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Oversexualize? Overnope.

Last November during BlizzCon, I wrote a post critiquing the design of some of the female playable characters as compared to the male characters in the newly revealed but not yet released FPS game Overwatch. In it, I addressed the following comment made by Blizzard senior vice president Chris Metzen:

Specifically for Overwatch over the past year we’ve been really cognizant of that, trying not to oversexualize the female characters. I don’t know if we oversexualize the male characters. But it’s something we’re very sensitive to.

I boggled at the idea of not knowing whether you oversexualize the male characters in your games, and concluded: No, you definitely are not.

Yesterday on that post, a commenter named “blank” asked:

My question to you is, how would YOU oversexualize a male character?

Here’s my answer to that question: I can’t. It is impossible for me to oversexualize a male character in a video game.

Here’s why:

Obviously I am not any sort of game designer, specifically not a character concept artist for any video game, but let’s pretend that I am.

Let’s pretend that I have both unlimited funding with which to produce a video game, and unlimited creative control over its content. Let’s imagine that having all of these resources and control, I decided to make the most sexual game possible involving male characters.

In order to maximize the sexualization of the male characters in this game, I would leave out female characters altogether. I would, effectively, make a gay porn movie in video game form.

In this gay porn game, because we’re talking about the design of fictional characters here, I would exaggerate all of the sexual characteristics of these male characters far beyond what is possible in real life. I would exaggerate their secondary sexual characteristics as well, so that not only would these be the most well-endowed male characters ever, but they would also be the most unquestionably male. And they would be doing…well, what you’d expect to find in a gay porn movie turned video game.  That is the greatest extent to which it’s possible for me, personally, to sexualize male characters.

(Would I then want to play this video game? Eh….no thanks.)

But that doesn’t answer the question. The question was regarding what I would do to oversexualize male characters, and, as already stated, I can’t do that.

That’s because in this case, the “over” in “oversexualized” refers to frequency.

A trope is a device in story-telling which appears frequently. In today’s usage in pop culture, it typically refers to such a device being used so frequently that it becomes hackneyed, cliché. That’s the sense in which Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes v. Women in Video Games series is named, something which I’ve noticed seems to be all too often lost on its detractors. “She totally misrepresented the game mechanics in Hitman!” they will complain, as if such a gripe is devastating to the point of a video series dedicated to pointing out repeated use of depictions of female characters over time and throughout the industry, and discussing how the near-ubiquity of such depictions is bothersome and even harmful.

When Tropes v. Women says that women in video games are oversexualized, that’s the kind of “over” it’s talking about. Compared to that, my exaggerated gay porn video game would be a drop in the proverbial bucket. Maybe the non-proverbial pond, lake, or sea.

To ask how I would oversexualize male characters in video games is akin to asking how I would make America heterophobic. How I would make the country overly concerned about ending poverty. How I’d render the world’s hungry overly fed.

It’s funny to imagine, isn’t it? But yeah, that kind of “over” is not gonna happen.

Thanks for the confirmation

So you may remember a couple of weeks ago when I wrote about a particularly ridiculous blog post which claimed that the popularity of the GIF of Australian hurdler Michelle Jenneke doing a little warm-up dance before competing was due to the fact that men– in general, men– do not love feminists. How did the author of this post, Matt Forney, know this? Well, because he could see that Jenneke is a) attractive, b) apparently happy, and c) has accomplished something, all of which together indicate that she is the very opposite of a feminist. Because feminists are ugly, miserable, and do nothing aside from bitch.

I was very careful in my reply to note that there is absolutely nothing wrong with finding Jenneke attractive, but that my suspicion is that men do not, in fact, “love” her– that contrary to Forney’s suggestion, men who drool over Jenneke do not do so to the exclusion of enjoying porn, and almost certainly have not given up even a moment of porn viewing fun in favor of watching Jenneke bounce around suggestively-yet-innocently. They simply added it to their stable of wank material, alongside that GIF from several years ago but still going strong, French singer Alizee frozen in a single arousing dance move. And she (Jenneke, but also Alizee actually) achieved such status not because an ideological objection to the Bechdel test or a refusal to support the establishment of sexual harassment policies at conferences came shining through to all viewers of a four second GIF, but because because that GIF gets them hot. It’s as simple as that.

After noticing a number of hits here that came from Forney’s blog, I returned to see that he had written a follow-up post which talked about my post. Want to guess what it said? I’ll make it a multiple choice question:

A. You know what? I am actually reading too much into this, and should go with the simplest explanation rather than making other men’s attraction all about my particular ideological agenda.

