Trolls Versus the Straw Feminist

Over at Tap-Repeatedly, I’m having a series of conversations with Brandon Perdue about games and feminist issues. You can read Part One here, and Part Two here. More, hopefully, to come.

These discussions are just two of us relating our honest views about the state of women and gaming right now. I am, obviously, a feminist, but I’m not the “straw feminist” as in the video above. Sometimes I think that would be easier, because a nuanced feminist position can sometimes be hard to make totally clear. People would rather attack the straw feminist instead, which means constant re-clarification of my own viewpoint.

In the first of our conversations, Dix mentions the “Tropes Versus Women in Video Games” controversy. At the time of that posting, I knew about the controversy broadly, but hadn’t actually read the comments on the Kickstarter page. Since then, the situation surrounding the Kickstarter has only gotten more divisive. If you’re somehow just finding out about this now, in broad terms, Anita Sarkeesian makes videos talking about feminism in pop culture. When she started a Kickstarter to raise some funds for a video series about video games, she was harassed relentlessly by trolls. This culminated with a game appearing on Newgrounds last week about beating Sarkessian up. You can read about the situation at that link.

After getting over the initial shock of seeing this game’s screencaptures (okay, I’m desensitized to violence, but certain things do still get to me), I was left morbidly fascinated. What exactly about the “Tropes Versus Women in Video Games” project has inspired this much venom? Some of the comments on this Destructoid interview, for example, are calling Sarkeesian a “swindler” and “scum.” People are sending death threats. I admit at this point I was just really curious. The other side of this argument seemed literally inhuman, so full of rage and anger that they were incapable of even creating a rational argument. I wondered if anyone could deconstruct what the trolls’ actual problem was with Tropes Versus Women in Video Games.

So. Why do trolls hate Feminist Frequency? Why really?

Well-Worn Paths

Let’s talk first about how much raw energy, including my own, has already been poured in to the internet discussing this specific topic: the portrayal of women in games. It is a lot of energy, ya’ll. If we take a short detour to Gamasutra, there is a (quite good) summary of the issue of the Male Gaze in gaming. It actually touches on many controversies that have happened over the last few months, including the Feminist Frequency controversy, the Hitman controversy, the Tentacle Bento controversy, and the Tomb Raider controversy. It’s been a really busy year for sexism discussion in games.

That being said, all of this stuff has been discussed elsewhere, too. But this particular summary has 380 comments, at the time of this writing. It may yet gather more.

From the article, this is Brandon Sheffield’s thesis about why trolls attacked Feminist Frequency: “Because they feel threatened, they lash out without thinking about it, like a dog that thinks you want to take its bone away.”

Maybe. I’m not entirely sure that’s the case. I know sometimes, when this topic comes around into the discourse, I feel, not threatened, but … exhausted. “Look: it is this situation, again.” A woman being harassed on the internet. The same old arguments being trotted out over and over about why she is wrong.

Where it comes to those arguments, someone was thoughtful enough to make a Bingo card. Let me just touch on one of those same old counter-arguments, which is “the men are just as objectified and sexualized as the women, but you never hear anyone complaining about that!”

Yes I do. I hear someone complaining about that exact thing every time a thread about the objectification of women is created. You’re complaining about it right now. But, what’s funny about that, is, people only complain about it as a rebuttal to women’s complaints. It is not a “standalone” problem, but used as an attempt to deflect.

Here is an example. A rebuttal Indiegogo project cropped up during this controversy, proposing a series of videos discussing the topic of male stereotypes in gaming. Let me say, gentlemen, I look forward to your findings. I’m just as sick of Groin McManMuscle, personality-free brown-haired Male FPS Protagonist, as you seem to be. But is it the same kind of problem that women face? No. It’s similar, in that it’s a matter of a lack of diversity of portrayal. But both the problem of oversexualized women and the problem of hyper-masculine men seem to stem from the same basic assumption that the audience for games (or at least AAA games) is a young adolescent male.

In a way, all of this conversation is about that. Hi, we’re women, and we like games too! But, sometimes, we feel embarrassed that we have to justify this, because other women and men who don’t like games think games are a hobby for 13-year-old boys.

But if I were exhausted by the argument – and I am, a lot – I might reach a point where I felt rational discourse was no longer a possibility. That may very well be where some trolls are coming from. They tried all their rational arguments, such as they are, and they aren’t working. The final resort is: “Just shut the fuck up, women,” and other sort of hate speech. “We are tired of this conversation. We’d rather be having a laugh at your expense.”

