The Harbinger of the Geekocalypse, huh?
I'm slightly disappointed it wasn't Joss Whedon...
I'll be damned; after about a year of utterly ridiculous bullshit, Feminist Youtube video creator Anita Sarkeesian will finally launch the first episode of her already controversial "Tropes vs. Women in Video Games" video this Thursday. This is about 9 months after she announced that she had started the project with donations from a Kickstarter project, and can finally put to rest the endless snickered implications that she took the money and ran. Which would be, y'know, retarded since this appears to literally be her job.
But perhaps a little history is in order to understand why we're talking about her in the first place: Despite the fact that her videos consist of her talking into the camera while clips occasionally play behind her, she needed a larger budget for this project than usual - presumably to buy a truck full of games as research material, well, fair enough - and setup a Kickstarter with a goal of $6,000. To, in simplified terms, talk about how video games are inherently sexist on YouTube. So far so good, right?
Well, once 4chan's /v/ Board caught wind of the whole thing, a mess of ugly, trollish behavior followed, including massive levels of anti-semitic and death/rape threats on her YouTube account, home made flash games where you could literally bloody up her photo, and even blatant, pornographic shenanigans on Wikipedia article. In short, someone dared to talk seriously about a young medium with a largely teenaged male demographic as its primary market and how it might not be a great representation of women in the process (*gasp!*), and that very same demographic decided to prove her point to the hilt by being a bunch of loud, immature and misogynistic assfucks.
Sarkeesian wasn't exactly quiet about the incident, however, and as news spread through every corner of the video gaming community it led to a shockingly positive backlash against her detractors; not only did she surpass $6,000 - she walked away with a grand total of over $158,000!
...I don't get it. Horikawa just kind of hissed it,
or at least that's the way I always remembered it.
At the end of the day, it's her cash, and she can do whatever the hell she wants with it. In a way it's admirable to blow every penny on every single game system and potentially interesting title available, though if "research" was the whole point, I'm not sure why emulating or even watching video walk-throughs of long out of print games was good enough. But hey, having seen people write shit off wrongly because they didn't bother to actually ever see it - and I myself have been guilty of this more often than I'd like to admit - I can't blame anyone for doing their homework before they attempt to present what they have to say as a well informed and meticulous opinion based on first hand experience.
Is elf cheese stinky? Probably. But I'm not going to be the asshole who says that without having at least tasted it. On a related note, if anyone knows where I can purchase snacks made from the breast milk of beautiful, fictional women, let me know. Don't look at me like that; we've established this is for research, damn it!
There's so much more to all of this than Sarkeesian herself, though. 2012 was a fascinating year in the broader geek culture when it came to looking into the mirror and asking if the nerdy stuff we've all grown so fond of - video games, comic books, movies and the like - did adhere to bizarre double standards in a likely unconscious effort to sexualize and/or subjugate female characters in genres and mediums traditionally designed as adolescent male fantasy. The most obvious example was the Street Fighter X Tekken Internet Reality Show "Cross Assault" - yeah, that was actually a thing for some damn reason - which quickly devolved into one of the team captains, Aris Bakhtanians (wearing the scruffy beard and Robert Baratheon beer gut), being increasingly squicky towards his own team-mate Miranda Pakozdi, threatening to smell her and watch her in the bathroom, among other "charming" antics that would be funny if this were an episode of Beavis & Butthead and it were still 1996.
For her part, Pakozdi resisted the charm of starting a Reality TV feud, and merely ended her final match in an obvious forfeit, literally refusing to play the game and watching her character get pummeled in silence. Keep in mind these are people who basically play Street Fighter for a living, where losing in any official capacity is simply not an option for their future in the... I refuse to call it a "sport", but you know what I mean. It'd be like a professional pole vaulter merely walking under it and raising his middle finger to the judges the whole way; it certainly makes a statement, but it's still not good for their reputation or their averages.