B. You know what? I don’t think I was given a fair shake– there are actually differences in the appearance of feminists vs. non or anti-feminists, and while I didn’t go to much trouble to articulate these or why they should exist, that’s a factor that should be taken into account here.

C. You know what? It’s really weird that I didn’t bother to make any distinction between “attractive” and “attractive to me,” since I can only speak for myself, and since (as with everybody, whether they admit it or not) my own perception of what I consider attractive is shaped by my ideological convictions.

D. You know what? Gretchen’s ugly. And probably autistic.

I’ll give you a moment to think before answering.

Done? Yeah, I didn’t think it would take long. The answer is….D!

The idea that feminists/MRAs might be socially retarded first came to me when I read this feminist response to my Michelle Jenneke post. In particular, it was this passage that lit me up:

The best thing about this long discussion of how feminine, how confident, how accomplished, and how generally wonderful Jenneke is, is that Forney has no idea whatsoever if anything he’s saying about her character is true. All he knows, based on this commentary, is that she’s an athlete who looks graceful and happy. That’s it. Oh, and that she’s hot. […]

Now, in a strict sense, she is right: I’ll likely never meet Jenneke and thus I’ll never get to find out what she’s like. But she’s really pulling the tired “you can’t judge a book by its cover” line that fatties, uggos and other weirdos use to defend themselves. At our deepest levels, we all know it’s bullshit: a person’s outward appearance is a reflection of their soul in nine out of ten cases. A well-dressed businessman, a filthy bum, a scantily-clad woman; if you use your instincts to make snap judgments of people according to their appearance, you’ll be on the money most of the time. What got me thinking is that feminists may not simply be using that line as a defense mechanism: it might be that they legitimately can’t tell what people are like from looking at them. One of the defining characteristics—hell, the defining characteristic—of autism and Asperger’s is an inability to understand social cues. When Gretchen Koch watches that video of Michelle Jenneke’s “sexy” dancing, it may be that she honestly cannot read the social cues that Jenneke is inadvertently telegraphing through her behavior, cues that I and millions of socially adjusted men instinctively pick up on. To further drive the point home, Koch has a picture of herself on her blog’s sidebar. There are no good-looking feminists for a reason: when was the last time you met a good-looking person with autism?

Actually if you read through the literature, one of the oft-repeated descriptions of people on the autism spectrum is that they are unusually attractive. Something to keep in mind there is that autism is primarily a disorder of the male brain, and by that I mean both that it predominates in males and that it in females, it tends to make their brains more masculine, that is to say their minds are more focused on structures and organization and less on empathizing with other people (Simon Baron-Cohen writes about this extensively in his book The Essential Difference). Bear in mind that this attractiveness is a description of observers of people on the autism spectrum and seems to reflect a trait that people with autism have naturally, through no deliberate actions of their own. So if Forney doesn’t find people with autism attractive (something I’ll posit even though it’s a stretch to assume that Forney has actually seen many people on the spectrum), it’s quite possibly because a) most of them are male, and b) they are not as likely, male or female, to care about their appearance.

But they generally care somewhat. It’s fair to say that most of us– autistic or not, feminist or not– care about our appearances. Asexuals, who have no interest in sex with either gender, and ascetics, who have given up sex in favor of celibacy, probably are the most likely to not give the slightest damn whether someone finds them attractive. But the rest of us do, to varying degrees. We all have our particular limits for what we’re willing to do– the energy we’re prepared to exert, the money we’re prepared to spend, the pain we’re willing to endure– in order to appear sexually attractive, and some people’s limits are higher than others.

This may be because they want to be attractive more than others do, but it also may be because they just enjoy being sexy. Don’t ask a man driving a Maserati to quantify how much he’s doing it for it his own pleasure, and how much he’s doing it to attract smokin’ hot chicks. Don’t ask a woman wearing five inch heels how much of it is because she just loves looking smokin’ hot, and how much she’s doing it to attract the guy who drives the Maserati. For both of them it will be a blend of the two, and neither one is doing anything wrong. Here’s an important point, though– the guy not driving the Maserati and the lady not wearing the five inch heels? Also not doing anything wrong. Maybe he’s poor and she has ankle problems, maybe both of them just don’t get enough pleasure out of doing those things to make it worth it to them. It’s probably true that if you’re a feminist, doing things that make you more conventionally attractive to men are not going to be as important to you, especially if they require exertion or expenditure. This is because feminists, as I will loosely define them for the purposes of this post, are people who believe that women don’t exist for men. That their greatest ambition in life does not lie (ultimately) in their reproductive potential, or (proximately) their sexual appeal. Misogynists are people who do think in these terms, consciously or unconsciously– men who think the most important thing about a woman is whether she is sexually appealing to him constitute the lion’s share, but men and woman who see life as primarily about making babies, above and beyond what the woman involved wants for herself, also count.

