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

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