A critical look at the internet’s response to “Tropes vs. Women” Episode 1

I must admit that Tropes vs. Women in Video Games (if you haven’t watched it, click the link to do so) slipped right under my radar until the completed first part came crashing onto the internet, quickly followed by a hellish storm of disapproval from Anita Sarkeesian’s critics. People have taken to the internet in droves to throw their hat into the ring and although the ring is already brimming with hats, I’m going to casually discard mine into the pile as well. I’m not here to defend Sarkeesian; I am simply hoping to illustrate what exactly sparked this cry of damnation towards her and why I find the backlash itself to exemplify the more disturbing traits that exist within the gaming community.

In my effort to understand exactly how the first episode was received I took to the internet, YouTube in particular, and did some trawling before instantly falling into a state of unrelenting depression – I cannot help but despair at some of the replies to Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, many of which are not so much a criticism of the video, but simply a personal attack against Sarkeesian and are founded primarily in a personal dislike of her. While I can understand that it is possible to simply dislike someone, and such animosity may have an adverse effect on how you view their work, it is where this hostility comes from that I find most disturbing.

Tropes vs. Women in Video GamesThe rhetoric used to criticise Sarkeesian is predominantly derived from the language of Men’s Rights Activists and, instead of addressing the issue, merely highlights the “inequalities” that men have to endure. Such pomposity includes suggestions that feminism is unfairly skewed in favour of women, that it overlooks societal injustices towards men such as domestic abuse, alimony, and the depiction of men in video games as biceps on legs. What it fails to understand, however, is that a few of the primary concerns of feminism are ending the objectification of women, combating inequality in the workplace, and countering the suggestions that if a woman is raped, it is her fault.

Damsels in Distress

Flashback to the Kickstarter Campaign

The moment Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter began gaining some real traction the internet lit up with vitriolic reactionaries who declared she was going to spend the excess cash on ‘shopping sprees’. From the outset, Sarkeesian had been berated merely for gaining support – the goal was set at $6,000 but because she was able to raise $160,000 people took it as a vindication to accuse her of scamming her supporters and attack her personally for the success of the Kickstarter.

Rather than believing that Sarkessian’s series could perhaps be a worthwhile addition to the debate surrounding the portrayal of women in video games, they decided the money would be used to fund some sort of high-flying lifestyle. The overwhelming support for the series on Kickstarter has unlocked the true potential of the ‘systemic and big picture perspective’ (allowing for a greater number of episodes) but has been largely ignored in order to focus on what the first video has to say, rather than what questions Sarkeesian could address at a later date.

Damsels in Distress

Enter “Damsels in Distress Pt. 1”

Even before Sarkeesian was able to bring her project to life, she was being accused of seeking controversy for the sake of gaining attention and was berated for her intentions to ascend discussion into a more academic environment. When the first episode of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games was released, a worrying amount of responses failed to even understand the fundamentals of Sarkeesian’s argument and believe that merely presenting the player with female protagonist is enough to completely counter the trope of Damsel in Distress.

What they have not realised is that Sarkeesian never once accused the video game industry of possessing an inability to establish a female protagonist or positive female character but that the image of women which is presented to the gaming audience is an overwhelmingly a negative one that draws heavily from stereotypes or places the female characters as an object belonging to the male.

The main issue with the criticism surrounding Sarkeesian’s work is that many of her critics think in absolute terms, rather than accounting for mitigating and aggravating factors. From what I’ve seen, many have disregarded the fact that she is approaching the topic from a ‘systemic, big picture perspective’ and that the series is, in fact, a series, one that will grow and expand on themes as it progresses; that this first episode is not the sole element of her analysis and that other aspects will be addressed in future episodes seems to be lost on many people.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the first instalment is how comments have been disabled on the video. YouTube contributor TheAmazingAtheist wrote that ‘You [Sarkeesian] are putting forth a particular ideological stance. Your unwillingness to allow that stance to be challenged undermines the legitimacy of your claims because it sends the signal to everyone who lands on your page that your ideas cannot hold up under scrutiny.’

Although TheAmazingAtheist admitted to not having any major qualms with the video itself aside from that, it doesn’t detract from the main problem with the statement in the first place: the meaningless focus on disabled YouTube comments. This focus has led to the suggestion that Sarkeesian is now, somehow, a Damsel in Distress herself which is a point I am unable to even understand the logic of. It does, however, galvanise the fact that Sarkeesian’s video has been largely misunderstood by a predominantly white, male, heterosexual audience.

