Feminism is Not a Dirty Word

OK, check this out. Something that shouldn’t be mind-blowing, but, considering the state of recent videogame discourse, maybe (unfortunately) will be to some readers: I’m a straight male and, despite being adverse to self labelling, comfortably identify as a feminist. That proclamation changes nothing about how I’ve always thought and lived.

Should this be a train of thought that should be continued on a videogame criticism site, you may ask? Well, given the apparent inability for the industry to support rational gender and sexuality conversation, it sure seems like it.

Anita Sarkeesian (a pop culture videoblogger and founder of Feminist Frequency) went to Kickstarter to seek funding for a project that is as worthwhile as it is, to a sane person, seemingly innocuous. Tropes vs. Women in Video Games pitched a series of videos that, in Sarkeesian’s own words, look to “explore, analyze and deconstruct some of the most common tropes and stereotypes of female characters in games” by “[highlighting] the larger recurring patterns and conventions used within the gaming industry rather than just focusing on the worst offenders.”

Certainly, this doesn’t seem like something that in any way deserves to attract the amount of vitriol it has. For having the audacity to use Kickstarter for Kickstarter’s purpose (drumming up financial support for projects that wouldn’t be able to go forward without cash flow), Sarkeesian has been the subject of a stomach churning hate campaign and even a Newgrounds Flash game where players are invited to beat up an image of her face. A feminist pop culture critic has been made to endure what looks to have been a truly terrifying experience because she had the common sense to propose a discussion on whether videogames might need to approach women in a bit of a different light.

Well, her project has been funded and the jerks have lost this one. Tropes vs. Women in Video Games will now, very likely, be viewed by many more people than it would have been without all the hateful attention brought to it by the scum-suckers who harassed Sarkeesian and her work. Their efforts to belittle her efforts have beautifully backfired, reigniting conversations about feminity in the videogame industry and helping to shine a light on her own efforts.

Just the same, it’s difficult to look at the whole fiasco and leave it with a good impression. Aside from the obvious horror of the campaign launched against Sarkeesian herself, the screams of “misandry” surrounding the event are truly disturbing. Many of the men (boys) who engaged with the cultural conversation in a negative manner seemed to feel that any utterance of “feminism” denotes an attack on their gender. Supposing that the bile they spat back with comes from a feeling of protectiveness (lovely thing, trying to wrap your head around the psychology of bigots), it seems like there’s an enormous lack of knowledge surrounding feminism.

This all stems from the popular misconception that feminists are, by defitnition, misandrists — a misconception that helps to create a baffling “us vs. them” polarity where self-righteous men must become misogynists in order to protect themselves from attack.

Even well intentioned dudes may think that feminist struggles aren’t within their wheelhouse. This is 100% false. Feminism suffers from popular media co-opting the ideology’s radical fringe instead of the more moderate (basically equality centred) viewpoints of the Third-Wave movement. Feminists are not all Valerie Solanis, plotting murder and penning SCUM Manifestos. The bulk of feminists are just people who believe that women deserve to be treated the same as men — that society needs to work toward overcoming centuries of patriarchal structuring and foster a world of human equality. This is what I believe and what I suspect a lot of men who would never have thought to identify as feminists believe.

Where does that leave us?

Videogames are an enormous medium already and the industry looks to continue growing in influence for the foreseeable future. They are also a medium that, I suspect, has a significant impact on the development of their audience’s cultural and/or social outlook, whether manifested directly or subsconsciously. Just as we are right to be critical of how gender and sexuality are portrayed in popular art like literature, film and music, we should be eager to take games to task in the same way. Blogs like The Border House, articles by a handful of excellent writers and, now, videos from Anita Sarkeesian are already working to establish a gender/sex school of videogame criticism. Feminist critical theory, applied to videogames, can and should stand alongside other modes of thought (like post-colonialism, post-modernism, Marxism, structuralism, etc.) that are essential to interpreting literature, film and other forms of art.

Encouraging this kind of foundation is important. It is how games will grow and how they will take on a level of social responsibility that all forms of art/entertainment need to in order to actually participate in shaping human culture. Stifling feminist discourse is unimaginably harmful to games themselves and to all of those who play them. Without it, future developers won’t understand the importance of how their work is played and future videogame fans will never know to think about the material they spend so much time thinking about and absorbing lessons from.

Right now feminist videogame criticism has started to develop out of absolute necessity. When games present so many appalling examples of what is wrong in their portrayal of gender and sexuality, outraged critics will write about it. This is what’s currently happening. If the conversation isn’t continued, though, it will disappear. Feminist videogame criticism is like a patient with a fading heartbeat. Once in a while some EKG (or Hitman trailer or, uh, Tomb Raider interview) shocks the system back into life, returning the issue to the forefront of people’s minds, but at most others it simply isn’t present.

To keep it from disappearing — to effect an honest to god change — it’s up to videogame critics and journalists to call out the horseshit when they see it, to contribute to the discussion and to encourage others to participate in the discourse. It’s important for all of us who think videogames are pretty great — and who think they can be better — to keep this in mind and to be unafraid of speaking up when there’s something worth speaking up about.

Part of this is, of course, to write things that you believe and to, maybe, post them on your videogame site so that others can read them. It is, I think, a small but potentially valuable thing to explain a position and to hope that others might think about doing the same+.


+ Or it’s a selfish thing, because I don’t want to play something like Duke Nukem Forever ever again.


Reid McCarter is a writer, editor and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, The Escapist and C&G Magazine. He maintains literature and music blog, Sasquatch Radio, and, more importantly, founded, writes and is editor-in-extremis for game site Digital Love Child. His Tweet-fu is strong @reidmccarter.