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Interview: Anita Sarkeesian, games, and Tropes vs. Women

1:00 PM on 07.02.2012 // Stephen Beirne

It must have been an exciting experience for Anita Sarkeesian during her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games Kickstarter project. Broadcast under the name of her hosting site, Feminist Frequency, where Tropes vs. Women originally gained internet popularity, the proposed gaming-centric season of the video series easily met its funding total of $6,000 after only one day. This was testament to the demand for a high-quality critique of the medium through a feminist lens.

Within the third week of funding, an opposing force also made itself known. In response to Anita’s YouTube video for the project, a significant number of differently-minded gamers decided to validate recent feminist critiques of the hobby by flooding her with torrents of misogynistic abuse, bubbling over to various social websites, her host site, Wiki page, and more.

Their indignation quickly backfired: news of the harassment advertised Tropes vs. Women in Video Games even further, generating a phenomenal level of sympathy and support Anita’s way. Despite every stretch goal having already been met, funding soared by $100,000 from the wallets of almost 6,000 contributors in the final five days alone.

As the dust settled, I had the pleasure of talking to Anita about her investment in the medium and what we might expect from her upcoming videos.

Destructoid: How did you first get into gaming as a hobby and in what way would you describe your relationship with the medium?

Anita Sarkeesian: Because my dad was a networking engineer I basically grew up surrounded by computers and started playing PC games at a pretty young age. I also spent a lot of time with the NES and the SNES but what I remember most is the Game Boy. At around ten years old I begged my parents to get me one, this took some serious persuasion on my part because 1) my parents believed it was a toy for boys (at the time I didn't realize how gendered the marketing was, I mean, it's called Game 'Boy' after all) and 2) my mom had heard all the nonsense about how videogames are dangerous and would rot my brain. In the end, though, they gave in and I remember the sense of victory when I unwrapped it on Christmas morning. After that, the Game Boy and I were inseparable.

Today, I would describe my relationship with gaming as complex, to say the least. There are a handful of truly amazing, artistic, creative and engaging games out there that I absolutely love. On the other hand there are so many more where I, as the player, am forced to choose between the ultra violent, emotionless space marine or the male fantasy style sex object. This is especially frustrating because there is an incredible amount of potential for the industry to push the envelope and create gaming experiences which employ more immersive storytelling, complex character development, and innovative gameplay.

It's deeply unfortunate that there exist quite a lot of great games marred by their poor representation of women. Have you played any games that you absolutely adored in spite of their failings in that regard, or perhaps some instances where you are willing to overlook such discrepancies simply because you fell in love with the game?

Many of the games I would want to list are a little too complicated to explain in a short paragraph so for brevity's sake here are a few of the more obvious examples that spring to mind from games I’ve played recently:

Rayman Origins is one of the best platformers I’ve played in years. It was a fun, challenging, and gorgeous game but I was frustrated that I had to repeatedly save the "busty" Nymphs in Distress. On the indie side of things, I really enjoyed Bastion, but the only female character in the game doesn’t have any depth (to put it mildly); basically, her whole characterization was "The Female."

This week I've started playing Gravity Rush and I'm really loving it, though I have to say it’s a little ridiculous that our hero Kat flies and tumbles through the city at tremendous speeds, lands upsidedownways on various building or structures and fights Nevi monsters all while wearing high heels and without any armor (or even pants). Can you imagine what her knees are going to look like? Someone needs to get this woman some protective motorcycle gear and a pair of hefty boots!

I really appreciate the gameplay and some of the complexities of the Assassin’s Creed series, but I've been regularly disappointed with the female characters for a whole host of reasons that we don’t have the space to get into. I am, however, looking forward to Assassin's Creed: Liberation for the Vita which is (finally) going to feature a woman, so we’ll see how that goes *fingers crossed*.

You've been making videos for a while and have shared insights into various subjects that have on the most part eluded mainstream critics. What was it that inspired you to start a video series about the negative portrayals of women in the first place?

Like many people I'm a fan of TV shows, movies, and videogames, but it's always a bit of a double-edged sword for me because while the production quality or game play could be amazing, there's often a deeply sexist or even misogynist undertone to some of the stories or characters. It's no secret that, at least in the videogame industry, the majority of games are not made with me in mind, so it's really hard to be a fan of these mediums and yet see that much of it can seem actively hostile to women.

I started Feminist Frequency because I wanted to take a look at gender representations in mass media through a sociological lens and have a conversation with my generation about why being critical of our media entertainment is important. The work that I do emphasizes and focuses on patterns in the media because it's not just one or two movies or games that are the problem but rather the repetition of sexist characters and narratives over thousands of movies, games, comics, and TV shows that play a role in amplifying, reinforcing, or normalizing regressive gendered myths.

