Critique of Anita Sarkeesian’s “Ms. Male” Video about Problematic Female Characters in Video Games

Anita Sarkeesian, the feminist media critic behind Feminist Frequency, has posted a new video analyzing the state of women characters in video games. Her previous three-part video series examined the Damsel in Distress trope. The series received widespread criticism from gamers, though gaming publications at least linked to the videos with a tepid description along the lines of, “She has some good points: please be responsible in the comments section!”

Sarkeesian does not allow comments on the videos themselves or the associated blog posts, which is frustrating, as debate regarding her videos gets spread across myriad websites. She has experienced incredible amounts of sexual harassment, so I understand why she doesn’t allow comments.

(Anita, if you’re reading this, perhaps find a group of your loyal Kickstarter fans to help administer comments. You might be surprised how many people you’ll find who are willing to delete all the garbage comments, leaving the legitimate comments public of people who want to discuss these issues with you further.)

Her latest video analyzes what she calls the “Ms. Male” character trope, the phenomenon of female “clones” being made of male video game heroes. Before we get to my analysis, watch her video below. It’s a longie, but a goodie.

Her forest-level observations are accurate, but sometimes her details are overblown

So let’s start with the obvious. Yes, many times female characters, especially in the early days of video gaming, were simply “clones” of male characters. The characters often have virtually the same abilities, and often use the same character model, but small superficial markers are added: lipstick, the color pink, eyelashes, etc. She is right about this, and it is a problem. But I take issue with her characterization of some “Ms. Male” characters.

Let’s start with Ms. Pac-Man, the character she spends considerable time analyzing in the beginning of the video. Ms. Pac-Man does indeed use the same character model as Pac-Man, but with added lipstick, bow, eyelashes, and beauty mark. Sarkeesian seems deeply offended, though, about how Pac-Man was originally created. Here’s a quotation from her video:

Incidentally Toru Iwatani, the creator of Pac-Man, has stated in numerous interviews that the game was designed to appeal to women because, and I’m not kidding about this, he said, “When you think about things women like, you think about fashion, or fortune-telling, or food or dating boyfriends. So I decided to theme the game around “eating” — after eating dinner, women like to have dessert.”

Luckily Iwatani’s regressive personal or cultural notions about women are not reflected in the finished game itself. Pac-Man went on to became an international sensation and remains one the most recognizable pop culture icons today – but probably not because women are genetically predisposed to “like eating desserts” more than humans of other genders.

The original creator did, indeed, create Pac-Man to appeal to women. Knowing a fair bit about Pac-Man history, though, I offer an alternative explanation of why Pac-Man is focused on eating:

At the time Pac-Man was released, almost all of the arcade games were focused on shooting, violence, and war. Games like Defender, Asteroids, Missile Command, and Space Invaders were immensely popular, but were also very violent (for the time). While many girls did play arcade games, many were also turned off because of the violent nature of these games.

Iwatani, then, wanted to create a game that accomplished two things: it did not involve violence (or very little: eating the ghosts could be seen as violent, though they never actually “die”), and he wanted a game that could appeal to both men and women. So yes, he did focus it on eating because women like eating. I wouldn’t consider this a “regressive” notion about women, though. Rather, a realistic response to market conditions.

Anita Sarkeesian

Feminist scholars make a big deal about the differences between the “social construction” of gender and biological notions of “sex.” In fact, many feminists see differences in males and females as almost entirely socially constructed: it’s a key part of feminist theory.

The average public, though, doesn’t necessarily know, nor care, about the differences between social construction and biology when it comes to gender and sex. People eventually figure out that there are differences between men and women: whether those differences come about through biology or society makes little difference to them.

Iwatani, then, simply looked at the culture and saw that women are often connected with food. Is it any surprise? Women are often the head cook and baker in the household. Television cooking shows on Food Network and the like are often dominated by women–and watched by women. Cooking magazines are primarily targeted at women. Against Sarkeesian’s contention, I don’t think Iwantani ever considered whether women were “genetically predisposed” to like desserts–but it is a part of our culture.

And luckily for him, he was right about the game’s appeal to women (the cute characters are also considered another factor in Pac-Man’s cross-sectional appeal). Many girls did play the game, and Pac-Man holds the record for most popular arcade game ever, a record unlikely to be broken considering the demise of arcades in the late 1990s.

