It’s hard to avoid hearing about sexism in art these days, especially with social media websites such as Twitter or Tumblr. It only takes a quick glance to spot what Reddit users dub Social Justice Warriors–people who point out questionable and offensive material in films, video games, and other mediums. While many will use this is a cause for complaint, the phenomenon is really something to cherish. With all the bullshit prejudices and fucked up worldviews out there, there are a large group of people fighting back and holding art accountable. What art is and what it conveys matters. Anyone who disagrees is ignoring the powerful effect it has on shaping our beliefs and ideas, and to a larger extent, reinforcing those beliefs.
I feel like I’m new to the game. For the record, I’m a young (if you can call 30 that) white male. The very essence of privilege here in America as well as the rest of the world. I majored in English in college but had limited exposure to social critiques. The closest I came to this was through a Feminist Literature course, one that I didn’t take seriously. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about feminism, but more a case that I didn’t know what it was. Why Feminism 101 isn’t mandatory for freshmen baffles me. I remember something that now shames me. The first day of class the teacher asked us what we thought of when we heard the word “feminist”. I blurted out that the word brought the image of a lesbian with a butch haircut. I was 21 when I said that. Those words haunt me to this day.
The sad thing is at that age I didn’t give a shit about the effect that my words had on other people. I wasn’t wrong, just opinionated. Anything that didn’t agree with my views was just annoyances. I never thought I was arrogant, though I was. Nor did I think I was always right, though I did. Hindsight is a bitch. I say this because there’s a lot of young white males out there that are the same way. Self-control and maturity are lacking. I’m not sure who we blame for this. Whatever the case, the character traits aren’t being taught. How can one know they’re wrong when they don’t have the ability to recognize this in the first place?
We live in an interesting time. With the advent of the internet, new voices have emerged. While there’s a large population of trolls and volatile assholes that seek only to tear down others, there’s also voices of hope and reason, and more than aim for change. We see this everywhere. When more and more cops kill black people, there was the #BlackLivesMatter movement. When GamerGate manchildren started attacking anyone critical of their twisted views, there were social justice warriors willing to fight back. Young people demand to be heard by bigoted politicians who seek to only advance personal agendas. History books taught us the 60s were an important time of social change and evolution. Maybe this is what we’re going through now.
Amidst this cacophony of clashing voices, there’s one that has recently struck a chord with me. One that has really challenged my own viewpoints and prejudiced.
Anita Sarkeesian is the founder of Feminist Frequency, a web series that examines the representation of women in pop culture narratives. These videos have been around for some time, first debuting in 2009. Anyone that keeps up with internet news will no doubt recognize her work as part of the controversy with the GamerGate movement. Their hatred against her stems from her critique of the roles of women in video games that (shudders) dare to shine a light on troubling sexism and gender stereotypes in the many ways infantile art form. The members of the movement have deemed her work as a call for censorship, though it’s not. If anything it’s a plea for change and responsibility with the development of games. Yes, this is a challenge to the status quo, but the fact that this small percentage of gamers have a false sense of entitlement and thus feel threatened speaks volumes to just how immature and unaware these people are. And let’s be frank. The demographics of most of them are young white males, though sadly there are older members as well.
I first heard of Sarkeesian through BirthMoviesDeath.com article by Andrew Todd, their gaming editor, that addressed the volatility of the GamerGate controversy.It’s an enlightening read and call for reason and humanity. That people can be evil over such nonsense still gives me vertigo.
The unfortunate aspect of all this is that Sarkeesian approaches the subject in an unbiased manner. She isn’t bashing troublesome video games as if they shouldn’t exist, though she does make her opinions of them clear. Nor does she suggest censoring or prohibiting these games. What she does advocate for is awareness accountability.
Just take a look:
The more astounding thing about the GamerGate reaction to her work is that if they actually watched any of Sarkeesian’s videos they’d find that she isn’t hostile nor calling for censorship. That grown man feel threatened by her and are compelled to attack her only reinforces what she’s saying. There’s a concerning lack of thought being put into many of these games, the result which is that the tropes they employ instill misogyny and sexism. Is this intentional? Not always. I like to think of Zelda as a riff on a classic theme of the damsel in distress, one that has inspired numerous narratives. Does that excuse it from relying on a dated trope over and over? The game developers most certainly could have given Zelda a more developed role or given her more agency.
