Monday, 18 June 2012

Guest Column: A critique of Anita Sarkeesian's kickstarter on Sexist Tropes in Video Games

First off, I wanted to say thank you to the Chief Mauskateer for taking interest in what I have to say, and for including my thoughts on her blog. This whole thing originated from a Reddit discussion on Anita Sarkeesian's kickstarter campaign, but by the time I had a chance to really collect my thoughts and write an intelligent criticism, the community had moved on, so I don't think very many people got to see it. What you see below is a slightly revised version, based on some criticism I received.

Secondly, I caution you to have a grain of salt handy as you read this. As Ms. Sarkeesian hasn't actually made her videos yet, I'm making some inferences based on the press language from her kickstarter campaign (including the list of tropes she's planning to cover) and the views she expressed in a set of similar videos about female tropes in Hollywood.

I have two main issues with Sarkeesian's argument. These are:
I'll cover both of these in depth, but first I'd like to present my own thoughts on the representation of women in gaming:

It's blatantly obvious that a large majority of video games and video game characters are geared toward a specific set of preferences, namely those that the video game industry believe to be their primary audience. As a straight white male, I share that set of preferences, so I enjoy some of those games (aside: some games are just plain terrible, and I don't require a game to appeal to me sexually in order to like it). On the other hand, it seems pretty obvious to me that if video games were heavily balanced toward serving a different set of preferences, I would feel really unwelcome in the gaming world. This is a very serious problem, but the mere existence of these games (or the tropes used therein) isn't the issue; in fact, it's not even an issue that these games are common. It's the fact that, by and large, the only two options you have as a gamer are games that are meant to appeal to a heterosexual male audience and games that aren't geared toward any particular demographic. It's an entirely reasonable thing for someone to ask where the games are that are meant to appeal to them.

That being said, tropes are tropes. I don't believe that they're inherently sexist, and I don't buy into the implication that people are too dumb to realize that characters in a story are characters in a story. What I do believe is that the IT industry as a whole (and, by extension, the video game industry) has a huge problem with endemic, institutionalized sexism, and the fact that these tropes (which are often just a result of bad writing on the part of a male writer) are over-represented is a symptom of this larger issue. Here's a blog post I wrote on this issue as it applies to the open source world. Here's another article about a group of people called 'brogrammers', a term you may or may not already be familiar with.

It seems to me that sexism in the video game industry is particularly prevalent in board rooms where people decide on the plot and style of their games. People make the claim that 'sex sells' as justification for this imbalance, but there's a lot of really strong evidence that you don't have to portray women unrealistically or in an over-sexualized manner in order to sell games -- all you have to do is make games that don't suck. Again, though, I don't feel that there's anything wrong with the fact that these games exist, and I don't think there's anything wrong with liking them. The trouble is the lack of balance, and that's largely a symptom of a different problem.

Now, my thoughts on the issues I mentioned:


I think my snarky and poorly drawn image is probably self explanatory, but I'd like to go into a bit more detail than that. Sarkeesian holds up Portal as an example of positive female characters in video games. There are (ostensibly) two major female characters in Portal: Chell, and GlaDOS (Disclaimer: I love Portal).

Looking at both of these characters:
  • Chell is a silent protagonist, which means the writers didn't even have to give her a personality. Chell is simply a more awesome version of the player, so all they really needed to do was find the exact line for her appearance (attractive but not unrealistically so, athletic and in good shape but not unrealistically so) and then set her loose in the game world and allow the player to imagine what her personality must be like. There is very little characterization there -- she has no spoken dialog.
  • GlaDOS is a computer. She's a computer with a female personality, but there is no sexuality or body to speak of because her physical form is just a bunch of electronics. So there is another line that the writers didn't have to worry about straddling. She's not ugly. She's not sexy. She's a computer.
As I said, the goalposts are pretty narrow. What this might tell me if I were a video game writer is that the only way to win is not to play. Want to make a female main character? Silent protagonist. That way you don't have to worry about someone bashing her as being overly slutty or overly feminine or not feminine enough (omg, seriously, "man with boobs" is a misogynist trope? -- the only sin there is trying too hard not to over-sexualize a character, or -- crazy as it may sound -- writing a character who is just unfeminine because that's the sort of character they want to write). Chell isn't an example of writing a character at all; she's an example of not writing a character.

