Opinion Why Feminist Frequency almost made me quit writing about video games: Part 1

An introduction to my perspective on the current state of the gaming community.

Liana Kerzner

Published

By Liana Kerzner @redlianak

Editor's note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, nor should be attributed to, Metaleater Media as a whole.

(Note: the following may contain various game spoilers and descriptions of things that may be triggering as part of critical analysis. Reactions may be strong. Please be respectful in your discussion of the issues.)

For three sleepless nights in the early days of 2015, I seriously considered giving up writing about games. This piece is an attempt to examine the issues surrounding this personal doubt, and what I think can be done to effectively, respectfully, make things better. It's long. It's complicated. In some places, it's dense. I apologize in advance for the length, the personal nature of some elements, and anything that comes off as too negative. Sadly, it took feeling humiliated by another feminist to make me finally try to be heard. So I decided to make my stand.

Welcome to my five-part series on the bullying I've been subjected to by Feminist Frequency's fans, my rebuttals to Feminist Frequency's theories, and my suggestions for a different kind of feminism that examines video games as games. One part will be published here on Metaleater every day this week, so that I don't bombard people with too much at once. There's also an accompanying YouTube reading of these essays, for those that prefer to listen rather than read.

The last five months have been a real learning experience for me regarding just how hated feminism is in video games. That makes me very sad, because characters like Lara Croft were, at one point, seen as feminist action icons. I'm a good decade older than the current crop of Internet feminists, so I've had some time to get over my anger at the world. It's telling to me that young women are currently exploring the world for the first time as adults accompanied by so much anger but are blaming the anger of men for their problems. The most misunderstood element of first world feminism is that a lot of it involves unlearning the damaging lessons women have been taught about women.

Anita Sarkeesian

It's very strange to me that people believe feminism is at odds with modern AAA game content, because video games got me through the weird fashions of the 1980s -- I hated neon and hairspray -- and Kate Moss being considered the gold standard for female beauty in the 1990s. Video games gave me a series of fictional role models who got the job done even when the world rejected them. New video games and old books helped me become a woman who believes, despite a lot of adversity, that I have something to offer the world that doesn't involve being a supporting character in someone else's story. Unfortunately, all of feminism in video games right now is trapped in Feminist Frequency's story.

So if you take one thing away from this five-part piece, please let it be this: feminism, especially feminism in video games, is a diverse subject with varied opinions and a lot of disagreement. When any single voice becomes too powerful, it stifles other voices that have just as much to offer. Feminist Frequency is very good at promoting itself. It has not been good, so far, at promoting other women -- real and fictional -- in the video game industry.

Just a few more things before we dive in: in researching this piece, I came across numerous associations and non-gaming-related statements by Anita Sarkeesian and Jonathan McIntosh that are potential cause for concern. However, I decided not to include them in this piece because my issue with Feminist Frequency is an intellectual and professional one, not a personal one. My primary focus is to provide some counterpoint for Feminist Frequency's numerous assertions that video games have, historically, sent uniquely harmful messages regarding women. My secondary focus is that the supporters of Feminist Frequency enable and participate in online bullying of those holding dissenting opinions. Anita's personal biography is not relevant to this analysis. The influence she and her followers are having on gaming is.

Please, share your thoughts on my work. But do it in a respectful way without hate, malice, or abusive language. Even if you disagree with a person, they're still a person. Bad ideas deserve criticism, but people are not bad because they have some bad ideas.

Without further ado, let's get started. Each day this week, another part of this series will be posted, for a total of five parts. I hope you find this journey informative.

A Theory

My theory has always been that I have a unique perspective on games that isn't actually so unique. There are plenty of fun-loving women who enjoy video games who don't have a platform. In order to reach the people who actually consume games I use populist language. People don't want to be talked at like they're in school when consuming content about a hobby that's supposed to be fun.

