Our conversation touched on a wide array of topics, including my experiences with games growing up, heroic women of the 1800s, and how I’ve responded to the organized harassment campaigns against me, among other things. Most of this didn’t make it into the IGN piece, so we’ve published the full interview for you to read here:
Paul Dean: First of all, can you explain what Feminist Frequency is? How would you describe the site, and the work you do, to someone who had never encountered it before?
Anita Sarkeesian: Feminist Frequency is a video webseries that primarily explores representations of women in pop culture such as TV shows, movies, comic books and video games. Mainstream popular culture has become, for better or worse, our dominant form of storytelling especially in Western cultures and these stories do have a profound influence on our lives, perceptions, values and belief systems — even if we don’t always like to admit it. So my goal with Feminist Frequency is to explore the tropes, stereotypes and patterns that are most often associated with female characters in mass media. Not all tropes are problematic, of course, so I focus specifically on deconstructing recurring patterns that tend to reinforce or amplify preexisting regressive notions or attitudes about women and women’s roles in our larger society.
The power of pop culture stories should not be underestimated and there is an enormous potential for inspirational stories that can have a positive transformative effect on our lives. If there is one thing I’d like viewers to take away from my videos, it’s that being a fan isn’t an all or nothing situation. It’s possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy a piece of media while also being critical of some of the more problematic aspects of that same media.
PD: Am I correct that the Feminist Frequency site and videos have been going for about three years now? What led you to start FF and were video games part of your original remit?
AS: Yes on both counts. I started my webseries in early 2009 while still in grad school at York University in Toronto partly because I was frustrated with how academia tended to present feminist theory in disconnected or inaccessible ways. I wanted to try and bring a sociological feminist lens to the limited and limiting representations of women in the media and then share that with other young women of my generation. YouTube was the perfect medium for that.
I intended my series to look at all aspects of popular media. Video games have always been a part of that equation and I’ve been looking for an opportunity to devote the time and energy to the analysis games deserve. When I decided to do a follow up to my 2011 Tropes vs. Women series, I noticed that many of the tropes I wanted to include (like the Damsel in Distress) permeated many gaming narratives and so it just made sense to do a gaming centric series this time around.
This new series is especially exciting for me because games have been an influential part of my life since I was about 8 years old. My dad was a computer networking engineer, so while I was growing up our house was full of computers and he would always have a few machines loaded with games for me. When I was about 10, I remember I campaigned for months to convince my parents that the “Game Boy” was not in fact just for boys. Eventually I won the debate and got my first portable gaming device the following Christmas. So even though I’ve always been enthusiastic about games, I’ve also always been bothered and disappointed with the way women were represented much of the time.
PD: You’re a keen gamer, but you began your Kickstarter project to explore recurring female stereotypes in video games. How pervasive and how serious an issue is this?
AS: One of the reasons I decided to dedicate a series exclusively to video games is because the way women are represented in the medium is consistently abysmal. This fact is undeniable and there is just no way to sugar coat it. Don’t get me wrong I love gaming (and there are a small handful of amazing female characters out there) but the seriousness of the gender problem really cannot be overstated. Think of it this way, if gaming is the air we all breathe, right now the air quality is currently extremely polluted with thick clouds of toxic sexism with radioactive particles of misogyny floating around everywhere. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way! It’s in all of our interests to deal with the mess although, as I’ve found out recently, the detoxification process will probably not be an entirely pleasant one. In the end though, I truly believe it will create richer, healthier, more complex and inclusive gaming universes for people of all genders.
PD: Can I ask what you’ve been playing recently and what your responses to the depiction of women in these games has been? I noticed you recently tweeted about the female characters in Dishonored, which you felt disappointed by.
AS: I’ve been playing a ridiculous number of games over the past several months looking for either examples or counterexamples for each of the tropes in my series. I’ve also been revisiting a good amount of games I haven’t played since my childhood, which has been a little bittersweet to be honest. Mostly because along with all the fun nostalgia there’s also a number of seriously problematic gender representations, many of which I didn’t really notice back when I was a kid. So I’m playing (or replaying) everything from Zelda and Metroid to Secret of Monkey Island and Braid to the God of War and Bioshock series.
As you mentioned I recently played and enjoyed Arkane Studios’ Dishonored (especially the stealth options and the mystical listening heart!). The female characters in the game however were disappointing to put it mildly and I think they represent a failure of imagination. It’s a much longer conversation then we probably have time for here but let’s briefly examine the women in the game. First we have The Empress who might have been cool, except she is fridged within the first five minutes ending up in a pool of blood to provide a revenge motivation for the male hero (it’s also telling that there are zero other women in any positions of power or authority anywhere else in all of Dunwall). Next we have Emily who fulfills the damsel in distress role (twice). The rest of the female cast end up either in stereotyped roles or as set decoration (or both). We have cowering maids, suicidal prostitutes, the kindly caregiver, the evil mistress, the evil madam and the evil witch. It’s pretty standard stuff in game narratives unfortunately. Again, I say this as a fan of the game who’s hoping for a sequel.
