Sarkeesian vs Truth, Part III: Impossible Arguments and Men as Koopas

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VI. Trapped in Bowser’s Castle: Sarkeesian’s Vision of Masculinity

Before I begin this section, I will do something counterintuitive and pause to note one area where I believe Sarkeesian actually has had a good thought. In describing the sort of game that she would like to see offered as a counter to the Damsel in Distress trope, Sarkeesian says this:

"A story idea like this one would work to actively subvert traditional narrative expectations. The princess is placed in a perilous situation but instead of being made into the goal for a male protagonist, she uses her intelligence, creativity, wit and strength to engineer her own escape and then become the star of her own adventure."

I think I speak for a large subset of gamers when I say that I would play a game like this. What’s more, the “prison break” plotline is one that has a long, proud history in video gaming, with examples ranging from The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, to Fable, to the early Star Wars first person shooter Dark Forces. The idea of deconstructing the plights faced by characters such as Princess Peach by having them go through a similar plotline in a game would be fascinating, and has, in fact, already been depicted in parody form by the gaming humor website Dorkly.

However, despite the cleverness of the idea, one question looms over this particular hypothetical game idea. That is, we know there’s no Mario analogue (he being rendered unnecessary), and we know that the Peach analogue escapes her imprisonment.

But who does the imprisoning? And more to the point, what sex should that character be? Well, we can probably look at Sarkeesian’s matrix of feminine and masculine traits valued on television — granted, not the same as video games, but similar enough that we can assume she thinks about them the same way — from her Master’s Thesis (downloadable here) to get the answer:

Well, “dominance” is clearly in the masculine column, and what else is kidnapping someone but exerting dominance over them? So we can probably guess that the villain of Sarkeesian’s hypothetical game would have to be male.

Now, you might argue that doesn’t follow because the title of the list is “gendered traits currently valued on television,” rather than “gendered traits valued by Anita Sarkeesian,” and to an extent you’d be correct. However, the argument above still follows not because Sarkeesian thinks that the “masculine” traits should be viewed as one that women can share, but because she thinks that showing women who share them is itself bad, and implicitly, that we should treat the “negative” feminine qualities as more desirable. Quoth Sarkeesian (in her thesis):

"I also began to notice that I identified with and enjoyed watching the women who I was viewing. They have many commonalities: they were strong, in charge, capable, confident and intelligent. As much as I admired many of these traits I realized that if these characters had been men, I would have been bored and would feel like the story was the same old heroic masculine tale. Even today it is still exciting to see strong women taking control and kicking butt, but that role isn’t really very different from their male counterparts. Strong women are indeed sexualized and “feminized” in sometimes degrading ways, but generally the aspects that are viewed as positive such as leadership, courage, and independence are deeply identified as masculine. Female roles in science fiction and fantasy television that are viewed as strong and empowered embody many masculine identified traits, maintaining a patriarchal division of gender roles. For example, values adopted by female characters in the television shows I will examine in this major research paper maintain that traditionally masculine attributes such as rationality, cool-headedness and physical strength are superior and preferred over traditionally feminine attributes such as cooperative decision making, and being emotionally expressive and empathetic."

Or as Stephen Crane puts it in a superb essay on precisely this issue in Sarkeesian’s thought:

"The entire concept of this dichotomy states that there is a line that divides what traits are inherently masculine and feminine. In her videos and apparent worldview, the way to promote feminism isn’t to challenge this dichotomy by showing both genders breaking those molds, but rather to show the stereotypically feminine traits (emotional expression, cooperation, and affection) as positive and only applying to women, vs. breaking down the entire false dichotomy itself. Apparently in her views, the media shows nothing negative about maleness (which I would actually heartily disagree with, as reality is much more nuanced than that) while showing women as generally those who have negative traits except when being dependent on men, or passive, or nurturing. Her views of this dichotomy, then, lead her to disregard female characters many of us have found to be strong and positive because in her views they are just taking on masculine traits."

Crane’s entire essay is worth reading on this already troubling element of Sarkeesian’s thought. However, because we are talking about video games, let’s return to the earlier point, using these quotes as our starting point to determine that in Sarkeesian’s hypothetical “Princess escapes imprisonment” game, the villain would have to display an essentially “masculine” trait (dominance) in a highly negative context (kidnapping) and thus would have no reason to not be male. Moreover, even if the villain were female, she would still be displaying that essentially masculine trait, and thus would act as an implicit critique of masculinity.

