By Emma Louise Backe
“Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” –Margaret Atwood
The GamerGate controversy has driven increased attention to the video game industry, while also highlighting the violent misogyny that can pervade geek culture. For those just getting up to speed, GamerGate circulates around two specific women within games: Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency, and Zoe Quinn, who recently developed the (non)Fiction interactive game Depression Quest. After launching Part II of the webseries “Women as Background Decoration,” Sarkeesian was harassed online and received threats against her and her family. The onslaught of antimony directed at Sarkeesian included a barrage of sexual slurs that condemned Sarkeesian for her cultural commentary on the objectification and abuse of women in video games and other forms of geek media, blaming her and her ilk for “ruining” the gaming industry. Although celebrities like William Gibson and Joss Whedon came to Sarkeesian’s defense in the web war that occurred most publically over Twitter, Sarkeesian was ultimately taken into police custody for protection. Meanwhile, Quinn’s ex-boyfriend Eron Gjoni used personal and private information about Quinn to pillory her as an unfaithful “slut,” claiming that she gained favorable reviews for her new game through sexual promiscuity. Quinn was subsequently terrorized through further cyberbullying. Then, Jenn Frank wrote an article for the Guardian about the controversy, and was attacked so viciously for coming to the defense of Sarkeesian that she decided to quit her position at the publication, following attempts to hack her email and other personal accounts. All the while, the individuals that feel so self-righteously vindicated in their anger against Sarkeesian and Quinn have committed these acts of cyber harassment in an effort to disprove the validity of misogyny in gamer culture. There’s the rub.
This controversy is riddled with irony, not the least of which lies in the attackers’ refusal to acknowledge that gender plays a role in geek culture. This is not a new conversation. Marie-Pierre has been conducting an ongoing series about “Fake Geek Girls” over the past year, tracking and analyzing the attitudes and cultural beliefs that inform male geek distrust of female geeks and the supposed authenticity of their fandom. Buzzfeed recently released “If Geek Girls Acted Like Geek Guys,” perfectly inverting the dynamic of dismissal many female geeks face when confronted by men who believe that women only get involved in comics or video games for attention. This invalidation of genuine geekiness, contesting the viability of women within what men may believe to be a traditionally male space and social group, is, however, one of the more innocuous elements of sexism in geek culture.
Increasing awareness and activism have been directed toward sexual harassment in geek culture, particularly at geek related conventions like Comic Con. This past summer, Geeks for CONsent circulated a petition for a revision in anti-harassment policies at San Diego Comic-Con under the tagline “Cosplay is NOT Consent” (Bever 2014; Dockterman 2014; The Associated Press 2014; Waldman 2014). Sexual harassment can be verbal as well as physical, and the Geeks for CONsent petition was created to make Comic-Con a safer space for fans and cosplayers. Yet the threat and injustice women face within certain geeky enclaves has been continuously negated and denied. Some critics who joined the GamerGate fray even speculated that Quinn was fabricating the extent of her danger to “play the victim” and garner attention. The same argument has been made against “Fake Geek Girls.” Indeed, Milo Yiannopoulos declaimed, “Let’s be honest. We’re all used to feeling a niggling suspicion that ‘death threats’ sent to female agitators aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. And indeed there is no evidence that any violent threat against a prominent female figure in the media or technology industry has ever been credible – that is to say, that any feminist campaigner on the receiving end of internet trolling has ever been in any real danger” (2014). I’m just going to let that one sink in.
Yiannoplouos, and others, not only undermine the validity of Sarkeesian’s astute cultural critique of the inherent misogyny in video games, but also dismiss the reality of the threat posed to women. Violence is not a singularly physical phenomena—violence can manifest in a multitude of ways and violence against women has insinuated itself into the very fabric of our society so seamlessly that many don’t realize the geography of fear and danger women must navigate on a day-to-day basis. Violence can also be verbal, psychological, economic and emotional. Violence occurs within scientific contexts. A recent study found that over 26 % of female scientists have been victims of sexual assault during fieldwork (Viskontas 2014). And here’s the thing—that’s only the tip of the joystick.
Geek culture is not a discrete, separate community. Every culture has porous boundaries, bleeding into different societies and sub-groups. The sexual harassment experienced by women and girls at events like Comic-Con is not occurring within a vacuum—they are manifestations of a larger society that permits gender-based violence. The CDC found that 1 in 5 women in America have been raped (Breiding et al. 2011), although statistics regarding violence against women rarely document the depth and breadth of victimization, considering that many women do not want to come forward and testify to the violence they have suffered. Internationally, the number of women who will experience some form of emotional and/or physical and/or sexual violence because of the gender is much vaster. According to Dr. Anne Firth Murray, “About one-third of women around the world have suffered violence from an intimate partner. One in five women will experience rape or attempted rape in her lifetime, with at least half of sexual assaults occurring before she is eighteen years old. If domestic abuse, dowry deaths, honor killings, and rape—violent acts committed against women around the world primarily by family members and acquaintances—were infectious diseases, we would declare an epidemic” (2008:134). The threat against women is a reality girls have to face, negotiate and engage with from a very young age, yet many men don’t realize or acknowledge the scale of the epidemic or its impact upon women’s lives.