The predictable defensive response to this observation I hear most often, from fellow gamers, is what I like to call the “historical accuracy” fallacy. I just have to facepalm at that kind of reaction for a number of reasons. First the game is not a historical document, it’s a fantastical alternative reality with steampunk style technology and supernatural powers derived from whale bones. Developers are perfectly willing to bend, twist or entirely throw out the laws of physics and no one bats an eye, but somehow it’s impossible to imagine even an alternative reality in which most women aren’t horribly oppressed, stereotyped or merely decorative. I’m certainly not saying all female characters need to be heroes but the “historically accurate” mantra is really just a flimsy excuse used to justify the continued exclusion of strong women from central or starring roles.
Second, even if a game was trying to be as historically accurate as possible, there were countless incredible women doing all kinds of extraordinary things in the 1800s to draw inspiration from. Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852) is widely regarded as the first to conceive of computer programing. Sarah Emma Edmonds (1841 – 1898) disguised herself as a man and fought in the American Civil War. Harriet Tubman (1820 – 1913) was a union spy running rescue missions into confederate territory and was the first woman in American history to lead a military expedition. Annie Londonderry (1870–1947) was an international sports star for bicycling around the world. Ching Shih (1775–1844) was a pirate commanding a fleet of 1,500 ships that controlled the waters of the South China Sea. Mary Somerville (1780 – 1872) was one of many female mathematicians writing about math and astronomy in a time when women were formally barred from science fields. This is just a small handful of examples off the top of my head but there are countless extraordinary women from every era in history. Unfortunately, there is an enormous amount of ignorance out there about women’s historical contributions because their heroism (or sometime villainy) has been systematically downplayed, dismissed or written out of the history books altogether. So the truth is that inspirational women are, in fact, very “historically accurate” and as such there is just no excuse for the failure to include heroic female characters in modern games, regardless of the time-period or setting.
PD: Feminism still isn’t something that many of us encounter in our daily lives (either as a concept or as a reality) and some people are still unclear about what the term really means. What was your introduction to feminism? Was it something you grew up with an awareness of, or something you were later introduced to?
AS: Feminism was actually not part of my life growing up, at least not consciously. My generation has been caught up in an extreme cultural, political and media backlash against women’s rights. I hear far too many young people say, “I believe in the equality of women but I’m not a feminist,” and, to be completely honest, I used to be one of them. It’s a silly nonsensical statement to make, of course, because at its core feminism is about working towards equality through ending the systemic oppression of women in society. Despite this reality there, unfortunately still exists a great many misconceptions and misunderstandings floating around out there about the word. Some of it is just ignorance but some of it is deliberate misinformation spread by regressive forces hell bent on trying to persevere the good old boys club.
If we look at the long and diverse traditions of feminist movements over the past 100 years we find that feminism has fundamentally transformed almost every aspect of our society. So in actuality everyone engages with feminism on a daily bases (especially in the west), but we have just been taught not to think of it as such. Feminist ideas have profoundly changed everything from medicine to law, from politics to science, from sexuality to economics. The fact that contraceptives exist and are widely available is one hard fought victory that traces all the way back to heroes like Emma Goldman (1869 – 1940). If women hold any decision making or management positions in your workplace for example, that is another direct result of feminist movements over the last several decades. Despite all our gains though, we still have a long way to go to end the oppression of women and girls. In the United States specifically the statistics are grim, sexual assault and violence against women is still at epidemic levels affecting about 1 out of every 4 women and girls in the country. On the economic side women still face significant social and systemic barriers; only 15% of property is owned by women and women still only earn 77 cents on the dollar compared to men. In the gaming industry in particular only about 11% of developers are women and its still extremely rare to see games with exclusively female protagonists.
PD: After you launched your Kickstarter you started to receive a great deal of harassment from some areas of the internet. What sort of things happened?
AS: I did receive a tremendous and truly staggering amount of sexist harassment. I was attacked via nearly every facet of my online life by a loosely coordinated cyber mob. All of my social networks were flooded with a torrent of misogynist and racist slurs as well as threats of rape, violence and death. The wikipedia article about me was vandalized with similar sentiments. When I publicly shared what was happening to me, the perpetrators responded by escalating their harassment campaign and attempting to DDoS my website and hack into my online accounts. They also tried to collect and distribute my personal info including my home address and phone number. They made pornographic images in my likeness being raped by video games characters which they distributed and sent to me over and over again. Attempts were made to discredit me and my project by creating and posting false quotes or fake tweets attributed to me. There was also a flash game developed where players were invited to “beat the bitch up”. Unfortunately I still receive threats and explicit images on a semi-regular basis. In December 2012, I gave a TEDxWomen talk where I discuss in more detail what happened, and how these large scale loosely organized Cyber Mob attacks operate.
These type of attacks are certainly not unique to my situation. Over the past year we’ve seen a number of cases where high profile women were targeted by a similar backlash including Bioware writer Jennifer Hepler, Aisha Tyler, and Felicia Day to various degrees. Of course the implicit underlying purpose behind these hateful harassment campaigns is to try and maintain the status quo of gaming culture as a boys club by creating an environment that is too toxic and hostile for women to endure.
PD: Were you prepared for this, and what was your response? What actions did you have to take?