I care about being perceived as attractive. Feminists generally care about being perceived as attractive. We just don’t see it as the end-all and be-all of our existence, or in the case of male feminists they don’t see it as the end-all and be-all of womens’ existence.

Amanda Palmer of The Dresden Dolls recently blogged in response to a journalist claiming that she’s either a non-feminist or a bad feminist because she was observed “cooing and gazing adoringly” at her “bestselling fantasy author husband [Neil Gaiman] for two hours in public.” As you might guess, Palmer was not pleased. She wrote

i’m not even sure what the journalist MEANT by this statement. did he mean “real feminists shouldn’t show open affection for their husbands?” or did he mean something else? the fact that i’m “internationally adored” and neil is “bestselling” seems to be part of the point he’s making, but….what’s the point? that if i were a real feminist i’d stand there screaming “I KNOW YOU THINK YOU’RE HOT SHIT, GAIMAN, WITH YOUR BEST-SELLING MAN-PENNED NOVELS AND ALL THAT CRAP, BUT I AM FAMOUS CABARET WOMAN! FUCK YOU MAN! I ALSO MAKE AN INCOME! I STAND HERE, EQUAL TO YOU, AND SHOWING YOU AFFECTION WOULD CLEARLY BE A SIGN THAT I KNOW I BELONG TO THE WEAKER SEX.” rawr. what? . . .as far as i’m concerned, the most powerful feminist can do WHATEVER SHE WANTS.
THAT IS WHAT DEFINES A TRUE FEMINIST. this includes: wearing heels, wearing combat boots, wearing nothing, sporting lipstick, shaving, not shaving, waxing, not waxing, being political, being apolitical, having a job, being homeless, gazing at men, gazing at women, gazing at porn of all sorts, glamming up like a drag queen, going in man-drag, being in a five-way polyamorous relationship, being childless, being a stay-at-home parent, being single, having a wife, having a husband, and gazing/cooing adoringly at those wives or husbands anywhere they fucking choose, including elevators, restaurants, puppet shows (well, maybe keep it g-rated if there are small children present), ….or on theatrical stages at fringe festivals. are we getting the picture here?? the most powerful feminist can do WHATEVER SHE WANTS. the minute you believe you’re a “bad feminist” because you said the wrong thing/wore the wrong thing/got married/chose to have children…or otherwise broke some unspecified ”code of feminism”: DON’T BUY IT. THERE ISN’T ONE. you can do ANYTHING YOU WANT. ANYTHING. THAT’S THE POINT.

Indeed. If feminism is fundamentally about empowering women, then it’s about empowering them to act, look, and think however they want. “Including anti-feminism?” my interlocutor would obviously ask here. Yes, although of course what that person is doing should be allowed by feminism, but not called feminism. As a free speech proponent I am occasionally accused of being (for example) racist because I advocate for the freedom of people to say racist things. I endorse the freedom, not what people might choose to do with the freedom. Likewise if feminism endorses freedom for women to make their own choices, it must do so in spite of not necessarily approving of those choices. The behavior of any individual within a group cannot be perceived as justifying stereotypes of that group– not if you agree that individuals are free to behave as they choose, and stereotypes are an error, an instance of sloppy thinking imposed on those individuals by virtue of their membership in that group.

It’s not clear whether Forney thinks I’m ugly because I fit his stereotype of a feminist, or whether because I’m a feminist he has decided that I’m ugly. But the good news is, it doesn’t matter because it’s irrelevant. As irrelevant as Forney’s own appearance (albeit ironic, in the sense of Rush Limbaugh calling someone fat).

I don’t have to agree that a person’s appearance tells you everything about them in order for it to tell you some things about them, and being unwilling to declare that the “some things” includes her position on whether being sexually attractive to men is a foremost concern in her life does not make a person autistic. It make them honest. Of course we women know that it’s hard to parse whether a particular guy is being a disrespectful asshole because he genuinely thinks that our sexual attractiveness and availability is the most important thing about us, or if he’s just… you know, a disrespectful asshole. And there’s no particular incentive to discern the ultimate truth– we just want him to go away. And sometimes, on the basis of such behavior, women are known to make grossly prejudiced statements about all mankind, which is wrong. Equally as wrong as it is for men to do the same. But nowhere near as wrong, I think, as treating a woman as though she only matters insofar as her sexual attractiveness and availability to you, and then when she (quite naturally and rightly) reacts badly to this, expand that judgment to feminists in general.

Which is, I can’t help but guess, precisely what happened here.

