Last Friday I got referred to Helen Lewis’ blog post at the NewStateman regarding the ongoing attacks on Anita Sarkeesian resulting from her Kickstarter project for “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games”, and felt compelled to write something in response, or, really, as an adjunct. However, in my initial efforts, I got caught up in a tangle of rhetorical analysis, and started to feel as if I was getting away from what I wanted to say or from what compelled me to start my own post in the first place. I kept on writing as a way to work through my thoughts, but after doing that, and talking to Anne-Marie at a number of points, I erased the initial draft and restarted with this.
The attacks cataloged by Lewis at the NewStatesman are notable for being directed at Sarkeesian’s person, and for being violent and/or sexual in nature. These include a game wherein players can ‘beat up’ Sarkeesian’s face and drawings of her in sexual positions designed to be demeaning, if not dehumanizing, and that are difficult to read as consensual.
In the comments to the blog post, one line of excuse or justification for these responses is that the internet is a big place, full of all kinds of people with all kinds of sensibilities, and if you get attacked for something that you write or display, that’s just the way things are. Whatever Sarkeesian is being confronted with, it’s just what everyone has to deal with. The implicit message here is that if you are going to circulate your ideas or work online, you need to be prepared for negative responses, some constructive, but others vicious and mean. If you can’t handle it, leave.
Except what Sarkeesian is dealing with is not what everyone has to deal with.
While the internet may test, and even enable resistance and subversion of, many of the norms and boundaries constituted in people’s offline lives, that doesn’t make it entirely separate from those lives either. The internet is embedded in larger social contexts, and, in the main, the social inequities and discriminatory practices that define those larger social worlds are reproduced online.
While it maybe true that “people get attacked for their ideas and work on the internet”, the responses to Sarkeesian’s project are not directed at people, but are specifically gendered, both in the intended effect on her, and other women, and on the intended audience, which, it seems reasonable to assume, is other men who are angered or threatened by women speaking out on questions of gender equity in games and gaming.
The images and imagery Lewis draws attention to are notable for seeking to reduce Sarkeesian to an object who can be ‘put in her place’. And based on the images, that place is manifestly not one of being her own agent and speaking out about gender, but is one where she is: subservient to men, constrained from speaking freely, and without control over her own body; rather, her body is imagined to be available to men for purposes of both sex (willing or unwilling) and violence.
As noted in more than one comment at the NewStatesman, men, too, are attacked for their ideas and work. However, with the notable exception of men who can be effectively ‘feminized’, it is ludicrous to imagine a person who presents as male being attacked on the basis of their sex or gender in the way that Sarkeesian has been. And, no, being called out for one’s sexism is not the same as being subject to discrimination on the basis of one’s sex or gender. There is no intrinsic connection between being biologically male and being sexist.
The significance of this is that these kinds of attacks are not, contrary to the defenses mounted in the comments to Helen Lewis’ blog post, simply part of some universal cultural ritual. Given the underlying male power fantasy of putting Sarkeesian in her place, these attacks seem clearly designed to discourage her from being online, not to invite her participation or to further some kind of dialogue. Furthermore, these kinds of attacks are not, in fact, directed at or available to everyone equally. Deployed against men, they would not have the same power; it seems doubtful that they would be taken as sensible or seriously at all.
The fact that the internet is a big, bad place, and that putting one’s ideas, one’s art, one’s writing online risks criticism or offense, should be challenge enough without also having to deal with unequal terms of engagement, particularly when that inequality has no bearing on one’s ability to be active online in the first place. Having boy parts does not make you uniquely suited to being online anymore than having girl parts makes you unsuited. And in conditions where some seem to think that one’s secondary sexual characteristics should mean getting to set the rules of discourse and determine who belongs online and who doesn’t, and how they should act, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when other people challenge or object to that way of doing things.
At the same time, this is undoubtedly why projects and voices like Sarkeesian’s are met with such intense and visceral reactions from some.
