This feature includes content referring to sexual assault.
In the first article in my series on Anita Sarkeesian’s copious failures as a video game critic, I devoted a great deal of space to Sarkeesian’s failures as a self-appointed spokeswoman for feminism and her disingenuous approach to artistic criticism, when her goal is clearly to censor. However, throughout that piece, I merely alluded to more substantial flaws in Sarkeesian’s analysis — flaws that I promised to handle later. In this piece, I will handle both the meta-level question of Sarkeesian’s sourcing, and the issue of her clearly unfair and maliciously uncharitable criticism of video game characters and scenarios, before zeroing in on the implications of Sarkeesian’s gender theory, and the unfalsifiable (and therefore essentially tautological and fallacious) nature of her videos in the third part of the series.
That being said, let’s dive in to the analysis. Be warned, this piece will be at least as dense as the previous one, and similarly lengthy.
III. Sarkeesian’s Sources: Biased, Nontransparent or Nonexistent
Sarkeesian cites very few sources directly in her videos, and so to an unenlightened viewer, it is easy to conclude that she has none. This is, as it turns out, not true. Sarkeesian cites her sources, albeit on her website, providing several links on the same page as the transcripts for her videos, which also include lists of the video games referenced.
Unfortunately, to the discriminating reader, these citations arguably provide more disappointment than their absence. This is because Sarkeesian’s sources all fall, with one exception, into at least one of the following categories:
"1) Sources that are either behind paywalls or otherwise blocked to the average consumer 2) Non-academic “publications” such as op eds, blogs or vlogs, frequently arguing not from data, but from subjective whim 3) Sources clearly slanted to share her point of view, even in the face of questionable authorship 4) Statistical resources that are irrelevant in the absence of proof that they correlate with the trends she is discussing"
The one exception to this rule comes in a single source cited for Part I of Sarkeesian’s “Women as Background Decoration” series (her most heavily sourced video), and that is a news article summarizing a news study by Stanford researchers suggesting that women who feel embodied by sexualized avatars will tend to act in a manner more consistent with being focused on their appearance. The study itself is loaded down with caveats about its methodology (for instance, the fact that only college-age women were used in its sample), and is very cautious about its conclusions even in its final paragraph. Thus, it’s not surprising that Sarkeesian, who likes to deal in often oversimplified certainties, wouldn’t link directly to it.
Nevertheless, this one exception notwithstanding, all of Sarkeesian’s sources fall into one of the above categories. Needless to say, this makes them almost comically insufficient when scrutinized.
Start with the most egregious problem — namely, the fact that all but one of the studies Sarkeesian actually cites is either behind a paywall or has its readership restricted to academics. This needn’t be a problem, as I myself have sometimes used journal articles to bolster my own pieces. However, unlike Sarkeesian, I made sure to quote copiously from the pieces in question and even include screencaps of quotes from them, in order to make sure my research was unimpeachable and as transparent to the reader as possible. Not only does Sarkeesian not include screencaps (which one would think would be easy, given she’s working in a visual medium), but she doesn’t even quote the studies by name, instead saying only this:
"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. Furthermore this perception is not limited only to sexualized women; in what’s called the “Spill Over Effect”, these sexist attitudes carry over to perceptions of all women, as a group, regardless of their attire, activities or professions. Researchers have also found that after long-term exposure to hyper-sexualized images, people of all genders tend to be more tolerant of the sexual harassment of women and more readily accept rape myths, including the belief that sexually assaulted women were asking for it, deserved it or are the ones to blame for being victimized."
Notice that Sarkeesian doesn’t specify which “studies have found” what she claims to be true, or which “researchers have found” it, but simply states these things as if they’re non-controversial, accepted facts, about which a scientific consensus has been formed. She then turns around and almost exclusively cites scholarly sources (when she cites academic publications at all) whose methodology people cannot check without spending their own money to do so. In fact, it would cost over $100 to check even some of Sarkeesian’s scholarly sources, and even then one couldn’t check them all, because one can only be found in a journal whose availability is limited to universities and members of certain specific societies. This is the opposite of transparency in sourcing, and calls the ability of Sarkeesian’s research to stand on its own into question at minimum.