In her #mencallmethings posts in which she catalogs the various epithets and threats used against her, Greta Christina generally takes great care to suggest that her readers not bother reassuring her that she is actually a physically attractive person, because that amounts to buying into the myth that her appearance is more important than what she’s actually saying. That’s an admirable position to take, because it means voluntarily giving up the warm fuzzies she might get from people saying “You’re actually beautiful!” in favor of pressing home the point that an ad hominem fallacy is always an ad hominem fallacy. Attacking the person rather than their position is always a non-argument, even if the person is female and even if the topic is feminism. Yes, really.

Oh, on that sexism in atheism/skepticism topic…

If you only read one thing about it– or, more likely, if you’ve read plenty about it and are either borderline overwhelmed or so overwhelmed that you can hardly see “whelmed” from where you stand– read Natalie Reed’s post from a couple of days ago, “All In.” It’s long, but definitely worth reading in its entirety.

If you need some further explanation of the Thunderfoot thing, read this, but it really isn’t the central focus of Natalie’s post. More of a catalyst. I may not come down where she does on every issue, but can’t find a single thing in that essay that I out-and-out disagree with. And she lays it out with a depth and feeling that makes me ashamed of how glibly I summed up the problem in my last post.

You have the freedom to make rape jokes. Should you?

There is no way, I think, to more thoroughly annoy a proponent of free speech than to claim that criticism violates it.

It’s hard enough defending free speech sometimes. People don’t see anything wrong with stopping the Westboro Baptists from protesting. Denying the Holocaust? Yeah, go ahead and outlaw that. Hate speech– what, that’s not already illegal? By all means, ban that too. And nobody really needs violent video games or faux-violent porn, do they? Banish those, along with the burqas!

No, I’m not going to address any of those topics right now. I’m just going to say that when you’re talking about violations of free speech, more speech which happens to be critical of that speech isn’t one such violation.

I am talking, of course, about the Daniel Tosh thing. If you’ve been under a rock lately and aren’t familiar, he made some jokes about rape to an audience and then heckled a female heckler who didn’t like them by joking about her being raped. Yeah, I know. I know. And now we have to have this big discussion about the claim made by the woman which was that jokes about rape are never funny, and alliances have to be created and lines drawn between people who agree and people who disagree, and actually some really good and useful and even funny discussion can arise from it. For instance, you should go read Lindy West’s piece How to Make a Rape Joke at Jezebel. I really enjoyed her last two examples of funny jokes about rape, because a) I hadn’t heard of either of those comics before, and b) as with all four examples she gives, the joke isn’t making fun of rape victims. It’s about mocking the rapist, and the mentalities that feed into that, and the circumstances of people who go about their lives worrying about either being raped or being thought a rapist, or both.

Two of my favorite comedians, Patton Oswalt and Louis CK, have weighed in with support for Tosh. Oswalt’s has been conflicted and convoluted, and Louis CK is one of the people commonly accepted as being able to do a joke about rape correctly– he’s one of West’s four examples, for that matter. To call this disappointing would be an understatement. Both of these comedians are so much smarter and so much funnier than Tosh that it’s like seeing Batman sympathize with a police officer who was accused of roughing up a suspect. And there is actually a similar sort of closing ranks going on– they’re sympathizing as fellow comedians, people who also get up in front of a crowd and say things that might make the crowd erupt in laughter or erupt in rage. And they’ve also dealt with hecklers, and know what a trial that is. Hecklers don’t just pop up in the audiences of small time comics, but that’s where they’re most common. Generally speaking, the “job” of a comedian who is faced with a heckler is to shout him or her down. To make fun of and embarrass him or her. Some comics have developed this ability into a high art, while others prefer to simply say “Shut up, or you’re out of here.” And that, of course, requires having access to some sort of security personnel who can make good on that threat for you, since the comedian him or herself is not going to interrupt the show, step down off the stage, and personally deal with the person who has been disrupting things.

So yes, dealing with hecklers is rough. And the woman in question was technically a heckler, though in the interests of fairness it’s important to point out that she didn’t mean to go see a Daniel Tosh show. She meant to see Dane Cook (also offensive, but mainly because unfunny), and Tosh came on afterward. She apparently had no idea who he was, was disturbed to see rape discussed as a possible topic of jokes to follow, and declared that rape jokes are not funny to this person with whom she was quite unfamiliar. And what followed was really unpleasant, regardless of whether you go by the described linked above or the account of the owner of the Laugh Factory, who ended by saying “If you don’t want to get insulted don’t go to comedy clubs.” After being quite happy to condemn Michael Richards for his racist insults, of course, because those “came from hatred.”

