This feature includes content referring to sexual assault.
Having spent my previous two portions of this series pointing out that Anita Sarkeesian is not a representative voice of feminism, treats artistic criticism as an excuse to censor, relies on biased, inaccessible or irrelevant sourcing, and treats her subject both inaccurately and unfairly, we now come to the conclusion of this series on Sarkeesian’s work.
In this final section, I will show that Sarkeesian’s theory of fair gender representation in video games leaves no positive role for men to play, and in fact treats free choice for male gamers as an implicit attack on women, while actively relying on non-falsifiable hypotheses and implicitly poisoning the well as a defense against criticism. Because so much of the essay focuses on the first point, I will begin with the shorter case to make.
V. Sarkeesian’s Unfalsifiable Hypotheses
There are only a few words that remain to be said about this particular way in which Sarkeesian engages with her audience. As a quick note, an unfalsifiable hypothesis is one where any contrary evidence can be co-opted by proponents of the hypothesis to “prove” their point. Conspiracy theories are a good example, where anyone who brings up contrary evidence is presumed to be “in on” the conspiracy, rather than actually debunking what it says.
Sarkeesian does this in a more subtle, but still identifiable, way. Consider the following quote from “Women as Background Decoration,” part I:
"Compounding the problem is the widespread belief that, despite all the evidence, exposure to media has no real world impact. While it may be comforting to think we all have a personal force field protecting us from outside influences, this is simply not the case. Scholars sometimes refer to this type of denial as the “third person effect”, which is the tendency for people to believe that they are personally immune to media’s effects even if others may be influenced or manipulated. Paradoxically and somewhat ironically, those who most strongly believe that media is just harmless entertainment are also the ones most likely to uncritically internalize harmful media messages. In short, the more you think you cannot be affected, the more likely you are to be affected."
Now, I dealt with Sarkeesian’s “evidence” in the previous section, so just look back at that if you’re hung up on that section of this quote. Here’s the real problem with it: In effect, what Sarkeesian is preemptively doing is branding anyone who expresses skepticism about her theory of how video games impact people as a closet sexist. “You’ve played video games that show domestic abuse, but think you’d never abuse women?” She seems to be asking. “Aha! You are the most sexist of all, even though you don’t know it!”
This is a logical fallacy known as “poisoning the well.” It takes the form of trying to preemptively discredit an opponent’s arguments by defining them as automatically evil/incorrect in an a priori fashion. “Anyone who’s skeptical of the negative effects of media is probably going to be negatively affected” basically casts that very skepticism, however well-founded, as automatically suspect. To show what’s wrong with this, consider the infamously unfair article that cast the “Mass Effect” franchise as nothing but a sodomy simulator. Imagine that the author of that piece had written this phrase:
"Anyone who questions this description of the game, even if they think they’re straight, probably will end up gay due to their insufficient vigilance against it. In short, the more you think you don’t choose to be gay, the more likely you are to actually be turned gay by this game. Admit it, you want Garrus bad, don’t you?!"
This is exactly the same rhetorical device that Sarkeesian uses. And framed this way, you can see the absurdity of Sarkeesian’s quote, as well as its implicit attack on critics.
And this isn’t the only way Sarkeesian poisons the well. She also preemptively defines any and all attempts to poke fun at the damsel in distress trope where the damsel still is in distress as automatically sexist:
"In the 1994 platformer Earthworm Jim the woman in peril waiting at the end of the game is officially called “Princess What’s-Her-Name”. A reference meant to humorously acknowledge the fact that many damsel’ed characters in classic era titles were so unimportant that they either remain unnamed or were otherwise entirely unmemorable. So the developers of Earthworm Jim noticed that sexist trend, thought it was hilarious and proceeded to make another game in which a woman is completely unimportant. To add injury to insult, when Jim finally reaches Princess-What’s-Her-Name and is preparing to collect his reward, she is randomly killed by a falling cow.[…] More often than not the ironic humor is just an excuse used by developers as a way try to and have their cake and eat it too (so to speak). They want to use the trope, but not be held accountable for the inherent negative gender implications that come with it.[…] There is a clear difference between sexist parody and parody of sexism. Sexist parody encourages the players to mock and trivialize gender issues while parody of sexism disrupts the status quo and undermines regressive gender conventions."
The Earthworm Jim comics beg to differ.
This reaches Suey Park-esque levels of humorlessness and lack of self awareness. Sarkeesian seems to think that because “Princess What’s-Her-Name” is depicted as completely unimportant (so unimportant that she dies at the end), the game is therefore treating women as completely unimportant. Of course, the point of the joke is that it’s funny to have a female character be treated as this unimportant because it’s inherently ridiculous, because the character should be more important than just a “what’s-her-name.” Playing a trope straight can make it look extremely silly — see also this post from the Toast which makes “old fashioned” values look ridiculous by quoting some actual ancient folklore and traditions and behaving as if they’re just old fashioned common sense. Similarly, Princess What’s-Her-Name isn’t the butt of the joke in Earthworm Jim; the competing games that treat their female protagonists as disposable are. But for Sarkeesian, humor can only achieve anti-sexist ends when it makes men the butt of the joke:
"So for instance when wannabe pirate Guybrush Threepwood finally reaches the kidnapped Elaine Marley in the 1990 adventure game The Secret of Monkey Island, she already has a plan to escape and he ruins it with his attempt to rescue her. Clip- The Secret of Monkey Island “Oh, Guybrush, you mad fool! I’m impressed you came to rescue me, but it really wasn’t necessary. I had everything well in hand” The joke ends up being directed at the protagonist, rather than making fun the damsel’ed woman. Elaine Marley of the “Monkey Island” series."
Of course, this isn’t really an example of the damsel in distress trope, because it’s actively averted at the end. In other words, game designers, no matter how cleverly you satirize the trope, and no matter the context, if you actually play it straight in the process, you must be sexist. The only way to prove Sarkeesian wrong is simply not to use the trope at all, either by avoiding it entirely or by pretending to use it, but subvert or avert it at the end. In other words, the idea of a straight usage the damsel in distress trope always being sexist is rendered unfalsifiable, a priori.
Ultimately, though, this isn’t about the usage of the Damsel in Distress trope at all. This is about Sarkeesian wanting to make sure that women are as irreproachable as possible, while men are reproached often and loudly. As to why? Well, reader, read on.