TLF: Out of the Background: Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, Women as Background II

26 Aug

Yesterday, Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency released a new Tropes vs. Women in Video Games video – part two of “Women as Background Decoration.” As per usual, people seem to either love it or hate it (and I’m pretty sure most of them have come to their respective conclusions before ever clicking on the link or pushing play.

I did a write-up response over on TLF, also as per usual.

On a related but not-repeated-in-my-TLF-post note, I’m starting to become irritated by the people I think of as Sarkeesian cheerleaders (none of whom I know personally, by the way). Not anywhere near to the level with which I am disgusted by the trolls who attack her, mind you, but, I think, in large part because of them.

These are the people to whom Sarkessian can do or say no wrong. Every word, every clip, every tweet are sacrosanct nuggets of gold in the feminist fight against the ravening trollish hordes.

And, to be honest, I can sympathize with the impulse because she is fighting the proverbial good fight. She’s doing good work, or at least work for good (although arguably a little of each). I don’t want her to stop making her video series, nor do I want her to be subject to the harassment that characterizes (and escalates with) every release of another episode.

But I also think that to hold Sarkeesian up as the pillar of feminist criticism of videogames is problematic and does a disservice to criticism itself on a couple levels.

First – and most importantly as far as I’m concerned – it suggests that to engage with criticism (metacriticism, if you will) is to devalue it and render it meaningless. If that were the case, no academic ever would have a job. The purpose of criticism is to have a critical conversation, which includes discussion and dissent, that engages with both the primary material (here, videogames) and the other critics (Sarkeesian).

Second, the valorization of Sarkeesian as a paragon of feminist criticism creates a black-and-white template in which videogames are seen as either feminist or misogynist, with no room in the middle.

Finally, it polarizes the people surrounding the discussions. If I’m not with Sarkeesian 100%, then I must support the trolls. This is a false dichotomy that hurts feminists and intelligent criticism far more than it hurts the trolls.

Nuance is important. Critical conversations are important. If I take issue with Sarkeesian’s depiction of one game among many – Dishonored, for instance – then there should be no problem with me pointing that out. I’m not saying that her work is bad. I’m not saying that there is nothing of value in the episode. I am saying that I disagree with this one point – to criticize a single point is to engage her work in conversation, which, so long as it is done respectfully, ought to be the objective of any critic’s work.

So don’t wave your finger in my direction and say “But you only don’t like this one example” as a reason why my entire criticism is invalid. No, I don’t like that example, and that’s okay. As Sarkeesian herself says at the start of every episode, it is possible – even positive – for us to criticize the things we like. So instead of name-calling and accusations (from anyone), let’s have a conversation.

What did you like in this episode? What didn’t you like? Was there a game you thought was missing? A game you thought was misrepresented?

11 Replies to “TLF: Out of the Background: Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, Women as Background II

    • That comment is as polarizing as any. Yes, she has fans who jump to her defense, which is irritating, but to start waving the “SJW” flag around is to be deliberately inflammatory. The commenter also states that there is no misogyny problem in gaming, which is blatantly false. The commenter may have taken a Women’s Studies course, but that no more makes them an expert in gender theory than taking a course in French history would make them a French historian. The commenter has some points, but they’re mostly lost in vitriol, which isn’t a productive way to have a discussion.

      • The commenter gets it right on the nose. He cuts right through the bullshit of the other side. The blogger is the opinionated fool, and represents that side.

        There is no misogyny problem in game. I’ve yet to see one example where that is the case. You may as well be accusing the writer of being a person, or writing to their audience, or telling a tale of a certain setting. If that’s the case, every writer who writes something where someone gets hurt is a sadist. Bonus points if that person is of a certain color, and then we can state they’re “subjugating x culture.”

        • There are ways to depict bad things happening that aren’t misogynist – but the vast majority of games either don’t do this or are sexist in other ways. Yes, there are games that are not sexist, and some that are only a little sexist, but there is a misogyny problem in gaming – in the games, in the industry, and (case in point) in the community. The community and industry problems, I would argue, are more immediate and cause the problems in the games, but they exist, whether you want to see them or not. Being misogynist does not mean a game has no value – on the contrary, many games that are misogynist have other good qualities that make them valuable games and well worth buying and playing. You’re oversimplifying your argument to the point of ad absurdum in order to legitimize your own preferences for a particular kind of game that caters to the SWM demographic, and no example I provide (you could see the rest of this blog or TLF for a plethora of counter-examples, or look up articles by Patricia Hernandez, Carolyn Petit, and/or Leigh Alexander) will convince you to look through any perspective other than your own. I would encourage you to look up some of what those other writers have said, or to read pieces that I’ve written about BioShock Infinite or Fable, and think about them from a different viewpoint – imagine you aren’t you for a little while and consider how things look from the perspective of a woman or a black man playing BioShock Infinite. It’s still a great game, but just think about how it looks to someone who isn’t you, who doesn’t have your advantages or experiences, who only ever sees their own demographic reflected in games or on tv as the victim, the villain, or the comic relief.

          And if you don’t like reading about feminist perspectives in games, then you don’t have to visit this blog again. I hope you do, and that you can be open to seeing things a different way.

          • I said there wasn’t misogyny. Yes, we can speak of individuals, and people, and call that the gaming “community” who are XYZ, but again, you’d be talking about people in general, and that is a problem in general, as the original commenter pointed out. I am not talking about that, and nor was the commenter.