There are many instances of popular media in which violence against women is actually romanticized. The relationship between Bella and Edward throughout the Twilight series is emotionally manipulative and physically controlling, yet their relationship is held up as the paragon of love. I was horrified to discover the sub-group of American Horror Story: Murder House (2011) fans who aggrandize the relationship between Violet and Tate. “Find someone who loves you like Tate loved Violet” is a popular meme amongst these AHS fans, a sentiment that completely ignores the lethal nature of their relationship. The relationship between Tate and Violet, while interesting and complex, was also emotionally abusive and completely unhealthy, not something anyone should aspire to. Lest fans (or AHS outsiders) forget, Tate raped Violet’s mom and killed 15 students at Westfield High. And yet Tate’s maniacal devotion to Violet is seen as charming. Violence in these relationships is seen as normal and to be expected as a necessary aspect of love.
As Amanda Hess has illuminated, most men do not have to confront or attend to the ways in which our culture allows the objectification, harassment and abuse of women (2014). The #YesAllWomen movement coalesced around the mutual stories of suffering and violence women share. “’Why is it so hard for people to get that Elliot Rodger hated women?’” Tom Hawking asked; “Because for many people — mostly men — acknowledging that requires questioning your entire belief system” (2014). Admitting and acknowledging your own privilege is not an easy or comfortable process, but that does not mean that you should remain ensconced in a feeling of artificial absolution while other groups of people remain oppressed and imperiled. The argument is not that all men commit violence against women, but rather that all men and all women play a part within a culture of gendered menace and fear. We have seen this played out again and again on a national scale—on college campuses, where rape victims are blamed for their sexual assault and their assailants receive little to no punishment, nor are impressed with a sense of culpability; in Hollywood, where the private, personal nude photos of female celebrities testify to their sluttiness, rather than the villainy of hackers. Women are told that they are to blame for acts of discrimination and violence committed against them. When we lay the onus of blame upon women for wearing certain clothes, or acting a certain way, we remain complicit in a system that refuses to address the cycles of violence, oppression and misdirection that enculturates us to believe that violence against women is normal and acceptable. As Sarkeesian so cannily points out,
This dominant narrative surrounding the inevitability of female objectification and victimhood is so powerful that it not only defines our concepts of reality but it even sets the parameters for how we think about entirely fictional worlds, even those taking place in the realms of fantasy and science fiction. It’s so normalized that when these elements are critiqued, the knee-jerk response I hear most often is that if these stories did not include the exploitation of women, then the game worlds would feel too “unrealistic” or “not historically accurate”. What does it say about our culture when games routinely bend or break the laws of physics and no one bats an eye? When dragons, ogres and magic are inserted into historically influenced settings without objection. We are perfectly willing to suspend our disbelief when it comes to multiple lives, superpowers, health regeneration and the ability to carry dozens of weapons and items in a massive invisible backpack. But somehow the idea of a world without sexual violence and exploitation is deemed too strange and too bizarre to be believable. (“Women as Background Decoration: Part 2” 2014)
GamerGate revolves around a contingency of individuals who want to simultaneously deny the reality of violence against women while enacting the very violence they so trenchantly reject as a problem, in video games or otherwise.
Those that have spoken so vociferously against Sarkeesian and Quinn blame feminism for ruining video games. They deploy the term “Social Justice Warrior” to condemn the actions of Sarkeesian and other media critics as publicity mongering (Kane 2014). Herein, again, lies the irony of GamerGate, where feminist opponents try to frame social justice advocacy as a negative form of activism used only for person gain. Calls for a more inclusive and equitable treatment of women in video games and the wider world do not only benefit women. The argument that women’s rights somehow take away from or eliminate the rights of men again fails to acknowledge the privileges that have been afforded to men for thousands of years due to institutionalized systems of patriarchal power. “Feeling entitled to power, leadership, and control is a general description of patriarchy” (Chu 2014). Women’s rights are human rights, which consider every human individual by the same standard.
Women’s rights do not aim to knock men down, but rather to equalize the way that gender is understood, manifested and treated within the wider world. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights assures that, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation,” and, most importantly, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” (UN). Additionally, within a further human rights based legal framework, The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979) promises “to ensure elimination of all acts of discrimination against women by persons, organizations or enterprises” (UN), a convention that the United States has yet to ratify. At the very least, the UN Declaration of Human Rights and other domestic legislation should defend and protect the rights of women. But, more often than not, legal ideals are not effectively implemented or incorporated into social mores, so that when women do seek justice or remuneration for violence or harassment, they are not only rebuffed, but also secondarily victimized.