Does this mean I'm opposed to academic examinations of video games? Of course not. I've even done them. I choose to focus on op-ed writing because it reaches more people.

For ten years, I've assumed that if I worked hard enough for long enough, I'd be given a fair shot to earn a living wage writing about games. But the rise of "salary by crowd-funding" has made controversy, backstabbing, having the right friends, and dishonest twisting of facts more important to one's bottom line than actually knowing what you're talking about. People are throwing a lot of money at controversy, but they're not rewarding sense. My assumptions that hard work was the way to get ahead failed to factor in the reality that business is less what you do and more who you know.

Most of the most influential voices writing about games are still overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. There is nothing inherently wrong with this as both men and women can provide vital product. My concern is that many men in positions of power in gaming seem to just be playing musical white man chairs with job opportunities, and they're more interested in propping up existing female voices than finding new ones to provide a diversity of opinion. This runs counter to their professed desire to increase gender diversity in gaming. Instead of increasing real diversity, the current model is lip service and tokenism.

The rise of Feminist Frequency has been accompanied by a vicious form of social aggression that is unleashed on anyone who disagrees with Anita Sarkeesian and Jonathan McIntosh. Surprisingly active developer support has emboldened the bullying by the Feminist Frequency fan mob that often seeks to silence dissent over encouraging diversity and debate. Instead of making things better for women in the video game industry, these phenomena have strengthened the token status of women because all women are now judged in comparison to Anita. From where I sit, it seems that women are being forced into two roles: angry feminist stereotype -- aka Sarkeesian-esque trope -- or freelancer relegated to the back room where all the less desirables fight for slim pickings.

Oh you hadn't heard that proxies for Feminist Frequency bully people? Yeah, the media stories tend to be the other way around, and it's undeniable that the extremes of the treatment Anita has received have been thoroughly unacceptable. However, that shouldn't give her a pass on flawed theories, statements that shame stigmatized groups of women like sex workers, and her serving as an inspiration to bully anyone who is a source of dissent. Furthermore, it definitely shouldn't excuse male figureheads who join the demands that women fit the Sarkeesian mold.

People are throwing a lot of money at controversy, but they're not rewarding sense."

For a long time I was afraid to publicly say what I really believed. Then Anita Sarkeesian encouraged the audience in an XOXO talk to "Listen and believe women" who claim harassment and abuse. Only women. That hit a nerve. I know three different men who have been falsely accused of abuse, and they had their lives dragged through the mud because too many people just took the woman's word regarding what happened.

To be clear, it's not my belief that they didn't do the things they're accused of. I know they didn't do it because I was a witness to some of the events that the accusers twisted. These men suffered social recriminations and in some cases, lost work. They became victims of female abuse, specifically a phenomenon known as relational aggression. This has made me concerned that we're not, collectively, keeping a close enough eye on the phenomenon of male victims of abuse because we limit our understanding of abuse to something that men do to women. Men do get abused, by women as well as other men. They aren't given nearly enough support by the system because men are expected to be able to take care of themselves due to extremely gendered assumptions about male power. This is is the stuff we're talking about when you hear feminists say that patriarchy hurts men too.

Feminist Frequency frequently addresses the depictions of sexualized violence against women in video games. It doesn't compare and contrast them with the instances in the very same games where men are victims of abuse as well. This sort of one-sided analysis can lead to a misleading depiction of a given game, which could potentially send the wrong messages to those who have never played that game, and frustrate those who have. For some men, the offence runs so deep that they feel like Feminist Frequency's method of analysis is erasing their experiences by focusing only on the abuse of women.

Before you dismiss me as a "men's rights activist," I see advocacy to get more help for male victims of abuse as a moral imperative of feminism and feminist gaming culture. As we get closer to gender equality, it's reasonable to expect more instances of women being openly abusive to men. There isn't something inherently evil inside men or inherently virtuous inside women. Men just used to have a lot more social and economic power than women, so they could get away with more abuse. This is changing in a globalized world, whereas Feminist Frequency's analytical tools appear frozen in the 1970s... okay I'll be generous and say the 1990s. That's still a twenty-five year gap in applicability.

