An audience’s response has two sources: what is actually said, and what the audience brings to the hearing. In the case of Anita Sarkeesian’s analyses of popular culture, I can only conclude that only a fraction of the hostility comes from what she says, and most of it from those opposing her.
Sarkeesian’s critiques are easily identified as being grounded in mainstream feminism. Her perspective is nothing new, nothing bizarrely novel. She says nothing that has not been said constantly for the past three decades. So far as theory goes, her main contribution has been the relatively minor one of naming tropes, which is useful, but hardly revolutionary. In fact, although I might have missed something – the anti-Sarkeesian responses being far too numerous for anyone to be familiar with all of them – even her opponents adopt her coinings without objecting to them. Her opponents may refer ironically to Damsels in the Refrigerator or Ms Male, but they use the terms all the same, helping them to become part of the accepted terminology for talking about women in popular culture. Nor should that be surprising, because most of the names she gives tropes are colorful and instantly identifiable.
However, essentially, Sarkeesian is a popularist. She is less notable for adding to feminist theory than for taking academic discourse and translating it for a general audience. This is a difficult accomplishment, and should not be under-estimated, especially since few people are capable of it. Except in some of her conclusions, Sarkeesian generally minimizes jargon, and, when she does use an academic term, she is careful to explain and illustrate it before developing her argument.
Personally, as a former writer of software documentation, I find the ability to explain important, yet it seems, in itself, an unlikely source of controversy. After all, she is only giving a specific examples of a critique whose general outline is familiar in contemporary culture.
Ordinarily, the responses you would expect from work like Sarkeesian’s are queries about her interpretations, and the pointing out of omissions and inaccuracies in her analysis. For instance, her Straw Feminists video can be criticized for its characterization of the third season of the cult TV show Veronica Mars, which mistakes the depiction of feminist activists as flawed and opportunistic – a perfectly appropriate depiction for the show’s noir world where everybody is untrustworthy – as anti-feminism.
Yet this is rarely the kind of criticism she receives. More often, reactions to Sarkeesian are intense and hostile out of all proportion to anything she says.
Perhaps, part of this reaction is due to her critics feeling that something important to them is under scrutiny. This uneasiness is probably all the stronger because Sarkeesian is hardly a participant observer in the best sociological fashion. Even though she is a popularizer, the fact that she speaks from an academic background tends to cast her as an outsider, noisily entering the scene and dispersing judgment from a superior position.
But, whatever the reason, the responses to Sarkeesian are almost never examples of valid arguments. Much of the time, they are personal attacks, accusing her of being a front for a behind-the-scenes lover, or the public figure for some unfolding conspiracy, and at times accompanied by threats and personal, even sexual insults. She is faulted for having a Kickstarter campaigner that resulted in twenty-five times what she asked (as though success was proof of dishonesty), for not being a “real gamer” (as though only a member of the gaming sub-culture can observe it), for turning off comments on her postings (as though the Internet doesn’t have plenty of room elsewhere for responses), and for turning her harassment to some advantage (as though she should simply endure it). Less specifically, she is accused of lying or being evasive. Yet even if some or all of these accusations could be proved, none of them have anything to do with the validity of her arguments. The accusations express hostility, and nothing more.
In fact, attempts to address Sarkeesian’s observations are rare. When they are made, they generally fall short of logic. For example, while she is often accused of cherry-picking her evidence, her attackers fail to explain what else someone with as narrow a topic as Women in Video games is supposed to do. Similarly, complaints that she does not mention the broader context – for example, that only a minority of a popular game’s missions take place in a strip club – fail to address Sarkessian’s basic point of why such missions are included at all.
At other times, efforts to address Sarkeesian’s argument can only be described as willfully blind. One critic, for instance, faults Sarkeesian for mentioning a scene in which players can kill strippers and hide their bodies on the grounds that the game penalizes players for doing so. Yet how many gamers do not carefully save so that they go back and explore the paths not taken? Although the scene is not part of the main storyline, it is still part of the game.
The critics do have one point: Sarkeesian can be careless about citing sources. In response, Sarkeesian cites fair use, and I would add that popular and informal works (including this one) are more casual about sources than equivalent academic works. However, even the validity of this accusation is soon overshadowed by the quickness with which it is inflated to proofs of duplicity. Someone without a grudge would be more likely to attribute careless citing to nothing more sinister than inexperience.
What is troubling about such responses is not that they attack Sarkeesian. She is not, and should not be immune from criticism. However, when the responses attack Sarkeesian as often as her arguments, and employ such tormented logic the few times that they do discuss her arguments, they can hardly be called responses in good faith. They are not interested in discussing her argument to get closer to the truth, and would probably not concede that she was valid on any point whatsoever. Their goal is to deny or silence by any means at hand, no matter how irrelevant or illogical.
Add a sneering tone, and overt sexism, and they can hardly be called responses to Sarkeesian at all. Instead, they seem more projections of what the commenters bring to viewing Sarkeesian’s work.
Fear of feminism or women? Denial and doubts about what effects video games may have? Not being telepathic, I cannot presume to say. But, to all appearances, if Sarkeesian did not exist, at least some of her attackers would need to invent her.