Critique of Anita Sarkeesian’s “Strategic Butt Coverings” video

Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency fame is back for Season 2 of the polarizing “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” series with the release of “Strategic Butt Coverings.” Sarkeesian is retooling the series, in part due to the mental abuse of her critics and the physical toll this project has taken on her body. Though I disagree with most everything Sarkeesian espouses, I certainly don’t wish ill on her as a person. She’s had a busy couple years with the Tropes series, so the newer, shorter videos are a welcome change of pace.

In this video, Sarkeesian compares how the butts of female and male characters are depicted differently in video games. In short, games tend to emphasize the assets of female characters, but not male characters. Instead, designers employ a variety of visual design tricks to deemphasize male butts as much as possible, even in games that provide a third-person view of the character.

She uses a couple dozen examples to show the double standard, though admits that not all video game characters are treated this way:

Of course, not all games with male protagonists keep the character’s butt obscured or out of frame like these games do. The real issue is one of emphasis and definition; a significant portion of third-person games with female protagonists call attention to those characters’ butts in a way that’s meant to be sexually appealing to the presumed straight male player.

As far as her observations go, Sarkeesian showed me some things that I wasn’t aware of. Certainly female butts are emphasized in many video games: this wasn’t a surprise to me. I’m not interested in countering this argument with examples of non-sexualized female characters, like Princesses Peach, Daisy, or Zelda. Her examples from Arkham Knight and Gears of War of how designers will go to great lengths to hide male butts are illuminating.

What bothers me, however, are the implications of Sarkeesian’s brand of feminism as it relates to the bodies of real men and women. But before I get to that, watch her video: it’s a short one.

Getting to know a character

Sarkeesian opens the video with a very provocative assumption of game designers’ motives:

If you want to get to know a character, learn about their interests, goals, or desires, their butt is probably not going to give you that information. It won’t tell you much about who they are, or what they’re thinking or feeling at any given time. But video game designers often choose to put tremendous focus on the butts of certain characters, while going to almost absurd lengths to avoid calling attention to the butts of others.

Her opening is so full of hyperbole that I found myself laughing. In Sarkeesian’s view, female butts are the primary way designers want us to engage with a female character. Designers care more about the woman’s butt than anything else.

But if that were the case, why do games like Bayonetta and Tomb Raider have such lengthy plot lines and cutscenes? Do players really reduce female characters to their butts?

According to Sarkeesian, if a character has an attractive butt, then the player is somehow compelled to see the character solely through her asset, as if the butt is the lens by which players actually understand female characters.

Her hyperbolic outrage is a strawman, and made me think of this wonderful, off-color comic copyright Nathan Bulmer:

Man checks out a girl's butt

Modeling real-life fashion

Like I said in the intro, I can’t really argue with Sarkeesian’s observations. She says of Catwoman:

In Batman: Arkham City for instance, the player’s gaze is drawn to Catwoman’s behind, which is emphasized by her costume and exaggerated hip sway.

Then later says of male characters:

There are a few examples of male protagonists who are wearing clothing that calls attention to their butts but for the most part, men’s butts, even when visible in the frame, are deemphasized. Plenty of male heroes wear baggy pants or jeans…

And here is where Sarkeesian’s argument diverges from reality. Yes, digital artists design the butts of female and male characters differently. But if you think about the male and female sexes, aren’t there biological differences between the two? On a whole, on average? Women’s bodies tend to be shaped differently than men’s bodies.

Not exclusively, of course. But women’s bodies tend to have a higher percentage of fat than male bodies. And women, I think, have much more variability in their shapes, from hip size to bust size to hip-to-chest ratio to hip-to-waist ratio and waist-to-chest ratio. I think one reason women tend to spend more time looking for clothes than men is that they are almost forced to: their bodies have much more variability, and what fits one woman might not fit another woman. And because women have to hunt harder for properly fitting clothes, they naturally are going to know more about fashion than the average man.

After all, just think of one of the biggest changes a woman’s body can undergo: pregnancy. A woman’s body shape will change many times over the course of nine months, and after the baby is born, her new body will likely be different than her old body.

I don’t think it’s out-of-line, then, to point out that men and women, biologically, have different body shapes.

What also contributes, though, to the “double-standard” in how female and male butts are depicted are the real fashion choices of real women. Women often wear clothes, in real life, that emphasizes their rear end.

I’ve been on college campuses for 12 years now, in many different parts of the country, both as a student and a professor. I’ve seen thousands of young women. All generalizations fall apart on some level; all students, male and female, display great diversity in their fashion choices.