Regardless of whether this widespread relegation of women, the GamerGate movement has proven that sexism exists in the gaming community. That their unwillingness to face criticism only doubles down on the need to examine these issues and call for change.
I’ll admit, I had a knee-jerk reaction when I first watched these videos. My immediate thoughts were objections. These games are harmless or merely trying to be realistic. What’s wrong with having violence against women when the ones committing the violence are clearly evil? That’s not sexist!
The hardest thing about feeling defensive is opening up yourself for criticism. Human beings are tribalistic by nature. In our hardwired need to belong, we get protective of our clicks. For some that are religion, others friends, in my case the male species. When I hear that men are part of the problem, or for many women THE problem, I want to lash out. We’re not always wrong. Part of this reaction is a warped sense of what feminism stands for. Yes, there are extremist with their own hostile views, but to argue that all of these women are wrong in their views is simply a case of ignorance. And admitting I’m ignorant is a hard thing to do. I read a great analogy once that compared privileged people to Star Wars. Everyone wants to think they’re the rebels. No one wants to find out they’re part of the Empire. So when faced with an honest critique of that which we feel a part of, we can only engage with that critique or shut down any dialogue over the matter. Sadly, there are those that tend to do the latter.
But that really shouldn’t stop us from trying or attempting to educate others. And I’ll be the first to say I struggle with this issue incessantly. I’ll repeat: I’m a white male. That’s the very definition of privilege. And when you come from privilege it takes a lot of introspection to admit you might be biased. And while others may not always be right, they have their own views that might clash with yours. The least you can do is listen and adjust accordingly. When multiple voices are saying the same thing, we should really pay attention.
I’ve done a lot of soul-searching recently. I’ve been remembering all the fuck-ups in my life and realizing I’m not the person I idolized I was. With this has come shame and embarrassment. I can’t change the past nor change my reputation. But I can make attempts to move forward in a different direction. I look at the culture I’ve come from and see how my own upbringing has led me to act without self-control as well live with my eyes closed. I see this all and I tell myself I don’t want to be this person anymore.
Which is why watching Sarkeesian’s work has been a sort of revelation for me. I’m tired of rolling my eyes at feminists who I think are making mountains out of molehills. And I’m tired of having shitty things to say. But mostly I’m tired of not willing to at least entertain the notion that their critiques might just have a kernel of truth to them. And that means admitting I come from a place of privilege and that I have biases.
But this isn’t just about me. This is about the artists and designers who create these artifacts and their own places of privilege. It’s no secret that a good portion of the game develops is while men. With that entails a whole boatload of biases and narrow views of the role of women in their games. And with this privilege means they’re just as defensive as I am. While this is troubling in its implications as far making social progress in their games, it shouldn’t mean we should give up hope. It’s through the work of progressives such as Sarkeesian that eyes are being opened and changes are being realized. And while progress has been made, it’ll take more voices to really put a dent in all of this.
Thinking about this has led me to be more critical of the art that I encounter on a daily basis. I’m not a gamer, and I won’t feign to be a fighter in that art form. But I do read literature. I do listen to music. And I do watch movies. I can sit back and get defensive about lazy tropes and fucked up messages or I can hold these works accountable. I’d like to say I can do this, though I won’t always see objections that others will. And they won’t always agree with what I find objectionable. So the nature of art criticism goes.
This previous paragraph might lead you to think I’m going to make looking for objections my main goal is my criticism. Or that I might cry for censorship or give negative reviews to these work of art. This is not the case. I daresay in most work of arts, and certainly, in great works of art, there will always be something that offends. If not in the present, then in the future. Everyone has their own viewpoints, and no work of art can agree with all of them. Case in point, my favorite film–Last of the Mohicans (Michael Mann’s adaptation)–employs the damsel in distress trope. I’d argue that the filmmakers give the women their own agency, but nonetheless, they still make them the object to be rescued. And while this doesn’t necessarily make me lose sleep, it is no doubt problematic to others. I can only acknowledge and listen to these objections. But that still doesn’t deter my love for it. In fact, I consider it a perfect film, despite its flaws. Hence it adheres to this website’s name.
