I’ve watched far too many videos concerning Sarkeesian’s YouTube channel, Feminist Frequency, most in particular her Kickstarter series, Tropes vs. Women. Many of her more vocal critics are men, most infamously, YouTube personalities such as Mr. Repzion, Thunderf00t, The Amazing Atheist, Alpha Omega Sin, arbitor365, MundaneMatt, the list seriously continues. Just between the first two, there’s 36 videos, nearly 9 hours, and nearly one-million views.
There are female critics as well, most notably Liana K, The Factual Feminist (Christina Hoff Sommers), and Tara Babcock, who criticize Sarkeesian on the same exact points, and in very much the same way, as the larger list of male critics. In defense of the Factual Feminist, she’s far more intellectual in her responses to Sarkeesian than the other two, as would be expected considering the fact that she’s a well respected, read, and educated woman, having earned her doctorate in philosophy. I would say, that of all of the videos I have seen (over 60 videos/15 hours), the Factual Feminist is the most respectful, on point, and intellectual of them all. That being said, though, I strike my disagreements with her, as have many other feminists, since her 1994 book Who Stole Feminism, where she discusses the two main camps in contemporary feminism (third wave), as being Gender Feminists, and Equity Feminists – herself being the former. And, to a point, Liana K can make some valid points that are critical of Sarkeesian, as well as her ideas, but most of the time her stuff is either too personal to be generalized, or falls in line with the rest of those that just want to assassinate Sarkeesian’s character.
It would not be intellectually honest in posting this refutation without also discussing, at least in some part, Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter project, Tropes vs. Women. After all, this is what she was originally criticized for. I’ve watched each segment several times, and read all of the transcripts. It be these transcripts that I’ll be quoting from.
We’ll begin with her first video, Damsel in Distress, Part 1. This video gives a very general overview of the history of the trope that she’s discussing. It’s an interesting perspective that she writes, one that is consistent with various sociological perspectives concerning media, media bias, and gender biases in mass media mediums (games, movies, magazines, etc.). That being said, she makes a few statements, that, in my opinion, most of critics have completely skimmed over.
In the beginning of her first video, she states:
This series will include critical analysis of many beloved games and characters, but remember that it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of it’s more problematic or pernicious aspects.
Maybe her critics are unclear of what a trope is, or even what a plot device is. She explains it by saying:
As a trope the damsel in distress is a plot device in which a female character is placed in a perilous situation from which she cannot escape on her own and must be rescued by a male character, usually providing a core incentive or motivation for the protagonist’s quest.
In video games this is most often accomplished via kidnapping but it can also take the form of petrification or demon possession for example.
Traditionally the woman in distress is a family member or a love interest of the hero; princesses, wives, girlfriends and sisters are all commonly used to fill the role.
She is in fact not false in saying this. The dictionary definition of trope is: “a word, phrase, or image used in a new and different way in order to create an artistic effect.” Although it elaborates further by saying “1b: a common or overused theme or device: cliche.” And a plot device is a component to the plot that assists in moving the story forward. So, in effect, the Damsel in Distress is used to move the story forward, and, as Sarkeesian points out, to the specifically further the story arch of the main playable character. More importantly though, she’s specifically only discussing this trope. To Sarkeesian, it isn’t necessarily this trope that’s pernicious – it’s the fact that it is overused in video games that makes it a pernicious aspect. I say this in reference to the many individuals who subsequently responded to her videos with scorn because she used their favorite game as an example (most notably Hit Man 2). The point of her videos was not to analyze and critique all violence in video games, much like the political fad of the 1990’s. The point of her video games was discuss the plot device, Damsel in Distress. It is not worthwhile, useful, or even honest to critique her on the basis that she didn’t critique something else, when that wasn’t her point. Her videos hone in on a very specific element, and as such, all critiques of her videos should remain focused on that point as well. If you have a different analysis and interpretation on the overwhelming amount of female characters that can be viewed, or abused sexually as opposed to men, than please offer that as a rebuttal, instead of calling her names, or attemping to prove she’s wrong through any other form of character assassination. If you must resort to personal attacks, it shows the weakness of your stance far more than it does your opponent’s.
In any case, near the end of her video, she states (in whole, emphasis added):
The pattern of presenting women as fundamentally weak, ineffective or entirely incapable also has larger ramifications beyond the characters themselves and the specific games they inhabit. We have to remember that these games do not exist in a vacuum, they are an increasingly important and influential part of our larger social and cultural ecosystem.
The reality is that this troupe is being used in a real-world context where backwards sexist attitudes are already rampant. It’s a sad fact that a large percentage of the world’s population still clings to the deeply sexist belief that women as a group need to be sheltered, protected and taken care of by men.