Patton Oswalt and Louis CK offend audiences sometimes too, and they have an interest in not wanting comedians who offend to be punished too severely. But by and large they have no reason to fear this punishment, because they don’t make bigoted jokes. Making bigoted jokes is easy, which is why why lazier and less creative comics do it all the time. It’s hard to fail by appealing to the prejudices of your audience, provided your audience actually has those prejudices. And since audiences have warmly embraced or at least chuckled at sexist jokes for a very long time, it’s not at all surprising that a lazy, uncreative comic would resort to them. Because they work, and most likely because that comic shares those prejudices himself.  It takes work to make a joke about a sensitive subject that doesn’t involve mocking the very people who are so sensitive to it, and it also takes caring about those people in the first place. Comedians have an interest in appealing to a broad audience, obviously, and it’s doubly, triply challenging to make it and be successful without mocking minorities or even being a minority yourself– if you don’t believe me, give Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story a watch sometime.

Louis CK is a straight white man, and he makes fun of himself as a straight white man– constantly. He is the definition of self-awareness, sometimes even painfully self-aware, and that’s why his jokes on these topics work. Clearly he’s thought about them, a great deal. My favorite Louis CK rape joke isn’t mentioned in the Lindy West article, but it’s this (NSFW language, definitely):

Here we have Louis CK talking about trying to do the right thing, and not being appreciated for it. And it’s funny, because he is earnest. He’s thought about it. When Louis CK makes a joke that portrays him as an asshole, you know he’s not really an asshole. Possibly people who are assholes laugh at those jokes because they think he’s identifying with them, but he isn’t. Trusting the comedian is an important element, but you don’t really have to trust Louis CK because he makes it abundantly clear what he’s being literal about and what he isn’t. This is not a description that applies for Daniel Tosh.

Somebody in the comments for the Pharyngula post about this whole debacle linked to this essay articulating why and when rape jokes are or aren’t funny, and it’s definitely worth a read. It’s clear, it’s actually very light-hearted and casual considering the subject matter, and it’s very thoughtful. Give it a read when you’ve got some time to think and consider.

You know what it’s not, however? A freedom of speech issue. A freedom of speech issue is when you’re being censored by the government. Massive crowds of people looking on what you’ve said or done disapprovingly is not a freedom of speech issue. It is simply the assertion and exercise of their equivalent freedom of speech.

Template for my reaction to discussion threads on sexism

Look, a thread about an article addressing sexism in ______. Let’s read the whole thing through.

I see that participants in ______ took their time to read the article, avoided making pointless ad hominem attacks against the real or imagined authors of it, and carefully considered whether the criticisms made reflected the presence of a real bias in ______ which should be addressed and rectified, or whether perhaps they were well-intentioned but mistaken interpretations of _______ which deserve a thoughtful rebuttal rather than effectively saying “You’re complaining about sexism in ______? Well, I’ll give you some sexism to complain about!”

Oh wait…that’s not what happened?

What a surprise.

Defenders of male imagery in gaming strike back

So, some of the people who took exception (let’s call it that) to Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes vs. Women” Kickstarter project— which has now been officially funded, to the final tune of $158, 917– have started a project of their own. It’s going to be another web video series, called “An analysis of male roles and misandry present in modern video game media” and hosted at Indiegogo rather than Kickstarter (I don’t know why they made that choice exactly, but was interested to learn of another fundraising site with slightly looser rules about what kind of projects are allowed. So far as I can tell though, theirs would’ve fit Kickstarter’s rules just as well.)

I’m interested. How could I not be? Misandry’s a real thing. Distorted, harmful stereotypes of men are a real thing. And they exist in video games, no doubt.

What’s the problem? Well…I watched the Google doc discussion in which this project was originally planned on Wednesday. So did Kirk Hamilton of Kotaku, apparently, which resulted in this article— and in the document eventually being deleted and replaced with a message to Kotaku notifying them that their journalism sucks (sorry, “sux), accompanied by a couple of bukkake pics which detracted slightly from the stated mission of fair and honest analysis of sexual stereotypes. The Indiegogo page explains:

In regards to the article in Kotaku that (voluntarily or not) attempted to disproved [sic] our credibility and undermine the project: the Google document that was flying around was, indeed, originally a way for the project leads to coordinate what the project was going to be about – for transparency, we left our document open for anyone to view and edit: A terrible mistake when the link was leaked in a group chat of 100+ people! As soon as we found out (as we were well beyond the stage of using the Google doc) the document was removed post-haste after being heavily vandalized with porn gifs – although, too late, somebody had tipped off Kotaku about it. We apologise deeply for the situation.


