Anita Sarkeesian and her “Tropes vs Women” analysis of video games has been fairly controversial for a while now, which I suspect is an understatement on the level of saying that a thunderstorm leaves things “a little damp”. While I obviously don’t support death or rape threats or anything on that level, I do think that those things happening shouldn’t make what Sarkeesian says immune to criticism. Surely the whole point of her videos is to promote discussion of these issues, and that means the acceptance that, maybe, just maybe, she’s actually wrong in her description of what’s going on.
I’ve been wanting to go through most of her videos and analyze them in detail, but as anyone who follows this blog knows I’m pretty lazy when it comes to things like that. But I’d like to single out something in her latest video, which highlights a problem I have with most of the analysis on social justice in video games and gender in video games specifically: the idea that no matter what a game company does, it simply cannot win when it comes to criticism on that score.
Her criticism in the previous video was about women being used as objects to satisfy the sexual or violent urges of the players, and being encouraged to do so, as this is considered good or useful in the game. In this video, by the end, her criticism seems to be about violence against women being treated as a bad thing, and that it being used as a way to signal that either the villains or the player are immoral is, well, also bad. Why? Well:
What does it say about our culture when games routinely bend or break the laws of physics and no one bats an eye? When dragons, ogres and magic are inserted into historically influenced settings without objection. We are perfectly willing to suspend our disbelief when it comes to multiple lives, superpowers, health regeneration and the ability to carry dozens of weapons and items in a massive invisible backpack. But somehow the idea of a world without sexual violence and exploitation is deemed too strange and too bizarre to be believable.
The truth is that objectification and sexual violence are neither normal nor inevitable. We do not have to accept them as some kind of necessary cultural backdrop in our media stories. Contrary to popular belief, the system of patriarchy has not existed for all of history across all time and all cultures. And as such it can be changed. It is possible to imagine fictional worlds, even of the dark, twisted dystopian variety, where the oppression and exploitation of women is not framed as something expected and inevitable.
So, essentially, the criticism seems to be that portraying a world where violence against women exists — even if it’s presented as uniformly immoral — ends up normalizing violence against women and treating it as simply part of the world, which she argues impedes us considering it wrong and trying to oppose it in the real world. Which boils down to the idea that you can’t portray violence against women as something to be opposed because then people won’t be motivated to oppose it, which really doesn’t seem to make any sense. She had the glimmerings of a better argument earlier:
So when games casually use sexualized violence as a ham-fisted form of character development for the “bad guys” it reinforces a popular misconception about gendered violence by framing it as something abnormal, as a cruelty only committed by the most transparently evil strangers. In reality, however, violence against women, and sexual violence in particular, is a common everyday occurrence often perpetrated by “normal men” known and trusted by those targeted.
It is a not unreasonable criticism to say that the presentation of the violence against women is such that it’s seen as something that only evil people do, as a character trait of truly and totally evil people. But the violence of that sort isn’t done by people who are, in fact, evil in that way, and so what it does — inadvertently, we have to assume — is teach people that only really evil people are abusers, and that therefore that if someone isn’t totally evil, then they couldn’t possibly really be an abuser. The problem with the analysis is that even in the examples she gives, that’s not what’s happening. It’s not the case that the games are establishing the characters as evil first, and then assigning “violent towards women” to them as something that’s just to be expected. Instead, it’s the other way around: the violence against women is used as a “Kick the Dog” moment to establish that this person really is evil. So it’s taking violence against women as an example of something that is so evil and so immoral that the instant we see someone engaging in it, we know that they aren’t good people, and in fact are really bad people.
Which somewhat contradicts the idea that violence against women isn’t really considered “wrong” in our society. To use violence against women this way, it must be the case that the vast majority of people who play the game see that sort of violence as being utterly heinous; otherwise, it wouldn’t work to establish the person as being bad or evil. So when we see that action, we all think “That’s terrible! What a horrible person!”, based entirely on what we think about violence against women. That means that we have to think that violence against women is terrible and horrible, since that’s what drives our emotional commitment to that person being bad for having done it.
But here is where we see the no-win situation this sort of analysis places game designers in. Reward violence against women? That’s bad and sexist. Treat violence against women as a bad thing to be opposed? That’s bad and sexist. The only move left is to leave it out completely, which Sarkeesian actually advocates … but in a crapsack world it’s utterly ridiculous to think that you’d have all forms of evil except violence against women for some unknown reason. The world doesn’t have a respect for basic human rights … but someone it got feminism. But on top of that the accusation could be made that the game is sanitizing and ignoring the real-world problem of violence against women if it leaves it out completely in a world where there should indeed be violence against women. At which point, the company can’t win: including it positively is sexist, including it negatively is sexist and not including it is sexist.
Ultimately, it seems to be the case that if you want to motivate people to work to end something, what you do is present as something that everyone should be motivated to change and present as something that can be changed. Sure, in the real-world you aren’t likely to stop domestic violence by hunting down and killing abusers, but you don’t normally get justice for your family by hunting down their killers either. If video games have any impact on society, it’s not from them being taken literally, but from the effect of the subtle messages that they convey through their medium. And Sarkeesian has to admit that in many of the examples she lists in this part that the message is “Violence against women is bad, and you should oppose it”. If this subtle message permeated society, well, I can’t see that as being a bad thing.