Critique of Anita Sarkeesian’s “Women as Reward” videos

After a long absence, Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency is back with another critique of the video game industry’s treatment of female characters, this time with her video “Women as Reward.” This is her longest video yet, and is supplemented by a second video, “Women as Reward – Special DLC Mini-Episode.”

In these videos, she’s critical of the way video games use women to reward players, both during the game and at the conclusion. Women’s bodies and sexuality are the rewards for a quest completed. Sarkeesian’s describes the videos this way:

This episode explores the numerous ways in which the Women as Reward trope manifests in video games. The trope occurs when women or women’s bodies are employed as rewards for player actions, a pattern which frames female bodies and sexuality as collectible or consumable and positions women as status symbols designed to validate the masculinity of presumed straight male players. We then discuss how this trope both reflects and reinforces the pervasive, socially constructed mentality of male entitlement that operates in the background of our culture. [YouTube description of “Women as Reward”]

In the shorter, second video, Sarkeesian is critical of the way alternative, sexualized costumes can be purchased for female characters in the form of DLC (downloadable content).

While I agree with Sarkeesian more than usual in these two videos, her ideas aren’t free from criticism (something other bloggers seem to be forgetting).

If you want to watch her videos before reading on, here they are. I’ll see you in 42 minutes.

Areas of agreement

Sarkeesian describes many ways women’s bodies and sexuality are offered up as rewards for players: through unlockable (or purchasable) sexy costumes, through Easter eggs that reward players with sexual content, or as in-game mechanisms for rewarding a player after completing a mission, such as freed women who then seduce and sleep with male protagonists.

This trope has some overlap with Sarkeesian’s previous ideas about women as damsels in distress. She distinguishes between the two tropes:

While the Damsel in Distress trope uses women as a plot device to motivate male heroes, the Women as Reward trope presents women as a formalized reward mechanism, meaning that the reward is coded into the game system itself. The result of this incentive structure is that access to women’s bodies, women’s affection or women’s sexuality is reduced to a simple equation that guarantees delivery as long as the correct set of inputs are entered into the system.

Personally, I don’t play many mature games, and the ones I do play tend to be mature because of violence and war themes, not sexual content. I’m not interested in sleeping with digital women, not because I see that as sexist, but it feels inauthentic to pursue “fake” relationships in place of real relationships.

I don’t care to unlock or download sexualized costumes for female characters, such as the numerous bikini costumes in games like Dead or Alive. But I also don’t like to download non-sexualized, even silly, alternate costumes either. I think game designers use costumes to inform our interpretation of a character’s background, history, and motivations: reskinning a character creates a mental stumbling block for me between what I see on the screen and who I “know” the character to “be.”

For example, Tina from Dead or Alive 5 wears some revealing outfits, no doubt about it. However, she has a history, in-game, of being a professional wrestler. If you’ve ever watched any professional wrestling, you know that the “divas” tend to wear very little clothing. And yet, so do the men (some of my favorite wrestlers like The Rock and Stone Cold wear black underwear and boots; pretty standard). Wrestling is, in part, a celebration of athletic bodies, and baggy, loose clothes can get in the way of the sport.

Thus, a costume like this seems appropriate for Tina’s character:

Tina from Dead or Alive 5, wearing American flag bra.

But a costume like this, one of the DLC “showstopper” costumes, seems inappropriate given her character:

Tina from Dead or Alive 5 wearing sheer sexy costume.

This isn’t to say that I think sexual content should be eliminated from a game. I think if a compelling, in-game reason for it exists, then I’m fine with it. The same goes, by the way, for violence. But sex for the sake of titillation, for rewarding the player? I can do without it.

“Presumed straight male players”

Sarkeesian’s argument—in all her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games videos—is that these video games are designed for male players:

The trope frames female bodies as collectible, as tractable or as consumable, and positions women as status symbols designed to validate the masculinity of presumed straight male players.

According to the Entertainment Software Association, women make up almost half of the video game playing audience. I can understand, a bit, this alienation women like Sarkeesian feel: I can’t think of too many games where men are the “dudes in distress”, where female players can have sex with male characters, or where men are sexualized in the same way women are.

