IV. Sarkeesian’s Inconsistent and Unfair Approach to Gaming Criticism
“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.”
-Anton Ego, Ratatouille
As I have implied in the previous section of this series, Sarkeesian is almost pathologically uncharitable as a critic. This need not be a flaw. Uncharitable critics are often capable of searching out flaws in art and its iterations that fans of that art form would prefer to ignore, and of making piercing observations that demand an answer. Moreover, anyone even passingly familiar with the work of Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw or of Noah “Spoony” Antwiler will recognize that not only can uncharitable criticism be artistically valuable, but it can also be supremely entertaining when done with the right self-awareness and flair.
Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw (File Photo)
Antwiler especially could practically teach a master class in unsparing criticism, given the ironic hashtag #spoonyhateseverything that seems to dog him on his Twitter feed. And speaking of, he recently penned a scathing series of Tweets about unrealistically sexy outfits in the “Resident Evil” series pointing out, as any good gaming critic should, that these outfits are frequently barriers both to immersiveness and to taking the game’s story and characters seriously, and thus barriers to making good games. I say “As any good gaming critic should” because in contrast with Antwiler’s critique, neither immersiveness nor story feature at all in Sarkeesian’s work, further bolstering my earlier argument that she is not actually a gaming critic, but rather a would-be game censor.
Noah Antwiler, aka “the Spoony One,” in a rare moment of joy (File photo)
However, if uncharitable criticism has its advantages, it also has its responsibilities and pitfalls, and one of those is that the fans of art to which one is being uncharitable will necessarily respond with anger and search for any evidence they can find that a critic is being deliberately unfair or ignoring evidence. As such, uncharitable writers and vloggers face a special burden to be conscientious in assessing all angles on art, and to apply a consistent set of standards to the material they analyze, or risk being branded as trolls.
It is in this latter requirement that Sarkeesian copiously fails on both counts. Her critiques are often plagued with inaccuracies, elide contrary evidence almost maliciously, or simply defy being held to the standards of consistency, even in areas where feminist discourse is silent.
As an example of the first problem, take Sarkeesian’s comments on Dixie Kong in the “Ms. Male Character” video:
"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."
As any Donkey Kong fan could tell you, this is an insultingly incomplete and malicious portrayal of Dixie Kong — about as incomplete and malicious as, for instance, describing Viola in Twelfth Night as merely a “female copy of Sebastian.” Sarkeesian appears to have done nothing more than look at two pictures of Dixie and Diddy Kong side by side in order to have come up with it, and to the extent that the two characters have graphically similar sprites, she has a point.
But looks aren’t everything. In the case of Dixie Kong, in fact, they’re barely anything. One also has to consider the history of the character’s appearances, as well as how the character actually behaves in-game. And where this subject is concerned, Sarkeesian would’ve been wiser to just not bring Dixie Kong up at all, because Dixie Kong is actually exactly the sort of character Sarkeesian should celebrate, especially given her importance to one of the most iconic early game franchises. The fact that Sarkeesian ignores all these positive characteristics in her rush to condemn the character for her graphical similarity to Diddy is even further evidence that Sarkeesian would prefer to swing a cudgel at video games than honestly assess the flaws and strengths of the medium, even when it clearly costs her accuracy.
Why is Dixie such a compelling heroine? Well, start with the history of the character — Dixie Kong first appeared in Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy Kong’s Quest, as a companion for Diddy Kong in the aforementioned quest. That quest is to rescue — wait for it — none other than Donkey Kong himself, the protagonist of the first game! That’s right. The pink wearing, ponytailed Dixie is one of two characters tasked with rescuing the hyper-masculine, much larger Donkey Kong, despite the fact that Dixie (or Candy Kong, Donkey Kong’s girlfriend and custodian of the save game function in the first game) would’ve been much easier to “damselize.” Granted, she’s clearly playing second fiddle, but she’s still one of the primary “subjects” (rather than “objects”) in the game. Nor is this a fact of which the game makers were unaware, as the joke character Cranky Kong — Donkey Kong’s irascible father and supposedly the original Donkey Kong from the 1981 Arcade Game of the same name — openly complains about Dixie being even a supporting protagonist rather than a passive figure like Princess Peach. Quoth Kong senior:
"“What’s going on here? She [Dixie] should be the damsel in distress, not one of the stars!”"
