Anita Sarkeesian and the Feminist Critique of Video Games

I recently became aware of Anita Sarkeesian. (I guess I’m a bit out of the loop.) Last summer, she started a kickstarter to examine misogyny in video games. In response, she was attacked by internet trolls, used those attacks to help stir-up righteous anger and (as a result) pull a cool $160,000 in funding for her kickstarter campaign. (I can’t help but be reminded of the Ryan Holiday’s recent book, “Confessions of a Media Manipulator” who says that anger is a very good emotion to build on for making things go viral. Sarkeesian benefited enormously from the public’s righteous anger towards internet trolls, enabling her to gain widespread coverage for herself and her kickstarter.)

Nine months after raising funding for her video series, her first video went up on YouTube a few weeks ago. The topic was the “damsel in distress” trope – i.e. male characters rescuing kidnapped females from some baddie.

Her video:

I’ve seen a number of YouTube responses to Sarkeesian. Sadly, some of them make some cheap, poorly-thought-out attacks on her video. (When you make a video where your main counterargument involves calling her a “radical feminist”, you’re contributing to a perception that all counterattacks against her viewpoint are trivial and stupid.) I’m a fan of a YouTuber named Thunderf00t, though. He posted a response video, which I largely agree with.

I have to admit, while I agree with some aspects of feminism, there are other aspects of it that I really don’t agree with. There are times when there are ambiguous situations or situations where both genders have some negative aspects to their portrayal. Feminists will identify any negative female portrayal, while ignoring any positive female portrayals or negative male portrayals. This allows them to present a story that appears much more negative for women than is actually the case.

Thunderf00t rightly points out that, if you take a particular viewpoint, you can show that men are portrayed badly in video games, as well. Specifically, if we wanted to show that games present men badly, we can point out that: the male protagonist solves problems through violence (ah, those violent brutes!).

The damsel in distress trope is easy and useful for several reasons:
(1) It’s a story which can quickly be explained (those bad guys stole your girlfriend/princess, you have a reason to act!)
(2) Most gamers (especially in the 1980s and 90s) tended to be males and most people prefer playing a character with the same gender as themselves. No surprise, then, that most videogame protagonists are male. (If there’s any doubt that people tend to prefer playing a character with their own gender, just lookup the stats on World of Warcraft. While there is some crossover, most people play the same gender character as themselves.)
(3) The “damsel in distress” trope could be seen as positive in that men are taught to value and protect women. It inspires men to act based on a chivalrous impulse. Sarkeesian might complain that the females are “passive” and “objectified”, but they’re being rescued by men who are self-motivated to put their lives on the line to rescue someone important to them. Whenever a woman with a flat tire, a dead battery, or other car trouble is helped by a man, maybe Sarkeesian can credit the socialization of men to help women. Maybe events of the Steubenville rape would’ve gone differently if more men had played the “white knight” and stepped in to help protect the drunk girl (and I mention “drunk” only to point out that she was passive and incapable of protecting herself, not to vilify or blame her).
(4) There are many reasons that can be given for the protagonists actions – desire for money, a base desire to commit violence, revenge, saving the world, etc – but only a few of them give a “just” cause for action. “Saving the world” and “rescuing someone from some baddies” are motivations which justify and motivate the main character to action, and do so in a socially acceptable way.
(5) Thunderf00t also, rightly points out, that women are (on average) weaker than males. (In her video, Sarkeesian actually denies that, on average, women are weaker than men.) If you’re going to have one character rescuing another character, it makes some sense to have the gender who is (on average) stronger do the action of rescuing the (on average) weaker gender. Of course, there are games where males are the ones being rescued, as well. I can understand, though, that it would get tiresome and “anti-female-empowering” to see the repetitive plot device of “male rescues female”.

I also have a problem with the critique of “objectification” in general when used by feminists. According to feminists, if a woman plays a passive role, then she’s being treated like an object, and treating people like objects is bad, right? In this case, the female is treated like an object because she is passively waiting to be rescued by the protagonist.

