Anita Sarkeesian is a woman who has very strong opinions. She is easily one of the most controversial figures on the internet today. And… wait a minute, didn’t I write an article about this already? Oh yeah, that’s right, here it is.
So why am I writing about the same topic again? Well, recently Ms. Sarkeesian had to leave her house, because someone threatened to rape and kill her on social media (and presumably also knew where she lived). This took place shortly after she uploaded her latest video in her series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. The incident warranted responses on an international scale, and led to articles like the one currently available for reading on the Spiegel Online magazine. And lo and behold, the comment section showcases the frightening level of sexism still present in German society. What I’m going to do in this article is examine some of the most frequent arguments made against Anita Sarkeesian and the whole notion of why it is important to discuss sexism in gaming. So without further ado, here are my rebuttals to seven reasons people bring up to defend their hatred of Anita Sarkeesian:
1. “Anita Sarkeesian is a terrible person. She lifted let’s play footage from other gamers and shows clips from games without giving the proper context. And she disabled comments on her YouTube page.”
To this I say, I don’t know what Ms. Sarkeesian is like as a person, and probably neither do you. You cannot make that judgment. And you should certainly refrain from using expletives in your judgment of her. The fact that she lifted game footage from other gamers is problematic if they did not give their consent for her to do so. This is rightfully criticized even by those who support her cause. And it is true that some of the clips she shows do not have a lot of context to them, but the issue is this: If you need a framework for a sexist scene to make sense in the context of gaming, that does not make it any less sexist. Even if it makes sense in context, it is still sexist. And the point that Anita Sarkeesian makes is that these sexist scenes are often not needed as they do not even necessarily advance the story. I’ve already discussed my views on Anita Sarkeesian’s decision to disable the comments on her channel. But even so, I do understand why she felt she had to do it, given the amount of hatred directed towards her.
2. “Well, a lot of the games she talks about take place in medieval times, when women had no agency. To make things more realistic, sexualized violence against women is necessary.”
First off: She talks about a lot of games with medieval themes, yes, but many of them are not set in medieval times. If so, I must have missed the part in history class that dealt with dragons, elves, mages and witches (cf. Dragon Age and The Witcher). Adding these aspects to medieval themed settings is acceptable, yet a world in which women are equal is not? Ms. Sarkeesian makes this exact point in her videos. And even for video games that are set in medieval or early modern times it is not necessary to show sexual exploitation to make the game in question more realistic. Actually, Anita Sarkeesian explains exactly what she means in great detail in her last two videos (here and here). If this is your argument, then you clearly have not seen the videos. Women in medieval times had agency, by the way – it is just that for the most part they weren’t at the forefront of narratives.
3. “The whole discussion is irrelevant because research has shown that video games do not influence gamers’ real life behaviour.”
This is an argument I see fairly often, not only in the Spiegel discussion. And it is true that gamers who play violent video games don’t go on murder sprees and that there are studies to support this. But a problem with sexism in particular is that it is internalized, it shapes gamers’ views of the world around them, including their views of women. Sexism does not mean that you necessarily commit crimes against women (although Ms. Sarkeesian does argue that violence in video games perpetuates violence against women, which I do not necessarily agree with), it means that you, perhaps even subconsciously, think women do not have the same worth as men. And if you believe that fantasy RPGs can have dragons and witches in them, but need to have sexualized violence or sexism (and predominantly British English accents) to make them more realistic, you have internalized sexist (and imperialist) views of the world to some extent. The same holds true for violence, by the way. Consumers of particularly violent media do not necessarily become violent themselves, but there is a real threat of them becoming desensitized to violence, especially if it occurs on a low level in real life scenarios and particularly if they are especially young. Life imitates art, and we recreate at least some of the narratives we are confronted with in real life. Without Hollywood, the concept of romance we have today would by wholly different, to name just one example.
4. “Women want female heroines, but they don’t want to be represented as villains. Therefore they do not want equal female representation. Also, video games are played predominantly by men.”
This is not true, and Anita Sarkeesian does not state this. What we do not want are an abundance of female villains who fall into the ‘deceitful woman’ archetype. That is not to say that these types of female villains should not exist, there should just also be other types of female villains out there. We especially don’t want female villains who become villains because they were scorned by men, which is probably the worst excuse for becoming a mass murdering psychopath. And this portrayal is what is damaging to the perception of women. I cannot count the times that someone has told me the problem with women in the workspace is that they are overly emotional, manipulative and scheming and cannot work well with others, particularly other women. And finally, yes, video games are predominantly played by men. I wonder why that is…
5. “Men experience the same treatment as women in video games, and no-one rushes to their defense.”
