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

Everything I Read, Watched, or Played to Completion in 2013

A few years ago I started keeping track of my media consumption. I’m not sure why, but considering I research mass media, it only seemed natural that I should look upon my own media consumption habits.

How I keep track of my media has fluctuated over the years, but currently, I track every non-fiction and fiction book I read to completion, every graphic novel and comic book I read, every television season I finish, every movie I watch, and every video game I complete.

The list, though, is not perfect. I don’t keep track of television that I just watch here and there; only series that I intentionally watch from start to finish. So even though my list doesn’t include The Big Bang Theory, for instance, I doubtlessly watched many seasons this year on rerun.

I keep track of every video game I play from start to finish, but some games are never finished (and some can’t be finished, like Minecraft). I also don’t keep track of the time I spend watching other people play games, like my roommates.

While I keep track of the graphic novels and individual comic books I read, I don’t keep track of the web comics I read regularly (like Penny Arcade, the Trenches, and Camp Weedontwantcha).

And let’s not even get started on calculating how much time I spend on the computer and the Internet, whether for work, school, or pleasure.

The Completion List of 2013

  • Nonfiction books: 13
  • Textbooks: 2
  • Graphic Novels: 3
  • Comic Books: 6
  • Video Games: 29
  • TV Seasons: 24
  • Movies: 42
  • Total Media: 119

Interestingly, I completed no fiction books last year. In previous years, I read a lot more fiction AND non-fiction (in 2012 I read 7 fiction and 37 non-fiction; in 2011 I read 14 fiction and 29 non-fiction).

The six individual comic books comes from Free Comic Book Day.

I really stepped up my game playing this year. I replayed a lot of classic games, like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Donkey Kong 64, Star Fox 64, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, and Donkey Kong Country.

Last year I only completed 12 video games.

The Best and Worst of 2013

When it comes to television, I find a few shows that work and stick with them. I watched four seasons of X-Files, which I’ve never seen before. It’s a pretty good show, though a little long at times (I’m not even halfway through yet).

Avatar: The Last Airbender is easily my favorite show ever: I watched that series twice in 2013 (I’ve probably watched it 6 times total). I also watched the sequel, the Legend of Korra, seasons 1 and 2.

Cowboy Bebop is also on perpetual rotation; I usually watch it every summer at least, though I’m itching to watch it again. Bebop used to be my favorite show until Airbender topped it.

Notable video games include: Ocarina of Time, Tomb Raider (2013), The Walking Dead, Final Fantasy XIII (third playthrough), Portal 1 and 2, and Kingdom Hearts II.

I usually don’t play bad video games, but there were some games I never finished. Perfect Dark for the Nintendo 64 is one. I liked it as a kid but never completed it (I always got stuck on one particular boss toward the end). I tried playing it again, thinking I could finish it as an adult. I got halfway through and just got bored.

I’m a huge Final Fantasy fan and decided to replay FFXII for the PS2. I remember thinking the game was decent when it came out, and enough time had passed that I forgot the details of the story. I got about 20 hours into that game before calling it quiets. The story, cutscenes, dialogue, and characters are just so bad that I couldn’t stand it (and I’m not talking about the graphics, either; aged graphics from the PS2 era don’t bother me the way they bother some people).

Now that I think of it, I tried replaying Final Fantasy X-2 last summer but only got about 10 hours in.

When it comes to movies, it seems like I mostly watched bad movies or so-so movies last year. Movies I could do without seeing again: Star Trek: Generations, Watchmen, Quantum of Solace, Django Unchained, Jackie Brown, Fargo, Hellraiser, Hot Rod, and The Sword in the Stone.

Conclusions

I’m not sure what I accomplish by keeping track of my media consumption. Like I said in the beginning, the list isn’t perfect and leaves out a lot. And I have no idea how my consumption relates to others’ consumption. Watching 42 movies in the year seems like a lot, but that’s less than one a week. Watching 24 television seasons also seems like a lot, but then again, shows count seasons differently: they can range anywhere from 6-26 episodes depending on the show (and most of the shows I watch are half hour in nature, not an hour like live-action dramas).

I just find it interesting to keep track of this stuff. Looking over this list, I don’t have any goals or “improvements” to make in 2014, except maybe watch fewer bad movies.

