Sarkeesian vs Truth, Part I: Self-Appointed Straw Feminist and Trojan Horse for Censorship

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II. Sarkeesian the Censor

Perhaps the most revealing quote in Sarkeesian’s “Tropes vs Women” series comes in the second episode of the “Damsel in Distress” series. Discussing games where a female character who has previously been captured begs for death rather than accept a fate where she becomes a monster (or as Sarkeesian describes it, the “Euthanized Damsel” trope), Sarkeesian dismisses the idea of looking at context altogether:

"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."

This is the last thing a critic of any art form, especially one that relies so heavily on narrative, should say. Imagine if, say, legendary Shakespeare critic Harold Bloom dismissed the play Othello as sexist because it ended with the death of a woman, and when challenged with the fact that said death is meant to be tragic and render the hero permanently irredeemable, responded, “It doesn’t matter what the internal logic of the play does. Theater doesn’t exist in a vacuum. This play ends with a woman being murdered, therefore it’s a sexist play.”

Would anyone think this is a persuasive reason never to stage Othello, or to treat it as anything less than a literary masterwork, as with almost all of Shakespeare’s plays? Obviously not. When analyzing a story, one has to actually read the story and understand its nuances in order to pass judgment on it. Which is precisely what Sarkeesian refuses to do when she treats any and all games that include violence against women as a plot device as equally noxious. There have been people throughout history who have analyzed works of art by looking for offensive isolated plot elements in this way, but they haven’t been called critics. They’ve been called censors. Consider this section from the 1930 Hays Code, one of the more famous documents used as a guideline for censoring films:

"3. Seduction or Rape   a. They should never be more than suggested, and only when essential for the plot, and even then never shown by explicit method.   b. They are never the proper subject for comedy."

If this sounds like the sort of categorical statements that you’d be likely to find in one of Sarkeesian’s videos, they should. And indeed, Sarkeesian’s brand of criticism has more in common with the Hays Code than it does with art, literature, music or film criticism. Why? Because Sarkeesian never attempts to justify her criticism of video game tropes on the grounds that they lead to bad games, or poorly told stories, but rather with the utilitarian argument that these tropes damage society too much for any story, no matter how well told, to include them. Compare this section of the Hays Code:

"Art can be morally evil it its effects. This is the case clearly enough with unclean art, indecent books, suggestive drama. The effect on the lives of men and women are obvious. Note: It has often been argued that art itself is unmoral, neither good nor bad. This is true of the THING which is music, painting, poetry, etc. But the THING is the PRODUCT of some person’s mind, and the intention of that mind was either good or bad morally when it produced the thing. Besides, the thing has its EFFECT upon those who come into contact with it. In both these ways, that is, as a product of a mind and as the cause of definite effects, it has a deep moral significance and unmistakable moral quality. Hence: The motion pictures, which are the most popular of modern arts for the masses, have their moral quality from the intention of the minds which produce them and from their effects on the moral lives and reactions of their audiences. This gives them a most important morality. 1. They reproduce the morality of the men who use the pictures as a medium for the expression of their ideas and ideals. 2. They affect the moral standards of those who, through the screen, take in these ideas and ideals. In the case of motion pictures, the effect may be particularly emphasized because no art has so quick and so widespread an appeal to the masses. It has become in an incredibly short period the art of the multitudes."

With almost any quote from Sarkeesian on the perniciousness of the tropes she criticizes. Take this one from “Damsel in Distress” part I (emphasis mine):

"The pattern of presenting women as fundamentally weak, ineffective or entirely incapable also has larger ramifications beyond the characters themselves and the specific games they inhabit. We have to remember that these games do not exist in a vacuum, they are an increasingly important and influential part of our larger social and cultural ecosystem. The reality is that this trope is being used in a real-world context where backwards sexist attitudes are already rampant. It’s a  sad fact that a large percentage of the world’s population still clings to the deeply sexist belief that women as a group need to be sheltered, protected and taken care of by men. The belief that women are somehow a “naturally weaker gender” is a deeply ingrained socially constructed myth, which of course is completely false- but the notion is reinforced and perpetuated when women are continuously portrayed as frail, fragile, and vulnerable creatures. Just to be clear, I am not saying that all games using the damsel in distress as a plot device are automatically sexist or have no value. But it’s undeniable that popular culture is a powerful influence in or lives and the Damsel in Distress trope as a recurring trend does help to normalize extremely toxic, patronizing and paternalistic attitudes about women."

Note the language of ironclad certainty in both quotes. The Hays Code treats the morally degenerative effects of certain plot elements as “obvious,” treats art as “the cause of definite effects” and states with certainty that films “affect the moral standards of those who, through the screen, take in these ideas and ideals.” Sarkeesian, too, denies that games “exist in a vacuum,” and asserts that pop culture’s (read: pop art’s) reinforcing effects on sexist myths are “undeniable.”

Too abstract? Try this Sarkeesian quote from “Damsel in Distress” part 2:

"It’s especially troubling in-light of the serious real life epidemic of violence against women facing the female population on this planet. Every 9 seconds a woman is assaulted or beaten in the United States and on average more than three women are murdered by their boyfriends husbands, or ex-partners every single day. Research consistently shows that people of all genders tend to buy into the myth that women are the ones to blame for the violence men perpetrate against them. In the same vein, abusive men consistently state that their female targets “deserved it”, “wanted it” or were “asking for it”, Given the reality of that larger cultural context, it should go without saying that it’s dangerously irresponsible to be creating games in which players are encouraged and even required to perform violence against women in order to “save them”."