That said, there are several fashion trends of young women that emphasize their butts. Many students wear yoga pants or black leggings-as-pants. I’m not here to condemn them or support them for their fashion choices: I’m just making an observation. And while they might wear yoga pants or leggings because they are “comfy”, these garments are tight and they do emphasize the exact shape of a woman’s butt, jiggles and all.

Women sometimes where designer jeans that have sparkly rhinestone hearts plastered on the back pockets. Women athletes wear sweatpants with their last names emblazoned across the butt. They wear short shorts that show off not only the curves of their backside, but even their pelvis.

I lived in Florida for three years, and one fad that surprised me was the “under butt” style of shorts. Florida is hot, so naturally men and women don’t wear much clothing. And this was only a small minority of women, but some wore shorts so short that you could see the bottom curve of their butt cheeks.

Now, perhaps women are forced to show off their backsides because that’s the only kind of bottoms they are able to purchase in stores. After all, even women’s dress pants and skirts tend to be tight. But whatever shadowy forces are at work in society to shape women’s rears, wearing shorts that are so short that they show off a woman’s “under butt” is a conscious choice. Societal expectations of gender roles are not that controlling.

Sarkeesian says that men in video games tend to wear baggy clothes. That’s true in games, but that’s also true in real life. Whether men wear jeans, shorts, or dress pants (about the only three options men have for bottoms, compared to the multitude of choices for women), these garments tend to be baggy. Let me offer one possible explanation why men’s bottom garments are baggier: men have external genitalia, genitalia that can often change shape and size throughout the day, so men want more freedom in their clothes, not less.

(Discounting, of course, the minority of men who favor skinny jeans—that fashion seems so uncomfortable to me.)

To bring this long tangent to a close, I think many digital artists are simply modeling reality. They design male and female butts differently because 1) male and female bodies are different, and 2) men and women’s fashion options are very different in real life.

Of course, games are fantasy spaces, and plenty of video games (and related anime and comic book series) have pushed the limits of fantasy fashion. In other words, games don’t have to model real-world fashion choices, as they often do not. But even fantasy games have a basis in reality. That’s why male and female characters in fantasy spaces tend to look like men and women in real life.

Who’s being disconnected from the character here?

Sarkeesian’s observations are accurate, but her point misses the mark. Why is it wrong if a female’s butt is depicted?

[T]he emphasis placed on the butts of female characters communicates to players that this is what’s important, this is what you should be paying attention to. It communicates that the character is a sexual object designed for players to look at and enjoy. And by explicitly encouraging you to ogle and objectify the character, the game is implicitly discouraging you from identifying directly with her. [emphasis added]

Sarkeesian gives too much credit to the power of butts. Perhaps well-crafted butts cause her to disengage from a female character, but they don’t do that for me. I recently conducted a research project in which I analyzed games with overly sexualized female characters. The games were the standard culprits—Tomb Raider, Bayonetta, Dead or Alive, and Lollipop Chainsaw.

I chose to analyze these games for a specific reason. These games are often criticized for how female characters are modeled—and usually that’s where the criticism starts and ends, with the character’s appearance. After all, it’s impossible to argue that a character like Bayonetta is not sexualized:

Bayonetta 2 Box

However, when I actually played Bayonetta, I realized that she, along with the game, actually had quite a bit of depth. Bayonetta’s certainly aware of her sexuality, but she’s not a whore. She has a “look, don’t touch” mentality. She flaunts her body, but doesn’t really tease the male characters with it. Her main pursuer, a male journalist, gets close to touching her from time to time, but doesn’t succeed. Nor does he see Bayonetta as a body to be conquered.

Bayonetta has a tricky past, and she wrestles with the darkness (she is a witch) but also the light: she helps people, and cares for those closest to her. She is strong, courageous, and capable. She’s not prone to negative emotions, and she’s rarely scared or sad. There’s even an undercurrent of motherhood throughout the game, as a little girl insists on calling Bayonetta “mommy” even though Bayonetta insists she is nothing of the sort.

I really enjoyed playing Bayonetta. And honestly? Once the action gets going, she moves so fast, and so much is happening on the screen, that there is often little time to “ogle” her body. Sarkeesian insists that the design of female butts reduces these characters to their butts, but I think she’s the one who is reducing female characters to their bodies.

Are costumes like Bayonetta’s over-the-top? Obviously, clearly, undoubtedly. On the other hand, look at how cool her costume design is. The diamonds going up her legs, the neon heel pistols, the silky hair tied up with charms, the frilly sleeves. And as I pointed out before, many women love cosplaying as these characters.