This is simply not the case. Men are represented in far more diverse ways. Even video games without medieval themes for the most part have a limited range of different female characters compared to their male counterparts. Most playable female characters are two-dimensional. The portrayal of male characters in video games may be unrealistic as well, but ultimately male portrayals are often power fantasies with women as a part of these fantasies. So while men are often unrealistically elevated, women are often degraded. This is not the same thing. Men in video games have far more agency and are rarely portrayed as defenseless. Women are. And while you might rush to the defense of these perceived defenseless women as a player in video games, Anita Sarkeesian and others rush to the defense of their worth as characters. Women are not inherently defenseless and should not be consistently portrayed as such. But the whole argument really is a non-argument to begin with. It is the same argument as ‘women experience (sexualized) violence, but men experience (sexualized) violence, too’. Even if men were to receive the exact same treatment as women, two wrongs does not make a right.
6. “I don’t believe Anita Sarkeesian was really threatened. There is no real proof, and I read in a forum somewhere that the evidence that does exist has been falsified. She probably made it all up to boost her views.”
This right here is classical victim blaming, i.e. the idea that some people in the world (often those with internalized sexist world views) will insist on blaming the victim until she (or he, but in most cases she) is proven right, rather than supporting a perceived victim. Philosophically and psychologically, victim blaming does make sense to a certain extent. The Just-World Hypothesis is inherent to most human beings’ way of thinking. It states that the world is not just, but people choose to believe that the world, and particularly society, is inherently fair. Therefore, if something bad happens to someone, this cannot be society’s fault (because that would mean that the world is, in fact, unjust). Consequently, it must be the fault of the person who has been wronged – or the person in question must by lying. In any case, you, dear sir or madam blaming Anita Sarkeesian for being threatened, are part of the reason why our society is unjust.
7. “It’s only a small percentage of women who have a problem with the way women are portrayed in video games.”
This is a difficult point to refute, because at first glance, it seems undeniably true. But there are still two arguments that tie in with points raised further above. First, there are far fewer women who admit to playing video and computer games on a regular basis than men. The women who are excessive gamers often have to accommodate to the very male-dominated society of gaming, with its often patriarchal set of values, and are more likely to have internalized sexist view points of women. To put it more simply, they want to be ‘one of the boys’, and this entails not being perceived as female and aligning themselves with views predominant in gaming society. Second, even if they do have objections and have not internalized these view points, they are not likely to voice them openly, because of the backlash they will more than likely receive. Say for example a female gamer is really interested in a particular game and often frequents forums dealing with the game in question. If she wants support or partake in constructive discussions about the gaming world, she is probably less likely to jeopardize her position in said forums to bring up sexism in the game’s narrative.
So this concludes the list of the top seven arguments people bring up against Anita Sarkeesian and the discussion of sexism. But wait, there are still at least four arguments left that seem to trump all others – arguments that are often added as a disclaimer before people begin spewing hateful comments.
8. “I’m not sexist, because I have predominantly female friends” or “I’m a woman, therefore I cannot be sexist” or “I support equality, but I can’t support these hardcore feminists” or “She got 168.000 dollars on Kickstarter and has only released six videos so far”
Obviously, you can still be sexist, even if you’re a woman or have predominantly female friends. And again, feminism does not mean what you think it does. Feminism does not mean supporting one gender over the other, it means fighting for gender equality. And I’ve yet to see one of the people who gave her money on Kickstarter complaining about the way she’s decided to produce her episodes.
Before I type myself into a rage, I’ll end this by emphasizing yet again that sexism in our modern day society is alive and kicking. It is especially prominent in the gaming community, and Anita Sarkeesian is not the only woman who faces severe threats of bodily harm by irate male gamers for daring to have an opinion (as evidenced by this article by Brianna Wu, a female video game developer). I’m afraid this probably won’t be my last article on the topic, but I hope that I’ll be able to write about happier and less political issues in the near future. If you happen to be male and don’t understand why inherent sexism in society is a problem to women and girls around the world, even here in Germany, you might want to have a look at this article by a fellow author on the site. But the problem is not at all limited to men. And as I’ve very briefly touched upon, women often display far worse cases of internalized sexism.
Nonetheless, I am hopeful. And I still enjoy video games. I just wish that some of them would appreciate women like me to the same extent that I appreciate them.
by Simone Lechner