Here’s the thing– I don’t know for sure and so can’t say, but I’m just guessing that Sarkeesian’s project is going to include some discussion of male tropes as well, because male and female tropes tend to show up together. You know, because the male power fantasy and the female sexual fantasy kind of depend on each other. I’m guessing that her project is called “Tropes vs. Women” and not “Sexist Tropes” because she thinks the ones about women are more harmful, not to deny that tropes about men exist. The statement of intent for the new, male-trope-specific project reads:

With the recent boom of indie game developers, videogames have become easier and easier to produce, something that used to take years and millions of dollars can be done with a zero budget in a matter of days with the same cultural impact and mainstream audience potential. So what happens when such a morally unrestricted form of entertainment starts accidentally spreading the wrong values?  This video project will attempt to shed some light on the tremendous lack of variety in male character design, and how detrimental this becomes to a blossoming society that is growing accustomed to video games as a very real part of their lives. Such stale and stagnant design clashes vividly with the rainbow of personalities that are so abundant in real life, and seeing as how the hardware necessary has been available for a good few years, isn’t it about time that video games reflected the diversity of their audience?

Yes! Yes, it’s about time. And frankly I’d love to hear suggestions about how this can be accomplished, about the “rainbow of personalities” currently missing in male video game characters that really should be depicted. Also presumably a rainbow of physical appearances, but that wasn’t mentioned.

It’s just…well, this isn’t the most confidence-inspiring launch for such a project. It looks, on the face of it, like a bunch of dismissing, deflecting, and derailing. But I’d be happy to be mistaken about that.

To summon sexism, one need only speak its name

Sexism really is like the devil. If you have any doubts about its existence, you need only mention it and it will come skipping around the corner cheerily asking “You rang?” Well, except that the devil doesn’t exist and sexism does. But apart from that, they are just the same.

Anita Sarkeesian does the Feminist Frequency videos on Youtube, commenting on popular culture from a feminist perspective. I’ve only watched a couple of them, but have been impressed with what I’ve seen so far. Now she’s doing a Kickstarter project to fund a series of video commentaries on sexism in video games, which you should help fund if you’re interested in the topic. And who wouldn’t be interested in the topic?

Now, Youtube comment threads are notoriously cesspools of bigots and trolls, and bigoted trolls, of every stripe. So it’s not surprise that they came out in force when this video was posted, but the amount of bile spewed toward Sarkeesian, and women in general, is pretty shocking still. You can see a screenshot of some of it here, but I’ll warn you that reading it is pretty damn depressing. I am not going to say that they justify the claim that there’s sexism in video games, because they don’t. They just show clearly that there is sexism in people who comment on Youtube about videos discussing sexism in video games. However, I think it’s a safe bet that they’re watching this video in the first place because they are gamers, and sexism in gamers is known issue. As is sexism in video games, but judging by Sarkeesian’s previous discussions on sexist tropes in movies, and of course her outline of the topics she intends to discuss in this series, I’m betting she will have plenty of new and interesting things to say about it.

Her statement on the backlash received this far:

The intimidation and harassment effort has included a torrent of misogyny and hate speech on my YouTube video, repeated vandalizing of the Wikipedia page about me, organized efforts to flag my YouTube videos as “terrorism”, as well as many threatening messages sent through Twitter, Facebook, Kickstarter, email and my own website.  These messages and comments have included everything from the typical sandwich and kitchen “jokes” to threats of violence, death, sexual assault and rape.  All that plus an organized attempt to report this project to Kickstarter and get it banned or defunded.  Thankfully, Kickstarter has been incredibly supportive in helping me deal with the harassment on their service. The sad thing is this kind of backlash happens all the time whenever women dare to speak up about gender and video games. . .  What’s most ironic about the harassment is that it’s in reaction to a project I haven’t even created yet. I haven’t had the chance to articulate any of my arguments about video game characters yet. It’s very telling that there is this much backlash against the mere idea of this series being made.

Now, you might say “But look, this is only manufactured drama. Of course people are going to react badly to claims of sexism, because it’s just one woman complaining about nothing.” I hope you wouldn’t say that, but someone did in the comments on PZ Myers’ post on the subject:

Here’s an attractive girl, vastly more privileged than these “losers” who have no future and can’t just marry to be set up for life with a stable income, complaining about how downtrodden she is and expecting to be paid to play video games. There’s any number of worthy causes that go unfunded (remember “Dear Muslima”?), but here is this girl expecting to be paid so she can give us her opinion on video games.