That all would have been bad enough, but the fact that Aris Bakhtainas went on to give a ludicrous statement about how, and I swear I'm not exaggerating any part of this, "sexual harassment and racism is a part of fighting game culture", was the icing on the douchebag cake. He's essentially justifying the constant stream of words like cunt, rape, nigger and faggot used purely as low class insults on Xbox Live as the song of his people. And I gotta tell you, speaking as someone who took it upon himself subtitle tentacle rape porn in his spare time, that sort of mentality is just gross.
Look, I'm not saying you can't say these things in any context - I call my cat a motherfucker on a daily basis, despite the fact that he has never, as far as I know, had coital relations with his mom - but I'm saying that you say them among actual friends, not to complete strangers when you're hoping to win a cash prize for throwing Hadoukens, and certainly not to people you consider team mates. In short, the fact that anyone would suggest that losing the phrase "rape that bitch!" while playing BlazBlue would somehow destroy the culture of playing BlazBlue was an eye-opening thought. He's clearly just a bloated sack of dumbfuck, but the thought that he might not be alone was a humbling one to anyone who picks up a controller to unwind.
Can't imagine this Scarface inspired key art going anywhere but family-friendly.
Things didn't get much more cheery from there. E3 happened just a few short months later, and the initial teaser for Hitman Absolution. I personally thought the whole thing was dumb more than it was sexist, but in the wake of the Sarkeesian fallout, plenty of people saw women in BDSM Nunspoiltation costumes and sky high heels getting punched in the face by a conservatively dressed player analog, and saw it as little more than exploitive, sex-drenched posturing to sell a game in which you shoot people. Which, you know, it is... I just fail to see it as a problem when the whole point of these games has always been debauched blood-soaked fantasies. The fact that you literally spend the whole game murdering people is fine, so long as the women aren't dressed inexplicably sexier than the male antagonists? Before we get too lost in the minutia here, let us also remember this is a game where you can murder people dressed up as the giant chicken from Family Guy. At that point, the D'amato Latex Nun Squad being involved seems like the least ridiculous thing about it.
At that point, though, a lot of talk pointed towards "Hitman Absolution itself isn't the problem." Well, thank fuck for that. Rather, many concerned people asked if this sort of blatant sexualization targeted towards females should be the norm in video games, and by extension, nerd culture as a whole. This was a fair enough moment for introspection, I guess, but to this day I don't see anything "wrong" with the trailer full of sexy nuns getting the shit pounded out of them by a mute man in an Armani suit. But again, part-time tentacle porn translator, not a trained expert on the double-standard of sexism in the 21st century.
As is so often the case I see it as stupid, and maybe even tasteless, but as is so often the case my reaction to charges of sexism don't quite ring true. Is it ridiculous that the all female goon squad clearly bought their uniforms in the same aisle as the ball gags and Astroglide? Well sure. But it's little more than a parody-infused extension that ladies "formal wear" is a sleevless, low cut dress and painful heels while men get to walk around wearing an especially comfortable suit. What we see in fantasy is often, to one degree or another, a reflection of the reality we already live in, and while I won't deny the notion that women are expected to be "sexy" in ways men are not, that same idea creeping in our pop-culture is largely a hyper-realized version of what we already know and see every day.
For me, though, the whole thing got out of hand when everyone started flipping out over the Tomb Raider reboot trailer, which was very clearly hemming closer to The Gray than it was Indiana Jones. The modus opperandi was clearly to knock Lara Croft down a peg and present her as a young, inexperienced adventurer who has to earn her place as a survivalist expert; it's a grim, gritty interpretation of a franchise that had always been about two pies in the face away from being a joke, and honestly, I thought it looked much more interesting for it... it's too bad the already sore anus of the gaming community let loose the hounds over about 10 seconds of footage implying that Lara has to fight back against some dangerous, desperate men that might want to put the rape-boots to her and her friend. Because they're the fucking bad guys.
Goodbye, polygonal breasts. Hello, badass motherfucker.
