Why I dislike the work of Anita Sarkeesian … an elaboration

I thought I could get away with the last post that I wrote and just defer to some videos on YouTube to frame my thoughts for me, but now I can’t fall asleep so I’m going to give this another go and just spell it out – at least from my perspective…

In a nutshell, my opinion of Tropes vs Women in Video Games is that the series in general is disingenuous to its subject matter.

And I say that for a couple of reasons, the first being probably the most controversial in that there’s reason to believe that Anita is not a fan of video games. And by “reason,” I mean there’s a video of her saying those exact words.

The reason that this in particular is important right off the bat, in my view, isn’t for the typical bro gamer ideology that you’re not a real gamer if you’re not playing Call of Duty 8 nights a week online, but more so because it introduces the very series in a very confrontational light. If you’re very passionate about something, you have a tendency to take it personally when someone – especially an outsider – comes in and wants to critique this thing that you’ve loved for all of your life.

At least that’s it for me – I’ve been playing games since I was 9 years old when I got my NES for Christmas and all of those stories that I explored, especially those that may have offered me an escape during tough times or even a joyous source of entertainment, are very near and dear to my heart. And it’s one thing for those of us who all grew up in that similar era to poke fun at some of the ridiculousness that we used to get so wrapped up in while also savoring in every last nostalgic drop … but when somebody else who didn’t garner that same love for the hobby comes in and starts poking holes in it, even as legitimate as some of them may be, those critiques hurt – especially when they were never solicited in the first place…

And here’s the thing – maybe Anita Sarkeesian actually did grow up playing all of these great titles and she just wants a little more from them now that she’s more aligned with a feminist viewpoint, but that’s not how the story has been presented. We’ve only got a couple of clips to go by – a video series in which she critiques without remorse, a few interviews promoting the series in which she states her love for games, and then that old video from a few years before the project where she tells a college class that “she’s not a fan of video games.”

Is it really crazy for gamers to be a little skeptical of her intent when her series puts us on the defensive and her own background in the world of video games is questionable?

Now mind you, I’m not saying that she doesn’t have the right to make feminist critiques about our world, but she’s not automatically entitled to a positive reaction, either. Ask any movie critique and they’ve got loads of pissed off fans from all of the times when they’ve skewered a movie that people absolutely loved! This is the Internet – you’re allowed to rant and bitch about anything you want, but that doesn’t mean people are always going to take it lying down…

The other reason why I found her series confrontational right off the bat is simply in the way that they were presented. Sure, they look very professional and well put together, but frankly, they watch to me like they were intended to be more instructional than persuasive. The videos are very educationally scripted, with loads of feminist definitions throughout as she explores the various tropes found within these stories … more on that in a minute.

The big thing I took away from even just the first episode was, though, that as a long-time fan of video games myself, I didn’t feel like I was the intended audience for the video. Instead it felt like the video was aimed at explaining to non-gamers as well as other feminists what was wrong with some of my favorite video games. And even that might’ve been ok, had it been presented from a woman’s perspective and not from a feminist’s perspective.

And I should clarify right there because those two options honestly represent both the good and the bad sides of feminism in my eyes. As I mentioned in my last post, there are two types of feminists that I’ve encountered – those who seek fair representation in the world around them and those who want to be angry about the world around them with other feminists. I love the first kind of feminist because I in no way want to make anyone feel slighted in their day-to-day life, but I don’t see the second group as wanting to change anything as much as wanting to beat the drum and point fingers and play the victim in a man’s world.

Which is bullshit.

So anyways, yeah – if Anita had presented this entire series as, “You know what? I’ve always loved these games growing up, but the more I look back at them, I don’t really feel that women have been represented in the most positive ways – let’s talk about it!” … I’d have been all aboard that series because I think it would be a really interesting issue to address. I know that some women must feel that way, just like various groups feel that they’re not represented well on TV or in the movies or whatever.

Putting a personal spin on this series would’ve made all the difference in the world, in my view, because the more that Anita would’ve put out there about herself and how she feels about video games without the feminist backdrop, the easier it would’ve been for gamers to stop and listen to the things that she had to say without feeling like their favorite stories were being attacked.

Because remember, this whole project was supposed to be about the games themselves, although in hindsight that seems a little misleading because what actually got Anita all of her publicity was the violent threats and harassment that she received, and actually the bulk of the Kickstarter funding that she raised came in after all of those threats became publicized. It would be really interesting to know the demographics of the donors, in that which ones were themselves fans of video games vs just those donating in her support amidst all of the controversy…

But back to the critiques themselves, though, because even driving into the content itself, I guess I was just a little off put because frankly, the descriptions that she gave, for example, in her Damsel in Distress video simply are in no way how I’ve ever viewed those stories in the first place. 