Yes, Sarkeesian’s decision to block comments on the YouTube is a popular matter of contention amongst her critics who have declared that in doing so, she is stifling discussion on the matter. However, let’s face it, YouTube is hardly a haven for enlightened intellectual discussion and, like many other websites, the anonymity it provides often results in disinhibited behaviour which can quickly devolve into abusive threats of physical violence. Whether or not blocking comments was the right decision is ultimately unknowable. But the fact remains that the portrayal of women in video games deserves a greater consideration than allowed by 500 characters in a YouTube comment and, hopefully, Sarkeesian’s decision will lead to a more serious and articulate discussion in the long run.

Another popular criticism of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games is how Sarkeesian argues that there exist no positive female role models in games (something she never argues) and completely fails to realise that she is merely addressing the trope itself and how damaging it is to the perception of women as objects. The video itself looks at how, in the past, women have been portrayed as helpless beings that exist solely to be saved by men who, through the course of their quest, exhibit “superior” traits of chivalry, prowess and virtue. She also alludes to how in numerous games, the male characters find themselves to be incapacitated in much the same way their damsel is but to them, it is merely a challenge to be overcome whereas for women, being captured is the essence of their being.

However, by addressing this trope, Sarkeesian has been vilified for overlooking games such as Super Princess Peach, and Metroid, wherein the female character is the hero. The premise for Super Princess Peach strikes me as a parody on the established formula which is played for laughs and the omission of Samus Aran was intentional so that it could be properly analysed in a later episode that deals with positive female characters. Again, this illustrates how many of the more sardonic critics have simply misunderstood the purpose of series.

The extensive misinterpretation of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games appears to stem from a belief that because Sarkeesian is a woman, she is somehow attempting to degenerate video games.

Damsels in Distress

Final Thoughts

As Jim Sterling argued in Jimquisition: Anita Sarkeesian – The Monster Gamers Created, gaming is considered a ‘safe male space’ and that gamers are upset that those ‘feminists are ruining everything’. He asks us: what exactly it is that feminism is going to ruin about video games?

His answer is, essentially, that nothing will be ruined by approaching the question of gender roles and the portrayal of women in video games and that the vile responses to Sarkeesian and her work have invalidated the debate; a point which has been unintentionally furthered by those arguing that because this is the internet, you really shouldn’t expect anything else. I’m sure that while we can all agree that this sort of vitriolic response has come of no shock to any of us, that doesn’t make it acceptable.

As Sarkeesian herself suggested, “It is both possible and even necessary to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of its more problematic or pernicious aspects.” There exists a certain degree of dogma within the gaming community which is unwilling to accept this simple point made my Sarkeesian. The attacks on her, more often than not, stem from her gender and perceived desire to ‘ruin’ video games for the male consumer; this is the most substantial barrier between those who enjoy the medium and its ability to evolve into something beyond basic entertainment and therefore tackle social issues such as gender inequality.

Although the first video isn’t perfect, it is still the most valuable and academic addition to this debate – not once does it attempt to force any ideals on the viewer, choosing instead to highlight the issues and allow us to think for ourselves. Sadly, raising awareness of this sort is a difficult task and no matter the approach, the mere fact that gender issues are being addressed appears to be enough to create a vacuum of bigotry and hollow arguments with no basis other than virile hatred for basic concepts, a vacuum into which also reasoned debate and analysis is lost.


  • Matt

    Personally, I disagree with a lot of the points Sarkeesian has made (Not only in this new video, but throughout her whole YouTube “career”). However, I also happened to agree with about 90% of this article. There’s been some really good critical response to Sarkeesian (Examples: Instig8iveJournalism’s videos, ThunderF00ts videos), but the sad truth is that there’s an angry mob of confused people that seem to overshadow these well spoken and critical responses.

