The Lebowski Gambit part 2: Whiny Guys on The Escapist

by Tom Ingram


Well, that was some mighty long groundwork-laying, wasn’t it? I promise I’ll get to the point very soon, but there’s just one more bit of background you might need.

Who is Anita Sarkeesian?

Anita Sarkeesian is a feminist who has created two popular video series on Youtube (Feminist Frequency and Tropes vs. Women) and is working on a third (Tropes vs. Women in Video Games). I watched a couple of her videos when they started appearing in the news recently. They’re not my thing, but they’re well made and have pretty sound analysis (though as always there are things here and there I disagree with). The only complaint you can reasonably make about them is that they’re too basic and never really go beyond the 101 level. However, 101-level stuff often needs restating, and she’s not trying to reinvent the wheel. She’s just trying to provide a feminist voice in a venue where you still don’t have to go far to find neo-Nazis.

When Sarkeesian announced her new series on video games and set up a Kickstarter page to fund it, harassing, misogynistic comments started flowing in. There were death threats, there were rape threats, there were unspeakable things said. Anyone who has spent any time reading feminists on the Internet (as I do now and then) knows that this is fairly common, although it doesn’t usually happen on this scale and this publically. When the story got picked up and amplified, donations to her Kickstarter went through the roof, and as I understand it now her project is quite well-funded. So, bad things happened, but it came to a happy ending, right?

Well, not exactly. You see, the Escapist thread I happened across seemed to be accusing Sarkeesian of being a scam artist. There were very few dissenting voices, and even they made a few concessions to the OP. Among the people who most need to hear Sarkeesian’s message, some really shocking ideas about her are in common currency. My intention here is to mount a defence of Sarkeesian against these people.

More importantly, a twenty-minute, two part video was linked in the OP of that thread. The video is repulsive throughout and at some points so shockingly stupid I could hardly believe what I was hearing. But the video’s maker (hereafter referred to as “the video guy”) would claim to be a serious person, and I feel a certain amount of responsibility to deflate this claim definitively. As the actress said to the bishop, I have a feeling this is going to be a long one.

The message board thread

Here is the thread. It’s long, at least 11 pages and (I think, but I didn’t count) fifty posts per page. But, as is usual in these discussions, the same arguments kept surfacing again and again. Sarkeesian posted a picture of the games she had bought as research material for her series on video games. The thread’s creator pointed out that four of the games don’t even have people in them, so obviously Sarkeesian is a scam artist who is just tricking gullible dupes out of their money so she can buy video games, and then rubbing salt in the wound by posting pictures bragging about her shopping spree.

So, here’s a rebuttal of the recurring accusations.

Some of these games don’t even have people in them!

The games are created by people, for people. Insofar as the games’ creators and audience are gendered, the games will be gendered. For instance, Little Big Planet, one of the games cited by the OP of the thread, has humanoid cartoon characters. Do they exhibit gendered characteristics? I don’t know, because I haven’t played it. But if they don’t, that’s an interesting addition to the discussion of the treatment of gender in games. If they do, then it’s absolutely relevant.

Stories are about people, and people have genders. Even stories that do not contain people are about them, and even stories about asexual robots cannot avoid the issue of gender.

What does she need all these games for anyway? Why does she need all this money to buy them?

She needs all these games to form a good picture of the mainstream of gaming as it stands today. This is best done with a broad but shallow project, that looks at several games but doesn’t go very far into any of them. As for the money, I think it should be obvious: games cost money. These days, a new game can run you upwards of sixty dollars. That’s a lot, and it’s even more if you need three hundred of the damn things.

More importantly, while I can go to my university library and sign out two hundred books (perhaps sticking them in a shopping cart promoted from a local grocery store), and I can get movies for something like a dollar fifty from the public library, there is no equivalent for video games. There is renting, but that still costs money and makes it difficult if you ever need to go back to a game you played a while ago.