But Cranky didn’t get his way, as this wasn’t the last time Dixie would appear. She would, in fact, get her own game — Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble — following the success of DKC 2. And this time, Dixie was tasked with saving not one, but two “damselized” characters, specifically Donkey Kong and her former leading man, Diddy, with the help of the infantile ape Kiddy Kong. In fact, to this day, Dixie remains a focal character in the Donkey Kong franchise, and is, in fact, the only recurring protagonist never to be damselized at all.
What’s more, while Dixie looks similar to Diddy, the game mechanics of controlling her are completely different, as Dixie possesses one of the most powerful abilities in both games she appears in: Namely, the ability to glide in the air by using her ponytail like a helicopter, which can also kill large numbers of enemies. Diddy has no equivalent power and is, in fact, underpowered compared to her in the game which bears his name. If Dixie were supposed to be a derivative female clone of Diddy, you wouldn’t expect her to outshine him, and yet that’s precisely what the programmers built into the game. What’s more, the idea of having a female character who could use this sort of power proved so popular that Dixie’s younger but taller sister, Tiny Kong, ended up taking her place in Donkey Kong 64 as an unlockable character.
So let’s recap: Dixie Kong, who Sarkeesian describes as supposedly nothing more than a feminized female clone of Diddy, is in fact the star of her own game, one of the most powerful characters in the franchise with a special ability that her supposed male inspiration completely lacks, explicitly mocks the idea of always having a female damsel and, in fact, saves both of the iconic male characters from being “damselized” in the game that bears her name. This sort of bewildering inconsistency between the truth of the character and what Sarkeesian says is probably what makes the accusations by certain of her critics that she’s not even a gamer sound so plausible (even though I personally am prepared to give Sarkeesian the benefit of a doubt regarding the quote these critics cite and accept that she may have simply been a lapsed fan).
So there’s one description that’s just blatantly inaccurate. How about one that’s technically correct, but ridiculously oversimplified? Well, take this description of Beatrice in Dante’s Inferno from Sarkeesian’s “Damsel in Distress, Part II” video:
"In Dante’s Inferno your murdered wife’s soul is trapped in hell and you must fight to free her."
Beatrice, as she appears in “Dante’s Inferno”
Unlike the description of Dixie Kong, this one is technically correct, but leaves out information that complicates the image of Beatrice as nothing but an objectified plot device. To begin with, the reason Beatrice is trapped in hell isn’t because of some Bowser-esque kidnapping plot by Lucifer (the antagonist of the game), but rather because she actively bet her own soul that Dante (her husband in this retelling of the classic allegorical poem) would be faithful to her, believing this would keep the devil at bay. As you should guess from the plot, she bet on the wrong horse. However, unlike other damsels, who seem to peacefully mind their own business until kidnapped, it’s worth noting that Beatrice got herself into her particular mess and is thus more than simply an object to be acted upon.
Moreover, despite being trapped, Beatrice makes a continuous appearance throughout Dante’s Inferno as both a helpful and harmful presence, both providing Dante with statues of herself at which the game can be saved, and also transforming into a demon out of anger at his betrayal during a later phase of the game. However, unlike with the “euthanized damsels” that Sarkeesian rails against, Beatrice is not killed, but rather redeemed when Dante returns her cross to her as a show of love, allowing her to ascend into heaven, redeeming herself and also offering the potential for redemption to her husband. In other words, this is a far more complex character than a simple MacGuffin that needs to be rescued a la Peach. Yet, as you can see, Sarkeesian elides all of this complicating information, treating Beatrice as yet one more functionally identical data point when she is anything but.