~Dennis

Critique of Anita Sarkeesian’s “Ms. Male” Video about Problematic Female Characters in Video Games

Anita Sarkeesian, the feminist media critic behind Feminist Frequency, has posted a new video analyzing the state of women characters in video games. Her previous three-part video series examined the Damsel in Distress trope. The series received widespread criticism from gamers, though gaming publications at least linked to the videos with a tepid description along the lines of, “She has some good points: please be responsible in the comments section!”

Sarkeesian does not allow comments on the videos themselves or the associated blog posts, which is frustrating, as debate regarding her videos gets spread across myriad websites. She has experienced incredible amounts of sexual harassment, so I understand why she doesn’t allow comments.

(Anita, if you’re reading this, perhaps find a group of your loyal Kickstarter fans to help administer comments. You might be surprised how many people you’ll find who are willing to delete all the garbage comments, leaving the legitimate comments public of people who want to discuss these issues with you further.)

Her latest video analyzes what she calls the “Ms. Male” character trope, the phenomenon of female “clones” being made of male video game heroes. Before we get to my analysis, watch her video below. It’s a longie, but a goodie.

Her forest-level observations are accurate, but sometimes her details are overblown

So let’s start with the obvious. Yes, many times female characters, especially in the early days of video gaming, were simply “clones” of male characters. The characters often have virtually the same abilities, and often use the same character model, but small superficial markers are added: lipstick, the color pink, eyelashes, etc. She is right about this, and it is a problem. But I take issue with her characterization of some “Ms. Male” characters.

Let’s start with Ms. Pac-Man, the character she spends considerable time analyzing in the beginning of the video. Ms. Pac-Man does indeed use the same character model as Pac-Man, but with added lipstick, bow, eyelashes, and beauty mark. Sarkeesian seems deeply offended, though, about how Pac-Man was originally created. Here’s a quotation from her video:

Incidentally Toru Iwatani, the creator of Pac-Man, has stated in numerous interviews that the game was designed to appeal to women because, and I’m not kidding about this, he said, “When you think about things women like, you think about fashion, or fortune-telling, or food or dating boyfriends. So I decided to theme the game around “eating” — after eating dinner, women like to have dessert.”

Luckily Iwatani’s regressive personal or cultural notions about women are not reflected in the finished game itself. Pac-Man went on to became an international sensation and remains one the most recognizable pop culture icons today – but probably not because women are genetically predisposed to “like eating desserts” more than humans of other genders.

The original creator did, indeed, create Pac-Man to appeal to women. Knowing a fair bit about Pac-Man history, though, I offer an alternative explanation of why Pac-Man is focused on eating:

At the time Pac-Man was released, almost all of the arcade games were focused on shooting, violence, and war. Games like Defender, Asteroids, Missile Command, and Space Invaders were immensely popular, but were also very violent (for the time). While many girls did play arcade games, many were also turned off because of the violent nature of these games.

Iwatani, then, wanted to create a game that accomplished two things: it did not involve violence (or very little: eating the ghosts could be seen as violent, though they never actually “die”), and he wanted a game that could appeal to both men and women. So yes, he did focus it on eating because women like eating. I wouldn’t consider this a “regressive” notion about women, though. Rather, a realistic response to market conditions.

Anita Sarkeesian

Feminist scholars make a big deal about the differences between the “social construction” of gender and biological notions of “sex.” In fact, many feminists see differences in males and females as almost entirely socially constructed: it’s a key part of feminist theory.

The average public, though, doesn’t necessarily know, nor care, about the differences between social construction and biology when it comes to gender and sex. People eventually figure out that there are differences between men and women: whether those differences come about through biology or society makes little difference to them.

Iwatani, then, simply looked at the culture and saw that women are often connected with food. Is it any surprise? Women are often the head cook and baker in the household. Television cooking shows on Food Network and the like are often dominated by women–and watched by women. Cooking magazines are primarily targeted at women. Against Sarkeesian’s contention, I don’t think Iwantani ever considered whether women were “genetically predisposed” to like desserts–but it is a part of our culture.

And luckily for him, he was right about the game’s appeal to women (the cute characters are also considered another factor in Pac-Man’s cross-sectional appeal). Many girls did play the game, and Pac-Man holds the record for most popular arcade game ever, a record unlikely to be broken considering the demise of arcades in the late 1990s.