It seems trivially obvious that you shouldn’t treat people like objects. The problem I have is the idea that “passive person” = “object”. You can use all kinds of logic to try to make that leap, but I really don’t believe that connection. (I actually think feminists throw around the “objectification” label far too quickly because it has a poorly-defined meaning and that makes it an easy avenue of attack for things they don’t like.) There are games when males are being rescued in videogames. This does not mean that they are being “objectified”. For example, the videogames “Rush ‘n Attack” and “Metal Slug” featured the main characters rescuing a bunch of male POWs. This does not mean that we are objectifying POWs. (I’m still waiting for veterans to start complaining about how the “rescue the POWs” plotline is disrespecting and objectifying the real soldiers who were POWs.)

“The player takes on the role of a United States special operations soldier infiltrating an enemy military base in order to save several POW’s from being executed by firing squad.”’n_Attack

While feminists can point out that women in these scenarios are being valued without even being awake (thus “proving” that it’s all about their bodies or something), I’d point out that this paints a different message about males and females. Females are valued simply for existing. They are somehow intrinsically valuable. But, males are shown as having little or no intrinsic value, but only attain value through action and courage. What kind of picture does that paint? It paints a picture that your average male somehow doesn’t measure up until he has achieved something great, but women are inherently valuable. That women are to be put on a pedestal. (And you wonder why men feel that they have to be rich in order to be “good enough” for girls to like them.) In video games, men are risking their lives – which means that the protagonist is either very brave and selfless, or it means the protagonist is willing to sacrifice his “worthless” life in order to save the life of the much more valuable female – much the same way that less valuable worker bees will sacrifice their lives for the more valuable queen bee. And isn’t it the “less valuable”/”more valuable” dynamic in Super Mario Bros when a couple of plumbers rescue a princess, or in Legend of Zelda when Link rescues the princess?

One part of the Thunderf00t video I particularly liked was the part where, in earlier works, Sarkeesian complained that strong female characters (like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, presumably, Tomb Raider) aren’t “good female characters” because they’re mimicking masculine traits. One wonders how game developers are ever capable of winning in Sarkeesian’s mind. Presumably, only low action protagonists (like Cooking Mama) are “good female characters” because they are taking some action (not like those passive kidnapped princesses), but not taking too much action (because that would mean they’re just parroting positive male qualities like courage, physical prowess, and action). I’m sure she’d find something to complain about with Cooking Mama, though, like how it reinforces traditional female roles in the kitchen.


An enlightening read on male/female roles can also be found on the TV Tropes website – specifically:

Men are the Expendable Gender

A result of the Double Standard between male and female roles in the media. Female characters start with automatic audience sympathy because women are seen as moral, innocent, beautiful or simply because they have sexual value. Male characters are less likely to be seen that way and must earn audience sympathy by acting appropriately manly and heroic, which, more often then not, involves saving the Damsel in Distress.

Conversely, if a man is unable to take care of himself or others he forfeits audience sympathy. Women, on the other hand, do not lose audience sympathy—or at least not as much—for being helpless, incompetent or abandoning men to their fates in order to save themselves. Strangely, this can still hold true if the woman in question has already been established as a Bad Ass. See Chickification.

The consequences of this are complicated, but in summary:

* If the story requires random anonymous characters to die just to move the plot forward, they’ll be male. If the plot requires a tragic death that motivates the protagonists or shows how evil the villains are, the victim will be female. Similarly if the story demands random mooks get a beat down by a character to up the sense of danger or just show off how awesome the protagonist is, they will be male.
* Female characters can lose audience sympathy, but they have to work harder. Female villains are more likely to be redeemed and also less likely to be taken seriously in their villainy.
* Male characters get more explicit and brutal deaths. If a man and a woman are killed in equally brutal ways, the woman’s death is treated as worse. Extra points if the camera cuts away right before she gets butchered.
* Male villains who target female characters are portrayed as more evil than those who target men.
* Sympathetic male characters are expected to put themselves at risk to protect female characters. Female characters do not lose audience sympathy for being unwilling to put themselves at risk to protect characters of either gender.