The belief that women are somehow a “naturally weaker gender” is a deeply ingrained socially constructed myth, which of course is completely false- but the notion is reinforced and perpetuated when women are continuously portrayed as frail, fragile, and vulnerable creatures.
Just to be clear, I am not saying that all games using the damsel in distress as a plot device are automatically sexist or have no value. But it’s undeniable that popular culture is a powerful influence in or lives and the Damsel in Distress trope as a recurring trend does help to normalize extremely toxic, patronizing and paternalistic attitudes about women.
Sarkeesian’s second video, Damsel in Distress (Part 2), goes on to elaborate more, giving more specific definitions, and adding the element of sexual violence. Sarkeesian can be quoted as saying:
Since what we are really talking about here are depictions of violence against women it might be useful to quickly define what I mean by that term. When I say Violence Against Women I’m primarily referring to images of women being victimized or when violence is specifically linked to a character’s gender or sexuality. Female characters who happen to be involved in violent or combat situations on relatively equal footing with their opponents are typically be exempt them from this category because they are usually not framed as victims.
Further on she says (emphasis added):
Even though most of the games we’re talking about don’t explicitly condone violence against women, nevertheless they trivialize and exploit female suffering as a way to ratchet up the emotional or sexual stakes for the player.
Despite these troubling implications, game creators aren’t necessarily all sitting around twirling their nefarious looking mustaches while consciously trying to figure out how to best misrepresent women as part of some grand conspiracy.
Most probably just haven’t given much thought to the underlying messages their games are sending and in many cases developers have backed themselves into a corner with their own game mechanics. When violence is the primary gameplay mechanic and therefore the primary way that the player engages with the game-world it severely limits the options for problem solving. The player is then forced to use violence to deal with almost all situations because its the only meaningful mechanic available — even if that means beating up or killing the women they are meant to love or care about.
One of the really insidious things about systemic & institutional sexism is that most often regressive attitudes and harmful gender stereotypes are perpetuated and maintained unintentionally.
Likewise engaging with these games is not going to magically transform players into raging sexists. We typically don’t have a monkey-see monkey-do, direct cause and effect relationship with the media we consume. Cultural influence works in much more subtle and complicated ways, however media narratives do have a powerful cultivation effect helping to shape cultural attitudes and opinions.
It is important to reiterate this point, in her own words. Many of the critiques made against her, indeed the vile atmosphere that has since shaped the conversation following the release of these videos, seems to point towards some pernicious attempt on the part of Sarkeesian to turn video games into something entirely different – devoid of nudity, cussing, and violence in general. But this isn’t the case. She has very clearly stated that:
- You can enjoy games with violent content,
- You can even enjoy the trope,
- Not all games with this content are sexist,
- Game developers aren’t intentionally attempting to misrepresent women,
- Games don’t turn people into sexist people overnight – the change is subtle,
- Most people aren’t sexist on purpose, indeed it is unintentional,
- Most of the games discussed don’t explicitly condone violence against women,
- Although most games don’t condone violence, it does trivialize violence,
- Developers should seek to make video games less sexually violent,
- Violence against women in games tends to be casual in nature,
- Casual violence used to gain a quick emotional response from the gamer should be replaced with more thought out and engaging scenarios.
Yet, her critics have responded by suggesting that she is saying the exact opposite, and have managed to shape the entire debate as though that is exactly what she said. They’re frame of mind, indeed their arguments are that Sarkeesian isn’t just suggesting, indeed she stating with fact that somehow video games are sexist, people who play them are sexist, that you can’t enjoy a game if it has violence in it, especially towards women, and that developers are sexist and bad because of it.
On the Matter of Research, and Calling Sarkeesian a Liar
The quotes that I shared above served three purposes: 1) To show that her critics are changing her words entirely, either through arrogance or ignorance, 2) To summarize and explain her overall point, 3) To share the most criticized portions of her overall argument so that I may back them up here.
Although it may come as a surprise to many, what Sarkeesian pointed out in her two videos has been a matter of academic research since the 1980’s. There’s been a great deal of research regarding television (movies in general), and ponrography, and how it shapes and changes perceptions of those that watch it, in particular the acceptance of the rape myth. It is well known that watching material (even though it is considered a form of free speech (pornography)), it still has a negative impact. In particular, watching porn reduces the sex drive towards other women, and those that watch it tend to believe that women essentially ask to be raped, or victimized. But what of video games and violence towards women?
A study in 2009, using an experimental design sought to determine if playing a sexualized female character would illicit short term decreases in self-efficacy and self-image. The results were not entirely as expected, but in the end, the authors cautiously remarked that playing sexualized female characters “unfavorably influenced people’s beliefs about women in the real world.” A phenomenon that certainly exists in context to watching pornography, which is an industry built on objectifying and sexualizing women. It’s also imporatnt o understand that these effects don’t just effect men, they effect women. A study published just this year found that when women feel objectified by their spouses (frequently being “surveyed”) they experienced more body shame, and less sexual agency. Although this study focused on intimate relationships, and research on the topic objectification is lacking, it would not be farfetched, or even illogical to think that the trend also happens in the greater society, outside of intimate relationships.