Surprisingly, little has changed today in regard to “eating” games. Consider the extremely popular game “Candy Crush Saga,” a puzzle game on Facebook where the game pieces are made of candy. I’ve known many women–from women my age to women my mom’s age–who do not consider themselves gamers, or who have rarely played video games before, who are huge Candy Crush Saga fans. Of course, men play the game, too, but consider this informal survey of my own Facebook account: when I look at the number of my friends who play CCS, 17 are male and 29 are female. And the only players who’ve ever invited me to play the game are women.

Just out of curiosity, when you’re done reading this post, go to Facebook and search “Candy Crush Saga.” You don’t have to sign up for the game: just look over the list of your friends who play the game. Leave a comment on this post on the number of women who play the game verses men. I’m curious how representative my friend mix is.

The small details can always be criticized

One problem with qualitative research, which Sarkeesian is conducting, is that identifying trends and general patterns is one thing. But these trends need to be backed up with specific examples to make one’s point. These specific examples can always be torn apart and viewed another way, as I just did with Ms. Pac-Man. We could go point by point through Sarkeesian’s analysis and find counter explanations for all her arguments. The question each reader needs to ask themselves, though, is: does the weight of evidence point you in support of Sarkeesian’s critique of video games, even though all of her individual points are up for criticism?

For me, the weight of evidence makes me support Sarkeesian’s general analysis about the “problematic” (one of her favorite buzzwords) role of women in games. I do not, however, view the problem as widespread as her.

Here are a few more quibbles I have with this video:

About halfway through her video, Sarkeesian decides to show the extent of the “Ms. Male” character problem by referencing the “oldest” Ms. Male character, Eve from “Adam and Eve” fame:

One very old and notable example of the Ms. Male Character trope comes to mind. As the story goes, God made Adam in his own image and then later took a rib from Adam’s side and fashioned a woman out of it to be his wife and companion. This Adam and Eve version of the creation myth reinforces a subordinate view of women — man is cast as the original concept and source code for woman who is derived from his body. Essentially Eve is the sequel to Adam, just as Ms. Pac-Man was built from the body of Pac-Man who came before her.

This is, of course, one reading of the Adam and Eve story, but there are dozens of major interpretations of this story. Sarkeesian doesn’t seem to be a theologian (nor is she claiming to be one), and I think she’s stepping far outside her expertise with this criticism. Applying modern models of morality to ancient texts, without understanding the socio-cultural climate that produced those texts, is sloppy and unfair. This post isn’t the place to examine creation theology, but I’ll share this one quotation from Matthew Henry, who sees Eve’s creation as an affirmation of her equality with Adam, which I believe is true:

Eve was not taken out of Adam’s head to top him, neither out of his feet to be trampled on by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected by him, and near his heart to be loved by him.

Anita Sarkeesian and Dixie Kong

Anita has another small criticism of Dixie Kong, who’s actually my favorite female video game character. She states:

Dixie Kong is the feminine variant and love interest of Diddy Kong. Note the ponytail and hair ringlets, pink shirt, pink hat, earrings, and eyelashes all to distinguish her from her predecessor. Essentially Ms. Male Characters are feminized imitations or derivative copies of already established male characters. They exist only because of, and in relationship to, their male counterparts.

Ms. Male Characters typically aren’t given their own distinctive identities and are prevented from being fully realized characters who exist on their own terms. This has the, perhaps unintended, effect of devaluing these characters and often relegating them to a subordinate or secondary status inside their respective media franchises, even when they are, on rare occasions, given a starring role in a spin-off or sequel.

Sarkeesian says herself in another video that there’s nothing wrong with wearing pink (she says this in a video in which she wears bright pink). So why the excessive criticism of characters who look like girls? Yes, Dixie Kong has a ponytail, eyelashes, earrings, and wears pink, but Sarkeesian also wears a ponytail, has earrings, wearings make-up and pink clothes. I know she hates people referencing her personal appearance: she wants to be criticized based on her ideas, not her looks. That’s all well and fine, but you’ve got to play fairly. Criticize Dixie Kong for her character, not her appearance.

Dixie Kong first appears in Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest (SNES: 1995). Dixie at first does appear to be a “Ms. Male” character. Her character is light and quick, just like Diddy (Donkey Kong, conversely, is heavy and slow, but more powerful). Donkey Kong doesn’t appear in the game, though: he’s been “damseled” and must be rescued by Diddy and Dixie. Dixie Kong, though, is superior to Diddy in her playability. Her “hair helicopter” move is far more useful than Diddy Kong’s cartwheel, and I play as Dixie whenever I can.

In Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble! (SNES: 1996) Dixie Kong is now the star, as both Donkey and Diddy have been “damseled.” The clip Sarkeesian chooses to show of Dixie is from the upcoming game, Donkey Kong Country Returns: Tropical Freeze. Dixie does indeed ride on Donkey Kong’s back, but not because she’s a women and subservient to Donkey: Diddy also rides on Donkey Kong’s back in DKC Returns. That’s just how the developers decided to pair the monkeys this time around: instead of one following the other, Donkey is the main character, the other monkey is a sidekick (perhaps rightfully so, as DKC2 and 3 were named for Donkey Kong, yet he wasn’t a playable character at all).

Sarkeesian’s broad analysis of gender is itself shortsighted: Areas that Sarkeesian has yet to address sufficiently

Sarkeesian brings up many good points about the role of women in video games. Her current video is mostly right, and her previous three videos on Damsels in Distress are also mostly right. Even though her analysis seems comprehensive (roughly 100 minutes for all four videos), she fails to acknowledge many counter-arguments. Here are my four biggest problems with Sarkeesian’s brand of feminism:

  1. The goalposts are always moving. This summer she criticized Damsels in Distress. Now she’s criticizing Ms. Male characters. Her next video will likely criticize sexualized female characters: she’s certainly criticized women like Lara Croft before. The narrative has already written itself for what remains to be criticized: Over-representations of white female characters. Lack of diversity in body types. Lack of diversity in sexual and gender identities. The list goes on. On the surface, it seems that Sarkeesian would be pleased if more lesbian and bisexual women were represented in games, but what if a game featured a straight, lesbian, and bisexual woman? The next criticism is likely, “Gender and sexual identity does not fit neatly into three distinct categories. Gender identity is a multifaceted rainbow with dozens of possible permutations.” To be completely inclusive, do video games need to give players characters with three or four different gender identities and sexual orientations, three or four or five or six different races, three or four or five different body types for women, ranging from skinny to obese, and three or four or five different ages of women (why are almost all female characters teens or young adults? Ageism!) There’s no way any one media product can satisfy all permutations of women. Which leads to my next criticism:
  2. Developers make games in isolation, not as part of a collective action. What do I mean by this? Well, developers are each going to make their own game, and include their own representations of women. Sarkeesian says pink is okay sometimes. Is it also okay if a woman has prominent sexual assets sometimes? Probably. Is it also okay if a woman is white? Probably. Okay then. Who decides, then, which developer is allowed to make a female character who happens wears pink and earrings, and which developer is allowed to make a female character who happens to be moderately unattractive? Nobody. Developers do not get together and decide what ratio of different female characters they will create for this year’s games in an effort to be equitable. So it seems unfair to criticize the collective state of women in games, considering that female characters in games likely came about through individual decisions that just happened to result in patterns.
  3. What about men? Sarkeesian’s stated mission is to “explore the representations of women in pop culture narratives. Her work focuses on deconstructing the stereotypes and tropes associated with women in popular culture as well as highlighting issues surrounding the targeted harassment of women in online and gaming spaces.” Analyzing women is great, but talk to any man, and I am sure he can all think of problematic ways men are stereotyped in pop culture as well. When feminism focuses solely on the dire straits of women to the exclusion of men, it give a false impression that only women are systematically oppressed and that men are 100% privileged: men have nothing to be concerned about. Certainly that isn’t true.
  4. What about the positive? Sarkeesian’s criticism is almost entirely negative. She vaguely hints at strong female characters from time to time, but this is rare. In this Ms. Male video, she references a strong female character “Claire” from the indie game Thomas Was Alone. Indie games are making some strides in opening up characterization in video games. However, is a blue faceless square really the best example of a strong female character?

Thoughts? Where am I going wrong with my analysis? Feel free to leave your comments below!

Game on,
~Dennis

3 thoughts on “Critique of Anita Sarkeesian’s “Ms. Male” Video about Problematic Female Characters in Video Games

  1. Sooo glad I found this. In the next pixel side-scroller I work on, as soon as I’m done designing our first male character, I’m going to duplicate the sprite sheet, invert the color scheme, and name the ‘new’ character Anita. We’ll see how happy she is with it then.

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