Until it was brought up on The Indoor Kids podcast, I had almost completely forgotten about Feminist Frequency’s Tropes vs. Women In Video Games, the crowdsourced video series detailing, among other things, how the gaming industry’s overuse of the damsel in distress and its descendants has not only contributed to the toxic culture of gender politics in the United States, but has used the bodies (and horrors committed upon those bodies) of countless pixilated women as a foundation for an entire industry. I thought that my missing part two (even as reports of YouTube users flagging the video for removal reached the edges of my awareness) was a kind of failing on my behalf, but given the nearly three month gap between videos, I forgave myself. Besides, Indoor Kids hosts Kumail Nanjiani, Emily V. Gordon, and Matthew Burnside were coming down pretty hard on Anita Sarkeesian’s hotly debated video.
“Boring,” said Nanjiani several times, intoning that, were this a high-school research project, it would earn a B-plus, at best. “There’s nothing really useful or interesting in them.”
The Indoor Kids’ criticism of Anita Sarkeesian’s video series, while objectively much nicer than that which Sarkeesian faces every day through a variety of social media outlets, is no less dismissive and insulting, a three-pronged attack seeking to strike Sarkeesian down thusly: she’s not entertaining, she’s ignoring all the games where women aren’t treated as objects, and she’s not a big enough nerd to “get” gaming culture. Across fifty-minutes of video, the three hosts of The Indoor Kids found forty seconds of material worth praising, suggesting that Sarkeesian was out of her element and, as such, it would be best if video game fans simply ignored her videos, rather than giving them power through their wounded complaints.
I don’t want to harp on The Indoor Kids too much (though, as part of the massive Nerdist podcasting empire, it probably has more sway than I can imagine), but the three counterarguments presented by its hosts are representative of the collective consensus among gamers, who, for all their bluster about the need for the mainstream to finally recognize video games as art, are as quick as anybody to shield their chosen hobby as “just a game.” Without speaking to Sarkeesian, whose author photo shows her standing before a number of classic arcade cabinets and whose first video in the Tropes vs. Women In Video Games series states that she has long been a fan of the Mario and Zelda franchises, it’s patently unfair to say that she doesn’t “get” video gaming culture, not to mention indicative of the broader sexist attitude many within the community display when asking a woman to “prove” how big of a geek she is. To look at the massive list of games Sarkeesian presents as evidence in favor of her argument and ask “Well, what about Bioshock: Infinite” is to engage in exactly the sort of rhetorical device Nanjiani accuses Sarkeesian of: choosing one thing as representative of the whole. For a comedian to tell an academic that their academic presentation was boring is rich to say the least when considering the comedy community’s widespread defense of rape jokes as innocuous and incapable of harm, just a joke. I probably don’t need to point out the similarity between “just a joke” and “just a game” here.
But that is the exact strategy many gamers are taking as they fight their bizarre battle with Sarkeesian. In creating a ton of noise and attempting endlessly to bait her into making some kind of rhetorical misstep (like what, I wonder? That she’s engaging in some form of misandry? If so, what of it?), they seek to drown out her signal. The strategy is not working. Not only was Sarkeesian able to raise a gargantuan sum of money to embark on this project, but the two videos she’s released thus far have combined for nearly 2 million hits and counting. Indeed, the only recourse to Sarkeesian’s success has been to call her videos attention-seeking (as Gordon did on The Indoor Kids by pointing out that previous Feminist Frequency videos were nowhere near as popular as the video game ones), bitter (as Burnside does in the same podcast, noting that Sarkeesian’s only aim was to attack the video game medium), untruthful (as the 300,000-hits and rising video Feminism vs. FACTS posits), or some combination of the three.
Watched free from the context of the first video in the series, perhaps part two of Tropes vs. Women In Video Games does come off as shrill and condescending, as Nanjiani claims. Feminist Frequency videos are produced with the vim and vigor of CNN health reports filmed for the benefit of those in the waiting room at the physician’s office, and, yes, Sarkeesian’s decision to take a victory lap over the painfully stupid sounding conclusion of Bionic Commando was an error of judgment. But does my opinion of the video and her choices invalidate her claim? No. This is an academic lecture. Demanding excitement from cultural criticism is fundamentally unfair, and speaks volumes about the backwards, over-protective way some fans treat the hobby of their choosing. Not even a minute into Sarkeesian’s second video, she speaks to assuage this crowd, saying that “it’s both possible, and even necessary, to simultaneously enjoy a piece of media while also being critical of its more problematic or pernicious aspects.” In short: video games are fun, but lets consider their flaws.
I’m maybe being a little generous here, but I think one of the biggest issues detractors have with Sarkeesian’s work is that they are simply unfamiliar with the way academic arguments are framed. There are, of course, several differences between the Feminist Frequency videos and your typical academic essay, especially in the way each is presented. By uploading her argument in chunks over a series of months in a highly visible public forum (as opposed to publishing a paper in the largely unread ghetto of academic publishing), Sarkeesian is encouraging a much wider, more readily available discussion, but the long wait between videos has engendered the perception that she is being unfair to games and the gamers that play them. Cries of “What about Game X” (insert Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, any number of RPGs that allow you to choose a female character, the aforementioned Bioshock: Infinite) will likely be answered in later videos (though perhaps not always to the satisfaction of a franchise’s fans), but it’s the noise that fills the room between installments that threatens to invalidate Sarkeesian’s work. Which is a shame, because the goal of academic inquiry is not to end discussions, but begin them.
