The Lebowski Gambit, part 3: The Video Guy

by Tom Ingram

Previously…

The video guy’s hatchet job of Sarkeesian is in two parts, here and here. Part 1 begins with a childish rhetorical move, and such moves characterize much of its runtime. I will not respond directly to these, as they are beneath contempt.

I had intended to link to specific parts of the video, but my usual method for that (adding ?t=XmXs to the URL) is not working for these videos. This means I have to paraphrase inline, resulting in a lot more “he said she said” than I’d like. I will cite statements from the videos by putting the time at which the statement begins in square brackets like so: [2:30].

The video guy begins[0:17] by outlining the structure of Sarkeesian’s master’s thesis, on the subject of strong female characters in SFF TV shows of the last two decades. He says that the first twenty pages are dedicated to laying the groundwork of her argument by quoting “all the feminists she learned about in class.” The tone of voice indicates a vague suspicion.

Leave aside the fact that this is a ridiculously patronizing way to talk about a graduate student. The video guy seems to misunderstand the purpose of this section of the paper. It’s true that there is a certain amount of ritual in this kind of academic writing. The writer will work in citations to all the major literature of the field, as a nod to the giants on whose shoulders she is standing. But it also serves a number of practical purposes.

It makes it clear that you’re well read on the subject and have engaged with diverse points of view, including ones you may not agree with. It shows where you’re coming from, intellectually: the people you cite and your reaction to them both do a lot to locate your views before you actually state them. Most importantly, it’s a good practice because it introduces the topic to readers who may not be familiar with it and provides them with a reading list, while also introducing the concepts that will be used throughout the text.

In fact, the video guy has rather given himself away in this section[0:55] as someone who is not very well read in or knowledgeable about academic discourse. He does not seem to understand what a graduate student is or what they do, treating this thesis as roughly equivalent to a grade two student making a moose out of construction paper. He doesn’t understand the proper use of quotations in academic writing, either, intimating that Sarkeesian’s quotes and references are meant to hide a lack of original thinking.

Next he engages substantively with Sarkeesian’s thesis. His reading of Sarkeesian[1:03] is that most “strong” female characters only acquire that label by pretending to be men. He criticizes this view, specifically pointing out the implication that strong female characters are not allowed to show confidence or self-control.[2:00]

It’s a matter of some controversy whether or not a strong female character should resemble a strong male character. Some feminists believe that there are different feminine virtues that a strong woman character should embody, and ridicule characters like, e.g., Samus Aran as “dudes with tits” or “concave men”. Personally, I think that this is just a retread of the same essentialism that is used to argue that girls can’t be good at math, and I reject it.*

But this is the closest the video guy ever comes to making a valid argument. He goes on to make base personal attacks: “She only cares about TV shows (because that’s all she actually watches)”.[2:53] This is absurd. The fact that the essay focuses on TV shows doesn’t mean that Sarkeesian doesn’t care about other media or isn’t knowledgeable about them. It just means that she wisely limited the scope of her argument to a small area so she could go into more detail. The more things you talk about, the more introductory waffle you have to write, and the more bloated your paper becomes.

He criticizes Sarkeesian for being obsessed with Joss Whedon.[3:03] I argue that this is not a bad thing, for two reasons. First, if you’re going to write about SFF TV of the 90s and 00s, it would be very strange to do so without mentioning Whedon. It would be like writing about Viennese music in the early 19th century without once mentioning Beethoven. Second, and more important, Whedon is often given as a feminist hero. Whether or not you agree, a feminist writer must at least mention it. Besides, 7 out of the 12 characters she analyzes aren’t from Whedon shows.

Finally, we come to the kicker, the one sentence that annihiliates the video guy’s credibility for this entire section of his analysis. “She doesn’t do original thinking or research” (accompanied by an image of her bibliography).[3:05] Fuck me, are you stupid? Have you ever read a book that doesn’t have a Star Wars character on the cover?

These things.

Sarkeesian’s writing is utterly typical of academic writing in the humanities, the only difference being that it is sometimes shaky and unconfident. Almost as if she hadn’t done very much of it, being a master’s student and not a seasoned scholar. Funny, that. But seriously, this kind of writing is about taking ideas that already exist, making adjustments where necessary, and combining them in new ways. Long and frequent quotes are the norm, not some suspicious aberration.

Next the video guy says that Sarkeesian pigeonholes characters instead of using a holistic approach.[3:11] It’s not clear what a “holistic” approach would look like, but the characters that Sarkeesian examines are explored in a fair amount of depth—a couple of pages each. They are separated into “archetypal” categories, but these are extremely broad, and there are only four of them (Warrior, Leader, Anti-Hero, and Villain), which is hardly “pigeonholing”.

The video guy goes on to use a conceit that is of questionable relevance, that of Sarkeesian as a teacher. He shows a graph of the relative numbers of male and female K-12 teachers,[4:24] showing that women predominate in K-12 teaching. It’s not clear what point is being made here, but I would advise the video guy to think very carefully about why there are not more men in K-12 teaching, and why they are especially rare in the segments of the field that involve low prestige and large amounts of child care. As with the other fields where women predominate (which are much fewer in number than fields where men predominate), this imbalance can be fixed with more feminism.

In the middle of this is a very weird speculation about Sarkeesian’s marital status and whether she has any children. The video guy suggests that she might be married, “even to a man”.[4:30] Yes, feminists are lesbian dyke bitches. Classy.

