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Not another damsel in distress

Sometime in the last year I clicked on a link from Facebook about a woman who was being harassed because she planned to make a series of videos looking at sexist attitudes perpetuated by video games. Even before she’d made the videos—before she even said what was going to be in them—the Internet erupted against her, with comments ranging from nasty to threatening posted on her site and the Kickstarter page she’d created for her project.

I was playing a video in which she explained what had happened to her, and my teenage son, hearing what I was listening to, hurried in.

“I read a blog about her,” he informed me. “She’s out to swindle people.”

Her name is Anita Sarkeesian, and she has now released a few of the videos she is making about gaming. These first videos are about the “Damsel in Distress” trope, a common one not only in all popular entertainment, but specifically in video games.

My son’s reaction to her was not unusual: he was only voicing what he’d seen spread across the Internet. Anyone who is a feminist and follows what happens to women who speak out knows something like this story: Sarkeesian didn’t even get a chance to speak before they attempted to shout her down. Merely the suggestion that women might take offense at how they are portrayed in video games was enough to start the angry chorus against her: She must be a liar, she must have an agenda, she must be out to get us.

The reality is quite the other way around. The portrayal of women in popular media from the beginning of time has been used to keep real flesh-and-blood women from realizing their potential and chasing their dreams. We have been told that we are weak, stupid, incompetent, over-emotional, and irrational since the beginning of time.

We’re getting a little sick of it. After watching Sarkeesian’s first video, I am thrilled that a young feminist is willing to take this on in an area that we older feminists definitely feel like fish riding bicycles. I have to admit that my interest in video games pretty much started and stopped with Tetris, and the one time my son tried to teach me to play Minecraft, I repeatedly fell into the same hole that I had just painstakingly climbed out of.

So it’s important to listen to young women like Anita Sarkeesian, for whom gaming is an integral part of life.

“The pattern of presenting women as fundamentally weak, ineffective, or ultimately incapable has larger ramifications beyond the characters themselves, and the specific games they inhabit,” Sarkeesian says. “We have to remember that these games don’t exist in a vacuum; they are an increasingly important and influential part of our larger social and cultural ecosystem.”

This is the ecosystem that are children are growing up with, whether they play video games or not. No matter how we shelter our kids from the games themselves, the culture they are part of is infused with attitudes that come from the games, with 97% of all American kids now playing video games on a regular basis.

Sarkeesian’s point is not that we shouldn’t let our kids play these games. Her point is not that any game that displays sexist attitudes is necessarily bad in all ways. And her point is not that all games are inherently sexist.

The point she makes with the first of her videos is that our popular culture reinforces beliefs that have immediate, measurable effects on the kids in our culture. A child who plays a game learns from that game, whether in a conscious way or in the reinforcement of unconscious beliefs and prejudices. Sarkeesian has chosen to take on “women as victim” as her first target.

“It’s a sad fact that a large percentage of the world’s population still clings to the deeply sexist belief that women as a group need to be sheltered, protected, and taken care of by men,” Sarkeesian says. “The belief that women are somehow a naturally weaker gender is a deeply ingrained, socially constructed myth, which of course is completely false. But the notion is reinforced and perpetuated when women are continuously portrayed as frail, fragile, and vulnerable creatures.”

If we want to raise strong girls and boys who accept them as equals, critical appraisals of the games we play is a good first step.

Posted in Culture, Psychology.

2 Responses

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  1. ailikate says

    This is quite timely for me, I was just watching the first video in this series yesterday. I keep somewhat to my internet bubble, so I wasn’t aware of the controversy. I really enjoy her thoughtful illumination of everyday sexism. Her videos on the Lego Friends line is very good, too.

    • Suki says

      Thanks – I’ll have to watch them. I want to get my kids to watch the whole series. I think it’s important for kids to interact with media with a critical framework in place, and since I don’t play games, it’s hard for me to do this just through conversation the way we do in other areas.

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