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Saturday, June 9, 2012

To summon sexism, one need only speak its name

Sexism really is like the devil. If you have any doubts about its existence, you need only mention it and it will come skipping around the corner cheerily asking "You rang?" Well, except that the devil doesn't exist and sexism does. But apart from that, they are just the same.

Anita Sarkeesian does the Feminist Frequency videos on Youtube, commenting on popular culture from a feminist perspective. I've only watched a couple of them, but have been impressed with what I've seen so far. Now she's doing a Kickstarter project to fund a series of video commentaries on sexism in video games, which you should help fund if you're interested in the topic. And who wouldn't be interested in the topic?


Now, Youtube comment threads are notoriously cesspools of bigots and trolls, and bigoted trolls, of every stripe. So it's not surprise that they came out in force when this video was posted, but the amount of bile spewed toward Sarkeesian, and women in general, is pretty shocking still. You can see a screenshot of some of it here, but I'll warn you that reading it is pretty damn depressing. I am not going to say that they justify the claim that there's sexism in video games, because they don't. They just show clearly that there is sexism in people who comment on Youtube about videos discussing sexism in video games. However, I think it's a safe bet that they're watching this video in the first place because they are gamers, and sexism in gamers is known issue. As is sexism in video games, but judging by Sarkeesian's previous discussions on sexist tropes in movies, and of course her outline of the topics she intends to discuss in this series, I'm betting she will have plenty of new and interesting things to say about it.

Her statement on the backlash received this far:
The intimidation and harassment effort has included a torrent of misogyny and hate speech on my YouTube video, repeated vandalizing of the Wikipedia page about me, organized efforts to flag my YouTube videos as "terrorism", as well as many threatening messages sent through Twitter, Facebook, Kickstarter, email and my own website.  These messages and comments have included everything from the typical sandwich and kitchen "jokes" to threats of violence, death, sexual assault and rape.  All that plus an organized attempt to report this project to Kickstarter and get it banned or defunded.  Thankfully, Kickstarter has been incredibly supportive in helping me deal with the harassment on their service. 
The sad thing is this kind of backlash happens all the time whenever women dare to speak up about gender and video games. . .  
What's most ironic about the harassment is that it's in reaction to a project I haven't even created yet. I haven't had the chance to articulate any of my arguments about video game characters yet. It's very telling that there is this much backlash against the mere idea of this series being made.
Now, you might say "But look, this is only manufactured drama. Of course people are going to react badly to claims of sexism, because it's just one woman complaining about nothing." I hope you wouldn't say that, but someone did in the comments on PZ Myers' post on the subject:
Here’s an attractive girl, vastly more privileged than these “losers” who have no future and can’t just marry to be set up for life with a stable income, complaining about how downtrodden she is and expecting to be paid to play video games. There’s any number of worthy causes that go unfunded (remember “Dear Muslima”?), but here is this girl expecting to be paid so she can give us her opinion on video games.
Anita Sarkeesian has a Master's degree in social and political thought and did her thesis on the role of women in science fiction and fantasy television. If the only things to be known about her were found in the Kickstarter video, it would be clear that she's not a "girl" who wants to "complain about how downtrodden she is," but they are not. It's also about as obvious as an ice pick through the skull that she isn't simply "expecting to be paid so she can give us her opinion on video games," but even if that were the case it sure seems like a worthy thing to pay her for. Gosh, how dare a person with credentials and a track record of delivering informed and interesting views on things expect to be paid for it! And it's not like Kickstarter is entirely about people offering to produce creative goods and services to interested parties who are willing to invest in advance, or anything. You'd think it was actually about marching up to their front doors, knocking them down, and demanding it.

Ultimately however, what's lurking under that statement (and is made more clear further in the comment thread) is a fundamental misunderstanding of privilege and bigotry. This particular girl woman seems to be doing pretty well. After all, she's attractive so she could marry someone for money and not have to work! Err...except that she probably wouldn't, because being a gold-digger is supposedly a bad thing, and marrying for money tends to attract husbands who will treat you like you...married them for the money. Which is something that far more men can do than women, and that's because of what, class? Correct-- male privilege! The fact that some men can afford to buy wives is their privilege; not the privilege of women to be bought. But what about the fact that this woman remains attractive, which is a benefit, and educated, which is a benefit? How is she in a position to complain to anyone about how "downtrodden" she is?!

Well, she isn't. Complaining about being downtrodden, that is. She might be downtrodden, but it's impossible to tell from the video, and more importantly it doesn't matter if she is or not. This complaint assumes that if you're going to say that a privilege exists, it must benefit all members of Group Y to the detriment of all members of Group X. If there is a single member of the latter group who is obviously better off than any members of the former, then this "privilege" thing is bogus! Well, no. Privilege is a general and often unacknowledged advantage that members of a group have by virtue of being in that group, usually one that they had nothing to do with being a member of in the first place. The fact that there are individual members of minority groups who enjoy respect from others and a high standard of living does not mean that a majority privilege does not exist, and the fact that the majority privilege exists does not mean that every last member of that majority will enjoy such in a tangible way. It's entirely possible to be a member of the privileged majority and still be...well, a loser.

Which is why the comment above misses the point so badly-- yes, it's probably true that a good number of the people now threatening violence against Sarkeesian over her audacity to propose making a series of videos about sexism in video games are males who are not doing so well, generally. Who thought life would bring them opportunities and benefits that they didn't receive, and therefore are unable to see that many if not most of them are playing on life's lowest difficulty setting, to use John Scalzi's almost frighteningly prescient metaphor. If you want a more elaborate explanation of how being a straight white male is a privilege, as told by a straight white male using gaming terminology, accompanied by further evidence of exactly how unacknowledged it can be, check out that essay and some of the replies it has received.

It's funny to think that a person would need to be "downtrodden" in order to justifiably speak about sexism in video games, anyway. How would mis- or under-representation of women in a game oppress women to the point of making them poor, unhealthy, hated, or otherwise leading a miserable existence? I can see an MRA (how unfortunate that "men's rights advocate" has come to refer mostly to misogynists who deny the existence of misogyny) replying to this by saying "That's the point. If it doesn't oppress you, what are you complaining about?" (Actually, they would probably say "That's the point, bitch." But you get the idea.)

Well, fortunately that objection amounts to a false dichotomy. We don't have to stop caring about things like the wage gap, rape victims being blamed for their own attacks, sex trafficking and so on in order to also care about how women are depicted in things like movies and video games. Isn't that grand? It's also important because media, including video games, both shapes and reflects how women are viewed in the culture where it appears. So women-- so everybody-- has an interest in presentation in media not being bigoted, whether it's sexism we're talking about, or homophobia, or racism, or any other form of slanted and unfair depiction of real people who exist in the world. And there's also the fact that, as Sarkeesian notes, video games can help develop certain skills and are fun to play, and as a player it can really suck to play one that depicts people like you absurdly and insultingly. 47% of video game players are female so their impressions and comfort obviously matter, but not feeding male players distorted messages about women also matters. I can testify from my own experience that interaction between players often contains enough sexism, racism, and homophobia on its own without the game itself encouraging such.

I asked at the beginning of this post who wouldn't be interested in the topic of sexism in video games. If your answer was "Me!" then I hope something between there and here might have sparked some. If not, well, I'm impressed you made it to the end regardless.

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