As I understand it, Sarkeesian has raised more money than she needs to fund the project, but this is all to the good. It means that, should any unexpected costs arise, she’s not in the hole. And it also means that she’s not working for free. Mundanes often forget this, when dealing with artsy and intellectual types: this stuff is work. It takes time and effort to do, and sometimes it costs money. If you do it without getting paid, you’re not working for free, you are actually paying for the privilege of working. Sarkeesian is planning an ambitiously large project, and if she can get paid to do it, that’s a good thing.

Everything she does is from her subjective point of view!

No, everything she does recommends a certain reaction informed by her knowledge of the relevant literature, i.e., exactly what a critic is supposed to do. You may take issue with her recommendations (as many will with her recommendation that we understand Buffy Summers as a strong feminist heroine), but you cannot dismiss them simply because they are recommendations. You’re going to have to provide a counter-analysis, and very few are forthcoming.

She’s not examining my favourite segment of the gaming industry!

This project already has a wide scope. Take it from me, as someone who has done careful, in-depth analyses of video games: this shit takes time. You can watch a couple movies in a day, and they’re short enough that you can hold pretty much the whole thing in your memory at once. Video games take several days to play, and unless you’re very meticulous about recording your thoughts (which slows your progress further), you’re liable to forget what you thought at the beginning by the time you get to the end.

Examining a large number of mainstream video games is no small effort. If you want to expand that to included niches like JRPG, it would require another undertaking of roughly equal size and scope (and would probably require some specialist knowledge of Japanese culture).

She’s not a real feminist! She just wants to tell women what to do.

I suspect I will have said this many times by the time this essay is done, but here it is: Whiny men on The Escapist don’t get to decide who is and is not a real feminist. Although not everything she says will be universally accepted by feminists (because there is no grand feminist hive mind, just a bunch of people with their own thoughts and ideas), I have yet to see any ideas she’s espoused that are not fairly typical of certain varieties of feminism.

Her videos are superficial!

Yes, her videos are superficial. They’re also ten minutes long and on Youtube. It’s meant to be a popular video series accessible to the average viewer. If you want depth, go read a book.

She censors comments! She doesn’t respond to criticism!

People get weird about censoring (more accurately, moderating) comments. There’s nothing wrong with this, so long as you do it right. Your opinions are not sacred, and if you break the rules in expressing them, there are consequences.

As for not responding, she gets assloads of comments. This video from five months ago has 18 pages of comments. This one from 2 months ago has so many I stopped counting, but it’s more than fifty. She couldn’t possibly respond to every one, and in any case, the vast majority of responses to feminist criticism retread the same tired arguments. There is no need to respond to them.

She’s anti-sex!

No she’s not. She’s anti-objectification, which is not the same thing (read a book).

It’s a scam!

Sarkeesian asked for money in order to undertake a difficult and expensive project. People have given her that money because they believe the project is worthwhile. So far, she’s still gathering her materials. But we have no reason to believe the videos won’t be made, which is the only circumstance under which you could accurately describe the enterprise as a scam.

This is an extremely strange argument to be making. Do people honestly think that her master’s thesis and two enormously popular video series were just done to establish her cover, so she could finally manufacture hundreds of death threats in order to con Kickstarter users out of a few thousand bucks? Not likely.

She probably won’t play those games all the way through.

No, she probably won’t. But playing a game all the way through and analyzing it in depth is a difficult, time-consuming thing. If you’re going for a broad analysis of the field, you don’t need to play all the way through. Arguably you don’t even need to play a game all the way through for a deep analysis. Games work differently than other media.

I still haven’t really gotten to the point. This thread pushed two of my buttons: misogyny and disrespect for the work of creative people. Because of this, my response ballooned in length far beyond my original expectations. What I had originally planned as “part 2” ended up being almost 6000 words long, which is too much for one blog post. I split it up to form a 4-part series. Parts 3 and 4 will address the video linked by the Escapist thread.