Critique of Anita Sarkeesian’s ‘Women as Background Decoration part 2’

Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency fame recently released a new video criticizing the portrayal of women in video games. This is part of her “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” series, a series that has gotten much acclaim–and 10 fold the amount of criticism. You can read my previous critiques of Sarkeesian’s videos to get up to speed on the nature of this discussion (“Ms. Male” critique and “Women as Background Decoration part 1” critique).

She defines the Women as Background Decoration trope as follows:

The subset of largely insignificant non-playable female characters whose sexuality or victimhood is exploited as a way to infuse edgy, gritty or racy flavoring into game worlds. These sexually objectified female bodies are designed to function as environmental texture while titillating presumed straight male players.

In this video, she continues that argument by stressing “how sexualized female bodies often occupy a dual role as both sexual playthings and the perpetual victims of male violence.”

Watch the video below first, as I’ll be referencing specific parts of her argument that are troubling or deserve more analysis.

My experience with these games

Let me start this critique by saying that of the 29 games she references in this video, I’ve only played one (Super Mario Galaxy, which isn’t even related to her main argument) and I’ve seen in action only parts of three games: GTAIV, GTAV, and Watch Dogs. As a game scholar and teacher, though, I am familiar with all the rest. So I write this critique not as somebody who personally plays these games for entertainment and takes offense at somebody else telling me my games are bad. I play very few Mature titles, as most of the time I don’t find those kind of games enjoyable.

On the whole, I agree with much of her argument. Women are often portrayed as sex objects in these games, far more often than men, and that’s a problem. The problem isn’t with any individual game, in my opinion, but with the proportion of games like this out there. I recognize the value of most of the games she analyzes as both forms of entertainment and in many cases social commentaries. It is troubling when you survey the entire landscape of games and find some many examples of these games.

But as I’ve long thought, individual developers can’t necessarily be held accountable for the actions of an entire industry, just because the games they make happen to be similar to the games others make.

While I agree with maybe 70% of what she says,she tends to overextend her argument,  as is typical of her videos, and pull on threads that, instead of having the intended effect of strengthening her argument, actually work against her and undercurrent the foundation she has successfully laid.

I offer the following critiques of parts of her argument, not as a way of nitpicking, but as a way of separating the chaff from the wheat. Every time she releases a video, the gamer community finds itself in a tizzy for two weeks. Sarkeesian receives ever uglier harassment and taunting (this time she even had to leave her house and call the police on account of personal threats against her family).

But there’s no need for vitriol: I write this critique for fellow gamers. Sarkeesian’s videos strike a nerve with many of us, myself included. When we separate the less-than-thoughtful parts of her argument, what we are left with is a reasonable critique about the state of women in video games.

What’s the difference between sexualized murder and murder?

Early in the video, she shows several examples of dead NPCs (non-playable characters). There is a difference between them:

A grisly example can be found in Bioshock 2 where mutilated eroticized female bodies are seen scattered throughout The Pink Pearl bordello area in Siren Alley.

Again we can compare the way the murdered male bodies are displayed and notice the distinct lack of sexualization in their presentation. The male corpses may be designed to evoke a sense of horror or disgust, but it’s not coupled with elements of sexual titillation in the same way that female bodies are.

Often in her videos, she presents an observation and considers that the critique. Okay, so female corpses are often sexualized, but is that the most serious issue here? Isn’t the fact that people are dead a little more important? A female character might be sexually assaulted before death, but maybe the male character was tortured (non-sexually) before death. Can we really say one is worse than the other, just because one happens to be gendered and one is not?

She attempts to explain why this is bad:

This Drop Dead Gorgeous trope, as it’s called, is commonly used in other forms of mass media, especially in fashion advertising. It is the collusion of violence done to women’s bodies and the fact that it is often sexualized. The idea being that a dead woman is still inherently beautiful, even if her body has been maimed, her life stolen from her, something arousing still remains available for male consumption.

Here she makes a big assumption. Perhaps the developers intend the dead, sexualized female to be “available for male consumption” (visually, I guess?), but how does she know that’s how players interpret it? In my experience, when I see dead characters in a video game, whether sexualized or not, I know something serious has happened. It can pack an emotional punch. Is she upset with the idea that a woman can still be inherently beautiful in death? How should a dead woman instead be seen: as inherently ugly and disgusting?