The emergent view of the body, according to Sarkeesian

I’ve studied Sarkeesian long enough that I’m starting to understand what her feminism is rooted in. Now, I’m making some assumptions here; even though her body of work is quite largely, I don’t know what she thinks about other feminist causes, such as abortion rights, equal pay, discrepancies in women’s health care, etc. It might be safe to assume she holds standard liberal, feminist views on women’s rights issues, but I don’t want to assume.

I also want to be careful about labeling her philosophy in language she has not used. After all, while I hold a high view of women and believe that women are just as capable and valuable as men, I would bristle at somebody labeling me a feminist. That’s because my support of women is fueled by a different philosophy (namely, Christianity) and is not fueled by the contemporary academic well of feminism.

All that said, Sarkeesian’s view of the body, particularly the female body, does remind me of two philosophies.

First, for all of her liberal leanings, Sarkeesian’s view of the female body is strangely conservative, even Puritan. I really do wonder what she thinks of women who consciously choose to dress provocatively, who choose to flaunt their bodies, who choose to embrace their sexuality. As I’ve said before, there are strains of feminism that celebrate the female body, even going as far to support women who make a career out of pornography.

Occasionally Sarkeesian will praise a video game that depicts females “correctly.” And these women are usually covered up and have small chests and flat butts. Her conservative leanings on the female body get dangerously close to “body shaming,” the act of criticizing women not only for their fashion choices, but even the very shapes of their bodies, which are often out of their control.

When I think of the female college students I work with on a daily basis, most of them are thin. And body shapes vary dramatically in all the areas I’ve already enumerated. So when Sarkeesian criticizes somebody like Lara Croft for having the perfect, rounded butt, I wonder: what does she think about actual women with that same rear-end shape? What does she think of women who also wear tight shorts, just like Croft?

Every week I see women joggers run by my house in tight shorts and sports bras. Lara Croft is similarly athletic, climbing the ruins of ancient civilizations, often in places like jungles and tropical islands. In a way, her tight clothing is appropriate for the athletic feats she performs.

Second, a related philosophy, going all the way back to ancient societies, is mind-body dualism. This philosophy exists in many forms, and even early forms of Christianity (as well as other religions) have embraced this philosophy. It’s really hard to gloss over dualism, but essentially, dualists see the mind and body as completely separate entities.

And usually, dualists see the body as lesser than the mind. The body is a flawed, imperfect vessel for the mind. For example, in the Christian heresy of Gnosticism, the flesh is seen as wholly separate from the mind. Even farther, the flesh is seen as sinful and corrupted: the body is a prison that our souls need to escape from.

Certainly Sarkeesian is not Gnostic. But she seems to have some disdain for the female body. She says in this video:

Third-person games with female protagonists typically display those characters in a way that gives players a full-body view. A classic example of this is the original Tomb Raider games, which are presented from a third-person perspective wherein protagonist Lara Croft’s entire body is visible. In these early Tomb Raider games, Lara’s butt is typically right in the center of the screen…

I’m not sure what’s so offensive about her observation. Most video games feature a third-person view, the entire body of the character visible. This camera orientation goes back 30+ years to the days of Donkey Kong. Now, those who have played 3D third-person games know that the camera can often be adjusted on the fly. The camera might default so that the center of the person is in the middle of the screen, but the camera can also take many other positions.

And is it really so offensive that the butt is in the middle of the screen? If not the butt, then what part of the body? If it was the character’s head, would Sarkeesian be arguing that the camera supports a fetishization of the female head? The butt is roughly in the middle of the body: legs are below, torso is above.

This very practical camera orientation has nothing to do with butts. By this logic, the 2D platforming games also fetishize Mario’s butt. When Mario eats a Super Mushroom, he’s two squares tall: the bottom square is his legs and butt; the top square is his torso and head.

Super Mario World screenshot

Learning from a character’s appearance

To go back to Sarkeesian’s opening statement: I agree, you can’t learn anything about a character’s interests, goals, or desires by looking at their butt. But does that mean you can’t learn anything at all about them based on their physical appearance? Does not the entirety of their physical appearance tell the player something about who they are? Body shapes and clothing choices can tell us what drives a character, how they take care of themselves, even how they see themselves.

