According to Anita Sarkeesian, fantasy should reflect reality…except when it shouldn’t

Feminist Frequency began broadening its video game-related content last month by releasing video reviews of popular games. So far they’ve reviewed Assassin’s Creed Syndicate and Rise of the Tomb Raider, particularly because both games made strides in their respective series by including more feminist-friendly female characters.

As far as video game reviews go, I don’t really have a problem with either. The reviewers (Sarkeesian for Syndicate, and Carolyn Petit for Tomb Raider) provide fair analyses of the games, though they are more concerned about the narrative and story than gameplay. Some day I’d like to play RotTR, but I’ve never had any desire to play an AC game.

This post, then, is not so much a critique of these individual game reviews. If you’ve been following my blog, you know that Sarkeesian provides a lot of material for my posts (partly because she refuses to engage in dialogue on her own social media spaces). Rather, this post is about an underlying idea espoused by Feminist Frequency. The idea was stated so elegantly in her ACS review and I want to unpack it here, because for all the Sarkeesian critics out there, it might explain where she’s coming from with her criticism.

The challenge of fantasies set in the past

Let’s begin by talking about fantasy works in general. The fantasy genre is easily my favorite in fiction, from books to comics to video games to movies to shows and more, fantasy brings me to worlds that open up my imagination and creativity.

However, I have always resisted the idea of fantasy as escape from reality. To me, I don’t want to escape reality, not even for a bit: I like reality just fine. Instead, fantasy that resonates shows me new ways of looking at reality. The world is a magical place, and in many ways, the world is more fantastical than any mental creation. To me, fantasy can illuminate my understanding of human nature by stripping away the trappings of the ordinary. Fantasy can be a metaphor for a better way of living.

As somebody who has written my own fantasy for years (nothing published yet, but hopefully someday!), I’ve often thought about the challenge of writing fantasy set in the past.

Some fantasy is set in the future (Star Wars) and some fantasy is set in the present (Harry Potter), but classically, fantasy has been set in the past. Sometimes fantasy reflects a past version of our own world (Lord of the Rings), while other times fantasy reflects a made-up world that, technologically and socially, is less developed than our present reality (Avatar: The Last Airbender).

Writing fantasy set in the past presents several obstacles, mostly in terms of how human relationships and societal norms are depicted. For example, if a fantasy story is set in the past, does that mean the story should depict a patriarchal system governed by kings and queens? Should racism be alive and present? Should men be the fighters and women the housewives? Should gay and lesbian characters be scorned?

On the one hand, having modern social relations in a fantasy set in the past can feel out of place. In the time of Middle-Earth, for instance, would gay hobbits be openly embraced by the citizens of the Shire? It seems unlikely.

But on the other hand, fantasy is not written for people living hundreds of years ago: it’s written for people in the present moment. Fantasy needs to speak to people where they are at now. If fantasy doesn’t resonate with a modern audience, then I’m afraid it might veer into escapism. And maybe that’s fine for some people, but it’s not for me.

This tension is seen in Peter Jackson’s dual trilogies on Middle-Earth. The Lord of the Rings was criticized by some audiences for having far too many male characters, and the female characters it did have were mostly relegate to support roles (save Eowyn). Many fans of LOTR defended the casting decisions, not only for being faithful to the books, but because “that’s how it was back then.” Men were the heroes, women stayed at home. It seems like that’s been the pattern in all human societies throughout history, right or wrong.

A few years pass, and the criticisms compound, and Jackson gets another crack at the fantasy bat with The Hobbit trilogy. Jackson wanted the movies to appeal to a wider audience, so he created a bad ass female warrior, Tauriel. She didn’t appear in the books, and was added to the movies specifically so make the cast slightly less male dominated (but only ever so slightly).

Many people contend Jackson didn’t go far enough in the inclusiveness department. Regardless, it’s clear he was willing to see fantasy not as a reflection of a bygone society, but rather as something that modern audiences could relate to.

“Realism is not really the goal”

Which brings us to Sarkeesian. Assassin’s Creed Syndicate takes place during the Industrial Revolution in London, England. The game scores many points with Sarkeesian for having a non-sexualized, capable female co-lead. She even praises the game for including an Indian character and a trans character:

Evie and Jacob’s allies also include Henry Green, a British Indian Assassin, and Ned Wynert, a successful thief who just happens to be a trans man and no one in the world thinks anything of it. These characters play supporting or minor roles but their inclusion is notable.

The AC series is rooted in historical fantasy. I’m sure the developers at Ubisoft take extensive liberties with the history, but they at least try to get the look and feel of the time periods accurate. And some people think they do very well on the architectural, and occasionally on the social, front.

Knowing this, when I heard Sarkeesian’s praise of an Indian and trans man, my initial thought was, “But wait! Society at that time wouldn’t have been so accepting of these people.” I’m sure players with more skin in the AC game than I have would think the same way.

