The Sarkeesian scandal, censorship and women in video games
Video and computer games are innovative, interactive, sometimes even ground-breaking. They allow gamers to enter new and fascinating worlds. They allow us to experience narratives in ways unheard of just a couple of decades ago. And they continuously perpetuate antiquated gender roles, both for males and – more extremely – females.
This is by no means an article aimed at dismissing the growing significance of gaming by calling all of its participants – i.e. all gamers – over-the-top machos and sexist pigs (indeed, sexism needs not be overt for it to be there, but that is not the point). I would say that there is a big percentage of male gamers who would, if anything, defend women’s rights. But it is still the case that an even bigger percentage of (particularly male but also female) gamers holds on to at least some damaging gender stereotypes.
Before we get to the issue at hand, let us start by defining the word feminism. Most people think that feminists are by definition women fighting for women’s rights (which, as some would argue, leads to downright misandry), but this is not the case. A feminist is anyone, male or female, who stands up for gender equality. And yes, in today’s world, that primarily does mean fighting for women’s rights. The term feminist originated in post-suffragette hippie times, and it is unfortunate because it is associated with militant feminist clichés, some real, some based on film and television.
Anita Sarkeesian is a feminist, and a very vocal one at that. It bears mentioning that I personally do not agree with all of her opinions, but that I do respect her work. Ms. Sarkeesian has a YouTube channel called feminist frequency where she discusses gender-related topics. One day in 2012, she decided she wanted to do a series on gender roles in videogames and opened an account on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter – for the uninitiated, an online platform where people can ask for funding for projects – to collect 6,000 dollars for the production of this series.
Before she had raised the money, and long before she had started producing the series, there was a sudden outcry in the more vocal part of the traditionalist gamer community. How dare this woman, herself not a real gamer, say something about video games? How dare she threaten this male-dominated domain?
And then, the onslaught began. Anita Sarkeesian – mind you, before she had even started her series – became the victim of intense cyber-bullying. She was sent repeated death and rape threats. Her wikipedia page was vandalized and pictures of her having sex with video game characters were added to the page. She was repeatedly flagged on YouTube (for the uninitiated, flagging means that people press a button which alerts YouTube to copyright concerns). She was demonized and called terrible names (there were, by the way, also females who participated in this). Someone even went so far as to program a game where you could click onto a photo of Anita Sarkeesian to watch her get virtually beaten up.
And she went on to make over 150,000 dollars, over 25 times the amount she asked for, via crowdfunding. In the meantime, the first episodes of her series on Tropes vs. Women in Video Games have gone online. She has a lot of supporters, but there are still very vocal individuals out there, hiding behind the anonymity of the internet, who continue to slander her name and threaten her. There are some aspects in her series that can be criticized – especially that she lifted footage from another YouTuber playing the games she discusses without mentioning said YouTuber, or that some of what she says is evidently due to the fact that she has not played the game – but as a neutral discussion without receiving threats is impossible, the comments section on her YouTube pages is heavily monitored, leading to censorship on her part and a somewhat one-sided discussion of the topic. Ironically, some people’s aim of censoring her has led to her becoming the one who censors. What a strange world we live in, indeed.
The incident with Ms. Sarkeesian has once again proven that misogyny is alive and well, and that there is a worrying tendency for it to occur in environments with young target audiences. This leads to self-image issues and self-contempt for many girls who are brainwashed into thinking that these antiquated, demure and simultaneously over-sexualized (and not sex-positive, mind you) images of women they are being fed are true and therefore feel the need to express aggressiveness towards other women who openly defend gender equality standpoints. Let us also not forget that stereotypical gender roles also force men into small boxes, ones where they are not allowed to express certain emotions, ones where they have to act and react a certain way to be considered manly, and ones that seem to force them to a certain extent to adapt to sexist and homophobic modes of thinking. In some ways it is far easier to be a woman than it is to be a man. At least you can emote and be emotional without fearing the ridicule of your peers, even if you aren’t taken seriously.
The Anita Sarkeesian debate has proven that there is still a need for feminism in the actual sense of the word. And as a woman, I sincerely hope that one day in the future, those who claim there is no need for affirmative action for women and – by extension – no need for feminism will be right.
By Simone Lechner