It's a terrifying concept, I admit. But how is this any more offensive than her fighting against a wolf trying to rip her face off, exactly? Aren't both instances the whole POINT of this game, to present Croft with all manner of dangerous, horrifying situations and overcome them with you playing the heroine? Well, according to the game's executive producer, Ron Rosenberg, he thinks the player wants to protect Lara, not be Lara. Being a firm believer in the power of moe, I actually don't much disagree with him on this point, and while moe in general is looked down upon in the context of a Western pro-feminist discussion, that doesn't mean that the natural reaction isn't there in a large number of consumers.
Of course, just to be safe, the studio head Darrel Gallagher decided to undercut the whole argument, basically saying that any attempted rape in a mainstream video game doesn't really exist... even though it, you know, clearly does in the promo video they'd already shown us (if just implicitly). A number of critics and commentators basically snorted in disgust, and said that rape and violent sexuality has no place in video games. Personally, I disagree with this assessment; I won't deny that it's overwhelmingly an uncomfortable subject in any medium, and unlike novels and film it doesn't have a century or more to back up that it's a "responsible" or "valid" enough medium to tackle complex, hairy subjects with tact, but suggesting that there's no room for 'X' in any medium will stagnate any growth that medium might have to begin with, and quickly any possibility that a video game could have something worth-while to say about these subjects is dashed in a self-fulfilling prophecy.
That's not to say that rape won't be handled poorly in video games, just like it is in every other story telling medium on the planet. Just to say that it can't handle it well is unfair to a medium that, intrinsically, has a different set of tools to immerse and communicate with the player than other forms of entertainment do. Oh, and speaking of which!
Y'all remembered that little 18+ tag on my site, right?
You're welcome. Now close this tab before your boss walks in!
And, yes, we do have countless rape simulators available from Japan, but the market for those has mostly dropped out in favor of games in which you build your ideal girlfriend, and then stick things inside of her when you're done. Due to a number of factors - government classification pressures, changing tastes, and an increase in the level of interactivity these sorts of games offered - they simply don't top the charts anymore. They still exist, sure, but saying that films like The Brown Bunny, 9 Songs and Baise Moi exist doesn't instantly mean that unsimulated hardcore has become a commonplace in "mainstream" dramatic cinema. That said, the general shift of virtual pornography in Japan is a huge matter unto itself that'd take up a lot more time than I've got to dedicate to it here, so, maybe later...
I won't defend the massive glut of virtual rape simulators in the context of Modern Feminism in Popular Culture, I'll only point out that Japan is different. Here, geeks get their collective panties in a wad over Firefly and The Walking Dead, pseudo-intellectual fantasy adventure that strikes a fun balance between wacky action and character development, allowing the American to consume something inherently silly without feeling they're engaging in something outright stupid. In Japan, it's often enough something like Strike Witches, a show about teenage girls who use a combination of science and magic to fight aliens in WWII in their underwear. Because this is just how Japan rolls. It's like trying to convince Germany that David Hasselhoff isn't cool, or that India really needs to can it with the cinematic musical numbers: It's just not going to happen. It's an innate cultural thing that we'll never understand because we're not really a part of it. All we can do is accept it, and try to deal with it on its own terms, whatever that might entail.
$90 for 2 episodes. Average of 12,000 copies per volume.
I'm talkin' fat stacks, bitches. Fat. Stacks.
I'm not saying Japan isn't sexist - far from it! It's probably the most sexist first world nation out there, and on levels far more important than cartoon driven geek subculture. I'm just saying that bring upset at Japan's take on gender roles and presentation probably isn't going to matter if those discussions aren't happening in Japanese. That puts incidents like Sheva Alomar's somewhat infamous (for racial as well as sexual overtones) Tribal Bikini, and the utter mockery of Samus Aran's legacy of heroism in Metroid: Another M outside the reach of our general influence. Not to say you can't have a discussion about these things, but that Japan will start to give a shit when Japan itself gives a shit, not when Americans are offended that they're a decade or two behind America's concept of gender equality.