Cultures around the world often have immense respect for the dead (especially for family and friends). I don’t think viewing a corpse as ugly would be very honoring to the dead. I’ve been to four open casket funerals, and all individuals were dressed up by the funeral home to look as handsome as possible. So when we take away the idea that dead bodies can’t be seen as beautiful, and when we take away the assumption that men are “consuming” these bodies when they look at them, we are left with no explanation as to what the difference is between a dead, non-sexualized male and a dead, sexualized female, other than an observation about the manner of their deaths.

NPCs are necessary, but are always undeveloped

A main point of her argument is that sexualized females serve the plot in superficial ways:

During one mission in Far Cry 3 the players watch from the sidelines as a pimp beats up a female prostitute of color in a shanty town.

The women who fulfill this trope in gaming universes are sometimes designed to occupy minor narrative roles but more often than not they’re just hollow shells, empty representations with little to no personality or individuality to speak of.

A narrative in any medium–movie, novel, television, play, or video games–is filled with major characters and minor characters. By their nature, minor characters have little depth. The storyteller cannot give a fleshed out backstory for everybody (if you do you’ll end up with something bloated like The Game of Thrones). In the games she analyzes, there are plenty of male characters who are also beat, harassed, or killed in ways to advance the plot (though admittedly, often not in a sexualized way). But these NPCs don’t have much depth either.

I’m the kind of person who tries to have a consistent life philosophy, grounded in principles that work for many situations. I don’t like the idea of criticizing some certain instance but not criticizing other certain instances of similar quality. Yes, these female NPCs are undeveloped, but so are the males: so what?

Perhaps violence in general is Sarkeesian’s bigger concern

Sarkeesian is very prominently a feminist critic and a defender of women’s rights; that much is obvious. And while most of her material is focused on critiquing depictions of women in video games, occasionally she betrays a different motivation:

So in addition to helping paint a gritty picture for the rest of the game experience, this kind of sexualized violence against inessential female characters is exploited by developers as a sort of cheap one-note character development for the “bad guys”.

It’s a lazy shorthand for “evil” meant to further motivate the protagonist to take the villain down and help justify the excessive violence committed by the player in these games.

Some key words here: “lazy shorthand” and “justify the excessive violence.” Point taken: often times the villains in video games are shallow (I still don’t understand Bowser’s fixation with the Princess. He clearly has an empire in the Mushroom Kingdom and is a much more decisive and capable ruler than the Princess is). But if a villain was fleshed out and had depth, would that still justify excessive violence committed against him? Probably not. Notice the term she uses: excessive. I don’t know Sarkeesian’s motives for sure, as she never talks about violence divorced from gender, but maybe she’s equally bothered by the levels of violence present in many mature games.

From my experience with Mature titles, most of the violence is actually male-on-male, non-gendered violence. And that’s totally fine to be against excessive violence in video games–like I said near the beginning, I don’t play a lot of Mature titles, in part because the violence does get to be too much after a while. But excessive violence in games is a separate issue from gendered violence, and when the two are conflated in the same line of argument without proper analysis of one, then the argument falls flat.

The definition of “mature”

This is a small point, but as a scholar of communication, individual word choices and semantics are important to me. She wraps up most of her observations with this preliminary conclusion:

These women and their bodies are sacrificed in the name of infusing “mature themes” into gaming stories. But there is nothing “mature” about flippantly evoking shades of female trauma.

The games that she analyzes are rated “Mature,” but that word means: not appropriate for children. She even begins her video by saying the content is graphic and not appropriate for children. The “Mature” rating does not mean “sophisticated,” “nuanced,” or “deep.” A think many adults are well-aware that games rated “Mature” don’t necessarily contain deep and sophisticated philosophies and critiques of the world: but they do know that these games contain violence and sex.

But as before, Sarkeesian is making an assumption about how players react to these games. Perhaps to Sarkeesian, who is well-versed in feminist philosophy and is intimately aware of the issues of female harassment, gendered violence, and female trauma (I don’t mean from personal experience–I don’t know much about her personal life–but she’s certainly studied these issues for a long time), the rendering of traumatized females in video games is not sophisticated, but shallow. I understand.

