(This is so rambling. I’m sorry.)
Sexism exists in every aspect of life. It takes many forms. It affects everything we do or think. Its shadows can be seen in everything we create, in one form or another, in literature, film or any other medium. Videogames are no exception.
And a Youtube video series identifying and discussing the most common stereotypes used to create female characters in videogames? Good idea, actually.
I don’t like Anita Sarkeesian’s general approach much. I agree with her in principle, of course. Sexism exists. By repeating old clichés without thinking, you can accidently uphold inequalities. However, all of Anita’s videos contain moments where I want to go “Yes, but …!”
Be that because I disagree with her on specific examples, or simply can’t follow her argumentation. The latter happens easily, because Anita’s analyses (at least as she lays them out) are not very in-depth and go straight from spotting some clichés to a damning (or, seldomly, praising) conclusion that is rich in extreme, quotable language, but light on specifics.
The debate culture that has sprung up around Anita Sarkeesian is a huge problem that’s not entirely her fault, but the fault of both her stupid critics and her stupid supporters. Both sides are stupid!
On the one side, you have people sneering at “feminism” like it’s a dirty word and arteficially laughing at the idea that videogames could possibly adher to the same rules as the rest of human creation. There is a surprising amount of people who believe that Anita is the very first person to look at videogames critically, academically and with a focus on gender. There is an actual fear that Anita might single-handedly destroy all videogames. Forever. I am not exaggerating, some particular idiots really think that all it takes for an entire (sub-)culture to be destroyed is … one critical vlogger. Sure!
When they are not laughing at the basic idea that sexism is a thing, they attack Anita based on her eyebrows, call her a scam artist or complain that she is using her donated money for the project that she said she would use it for, rather than a different project that they deem a better use of money – “Why doesn’t she make her own videogame??!!” See, if Anita decided to use this money, which she received on the promise that she would use it for a series of video analyses, on something else, namely the creation of a videogame? THAT would be a scam. Doing the thing she said she would be doing? Not a scam.
So there are people who attack Anita over everything except her actual arguments. They come across as paranoid, pathetic and really quite dense.
And then there are the Anita fans who assume that everyone who disagrees with any aspect of Anita’s videos is a raging misogynist – or trying to win their approval. Going “Yeah, but …” is already a crime. Anita is not to be questioned, not to be challenged. Only evil misogynists ask questions, the good, feminist people just nod and agree.
Perversely, there is this idea that Anita should be supported just because she is a woman, regardless of the accuracy of her examples or the quality of her project. This is incredibly patronizing. It dismisses the very goal of Anita herself. How can Tropes VS. Women raise awareness and start a discussion if we are not allowed to think about it and to provide our own view points? Disagree with her and with each other – you know: discuss?
A guy on Youtube made a video dismissing EVERYONE who did not agree 100% with Anita as “mansplainers”. He specifically singled out vlogger KiteTales, who is a woman. (I lost the link.) Think about that for a moment: In a discussion about female representation in the media, a man calls a woman a “mansplainer” because he disagrees with her. Could this get any more absurd?
Obviously, Anita Sarkeesian garnered a lot of attention from people who are simply unqualified to participate and have nothing of value to add to this “discussion”. Be it people who didn’t even know media analysis has existed well before Anita’s Kickstarter. Be it people who cheer Anita on because they don’t like videogames and grab this opportunity to feel morally superiour over the gaming community as a whole. People who see this as another welcome opportunity to blanket-rage about feminism as a whole. There are just so many stupid people who have no interest in discussing anything.
It is all so needlessly polarizing and I don’t want to be on either side.
Can’t we just talk about videogames?
In her third “Damsel In Distress” video, Anita speaks about The Secret of Monkey Island and Braid, and concludes:
While these types of games are a refreshing departure from the standard formula, and something I’d generally like to see more of, the focus is still squarely on the male characters and so at their core these games are really deconstructing the player’s assumptions about the traditional hero archetype.
A true subversion of the trope would need to star the damsel as the main playable character. It would have to be her story.
Yeah, but … Is there really only one “true” way to subvert a cliché? I don’t think so. Just like there is more than one way to subvert the idea that videogame villains are pure evil. Do you counteract that cliché by giving them sympathetic traits and a backstory that explains why they do what they do? Or do you make them turn out to be good guys (with questionable or misunderstood methods) all along? Is one of these options a “true” subversion, while the other is somehow insufficient? I think the important thing is that both options can result in pretty good characters that are better than straight clichés. The rest depends a lot on execution and personal taste.
You could reimagine The Secret of Monkey Island as starring Elaine Marley, who is kidnapped yet manages not only to escape, but to prepare a plan to take down her enemy all by herself. But what makes this subversion work in the first place is Elaine’s actual competence, so having her the focus character throughout would change the entire tone of the game. The Secret of Monkey Island is a parody of pirate story clichés. Guybrush haplessly stumbling through an absurdly anticlimactic world, his constant failure to be truly, competently heroic and the disappointment of our romantic expectations of bravery and adventure, are the main sources of humour.
A main character Elaine could not be the butt of any jokes, because this would counteract the idea that she is awesome and capable. The game would stop being a parody. You’d get a more serious game. I am not saying this would be worse. It’s neither worse nor better, it’s just a different approach. I think both approaches are equally valid.
Off the top of my head, there are numerous ways that the Damsel In Distress plot can be subverted, deconstructed or parodied:
- The damsel who doesn’t need your help, thank you very much.
- The damsel who is actually trying to get away from the hero.
- The damsel who saves herself.
- The damsel who saves others, too, including guys.
- The damsel who turns out to be on the bad guy’s side all along.
- The damsel YOU kidnap.
- The Damsel who kidnaps YOU. (=P)
- The damsel who is a guy.
- The damsel who saves the player character.
All of these scenarios deviate from the standard cliché and have the potential to surprise us. They play with our expectations and thus make us aware of the fact that we’ve been kind of prejudiced all along.
I don’t think that dismantling a negative stereotype can happen by just replacing it with one single counter-scenario, labeling it the only “true” way. That just means establishing another stereotype in its place. Fight clichés by embracing the wealth of alternatives.