Thursday, 4 September 2014

Criticism of Anita Sarkeesian's "Women as Background Decoration: Part 2"

So, having made a couple of comments regarding Anita Sarkeesian and her "tropes vs women" video series, consisting of very expensively spliced gaming footage coupled with her research conclusions (which very fortuitously happen to match the conclusions she intented to reach prior to carrying it out), I wanted to just clarify the kinds of things I felt were left hanging in the footage I watched. I offer this largely because a number of people have asked me to clear up my statement that there were things she said I agreed with and things I took issue with. Hopefully this example (in some part copied from a comment I left on my recent video Sarkeesian, Quinn and the Mindless Idiocy of Trolling) will give some idea of the issues I had.

The following comments relate to 17:30 onwards on Sarkeesian's latest video Women as Background Decoration: Part 2 - Tropes vs Women in Video Games

One of the issues I had with Anita's last video; one of those issues I felt she left hanging, was when she remarked that often sexual violence against women (the male sexual trope in games of men as rapists and abusers of women, if we are to play the tropes card) is there to give the protagonist a reason to justify their violence because such abuse (by the male npc's) demonstrates to us how bad they are: they are the worst of the worst and our killing them violently is thereby justified.

I happen to agree with Anita on that. In much the same way that we are explicitly expected to be repulsed by King Joffrey (in Game of Thrones) for his ultra violence against prostitutes, the same mechanism most definitely IS used in games to signify truly evil male individuals and raise our hatred of them.

But where that was left hanging is that, for Anita, that seemed to be somehow a negative. I found that strange in the extreme. If there had been one area I would have thought she would have undeniably felt compelled to congratulate the developers on I'd have thought it was this. Thinking on, had the opposite been the case (ie, we were expected to cheer on and side with the rapist/assaulter) then I'd understand where she was coming from. As it stood, both the expectation of the developers AND the content so created seemed the polar opposite of "rape culture" and something I'd have expected her to applaud.

As it stands then:
i) Portraying rapists as bad generates criticism (from her video). However (one assumes, with good reason) that-
ii) Portraying rapists as good would generate criticism.
So the inescapable conclusion to draw from this is:
iii) Portraying rape and sexual assault in video games is simply unacceptable (either way).
However, one of the fundamental claims of the social justice crowd is that downplaying the prevalence of rape and carrying on as if sexual crimes do not occur (and occur often) are sure signs of rape culture and things to be confronted. So on that basis I can only conclude that
iv) NOT portraying rape and sexual assaults in games would be regarded as pretending these crimes do not occur, sure signs we live in a rape culture and, therefore, unacceptable.

I have said it before. If you can spin your argument to make the same case, whichever way round the facts, that is usually a sign that it is somewhat of a tenuous case you are making.

Of course, that is not to say that Sarkeesian does not try and provide some context and conclusion to these findings of hers, apart from that particular issue that was left hanging. She made the following points:

1) Portraying sexual violence in video games normalises and trivialises it.
2) The perpetrators are caricatures, comedy villains, which gives a false perspective on the perpetrators and perpetration of sexual crimes in real life.
3) The player gets a false idea that sexual crime can be dealt with by brave heroes going out bringing evil Dick-Dastardly style rapists to task with brave violent retributive justice.

Of course all of these three points may well be true (I think they are). Where I was lost in this analysis of Sarkeesian's was how this differentiated sexual crimes in any way whatsoever with the non-sexual violent crime that occurs infinitely more often in video games? The whole thrust of her argument was to show sexual violence as some special case whereas all her analysis really amounted to was a version of "all of the arguments that apply to the portrayal of non-sexual violence apply equally well to the portrayal of sexual violence in video games" (albeit in lesser measure given that sexual crimes are grossly underrepresented in this medium).

I suppose this is a conclusion of sorts. I just feel that, at that point, Sarkeesian needs to actually woman-up and admit she objects to the prevalence and handling of violence in video games generally or go a whole lot further in giving us grounds as to why sexual violence (already treated in the gaming medium with kid gloves relative to the astonishingly concern-free gorging on non-sexual violence) requires even more exclusory special treatment.

Thank you for reading



  1. First of all sorry if my English is not the most correct since it's not my native language.
    Second, for what i've seen of Anita's videos, i think her main 'complaint' is not against the sexual (and other) violence itself against women, but the sheer amount that exists in games with the only justification as to give the game, and almost always a male character, a reason for it's existence. That is, it's always a man that has to go and get revenge, or save the woman. The women that exist in the games don't have any kind of agency, or raison d'etre, other than to give a man it's reason for revenge/journey/whatever.