Unlike Feminist Frequency, I won't support any statement that implies that one gender is more truthful or believable than another. I was so upset by this "Listen and Believe" stuff and its erasure of the experiences of male victims that over three months ago I made a YouTube response video. Males and females, gamers and non-gamers, deserve to be listened to, but there also has to be a burden of proof to weed out the admittedly tiny percentage of people who lie about this stuff.

I won't support any statement that implies that one gender is more truthful or believable than another."

I was surprised to get any positive response at all to my video, but it has, to date, received a 95% approval rating despite the video being seen over 20,000 times. It made me happy that so many people took the time to say thank you to me for making it.

However, I also discovered, first hand, how criticizing anything Anita Sarkeesian says makes you a pariah in social justice circles, and makes you a high-level target on some subreddits that inspire and fuel abuse. Some of Anita's followers started circulating false accusations of racism and transphobia against me, "proven" by statements deliberately taken out of context so they looked bad when they were really quite innocent. When I tried to explain where I was coming from, my explanations were dismissed as merely "claims" -- not statements of my own intentions, which is something only I could know. In these instances, listen and believe became attack and destroy.

When a group of people is trying to ruin someone's reputation based on information they can reasonably determine is misleading, I call that harassment. If I actually held the sentiments they claim I do, that would be one thing, but my words have been twisted and framed to make me look as bad as possible.

In the ensuing melee I've been reminded that the personhood of minority groups must be supported without denying the personhood of the majority. I've always been uncomfortable with the way Feminist Frequency picks on the white (and Japanese), cisgendered, heterosexual establishment because any push-back can be easily dismissed as racism, sexism, or some sort of phobia. This establishment is an easy villain, and anyone else who disagrees with Anita is just lumped in as a tool of this establishment. The fact that I've been writing about issues related to women in games before Anita Sarkeesian even started her Kickstarter has been declared irrelevant. Sarkeesian's "fans" mercilessly bully any dissenters, myself included. I was even told by an editor of a prominent gaming website that people lying about me was morally equivalent to my critiques of Anita.

The preceding statement seems even more ridiculous and cruel when you factor in the fact that from the beginning, I have always said that I want Feminist Frequency to keep going. I just want them to improve and refine their methods. That modest level of dissent resulted in online pariah status. That's not community. That's a cult.

I also discovered that definitively proving that I was harassed was nearly impossible because the confirmation bias regarding Internet harassment tends to be strong. Even if I could prove someone made inappropriate comments and whipped up others to attack me as well, the defence was that I deserved it. "Listen and believe" easily morphs into "hear and ignore" when a group labels someone their political enemy. This phenomenon isn't unique to gaming: it's common in all extreme Internet discourse.

The extreme right and the extreme left both use this sort of rationalization. Breitbart.com is no less guilty of these rationalizations than Feminist Frequency is. The problem is that there's a lot of money in shameless bias right now. It's destroying the potential for objective reporting and objective analysis, it's hurting a lot of innocent people who don't want to be exposed to political zealotry, and it's leading to more tepid, less creative, less diverse video games.

On top of that, how can anyone enjoy a hobby that's supposed to be fun with all this radical bellowing going on?

The thing is, game developers don't really listen to right wing ranters. Right-wing zealots are seen as insane, conservative bigots attempting to oppress through xenophobia. But a radical, self-hating feminist influence is starting to be felt in AAA game development, and there's a direct line between that and Feminist Frequency. For better or worse, Feminist Frequency as a series has affected change in gaming culture. My concern is that there's more "for worse" in that change than any of us wants to admit.

