I. Sarkeesian as Straw Feminist
Sarkeesian’s series of videos is deservedly controversial, not just among gamers, but among feminists as well. It’s worth noting that among the sources for her first video in the series is a chapter on “Objectification” from the feminist philosopher and legal scholar Martha Nussbaum. This chapter opens with a quote from another famous feminist, Andrea Dworkin, and openly admits that the concept of objectification itself originated with Dworkin, as well as another feminist legal scholar, Catharine MacKinnon.
Andrea Dworkin, speaking at a commission on pornography in 1986 (Photo Credit: AP)
To the average person, these names probably sound unfamiliar. But within feminist circles, MacKinnon and Dworkin are legendary for a very simple reason: Both are deeply eloquent exponents of what is generally termed “sex negative feminism.” This particular variant of feminist thought comes primarily from the fights over pornography that were prevalent in the 70’s and 80’s, and which feminists engaged in heavily. How they engaged is the story of politics creating one of the strangest sets of bedfellows in recent history — ie, radical feminists and the Religious Right.
As such, while Dworkin and MacKinnon probably would have differed extremely with famous anti-feminist crusaders like Phyllis Schlafly, when it came to porn, there was precious little daylight between them. Why? Because “sex negative feminism,” as its name implies, originates with the belief that women’s sexuality, especially when it is practiced with men, or even depicted for male pleasure, is necessarily degrading to women. Dworkin herself was particularly firm on this point, even going so far as to write that the only world in which female liberation could take place was one in which all men were rendered sterile in her book Our Blood. She regarded sex as functionally equivalent to violent occupation, writing the following in her book, Intercourse:
"Male power may be arrogant or elegant; it can be churlish or refined: but we exist as persons to the extent that men in power recognize us. When they need some service or want some sensation, they recognize us somewhat, with a sliver of consciousness; and when it is over, we go back to ignominy, anonymous, generic womanhood. Because of their power over us, they are able to strike our hearts dead with contempt or condescension. We need their money; intercourse is frequently how we get it. We need their approval to be able to survive inside our own skins; intercourse is frequently how we get it. They force us to be compliant, turn us into parasites, then hate us for not letting go. Intercourse is frequently how we hold on: f–k me. How to separate the act of intercourse from the social reality of male power is not clear, especially because it is male power that constructs both the meaning and the current practice of intercourse as such. But it is clear that reforms do not change women’s status relative to men, or have not yet. It is clear that reforms do not change the intractability of women’s civil inferiority. Is intercourse itself then a basis of or a key to women’s continuing social and sexual inequality? Intercourse may not cause women’s orgasm or even have much of a correlation with it–indeed, we rarely find intercourse and orgasm in the same place at the same time–but intercourse and women’s inequality are like Siamese twins, always in the same place at the same time pissing in the same pot."
MacKinnon, meanwhile, had a similar opinion of sex, which she treated as isomorphic to rape under conditions of “male dominance” in her 1983 essay “Feminism, Marxism, Method And the State: Toward Feminist Jurisprudence.” While both MacKinnon and Dworkin denied believing that all sex was always rape, instead arguing that it was only rape to the extent that women were put in a subordinate position (MacKinnon herself wrote that “I call it rape whenever a woman has sex and feels violated”), others have been willing to make that leap from the same premises. Moreover, at least when it came to Dworkin, as the more moderate libertarian feminist Cathy Young pointed out:
"In Dworkin’s world view, the Marquis de Sade and Jack the Ripper seem to be representative of all men (though she made an exemption for some men in her own life). Meanwhile, women who defend their right to enjoy heterosexual sex are branded “collaborators, more base than other collaborators have ever been: experiencing pleasure in their own inferiority.” Dworkin’s defenders insist that she has been unfairly maligned as equating all heterosexual sex with rape when she merely assailed male sexual dominance. Yet in her 1987 book, Intercourse, Dworkin argued that penetration itself is a form of “occupation” and “violation of female boundaries,” however enthusiastically enjoyed by “the occupied person.” She wrote that “intercourse remains a means or the means of physiologically making a woman inferior” and is “the pure, sterile, formal expression of men’s contempt for women.” “All sex is rape” is fairly accurate shorthand for these ravings."