And it should be called into question, because every source Sarkeesian cites that is accessible doesn’t so much back up her arguments as it does repeat them in a slightly different way. In fact, sometimes it doesn’t even repeat them in a different way, but just repeats them, as Sarkeesian even cites her own videos in the “Damsel in Distress, Part 3” and “Ms. Male Character” list of sources. This wouldn’t be a problem if the videos she cites were better sourced, but in the cases where she does cite her own material, the sourcing is just as thin as it is in any of the Tropes vs. Women series of videos, as once again, no scholarly sources or studies are cited at all to back up her claims in either the original video or the one she links to. In fact, here’s the complete list of “sources” Sarkeesian cites for “Damsel in Distress, Part 3”:
"LINKS & RESOURCES For more info on Ironic Sexism: Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work is Done by Susan Douglas “Hipster Sexism”: Just as Bad as Regular Old Sexism, or Worse? By Kelsey Wallace at Bitch Media Retro sexism and über ironic advertising by Feminist Frequency A Complete Guide to ‘Hipster Racism’ by Lindy West For more on gender hacks: NES ROM hacks and discourses on gender anxieties by Rachel Simone Weil Zelda Staring Zelda by Kenna Warsinske Father Hacks Zelda for His Daughter, Makes Link A Girl by Mike Hoye (reported by Kotaku) Why I Hacked Donkey Kong for my Daughter by Mike Mika Sorry Mario Bros by Scott and Casey Goodrow For more on Fat Princess: Shakesville’s Melissa McEwan on Fat Princess Well That Was Bound to Happen by Holly at Feministe Other links: Games with exclusively female heroes don’t sell (because publishers don’t support them) Spelunky and Sexism at How To Not Suck At Game Design PRINCELESS: Save Yourself by Action Lab Entertainment is a smart and witty comic that subverts the traditional damsel narrative and turns the princess into the hero. The comic can be downloaded at their Comixology page."
Notice that there is barely a single headline in this list that doesn’t immediately reveal the author’s own biases as lining up with Sarkeesian’s. And if Sarkeesian were trying to show what feminist criticism of video games amounts to in the modern age, these would be valuable sources, but she’s not. She’s asserting that these articles are reflective of reality, despite the fact that if she listed where her arguments come from explicitly in her videos, almost no one who didn’t already agree with her would take her arguments seriously due to the overwhelming confirmation bias in her sources. Indeed, Sarkeesian gives every appearance in this list of not reading a single argument advanced by defenders of the video game industry. As to why I’m harping on this list specifically? Well, because this is the video with the single longest list of sources that Sarkeesian has put out yet, and thus the most well-researched one. And if you think the confirmation bias is unique to this list, have a look at the “Women as Background Decoration” list:
"LINKS & RESOURCES The Sexy Lie – Caroline Heldman at TEDxYouth@SanDiego The Sexual Objectification Spillover Effect Objectification by Martha Nussbaum How Fantasy Becomes Reality: Seeing Through Media Influence by Karen E. Dill It’s time to leave the brothels and strip clubs behind when real victims fuel your narrative by Ben Kuchera Sexual Priming, Gender Stereotyping, and Likelihood to Sexually Harass: Examining the Cognitive Effects of Playing a Sexually-Explicit Video Game Effects of exposure to sex-stereotyped video game characters on tolerance of sexual harassment Objectification leads to depersonalization: The denial of mind and moral concern to objectified others Sexualized avatars affect the real world, Stanford researchers find The embodiment of sexualized virtual selves: The Proteus effect and experiences of self-objectification via avatars The Afterglow of Construct Accessibility: The Behavioral Consequences of Priming Men to View Women as Sexual Objects Sexism in online video games: The role of conformity to masculine norms and social dominance orientation"
Setting aside the fact that most of these links lead to paywalled articles, is there a single one whose subject matter and bias you can’t immediately predict? It seems to escape Sarkeesian that if you want to persuade non-feminists, you have to be able to argue on their terms and that entails reading their ideas and citing them, even if only as foils. There ‘s no sign, for instance, that Sarkeesian bothered to engage with the critiques of feminist social science or literary theory offered by the likes of Christina Hoff Sommers, or Camille Paglia. That speaks both to a troubling lack of intellectual curiosity, and to a perilously truncated research focus. And just in case you thought her choice of sources couldn’t get more unserious, here’s the “Ms. Male Character” list:
"LINKS & RESOURCES “Q&A: Pac-Man Creator Reflects on 30 Years of Dot-Eating,” WIRED. “Ms. Pac-Man Was Once A Man Named Otto,” Game Informer. Doug Macrae on the history of Crazy Otto and Ms. Pac-Man [VIDEO] Hers; The Smurfette Principle by Katha Pollitt, New York Times. The Smurfette Principle by Nostalgia Chick [VIDEO] Tropes vs Women: The Smurfette Principle by Feminist Frequency Significant Other: Gendered Identifiers in Video Games by How To Not Suck at Game Design “Wired In” unaired TV segment from Media Burn Archive Mega Man 1 – 10 Robot Masters image by BlueFirez88 SuperClaire poster by Heather Sheppard"