However, Sarkeesian immediately justifies her praise by saying:

While it might seem “unrealistic” to imagine women, people of color and trans folks who are treated and respected as full human beings in 1868, realism is not really the goal in a game where Assassins and Templars have been waging a centuries’ old war over artifacts created by an ancient civilization, and where you can leap from the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral into a pile of leaves and walk away unharmed. The inclusion of these characters works not because of realism but because of believability and internal consistency. That believability is a result of the developers’ conscious decision to make the presence of these characters normalized and respected by everyone else in the game.

Okay, now it makes sense. Sarkeesian is fine if the game isn’t “realistic” from a historical sense because she doesn’t care about the context of the past. She cares about the present. Because she wants the modern gamer to have an inclusive worldview, it’s acceptable, then, for a historical fantasy game to also have an inclusive worldview.

So far, I have no criticisms for Sarkeesian. In fact, her distillation that “realism” doesn’t make sense for fantasy games actually clears up something I’ve long suspected about her ideology. To her, it’s not so much that the historical context of the game doesn’t matter: instead, she doesn’t think the game’s context matters at all. The only thing that matters is the context of the real world.

And to Sarkeesian, the world is a dangerous place for women, and media can make it a better place by showing us a fantasy of a better world, an idealized world.

To some extent, I’m sympathetic with this viewpoint. As a lover of fantasy, I find that the works that best connect with me are those that speak to my personal situation—which is to say, the modern context. My favorite television series of all time is Avatar: The Last Airbender, a show that Sarkeesian would likely sympathize with (she lists it on her Resources page, but she’s never discussed it as far as I know). The creators created a fantasy world set in the past technologically, but socially, it’s a very inclusive show. The show goes out of its way to present believable and inspiring heroes of both genders, all races, and in Korra, even alternative sexual identities.

If you remember back to her Damsel in Distress: Part 2 video, Sarkeesian briefly addressed a criticism of her analysis. In that series, she was talking about the way that female characters are made into “damsels” that have to be saved by male protagonists. She also talked about how violence against women is justified by the game’s narrative, which she thought didn’t matter in the wider context of violence against women:

Of course, if you look at any of these games in isolation, you will be able to find incidental narrative circumstances that can be used to explain away the inclusion of violence against women as a plot device. But just because a particular event might “makes sense” within the internal logic of a fictional narrative – that doesn’t, in and of itself justify its use. Games don’t exist in a vacuum and therefore can’t be divorced from the larger cultural context of the real world.

It’s especially troubling in-light of the serious real life epidemic of violence against women facing the female population on this planet.

Okay. At least she’s being consistent here. This ACS video review, then, clearly identifies the Sarkeesian approach to fantasy, and it is this: fantasy should reflect our present reality, not historical realities. A fantasy’s context cannot be separated from the context of our real world, and furthermore, the real world context takes precedence over the fantasy context if the two are ever in conflict.

When you formulate your own opinion on Sarkeesian’s work, keep her philosophy in mind. This is the ideology her criticisms are rooted in. This is how she prefers fantasy storylines be constructed. Right or wrong, this is what makes sense to her.

Except when it doesn’t.

“A noble and extraordinary goal”

Later in her review of ACS, she talks about the extensive amount of violence in the game, particularly how the violence is used to “save” Londoners from their captors:

The narrative presents all the ills plaguing the London of 1868 as a result of the evil Templars, and presents the solution to those ills as killing lots and lots of people. Fighting to liberate the oppressed working classes of London would, in reality, be a noble and extraordinary goal, but reducing such an important issue to an excuse for violent AAA game mechanics does little more than trivialize it. Freeing child laborers in each district is as simple as following signs that say “KILL” and “FREE” on the heads of targets. And for all of the Frye twins’ charms and good intentions, they are outsiders taking over a struggle that they have no part of. The game presents them as liberators freeing London from oppression, but they’re really just conquerors, replacing one crime syndicate’s rule with another’s.

Now Sarkeesian is critical of the game for not reflecting the historical past appropriately. She supports the goal of liberating the oppressed, but says that the game “trivializes” this issue.

She doesn’t really offer any solutions for how the game should address the oppressed working classes, other than that killing shouldn’t be part of the solution. And her criticism that the game clearly identifies who to kill and who to free suggests that she wants shades of gray in the game. Beyond this, I’m not sure exactly how she thinks the issue should be addressed. She just wants the game to be more responsible with its history.

But maybe this isn’t a contradiction in her ideology at all. Maybe she wants the game to bend history even more to make a statement not about the oppressed working classes on 19th Century London, but wants the game to make a statement about modern day oppression. If so, I’m really not sure how that would be accomplished.

Which modern day oppression should the game address? Child workers in China? Trafficked sex slaves in America? Oppression of women and Christians in certain states of the Middle East?

For all my sympathies in making historical fantasy reflective of the present situation, this is where that ideology breaks down. If you divorce a fantasy world entirely from its context, and try to instead force the present context on it, you lose something both in the storytelling AND the message. A work of fantasy that doesn’t engage with its past at all risks becoming an allegory like Animal Farm. And if you’re going to venture into allegory territory, why be esoteric about your intentions? Why not strip away the allegory and make a modern critique?

Game on,
~Dennis

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