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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.