This is why I bring up dualism. Sarkeesian seemingly wants a world in which characters have no sexuality, dress plainly, have square, flat bodies, and do not let their body dictate anything about who they are. She ends her video by saying:

So to be clear, the solution here is not to simply show more butts of male characters. Equal opportunity butt display is definitely not the answer. Rather, the solution is to deemphasize the rear ends of female characters … This is not an impossible task given that game designers do this all the time with their male characters. It’s time they started consistently doing it with their female characters, too.

The rear ends of female characters should be deemphasized, should be depicted in the same hidden, shadowy ways that male butts are depicted. No butts for anybody!

Just as a person who shows up to a job interview in a suit versus somebody who choose up in jeans tells us something about the person, a video game character who wears tight clothes tells us something about who they are, and a character who wears baggy clothes tells us something as well.

Before playing Dead or Alive, all I’d ever heard was that the game oversexualized female characters, especially in the chest area. Each character has a range of costumes, and when you mix in DLC, you can get teeny tiny lingerie and bathing suit costumes for all the female characters.

However, the default costumes do tell us something about the female characters. Body shape and fashion choices matter. They aren’t a distraction, or objectification, as Sarkeesian believes. Just look at the range of DoA female characters. If you’ve played the game, you’re already familiar with who these characters are.

If not, tell me if you can’t figure out, at least a little, who these characters are, based on their dress:

Dead or Alive 5: Hitomi

Dead or Alive 5: Kokoro

Dead or Alive 5: Leifang

Dead or Alive 5: Lisa

Dead or Alive 5: Mila

Dead or Alive 5: Sarah

Dead or Alive 5: Tina

On some level, it’s the responsibility of every player to figure out what kind of characters they like, and which they don’t. Sarkeesian bemoans that she can’t identify with female characters, but insists that we should be able to identify with them as people. Yet she also argues that characters are designed by people, that they are not independent creations, that they are subjugated by game developers. She views female characters as being autonomous, though objectified, beings who are at the same time lacking in agency.

It’s becoming clear to me that Sarkeesian holds the female body in low regard, and believes that who a person is should be divorced from the form of their body. That’s not to say that a character’s personhood is wholly determined by the shape of their body. But there can be a middle ground: a character’s personhood and body are both important.

I’ll wrap up my thoughts on the matter for now: my analysis is 3+ times the word count of Sarkeesian’s video. At the very least, her views are generative of much discussion.

Game on,
Dennis

Feminists are giving Rey from the Force Awakens far too much credit

Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens is universally loved by critics and moviegoers. Finally, a female lead in Star Wars!—so the praise can be boiled down to.

I’ve seen Episode VII twice now and I agree, Rey is a great character. I have no complaints about her, unlike some, who think she’s “too good” at the stuff she does.

However, women critics are absolutely gushing over her portrayal, as if Rey was the female sci-fi heroine we’ve been waiting all of human history for. And now she’s arrived, ushering in a new area of equality on the big screen.

But are these praises justified?

Let’s look at what women are saying about Rey.

Rey cleans parts on Jakku

Patricia Karvelas’ column in The Guardian, headlined “Star Wars is a game-changer, awakening the feminist force in little girls everywhere,” speaks of Rey in prophetic tones. Karvelas writes (emphasis added):

[Rey] never doubts herself, the scenes of her flying the Millennium Falcon are the most empowering scenes the Star Wars machine have ever produced. The dialogue between her and Han Solo finally provides the feminist punch-the-air moment we’ve all been desperately waiting for.

She goes on to say:

The character of Rey is a game changer for the little girls around the world who have been disgracefully ignored by the Star Wars empire for decades.

While it’s true that the Star Wars movies don’t have a lot of female characters (ignoring the wide Expanded Universe), is Rey really the character we’ve been desperately waiting for?

Rebecca Carroll describes Rey as “a next generation badass boss bitch that we and Princess Leia can be proud of.” I’m not even sure what that means. Rey isn’t really a leader in Episode VII.

Meg Heckman wrote for the USA Today:

The Force Awakens is, in many ways, a feminist reinterpretation of the original Star Wars movie that wowed audiences nearly 40 years ago.

Tasha Robinson wrote for The Verge:

We may have reached peak Strong Female Character with Rey. Yes, she should be an extreme outlier, not a model for every female character to aspire to, just as not every male character in the movies should be Captain America or Ethan Hunt. But she should also be allowed to be as unquestionably superlative a protagonist as they are.

So I guess Rey is as good as female characters will ever get. There’s no possible way they can be improved. Should storytellers pack their bags and go home now?