The Ivory Tower

If you’ve read my bio, you know that I’ve taught at the college level (full disclosure: both at a private school and a for-profit school). Despite this, or, perhaps because of this, I have some complicated feelings about college. Rather than go into that all, let me just say: college is a bit different from the world outside of college. It’s an idea-incubator, but it lets some ideas in, and leaves other ideas out. Examining pop culture from an academic perspective is different than examining it from a fannish perspective. It’s going to look and sound different. Sarkeesian is trying to meet that conversation in the middle, but she ties her work in to her academics, and may come across as too academic for some fans’ tastes.

Below, I’ve embedded a video made in rebuttal to Feminist Frequency. It’s interesting that, in the beginning part of the video, Sarkeesian is criticized for not providing her own opinion of what “feminism” is, when writing her masters thesis.

Basically, the person who made this doesn’t know how a masters thesis works. I’ve written one, so let me try to explain. The first part of a thesis is supposed to be a literature review. During that segment – the first chapter mentioned here – “original research” is not allowed. The author is only supposed to – only allowed to – touch on what other authors have said about the topic. If Sarkeesian gave her own definition of feminism in the lit review section of her paper, her advisor would, rightfully, toss it back at her. These papers have a specific format that the student is intended to follow. In the end, it might not make for the best casual reading, no. But that is not the purpose of the Masters thesis Lit review section. The purpose of that section is for the thesis author to showcase that she has “done her homework” and knows what all prominent authors in the field have already contributed to the discourse, before adding her own analysis.

Because of her academic background, Sarkeesian runs the risk of being perceived as an outsider. She can’t entirely separate her own opinion from her video work. But her opinion is informed by the work of her academics. In interviews, she sites books she’s read on feminist critique. She has a lot of great things to say, and she’s frequently bang-on, but academic analysis sometimes causes people to call it pretentious.

Where it comes to video games, it’s already easy for a woman to be perceived as a community outsider, by virtue of being a woman. Combine with that the fact that Feminist Frequency’s previous analysis projects dealt mostly with television and movies. The masters thesis above is mostly about television, and is hardly representative of all genre television. With these things in mind, it’s easy for gamers to label Sarkeesian as “not a gamer,” and consider her outside the established norms. It hurts her slightly that she has a strong focus on fairly well-recognized female game characters in her Kickstarter pitch videos. This is evidence to some that she doesn’t actually know that much in-depth about games.

I found the following video fairly interesting in that regard. Though the voice of the narrator is a little sleepy at times, it’s worth it to stick with it. He uses the word “ugly” in a way I probably wouldn’t, but I agree with the thesis that he proposes in the end. There’s nothing wrong with hot women in games, as long as there are also some “ugly” or average-looking women in games too. And while it’s possible to find such women, they don’t tend to be the celebrated headliners. That is, in order to find women that break the mold in games, it’s necessary to sometimes look at more obscure characters and games.

Right about at 1:15 in the video, he summarizes the two camps in the Feminist Frequency controversy pretty succinctly with a screencap. While I don’t agree that a “white knight” is worse than a troll, I’ve spent basically this entire essay trying to figure out where the trolls are actually approaching this from.

Tropes Are Not Bad

So let’s take a look at what Feminist Frequency’s videos actually do.

For the most part, they discuss tropes. And the internet loves tropes. TV Tropes would not be a thing, if it didn’t.

Hundreds of people are already perfectly willing to have the discussion about tropes and women in games – and analyze, and re-analyze – for free. A fund-raiser for a slickly-produced video to do the same, therefore, became the perfect teapot in which to brew a great harassment tempest. The harassers don’t get paid to do this, and would gladly do it for free. So anyone asking for money to do it must be a swindler. (Especially, of course, if it is a woman.)

Feminist Frequency’s original pitch, in truth, didn’t seem like it had that much new to add to the conversation about women tropes in gaming. What it adds is a much prettier package than this conversation usually has, full of video clips, tight editing, and professional lighting and sound design. And, in doing that, what it adds is the possibility that the issue will reach a broader audience than it traditionally does.

That’s the only part of this that might be scary to people who like the status quo of games. Games have been a target of attack from political groups for decades now. They are a very easy political target, and have had to weather countless attempts at government censorship. However, if a loud segment of gamers continue to act unruly, abusive, and abrasive any time the medium is challenged, that does a lot more harm to the reputation of the medium than any outside attack could.

Ostensibly, the point of the Women Versus Tropes in Video Games Kickstarter is to fund some research, as well as the video production. This might include playing some new games too, especially since there’s now plenty of money in the pot to find them with. I want to see the Tropes Versus Women in Video Games videos. And when I watch them, I want to learn something new, too. I don’t want us to keep having the same situation played out, over and over, with the same background argument. It’s time for this discussion to advance, somehow. Of course, if I knew how to get there overnight, I’d probably have a Kickstarter.

But really, that’s probably enough controversy-analysis for one evening. I wonder what else is on Kickstarter today…