Oh, and speaking of Peach, this brings us to one of the more obviously unfair features of Sarkeesian’s criticism: The manner in which she employs double standards. One can see this in the manner in which she narrates the evolution of two different games within the course of her very first Damsel in Distress, Part I video. Sarkeesian opens the video this way:
"Back in 1999 game developer RARE was hard at work on a new original title for the Nintendo 64 called “Dinosaur Planet”. The game was to star a 16 year old hero named Krystal as one of the two playable protagonists. She was tasked with traveling through time, fighting prehistoric monsters with her magical staff and saving the world. She was strong, she was capable and she was heroic. Pretty cool right? Well it would have been, except the game never got released. As development on the project neared completion, legendary game-designer Shigeru Miyamoto joked about how he thought it should be the 3rd installment in his Star Fox franchise instead. Over the next two years he and Nintendo did just that. They re-wrote and re-designed the game, and released it as Star Fox Adventures for the Game Cube in 2002. In this revamped version the would-be protagonist Krystal has been transformed into a damsel in distress and spends the vast majority of the game trapped inside a crystal prison, waiting to be rescued by the game’s new hero Fox McCloud.[…] The tale of how Krystal went from protagonist of her own epic adventure to passive victim in someone else’s game illustrates how the Damsel in Distress trope disempowers female characters and robs them of the chance to be heroes in their own right."
So far, so good. Nintendo took a female character with agency and, in typical Cranky Kong fashion, stripped her down to being a damsel so that one of their existing heroes could step in and do her role. Perfect parable about malicious sexism in the video game industry, right?
Well, she eventually got her spear back, and ended up a fighter pilot on McCloud’s team in her own right, so there is that.
Well, it would be, if Sarkeesian didn’t apply a completely different set of standards when judging the inclusion of Peach as a playable character in Super Mario Brothers 2. Here’s Sarkeesian again:
"The North American release of Super Mario Brothers 2 in 1988 remains the only game in the core series in where Peach is not kidnapped and also the only game where she is a playable character. Though it should be noted it wasn’t originally created to be a Mario game at all. The game was originally released in Japan under a completely different title called Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic which roughly translates to “Dream Factory: Heart-Pounding Panic”. Nintendo of America thought that the original Japanese release of Super Mario Brothers 2 was too difficult and too similar to the first game so they re-skinned and re-designed Doki Doki Panic to star Mario and Luigi instead. However the Japanese game already had 4 playable characters, so the designers opted to include Toad and the Princess to fill the two remaining slots, building directly on top of the older pre-existing character models. So really, if we’re honest, Peach is kinda, accidently playable in this one. Peach as she appears in Super Mario Brothers 2"
Astute readers will have already noticed the problem. That is, when an untested intellectual property (IP) like Dinosaur Planet is converted into an episode of an established franchise (Star Fox) and the result is that a formerly empowered female character (Krystal) is damselized, Sarkeesian treats it as an example of the malicious power of sexist tropes. But when an untested IP like Doki Doki Panic is converted into an episode of an established franchise (Mario) and the result is that a former damselized character (Peach) is empowered, Sarkeesian brushes it off as an accident. In other words, when contrary evidence crops up against her hypothesis, she clearly moves the goalposts without any justification, or even acknowledgment that she’s being inconsistent.
This is where Sarkeesian’s determination to view video games through the darkest jade colored glasses ultimately gets her into trouble, because as it turns out, there’s a perfectly easy way to resolve the paradoxical treatment of Peach and Krystal, and that is to admit that Nintendo simply is frightened of untested intellectual property, and prefers to rely on its established franchises. This is a trend that Shigeru Miyamoto himself has noted and bemoaned. But because Sarkeesian treats game developers as sexist until proven innocent, this simple explanation appears to elude her, and weakens her analysis while also making her look inconsistent and unfair.
And as I will explain in part 3, this should not be surprising, because when it comes to how Sarkeesian views gender relations in general, inconsistency, unfairness and a cruel lack of charity are disturbingly endemic to her ideological approach.
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.