Imagine how people's opinions of Chell might differ if she had DD size breasts but were otherwise exactly the same (I'm not advocating this, by the way -- I love Portal as it is, and such a change would be pointless and arbitrary at this point). Do you suppose she would still be held in high regard as an exemplary female character? If not, what does that say about our opinion of women with larger-than-average breasts?

The take-home from Chell's body is this: If I were a video game company specifically trying to build a female character to weather any sort of body-related criticism, I would make her athletic but not overly curvy or thin, I'd make sure that her breasts were an in 'acceptable' B to C range, I would dress her in form-fitting but not overly revealing clothes, and I would give her a pleasant, feminine features that don't appear overly sultry.

Similarly, GlaDOS is a convenient evasion of the Ugly Is Evil versus Sexy Villainess tropes. Put her in any female body and suddenly the issues with her character get a lot more complicated. Forget that she's a computer for a second and consider her sultry voice. With a real woman's body, that would probably constitute a 'sexy villainess' right there, unless the character were deliberately designed to be non-sexy, in which case the other trope would apply.

Take another Valve character, Alyx Vance from Half Life 2. One has to wonder if someone just said "here's this idea for a character", or if there was a ton of thought put into delicate line-straddling between all sorts of different tropes. I don't think there are a lot of people out there who would deny that Alyx is a 'good' female character, but one really starts to suspect that an inordinate amount of care had to be taken to get to that point. Real women deviate from "flatteringly normal" a lot more than Alyx does.

I would not make the claim that Chell and Alyx are portrayed in a sexist way -- far from it, in fact. Rather they serve to illustrate the tiny box that female characters have to fit into in order to avoid being picked apart for falling into one or more ostensibly sexist tropes.

I'll illustrate this further. For reference, here are the tropes that Ms. Sarkeesian plans to cover:
  • Damsel in Distress - Video #1
  • The Fighting F#@k Toy - Video #2
  • The Sexy Sidekick - Video #3
  • The Sexy Villainess - Video #4
  • Background Decoration - Video #5
  • 1st Set of Stretch Goals Achieved! (emphasis mine)
  • Voodoo Priestess/Tribal Sorceress - Video #6
  • Women as Reward - Video #7
  • Mrs. Male Character - Video #8
  • Unattractive Equals Evil - Video #9
  • Man with Boobs - Video #10
I left the 'goals achieved' bit in there because it seems to me like the second set of tropes are on a more tenuous ground than the first set. They were added on later, and I'm left with a sneaking suspicion that they were to some extent put in there because she felt like otherwise she wouldn't be producing adequate work for the amount of funding she's received. On one hand, I get why she's doing it, but on the other hand it's frankly kind of irresponsible to start criticizing female characters for being too masculine. It's easy to argue that some of these tropes (Women as Reward tops the list, I think) are harmful and sexist. On the other hand, taking the list as a whole, her argument starts to overreach pretty badly.

Let's examine this from another direction for a moment. Valve's games are frequently held in high regard for their positive portrayals of female characters, but Valve has its problems with sexism too. Want a zillion stupid hats in Team Fortress 2? Awesome! They've got you covered! Want to play as a female version of any of the TF2 classes? Sorry, you're out of luck! Have a stupid hat!

This goes back to what I said earlier about seeing this from the perspective of a game designer who sincerely wants to avoid being sexist: the only way to win is not to play. If you're overly critical of female tropes in games (Sarkeesian has stated her intent to do extensive research into these characters), the end result could very well be that we'll just get more games with no women in them at all. The graphically impressive FPS Brink was widely criticized for allowing tons and tons of character customizations, but no option to play a female character. This may be better than the treatment of women in Duke Nukem Forever, but only slightly.