Casey Cipriani wrote for Bustle, in a piece entitled “Why Rey in ‘The Force Awakens’ is the feminist hero we’ve all been waiting for”:

Thanks to its passing of the Bechdel test, its group of significant female roles, and, most majorly, its lead character of Rey, this newest Star Wars installment is doing wonders for women in film.

While the most vocal supporters of Rey, for good reason, are women, men are also falling over themselves to praise Rey. Shawn Binder wrote for Distractify:

Rey, played with aplomb by Daisey Ridley, is a tour-de-force of feminism and general badassery. Sure, there were other women in the Star Wars universe before her who were tough and powerful in their own right, but Rey is the first complex hero of the franchise that just happens to be a woman.

When Rey lit up the screen for the first time, girls everywhere finally had a major player in a blockbuster they could relate to.

Notice how the great female characters of the Star Wars universe are so quickly pushed aside. Princess Leia is great, but she wasn’t the main character. Complex heroines like Mara Jade or Ahsoka are glossed over because they didn’t appear in the main Star Wars movies.

Rey and Finn in the Millennium Falcon

Again, this post isn’t designed to take anything away from Rey as a character. She’s a great character in her own right. But a revolutionary, transformative character? Only if you define the parameters for “revolutionary” so narrowly that she’s the only character who can meet the criteria, namely, that to be revolutionary, a female character has to be the main hero of a Star Wars movie specifically.

But what of all the other female characters in fantasy and science fiction? Feminists aren’t looking hard enough if they believe that Rey is the character we’ve all been waiting for. As David French wrote in the National Review:

But for the feminist Left, the past is a yawning abyss of sexism. It’s almost like they haven’t actually watched the last 40 years of science fiction.

Over the last month, I’ve witnessed the praise for Rey with disbelief and confusion. Maybe I’m getting something wrong. Was there really no good female character before Rey? Is Rey really a game-changer for little girls? Have we really “arrived” at a utopia of equality?

I can think of scores of strong female characters, from a variety of media, who were trailblazers long before Rey was conceived. Ripley from Alien. Faye Valentine from Cowboy Bebop. Blossom, Buttercup and Bubbles from The Powerpuff Girls. April O’Neil from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Cheetara from the ThunderCats. All the Sailor Scouts from the Sailor Moon series. Melfina, Aisha Clanclan, and Suzuka from Outlaw Star. Kagome from Inuyasha. Terra and Celes from Final Fantasy VI. Tifa from Final Fantasy VII. Yuna from Final Fantasy X. Lightning, Fang, Serah, and Vanille from Final Fantasy XIII. Lara Croft from Tomb Raider, and Bayonetta from Bayonetta.

The list goes on. Whether the medium is film, television, animation, comics, or video games, there are plenty of likable female protagonists for girls and boys to look up to. Are there as many strong female characters as there are male characters? Probably not: the Lord of the Rings is very male-heavy. Our fictive landscape still needs new female characters that speak to a modern audience, just as we still need new male characters that speak to a modern audience.

Humanity is incredibly diverse, and storytellers haven’t yet exhausted the well of character possibilities.

Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

What bothers me most about the excessive praise of Rey is that feminists are erasing the accomplishments of previous female protagonists. I’m not sure why. To perpetuate this narrative that women are criminally disadvantaged compared to men in all measures of success, including representation in sci-fi and fantasy media? I don’t know why they are doing this.

Remember back to May 2015. Mad Max: Fury Road was released to near universal acclaim. And for good reason: I think the movie is every bit as awesome as people say. One of the most surprising aspects of the film was the depth of the female co-lead Furiosa, who was proclaimed as a feminist hero. Women media critics everywhere praised Furiosa. They spoke of her in the same prophetic tones now reserved for Rey: we finally have the female action hero we’ve been waiting for!

So what happened between the release of Fury Road and the Force Awakens? Did equality take a step back in six months? Of course not. They’ve simply forgotten their own history of progress.

The evidence for game-changing female characters goes back decades. For a useful point of comparison (not that this character was the game changer, but simply a game-changer long before Rey), look at Sarah Connor from the Terminator series. Released in 1984, the Terminator gave audiences a very strong character in Sarah Connor. She’s an everyday woman, down on her luck, but through her strength and courage, she faces and triumphs over a robotic threat.

In 1991, we return to Sarah Connor in Terminator 2. She’s gotten even stronger, and she has a conviction that the world is ending, even though nobody believes her. Integral to Sarah’s identity is her status as a mother, something that should not be overlooked.

Some feminists believe that having a female action hero who simply beats up a lot of people isn’t enough, and is actually sexist. That’s the argument Celina Durgin makes in the National Review about the new Supergirl TV show. A female character who is simply strong is just a male character in female clothing. That essence that makes women different than men is lost.

