My Feminist Hero


JavaciaThank You, Anita Sarkeesian.

By Javacia Harris Bowser

 

am not a gamer. I’ve never played Halo, Call of Duty, or Assassin’s Creed. 

But I’m married to a man who can’t live without his PlayStation. A few years ago, in an effort to be a good wife, I decided to try to take an interest in gaming. But instead of picking up a PS3 or Xbox controller, I picked up my laptop to do research. And being the feminist nerd I am, I did research on representations of women in video games. This is how I stumbled upon the work of Anita Sarkeesian.

Sarkeesian is the feminist cultural critic behind Feminist Frequency, a video web series that examines representations of women in pop culture narratives. Sarkeesian is a gamer and one of her most popular projects is her “Tropes v. Women” series, which explores the often sexist and misogynistic portrayals of women in video games.

Sarkeesian’s name might be familiar to you even if you’re not a gamer like her or a feminist nerd like me. In October, she made headlines when she was forced to cancel a speaking engagement at Utah State University after the school received a terror threat from someone claiming they would commit “the deadliest school shooting in American history” if Sarkeesian gave her lecture. This wasn’t the first threat Sarkeesian had received because of her work. Since launching “Tropes v. Women” in 2012, Sarkeesian has been threatened with rape and death countless times. Internet trolls even created a game called “Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian.” And in August, Sarkeesian was forced to flee her home when someone informed her that they’d tracked down her home address and the names and address of her parents. The person threatened to kill Sarkeesian and her parents.

Sarkeesian isn’t the only female gamer under fire. Under the guise of pushing for journalistic reform and anti-censorship in gaming, a movement known as GamerGate (or #gamergate) has targeted prominent female video game critics and designers like Sarkeesian, Zoë Quinn, Brianna Wu, and Leigh Alexander. Supporters of the GamerGate movement say they’re fighting against corruption in video game journalism, but detractors see GamerGate as an attack against women advocating for change in gaming culture. Both Wu and Quinn were forced to leave their homes this fall due to death threats.

While the harassment these women have faced makes me seriously question the state of the human race, Sarkeesian’s story also teaches important lessons. Sarkeesian shows us that we can and should be critical of the things we love. So often, we think that if we love something, we can’t recognize its flaws. Whether it be a television show, a genre of music, or the work of our favorite celebrity, we think we must always sing its praises. But this is not realistic or productive. You will not like every single thing your favorite musician, writer, or television or film producer creates—not if you’re actually being thoughtful about the works. And in a world inundated by media, we must be thoughtful.

Sarkeesian isn’t trying to destroy the world of gaming. Why would she? She is a gamer and has been since she was a girl. Her hope is to make the world of gaming better. Casting female characters only as princesses to be rescued or prostitutes to be murdered isn’t just sexist; it’s also uninspired. More diversity and creativity would make for better games.

If you are a true fan of something or someone, you want that art or that artist to keep getting better. So it’s OK to point out where there’s room for improvement.

Sarkeesian also shows us we must speak out for what’s right even if it’s not what’s popular. With all the harassment and threats Sarkeesian has faced, no one would blame her if she just threw in the towel. But she refuses to simply preach to the choir. By using the language of pop culture and video games, Sarkeesian is taking feminist discussions outside the walls of women’s studies classrooms. In an October interview with RollingStone.com, Sarkeesian said, “A lot of times, feminist conversations are very insular…I feel very lucky that the work I’ve done has been able to reach far beyond that space.”

In that same interview, Sarkeesian also recalled a touching moment she had in September at the XOXO Festival, which celebrates independent art and technology: “When I was in Portland for my talk at the XOXO Festival, this little boy came up to me and said, ‘Hi, I’m a feminist gamer.’ How do you stop doing this work after that?”

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