AS: I’m an open and vocal feminist on the internet, so I’m no stranger to some level of sexist backlash. Upon launching my fundraiser, I figured I would probably get the typical rash of sexist and harassing comments that regrettably tends to occur whenever I release a video. But I can honestly say, I did not expect the torrent of extreme and sustained misogynist hate I received.
I have a few strategies for dealing with harassment. First having a good support network is important. Whenever possible I try to look through the worst of the comments and messages with friends who can offer moral support and witty observations. Second, I never respond to any of the hateful messages, emails or comments directly. Its just not worth it on a tactical level or frankly, on an emotional level. You really can’t have a well reasoned argument with folks spewing blatant sexism all over the place.
Instead, after long discussions and careful consideration, I decided to document the abuse I was receiving and strategically post portions of it online. I knew that by refusing to be silent, and making the abuse public, I ran the risk of further enraging my attackers (and becoming even more of a target) but ultimately I felt it was worth it to try and bring more attention to the epidemic of sexist harassment that women face everyday just for wanting to be full participants online.
PD: What advice would you give to someone else who experienced the same, and is it possible for someone in this position to hold such people accountable?
AS: If other women find themselves targeted either by a large scale cyber mob, or by a handful of hateful or harassing comments, it’s important to remember that you are not alone! Gendered harassment is sadly a very common occurrence in many online and gaming spaces but that doesn’t mean it’s okay or normal or that we should just “get used to it”.
If targeted, I find it’s always good to reach out to friends or peers who will listen and be supportive of you. Having others around (either digitally or in person) to offer moral support can make all the difference. I’d also suggest documenting the harassment via screenshots and archiving messages etc. I personally chose to publicly share my story but I understand not everyone is in a place to be able to do that and I definitely believe safety and emotional well being should always be prioritized. Finally, I’d suggest looking up ways to protect your online and personal privacy.
When it comes to the question of accountability, we obviously need our service providers to take online harassment seriously with built in structures and functionalities that actively deter bad behaviour and actually encourage good behavior. We also need to be creating a larger cultural shift away from impunity and towards a measure of social accountability. This is a long process of course but it starts with community members (especially men) publicly calling out harassment and challenging misogyny when they see it. It’s critically important to make it clear that abusive behavior will not be tolerated in our digital spaces. These small personal actions might not immediately change the mind or world view of the person doing the harassing, but if enough people speak up it can definitely help to create an environment where perpetrators will feel less comfortable and less supported in their abusive behaviour. Harassers might think twice before making a sexist, racist or homophobic comment next time around because they can’t be sure that their fellow gamers will just ignore or go along with it.
PD: As well as the negative responses to the Kickstarter, you also received enormous support, both morally and in backers. The Kickstarter closed far, far above it’s modest target. What does this mean for you and for Feminist Frequency, in the short and long term?
AS: I did receive an overwhelming and amazing amount of positive support from gamers and developers of all stripes and genders. Many people expressed enthusiastic interest in my Tropes vs Women project as well as their deep outrage at the vicious harassment campaign targeting me for simply announcing my intentions to create the video series.
When I launched the kickstarter my initial goal was $6000, and I honestly wasn’t even sure if I could raise that much. I was pleasantly surprised when we hit that amount in the first 24 hours. In the end, nearly 7000 people backed the project and we received over 25x the initial goal. As a result the project has been expanded enormously to now include over a dozen videos as well as a free classroom curriculum. We are broadening the scope and scale of the research and upgrading the quality of the videos with new production equipment and improved graphics. Since the beginning Feminist Frequency had really been a part time side project but now because of the extra funding its become a full time endeavor. I’ve even been able to hire a producer for this project.
Additionally, the topic of online harassment has become a major component of this project so I’m also committing time to sharing my story by giving talks, doing dozens of media interviews and communicating with a handful of game studios and social media companies on the subject. There have been many inspirational women speaking out about online and gaming harassment issues for a long time and my hope has been that I can use my personal story to contribute to this important and critical conversation.
PD: The events of the last few months, positive and negative must have had a profound impact upon you. Has it changed how you work, how you feel about what you do, or even changed you as a person?
AS: Honestly, this is kind of a difficult question to answer. The events in question have of course had a pretty substantial impact on my life both professionally and personally. I would be lying if I said that it isn’t sometimes a struggle to deal with this kind of persistent vitriol on a daily basis. I think one possible response to this much vicious hostility would be to simply become jaded and cynical or to “grow a thicker skin” so to speak. But I don’t think that the price of admission to the world of gaming should be to have to disconnect from your emotional capacity or distance yourself from your own humanity. I don’t think that’s a fair trade. Its simply not ok to ask people to jettison their ability to feel in order to deal with a constant barrage of threats, slurs and abuse. So instead I try to balance it all by focusing more on the tremendous outpouring of support for my project. That incredible encouragement has really inspired me and deepened my convictions about the work I do and I think is an indication that the industry, and gaming culture more broadly, is already in the process of changing for the better. Although, this metamorphoses may be slow and painful at times, there can be no doubt that change is happening and will result in a better more inclusive gaming culture for everyone.