Even if many of these games are made by men, and directed at boys and men, that doesn’t mean that all women are offended by sexualization of female characters. In fact, it seems like some women are actually empowered.

If you want myriad evidence, simply go to Google Images, Flickr, or other photo-sharing sites, type the name of your favorite sexualized female character (Lara Croft, Bayonetta, Chun-Li, Jill Valentine, etc., etc.,) followed by “cosplay” or “costume” and you’ll find hundreds, thousands of examples of women who dress up in the sexualized costumes that Sarkeesian and others condemn.

Go ahead and open a new tab right now. It’ll take you five seconds to find pictures like this:

Lara Croft cosplay

Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider series; photo by menard_mickael

Bayonetta cosplay

Bayonetta from the Bayonetta series; photo by Vincent Milum Jr

Chun-Li cosplay

Chun-Li from the Street Fighter series; photo by Shelby Asistio

Kasume cosplay

Kasume from the Dead or Alive series; photo by Pikawil

Juliet Starling cosplay

Juliet Starling from Lollipop Chainsaw; photo by Pikawil

These kind of photos go on and on. I show these photos not to condemn or support the women who cosplay; it’s up to them if they want to dress like these characters, and it’s up to the reader to determine whether or not these costumes are acceptable.

My point, though, is that Sarkeesian’s “presumed straight male players” is itself a presumption. And it’s one that falls apart when a thinker engages with the wider context of video games, rather than focusing almost exclusively on what happens in a game (as Sarkeesian tends to do).

Sarkeesian’s critique doesn’t speak for all feminists, either. One line of feminist thinking says that women’s bodies should be liberated from the shackles of conformity. Some argue that woman don’t really have a freedom unless they use it.

Under this line of thinking, women who choose to dress in sexualized ways, women who choose to be proud of their bodies, women who choose to wear what they want—critics be damned—should be praised, respected, and honored. This is the philosophy behind the Free the Nipple campaign, which wants to destigmatize female toplessness (specifically, the prohibition against seeing a woman’s nipple, when all other parts of the breast are more commonly seen, such as cleavage, side boob, under boob, and so on).

I realize the example of cosplay is only anecdotal evidence; certainly not all women find sexualization of female characters liberating. However, we’re talking about a lot of anecdotes here. Tens of thousands of fans cosplay at the dozens of anime, sci-fi, fantasy, and video game conventions each year. Not every woman dresses in sexy costumes, but some do. The weight of that evidence piles up, countering Sarkeesian’s narrative that these games were explicitly designed for male players and nobody else.

Male entitlement

Why does it matter if women are seen as rewards? What is Sarkeesian really talking about in these videos?

Her argument boils down to male entitlement:

The Women as Reward trope helps foster a sense of entitlement where players are encouraged to view women as something they’ve earned the right to by virtue of their gaming actions, skills or accomplishments.

She goes onto say:

By presenting sex as an end goal of men’s interactions or relationships with women, these games frame sexual encounters as challenges to be overcome.

This is a common argument from feminists, that society teaches men that they are entitled to women’s bodies. Sarkeesian isn’t against all sexual activity in video games, though I’m not sure she’s ever presented an example of sex that she’s satisfied with (she hints that perhaps the same-sex relationships in the Mass Effect series are okay). She’s against a certain kind of sexual activity:

By presenting sex as a goal and then presenting players with an award for accomplishing that goal, these achievements function as a form of trophyism. Simply put, trophyism is the tendency for men to view women as objects to be collected and displayed as status symbols of their sexual prowess or virility.

She then provides several examples of how male entitlement manifests as real-world behaviors:

We see [male entitlement] manifest whenever a man orders a woman to show him her “tits,” or makes demands during an online game that a woman send him nude or sexual photos. We see it in real-world spaces whenever men catcall women on the street. We see it whenever a man gropes a woman at an event or convention. We see it whenever a man expects sex in return for buying a woman dinner. At its most serious, male entitlement is the mentality that serves as the foundation for the epidemics of date rape and sexual assault in our society.