For Sarah Connor, her femininity is tied to motherhood; she’s the protector of John Connor, the leader of the resistance against the machines. But she’s also a herald and prophet of the end-times, doing anything she can to prevent the machines becoming self-aware.

She’s was game-changing feminist hero—30 years before Rey graced the silver screen.

To conclude, Rey is an excellent character and a worthy addition to not only the Star Wars pantheon of heroes, but the pantheon of sci-fi and fantasy heroines. Critics could do well to remember the long, transformative history of female characters in sci-fi and fantasy media because Rey is hardly breaking new ground.

~Dennis

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

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

Critique of Sarkeesian’s “Women as Background Decoration” Video

Every few months, Anita Sarkeesian, feminist media critic behind the popular website and YouTube channel Feminist Frequency, releases a new video about women in video games. Her videos draw sharp criticism from gamers, but over time, people are slowly starting to recognize the value of her critiques. She even recently won the 2014 Game Developers Choice Ambassador Award for her work in drawing attention to the plight of female characters in video games.

For all the research she puts into her videos, inevitably the videos arrive short of perfection. All arguments are open to critique (including this critique). And I want to state at the outset that a male writer (myself and others) critiquing a woman espousing feminist views is not in and of itself evidence of the oppressive patriarchy trying to silence and condemn women or feminist ideals. Feminists don’t have a monopoly on the discussions surrounding gender and sexuality in our culture; other perspectives need to be encouraged.

In her latest video, Sarkeesian examines the “Women as Background Decoration” trope in video games, which she defines as:

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. Sometimes they’re created to be glorified furniture but they are frequently programmed as minimally interactive sex objects to be used and abused.

Before going any further, here’s the video in question. Please watch to understand the specifics of this critique. Unfortunately, the video is quite long (31 minutes, and it’s only Part 1!), so buckle in.

Areas of agreement

Of Sarkeesian’s five videos on women in video games, I probably agree with Sarkeesian most in this video. Women have been used as background decoration in video games for a very long time, and the problem has only gotten worse in the last 6-7 years with the development of near-lifelike 3D female characters. Sarkeesian focuses on NPCs, Non-Playable Characters, in this video, which she reterms Non-Playable Sex Objects. I mostly agree with her when she says:

Non-Playable Sex Objects can usually be found on the sidelines of role playing or open world style games, populating the many virtual strip clubs, red light districts or brothel locations that have become almost obligatory in many so-called “mature” titles.

I don’t play a lot of mature video games, and I’m not a fan of sexualized characters in general. They feel cheap, crude, and immature. She goes on to show that in many modern mature titles, characters are forced to walk through strip clubs, brothels, and women’s dressing rooms in order to advance the plot. Now, I don’t think these sorts of places or characters such as prostitutes should be eliminated from video games entirely: there might be many justifiable story reasons to include such seedy establishments. I don’t want to deny storytellers any tool that could potentially tell a compelling story.

But she’s right that in most cases, these sexualized NPCs and strip clubs don’t really add much to the game.

How not to critique cultural studies

Before I outline my areas of disagreement with Sarkeesian, I think this conversation (which is already happening on a variety of video game websites, as Sarkeesian doesn’t allow comments on her videos due to continued harassment directed toward her, which I understand) could be advanced if we outlined some rules for debate. Whenever Sarkeesian posts a video, people invariably nitpick all of her specific examples. They will highlight one specific point she made and explain it away in the larger context of that game’s world and logic.

A second strategy is to present counter-examples, perhaps a video game that has a justifiable use of prostitutes or something. But people miss the point about what cultural studies is supposed to be. Cultural studies, which Sarkeesian is a student of, is a research methodology in which some aspect of our culture is examined. It takes a forest-level viewpoint, and in the process, misses some trees. So yes, we could nitpick some of the specific games she uses to highlight her points. And we could probably come up with 10 examples that contradict her points. But do a few counter-cases outweigh the evidence she has gathered? I think in this case, the answer is no.

Instead, I want to focus on broader problems with her argument.

Sarkeesian’s zeal to provide overwhelming evidence goes too far

This has always been her biggest problem. Sarkeesian wants to provide overwhelming evidence of some trend in video games, and in the process, she ignores not just individual counter-examples, but entire bodies of evidence. Then, with the evidence she has left, she reads so far into it that I start to question: do gamers even take these issues as seriously as she is presenting them when they are playing these games? Isn’t she being just a little hyper critical?