Another study published this year focused on the lifetime play of video games and found “a relationship between video game consumption and RMA via interpersonal aggression and hostile sexism.” The authors also noted that this study in particular does not suggest a causal link, the results are still important in the context of this conversation. Another study completed in 2012 found similar results, stating “this exploratory study found that a video game depicting sexual objectification of women and violence against women resulted in statistically significant increased rape myths acceptance (rape-supportive attitudes) for male study participants but not for female participants.”
A Response to her Critics
Mr. Repzion in his video Re: Damsel in Distress, he seems to think that Sarkeesian’s main point is that “video games are primarily all male protaganists.” (1:21-1:25). Among other things, he seems to think that Sarkeesian is saying that there are no good female role models in games, that objectification is bad, and that video games shouldn’t use the damsel in distress trope. For one thing, none of that was really the main point of Sarkeesian’s videos, and at not point did she say that we need to get rid of the plot device. It would be safer to assume that Sarkeesian believes the plot device to be overused, which is why she refers to it as a trope, and not simply a plot device. Mr. Repzion then goes on to say, (2:10-2:18) “I am here today to make one main point. There are plenty of female role models within gaming.” He goes on to say that Sarkeesian seems to think games with female protagonists don’t exist, and that some of his favorite games have female protagonists.
The two main problems with Mr. Repzion’s response is that 1) He’s making a straw man argument against Sarkeesian, 2) his “one main point” is factually wrong. The first failure is that Sarkeesian is critically analyzing the plot device, damsel in distress, as being a trope. She elaborates on how that trope is bad, and how it evolved into more violent expressions, and finally how those violent expressions are bad. Although she does at various points point out the lack of female protaganists, to suggest that it’s her main point largely misses, indeed ignores, the overall point she’s attempting to make – which is that games are tailored towards men, and often sexually violent towards women. The second failure, is that although “there are plenty of games with female protaganists”, Mr. Repzion is stating it as a rebuttal to essentially suggest that there’s an equal number of male and female protagonists, or at the very least, that the balance isn’t so off that it warrants three videos.
Never mind the fact that Sarkeesian used 183 games in her 3 videos, but since the 1980’s, various papers have been published on the topic of female representation in games. To quote from one researcher:
“Findings for gender representation in video games generally support past findings in that males are significantly more represented than females (Williams et al., 2009; Robinson et al., 2008; Miller & Summers, 2007; Burgess et al., 2007; Ivory, 2006). Ivory’s (2006) research on video game reviews found that, while “75%…of the reviews mentioned male characters, only 42%…mentioned female characters in any capacity” (p. 109). Miller and Summers (2007) found that, “Of the 49 games included in the analysis, 282 male humans and 53 female human characters appeared, indicating 1 female for every 5.3 male characters” (p. 737). Along the same lines, Burgess et al. (2007) found that “[m]ales were twice as likely to appear on covers as females were” (p. 423); following that, their sample examined 381 male characters compared to only 104 female characters. Robinson et al.’s (2008) study on video game websites also supported this trend, finding that “male characters outnumbered female characters 3 to 1 (577 male characters to 196 female characters).” More recently, Williams et al. (2009) found that “male characters are vastly more likely to appear than female character [sic] in general. The overall difference of 85.23/14.77 percent is also a large contrast with the 50.9/49.1 percent distribution in the actual population” (p. 824). While the trend seems that men are continuing to outnumber women in character representation in game, Jansz and Martis’ (2007) results “seem to indicate that the number of female characters in recent games is far larger than it was in earlier games” (p. 146). Their results may have been biased “toward a higher prevalence of female characters”, however, “because [they] did not draw a random sample but deliberately selected popular games with a diverse cast of characters” (p. 146).
For other sources that support this, as well as the fact that while also being portrayed less, they’re portrayed more sexually, you can read this, this, this, and this. The EEDAR also did a study back in 2013. Out of 669 games, only 24 had an exclusively female protagonist, or 3.5%. 300 games gave the option of choosing male or female. I hardly call that “plenty of games” with a strictly female lead.
Mr. Repzion’s two failures though are the best example I can give among the many more popular critics of Sarkeesian. They resort to straw man arguments, which is a logical fallacy in which the person rebutting misunderstands, or misconstrues the original argument, therefore not actually rebutting the main point. And that’s what’s happening in this facade.
Thunderf00t for example, just calls her “dishonest” and suggests that many people have been “duped.” In fact, in one video, he makes a strawman argument (1:57-2:30). Many people seem to have thrown a fit over two particular missions in two games that Sarkeesian references: Hitman Absolution, and Watch Dogs.
