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The Subtle Sexism of Anita Sarkeesian

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Let me start off this article by making one thing very clear: Anita Sarkeesian isn’t always wrong. There are even some moments when she ambles and stumbles upon good points. Her presence has done something positive in the gaming community: she’s brought a lot more attention to gender relations in not only game design/development, but the gaming community at large. Much of the criticism and vitriol she has received, including a game made where the entire point is to beat up an image of her face, is abhorrent and of course incredibly unwarranted. She’s received threats of death and rape, as well as coordinated efforts to try and scare her away from the public light. I want to start off this article by saying I disagree HEAVILY with all of those efforts.

That being said, just because she has received some undue criticism in the past, that does not in the least mean she is undeserving of criticism. While she has made some decent points, many of them are based in her own misinformed worldview which seems to be rooted in a false dichotomy between what she strictly views as inherent masculinity and femininity. In fact, many of her points get lost in this false, and even sexist worldview she has trapped herself into. While the intent of the message she conveys may not be negative, she is without a doubt the wrong messenger.

Anita Sarkeesian seems to believe very strongly in a dichotomy between inherently masculine and inherently feminine traits. These don’t seem to be her views on how masculinity and femininity are expressed. Rather, these seem to be her views on how each actually is. She hides her views on the false dichotomy by saying that the traits she mentions are “stereotypical traits,” but she also makes no effort to dissect that or explain why they are wrong. In a way, this makes Anita Sarkeesian sexist.

Look no further, for example, than her criticisms of Mattie Ross of True Grit (2010). Many viewed the 14-year-old character to be a feminist icon for how strong she was without falling into many of the traps that are common in the portrayals of young, female characters. She is mature and strong while still wearing a dress and pigtails. She’s no dainty little thing that strictly relies on men for help, but instead she is a strong-willed character who is not afraid to do what needs to be done herself while still recognizing her own limits and that she can’t go out alone.

Not so, says Sarkeesian. She views Mattie Ross as an anti-feminist character in part because Ross doesn’t show, in Sarkeesian’s opinion, character growth or “a full range of emotions.” She even goes on to say “But since we live in a male-dominated, male-centered society, traits stereotypically identified as masculine: [emotionally inexpressive, aggressive, dominating] are more valued and consequently more celebrated by Hollywood, while traits stereotypically identified as feminine: [emotionally expressive, cooperation, affectionate] are undervalued and often denigrated.” Even more telling of her beliefs in this false male/female dichotomy is when she says “The feminism I subscribe to and work for involves more than women and our fictional representations acting like men, or unquestioningly replicating archetypal male values such as being emotionally inexpressive, the need for domination and competition, and using violence as a form of conflict resolution.”

It becomes clear in her dissection of Mattie Ross and in her other ‘Feminist Frequency’ videos that her issue is with what she views as stereotypical masculinity. In her views, negative traits like emotional inexpressiveness or violence are inherently masculine while a desire to cooperate, or being affectionate are inherently feminine (tell that to Antonio Banderas’s representation of Pierre Dulaine in Take The Lead (2006), damn it!). In her eyes, Mattie Ross never challenges gender roles because she took on the apparently negative attributes prescribed to maleness instead of taking on that positive femininity and changing the world around her. Nevermind the fact that Ross and by proxy the movie is inherently challenging those stereotypes by making an argument that the dichotomy itself is false. According to Sarkeesian, the only way to show strong female characters is to have them be stereotypically feminine and change the world around them (I assume in a not Legally Blonde fashion, but I could be wrong).

Don’t get me wrong. There’s definitely intrinsic value in showing traits typically cast as feminine as positive in a movie, and that’s absolutely value in showing women succeeding in roles because of their femininity, but Sarkeesian’s argument seems to be that such stories are the only way to encourage feminism. She apparently strongly believes that traits can only be defined by their genders, and breaking that mold is anti-feminist.

Sarkeesian

For her apparent views on how the gender dichotomy is represented, look no further than her college thesis.

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.