For example, she spends much of this video examining open-world or “sandbox style” video games like Grand Theft Auto and Sleeping Dogs. She points out numerous examples of Non-Playable Sex Objects, which the player can beat, stab, kill, kidnap, and stuff into the trunk of their cars. And she says that the player is encouraged to commit acts of violence against women, that designers put these systems in place and want the gamer to test the boundaries of the game’s rules.

Maybe so. But anybody who’s played an open-world video game knows that acts of violence aren’t just committed against sexualized women: you can perform acts of violence against most anybody in these games! Sarkeesian anticipates the argument that I just used, and responds:

Typically all the non-essential characters in sandbox style games are killable, but it’s the sexualized women whose instrumentality and brutalization is gendered and eroticized in ways that men never are. The visual language attached to male NPCs is very different since they are rarely designed to be sexually inviting or arousing, and they are not coded to interact with the player in ways meant to reaffirm a heterosexual fantasy about being a stud.

Correct, male characters often aren’t sexualized. But they are still killable. What is the greater sin: killing a sexualized woman, or killing a man? In Sarkeesian’s worldview, the first. But in my worldview, and in the worldview of many gamers, the killing of any innocent NPC is bad. A life is a life, and all life is precious. Sarkeesian states:

But even if sexualized male NPCs were more prevalent, equal opportunity sexual objectification is still not the solution to this problem, especially considering the existing power differential between men and women in our society. Women are constantly represented as primarily for sex. Men may be sexual too, but they can also be anything else, they are not defined by or reduced to their sexuality and their sexuality is not thought of as something existing chiefly for the pleasure of others. Which means the fundamentally dominant position of men in our culture is not in any way challenged or diminished by the rare male depiction as sex worker.

I agree with her that our society has a more oppressive “script” when it comes to violence against women compared to violence against men. This is a problem for women, yes, but also a problem for men. Why aren’t more men outraged by violence against men? Why aren’t more women outraged by violence against men?

NPCs are always used for the player’s benefit

Sarkeesian spends considerable time examining how women NPCs are objectified in video games. She has example after example of women NPCs being used for sex and providing stat boosts, being killable so that they can be robbed, or fulfilling some cheap mission objective. She says:

In the realm of interactive media I use the term “instrumentality” to refer to the practice of using virtual women as tools or props for the player’s own purposes.

But NPCs by their very nature are designed for the player’s use. Some NPCs sell objects to the player. Some NPCs give objects or keys to the player. Some provide information. Some provide money. Some offer the player quests to complete. Virtually every adventure game (e.g., the Legend of Zelda), role-playing game (e.g., Final Fantasy), action game (e.g., Resident Evil 4), and open-world game (e.g., Grand Theft Auto) has NPCs who serve to assist the character in some way. Herein lies another instance of Sarkeesian going beyond what her data says while simultaneously ignoring vast swaths of counter-points.

She then criticizes the interchangeability of sexualized NPCs:

Since these women serve an identical or nearly identical “resource” function within the game space, they are created to be interchangeable with any other female NPC of the same type. A fact reinforced when developers simply copy and paste the same character models into various locations throughout the environment.

Yes, it is true that women NPCs, like prostitutes, are interchangeable, and on some level, I can understand how this is dehumanizing to women. On the other hand, this is a very common practice in video games for the treatment of all NPCs! This primarily has to do with technological constraints. Up until very recently, video game technology was not sophisticated enough to have completely unique NPCs throughout the entire game. Even if the technology is there, asking developers to create unique NPCs (and for open-world games, this would be asking for thousands of unique character models, character animations, catchphrases, and so forth) would require far too great of an investment in resources on the developer’s part.

For instance, consider nearly every RPG, from Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior on the NES in the 1980s through today. Most RPGs feature a variety of towns that the player visits on their quest to save the world. And every town includes shops that sell weapons, armor, magic, potions, and other useful items. Those shops are usually run by NPCs. If the developer is really ambitious, the NPCs will look different each time. But essentially, are they not interchangeable? They exist to provide the player some benefit, and character models can be swapped at will and it doesn’t affect how the game is played. Are shopkeepers in RPGs objectified? I suppose on some level. But there are a lot of technical reasons for this, as I’ve explained.

Most video games do not accurately mirror reality, both in representations of characters’ bodies and in treating characters like real people. There are a variety of game play reasons why video games don’t mirror reality. For instance, who would play an adventure game if it honestly took 3 hours to walk between towns? Or who would play any game if the character had to sleep for 8 hours each 24 hour period? So cuts are made to reality to facilitate the game play. It has to occur, though how it occurs varies from game to game.

