Jun 19, 2012

Denial of Sexism

Over the last few weeks certain circles of the internet have been blazing with talk about a Kickstarter for a project called Tropes vs Women in Video Games, by Anita Sarkeesian. Anita runs a blog called Feminist Frequency which talks about various issues related to sexual equality and often posts videos analysing movies for their treatment of women.

She wanted, simply, to research a topic, and share what she found. In return for this she has received, and continues to receive, a barrage of frankly disgusting comments ranging from childish insults to serious sexual harrassment and threats. I won't repeat any of what's been said here. Both the links above will take you to where you can read about what Anita has endured. Many of the comments are NSFW and even left me dumbstruck by their volume and level of abuse. I don't shock easily, so you have been warned.

I've since spent some time reading up on other cases of sexual harrassment within video game culture. One particularly well-written article on Shattersnipe discusses the idea of rape-culture in gaming and links to several shocking examples of easily the mistreatment of women is filed away, either as "not a real problem" or "just a necessary part of the game." There's also a follow up post here.

Firstly, I've been a gamer now, both a casual video game player and a very committed tabletop roleplayer, for close to twenty years. I'm a proud, card-carrying geek. Many of my closest and oldest friends are gamers. It's a culture I've felt to be safe and welcoming. For the most part. Like all subcultures it has its darker side, and it's not at all pretty. I've seen cliques, elitism and sexism. I've been guilty of it myself. I've made sexist jokes and made light of sexual harrassment plenty of times. I used to tell myself it was okay to do it around certain people, that I didn't mean anything by it.

But here's the thing. Even if I don't mean it, I'm still creating an environment where someone in my company could feel insecure, or where a passerby could here my comments and take them at face value. I'm creating an atmosphere of normalcy and mundanity for sexual abuse. I believe in freedom of speach, and the right to disagree, but I also believe that words have power. We have to be aware of the effect we can have on our environment, because it's not always obvious. Just because a group of guys say they respect women and would never harm one, that doesn't help much if some poor girl has to listen to them joke about her making sandwiches while they play video games with hypersexualised female characters and read comic books that have started to borderline on soft-core porn. It can still make people unformfortable. Denying that or criticising someone for pointing it out is nothing but willful ignorance. Can you enjoy playing video games where you have sex with hookers then kill them to get your money back? Or reading comics where Starfire gets bored if she talks to a man for too long without sleeping with him? Of course you can. Just don't be surprised if someone finds it offensive, and don't dare criticise or attack someone for expressing that discomfort.

Our society blames the victim. A guy gets mugged, it's his own fault for walking in that part of town. A kid gets bullied, it's his own fault for not telling an adult. A girl gets raped, it's her down fault for dressing like that. Now it seems like the people simply trying to point out the problem are targets as well. Everyone seems to be fair game except the people actually making abusive comments or threatening rape and murder. And no-one wants to admit that they're part of a culture which does objectify women in ways it never would do to a man.

I've talked several times about how men in film and television have become the acceptable targets for any number of things which, if done to women for laughs the same way they are for men, would incite public outcry. But that doesn't mean we can simply ignore how video games and comic books depict women, any more than the fact that adults sometimes get punched means we can ignore child abuse. People with this attitude of "I know another problem which you're not addressing, so your argument is invalid" need to grow up. They're just trying to avoid facing the issue, probably because they're scared of what they'll find if they look hard enough.

This is a really serious issue for me. As a writer, I want to portray strong characters who stand against forces of darkness and fight for what's right. I want to show men and women, side by side. I don't want to stumble into the pit of cultural influences encouraging me to show women a certain way. So I remain vigilant against myself, because I'm human and I'm flawed. I'll make mistakes along the way, but what's important is that I can own those mistakes and try to do better next time.


  1. That last paragraph was a very interesting one for me, because it makes me think very clearly about a scene in a story I've been toying with.

    In the scene, a man rescues a woman from an attacker. I realise that there might be some people who will roll their eyes at this. So it got me thinking as to just -why- this man was rescuing this woman.