By now, Sarkeesian knows that her rhetoric is often interpreted as hatred against all males. She’s quick to say that this mindset doesn’t affect every male, but rather:

Male entitlement operates in the background of our culture; it’s a socially constructed mentality that is so deeply ingrained that it’s often invisible, operating as an unquestioned base assumption.

And this is where I part company, that male entitlement is unquestioned in our society. Really? This is a common argument that often goes unchallenged. Presented simply, feminists say, “Men are taught that they are studs because of their sexual prowess, whereas women are shamed and called sluts.”

But I’m not sure how true this is. I was never raised by my family to believe that men were entitled to women’s bodies. My friends weren’t raised that way. The media that I consume–cartoons, anime, sci-fi and fantasy, comics, video games–usually show healthy romantic relationships, show men caring for women and women caring for men.

In college, I got involved with Christian groups and found that in these communities, sexual prowess is greatly frowned upon. Men feel guilty when they take advantage of women. Men strive to “keep each other accountable,” and encourage one another to treat women with respect.

Male entitlement is certainly NOT an unchallenged assumption, at least here in America. If we’re talking about certain parts of the Middle East or other developing countries, that’s a different story. In those countries, men take advantage of women. But the gender issues in those countries are too difficult to sort out in this post. Additionally, Sarkeesian usually confines her critique of gender roles to American society, so we’ll stick with that focus.

Sarkeesian persuades, rather than educates

What this all boils down to, in Sarkeesian’s mind, is education. She makes her videos to educate her audience—hopefully men and video game developers—that there are problems in society that need to be changed. She says:

The good news is that because male entitlement is a learned attitude, it can, through education and conscious effort, be unlearned. And game systems are capable of being part of that transformative process.

As somebody who works in higher education and has taught students for many years, including on the topic of video games, I wholeheartedly agree that education is power. And I believe that video games, even games that weren’t explicitly designed for this purpose, can be educational. In fact, I think you can learn more about life from something like the Legend of Zelda than you can from a dedicated educational game.

I don’t doubt Sarkeesian’s intentions, and I know she’s doing what she thinks is right. She examines these issues thoroughly and her videos have great production values.

However, as a whole, I’m not sure she’s actually educating people. She’s persuading them, and there’s a difference.

The persuader gathers evidence, selectively, and makes a case for why their idea or plan is better than a different idea or plan. Persuasion plays a major role in our democracy. As somebody who used to write opinion articles (and perhaps still does on this blog) and who teaches opinion writing to students, I’ll be the first to extol the virtues of persuasion.

The educator, on the other hand, selects evidence that’s relevant for the issue under discussion, but they select ALL relevant evidence, not evidence from one side. They present multiple sides to the student of culture.

The educator takes the time to examine an issue in-depth, and their job is to distill the wider discussion so that an audience can understand the contours of the issue.

But their job doesn’t stop there. The educator then shows students different paths they can walk down, and encourages them to look into the issue further.

Sarkeesian is not educating us about how men should treat women, or how women should be portrayed in video games. She’s presenting a list of do’s and don’ts—mostly don’ts.

Show women as equally strong as men.

Don’t show women in risqué clothing.

Show men who save the world because of a sense of justice.

Don’t show men saving the world because a woman is waiting for him at the end.

Sarkeesian is a persuader. After studying her for two years now, this is the conclusion I’ve come to.

There’s a place for persuasion. And people respond to her with persuasive arguments.

That can be a good thing, if the other side engages in the debate. But Sarkeesian doesn’t engage. She puts her views out there, then doesn’t respond to others. She’s not interested in others’ opinions (comment sections remain closed on all her videos).

Don’t confuse her for an educator. She provides a list of morals and rules. Some of her rules are good, and I’ve agreed with her here and in the past.

But she doesn’t challenge you to study the issue on your own. She doesn’t challenge you to form your own opinion. And she doesn’t question her own assumptions.

Or if she does, she’s not showing you her educational process: only the end result of her education.

Game on,
~Dennis

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