That alone shows many of the issues viewers and critics are taking with her. Her criticisms often don’t strictly portray her false dichotomy, but are obviously heavily influenced by it. Nevermind that female characters like Sarah Connor, Zoe Washburne, or Mattie Ross fight against the dichotomy by saying “YES! Women can hold these traits while still being feminine,” which opens up the space for male representations to fall out of that dichotomy as well (I’d even argue Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, or Will Smith’s portrayal of Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness shows a break in the dichotomy by showing generally non-violent, nurturing men).

Sarkeesian seems dedicated to wishing to modify yet retain the dichotomy instead of doing away with it altogether. Perhaps she should consider a Venn diagram or perhaps a more complicated method to show how positive traits are positive for everyone while negative traits are negative for everyone. Table 3 titled “Values for a More Feminist Television Landscape” in her thesis shows “shy, weak, dependent, passive,” etc. as negative feminine traits with “self confident, decisive, daring,” and a few others as decidedly positive masculine traits which in itself seems to suggest these traits don’t carry over to the opposite gender, or aren’t viewed as positive or negative in the other gender.

By refusing to be self-critical and not discussing contemporary feminists who might disagree with her, Anita Serkeesian seems to reject the inherent grayness that exists in a world that is, to her, black and white.

In truth, her list of negative and positive traits (I would argue with her classifying competitive as a negative trait) could easily do without gendered rows. Passiveness, indecisiveness, and being hysterical are generally considered negative qualities no matter the gender.

These tables also set up why she is perhaps not the best voice to create a strong, feminist space in the gaming community. She abhors violence, dominance, and competition which are not only easily represented in games, but inherent parts of many of them. In her mind, it seems that competition and cooperation don’t seem to go hand in hand, despite competition being something intrinsic in any game. Even in a non-violent game that celebrates cooperation like Thomas Was Alone, which she has praised in multiple videos, you are competing against the system put in place by the developer. It is a competition to see if the developer can outwit you via puzzles.

By clinging to this dichotomy, she might even overlook games that show men demonstrating qualities she defines as positive and feminine. Harvest Moon, for example, is a franchise that often shows a male character acting nurturing, and is even arguably emotionally expressive to his love interests in the game.

By refusing to be self-critical of her own ideas and not discussing contemporary feminists who might disagree with her, Anita Serkeesian seems to reject the inherent grayness that exists in a world that, is to her, black and white. In her mind, there is no room for sex-positive feminism, or turning a trope on its head to display its inherent ridiculousness. Her Bayonetta video (deleted from her channel after being repeatedly criticized for being misinformed) demonstrates her unwillingness to grow or change her ideas, or even show a larger or more complete view of the picture. She makes no concessions, and instead sticks to a rigid narrative that traps men and women with defined traits and roles, and anything outside of this, in her mind, either doesn’t exist or is wrong. She doesn’t even seem interested in entertaining opposing viewpoints if only to refute them.

By sticking to these rigid, conservative (traditional meaning, not American political meaning) views on feminism, she pushes gamers away from any good points she possibly makes. We could absolutely stand to see more positive representations of women as leading roles in games, and as Manveer Heir points out, diversity in general is important. Games can be important ways to explore complex social issues such as prejudice, and creating safe spaces for developers to explore these issues can lead to some amazing games.

By showing a side of feminism that is prejudicial, illogical, and full of false dichotomies, Sarkeesian chases away gamers and developers from good ideas. She puts a negative face on a worldview that could be positive to the industry. Her ‘Damsel in Distress’ videos aren’t completely wrong, however, her history of not only being misinformed when discussing games and media as well as her apparent negative opinions of traits that act as the core foundations to a majority of the medium (competitiveness, for example,) pulls attention away from any genuine points she may have, and instead turns what might be an otherwise receptive audience into a group that views “feminism” as a dirty word and genuine discussions of sexism as attacks on the medium as a whole.

In short: Anita Sarkeesian uses her own sexism to accomplish the opposite of what she claims to want to accomplish.

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About Stephen Crane

Stephen was hooked by the NES at a very young age and never looked back. He games on a daily basis and is currently trying to climb his way up the ranked ladder on League of Legends! Outside of the video game world he actually likes running and owns a rapidly growing collection of toed shoes. Stephen Crane is the owner of Armed Gamer.

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