Flawed or not (so far, the series is far more illuminative than most have given it credit for), Feminist Frequency is doing something that’s been a long time coming. Sarkeesian makes no claims about the quality of any of the games featured in her video, but finds their mode of storytelling to be lazy, stagnant, and somewhat dangerous. This isn’t wrong, not by a longshot, but it’s also not a repudiation of players. Sarkeesian, in showing clip after clip of video games where the protagonist is set to action by the death of his wife or the kidnapping of his daughter or the promise of a lady’s kiss/sex/hand in marriage, doesn’t argue that video gamers are sexist, but that video game publishers should stop taking narrative shortcuts and trust their audience to get their game without being spoonfed gender-normative (and heteronormative) signifiers. If video games are a mirror held up to society, she argues, then what that mirror reflects is a culture that still sees women as weak-willed objects, passive things that can be won or lost due to a man’s action or inaction.
Video games are hardly alone in pushing this button dozens of times to engender sympathy for a protagonist or provide justification for the plot, but they are unique in that they ask the participant to actually push the button on the behalf of the writers and programmers responsible for the game. Pulling the trigger buttons on an Xbox controller is, for my generation, second nature. It is also second nature to aim the sights of an avatar’s gun at a female character and squeeze off a round to her forehead. Some games can’t be won without executing that particular program. That says something about us, right?
Returning to The Indoor Kids, Matthew Burnside says that these situations are engrained in video games as part of their grammar, as if the damsel in distress is as codified as the zeroes and ones making up her cage. As a gamer—as a consumer of popular culture—I find it particularly worrisome that this attitude towards woman can be so insipidly tossed off as being part of gaming grammar. This is a burgeoning art form (though I’d argue, as a slight variation on Roger Ebert’s somewhat infamous essay, that not all video games are art upon condition of merely existing), and to accept anything less than systemic change is not only a cowardly act, but a tacit admission that gaming will always be a lower art.
In this sense, it’s fitting that Sarkeesian mentions one of the more violent strains of the damsel trope, the woman in the refrigerator. Coined by later comics scribe Gail Simone after the events of a Green Lantern comic that saw the titular hero discover his beloved’s remains in his icebox, to “fridge” a female character means to murder them as a means of empowering a male protagonist. Say this for comic books: unlike video games, those female characters who end up dead so that their male counterpart may vanquish evil are at least given a history before they are disposed of. The strictures of video gaming necessitates that fridged female characters are essentially wraiths. They are so thin and so transparent that they may not exist at all.
Invoking the woman in the refrigerator draws another clear line between comic books and video games. Comics have just now started gaining clout as a true artistic medium, and the crossover between the comic reading crowd and the gaming crowd, to the mainstream, has a lot of bleed-through. When Alan Moore talks about Watchmen, he speaks of creating the character Rorschach as a real life Batman: smelly, illiterate, homophobic, sexist, and generally unpleasant. That half-crazed, emotionally scarred sociopath wound up being the most popular character in the book. Discounting Moore’s claims that those attributes account for Rorschach’s popularity (and, indeed, setting aside Moore’s own penchant for using rape as a means of character development), this is mostly how the media has portrayed both the comic book fan and the video gamer; instead of dwelling in alleys and red light districts as Rorschach does, the gamer’s domain is his mother’s basement. Of course, this comes with a caveat: with the billion-dollar success of movies like The Avengers and The Dark Knight, many media outlets are coming around to the idea that comics aren’t just for kids anymore and that women also read them. This leads to some fairly problematic reportage, but other nerdy realms have stepped forward so much quicker than video games that it’s not unreasonable to think that it’ll be another decade before anybody takes the female gaming market seriously. Until then, it seems like female characters, when not murdered, raped, or locked in a dungeon, will mostly have to settle for side-kicking and the occasional token act of pseudo-empowerment.
None of this is okay, but a not-insignificant portion of the gaming community has accepted these conditions as if they were etched in stone and passed down from on high: violence against women—or, if you want to indict video games of a lesser crime, damseling women—just makes sense in a game’s internal logic. I’m not willing to accept that, and I’m amazed that so many gamers are. I certainly do not accept the argument that video games exist separate from the rest of culture. That games don’t exist in a vacuum is the main argument of the Feminist Frequency series, thus far. This, oddly, is something gamers have argued for years (again, see Ebert’s “Video Games Can Never Be Art” and the response that generated), but those gamers are the same who demand the shield of game grammar when any aspect of the medium is criticized. My contention is this: if systemic, often violent misogyny is a vital part of gaming grammar, then something is very, very wrong. Not just with video games, but with the culture that fosters, coddles, and makes excuses for these beliefs and behaviors. The fact of the matter is that video games have never been hermetically sealed from culture. Like any other piece of media, video games are both significant artifacts from that culture and a reflection of it. Much of the negative reaction towards Feminist Frequency has been horribly misogynist. The reason for this is simple: an outsider (read: a woman) is looking at that reflection and finds it repulsive. Anita Sarkeesian is not wrong. She is not the enemy. She is merely starting a conversation. It’s time we had it.