    • Nope. Instig8iveJournalism is just as bad. What he does there is a pathetic attempt of an ad hominem attack. For example: He criticizes her thesis paper as if he was an authority on evaluating this kind of academic work. Without getting into details why he is clearly not – let’s assume he was right. It would primarily discredit her professor and her University for letting a faulty thesis paper pass, not Anita herself. But what’s even more problematic – this has NOTHING, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with Anita’s work on YouTube. If a flawless academic record was a requirement for making good YouTube videos, YouTube would be an empty place. So what we see her is him desperately trying to find dirt on her for a smearing campaign.

      That’s not what criticism is. Criticism is not personal. You take somebody’s work respond to their arguments with the conclusion being in the worst case “This is why I think you are wrong in this particular instance” and certainly not “This is why you are a bad person”.

    • I have to say I disagree with you, but it’s pretty clear you’re already dismissive of her opinion when you say things like “career”.
      Also, the examples you gave are not objective opinions to what she’s presenting in the video but are instead buy into the vitriol purported by the trolls themselves.

  • As a male, white, entitled gamer, I enjoyed the video, and agreed with a lot of what she had to say. Honestly, I would love to see more ‘women as action heroes’ rather than victims, and I would like to see a more even ground. Guild Wars 2 did much to reduce the ‘women as objects’ scenario, but even there, it says something that almost every outfit for the ‘wizard classes’ is a dress and skirt for women. My sister complains at the lack of pants / leggings, wanting to look less ‘girly’ and more ‘practical’ for her adventuring career there.

  • Sorry, but the Amazing Athiest is a known misogynist and frankly anti-feminist to the extreme. I question his place here as an objective commenter.
    Regarding the video, I actually quite enjoyed it though I have read some fair criticism of it that the analysis at this stage could easily be found on a TVTrope entry or on wiki. Having said that, I am far more forgiving because it IS the first episode of, not only a series, but a two part analysis so I will hold off on having a firm opinion until she finishes.

    • Also, regarding the blocked comments, I think that they are fair enough given what she went through during the Kickstarter. The internet seems to have a short memory sometimes – you can’t honestly tell me that the majority of the comments would be intelligent responses. You’d be far more likely to see the same people who attacked her in the first place doing exactly the same thing.

      • “YouTube is hardly a haven for enlightened intellectual discussion.”

      • Also, now that we’ve had a chat and understand each other better, I feel comfy saying that you’ll be happy to know we have a piece coming out soon (still being written) focusing entirely on this blocked comment criticism.

    • I think you’re misinterpreting the reason that quote is included.

      He’s not presented here as an “objective commenter” — none of the critics are. He’s about as far from objective as a person can get. Haydn is addressing that criticism, lumped together with the rest, as ” replies to Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, many of which are not so much a criticism of the video, but simply a personal attack against Sarkeesian and are founded primarily in a personal dislike of her”

      We’re not endorsing him.

      • Yeah I clarified this on twitter 🙂 It was the phrasing at the beginning that threw me off.

        • Phew. Happy to hear it! Not the kind of misunderstanding we’re shooting for 🙂

          If you have a recommended edit that might help prevent this from happening again (for another reader), I’m guessing Haydn would be all ears.

  • Scott Zdankiewicz

    Honestly, I think an issue like gender roles in video games deserves a bit more than just a talking head, like more of a multi-perspective roundtable, but regardless I could find very little to fault in her first video. It even made me think more on the idea that nostalgia and the ready availability of old games or remakes of old games on newer systems does a disservice to the trope by continuing it, something I hadn’t even considered.

  • “Sarkeesian’s decision to block comments on the YouTube is a popular matter of contention amongst her critics”

    There is a telling Catch 22 situation here. She receives criticism for blocking comments. But her Kickstarter pitch video also received criticism for deliberately leaving comments on to benefit from the controversy. One is left to wonder what the correct way to deal with the situation would be. The bottom line – no matter what she does, it will be framed by her critics in a nefarious intent.

    • GeriatricDementia

      It is not a catch 22. How could anyone possibly criticize her if she left the comments on? Maybe if she screened them and didn’t allow any level-headed opposing opinions through, but that is highly unlikely.

      I remember seeing a tweet that someone donated money to her kickstarter to spite all the people leaving negative comments. It is not hard to see why people would draw negative conclusions when she leaves comments on during a time where she needed to raise money and awareness for her project, then disables them now.

      I do not hate the girl, I do not care about the money, and I have not seen enough of her series to make any judgement. However, I am certain there is no way she would have raised $158,922 without embracing the wrath of immature man-children with keyboards. That is why people criticized her for leaving comments on back then.