People are at different levels, though, with their maturity. Perhaps to some people, these simplistic depictions of female suffering are deeply meaningful. As a male, I can’t understand what it’s like to be traumatized the same way women are. And in my media consumption, I don’t often come across depictions of female suffering. For me, then, when I see a female character brutalized in a video game, it does shake me out of my complacency and start me thinking about women’s issues.

Maybe other players have the same experience and find that these games are indeed “mature,” in other words, “sophisticated.”

The difference between replicating and critiquing

There is a clear difference between replicating something and critiquing it. It’s not enough to simply present misery as miserable and exploitation as exploitative. Reproduction is not, in and of itself, a critical commentary. A critique must actually center on characters exploring, challenging, changing or struggling with oppressive social systems.

But the game stories we’ve been discussing in this episode do not center or focus on women’s struggles, women’s perseverance or women’s survival in the face of oppression. Nor are these narratives seriously interested in any sort of critical analysis or exploration of the emotional ramifications of violence against women on either a cultural or an interpersonal level.

I’ve been an amateur student of the arts for many years. I’ll freely admit I do not know much about art theory and philosophy, but I do know a bit. And as an artist myself, I learned long ago that it is impossible to objectively replicate something found in nature. No matter what the medium is, there are always choices by the artist about what to include and what not to include. In this way, even the replication of something, like female oppression, is an act riddled with subjectivity.

Some artists even go so far as to suggest that their works do not have intended or subliminal commentaries associated with them. Some artists just create and let the audience draw meaning from there.

In this way, then, perhaps the games analyzed by Sarkeesian can be seen as critical commentaries on some aspect of life and society. She says that these narratives are not “seriously interested” in exploring these issues, but now she’s making an assumption about the developers behind these games. How does she know what the developers, as artists, intended? Perhaps to them, their games both replicate reality (albeit imperfectly) and critique it at the same time. Certainly many people have interpreted the GTA series as one long social commentary, in spite of GTA’s sexism, violence, profanity, drug use, and racism.

Now, we could argue that, if these games are indeed intended to be critiques that perhaps the critique isn’t effective, or isn’t effective for everybody. That would be fair. But when you remove the artist’s motivations behind their artwork, and open the door for individual subjective interpretations of art, then you’ll likely find an entire range of reactions to these games: some will see them as mindless and devoid of artistic merit, whereas others might be deeply impacted by the images they see.

Are viewers comfortable with these games?

The truth is that these games do not expose some kind of “gritty reality” of women’s lives or sexual trauma, but instead sanitise violence against women and make it comfortably consumable.

She makes this argument in many videos, that the depictions of women in media “normalize” violence and oppression against women, that frequent consumption of sexist media “desensitizes” people to reality. But again, she’s making an assumption about how players react to these games.

I think by the end of her video, I’ve finally hit on my main problem with Sarkeesian’s entire line of argument in all of her videos. She primarily examines content, not people. She is using a research technique broadly called “qualitative content analysis.” I’ve conducted both quantitative and qualitative content analyses over the years: I even published a qualitative analysis of the television show Death Note and its embrace of apocalyptic religion. Analyzing media content is one thing, but this research methodology has two serious shortcomings: it tells us little about what the creators of said media actually intended, and it tells us nothing about how consumers of media react.

If you want to know how people react to these video games, there’s a simple solution: go talk to people and ask them what they think! Observe them, survey them, interview them…there are numerous methodologies.

How does Sarkeesian know that gamers are “comfortable” with  these depictions of women in games? Just because a person buys a game doesn’t mean they are comfortable with 100% of the content (or even that they see the objectionable content). Just because a person isn’t publishing a public video critique on YouTube doesn’t mean that they are comfortable with the game’s content.

Video games aren’t just for entertainment and fun: a person can have many emotional reactions to video games. I know when I see a woman brutalized in a video game it bothers me. Does that mean I stop playing the game? Not necessarily. Sometimes I trek on because I think that the game does have a social commentary intertwined with entertaining game play.

The Shawshank Redemption is one of my favorite movies, but it’s very brutal and most of the time isn’t comfortable to watch. So I don’t watch it all the time. But I understand the value of the movie, even in its uncomfortableness.

Just because a game features something over and over again doesn’t mean that with each viewing, players get more comfortable with its content.

Maybe some people really do see violence as inevitable

These games also tend to frame misogyny and sexual exploitation as an everlasting fact of life, as something inescapable and unchangeable.