Anita Sarkeesian has a Master’s degree in social and political thought and did her thesis on the role of women in science fiction and fantasy television. If the only things to be known about her were found in the Kickstarter video, it would be clear that she’s not a “girl” who wants to “complain about how downtrodden she is,” but they are not. It’s also about as obvious as an ice pick through the skull that she isn’t simply “expecting to be paid so she can give us her opinion on video games,” but even if that were the case it sure seems like a worthy thing to pay her for. Gosh, how dare a person with credentials and a track record of delivering informed and interesting views on things expect to be paid for it! And it’s not like Kickstarter is entirely about people offering to produce creative goods and services to interested parties who are willing to invest in advance, or anything. You’d think it was actually about marching up to their front doors, knocking them down, and demanding it.

Ultimately however, what’s lurking under that statement (and is made more clear further in the comment thread) is a fundamental misunderstanding of privilege and bigotry. This particular girl woman seems to be doing pretty well. After all, she’s attractive so she could marry someone for money and not have to work! Err…except that she probably wouldn’t, because being a gold-digger is supposedly a bad thing, and marrying for money tends to attract husbands who will treat you like you…married them for the money. Which is something that far more men can do than women, and that’s because of what, class? Correct– male privilege! The fact that some men can afford to buy wives is their privilege; not the privilege of women to be bought. But what about the fact that this woman remains attractive, which is a benefit, and educated, which is a benefit? How is she in a position to complain to anyone about how “downtrodden” she is?!

Well, she isn’t. Complaining about being downtrodden, that is. She might be downtrodden, but it’s impossible to tell from the video, and more importantly it doesn’t matter if she is or not. This complaint assumes that if you’re going to say that a privilege exists, it must benefit all members of Group Y to the detriment of all members of Group X. If there is a single member of the latter group who is obviously better off than any members of the former, then this “privilege” thing is bogus! Well, no. Privilege is a general and often unacknowledged advantage that members of a group have by virtue of being in that group, usually one that they had nothing to do with being a member of in the first place. The fact that there are individual members of minority groups who enjoy respect from others and a high standard of living does not mean that a majority privilege does not exist, and the fact that the majority privilege exists does not mean that every last member of that majority will enjoy such in a tangible way. It’s entirely possible to be a member of the privileged majority and still be…well, a loser.

Which is why the comment above misses the point so badly– yes, it’s probably true that a good number of the people now threatening violence against Sarkeesian over her audacity to propose making a series of videos about sexism in video games are males who are not doing so well, generally. Who thought life would bring them opportunities and benefits that they didn’t receive, and therefore are unable to see that many if not most of them are playing on life’s lowest difficulty setting, to use John Scalzi’s almost frighteningly prescient metaphor. If you want a more elaborate explanation of how being a straight white male is a privilege, as told by a straight white male using gaming terminology, accompanied by further evidence of exactly how unacknowledged it can be, check out that essay and some of the replies it has received.

It’s funny to think that a person would need to be “downtrodden” in order to justifiably speak about sexism in video games, anyway. How would mis- or under-representation of women in a game oppress women to the point of making them poor, unhealthy, hated, or otherwise leading a miserable existence? I can see an MRA (how unfortunate that “men’s rights advocate” has come to refer mostly to misogynists who deny the existence of misogyny) replying to this by saying “That’s the point. If it doesn’t oppress you, what are you complaining about?” (Actually, they would probably say “That’s the point, bitch.” But you get the idea.)

Well, fortunately that objection amounts to a false dichotomy. We don’t have to stop caring about things like the wage gap, rape victims being blamed for their own attacks, sex trafficking and so on in order to also care about how women are depicted in things like movies and video games. Isn’t that grand? It’s also important because media, including video games, both shapes and reflects how women are viewed in the culture where it appears. So women– so everybody— has an interest in presentation in media not being bigoted, whether it’s sexism we’re talking about, or homophobia, or racism, or any other form of slanted and unfair depiction of real people who exist in the world. And there’s also the fact that, as Sarkeesian notes, video games can help develop certain skills and are fun to play, and as a player it can really suck to play one that depicts people like you absurdly and insultingly. 47% of video game players are female so their impressions and comfort obviously matter, but not feeding male players distorted messages about women also matters. I can testify from my own experience that interaction between players often contains enough sexism, racism, and homophobia on its own without the game itself encouraging such.

I asked at the beginning of this post who wouldn’t be interested in the topic of sexism in video games. If your answer was “Me!” then I hope something between there and here might have sparked some. If not, well, I’m impressed you made it to the end regardless.

Limbaugh’s big fat complete lack of self-awareness

Rush Limbaugh takes yet another poke at Michelle Obama for being fat. A commenter on Dispatches called Nemo writes

This meme on the right that Michelle Obama is overweight is utterly bizarre to me. A glance at her should serve to debunk it. I can’t see another explanation for its persistence than racism — they have to be thinking, even if unconsciously, something like “Black women are fat. Michelle Obama is black. Therefore, Michelle Obama is fat. QED.”