So-called “misogyny nerds” want to reframe the GamerGate argument wherein they become the victimized public, oppressed by the radical feminist agenda. In the words of Arthur Chu, “listen up, fellow self-pitying nerd boys—we are not the victims here. We are not the underdogs. We are not the ones who have our ownership over our bodies and our emotions stepped on constantly by other people’s entitlement. We’re not the ones where one out of six of us will have someone violently attempt to take control of our bodies in our lifetimes” (“Your Princess is in Another Castle” 2014). Honestly, I am having difficultly quite understanding what the critics of Sarkeesian hate so much about her work—they can’t be completely blind to the overt forms of intimate femicide, domestic violence and rape that occur in many popular video games. And as Andrew Todd says, “there is no persecution. Social Justice Warriors don’t victimise anyone. That’s kind of central to the idea of social justice. Yes, developers and journalists like Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian speak loudly about feminism and equality, but it’s not to attack self-involved lunatics like Jordan Owen and Davis Aurini. It’s because they actually stand for something – for people to behave like decent human beings and treat each other with respect” (2014). Sarkeesian’s webseries dealing with gender in video games is neither condemnatory nor hateful. She begins every video by saying, “As always, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s entirely possible to be critical of some aspects of a piece of media, while still finding other parts valuable or enjoyable,” perfectly framing the critical focus of her work.
The fact of the matter is, Anita Sarkeesian is a fan, a fan that has as much stake in the production and consumption of video games as any other geek. There are countless women that care about video games and geek culture, women who have stuck with the genre despite the objectification, sexualization, commodification and molestation of the female body. Their continued dedication to the genre, I believe, is a testament to their devotion to the culture. Women, more than anyone, want to work with men to obtain a sense of parity, justice and empathy within geek culture. That should be the objective to unlock. Additionally, “feminist criticism can only be a boon to the games industry. It’s something shared by literally every other art form in existence, and game developers and journalists examining the very real issues in their industry can only improve gaming’s image” (Todd 2014). Wouldn’t it be beneficial to everyone involved in the gaming industry to create games that would appeal to a wider potential audience and receive more positive reviews from outside the traditional gaming circles? It is the misogynistic backlash that has precipitated negative reactions to the gaming industry, not the other way around. Misogyny and problematic gender stereotypes negatively affect women and men. Conservative or traditional attitudes about masculinity can promulgate harmful and unhealthy expectations of what it means to be a man within a certain culture. Yiannopoulous’s piece “Feminist Bullies Tearing the Video Game Industry Apart” sounds like an Onion article riffing off of “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” (Lorde 1979), but he doesn’t seem to recognize the irony.
This has been a tumultuous summer of victories and set-backs for women. The Hobby Lobby Decision further impeded access to comprehensive, effective reproductive health care for women, while Boko Haram, angered at the education of women, abducted dozens of Nigerian schoolgirls at gunpoint. Ubisoft declared that women were “too difficult to animate” (Mey 2014). Yet women have also dominated pop culture this season. Female-forward performer Beyonce released an album pulsating with messages of female empowerment and Meghan Trainor rocketed up the charts with “All About That Bass,” a song about body positivity and acceptance. Meanwhile, female heroes stole the box office with Scarlett Johansson’s Lucy (2014) and Zoe Saldana as Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Maryam Mirzakhani won the Fields Medal in mathematics and we relearned that “women have always fought” (Stubby the Rocket 2014). These are all achievements to celebrate, but they do not mean that we are a post-sexist, gender-equitable society.
Misogyny exists whether or not you choose to acknowledge it. The ontological reality of misogyny is not a philosophically ambiguous thought experiment or matter of opinion. Misogyny is a reality writ and enacted upon women’s bodies and lives every day. Sarkeesian’s only crime was identifying a virtual manifestation of the violence, and talking about how it pertains to the experience of being a female-bodied person in the world. What are geek gamers to do? Continue to ignore violence against the characters that share their gender? To be forced to participate in this violence through the game mechanics? This is not about misandry. But even if you do not directly participate in the victimization of women, your silence and inaction acts as an affirmation of our tolerance of gender-based violence. Being a woman is an inherently perilous situation, and I know that in writing this piece, I increase my vulnerability to attack. But that’s just another form of risk management I have to take. What I ask is for my readers to make themselves a little bit vulnerable to the possibility that we all—as a culture—have to strategize a new paradigm for gender. Only by acknowledging that the system is broken can repairs be made. Blowing on the cartridge isn’t enough. We want an upgrade. Equality and respect: that’s the endgame.
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