Young called Dworkin a “preacher of hate” in the same essay, and bemoaned her fellow travelers for admiring her brand of feminism, and it’s easy to see why. Nor is Young the only feminist to have taken issue with the idea that women who enjoy or exploit their own sexuality are necessarily collaborators with an insidious rape culture that treats them as inferior objects to be acted upon. An entire school of “sex positive” feminism has arisen in reaction against this idea, claiming that women can enjoy sex in whatever they wish and still be empowered, provided they consent, and that displaying the female form, even when done for male pleasure, need not be objectifying or degrading and can, in fact, be empowering if norms that treat “sluttiness” as automatically bad are broken down.
Belle Knox, modern poster child for sex-positive feminism (Photo Credit: AP)
Proponents of this worldview include Wendy McElroy and Gayle Rubin, as well as actual adult film performers such as Nina Hartley or, more recently, the Duke porn star Belle Knox (full disclosure: Knox is a personal friend of the author). This is also the school of thought within feminism that seems to be catching on most with mainstream audiences, as evidenced by Beyonce’s risque performance of her hit song “Flawless” against a giant flashing white sign that reads “Feminist.” (Skip to 11:52 in the video below to see it)
Which brings us, at last, to Sarkeesian herself. Let’s not mince words: Sarkeesian fits far more into the Dworkin and MacKinnon mold of sex negative feminism than she does into the McElroy/Rubin/Hartley/Knox tradition of sex positive feminism. While I don’t think Sarkeesian shares Dworkin and MacKinnon’s more extreme views on sex, the extent to which she clearly believes that female characters being put in sexually suggestive outfits is an attack on women’s agency, to say nothing of the loathing she holds for depictions of the sex industry in games, mark her as more sex negative than not.
Moreover, Sarkeesian clearly relies on sex negative feminist theory to act as the groundwork for her arguments, as one can see from even a cursory reading of the lists of sources she uses (more about this when we get to Sarkeesian’s sourcing generally). Sarkeesian even explicitly cites the Cartesian subject/object dichotomy in explaining why “damseled” characters are objectified. And while this particular application of Descartes’ philosophy has become mainstream in feminist discourse, again, one of her own sources admits that concern with objectification has its roots with Dworkin and MacKinnon. In fact, compare this quote from MacKinnon’s Toward a Feminist Theory of the State:
"Objectivity is the methodological stance of which objectification is the social process. Sexual objectification is the primary process of the subjection of women. It unites act with word, construction with expression, perception with enforcement, myth with reality. Man f–ks woman; subject verb object."
With Sarkeesian’s description of the damsel trope:
"So the damsel trope typically makes men the “subject” of the narratives while relegating women to the “object”. This is a form of objectification because as objects, damsel’ed women are being acted upon, most often becoming or reduced to a prize to be won, a treasure to be found or a goal to be achieved. The brief intro sequence accompanying many classic arcade games tends to reinforce the framing of women as a possession that’s been stolen from the protagonist."
It should be noted that other online feminists, both sex positive and not, have noticed Sarkeesian’s implicit biases, and disavowed her for them:
To be clear, Sarkeesian is entitled to hold whatever opinions she likes (even though many of them can veer close to being maliciously wrong, as we’ll get into later), but at the point where she has become an avatar for feminist video game criticism, the fact that she only represents one, very extreme side of the feminist movement is relevant and potentially dangerous not just for video games, but for feminism itself. Not all of Sarkeesian’s critics are misogynist trolls, after all, and some might even be potentially receptive to a small-l liberal version of feminism, rather than the radical and puritanical version that Sarkeesian represents.
What is more, many feminist voices may be ignored or marginalized by the fact of Sarkeesian’s existence, if they don’t fall into the same Dworkinite mold that she does. Just because Sarkeesian generates headlines, in short, that doesn’t make her the best or most thoughtful representative of feminism available, nor does it mean she’s representative of all feminists. In fact, given her other flaws, it actually makes her into a perfect straw man for antifeminists to use to dismiss any and all feminist concerns or critiques surrounding video gaming. As to why she’s such a straw feminist? Read on.