I had been busy noting that Limbaugh is no Kate Moss himself, and if he had a “No Fat Chicks” t-shirt it would have to come with a few X’s in front of the size “Large.” Ed Brayton remarks

Really, Rush? You’re going to do weight jokes? You might notice that I don’t ever poke fun at someone’s weight. You know why? Because I’m overweight myself and I’d look like an idiot and a hypocrite if I did it. That seems not to matter to Limbaugh.

No, I expect it doesn’t. But the reason for that isn’t quite clear. It could be because Limbaugh’s a racist, and therefore the charge of hypocrisy is dismissed as irrelevant or (more likely) doesn’t even register. But I think plain ol’ misogyny is closer to the truth. Insulting a woman’s appearance, especially by calling her fat, is the most basic, intellectually lazy things you can do to dismiss her. And it only seems relevant if you consider it important for her appearance to conform to your tastes…as Limbaugh pretty clearly does. Michael Heath points out that this tendency extends back in history beyond the Obama White House:

Mr. Limbaugh criticized Bill & Hillary Clinton’s daughter Chelsea’s physical appearance when she was a 13 year old child. While he’s clearly a racist, his misogyny goes back decades.
“Socks is the White House cat. But did you know there is also a White House dog?”
— while holding up a photograph of 13-year-old Chelsea Clinton on his 1993 television show

And Sadie Morrison is not even necessarily convinced that Limbaugh thinks Obama is fat:

I don’t think that he necessarily views Michelle Obama as overweight; as previously mentioned, slurs regarding physical appearance are almost always the first offense directed against women by misogynists whether or not such slurs match any sense of objective reality.

And if the woman in question is so thin that there’s no way you can call her fat without looking like a lunatic, you say she’s horse-faced. For the dedicated yet lazy, there is always a physical put-down handy.  I would hazard a guess that this is part of the reason why some conservatives like to extol the beauty of Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann to the point of creepiness– it’s defensive tactic against the same sort of attacks they would be hurling against left-leaning female politicians. They have not taken into consideration the idea that a woman’s appearance as the most important thing about her might be a premise their opponents have discarded.

It’s not (just) the word; it’s how you use it

Somebody pointed out in the Pharyngula thread that while “female” can be used as a noun, so can “black,” and it doesn’t sound very good to refer to a black person as simply “a black.”  Comedian Lisa Lampanelli refers to “the blacks” on purpose because being offensive is her shtick.  I think that using those words as nouns rather than adjectives seems dehumanizing because it makes it sound as if being black or female is the totality of who you are, rather than a descriptor.  I don’t actually know anybody who refers to women as “females” when talking about individuals in a social context, but would find it odd and off-putting if someone did.

Somebody else pointed out that Jen McCreight has used the word “female” on her blog before without any objections, which earned a swift and biting reply:

So, I just went back and looked at my 104 blog posts from December, January, and February to see if you’re right*. Here’s my usage of the word “female”:
– 5 times to refer to “A large list of awesome female atheists” to promote diversity
– 3 times as an adjective, one of which was referring to myself
– 7 times in a quote from someone else that I was debating, so not my words
– Once as a noun – when referring to females of all species, not just humans So, yeah, maybe there’s not a peep because I’m not using the word female in a way that could potentially be found offensive. Imagine that.

Also, I don’t think it’s really necessary to pounce on someone for using the word “hysterical” when referring to women, regardless of its origin.  It doesn’t mean that person is secretly a misogynist.  It’s entirely possible for women– yes, including feminists– to be irrationally excited or outraged about something.  It’s obviously wrong to use to word to dismiss legitimate concerns, but not inappropriate across the board.

I don’t believe that words have power when divorced from context– magical invocations are not real.  The context always matters.  We teach children not to use certain words because it’s much simpler that way– they’re capable of grasping “Don’t use the word ‘stupid.'”  Later on they (hopefully) come to understand that there are a multitude of situations in which saying “stupid” is perfectly acceptable.  Part of becoming mature is realizing that the usage is important too.  Who is speaking?  What are they talking about?  Are they being sarcastic, hyperbolic, jokey, poetic?  Intent isn’t fucking magic, either.  But it does matter.   The people yelling “It’s all about intent” are just as wrong as the ones yelling “It’s all about the language you use.”  It’s both, dammit.

I’ll end with Jay Smooth talking about how to tell people they sound racist.  It’s a bit old, but this is one video everybody should see.  Maybe it could be useful in the sex/gender conversation, too…fancy!

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