In Sarkeesian’s video, Women as Background Decoration: Part 1 – Tropes vs Women in Video Games, Sarkeesian states:
“However, for the purposes of this trope we’re only concerned with one very particular type of non-essential female NPC. Those specifically designed as a decorative virtual “sex class” who exist to service straight male desire. I classify this subset of characters as Non-Playable Sex Objects.
Non-Playable Sex Objects can usually be found on the sidelines of role playing or open world style games,populating the many virtual strip clubs, red light districts or brothel locations that have become almost obligatory in many so-called “mature” titles.
Such characters are programmed with crude looping sexualized behaviors or dialogue as a way of adding an extra layer of “seedy” flavoring to game universes.
Unlike other NPCs that exist for purposes outside of their sexuality, Non-Playable Sex Objects have little to no individual personality or identity to speak of, and almost never get to be anything other than set dressing or props in someone else’s narrative.
This is the essence of what sexual objectification means. And since that concept is at the heart of the Women as Background Decoration trope, let’s take a moment to define it.
As the term implies, sexual objectification is the practice of treating or representing a human being as a thing or mere instrument to be used for another’s sexual purposes. Sexually objectified women are valued primarily for their bodies, or body parts, which are presented as existing for the pleasure and gratification of others.
In some games sexual objectification is fused with the exotification of impoverished women of color. In Far Cry 3 and Max Payne 3, for example, straight white protagonists explore shantytowns located in the global south populated by prostituted women.”
Thunderf00t seems to think that Sarkeesian’s use of a mission in Watch Dogs, in which you have to close down a sex trafficking ring, as being sexist. Sarkeesian, though, doesn’t refer to it as sexist, and instead is defining the use of female non-playable characters, as background decoration. It cannot be argued that those women, in that mission, are anything more than how Sarkeesian defines them: non-playable sex objects. Especially given the previous definitions that Sarkeesian gave on the matter of objects and subjects. In that mission, you, the playable character, act out to save the women. Even more interesting about this mission, and likely the reason that Sarkeesian used it, is because the whole mission revolves around an environment in which women are meant to be objectified. But these concepts, and applications of sociological theory, are not novel. Sarkeesian is applying the same approach that many researchers and media critics have used with popular movies and television shows. Although Sarkeesian would likely agree with the idea that the mission is inherently sexist, that’s not what she said. She’s defining a situation, very clearly. More importantly, she’s saying that games that rely on these kinds of missions (and there are a lot of them), are reinforcing the idea that women are objects, or meant to be objectified, or meant to be acted upon (in this instance, to be saved).
It is amazing to me how an individual with a PhD could be so dishonest, either academically or otherwise, in such a way that Thunderf00t manages, it is indeed disturbing.
In the examples that Sarkeesian uses, be it Hitman, Watch Dogs, Dishonored, Grand Theft Auto, you name it, Sarkeesian is specifically discussing the violence aimed towards women, the lack of female playable roles, and the over abundance of sexual violence, or sexual objectification towards all female characters in games. That’s her point. It is not a valid argument to say “but men in games suffer violence.” That is not a valid argument, in part, because the role of many male characters indeed revolves around violence. Hitting another character who is attacking you is not the same as stealthy stabbing a prostitute, indeed the intent is different. It is not a valid argument, also, because that’s not Sarkeesian’s point. If her intention had been to tackle all video game character tropes, I imagine that would have been the title of her series, if not similar to it. But that isn’t the case. Her project is geared specifically towards a very sociological review of a particular trope on one small set of game characters. To rebut her arguments using any examples that have little or nothing to do with her points makes your argument a strawman argument.
Lastly, many other videos aim to discredit her either by saying that she can’t keep her promises, or that she lied in college about her liking to play video games. Frankly, none of those things have anything to do with the points that she’s making, and are therefore invalid arguments. Are we to say that all people who may tell a lie, or not meet an expectation, are therefore entirely incapable of relaying sociological perceptions juxtaposed on a form of art, and media? Hardly. Yet, that’s what Thunderf00t, along with the others, readily do. So what if she did, or did not, play video games in her youth? So what, even, if she lied about that. The fact of the matter is, she has now played, at the very least, 183 video games, and applied a sociological lens, tinted in part by feminist thought, onto the video games, and she’s hardly the first person to do it.
If you wish to call Sarkeesian a liar, no one is stopping you, certainly you can. But calling her a liar has no impact on the validity of her overall arguments that she’s proposed in Tropes vs. Women. It is my overall perception that those most loudly calling her a liar, are indeed, doing so much for the same reason that Galileo was labled a liar by the church – not because he was a liar, but because he was inconvenient. Inconvenient towards strongly held ideas based on little more than perception, and years of conditioning to believe as such.