Consider, if you will, the connection when David Gaider, the lead writer of Dragon Age Inquisition, actively defends Anita Sarkeesian; Dragon Age Inquisition then displays a narrowing in the types of women it depicts compared to previous Dragon Age games despite the overall scale of Inquisition being larger. The Dragon Age franchise used to be something I considered a gold standard title regarding equal inclusion of well-written female characters. I can't say that anymore because it's narrowed female gender expression.

For example, it's important to have female villains as well as heroes. However, the desire demons of Dragon Age have vanished from view, despite being the only visibly female demons in the canon. Granted, the demons have always supposed to have been genderless, but they're also reflections of heightened emotional states from the mortal world. If they'd made over the desire demons the way they redid the sloth/despair demons to make all demons amorphous blobs, that would have been one thing. Instead, however, they kept the vaguely masculine-looking pride demons and just removed the desire demons from visual participation.

Meanwhile, the character of Cole, Inquisition's anthropomorphised spirit of compassion, is gendered male. This is despite compassion being traditionally seen as a feminine trait. As awesome a character as Cole is, he's male... just because. There's no compelling reason he couldn't have been female. It's stuff like this that makes the changes to Dragon Age lore seem less like a logical refining of the game and more a reactive change to Feminist Frequency's brand of public pressure... and trust me, it kills me to say that. Overall, I love the work of David Gaider and his team.

Heroic older women in combat roles have also been almost wiped out in Dragon Age Inquisition, and while there were constant references to the Iron Bull being fat, apparently Thedas contains absolutely no overweight women. It's absurd that in a realm of gay-positive, trans-positive messaging, Big Beautiful Women still don't exist. Inquisition is not a more realistic, feminist-friendly game than its predecessors because it minimized cleavage. It's just less diverse.

But oh, if it only stopped there. The male party characters outnumbered female party characters in Inquisition two to one. I really can't blame Bioware for that, because what a developer does with a male character won't get them reamed out by Feminist Frequency. Female involvement in a game is necessary for Feminist Frequency's influential Tropes vs. Women series to criticize the game. If there are no tropes involving women in a game, there are no Tropes vs. Women in a game. Therefore, developers have much more freedom when creating male characters, because they're not under similar scrutiny. The Iron Bull runs around most of the game with no shirt and characters commenting on his man boobs. He's deliberately hyper-sexualized and self-objectifying. If he'd been a female character, "progressive" websites would have had Ser Pounce-A-Lot's kittens.

This is why I'm speaking despite the continued personal risk to my reputation: this increased scrutiny of female characters has the potential to hurt female representation in gaming, notably survivors of trauma and women in stigmatized professions. Meanwhile, the mainstream press often only cares about women in video games when some woman claims she's "fled her home," because the mainstream media loves to word-wank over female suffering. That is a trope versus women we actually should be taking a good hard look at. To do that, however, we require nuance. And nuance is lost in the brand of call-out culture practiced by radicals like Feminist Frequency's followers. I can't even make a satirical joke about my dog thinking he's a cat, but all cats are cats, without these people labelling me "transphobic." It's gotten that stupid. When humour dies, that's a sign that things have lost perspective. So why is anyone listening to this angry mob?

Feminist Frequency isn't held up as a gold standard for feminism because their ideas are particularly good. Feminist Frequency is praised because Anita's narrative is that of a "brave" victim of abuse. I don't know why she's considered unique in that: everyone who expresses their opinions about games on the Internet gets abused. The Internet is a really abusive place. I've been dealing with Internet abuse since I gave Halo 3 an 8/10 (instead of a 10/10) and said World of Warcraft should have a starter zone to cut down on ganking noobs. God, I've been doing this a long time.

Tropes vs.Women
Tropes vs.Women examines gender figures of speech in video games.

In my opinion, gaming does need to become more diverse, simply because the industry has saturated existing targeted demographics and needs new types of customers to grow. The viewers of my YouTube videos are 95% male, which is very strange for a feminist opinion writer who thought the lesbian coming-of-age game Gone Home was pretty great despite not being a traditional "video game." On top of this, hardcore gamers like me get bored playing another open world game, or another shooter. That doesn't mean we don't like open world games and shooters, it just means that we want variety. Diversity and variety go hand in hand. Therefore, diversity is good.