So phrased, we can see that Sarkeesian’s ideal game is, in fact, one where a feminine character triumphs over a masculine character by outwitting him and escaping his clutches, only to become mistress of her own destiny. In short, a game rather like what certain sectors of the feminist movement aspire to do with the so-called “patriarchy.”

So far, so good. This would, in fact, be a feminist video game and not necessarily a bad one. But readers will note the necessity of a man, or a butch woman, being in an antagonistic role. This seems like it easily leads in sexist directions.

However, readers might object that this is all hypothetical. After all, it’s not as if Sarkeesian has actually admired art that treats men either as passive victims or vicious kidnappers and captors, right?

"In recent years, we’ve also seen a number of news stories about fans who’ve taken it upon themselves to switch the gender roles in classic era games by manipulating the code. There’s Mike Mika‘s Donkey Kong hack in which Pauline works to save Jumpman. Mike Hoye’s gender bending version of Wind Waker and Kenna Warsinske’s Zelda Starring Zelda, which transforms the princess into the protagonist. This practice of gender-hacking game ROMS has actually been around for decades. Offering enterprising players the chance to play as a female version of MegaMan or as Princess Peach rescuing Mario with her mermaid power. And thanks to the Internet, game mods and emulators are now much more widely accessible. Gender hacks like these illustrate how female characters taking on the role of heroic rescuer can directly challenge the status quo and interrupt the established male dominated pattern in gaming."

Yes, that is a quote from “Damsel in Distress: Part 3.” And again, note that only the protagonist’s gender and the “damsel’s” gender is changed in these ROM hacks. Sarkeesian is perfectly content to have men in “damselized” roles where they appear passive and helpless, and in villainous roles. Well, that is, I think she does. It’s hard to tell, because despite her already mentioned convictions that more media should represent traditionally female traits (including, as you’ll recall from the matrix, emotional expressiveness), here’s what she says about Super Princess Peach, which seems to fit this criterion perfectly:

"So finally, after being kidnapped in 13 separate Super Mario games, Peach gets to be the hero for once! But don’t get too excited because everything else about the game ends up in a trainwreck of gendered stereotypes. Nintendo introduced a new gameplay mechanic for Peach where the player can choose from 4 special powers or vibes as they’re called… and you know what those powers are? Her mood swings. That’s right, Peach’s powers are her out-of-control frantic female emotions. She can throw a temper tantrum and rage her enemies to death or bawl her eyes out and wash the bad guys away with tears. Essentially Nintendo has turned a PMS joke into their core gameplay mechanic."

Now, this is a record for self-contradiction, both in the passage and out. Sarkeesian first says the player chooses from Peach’s special powers, then implies they’re out of control a la PMS. Never mind that the entire point of the game mechanic, as Sarkeesian admits at the beginning of the paragraph, is that the player (and thus, Peach, since she’s embodying the player in the game world) can choose what to feel depending on what’s convenient. So by definition, her emotions aren’t out of control PMS episodes. She’s so in control of them that she can be expressive in precisely the right way at all the right times to beat the game. Her “feminine” attribute of emotional expressiveness is literally what gives her power — again, something Sarkeesian advocated for. So one has to be careful when assuming consistency on her part.

But let’s try. So say Sarkeesian is okay with damselized and villainous men. One also supposes that if all the participants — hero, damsel and villain — were men and Mario were in a gay relationship with Prince Peach, Sarkeesian couldn’t object on these grounds, but then there’d be the problem of absolutely no representation of women in gaming at all.

What’s more, if all the participants were female and Maria were rescuing Princess Peach from Bowsa, then you’d also presumably have no problem except for the fact that, again, there’d be no role for men at all. One could, of course, have a female second player character to replace Luigi in the first case, or a male second player a la Luigi in the second, but in both cases, this wouldn’t actually create games where men and women are shown in an equally positive light, as either men or women would have to be intrinsically treated as subordinate afterthoughts if they were Player 2 characters.

Now, one could easily point out that the current situation — man as hero, woman as damsel, and man as villain — doesn’t create an equal playing field either, since men get all the agency to be either good or evil. And if one insists on interpreting the roles that characters like Bowser, Princess Peach, Luigi and Mario play as intrinsically gendered attacks on entire sexes, rather than simply stock characters, this is correct. But the point I am trying to make is not that the “Damselizing” scenario is fair. The point I am trying to make is that by Sarkeesian’s own, hyper-critical standards, it’s impossible to come up with a way to gender the “Damselizing” scenario that doesn’t inherently make one sex or the other look bad.