I’ve played my share of violent games over the years, and have seen plenty of ultra-violent movies as well. Currently, there is a media trend, as she identifies, of gritty, dark stories where even the heroes commit serious acts of violence. And sometimes at the end of these stories, the hero is miserable: think The Dark Knight. Now, I don’t understand the motives of any of these storytellers. Maybe some of them really do revel in the violence they create and are entertained by it.

But over years, I’ve come up with a different conjecture. Maybe some storytellers really do see violence as an inescapable and unchangeable reality of life. Certainly there is evidence for this (the entire recorded history of humanity is filled with violence). And maybe some storytellers haven’t been exposed to, or haven’t accepted, more hopeful philosophies of life. Maybe they really do live in the darkness and can’t envision a world without grisly violence.

While I don’t hold that worldview, I don’t begrudge those who do. Maybe that philosophy is the natural consequence of the life they’ve lived up to this point. Should those people be prevented from presenting their view of “reality as they know it” just because somebody doesn’t think that view of reality is accurate?

A mixed conclusion

She ends her video with this:

The truth is that objectification and sexual violence are neither normal nor inevitable. We do not have to accept them as some kind of necessary cultural backdrop in our media stories. Contrary to popular belief, the system of patriarchy has not existed for all of history across all time and all cultures. And as such it can be changed. It is possible to imagine fictional worlds, even of the dark, twisted dystopian variety, where the oppression and exploitation of women is not framed as something expected and inevitable.

When we see fictional universes challenging or even transcending systemic gender oppression, it subverts the dominant paradigm within our collective consciousness, and helps make a more just society feel possible, tangible and within reach.

Here’s what I take away. She’s saying simply: stop depicting sexual violence as an inevitable part of reality, because reality can be changed. I’m not clear what a universe that “transcends” systematic gender oppression looks like, but I’m guessing it means that, in a fictional universe, systematic gender oppression does not exist, and instead of storytellers focusing on that aspect of life, they can then be free to focus on other aspects, perhaps other forms of oppression. Am I getting close?

It seems like she wants these transcendent universes to be on display so that a more just society “feels possible.” In other words, these transcendent universes serve as a model in our consciousness, something to strive toward.

That seems a laudable goal, one I share, but I’d argue such universes already exist (the worlds of Final Fantasy seem pretty transcendent on the gender front, as does the Legend of Zelda [though Sarkeesian disagrees with that]).

Earlier in her video, she said this:

Now, to be clear, I’m certainly not saying stories seriously examining the issues surrounding domestic or sexual violence are off limits for interactive media – however if game makers do attempt to address these themes, they need to approach the topic with the subtlety, gravity and respect that the subject deserves.

So on the one hand, she wants developers to include stories of female trauma, but only if they fit a certain critical mold. But on the other, she wants stories that transcend gender, whatever that means.

But I’ve said too much as it is. For a proper conclusion, reread my section “my experience with these games.” Enough from me: what are your thoughts, Reader?

Game on,

4 thoughts on “Critique of Anita Sarkeesian’s ‘Women as Background Decoration part 2’

  1. Hello,
    Great article. My two cents.
    Another criticism she is open to is what makes something sexist or not, and how much her analysis consists of taking a simple image, divorcing it from its context, then telling us what it “really means”. Take the dead women in BioShock. The section in question was some Red Light district right? As in prostitutes? So if they were in skimpy clothing, it (likely) wasn’t because developers said “oh we’ve got dead women, let’s put a skimpy outfit on ’em cause …. male consumption?”
    Broadly speaking, her methodology sucks. It’s really just seems like she takes clips of violent game imagery, slightly edits her prepared speeches about female oppression and troupes from her movies critiques and let’s her rip! She would benefit enormously from interviews, statistics, maybe an in-depth analysis of a single game as an example.

    • Thanks for reading! I saw a quick post by somebody else outlining that male-on-male violence in video games probably happens MUCH more often than female, gender-based violence. Did you play the new Tomb Raider (2013) reboot? Before the game was released, many people were in uproar about the way Lara Croft is treated in the beginning of the game (captured by a man, who just begins to molest her before she escapes and kills him). Much was made about that gender-based violence, but then, as the game progresses, Lara probably kills 100-150 enemies, all men, and doesn’t show a single shred of remorse.

      The game is awesome, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes people don’t proportion their outrage honestly.

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