This past week, controversial feminist video game critic Anita Sarkeesian released her most recent video, “Women as Background Decoration: Part 2.”
In the video, Sarkeesian criticizes the tendency in some video games to treat the abuse/objectification of women as a plot element or trope designed to show that the game is “edgy” while also having an incidental titillating effect for male players. The video opens with a montage of clips from games both current and retro, including the by-this-point iconic pixellated strippers from Duke Nukem, as well as a clip from the “Dragon Age” series in which a character says to “grab a whore and have a good time.”
The response from certain corners of the gaming community was absolutely apopleptic. So much so, in fact, that Sarkeesian has needed to enter police protection after the deluge of murder and rape threats she’s received. Before I proceed with this analysis, let me make one thing clear: The people sending these threats to Sarkeesian are directing their anger in quite possibly the least productive, most immoral way possible. Threatening a real, flesh and blood person’s life, however motivated by anger it is, is never a laughing matter, and threatening someone’s life because they have a differing opinion of a piece of art is pathetic. Moreover, whether this threat occurs in a fanfic that involves the murder of a game developer, or in an intentionally inflammatory email designed to get publicity for a particular vlogger, it should be called out and shamed no matter the person responsible.
What is more, to the extent that these people believe Sarkeesian is a threat to their way of life, their behavior is tactically stupid as well as morally foul, as a simple Googling of “The Streisand Effect” could easily prove. Further, those who have tried to attack Sarkeesian’s personal life as some sort of substitute for engaging with her points are not only making themselves look childish and petty; they are also committing a classic ad hominem logical fallacy. Even if Sarkeesian was secretly a serial killer who spent her nights casually raping and murdering other women while simultaneously claiming such behavior was abhorrent when shown in games, the fact of her being such a monster would have nothing to do with whether her argument was true. Pol Pot probably believed that breathing oxygen was necessary to survive. This doesn’t mean we should hold our breath to avoid being like Pol Pot. Even the most morally questionable person is capable of making an accurate argument.
I speak not merely as someone with an interest in civil discourse, but as someone who shares the concerns of many gamers that Sarkeesian is a negative influence on the industry, the art form it produces, and the community that has grown up around it. What is more, I find it deeply distressing that Sarkeesian’s ideas have been able to escape serious criticism simply by virtue of the noise caused by her more distasteful critics, who have made it easy to strawman anyone who disagrees with Sarkeesian as a closet misogynist. Sarkeesian’s videos should have opened a wider discussion about feminism (and femininity, for that matter), as well as the role artistic criticism should play relative to art itself.
Instead, what they have created is a world where Sarkeesian’s foils are treated as guilty until proven innocent, and where criticism of Sarkeesian from the right, or even from another school of feminism, is treated as sanctioning hate. Sarkeesian’s desire to call out her own critics, while understandable, has not helped in this regard. I fully expect to get hate mail and angry tweets for writing this article. I have no intention of re-publishing these responses if they arise. Such people don’t deserve to get air time from me, and besides, internet tough guys (and tough gals) are a dime a dozen, and exist on all sides of pretty much every contentious debate.
Having gotten these disclaimers out of the way, let’s get to the real thrust of this post. While Sarkeesian is within her rights to engage in amateur criticism of video games from a feminist perspective, her elevation to the post of feminist-video-game-critic-in-chief is one of the worst developments in recent gaming history. There are several primary things wrong with Sarkeesian as a thinker:
Firstly, she presents feminism as a monolith, with herself as spokesperson, intentionally eliding debates within the ideology.
Secondly, she claims to only be a critic, but behaves as a would-be censor.
Thirdly, her research suffers from non-transparency, clear confirmation bias, and an underreliance on actual scholarship.
Fourthly, her attempts to criticize games on their own terms are often either inaccurate or unreasonably uncharitable, and can suffer from clear double standards.
Fifthly, she structures her arguments so as to make them unfalsifiable.
Sixthly, her theory of gender relations is unrealistically antagonistic and designed to promote rancor between men and women.
In this piece, I will only address the first two, as there is simply too much to say against Sarkeesian’s videos to fit all of it in a single article. Fair warning: This piece is lengthy, and I will be quoting not just from Sarkeesian herself, but from other sources that illustrate the problems in her reasoning. Moreover, while I will not attempt to dispute all of her cited examples of video game sexism for the sake of length, I will use what I see as the more obviously misrepresented ones to prove my points. To the extent that I focus on Sarkeesian’s corpus, this first part in a longer series will focus primarily on Sarkeesian’s “Damsel in Distress” series.