It was an incidental gimmick from the first game. The character’s moved on and (Other M aside) becime rightly identified as one of gaming’s greatest icons.

    • Fair enough, but those are still just assumptions. And why “Other M aside”? It was written by Yoshio Sakamoto, co-creator of the Metroid series, and writer and director of Super Metroid (among other Metroid games). In Other M, he finally Samus gave a personality in accordance with his vision, and that must be respected. Just because some fans disliked it doesn’t mean they should have more say on the matter than the creator himself.

      Not to mention “Zero Suit Samus” appeared long before Other M. To deny her intentional sex appeal would be lying to yourself.

  3. Thank you. I had never paid much attention to her until the whole blow-up over the Kickstarter campaign announcement last year. I can honestly tell you, she doesn’t speak for ME. I don’t identify as a feminist, but as a woman, I find her rantings only harmful, and hypocritical. She despises the damsel-in-distress trope but is quite content to wrap herself up in it when morons attack her. Add to that the fact that she’s never responded to actual valid criticism of her “analyses,” and you don’t have a good recipe for a credible voice. I ranted about this in my own blog, because I was just too amazed at her crap. The deconstruction of her interview with Destructoid (on the same site) was brilliant and proves that she really isn’t a gamer at all…just someone who found a quick way to come across as relevant.

    • Thanks for your comment! I read your article, it was quite good. I agree that the fact that she tries to completely ignore criticism (including disabling YouTube comments) speaks a lot, as much as she tries to hide behind the excuse that people attack her personally in their comments. For almost every tasteless joke thrown at her in comments, there is also an opinion (as you said, coming from men and women alike!) that differs from hers and is stated in a civil manner. Conveniently, she removes them all.

    • Well put MelChan. I am a female, I am a gamer, and I consider myself a feminist, if the definition of the word feminist means *Person who wants to be considered human*

      I’ve watched some of her videos, (admittedly not until after the kickstarter blow up happened) including the damsel in distress video she just finally came out with. She’s not sharing any new knowledge, it’s nothing we’ve not heard a 100 times.

      Yes, games made in the late 1970’s and 1980’s pushed tropes, it was marketing..

      I just had an argument on another site with a man who claims she is correct in all things, by asking why instead of complaining about how much past games suck, she doesn’t work toward making future games better…

      There are women out there who go to cons, participate in discussion panels, and work their behinds off to make gaming better for us all. I’d rather watch/support a woman who will actually do something other than film her own face like a newscaster for the sake of her 15 minutes of fame.

      I’d love to read your blog and opinions therein.

  4. Other people have already outlined why and where she is wrong on so many accounts, but I’m prepared to throw my hat in the ring as well.

    I mean, wow. Is she seriously saying that some games follow the tired, old generic “damsel in distress”-plot device?! Whoa! Hold the front page! And stay tuned for next week, when Ms Sarkeesian will enlighten us whether Hitler was an anti-Semite.

    Seriously though, what she says is nothing new, but to top it off she also arrives at completely the wrong conclusion by blaming the medium and/or its audience. It’s probably worth pointing out (which she doesn’t) that most of the games she mentions are made in Japan, a highly patriarchal society that does indeed have issues with sexism, both cultural and institutionalised, but that’s the specific cultural background these games are created in, they do not reflect the mindset of all gamers neither does it reflect on the medium itself.

    In fact, many gamers in western countries (and indeed Japan) are well aware of the dodgy sexual politics of the Mario series, and the whole damsel-in-distress thing in Mario is so old hat it’s become a joke among many now. The games have used the plot device so often that it’s become something of a postmodern, ironic in-joke by now. Oh look, Mario has to rescue the princess again, haha. That sort of thing. This is something Sarkeesian completely overlooks.

    And besides, for every weak, passive female character she mentions I can think of several very positive, active women in games. Off the top of my head, how about Jill Valentine (RE), Alyx Vance (HL2), Aeris, Tifa, Terra, Celes, Yuna (all FF), The Boss (MGS3), Heather (Silent Hill 3), Lara Bow (Dagger of Amon Ra), Rosella (KQ4), Nicole Collard (Broken Sword), Aya Brea (Parasite Eve), oh, I could go on. None of them weak, stupid, or passive, but indeed strong, admirable characters all round.

    Sure, some gamers are sexist pigs just as some people who read books or watch movies or listen to music are sexist pigs. The gaming community is massive so obviously you’re always going to encounter idiots within it, but it doesn’t mean the community itself is driven by sexism and misogyny.

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