I mention this because, to this day, a large number of video games are made both by, and for the Japanese market, and they continue to produce gonzo bizarro stuff focused on cute girls like Disgaea, Neptunia, Atelier, and a variety of other absurd and, sometimes, perhaps inherently sexist/sexualized games. And as the Western market for these games tend to only make up a small number of tales to begin with, they couldn't give a fuck if we, as a culture, don't like it. They move a few thousand units on a game that didn't have a huge production budget to begin with, they crunch the numbers, and if all went well we still get Atelier Ayesha the next year. World keeps on spinning.
This all got me thinking... do we even have recognizable, admirable, iconic heroines in the video game sector? I'm honestly not certain. The majority of video game protagonists are written, intentionally, to be blank slates that the player can project themselves onto. Perhaps the best example of this is Commander Shephard of the Mass Effect trilogy, an avatar so malleable that the player can literally pick a different gender without effecting anything central to the game's core plot. Another great example are the covers of the Call of Duty: Black Ops games, which present little more than a generically rugged masculine shadow with no explicitly obvious features, but plenty of artillery. He is whatever the player wants him to be, nothing more, and nothing less.
So what of our game heroines - honestly, who are they? The closest thing we have to an iconic, modern day heroine the player controls that immediately jumps to mind is the aforementioned Lara Croft, but trying to done down the glitz and sexiness for a darker, more realistic take has only backfired. Samus Aran is similarly a beloved and respected heroine held over from the dawn of the 8-bit era, but her status as a strong, independent character not ruled by the whims of a man she barely knows was wiped away in Another M. Princess Peach is another potential contender, but she's always played second fiddle to the squat plumber who rescues her, and after this many years I'm not convinced that she's not meeting Bowser on some clandestine annual BDSM meet that poor Mario has never been informed of. What else do we really have that wasn't a one-hit wonder? I'm looking for bankable game heroines here, the kind that weren't dropped after one title - so goodbye Mirror's Edge, Heavenly Sword and Bayonetta, relevant or not. Well, there is Bloodrayne who holds the honor of being the first non-real woman to appear nude in the pages of Playboy magazine... so yeah, there's that.
"The 90s sucked." - Randy the Ram, The Wrestler
Getting away from digitally rendered mamaries and back to Anita Sarkeesian... honestly, I'm still a little fussed as to why she's gotten so goddamn much attention to begin with. I've watched the majority of her work posted to YouTube, and find that while some of it is legitimately interesting (particularly the shift in advertising Lego products that occured in the 1980s). But of far more importance to me are the rather harsh and seemingly reasonable CRITICISM OF HER WORK - not the unfiltered 4chan trolling, mind you, but an honest to God catalog of what she tends to do, and why it harms her credibility as a critic. Granted, I'm hardly an academic myself - let's just say my combined experiences with higher learning were a joke without a particularly satisfying punch line - but I'd like to think I can spot bullshit when I see it. And Sarkeesian having posted exactly one video about a video game character, only to pull it without a word some time later - presumably when she realized that Bayonetta was, as a concept, a parody of the adolescent sexualization those unfamiliar with the actual game all thought she was merely yet another part of - speaks to a lack of confidence in her own views. Which is odd, since that's literally all the Women Vs Tropes videos are.
The most troubling issue is the fact that she doesn't actually discuss anything; her supposed "conversations with pop culture" are monologues almost entirely focused on her, rarely cutting away to the material itself in question or allowing any other commentators to expand or even question the viewpoints she presents as undeniable fact. As the above criticism explains better than I plan to here, she appears to be - intentionally or not - a master of manipulating feedback, allowing the sloping-browed hate speech to flow when it garners outrage, but she tends to not show any posts that have a more well thought out argument over whatever her subject du jour might be. Feminism isn't science, it's a philosophy - or rather, a number of differing philosophies with the unified goal of wanting to see women treated equally to men. As a somewhat easy example, there are "Sex-Positive" feminists who believe that pornography, BDSM and gender identity can be positive and self-affirming actives for women to engage in. Meanwhile, Sarkeesian posts a video complaining that The Pirate Bay has porn advertisements. I'm gonna go out on a limb here and assume she's not one of those...