Let’s take the original Mario Brothers as our template, where both protagonists are male, the damsel is female and the villain is male, and take Sarkeesian’s argument that this treats women as only helpless Damsels and extrapolate from it in other scenarios. Consider:

If both protagonists are male, but the villain and damsel are female, then women are portrayed as either kidnapping monsters or passive damsels.

If both protagonists are male, the damsel is male and the villain is female, then women are only monsters.

If both protagonists are female, but the villain and damsel are male, then men are either kidnapping monsters or passive damsels.

If both protagonists are female, the villain is male and the damsel is female, then men are only monsters.

If both protagonists are female, the villain is female, and the damsel is male, then men are only helpless damsels.

If the first player is male and the second player is female, and the damsel is female and the villain is male, then women are either incidental/supporting protagonists rather than heroes in their own right, or they are passive damsels.

If the first player is female and the second player is male, and the damsel is female and the villain is male, then men are either incidental/supporting protagonists rather than heroes in their own right, or they are monsters.

If the first player is female and the second player is male, and the damsel is male and the villain is female, then men are either incidental/supporting protagonists rather than heroes in their own right, or they are passive damsels.

If the first player is male and the second player is female, and the damsel is male and the villain is female, then women are either incidental/supporting protagonists rather than heroes in their own right, or they are monsters.

You can see that there is literally no way to structure this such that it makes both sexes look equally good, using Sarkeesian’s hyper-critical style of analysis and applying it equally. But not to worry, Sarkeesian thinks she has a way out of this:

"On the surface the Dude in Distress and the Damsel in Distress may appear similar — however they’re not actually equivalent. To understand why they are different we need to examine the broader historical and cultural implications of the two plot devices. First there’s been no shortage of men in leading or heroic roles in video games or in any other creative medium for that matter. In fact one recent study found that only about 4% of modern titles are exclusively designed around a woman in the leading role. Since men are still largely the default for protagonists, the rare dude in distress plotline does not add to any longstanding gendered tradition in storytelling. Second, and perhaps more importantly, damsel’ed female characters tend to reinforce pre-existing regressive notions about women as a group being weak or in need of protection because of their gender, while stories with the occasional helpless male character do NOT perpetuate anything negative about men as a group since there is no long-standing stereotype of men being weak or incapable because of their gender."

The reader should note that this is Sarkeesian basically admitting that she doesn’t care about games that don’t insult either sex. What she cares about is making sure that if games insult anyone, they insult men, because men should be able to take it, seeing as they’re not victims of patriarchy.

Now, leave aside whatever ethical problems you have with this clear double standard. Leave aside the fact that there are obviously stereotypes about weakness that have plagued certain groups of men (for instance, gay men, and especially the “nerdy” gamers who Sarkeesian is trying to reach, and who her blanket assumption of male power leaves her unable to). Leave aside the fact that gender ROM hacks that leave Bowser male but make the sympathetic characters female reinforce extremely problematic stereotypes about men as violent abusers or possibly even rapists. Leave all that aside, and consider this: Sarkeesian is effectively damselizing her entire sex with this argument. She’s claiming that women are basically Princess Peach in the status quo, being held captive by the Bowser of patriarchy, and that if you’re not sexist, you should want to help liberate them. And moreover, if you defend these tropes, you are either sexist or apologizing for sexism.

If you haven’t spotted the problem with this argumentative strategy, consider this quote about similar accusations of racism from the political philosopher Harvey C. Mansfield’s book America’s Constitutional Soul:

"To whom does one make an accusation of racism? To people who believe racism to be a bad thing, not to racists. Thus the very accusation that America is racist presupposes that most Americans are not racist. In consequence, those who accuse do not really believe their accusations of racism, and the accusations tend to become routine.[…] Well, this is no way to get on with one’s fellow citizens."

One could easily modify this quote in the case of Sarkeesian to the following:

"To whom does one make an accusation of sexism? To people who believe sexism to be a bad thing, not to sexists. Thus the very accusation that video games are sexist presupposes that most gamers, game critics and game companies are not sexist. In consequence, those who accuse do not really believe their accusations of sexism, and the accusations tend to become routine."

Well, this is no way to get on with one’s fellow gamers! The entire crux of Sarkeesian’s series, to say nothing of her constant naming and shaming of her critics, is the assumption that those viewing it will not be the Bowsers of the world, but rather the Marios. And yet Sarkeesian implicitly advocates a model of gaming where male heroism on behalf of women is impossible, because she believes these games cater to “adolescent male power fantasies.” Yet even she has to admit the substantially less odious origins of the trope:

"In the Middle Ages the Damsel in Distress was a common feature in many medieval songs, legends and fairy tales. The saving of a defenseless woman was often portrayed as the raison d’être – or reason for existence – in romance tales or poems of the era involving a ‘Knight-errant’ the wandering knight adventuring to prove his chivalry, prowess and virtue."

