First, a history lesson.
Joan of Arc was a French military commander who helped France win the Hundred Years War, thereby allowing Charles VII to become the King of France. At some point, she was captured by a group known as the Burgundians and burned at the stake for the crime of heresy. Twenty-five years later, she was labeled a martyr and is now a worldwide icon.
Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency has found her feet feeling the metaphorical fire due to large sections of the internet frothing at the mouth at the opportunity to tear her upcoming video series on sexist tropes in gaming apart. In fact, just recently a group of users attempted to rally a movement to get her work banned from Kickstarter and to have her reported for fraud for missing a self-imposed deadline on the first set of videos, which was set for last month.
This is all just a warm-up for the big battle, however. The videos will come out one way or another, and Ms. Sarkeesian’s series will be deconstructed and dissected in ways that few works of criticism have been. This set of videos might be the most widely seen feminist critique of anything, ever.
I see this going one of three ways. The least likely path involves Ms. Sarkeesian producing unimpeachable work that actually stands up to the microscope that millions of biased eyeballs will put on it, and will actually change hearts and minds in the gaming community, fostering a new consciousness for the culture.
Let’s not kid ourselves. This is the Internet; changing people’s beliefs just doesn’t happen.
The second (and equally as unlikely) path is that Ms. Sarkeesian’s work is poorly constructed and terrible and easily dismissible by anyone with half a brain. She’s demonstrated thus far in her career that this is not going to happen. Her video set centered around sexist tropes in films was thorough, clear, and finely crafted.
The most likely outcome falls somewhere in the middle. There will be a lot of sensible, well-reasoned arguments presented in the videos, but there will be some mistakes, as there are in any piece of criticism (I’m sure I’ll make a handful in this post alone). Particularly when considering the intense scrutiny this video series is likely to endure, there’s almost no way every argument and example is going to hold up. It’s unrealistic to think that they would.
Anita Sarkeesian has had her life irrevocably changed by deciding to pursue this subject matter. She’s had flash games designed about her that involve maiming her, she’s been constantly harassed, and her social networks have been flooded with hate speech, threats, and insults. That’s not going away, and will likely intensify once the sacred cows of gaming come under fire. I don’t know Ms. Sarkeesian, but I imagine she had to have some idea that the response to this series was going to be vitriolic and hateful. She’s chosen to sacrifice the sanctity of her personal life to make a statement about gaming culture, and we as the audience have one responsibility in all of this.
To Sarkeesian’s critics: there is a way to criticize her work without being hateful and sexist. She’s obviously a smart woman who has good intentions with her work, so treat this as you would treat an academic exercise. It’s not about you. It’s not personal. Videogames and gaming culture have a problem with regards to sexist actions, images, and behavior. To deny this reality is to be blind to the world that surrounds you. There will be things in the videos worth critiquing, so do so. If you don’t agree with Ms. Sarkeesian’s assertions, that’s okay. It’s part of the dialog that comes along with cultural criticism. Frame your disagreement from a perspective of learning and sharing knowledge. If a healthy dialog can actually be built around this topic, we might prove to ourselves that we are grown ups in this community and able to disagree and respectfully argue with each other.
Now, for Ms. Sarkeesian’s supporters, please try to take the arguments presented against her work at face value. Trolling is not hard to spot these days, and although it will be exhausting to face assaults from all angles, it will be healthy for the debate to respond in kind. If you are presented with a logical, well-reasoned criticism of Ms. Sarkeesian’s work, don’t dismiss it as coming from a sexist or hateful place. As well-argued and thoroughly-researched as her videos will surely be, Ms. Sarkeesian is going to make mistakes. She’s going to reach beyond what the research suggests. She’s going to make hops (hopefully not leaps) of logic in order to prove her point. A point which I can tell you without seeing any of the videos is something I agree with. Sexist imagery and behavior is a huge problem in gaming culture and society at large, and as the father to a four-year old daughter I am acutely aware of the potential for how hurtful sexist behavior can be (I’m talking to you, kid that told her that her Spiderman shirt was for boys!).
But the thing is that the same myopia that her detractors will possess about the gaming culture can extend to your views of her work. She’s not going to produce a perfect video series, as much as I’d like her to. It’s simply not possible to account for every counterargument, especially in the case of an opinion-based work. Even if the central premise is accurate, words and images always get slanted in favor of bolstering the argument presented. I’m not saying that Ms. Sarkeesian would create sexism where it wasn’t, but I am saying that certain aspects of gaming will probably be overplayed in an effort to make a larger point. It’s part of crafting cultural criticism. I have a degree in Philosophy and was drilled on the rules of constructing logical arguments, and I find ways to miss counterarguments to my work all of the time, consciously or otherwise.
Anita Sarkeesian has sacrificed her normal life. Now is her Joan of Arc moment, where she becomes a martyr to the cause of opening people’s eyes to sexism in the gaming community. It’s going to be an extremely taxing time for her, and I hope we treat the work that comes from it with the respect that went into it, otherwise the sacrifice will be in vain, as months of her work become a flashpoint for trolling and immature Internet arguing, rather than a well-regarded, well-reasoned piece of important cultural criticism.
You may think the pressure is all on her, but think again. It’s on us. It’s a moment for us as a community to show that we can actually disagree without resorting to petty name calling and harassment. It’s a chance for us to show that this is not an insular community, made only of ignorant man babies that think women are there to exist only for our pleasure. It’s a chance for us to show that we can be criticized without typecasting criticism as based on something other than the quality of our argument.
I know, I know. There’s no way it’s going to be anything but anger and finger-pointing.
I can dream, though, can’t I?