This is a roundabout way of saying that Sarkeesian positions herself as an authority, controlling what comments we do and do not see (moderating)[4:57] and “molding” her viewers into “people like her”.[5:06] This is a strange twist on the truth. Sarkeesian does indeed position herself as an authority, recommending that you respond to works of art in a certain way. This is exactly what a critic is supposed to do. If she does it right, you come to share her response. This is how criticism works.

She is not, however, analogous to a teacher, because she doesn’t have the ability to physically intern her viewers for six hours a day while she talks at them. She’s just one more person peddling in the marketplace of ideas. When she moderates her comments, she is not closing off the only avenue of dissent, she is making sure that misogynist assholes (and every time the video guy mentions moderation in an ominous tone of voice, he accompanies it with a screenshot of comments from misogynist assholes [p1, 4:58; p2, 5:31, 8:36, 9:58]) aren’t allowed to shit in everyone else’s birthday cake.

It’s true that she occasionally advises people not to watch certain things.[5:10] This is something that critics often do: not just recommend a negative response to a work of art, but recommend that you don’t see it at all. Roger Ebert did with The Human Centipede and Blue Velvet. If you’re reviewing something that is viscerally unpleasant, as both those movies are, it’s responsible to tell your audience this. Especially if you’re making feminist videos that will probably have a sizeable audience of women who have been abused and might be triggered by the sight of, e.g., dead, naked female bodies hanging from the ceiling. For some strange reason.

The video guy mentions one specific video of Sarkeesian’s, where she reviews a music video for a Kanye West song.[5:10] The video includes the aforementioned dead bodies, plus other images of sexualized dead women. Sarkeesian quite reasonably takes issue with this. However, the video guy says that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a work of art, the best album of 2010.[5:55] In art, he says, quoting Amanda Palmer, everything must be fair game.[7:30]

The album may well be good. A Clockwork Orange is frequently cited on lists of the top-whatever movies. It’s still an evil piece of misogynist trash. In art, everything is fair game in that you can say or do anything. But that doesn’t mean we are required to admire whatever you say or do. To quote Pauline Kael, a very wise woman,

There seems to be an assumption that if you’re offended by movie brutality, you are somehow playing into the hands of the people who want censorship. But this would deny those of us who don’t believe in censorship the use of the only counterbalance: the freedom of the press to say that there’s anything conceivably damaging in these films—the freedom to analyze their implications. If we don’t use this critical freedom, we are implicitly saying that no brutality is too much for us—that only squares and people who believe in censorship are concerned with brutality.**

We already can explore pretty much anything. The question is, should we explore this thing in this way? The answer to that question cannot always be yes, unless we are willing to countenance anything. I am not, and I humbly submit that no civilized person should be, either.

Through a virtuosic twist of logic that must be seen to be believed,[7:43] the video guy accuses Sarkeesian of being “both in favour of segregation and in support of the same attitude which tells women that if they dress a certain way, they should expect to get raped or molested” because she supports the introduction of women-only cars on Japanese subways.

This is bullshit of a truly astounding pungence. It’s not segregation, because no one forces the women to use the women-only cars. But they probably will, because groping is a serious problem on public transport in Japan. It’s not an ideal solution (the ideal solution would be to stop the groping), but it’s a good provisional measure to provide a modicum of safety for women in public. There are no corresponding men-only cars because there is no corresponding large-scale problem with men being groped by women.

Finally,[10:04] the video guy closes out Part 1 with the following gem: “In part 2, we will discuss why Anita is not a feminist, and why she is delighted to receive death threats.”

It’s almost like I have a crystal ball. A second time I say: whiny guys on The Escapist don’t get to decide who is and is not a feminist. Sarkeesian’s videos are about pretty straight-ahead feminist ideas. Some of them may be controversial, but they are controversial within feminism. The claim that she is not a feminist, especially coming from one of the aforementioned whiny guys (I don’t know if he’s on The Escapist, but he’s interchangeable with the people there), will not wash.

And the second clause is just disgusting. I know it’s meant to have shock value, to get you to watch the second video, but come on. Surely there are depths to which even our august video guy will not stoop. This is the very language used to trivialize rape: it’s probably nothing, she probably just made it up to hurt his reputation. Rape victims are subject to such intense and painful scrutiny that you can be reasonably sure that anyone coming forward about it has a very good reason.

Likewise, the idea that Sarkeesian engineered the brutal and disgusting reaction to her Kickstarter page in order to bring herself publicity, and loved every moment of it, trivializes the amount of pain involved in receiving all those death threats and hate letters. Sure, most of them are harmless Internet crazies, but some of them might be serious, and you never know. Men, in large numbers, harass, attack, rape, and kill women every day. This is not something to joke about or trivialize. When anyone sends a death threat to anyone else, it is an extremely serious matter. When a man sends one to a woman, especially a misogynist man to a prominent feminist, the matter becomes even more dire.

The video guy’s laconic closing statement has marked him, if the rest of the video had not, as an apologist for some of the vilest human scum on offer.

Part 2 of the video will be examined in the next post of this series.


* Neither phrase is my own. I can’t recall where I first read “dude with tits”, but it was a while ago. I believe that “concave men” is from Ursula K. Le Guin in The Left Hand of Darkness but I’m not feeling inclined to get the book off the shelf and check. I’m not going to get into a detailed discussion of this point, because it involves long discussions both of gender and of the virtues, and anyway it’s a side issue. [return]

** From Kael’s review of A Clockwork Orange. The review is collected in Deeper into Movies, and available online here. [return]

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