A final example. She points out that when sexualized female NPCs are killed, their bodies disappear after a few seconds:

Their status as disposable objects is reinforced by the fact that in most games discarded bodies will simply vanish into thin air a short time after being killed.

Again, this phenomenon of disappearing bodies isn’t unique to sexualized NPCs. This is probably her weakest point in the entire video. In almost all video games, defeated characters disappear. There is largely a technical reason for this: when a video game renders different objects, like characters, cars, etc., it takes memory. If that object is no longer being used (i.e., the character is dead) then the game simply makes that object disappear so that it doesn’t clog up the memory. In fact, games in the 1980s through the 1990s were very limited in the number of unique objects they could display on a screen. So having objects disappear allows the game to continue functioning.

Areas yet to be addressed by Sarkeesian

In my previous critique of Sarkeesian, I ended the post by identifying four areas of gender and culture that Sarkeesian has not addressed sufficiently, to her detriment. I’ll conclude in a similar fashion.

  1. What about violence against men?I mentioned this last time, but this critique now has more nuance. As I’ve elaborated in this post, violence against women is bad, but violence against men is equally bad. In the vast majority of video games (and practically all of the video games Sarkeesian used for her analysis) the protagonist is a male. Do video games not perpetuate the stereotype that men must resort to violence and death to solve their problems? Isn’t this a problem? Not only are the playable characters male, but the vast majority of enemies that these male protagonists kill are male. Yes, you can kill prostitutes in games like GTA. But most of the policemen, gang members, and other enemies you kill will be male. Video games are primarily a spectacle of male-on-male violence. While many victims of violence in real-life are women, and that is bad, are not the majority of perpetrators of violence male? According to the U.S. Department of Justice, men are 3.6 times more likely to commit homicide than women.
  2. Are the critics affected by the games they research? This is an honest question I have for all cultural studies researchers, not just Sarkeesian. If violent and sexualized media is so detrimental to viewers, why are not the researchers affected by what they study? Like I said, I’ve played almost none of the games Sarkeesian examines in this video. Yet she’s played them and studied them for months now. If seeing images of sexualized images is so damaging, then critics like Sarkeesian should probably be the most affected by them. These images probably do affect her on some level, and she probably does have a strong support system to help her cope with the images she sees (at least I hope so). It’s clear that she is bothered by these subjects, so it is commendable that she is proceeding with her message in spite of the dangers these games might be doing to her mind. But even so, it is also clear that she has not internalized the poisonous aspects of these games. She doesn’t commit violence against women; she doesn’t degrade women in her talk or her beliefs. She doesn’t tell off-color jokes about rape. She has a very high respect for women as individuals. So if she can find a way to “see through the lies” and she can find a way not to internalize the destructive messages of these games, why does she assume that gamers cannot? Why does she assume that the majority cannot? Gamers are a lot more intelligent and thinking about the games they play than critics give them credit for. Which leads to my last point:
  3. Do we know if these games are actually affecting gamers? That’s the big question. Even if we accept all of her critiques, how do we know that gamers are actually playing these games and internalizing regressive patriarchal attitudes toward women? At the end of her video, Sarkeesian resorts to a logical fallacy I refer to as “phantom studies.” She says, “Studies have found, for example, that after having viewed sexually objectified female bodies, men in particular tend to view women as less intelligent, less competent and disturbingly express less concern for their physical well being or safety.” Phrases like “Studies have found” or “research shows” are tip-offs that somebody is resorting to phantom studies. Which studies? Who were the participants? When was the study conducted? By who? Who evaluated the study’s findings? We don’t know! Her phantom studies provide an air of authority, yet are essentially meaningless. I can say this as somebody with a PhD in mass communication, who has examined the same studies that Sarkeesian has examined, that social science research is highly contextual and contains many caveats. We don’t have time to examine why, but there are a variety of methodological shortcomings of social science research, primarily, researchers don’t have the time, money, or resources to see if the media really does have a long-term effect on the people who view it. A study that provides evidence for a phenomenon in a lab is very different than a study conducted outside the lab. In fairness to Sarkeesian, she does include links on her website to additional resources, many of them studies (or summaries of studies) about the destructive effects of playing video games. However, I still believe the research still has many shortcomings regarding these issues.

Thoughts? Where am I going wrong with my analysis, and where do you agree with Sarkeesian? Leave your respectful comments below so we can continue this discussion!

Game on,
~Dennis