Unfortunately, our current "diversity" rhetoric is so loud and so vicious that it's shutting doors instead of opening them. Instead of approaching diversity as a business imperative, the focus is on hyperbolic criticism and personal attacks. No matter how good a game is, people will find the one nitpicky thing wrong with it and those are the headlines that end up grabbing attention. The criticism is no longer fair, because it's jumped from criticism of products to criticism of people. It's also jumped from the industry professionals that set trends to the consumers of games. Consumers of games don't have any direct control over what's in a game. We like some things in a given title, we don't like some things. Am I going to condemn the legitimately great single-player FPS gameplay in Metro: Last Light because of some awkward boobie shots? No. Did I like the awkward boobie shots? No. So it's silly to condemn someone for liking a game because a couple scenes were badly handled.

Whether we're told we're deviants or misogynist neckbeards, this culture war is no longer limited to a critique of artistic product. This has become an attack on people and groups of people. It's really unfortunate that the worst of the so-called "gamers are dead" articles was written by a woman, because the understandable objections to it were seen as "harassment of women". As much as I respect Leigh Alexander's chutzpah, she went way over the line in her attacks on the most devoted consumers of video games. Saying "gamers don't have to be your audience" regarding video games is like a automotive writer saying "drivers don't have to be your customers." Of course they do, because they're your core market!

By the way, gamers aren't an audience. Gamers are players. Important distinction, that. We'll get to that later.

I won't follow the video game industry down this abusive path. I won't dehumanize people, regardless of their gender, sexuality, race, creed, faith or lack of faith. I won't insult the customer. I'll leave the business before I do any of that. Unfortunately, I'm getting the increasing feeling that those are my only options. Gaming media is demanding a culture where gamers are "not the audience," straight cisgendered (non-transgendered) males are "the problem," and true diversity is being replaced by thought policing non-white and LGBTQ players.

I'm also really rotten at the multi-level marketing element of YouTube and Patreon. Being good at marketing yourself is more important than having good ideas these days, and that's really sad. People don't want to hear about games from people who are good at marketing. People want to hear about games from people who understand games.

Another facet of the problem is that gaming (and most of North America's modern debate, frankly) has been gripped in an "Us versus Them" mentality, and I think it's no accident that sounds a lot like "Tropes vs. Women." Versus, or oppositional, thinking is rooted in Othering, instead of the idea that most of us want the same basic things in gaming -- a welcoming, open environment and respect for everyone -- we just have different opinions regarding what that looks like. However, instead of helping us shape game culture from the inside, the current crop of high-profile gaming feminists are insisting that the culture be dictated by the minority. That's what "gamers don't have to be your audience" means, in essence.

The thing is, I want gamers to be my audience. Because I'm a gamer. Not a "girl gamer." Just a gamer.

I love video games. I love that they usually make me feel good. I love that they push limits and take risks, even when those risks don't work. But I can't find a place in the video game community that will pay me a living wage unless I'm prepared to draw blood against "the Enemy." What is this? A religion?

Borrowing that metaphor, I won't sell my soul that way. And when developers who lent me a sense of belonging express open support for the leaders of factions that are actively bullying me, I lose the sense that these developers who I have supported, in turn, support women like me who don't conform to a false modesty paradigm. There are women like me all over the world who have found ways to be proud of our flawed, unique bodies, and we refuse to accept that breasts or hips over a certain size indicate anything inherently immoral. This puts us in direct opposition with Feminist Frequency, since they call out characters in the Tropes vs. Women videos just for having large breasts.

There are women like me all over the world who have found ways to be proud of our flawed, unique bodies, and we refuse to accept that breasts or hips over a certain size indicate anything inherently immoral."