Are there any games that you're especially looking forward to experiencing for the first time and researching as part of the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games project?

There are a handful of older generation console games I missed when they were originally released that I’m interested in playing such as the Persona series, Primal, and also Knights of the Old Republic 2 (which I've heard has an intriguing take on the female villain). Because of my Kickstarter campaign and ensuing firestorm, I haven't yet had a chance to sit down with Diablo III, so I’m looking forward to that as well.

How many games would you say the project will have you going through for source material? Do you intend to keep a quantitative record of the tropes under scrutiny in order to support your qualitative analysis?

I'm going to have to research and play through literally hundreds of games. I don't have a final list yet since we're still in the research phase and we are adding new titles every day, but the scope is already very extensive.

When planning this series, I did preliminary research to identify the character tropes which seem to be repeated most often, so while I'm not going to be able to discuss every single example that has ever existed in gaming for each trope, I am going to keep an extensive running list of how many characters fall into one or more of these gendered stereotypes and archetypes (which will include data on playable vs. non-playable female characters, protagonist vs. sidekicks roles etc).

In response to all the online threats and racist/misogynistic harassment a few weeks back, your Kickstarter project saw an incredible influx of support. What do you plan to do with all the money excess of the final $50,000 stretch goal?

My team and I are talking about how we can expand the scope of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games and Feminist Frequency project more broadly given the influx of additional funding. It's important to us that the backers are the first to be updated on the project's evolution, but what we can share is that the issue of harassment both in the gaming community and on the Internet in general has, unfortunately, become intertwined with this Kickstarter campaign, so we're definitely going to include a substantial additional component to this project that will directly address the epidemic of misogynist, racist, and homophobic online harassment.

Over the past three years, I've been dedicated to making Feminist Frequency videos whenever I could, but it’s still essentially been a passionate side project between freelance jobs. Now with the extra funding, it’s an exciting moment for me, because my team and I can now commit full-time to Feminist Frequency and to producing an even bigger and better collection of engaging, in-depth and critical videos that will hopefully contribute to the already ongoing conversation about women's representations in videogames.

In relation to your attitude when you discover that you have been the victim of this kind of online bullying, how do you normally cope with that realization?

First, I have amazing and incredible viewers and supporters who are an endless source of encouragement and inspiration. I also have a small crew of friends that I go through the comments and messages with so we can laugh at some of the absurdity (while still understanding the increasing severity of the situation). We also document as much of the harassment as we can and then share selected bits of it online to illustrate how serious, threatening, and pervasive Internet harassment can be.

To be completely honest, we also pass around clips of our favorite Star Trek captains standing up to interstellar bullies. This one with Captain Janeway is a favorite of mine.  During this particular tidal wave of harassment, a few supporters sent me over this wonderful video that I'll admit I've watched about ten times already - Thank You Hater!

What do you hope to achieve in the grander scale of things by tackling the misrepresentation of women in popular culture? For example, how would you say misogyny in the gaming industry relates to the gender-divided wage gap in the US?

With Feminist Frequency my goal is to promote media literacy and give viewers some tools to look more critically at the pop culture we all engage with. My hope is to clearly present the issues surrounding women's problematic representations as a systemic issue by identifying the harmful recurring patterns that we see repeated over and over across all forms of entertainment. Part of this work for me is also to remind people that they aren't alone in any misgivings they might have about sexist characters and narratives. Many of us (people of all genders) have had enough and want to see real change in the entertainment industries. Ultimately, my video work is one small part of a community of people working towards a larger cultural shift with the end goal of there being more media and entertainment that represents women as full and complete human beings rather than as sex objects or shallow stereotypes.

In terms of the real-world connection, we like to think that the media exists in a vacuum and is somehow not connected to our larger cultural ecosystem. We also like to believe that the media has no effect or impact on us whatsoever, that we are somehow invincible to its embedded myths and messages. The truth, however, is that the media does play a big role in helping to shape individual and society-wide values and belief systems. It should be noted however, that it is not a direct one-to-one cause and effect relationship. The impact of, say, misogyny in games is often subtle and complex in the ways that it works to replicate sexist ideologies and reinforce pre-existing stereotypical notions about women in our larger society. Sometimes I put it this way -- think of popular culture like the air we all breathe -- it's in everyone's interests to make sure that air is not polluted with toxic sexism, racism, or homophobia.


Many thanks to Anita for taking the time to talk to us. The first episode of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games should be freely available in the upcoming months. In the meantime, you can check out past videos in the Tropes vs. Women series on Feminist Frequency.

Stephen Beirne, Contributor
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There once was a man from an island Who preferred his spare time to be silent. He liked Final Fantasy XIII, Epistemology, And when gamers got mad he got violent. more   |   staff directory

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