    Of course, there are exceptions, like you mentioned in your first video about Lara Croft, but these exceptions are so rare that they are a mere blip in the whole universe of games that exist.

    Hope i made some kind of sense.

  2. Yeah, the above poster probably has it pegged. Sarkeesian is trying to spin it in such a way that if any portrayal of a female character is made that doesn't conform to her idea of a "completely realized human being"(not even going to bother going into the problem of this in fictional narratives, but hey), then whatever is or isn't done to her is still problematic, because it makes light of a real life issue by aborting the issue out of the context you would expect it to have in real life.

    The problem you've raised remains though -
    Portray sexual violence, and it's bad.
    Don't portray sexual violence, and it's bad.
    Portraying sexual violence with the "gravitas" it deserves for ever female character introduced in a game that isn't actually about sexual violence per say to begin with, isn't possible.
    Not portraying sexual violence at all, means downplaying the issue which is bad.

    What option is left to us? Non. The only option left to content creators at that point is to shut the fuck up, and never make games with stories that might stumble upon plot-points where women would be hurt in one way or the other.

    It just goes to show that what Sarkeesian is ultimately battling isn't sexism in video games, but male sexual/power fantasies.
    I consider that sexist to the extreme because it suggests a complete lack of regards for the natural, and completely benign workings of the mind of hetero-sexual males. What is wrong with wanting fantasies dealing with power and sex? What is wrong with indulging them, or making them?
    Only a sex-negative feminist, traditionalists, and sexists would think that it is.

    1. "Don't portray sexual violence, and it's bad."
      "Not portraying sexual violence at all, means downplaying the issue which is bad."

      I am certain that Sarkeesian never said either of these in any context. This is exactly what should be done. If in doubt, leave it out. Women who have been raped or abused do not need video game developers to populate their games with dead prostitutes or strippers in order to raise awareness about violence against women. It does the exact opposite by desensitizing the audience to violence against women, and making it seem normal.

      Would you enjoy a video game less because there was no violence against prostitutes and strippers in it? If so what does that say about how we are viewing this violence against sexualized women in video games? Do we need to see women beaten or killed for our enjoyment?

      If the rape or abuse of a woman is essential to the plot line then it should be approached with the seriousness that it deserves. If a game developer does not know if they can do this then they should not try.

      The problem with indulging male fantasies about hurting or raping women is that it makes it seem normal. This is not a normal fantasy and should be treated by a professional and not indulged by media.

  3. I really take issue with Anita's 3rd point (The player gets a false idea that sexual crime can be dealt with by brave heroes going out bringing evil Dick-Dastardly style rapists to task with brave violent retributive justice). While I do not condone unnecessary violence or capital punishment, I can see why people would want to kill rapists in real life just as they do in video games. The reason is because about 5% of the male population has committed rape. This translates to 8 million men in the United States. What is also troubling is that sex offenders cannot be rehabilitated. Sex offender treatment programs have always required a lot of resources and have always failed to stop recidivism in offending. The United States (where I am from) doesn't have 8 million inmates. We only have 2.4 million inmates and our prisons are overflowing and cannot take much more. Yet rapists are not safe to have in our neighborhoods. Even people who have a record as being a sex offender are a huge risk to our communities and that risk is very hard to manage. I can certainly understand wanting to kill them.

    Further I am going to bring up the point that feminists are unaware of when they make damsels in distress out of real life women. Bystander intervention in party environments in which alcoholic beverages are served is an important real life rape prevention strategy. If you see a man trying to isolate a severely intoxicated woman from the crowd, (drifting in and out of consciousness) you must intervene and try to get her away from the man so he cannot violate her. Feminists believe that "men can stop rape" and it is our duty to police other men. The men who commit rape are ten times more violent than men who do not rape. When intervening, there is a very good chance you could get into a fight. A man with a short fuse who thinks you are cock blocking is not safe to be around. Thus, in real life, men are rescuing damsels in distress from rapists and Anita seems very unaware of this. It takes a lot of bravery to intervene and stop a rapist. The video games and real life are more similar than Anita thinks.


  4. I thought this series of videos by Liana K "Why Feminist Frequency Almost Made Me Quit Writing" might make interesting viewing.