Surprisingly, little has changed today in regard to “eating” games. Consider the extremely popular game “Candy Crush Saga,” a puzzle game on Facebook where the game pieces are made of candy. I’ve known many women–from women my age to women my mom’s age–who do not consider themselves gamers, or who have rarely played video games before, who are huge Candy Crush Saga fans. Of course, men play the game, too, but consider this informal survey of my own Facebook account: when I look at the number of my friends who play CCS, 17 are male and 29 are female. And the only players who’ve ever invited me to play the game are women.

Just out of curiosity, when you’re done reading this post, go to Facebook and search “Candy Crush Saga.” You don’t have to sign up for the game: just look over the list of your friends who play the game. Leave a comment on this post on the number of women who play the game verses men. I’m curious how representative my friend mix is.

The small details can always be criticized

One problem with qualitative research, which Sarkeesian is conducting, is that identifying trends and general patterns is one thing. But these trends need to be backed up with specific examples to make one’s point. These specific examples can always be torn apart and viewed another way, as I just did with Ms. Pac-Man. We could go point by point through Sarkeesian’s analysis and find counter explanations for all her arguments. The question each reader needs to ask themselves, though, is: does the weight of evidence point you in support of Sarkeesian’s critique of video games, even though all of her individual points are up for criticism?

For me, the weight of evidence makes me support Sarkeesian’s general analysis about the “problematic” (one of her favorite buzzwords) role of women in games. I do not, however, view the problem as widespread as her.

Here are a few more quibbles I have with this video:

About halfway through her video, Sarkeesian decides to show the extent of the “Ms. Male” character problem by referencing the “oldest” Ms. Male character, Eve from “Adam and Eve” fame:

One very old and notable example of the Ms. Male Character trope comes to mind. As the story goes, God made Adam in his own image and then later took a rib from Adam’s side and fashioned a woman out of it to be his wife and companion. This Adam and Eve version of the creation myth reinforces a subordinate view of women — man is cast as the original concept and source code for woman who is derived from his body. Essentially Eve is the sequel to Adam, just as Ms. Pac-Man was built from the body of Pac-Man who came before her.

This is, of course, one reading of the Adam and Eve story, but there are dozens of major interpretations of this story. Sarkeesian doesn’t seem to be a theologian (nor is she claiming to be one), and I think she’s stepping far outside her expertise with this criticism. Applying modern models of morality to ancient texts, without understanding the socio-cultural climate that produced those texts, is sloppy and unfair. This post isn’t the place to examine creation theology, but I’ll share this one quotation from Matthew Henry, who sees Eve’s creation as an affirmation of her equality with Adam, which I believe is true:

Eve was not taken out of Adam’s head to top him, neither out of his feet to be trampled on by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected by him, and near his heart to be loved by him.

Anita Sarkeesian and Dixie Kong

Anita has another small criticism of Dixie Kong, who’s actually my favorite female video game character. She states:

Dixie Kong is the feminine variant and love interest of Diddy Kong. Note the ponytail and hair ringlets, pink shirt, pink hat, earrings, and eyelashes all to distinguish her from her predecessor. Essentially Ms. Male Characters are feminized imitations or derivative copies of already established male characters. They exist only because of, and in relationship to, their male counterparts.

Ms. Male Characters typically aren’t given their own distinctive identities and are prevented from being fully realized characters who exist on their own terms. This has the, perhaps unintended, effect of devaluing these characters and often relegating them to a subordinate or secondary status inside their respective media franchises, even when they are, on rare occasions, given a starring role in a spin-off or sequel.

Sarkeesian says herself in another video that there’s nothing wrong with wearing pink (she says this in a video in which she wears bright pink). So why the excessive criticism of characters who look like girls? Yes, Dixie Kong has a ponytail, eyelashes, earrings, and wears pink, but Sarkeesian also wears a ponytail, has earrings, wearings make-up and pink clothes. I know she hates people referencing her personal appearance: she wants to be criticized based on her ideas, not her looks. That’s all well and fine, but you’ve got to play fairly. Criticize Dixie Kong for her character, not her appearance.