With some of the passing mentions I've made above, I don't doubt that there are some very nuanced, important questions that we should be asking about the presentation of women in pop culture... I'm just not convinced that Sarkeesian is the one to make that conversation happen, at least not in a way that isn't tailored specifically to what she decides it should be. I'd love to be wrong come Friday, but my guess is we're going to get a lot of angry soap boxing and half-truths to make a point, and the fact that she's pulling all the way back to the second Zelda game on the NES suggests that this research is going to cover a time when games were much simpler than they are now. That's not to say that The Legend of Zelda doesn't continue an eternal cycle of a young hero saving a princess in danger, but for crying out loud, those games didn't even have actual characters until the SNES iteration. There's a whole lot that can be said about Zelda's role in Ocarina of Time... and I'll be honest, how she reacts to that will tell me a lot about how I'll probably feel about her summary of this exploration as a whole. But I have no idea what she'll cover, or when - I wasn't a backer, just another schlub who was positively gobsmacked by how 4chan trolls turned a YouTube academic into a bona-fide threat to the normalcy of video gamer subculture being a rowdy boys club with no sissy girly cootie shit to get in the way.
In a way, though, it doesn't matter what any of us think; by having been so thoroughly and publicly brutalized by the anonymous masses of gaming culture itself, seemingly concerned that a feminist commentator was going to look at their hobby of choice*, she's already become something of a martyred saint. Will her upcoming video series have some valid points? Probably... but that doesn't even matter anymore. The moment she was treated like an internet punching bag and earned the Paypal based sympathy of strangers was the moment she went from being an obscure pop-culture commentator - one of thousands, easily - to having every eye in the world of video games on her. We're all her captive audience now, and whether she's right or wrong, she's still going to be seen as a trail blazer for presenting research on a digital medium in the digital age, focusing on aspects that have largely been ignored to this point (in no small part because gaming is still both a young and constantly evolving medium - more so than any other form of storytelling I can think of, at any rate).
It strikes me as vaguely reminiscent of how C. J. Clover's academic study the American horror film, Men Women & Chainsaws, was one of the first books to seriously tackle the notion of gender roles in modern horror films with a feminist slant - and yes, before anyone asks, I read every damn page of it. I certainly don't AGREE with Clover on all of her points, and find some of her readings into my all time favorite films as a bit shallow - even at times downright crazy... but she gets props for having taken the time, done the research, and publicly tried to take it all seriously and look at what has always been a boys' club with a different view point. When we settle on how we see the world, we stop trying to understand and merely accept that some things are, not that things might be what we see in them. Culture can be studied and popular culture is absolutely worthy of anthropological value, but we need to approach these subjects from more than the angle of the fanboy if we hope to get anything substantial out of it. Again, I think large passages of MW&C are a big plate of misguided bull, but I won't fault Clover for having done the research and come to a totally different point of view on it all than I did. Hell, she's the one who literally wrote the book on Leatherface's sexuality, and I respect the hell out of that - it's just my personal enthusiasm to disagree with her about it from time to time.
In summary, Anita Sarkeesian has become so much larger than herself by way of her despicable story having eclipsed any of the work she might actually produce, and it's earned her a 15 Minutes she never would have gotten without /v/ waving their collective taints at her. At the end of the day, I'm damnably curious to see what she'll do with it.
Alright, that's enough outta me on all of this crap. In short, I'm all for more interesting and nuanced female characters in video games... though to be honest I'd argue that the majority of male characters have most of the same problems, just in different, less female-offending ways. Avatars of macho-murder like Marcus Phoenix and Kratos aren't exactly subtle portrayals of complex masculine entities either, and the fact that both male and female characters tend to be targeted towards adolescent male fantasy doesn't bother me enough to be upset about it. But maybe if any of you give two fucks what I think on the matter I'll talk more about it in the future.
*Truth be told, "fear" is rarely the motivation behind 4chan trollings. Sure does make for a snappier headline than 'Anonymous Shits on Obscure Academic 4 Teh Lulz' though, doesn't it?