Gaming was founded on people who were bullied in other places. I won't be a part of becoming bullies ourselves. An attempt to oppress ones oppressor does not end oppression. We can't solve sexism with Mean Girling, and we can't solve a sense of female inadequacy with Queen Bee tactics. Anita Sarkeesian should not have the right to determine that my body type is inherently bad when used in video games.

There's absolutely no need to demonize anyone on the path to encouraging more dignity for everyone, no matter what any sales charts, surveys or statistics may suggest otherwise. This should be an ethical debate, not a popularity contest. The perspectives of gay and straight white cisgendered men matter. The perspectives of transgendered men and women matter. The perspectives of non-white people, male and female, gay and straight alike, matter. And the diverse, contradictory perspectives of cisgendered women matter too. These perspectives include the perspectives of sex workers, both those who entered into sex work of their own volition and those who were forced into it through poverty, human trafficking, or addiction. Erasing any group or people from video games will not make the real world issues affecting them go away. It will just make people like Anita Sarkeesian more capable of avoiding the issues entirely to avoid uncomfortable emotions and thoughts. No matter how you feel about the practices of prostitution and pornography, it's wrong to deny the existence and personhood of sex workers themselves. Video games are art, and art should not censor content simply to appease extreme North American political beliefs.

Right now, the gaming industry is catering to a handful of women who personify the nagging wife or girlfriend; that, in itself, is rooted in sexist assumptions about what women can be in gaming and the world at large. Female media personalities are still being cast as the "girlfriend" or the destroyer of fun. There is a surprising acceptance of women who have a hard time saying anything good about AAA games which just might hinge on the expectation that women just naturally hate those games. That assumption is wrong. I love Gears of War so much that I've come to see "Brothers in Arms" as a gender-neutral term. I'd be the one woman who wouldn't sleep with Kratos because I respect him too much. There is nothing inherently stopping women from accessing these games. Perhaps we just haven't been given social permission to give them a chance, because the narrative is that gaming hates women.

Sarkeesian, interestingly, fulfils both stereotypical female roles. She's an attractive, modestly sexualized woman beta male gamers can "protect," thereby assuming a traditionally male role they may rarely get to fill. In her own way, Sarkeesian personifies the "damsel in distress" that she so frequently criticizes. At the same time, her persistently negative focus sets her up as the destroyer of fun that perpetuates the idea that men are the "real" gamers: the assumption that gaming needs to change to be more welcoming to women presupposes that it is currently primarily for men. Now, I won't deny that some developers really need to get the memo that women are gamers too, but those guys are in the minority of the developers I've encountered. Still, there's an implied benevolence in humouring Sarkeesian's recycled theories which defuses any real threat to the assumed male hierarchy in gaming. Note that I'm offering this hypothetical as a potential mindset for Feminist Frequency's supporters.

Video games are art, and art should not censor content simply to appease extreme North American political beliefs."

So there's where we're at, in my humble opinion. We stand at a crossroads where gaming culture is changing. We are told it's for the best, but has anyone examined or respectfully challenged that assumption? Try it, and you get instantly vilified. To me, that's a sign we're moving in the wrong direction. Gamers are being told they need radical changes, when most gamers only need, at the most, minor increases in awareness regarding how their behaviour comes across to women who just want to play video games. Overkill tends to push people in a direction opposite to the one a movement intends, and fans of video games are sending strong signals that feminism -- and social justice movements as a whole -- are overdoing the messages of blame.

You may be feeling a bit depressed and angry right now. Congratulations: you have empathy! That's exactly how I feel. But we're just getting started. It will get better.

The next installment is a closer examination of Feminist Frequency's theories, and why they're not good fits for video games.

(Note: Special thanks to cain ejw for beta reading these essays. I wanted a second set of eyes because the backlash is going to be predictable.)

Images courtesy of Bioware, Electronic Arts, Flickr and Feminist Frequency.