In other words, the trope was supposed to reinforce ideas of chivalry. And if you want to talk about adolescent male power fantasies, the Knights’ Code of Chivalry is one of the least likely documents to facilitate them. Among its exhortations, for instance, are the rules that one shall “protect the weak and defenceless,” “give succour to widows and orphans,” “refrain from the wanton giving of offence,” “despise pecuniary reward,” “fight for the welfare of all,” “eschew unfairness, meanness, and deceit,” and perhaps most relevant, “respect the honour of women.” Rapelay and the Hot Coffee Mod, this ain’t.

“And after the spanking, the oral sex” is not an accurate summation of medieval gender politics.

So if the damsel in distress story isn’t catering to an “adolescent male power fantasy,” what explains its popularity? Well, that it is catering to an adolescent male virtue fantasy. In this context, it’s no irony that Sarkeesian’s male defenders are accused of “white knighting” for her. White knights were supposed to protect women threatened by monsters, and it’s that very aftershock of chivalry that enables Sarkeesian to make her case so effectively. In a true, universally sexist society, the messages saying “GTFO and make me a sandwich” would be the only response she’d get. Instead, she gets retweeted by Joss Whedon, and most likely because of stories like the Mario franchise, which condition men to respond to female distress with concern and a desire to help. However, Sarkeesian is so desperate to see women lash out at the patriarchy that she advocates for a model of gaming that offers villainy as the only constant model for male agency, which would damage and polarize gender relations even further, because a class that sees unapologetic cruelty and dominance as its only way to have agency is going to turn increasingly to those means.

Which brings us to Sarkeesian’s complaints in the “Women as Background Decoration” series. One of the points that’s been frequently raised in response to most of Sarkeesian’s examples is the fact that a lot of the situations she describes, many of them involving women being physically abused by or around the player, is that the games treat the abuse of these women as morally wrong and either give the player the option to take revenge on their abusers (or in some cases, like Bioshock, mandate it), or penalize the player if they do it. Here is Sarkeesian’s preemptive response to this critique in Women as Background Decoration, part I:

"In order to understand how this works, let’s take a moment to examine how video game systems operate as playgrounds for player engagement. Games ask us to play with them. Now that may seem obvious, but bear with me. Game developers set up a series of rules and then within those rules we are invited to test the mechanics to see what we can do, and what we can’t do. We are encouraged to experiment with how the system will react or respond to our inputs and discover which of our actions are permitted and which are not. The play comes from figuring out the boundaries and possibilities within the gamespace. So in many of the titles we’ve been discussing, the game makers have set up a series of possible scenarios involving vulnerable, eroticized female characters. Players are then invited to explore and exploit those situations during their play-through. The player cannot help but treat these female bodies as things to be acted upon,because they were designed, constructed and placed in the environment for that singular purpose. Players are meant to derive a perverse pleasure from desecrating the bodies of unsuspecting virtual female characters.[…] Now inevitably whenever these game mechanics are criticized, some gamers try to dismiss and distance themselves from the issue by insisting that they don’t personally partake in the provided options for exploiting virtual women. But whether or not an individual player chooses to use an object for its intended purpose is irrelevant, because that object was still designed and placed in the game environment to fulfill its function."

And in Women as Background Decoration, part II:

"Regardless of the player’s actions in these type of situations, the result always paints women in a regressive light, as they will end up as either “helpless damsels” or “dead victims”. On a shallow surface level, these vignettes seem to contextualize violence against women in a negative light; however, these narratives are never really about the abused women in question. Instead depictions of female pain and victimhood are flippantly summoned to serve as sideshow attractions in storylines about other things altogether.[…] Meaning that these female characters exist to be assaulted in order to give the player something to do, a reason to chase down the bad guy, exact vigilante justice on him and gain the allotted experience points. After which the women are casually discarded, forgotten by the game and its characters."

Now, with respect to the second point, I will just redirect the reader to the point about chivalry and how treating these acts of violence as signs of ultimate evil do, in fact, foster concern for abused women and a desire to help them, especially when the game explicitly rewards the player for doing this.

For instance, by letting you watch your omnipotent daughter suck her tormentors into a tornado.