Update: On a related note, Chris Carter of Destructoid, offers some criticism of Sarkeesian in this article. One interesting part in his article:

Sarkeesian: On the indie side of things, I really enjoyed Bastion, but the only female character in the game doesn’t have any depth (to put it mildly); basically, her whole characterization was “The Female.”

Carter: The fact that she does not refer to Zia by name is my first issue. “The Female” not only has a name, but she is far from being labeled “just the female”. If someone rushed through the game without taking the narrator’s framework to heart, or skipped the challenge arenas, it would be easy to come to that conclusion. Thankfully, that’s the opposite of what actually happened in Bastion.

At one point in the story, the main character named “The Kid” (a male) assumes that Zia has been kidnapped, and rushes off to save her like a damsel in distress. However, it is actually revealed that Zia left the camp of her own accord, willing to brave the wilderness to discover the truth behind their world.

At first glance, Zia seems like someone who would not be able to take care of herself. In one fell swoop, she has turned this trope on top of its head, and is a positive role model.

Bastion is a minimalist game — you actually don’t learn everything about any of the game’s characters. In fact, you actually learn the least amount of information about the game’s main character — a male simply named “The Kid”.

Additionally, Zia is not over-sexualized in any way. She is simply seen wearing a very non-assuming outfit — not that it would matter if she decided to dress different (which I’ll get to in a moment). All in all, there really is nothing bad you can say about Zia.

2 thoughts on “Anita Sarkeesian and the Feminist Critique of Video Games

  1. Not to nitpick, but worker bees are all female too. The only males are the drones, who sit around doing nothing until it’s their turn to mate with the queen (after which they die, as is often the way with insects).

    Also, I disagree with your “men are the stronger gender and women are the weaker, so all heroes should be men” argument. Putting aside the fact that “strength” is a relative term and women aren’t actively encouraged to be physically strong nowadays (for comparisons, see Samartians, Vikings), in the real world, plumbers can’t double jump or respawn. Why, of all the liberties with realities video games take almost by default, are antiquated gender roles the thing you feel needs defending?

  2. I wasn’t so much making an argument that “men are stronger, therefore all action heros should be male” argument so much as “men are stronger, therefore it shouldn’t be surprising if a majority of action heros are male”. I’m sure there are women who could easily out-compete me in sports, though it’s a smaller percentage than the number of men who could out compete me.

    > “Putting aside the fact that “strength” is a relative term”.
    I don’t think it’s particularly controversial to say that men tend to be stronger than women. I actually don’t think that’s just socialization, either. It just has to do with the hormones in males and females. Bodybuilders take testosterone because it builds muscle. Men naturally have more testosterone. Basically, women have to take artificial steroids to reach the levels naturally occurring in men.

    “On average, in adult human males, the plasma concentration of testosterone is about 7–8 times as great as the concentration in adult human females’ plasma, but as the metabolic consumption of testosterone in males is greater, the daily production is about 20 times greater in men… Anabolic effects include growth of muscle mass and strength, increased bone density and strength, and stimulation of linear growth and bone maturation.”

    > “women aren’t actively encouraged to be physically strong nowadays”
    True, but I don’t think we’ll be combining men’s and women’s Olympics. I think the organizers know that there are strength differences based on biology. I wouldn’t expect the top competing females to be having their performance undercut by social norms of “not being strong”.

    > “Why, of all the liberties with realities video games take almost by default, are antiquated gender roles the thing you feel needs defending?”
    It’s perfectly fine to say that we should have more active roles for female characters in videogames. I’m not actually defending the idea that action heros need to be male. I’m more explaining why that has been the case historically, and the thinking behind game developers doing this. Quite a few modern games allow for selecting the sex of your game character (WOW, Fallout, and Mass Effect come to mind). If you want to say, “Hey videogame developers, why don’t you put more women in starring roles in videogames?” I think that’s a perfectly reasonable request.

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