Dixie Kong first appears in Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest (SNES: 1995). Dixie at first does appear to be a “Ms. Male” character. Her character is light and quick, just like Diddy (Donkey Kong, conversely, is heavy and slow, but more powerful). Donkey Kong doesn’t appear in the game, though: he’s been “damseled” and must be rescued by Diddy and Dixie. Dixie Kong, though, is superior to Diddy in her playability. Her “hair helicopter” move is far more useful than Diddy Kong’s cartwheel, and I play as Dixie whenever I can.

In Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble! (SNES: 1996) Dixie Kong is now the star, as both Donkey and Diddy have been “damseled.” The clip Sarkeesian chooses to show of Dixie is from the upcoming game, Donkey Kong Country Returns: Tropical Freeze. Dixie does indeed ride on Donkey Kong’s back, but not because she’s a women and subservient to Donkey: Diddy also rides on Donkey Kong’s back in DKC Returns. That’s just how the developers decided to pair the monkeys this time around: instead of one following the other, Donkey is the main character, the other monkey is a sidekick (perhaps rightfully so, as DKC2 and 3 were named for Donkey Kong, yet he wasn’t a playable character at all).

Sarkeesian’s broad analysis of gender is itself shortsighted: Areas that Sarkeesian has yet to address sufficiently

Sarkeesian brings up many good points about the role of women in video games. Her current video is mostly right, and her previous three videos on Damsels in Distress are also mostly right. Even though her analysis seems comprehensive (roughly 100 minutes for all four videos), she fails to acknowledge many counter-arguments. Here are my four biggest problems with Sarkeesian’s brand of feminism:

  1. The goalposts are always moving. This summer she criticized Damsels in Distress. Now she’s criticizing Ms. Male characters. Her next video will likely criticize sexualized female characters: she’s certainly criticized women like Lara Croft before. The narrative has already written itself for what remains to be criticized: Over-representations of white female characters. Lack of diversity in body types. Lack of diversity in sexual and gender identities. The list goes on. On the surface, it seems that Sarkeesian would be pleased if more lesbian and bisexual women were represented in games, but what if a game featured a straight, lesbian, and bisexual woman? The next criticism is likely, “Gender and sexual identity does not fit neatly into three distinct categories. Gender identity is a multifaceted rainbow with dozens of possible permutations.” To be completely inclusive, do video games need to give players characters with three or four different gender identities and sexual orientations, three or four or five or six different races, three or four or five different body types for women, ranging from skinny to obese, and three or four or five different ages of women (why are almost all female characters teens or young adults? Ageism!) There’s no way any one media product can satisfy all permutations of women. Which leads to my next criticism:
  2. Developers make games in isolation, not as part of a collective action. What do I mean by this? Well, developers are each going to make their own game, and include their own representations of women. Sarkeesian says pink is okay sometimes. Is it also okay if a woman has prominent sexual assets sometimes? Probably. Is it also okay if a woman is white? Probably. Okay then. Who decides, then, which developer is allowed to make a female character who happens wears pink and earrings, and which developer is allowed to make a female character who happens to be moderately unattractive? Nobody. Developers do not get together and decide what ratio of different female characters they will create for this year’s games in an effort to be equitable. So it seems unfair to criticize the collective state of women in games, considering that female characters in games likely came about through individual decisions that just happened to result in patterns.
  3. What about men? Sarkeesian’s stated mission is to “explore the representations of women in pop culture narratives. Her work focuses on deconstructing the stereotypes and tropes associated with women in popular culture as well as highlighting issues surrounding the targeted harassment of women in online and gaming spaces.” Analyzing women is great, but talk to any man, and I am sure he can all think of problematic ways men are stereotyped in pop culture as well. When feminism focuses solely on the dire straits of women to the exclusion of men, it give a false impression that only women are systematically oppressed and that men are 100% privileged: men have nothing to be concerned about. Certainly that isn’t true.
  4. What about the positive? Sarkeesian’s criticism is almost entirely negative. She vaguely hints at strong female characters from time to time, but this is rare. In this Ms. Male video, she references a strong female character “Claire” from the indie game Thomas Was Alone. Indie games are making some strides in opening up characterization in video games. However, is a blue faceless square really the best example of a strong female character?

Thoughts? Where am I going wrong with my analysis? Feel free to leave your comments below!

Game on,
~Dennis