            We are talking about games being generators of hatred toward females, or turning gamers into haters of females. That is not the case. You can talk about the challenging nature of multiplayer games being generators of hatred to other players, in general, but that’s a problem with the nature of such social interactions, not the game itself, and certainly not generators of misogyny.

            Show me one example of a misogynist game: one that makes gamers hate women. Even vulgar games like RapeLay or various other “rape” simulators in sexual-fetish games, that don’t produce rapists, so do 100% of violent games not create murderers. There’s no evidence to support either case. The narrative in your average RPG or action/adventure/FPS is whatever the writers and designers come up with. They are depicting their own made up world, based on real world examples, history, or other narrative futuristic possibilities found in media. They can have female prostitutes being butchered and being subjugated and denigrated, and a host of other literary themes of the human condition like insanity, racism, rape, murder, redemption, etc. However, none of these depictions generate such attitudes in people, and certainly aren’t engines for rape, murder and mental or moral destruction. Quite the opposite (look at the birth rate of Japan, for example, even a male marrying Love Plus game character.)

            Game writers are writing fiction. And fiction can be whatever the writer chooses. While one point of fiction or media consumption is wish fulfillment, another one of its functions is catharsis.

            And as soon as we challenge Anita’s and other defenders of “patterns in games that so happen to depict women being XYZ”, they are quick to call us racists, sexist, misogynist, etc. But if we were to talk about the depiction of men in video games somehow subjugating men in reality, no matter how false, they wouldn’t have a problem.

          • A game can be misogynistic without making people hate women – that’s not what it means for a game to be misogynistic; misogyny in games is the perpetuation or use of misogynistic images or tropes – whether those are intentionally being used to cause harm to women or not (and there are a rare few that are – for instance, the “Beat up Anita Sarkeesian game”), they DO cause that harm. The depiction of women as lesser than men is misogyny – which can be subconscious and unintended, which is why critics point it out. A game which depicts women only as victims or damsels needing rescue harms women by creating an expectation that women have no agency and need men to do things for them – it may not be designed to make people hate women, but games (ANY pop culture, for that matter) can influence our behavior in subconscious ways. Are they going to make a person suddenly hate women? Of course not. Will years of the same tropes being repeated over and over cause people to assume that men are more competent than women? Yes. Yes they will. That’s the sort of thing that we mean when we say games perpetuate misogyny, or are misogynistic, NOT that games openly advocate for their players to hate women. But I’m pretty sure that you knew that already – yes, a game can be whatever its developer chooses. Of course it can. But the fans also get to respond to that game in whatever way they choose – including by calling it out for being misogynistic. Does that mean the game should be censored? Nope. But neither should the critic be called a feminazi or harassed for expressing their opinion about the game. Also, to your last point, these games are harmful to men, too – and I’d like to see a series that intelligently explains why and how. Catharsis and wish-fulfillment are all well and good, but media is also used to change people’s minds, to educate and expand their viewpoints, and the way the games industry is currently established doesn’t do the last of these because it is primarily focused on a homogenous viewpoint – the point of criticism isn’t that these things should never appear in media (at least if it’s good), but that media should have OTHER things, too. This is a failing of Sarkeesian’s series, I suppose, but that isn’t the point she’s set out to make, and there’s only so much time in a day. I also don’t see Sarkeesian saying that these games make murderers – she’s saying they contribute to a general misogynistic culture, which is a huge difference. Mix up the content so that it’s not so homogenous, and the instances that remain become much less problematic. In this case, it’s a problem with the overwhelming homogeneity, not a problem with the ding an sich (at least in my estimation, although I’m sure there are others who would disagree).

  1. I think it’s telling that Sarkeesian includes fairly innocuous examples from Dishonored whilst failing to mention the positively creepy non-lethal Lady Boyle outcome, where a woman is handed over to someone who promises to ‘make her love me’ – and that’s the *moral* outcome. It does make you wonder whether she’s played the game or just skimmed over playthrough videos looking for anything that looks a bit dodgy.

    The problem with these videos is that they crumble under the weight of their own self-importance. This should be a fun ’20 Misogynist Clichés in Games’ Buzzfeed type of thing, which provokes discussion and hopefully pushes people into being more vocal in criticising lazy game design and storytelling. OR it should be the subject of a properly researched academic study that doesn’t just rely on self-selected samples and evidence-that-suits-my-hypothesis.

    But the size of the Sarkeesian brand demands an equally large dragon to slay, so you end up with a hyperbolic dystopia where every game is a bubbling cauldron of naked women, rape and death. And sadly a lot of the people retweeting her videos and hailing her as the gaming world’s answer to Andrea Dworkin don’t know any better. If you’ve never played a sandbox game, a couple of clips showing random acts of violence without context can seem pretty convincing of wide-scale depravity. But you could just as easily cut together sequences where only one race is killed. In fact you could play something like Fifa and exclusively pick white players if you really wanted to. Doesn’t make Fifa a racist game.

    What makes all this so frustrating is that there clearly *is* a problem of casual misogyny in far too many games and in the broader gaming community. The status quo of games in which white hetero men solve problems with violence desperately needs to be challenged, and so if Sarkeesian’s videos do that – great. But by backing up arguments with blatantly flawed evidence – such as the Hitman clips – I can’t help feeling that when the heat and noise and celebrity re-Tweets calm down, the only thing that’ll have changed is Ms Sarkeesian’s bank balance.

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