Unnecessary Polarization and Lack of Focus

In the original version of this criticism, this was my first point, but it occurred to me that it makes a lot more sense in the context of the point about goalposts.

From Sarkeesian's youtube video page about her kickstarter:
NOTE ON COMMENTS & TRIGGER WARNING: I've left the comments open on this video as a way of showing why this topic is so important. I apologize in advance for the hate speech and ignorance that will inevitably be left below. So don't feed the trolls - they are just proving to everyone that sexism in gaming is indeed a huge problem.
She opens by lumping everyone who might disagree with her into a group of people who are horrible and do not deserve to exist. These trolls are not indicative of the problem, they are indicative of a different problem -- namely that whenever anyone on the internet speaks out in defense of a minority group, racist scum-sucking sociopaths emerge from the depths of the internet to rain their hate and filth down on a convenient target. The internet is absolutely bursting at the seams with these people, and I know that because I've dealt with them myself.

But I repeat, they are not an example of the problem she is attempting to illustrate. There is no evidence that the people making these threats and comments even like to play the sort of games she's criticizing. They just hate her because she's an outspoken feminist and a convenient target for their abuse.

To an outsider seeing her kickstarter project, in implying that the swarm of ignorant and hateful internet trolls are part of the problem she's addressing, she's essentially opening with "You people are all a bunch of misogynists." People seem to like throwing the term 'over-sensitive' around a lot. Depending on who they are, they might be using it to justify actual misogyny, or they might be using it to justify inflammatory, blanket criticisms.

There are video games which have characters that fall into those tropes that I'm quite fond of (and given how broad these tropes are, it would frankly be pretty difficult as a gamer not to happen to like at least one or two games that contain them). If you make the claim that a bunch of misogynists on the internet and the video games that I like are the same problem, then what does that tell me that you think about me for liking those games?

Let's follow this logic for a minute. In implying that these two issues are connected, she's making an implication that liking these games (and, by extension, liking images and characters with certain body types) makes you a misogynist. I realize that I'm risking my reputation by saying this in public, but I like what this character looks like. This does not make me a misogynist. It does not mean that I have unrealistic expectations about what a woman ought to look like. It does not mean that I judge a woman's value as a person based on my estimate of how attractive they are, and it does not mean that I don't also like realistically-proportioned, normal women.

She could easily separate people who happen to like characters like that from internet misogynists, but she has chosen not to do that, instead implying that a) these things are connected, and by extension b) heterosexual male sexuality makes you a bad person. The implication is there, and much like other implied sexism, it's fairly obvious to the people who are affected by it.

Several people have assured me that I'm taking this way too personally. Perhaps I am, although I should note that when I blogged about sexism several months ago, I was very careful not to be specific and not overly inclusive in my language describing who the people were who are causing the problem. But if these videos aren't about people like me, then who are what are they about? What's the ultimate goal?

Here's a brief outline of what I'm not understanding:
  • These tropes are inherently bad.
  • Is it necessarily a bad thing to enjoy these tropes?
  • If not, then what? Do we get rid of them? Keep the old ones but stop using them in new works? Or acknowledge that they're silly and a result of bad writing, but keep using them anyway because some people just like them?
If all Sarkeesian is doing is attacking the fact that these tropes are overused in comparison with other ones, or if she's just talking about how people could improve their bad writing, then she's using a chainsaw where she should be using a scalpel and it's entirely justified for people like myself to take legitimate issue with them.

Finally, for the record, it is, in fact, quite possible to discuss these issues without inflammatory, accusatory, and otherwise polarizing undertones. Extra Credits managed to pull it off just fine.

Thanks for reading!

Bart Kelsey


Anonymous said...

So well put ! Everythimg i was thinking and couldnt put my finger on. Man i wish she could read this and comment on it publicly

X said...

i don't agree with everything you said, but i appreciate your viewpoints on this issue. it made me do some reflecting, and was a far cry from most of the writing on this topic!