Yes, Anita Sarkeesian did just cite the Nostalgia Chick as an academic source. And for those of you who don’t know, the Nostalgia Chick, aka Lindsey Ellis, is a film studies graduate student and contributor to the massive retro pop culture comedy site known as “That Guy With the Glasses” as well as the founder of its more musical/identity politics-focused competitor “Chez Apocalypse.” And while Ellis does make entertaining and occasionally enlightened videos, they’re far from scholarly treatises backed by peer reviewed research. If anything, Ellis is more a pundit and entertainer (albeit a very gifted one) than a scholar, at least in her capacity as the Nostalgia Chick. In other words, Sarkeesian more or less cited the online blogging equivalent of a clip from Rachel Maddow or Bill O’Reilly’s shows. Again, not exactly what you’d expect from a series that is marketed to be educational, ie that sells itself as fundamentally accurate, copiously researched truth-telling, rather than a self-appointed feminist advocate preaching to the choir.
And speaking of dubious research, let’s return to the list from “Women as Background Decoration, Part I.” One thing the reader will notice if they click through the links is that two of them share Karen Dill as an author. If Sarkeesian wanted to convince gamers of her ideas, this might be one of the more egregious examples of tone deafness in her sourcing. Why? Because Dill has a long track record of arguing for censorship of “violent” and “misogynist” media, including not just video games but also rap lyrics, an ax that she has been grinding since the early 2000’s.
Karen Dill, in one of the more ironic photos on her personal blog.
Dill’s profile at Psychology Today even publicly brags about the fact that she co-authored an article that was responsible for the American Psychological Association’s (APA) 2005 statement against violent video games. What she leaves out is that the APA has since appointed a task force to review this statement, with results to come as to whether it’s accurate later this year. Why? Because 228 scholars complained that the statement was backed by faulty research and treated the threat of violent video games as if it was established scientific consensus when, in fact, no such consensus existed. Given that the APA has since published more positive minded literature on the same subject, and that a 10 year, 11,000 subject study has since found no correlation between video game violence and actual violent behavior, it looks as though Dill might not have much to brag about for much longer. Well, except having a car named after her in Grand Theft Auto IV (the “Karin Dilettante”), which was almost certainly intended as backhanded recognition by the game’s developers.
Given the contentious, morally panicky nature of Dill’s advocacy, Sarkeesian might as well have cited Jack Thompson and called it a day, so non-credible would Dill be with gamers. Moreover, even if we stipulate that Dill has done good scholarship in the area, Sarkeesian should have at least cited something about the controversy over video game’s effects on peoples’ behavior in pretty much every arena, as well as some of the contrary evidence, like the aforementioned 11,000 person study (the only study Sarkeesian cites which can be accessed for free, on the other hand, had only 74 subjects). Instead, she treats the question as settled, once more giving an unfair illusion of certainty.
This illusion is necessary, however, given the last category of sources which Sarkeesian uses, ie statistics on real life violence against women intended to make the viewer feel guilty and somehow morally responsible for this violence if they enjoy or play video games that Sarkeesian dubs sexist. As I stated in the previous piece of this analysis, Sarkeesian provides no evidence that any of the real world trends she documents statistically are in any way connected to video game use, or even correlated with it.
In fact, even if one grants that every single one of the studies Sarkeesian cites is reflective of a real statistical trend despite having no way to review most of them, the worst that one comes up with is that video games make people marginally more likely to, say, think of women in a sexual way, or to engage in inappropriate social interactions with women, or to internalize negative attitudes about rape victims. This is a far cry from proving that sexualized content in video games can be held responsible for an increase in rapes, or domestic violence, or any other actual crime and, indeed, it would take a criminology study rather than a social psychology study to prove such a thing. No such evidence exists to this author’s knowledge, because no such direct connection exists, and as such, Sarkeesian’s last set of sources are no more than a cheap rhetorical trick intended to make her audience feel guilty, not to mention fundamentally dishonest.
And speaking of dishonesty…