In the United States at least, pursuits like video games, and other forms of ‘geek culture’, have served as safe spaces for many boys and men who, in other contexts, may not feel, or are not made to feel, confident in their own masculinity. In that context, it isn’t difficult to understand how the active presence of girls and women, especially those who seem to want to change games and gaming, could be seen as threatening, or how projects such as Sarkeesian’s could be seen as wanting to take something away. Video games have made it possible for some men to ‘be men’, or boys to ‘be boys’, in ways that are denied to these same individuals in other places, such as at school, at home, at work.
The problem is that the definition of what it means to be a man or be a boy isn’t native to gaming, but is reflective of larger cultural practices, practices that privilege male bodies and identities over female bodies and identities. Unfortunately, part of what makes video games ‘safe’ for some men is that they provide a space where they are able to enjoy the privileges of being a ‘man’ in a patriarchal society in ways that are perhaps harder to realize in other aspects of their life. In part, this is because games have historically been made by men for men, men who largely have seen no reason to question the norms of the societies in which they live. But also because actual women and girls are far more problematic, less ‘ideal’, than are carefully designed and programed game characters. Gaming also allows boys and men to remake themselves into perfected images of masculinity without, in most cases, offering girls and women the same quality of choices.
From this perspective, Anita Sarkeesian’s biggest offense is being an actual woman, a woman with her own ideas and desires to make the fields of pop culture ‘safe’ for girls and women in the same way that they have been for some men, and not staying ‘in her place’ or being content for gaming to be populated merely by images of women designed for the convenience and pleasure of men and boys.
But here’s the thing: neither cultures, nor the places in which they are made, are ever actually owned by anyone. There will always be individuals who are different from you, and who do different things in different ways from what you do and how you do them. Finding ways to address difference is an escapable part of being human. You can choose to expend time and energy attempting to deny those who are different from you access to what you do and the places where you do it, or you can think of more positive responses. In either case, there will always be others.
My interest in these questions, and the concerns that I have when I see the attacks on Anita Sarkeesian, and the excuses and defenses of those attacks, are not just abstract. I am also thinking about my daughter, who not only games, but reads comics, prefers genres like horror, science fiction, and fantasy, shows an aptitude for certain kinds of science; in other words, she crosses over onto ‘boy territory’ a lot.
She doesn’t talk much about being a girl and gaming online, but she talks some and we can overhear her sessions. What I know is that she:
- Has had to deal with guys who approach her in a ‘creepy’ or ‘stalker-y’ way.
- Has been challenged to ‘prove’ that she is a girl.’
- Performs gender in a more masculine way while gaming online, deepening her voice and using colloquialisms like “bro” and “dude” in ways that she does not in other contexts.
This last point is complicated and interesting, but here I am mentioning it primarily to show the extent to which gaming is constructed as masculine. However, the first two points are clearly in the category of “crap my daughter has to deal with that boys don’t”. Whatever the other intents or motivations, being approached in a sexual way, however mildly, or being challenged on one’s identity, taken in the context of a game, are competitive tactics. However, these are not tactics intrinsic to the game, but draw on the asymmetries between men and women in society at large. What makes these actions sexist is not who poses the challenges, male or female, but the cultural practices and social structures from which they draw their power.
My daughter is already showing maturity in dealing with these kinds of attacks, but, as before, I don’t see why she should have to. She should just be able to play the game, which is challenging enough without being made into yet another space where she has to negotiate patriarchal social relations. This seems particularly the case in a context like online gaming where the nature of her body, especially her secondary sexual characteristics, has no bearing at all on her capacity to play alongside boys and men (and I’m not suggesting that it necessarily does or should in sports or games offline either, but in offline contexts, physical differences, whether based in sex or not, matter more to the form of competition than they do online, in a digital space. I defer in advance to those who have thought this question through more than I have).
What I wrote about dealing with difference has implications in many directions, and that includes the reality that there will likely always be spaces for “boys to be boys”. Nor do I think that there are many who would want to close off all of those spaces either, though I certainly would hope that they would not be extended to the point of justifying rape or violence against individuals solely on the basis of sex or gender. What I do think that individuals like Anita Sarkeesian are fighting for is to transform the mainstream of gaming into a space where my daughter is accepted as an equal and not as an intruder or an ornament. Sadly, it seems as if at least a hardcore minority finds that thought too much to bear, but perhaps what we are seeing in the intensity of the response to “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” is the violent death rattle of a culture in decline.