Trying to incorporate others’ views and beliefs demands holding artists accountable for the messages they express in their work. Whether these messages are intentional or not, does not excuse the artist for failing to consider them. At the very least, pointing out problematic areas should at least make them think about what they’re saying. And it’s through critics and informed audiences that artists can grow and mold their own beliefs. If anyone objects this, just ask yourself who is losing out by this. No one.
While I might not be an outspoken advocate like many of the social justice warriors, I think it would be irresponsible if I didn’t align my own critical eye with theirs. That is to say, I should hold the artists I encounter to a higher standard. And I should hold myself to a higher standard as well.
What better way to start than with writing an article on a sexist movie trope that I’ve rarely seen discussed. It’s one that has bothered me for a long time and really popped up on the radar after watching Sarkeesian’s work. I call it “The Slap”.
Damn, women can be so bitchy, right? In Hollywood, that’s often the case with how they are portrayed. The flip side of this representation is that women are always right in the argument and therefore are justified in knocking some good ole’ sense into the man.
Let’s just get it out of the way: there’s nothing more damaging in the portrayal in the trope than the worrisome implication that women are incapable of controlling their emotions and must resort to a physical outburst to get a point across.
Now, while there are certainly sexist implications in using the trope, I don’t want to point fingers and accuse filmmakers of being backward thinking assholes (though I won’t hesitate to call them lazy and unimaginative). The whole point of The Slap is to shock the audience and convey strong disagreement between the man and woman. We’re supposed to nod our heads in agreement and look down at the man. I don’t want to sound like a Men’s Rights Activist but shouldn’t we be concerned that the women just committed assault against someone?
You might this is a silly complaint and that the trope is just used to capitalize a tense moment. Fair enough. That might have been the case when it was first used (to my knowledge at least) in Gone With the Wind. When that film came out, feminism wasn’t commonly heard of and women were only considered useful as a wife and a mother. But that was 80 years ago, and we’ve come a long way in how we regard women. And the last I checked, being emotionally unstable wasn’t one of them.
Fucking Christ, right? Here we have the reverse of the implication of the woman slapping the man. Instead of the women being unable to control her emotions and lashing out with violence, she is now emotionally unstable and must be attacked in order to settle her down. Again, this leads to us to assume that the violence is okay.
Like the Damsel in Distress trope, The Slap has a long history in storytelling. Just like the former, The Slap is archaic and overdone. Forget the sexism, it should go for just being a cliche. But many will justify its use for precisely these reasons. It’s just a thing that these movies have. Or they’ll use the real-life scenario, the argument being that some women do slap men during an argument. Or better yet they’ll make the more naive claim that the trope makes sense in regards to the character. Yes, maybe a women character would slap a man. But just because she would don’t mean she should. Because while a filmmaker must stay true to the characters, they must also be considerate of the message they’re sending.
But don’t feel like you’re alone if you have a hard time agreeing with this criticism. I’ve done the same thing, like the reaction I had when I saw Sarkeesian’s video on the Ma, Male Character:
The first thing I thought when I watched that was showing women wearing a bow is harmless. And it took a lot of hesitant rewatches to come around and entertain the argument that Sarkeesian makes. I had to ask myself how I would feel as a man if the portrayal of my gender was reduced to silly objects. And once I did that I slowly grew to digest what she was saying.
Which is what I’m asking you to do with The Slap. Maybe you do think its use is harmless and just a simple narrative device, I disagree, and I think I could make the argument that it’s not, but that’s your opinion. All I’m asking is for you to consider the contrary. Because really, if you don’t take the first step, you’ll never if you’re part of The Empire or not. And no one wants to be Darth Vader.