However, the first objection is more telling. According to Sarkeesian, the real problem with these scenarios isn’t that the players necessarily have to

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take part in them. It’s that programmers programmed them in in the first place. Now, note that Sarkeesian doesn’t object to all forms of violence being shown. If she did, she would have to object to most video games ever manufactured. Even Mario had to jump on Koopas’ heads. Moreover, one searches her videos in vain for an objection to the programmers having created the Dark Brotherhood Quest Line in either Skyrim or Oblivion, both of which would require the player to join an explicitly murderous religious cult, and which actually reward the player for completing the quest line, rather than penalizing them for being evil.

So she’s fine with players being given the choice to be murderous cultists and revel in it, but not with them being given the choice to abuse women, or even to witness abuse of women. Why? This quote from part 2 of “Women as Background Decoration” probably clears it up:

"We are perfectly willing to suspend our disbelief when it comes to multiple lives, superpowers, health regeneration and the ability to carry dozens of weapons and items in a massive invisible backpack. But somehow the idea of a world without sexual violence and exploitation is deemed too strange and too bizarre to be believable. The truth is that objectification and sexual violence are neither normal nor inevitable. We do not have to accept them as some kind of necessary cultural backdrop in our media stories. Contrary to popular belief, the system of patriarchy has not existed for all of history across all time and all cultures. And as such it can be changed. It is possible to imagine fictional worlds, even of the dark, twisted dystopian variety, where the oppression and exploitation of women is not framed as something expected and inevitable."

Combine this with all of her above quotes and it’s clear that Sarkeesian wants to see a world where human nature is artificially truncated so that certain forms of violence are so unacceptable as to be literally impossible and inconceivable; where certain impulses are metaphorically not even part of human beings’ programming. Even if players can go around murdering people and being rewarded for it, according to her theory, they should never be allowed to commit sexualized violence against women or even witness it because the patriarchal system is so overwhelming that they’ll necessarily internalize the idea that this can be okay.

Therefore, by refusing to program certain scenarios, even to show them in a negative light, programmers are performing the noble role of eliminating part of the player’s free will in the name of feminist virtue. After all, that free will cannot be trusted, for presumptively male gamers are complicit in patriarchy whether they like it or not, and therefore cannot avoid being sexist even when their intentions are good. The prospect of chivalry cannot create genuine self-sacrificial nobility, but only adolescent power fantasy. Men can only be villainous when they have agency in a patriarchal system, and so they must either be portrayed as such in games or rendered helpless, either by programming away part of their free will, or by damselizing them in place of women. Any depiction of violence against women that the player is not required to directly experience themselves is necessarily titillating, rather than horrifying.

There is just one problem with this hyper-pessimistic, misanthropic worldview — it renders certain forms of masculine virtue impossible at the same time it renders the same forms of masculine vice impossible. Why? We turn to the political philosopher Frank Meyer in his book In Defense of Freedom to explain:

"Truth withers when freedom dies, however righteous the authority that kills it."

In other words, if one cannot choose to be evil, the choice to be good is meaningless. This is one big reason why so many games have taken to having moral alignment systems, however elegantly or poorly they may be designed. In order to want to destroy the choice to be evil, therefore, one must believe that practically no one would choose to be good, so it’s better to simply keep others (and themselves) safe from their own vileness. If Sarkeesian thinks this is true of male gamers and sexual violence, and she must if she wants to see their choices so truncated, then we arrive at the same problem I enunciated above:

Sarkeesian appeals to the male members of her audience as Marios, but the implicit worldview I have just described treats them as Bowser, both in the roles she wishes them to play in stories, and in the assumptions she makes about their choices in games where Bowser-esque choices are possible. There’s nothing wrong with more games with female protagonists — as stated above, I would play Sarkeesian’s hypothetical game — but nor is there anything wrong with stories that showcase male heroism, including when it is applied to aid women in distress. The irony is that if Sarkeesian were to get her way with respect to the elimination of male heroes and the vilification of masculine traits in media, the only role models men would have would be the Bowsers of the world.

In short, if Sarkeesian gets her way, then because she can only imagine men as Bowser, that is all they will see themselves as having the capacity to become. And at that point, Sarkeesian and her ilk will either have to reprogram human nature or be left to fend for themselves against the very real death and rape that half the population will think is the only thing they can accomplish.

Because if she succeeds, that is what Sarkeesian’s vision of media will have taught them. After all, it’s what her study of sex negative feminism taught her, and it’s the lesson she wants the video game industry to teach the rest of the world, even if she has to hector and shame its entire marketing demographic, as well as all dissenters, into silence.

And whatever the strategic and moral missteps of the worst elements the gaming community, those of us who consider ourselves gamers have every right to refuse to be so shamed and silenced.

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.