Yes, you read that right. Sarkeesian literally just argued that it “should go without saying” that video games could be partially responsible for actual cases of domestic violence. If that isn’t an argument that censorship is necessary to prevent people from getting the wrong message argument, I don’t know what is.

Now, it’s a sad fact that sometimes, self-censorship by an industry (as in the case of the Hays Code) can be necessary both in a personal and in a

Eat your heart out, Inglourious Basterds.

commercial/artistic context. We rightly recoil from films like “Birth of a Nation” and “Triumph of the Will,” which can be clearly said to have contributed to the perpetuation of racism in America in one case, and the rise of Adolf Hitler in the other. However, there is no equivalent to these films in video game lore, either in content or in stylistic elegance (“Custer’s Revenge” comes close, content-wise, though its poor execution has rendered it a punchline rather than a source of shame). In fact, the first first person shooter, Wolfenstein 3D, placed the player in the role of a Nazi hunter, arguably one of the most socially responsible occupations available. By Sarkeesian’s logic, therefore, “Wolfenstein” should be considered a pro-semitic masterwork at least.

Flattering though this might be to Id Software, I don’t think any gamer would buy it as an argument. This is because as game enthusiasts, we are used to people drawing spurious conclusions about the messages or effects of our beloved art form. The now-disbarred lawyer Jack Thompson practically made a career of claiming video games directly encouraged violence in the early 2000’s, and to this day supposed “scholars” like Brad Bushman publish misleading studies with faulty methodology purporting to show a similar connection. And if this connection could be solidly established, then there might be a case for the ESRB adopting its own version of the Hays Code, even if the First Amendment correctly shields video games from government regulation. But it never has been. In fact, it has been pretty clearly shown to be bunk.

Jack Thompson, infamous anti-video game crusader. (Photo Credit: AP)

That being said, at least Thompson et al tried to use actual evidence to build a data-driven case to support their attempts to censor video games. This is more than Sarkeesian does in her entire Damsel in Distress series, despite treating the connection between real world violence against women and violence in video games as so well-established as to “go without saying.” Never mind that she never supplies any source to substantiate this supposedly obvious connection, or any of the others she makes throughout the series, nor does she show that video game use and domestic violence are correlated in any way at all. This despite the fact that it would probably be very easy to establish such a connection in international markets at minimum, given the existence of actual rape simulators published in Japan. And yet Sarkeesian cannot point to a single one.

So why connect the two? Because in the absence of evidence of real world harms, all of Sarkeesian’s censorious arguments lose any compulsion on her audience. Art has never been required to cater to the whims of this or that ideological group simply by virtue of aesthetic disapproval, and nor should it. As Bill Sampson says in the 1950’s classic All About Eve, “Theater’s for everyone, you included, but not exclusively. So don’t approve or disapprove. It may not be your theater. But it’s theater for somebody, somewhere.”

If Sarkeesian wanted to argue that the usage of violence against women, or of damsels in distress, were narrative crutches that made games have weaker stories, or that homogenized the art form to the point where originality was impossible, she could have made either of these potentially quite compelling arguments, but that would have required her to act as a critic, and judge the medium on its own terms, rather than by the rigid standards of sex negative feminism.

Before I close this first piece of the analysis, I must end on a personal note. A few years ago I was asked to do a review of Bioshock Infinite for, a site owned by one of the more prominent video game critics, Glenn Beck. Specifically, I was asked to do the kind of ideologically motivated analysis that Sarkeesian herself does — to analyze whether the game was anti-conservative or anti-American. Had I been as uncharitable as she was, it would have been very easy to look at many story elements within the game (for instance, the fact that the player is required, for their own survival, to shoot at giant, mechanized statues of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln) and, on the basis of facile, surface-level analysis, conclude that it was.

The mechanized patriots from Bioshock Infinite.

Instead, I decided to take the story on its own terms, and understand it within the context of the time period it attempted to depict, and the larger critique of American exceptionalism that it presented through the usage of symbolism associated with (among other things) the Chicago World’s Fair. Understood in this context, the game had nothing to say against or for contemporary American conservatism, but was instead an allegorical warning against jingoism and racism generally, as well as a meditation on determinism and free will.

To this day, I believe that this exercise of charity in the service of better criticism is why my review was so well-received not just among conservatives, but among gamers themselves — because in bringing conservative ideology to bear upon Bioshock Infinite as a tool of analysis, rather than a cudgel to be used for condemnation, I enriched both groups’ understanding of the game. If Anita Sarkeesian had used feminist discourse to do the same, this article might be applauding her.

Instead, as I will show even more extensively in the forthcoming Part II, she has used her ideology in pursuit not of understanding, but simply of power over the stories that an emerging medium can tell, and of coercion and shame against that medium’s fans. It is for this reason that, while Sarkeesian rightly earns our sympathy as a person when she is targeted for unjustified harassment and cruelty, her ideology and application of it ultimately remains a danger to art and video gaming generally, and must be condemned and rebutted at every turn.

The views expressed in this article explicitly belong to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of, nor should be attributed to, GameSided as an organization.