Posts Tagged ‘Anita Sarkeesian’

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.

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Over the last few months, I’ve been enjoying Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency videos on YouTube. This series of short videos identifies female stereotypes, explaining why they are offensive, in general with intelligence, insight, and clear language. On the whole, I find myself agreeing with Sarkeesian, but her “Straw Feminists” episode is an exception. In fact, the episode seems a cautionary tale about how even experienced critics can sometimes have an off day when they take a critical stance at the expense of what is actually happening.

Much of “Straw Feminists” is to the point, with examples from Powerpuff Girls, Rugrats, and other popular shows. However, when she added a mystery on the third season of the cult TV show Veronica Mars to her examples, I began to have some doubts. I hadn’t watched the series for a while, but Sarkeesian’s analysis didn’t match my memories except in the broadest outlines.

Sarkeesian was talking about the first nine episodes of the season, in which the title character hunts a rapist at large on her college campus. The episodes’ cast includes the women of Lilith House, feminists who are using the rapes in their efforts to shut down the misogynistic fraternity houses. During the course of the mystery, the Lilith House members are founded to be less than scrupulous in their campaign, faking a rape and egging the dean’s car and office when he overturns a motion to eliminate fraternities on campus.

According to Sarkeesian, this portrayal shows the college feminists as villains and militant revolutionaries – as “irrational, pig-headed man-haters.” She also implies that the series is careful to separate feminism from the strong female lead, and considers the faked rape as taking the portrayal to an “obscene level.”

All this sounds irretrievably damning. The only problem is, when I watched the story arc over several nights to refresh my memory, for the most part that wasn’t what was happening at all.

To start with, the story does a much better job of portraying genuine feminist concerns than the summary implies. As Sarkeesian herself admits, the feminists’ demands, such as a safe ride program and a campus code of conduct are all reasonable ones. Moreover, while the feminists have a grudge against the fraternity, they never voice any of the anti-male sentiments that are characteristic of true straw feminists.

Nor is the title character distanced from the feminists. The first time she talks to one, she is open and friendly, and just as eager to topple the Greek system as they are. Later, although disillusionment with Lilith House provokes a few comments at their expense, she herself voices feminist sentiments, mentioning in voice overs “the male gaze” and commenting when the local sheriff refuses to take the situation seriously, “rape humor – it never gets old.”

In addition, although Lilith House’s inhabitants may be “hypocrites,” Veronica is quick to help promote their distribution of coasters to detect date-rape drugs in drinks. She is more skeptical about the effectiveness of distributing rape whistles – yet it is a whistle that leads to her rescue when she is held drugged and captive by the rapists. You might even say that, if not for feminism, the rapists would never have been discovered.

True, the feminists on the show are not presented as ideals. Yet they compare favorably with the rival fraternity. Fraternity members are shown mooning passers-by, acting out mock-rapes, engaging in sexual contests and deliberately undercutting anti-rape measures. Veronica describes one of them as “repugnant,” and, in the last episode of the mystery, asks the fraternity leader in tones of disgust, “How do you live with yourself?”

The fraternity’s behavior is never explored, although it is implied that one of them is suffering from the death of his brother and the tax-evasion of his father at the end of the previous season. For the most part, though, the fraternity members are presented simply as spoiled rich boys, and no other motivation is thought necessary. By contrast, the behavior of the feminists is attributed directly to the tensions on campus left by the string of rapes.

Even the faked rape, while suggestive of misogynist’s claims, is given a motivation. We don’t know how many of the 2-8% of rape claims that prove to be false are deliberate rather than mistaken, and no clear idea of what the motivations for deliberate false claims might be. However, from a fictional viewpoint, watching a friend commit suicide after being harassed is surely enough motivation for just about anything. The weakness in the story is that this motivation is not discovered until two episodes after the false rape is.

Admittedly, there is one plot element that proves stereotypical – but that is the anal rape and assault of the fraternity’s leader. In contrast to the sympathy given female rapes in the storyline, his rape is treated as a joke by both the fraternity and the title character. It forms the basis of a single episode, and no attempt is ever made to punish the rapists. By the next episode, the only reminder is the frat leader’s shaved head, and otherwise even he seems to have forgot about it.

The feminists shown in Veronica Mars are deeply flawed characters. However, considering the noir world of the series, in which even Veronica’s lovers and friends are occasionally suspect or dishonest, expecting anything else amounts to an exporting of foreign expectations. Their portrayal needs to be seen in the context of the series, not in the abstract, and it is worth pointing out that, later in the season, one of the feminists becomes Veronica’s allies in publicizing the secrets of a Skull and Bones-like male club on campus. All things considered, far from being straw feminists, the feminists in the series might even be judged one of the better portrayals of feminists in television drama (which wouldn’t be difficult, considering how bad most portrayals of feminists actually are).

In pointing out this alternative viewpoint, I do not mean to condemn Sarkeesian. Sarkeesian produces a surprisingly large number of videos in a short space of time, and almost all of them are high-enough quality that I intend to make an overdue donation to Feminist Frequency when I finish this entry.

However, I have made my point at some length because it seems to me worth making: anyone’s analysis, no matter how experience or skilled, is only as good as the extent to which it considers context. When expectations overwhelm context, the best analyst can slip – and, in this particular case, that includes Sarkeesian.

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