      • > How could anyone possibly criticize her if she left the comments on?

        You just did. Are you suggesting that leaving the comments on is only ok if it doesn’t benefit her cause?

        • GeriatricDementia

          You misunderstood my question, but I should have phrased the question better. How could anyone possibly criticize her if she left comments on for her web series?

          You seem to be under the impression that people are merely out to slander her for her every decision, which there are. I was offering you insight as to why this decision might be looked at in a negative way by more rational individuals.

  • I really love video games so was very interested in this project. The points she made in her video were very interesting

  • ClothedVillainy

    It’s a shame that the discussion is stuck in the superficial ‘response to the reaction’ stage. I wrote this blog entry arguing that the reaction shows most guys simply can’t grasp the concepts involved: http://onlythesangfroid.wordpress.com/2013/03/12/the-birds-and-the-bees-they-hum-along/

  • yaman

    How can you claim the video was academic are the schools that bad those days?
    She did not do her research and or ignored facts she disliked, like games with female protagonist and ignored games with Peach as a playable character trying to divide it by saying there not core games how convenient.
    She also ignored the stereo typical male roles, why do men always have to save the girl and risk there life, why are most heroes perfectly muscled and many of them walking around topless.
    To concur it was a video without real research and 1 sighted bias, proven by the many video responses that actually did there research, but people seem to be struck blind by the trolls and ignore or do not see the real critic video’s that unlike Anita have spend time on research(90~95% can be debunked just using Google and Wikipedia .

    • She cited a metric ton of examples with proper quotation to support her argument. She even documented everything with screenshots. She mentioned counter-examples (Sheik, Krystal). Seems like solid research to me.

      She didn’t mention male roles because that isn’t what this video is about. It’s called “Tropes vs. Women”.

      Saying there was something wrong with her research is ridiculous. If 90 – 95% can really be debunked please attempt to do so. You haven’t provided any counter-arguments yet. How did you even arrive at those numbers?

    • Haydn Taylor

      You appear to have missed to point regarding oh so important ‘systemic big picture approach’. Sarkeesian is going to do at least 12 episodes, each dealing with a different theme.The matter of positive female characters will be addressed at a later date. And the matter of Super Princess Peach, as I suggested in the article, is a parody on the formula, not an example of a positive female character.

      Regarding the portrayal of men, as Krystian Majewski mentioned, it is ‘Tropes v.s Women’ with emphasis on the word ‘women’. However, looking at the future episode titles, it would appear that the representation of men may well be addressed.

      Also, you really shouldn’t pull unfounded statistics out of thin air in order to support your opinion. Perhaps you should look at evidence and form your opinion around that, instead of vice versa.

  • Gregg Braddoch

    My favorite quotes:

    “However, let’s face it, YouTube is hardly a haven for enlightened intellectual discussion”

    Precisely why Anita wanted to publish her videos there? Stating that any website isn’t a “haven for enlightened intellectual discussion” sounds a whole lot like “People can say what they want, and it won’t be a positive echo chamber like it should be.”

    “It is both possible and even necessary to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of its more problematic or pernicious aspects” – “Those who drink alcohol are sinners, but it’s ok to drink a little alcohol, God will forgive you. But remember, drinking alcohol will turn you into a drunken sinner.” (Apparently Anita takes her shaming tactics from the deeply religious – that way she can still seem to be the victim while at the same time playing “holier than thou”).


The Pledge:

As a gamer, I realize I contribute to an incredibly diverse social network of gamers around the world, and that my actions have the ability to impact others. In effort to make a positive impact, and to create a community that is welcoming to all, I pledge to not use bigoted language while gaming, online and otherwise.

Bigoted language includes, but is not limited to, slurs based on race? (e.g, "chink," "nigger," "wetback"), ethnicity? (e.g., "kyke," "polock"), gender? (e.g., "cunt," "bitch," "tranny"), religion? (e.g., "dirty jew," "papist"), sexual orientation? (e.g., "gay," "fag[got]," "dyke"), and disability? (e.g., "retard[ed]").

Read more about the pledge, including what is and isn't included, and the overall purpose here.

Read why you shouldn't use the word "rape" casually here.

Sign the Pledge