First of all, the idea of a trope as an intrinsically negative concept is – and I say this as a writer – completely false. Tropes are simply plot devices to help us move the story along, and though they sometimes may seem trite or predictable, let’s be honest – if you distill a story down far enough, at the end of the day there are really only a handful of different types of stories, and tropes are the things that writers use to drive those stories along.

The second thing is, I don’t really look at being a damsel to be an intrinsically bad thing, either!

Anita describes damsels as mere plot objects who simply exist as something for the male hero to earn, as opposed to something more complicated like an important figure in the kingdom that drives the hero to risk life and limb for him to rescue. I just don’t get the negativity that is insisted by this feministic viewpoint by stating that unless the woman is doing the running and jumping and fighting all for herself, she’s just a tool to promote the power of the man.

I certainly don’t look at it that way. Never once in my years have I looked down on Peach and Zelda for being just another mindless trophy for Mario and Link to retrieve in their latest adventure – the characters deserve more credit than that, both male and female. Critique the fact that the roles aren’t reversed more often if you’d like, but I don’t see how those stories existing of men fighting to save women somehow belittles the cause of the respectable female.

I personally respect and care about the women in my life, and I’d like to think that I’d eagerly take to the streets should Bowser show up at my doorstep and snatch my wife away when I’m off picking up Chinese food or something! It wouldn’t say much for either of our characters if I just sat around at home waiting for her to save herself, you know, so as to not rob her from the opportunity to be the architect of her own escape and whatnot…

Of course, it doesn’t help matters that even when a game does feature a female protagonist like we did with Princess Peach in Super Mario Bros. 2, that example is quickly written off as accidental, despite the fact that Peach was pretty much the best choice to play that entire game through … I don’t think that ever played as any of the other guys, anyways.

The thing is, I think sometimes people see what they want to see, and whereas someone like Anita looks at a game like Ms. Pac-Man and sees it as a representation of binary gender expression through visual feminine stereotypes while the rest of us just saw the game as the sequel to Pac-Man. She seeks to devalue characters designed based off of male counterparts because she feels that it doesn’t allow the characters the same developmental opportunities as their male counterparts, whereas … seriously, they’re both yellow circles that eat dots and run from ghosts – how much character development do you really need?!

I could go on, but I’m getting tired and honestly, that’s kind of my ending note from this series as well because it just drones on and on about how women are slighted from every possible angle that ultimately I feel like my only possible response can be – then go make the video games that you want to play. Creative people can only create the stories that they want to tell, whether we’re talking about epic RPGs starring an ensemble cast of all genders, races, and attack types or even just another feminist rant looking to make its mark by dissecting a piece of popular culture that the author feels doesn’t cater well enough to her own personal preferences. And you can shout it from the rooftops, and you can vote with your wallet, but at the end of the day the only way to ensure that women aren’t placed into these roles which you find to be offensive is to dive in headfirst and start making those games yourself.

As Anita even stated at the end of her latest video, there are a handful of developers that are already pushing societal norms in this area on a regular basis and I’m sure as long as they can execute in a way that will be popular with the people who want to play those games, they’ll be successful and continue to grow.

That said, I have to question the value of a series like this on account of its execution because as I eluded to before in my last post, I’m not really sure that these feminist preachings of Anita’s are doing a whole lot more than serving to stir the pot. And maybe that’s enough for her, but it’s hard for me as a fan of video games to understand her intent when she publishes a series like this that seems to cater more to people who already think just like she does, and then she closes herself off from comments and critiques of her own that could serve to move the dialog forward to actually help people like me to better understand why this matters to her.

Because strictly speaking for myself, I don’t want to be preached at from the outside looking in. Send over someone who’s transparently passionate about this virtual world that I’ve found solace in for nearly three decades, and let them share their frustrations about how they feel that women have been slighted by our shared world, and then we can start to have a dialog that might actually change my mind.

But don’t send in a representative like Anita Sarkeesian, who at least from all that we’ve been exposed to, reads as simply the classic angry feminist who’s eager to be angry at anything that wasn’t explicitly created with only the female gender being empowered, because I can’t relate to that person on account that I feel her perspective is simply biased against reality. I’m sure they could do better, but male and female characters can most definitely co-exist in stories without one robbing the other of power, and it’s not fair to all of the great stories and all of the great video games that have been created over the years that offer strong lead and support roles to characters of both genders.

If you’re going to look at life through a lens with the perspective of The Bechdel Test, you’re going to see a world where anything less than a woman-focused society constantly disappoints you. And I guess that’s fine if perpetual angst is your prerogative, but if you actually want to see a change in your representation throughout the world around you, I recommend less shouting and more doing because all it seems that you’re accomplishing now is rallying those who already agree with you, but also aren’t doing anything, and rubbing the wrong way those of us who can’t relate to how you’d like us to want to feel.

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