    Could it have been a woman rescuing a man from an attacker? Of course it could have. But it wasn't, because of circumstances that lead the characters up to that point. If the circumstances were different, she'd be rescuing him. She's rescued him in the past after all, and she'll rescue him from situations in the future, and vise-versa.

    Considering the why is something I've done in the past and will try to do more of in the future. And it can help gain new insight into a character or their interactions.

    - Ellen J. Miller

    1. Absolutely. Treating female characters as equal to their male counterparts certainly doesn't mean you can never have a man rescue a woman. It just means being aware of possible unintended interpretations, and making sure that you present the situation in a believable, fair way.

    2. Yeah, unintended interpretations (or what TV Tropes refers to as Unfortunate Implications) can be a blight unless you know what you're doing and how to work with and subvert/invert the tropes. That's something you need to be confident to do though.

      It's something that can affect lots of forms of entertainment. From fantasy counterpart cultures that are just a little bit too negatively stereotyped (See the Elder Scrolls setting's Redguards, a dark skinned race that were given an intelligence penalty that put them on equal footing with Orcs) to a Vampire:The Masquerade clan based on the Roma that had their weakness being a roll to resist engaging in illegal activities.

  2. One thing you might consider is your use of the word "girl" to describe a woman. A woman is a woman, a girl is a girl. The infantilization of women is a chronic ongoing problem that is mirrored in the inproper use of these two words. Generally men will refer to full grown women as "girls", and this can play on the idea that women are weaker/infantile/immature. This coupled with the fact that many women are seen as inherently irrational/illogical is the right recipe for a second class citizen. Furthermore, I'm not sure why a person would enjoy playing a video game that mocks the idea of killing a prostitute to get your money back, especially when that happens to sex workers all the time. In fact, it's probably happening right now...to more than one woman. Men have to joke about women in these ways. They have to make the sandwhich jokes, the rape jokes, they have to belittle us. They have to do this because it reaffirms their role in society. If we were actually seen as equals, that kind of behavior/language would be corrosive to that dynamic. so it makes sense why the comments continue. the behavior. the rapes. the deaths. It keeps women beneath men. In much the same way that blatant racists regularily engage in bigoted "jokes", microaggressions, assault and so on.

    I am surprised by your admittance of using this type of derogatory language. I think that's really responsible of you. It is (still) much too rare to witness a man who will admit this. What's even more interesting is when a man admits his casual (or blatant) sexism, his male friends often joke that he is a "fag". And that somehow being gay is an acceptable insult. It's like two forms of bigotry all wrapped up into one. Anything that is considered feminine, even just being in defense of those who hold that label, is synonymous with weakness. "Fag" "Pansy" "Pussy" are all words used to demean men who defend women. Do you have sand in your vagina? There's a popular one. Or, apparently, you must have a small dick if you are in some way emotionally connected to your girlfriend. Or your dick must be small because you stood up for a woman. Or, like the size of your dick fucking matters in the first place. And why is it a marker for masculinity? And why is the dominant male culture so obsessed with even the most personal parts of our anatomy, male or female, using them to objectify/belittle or exploit?

    I would say I was shocked by the harrassment Anita had experienced if I didn't already suffer the "affliction" of being a woman in our society already. If i didn't experience it myself already. so Yeah. Welcome to the world of men. Women are good for two things: sex, and more sex. The rest? who cares. They don't know what they are talking about anyway ;)

    Thanks for the post Paul. I hope you continue to expand your horizons and look to the stories of others.

    1. Thank you for stopping by the blog! :-)

      Wow, this post takes me back. My first book hadn't even come out when I posted this.

      If I'm brutally honest, this was only the start of me waking up to how much there was still to do in the areas of feminism and equal rights. I've learned a lot since then, and I'm still learning every day. I'm grateful for every chance I get to understand these issues more.

      I try to use my past behaviour to help other men accept responsibility for their own actions, and encourage them to change. I never thought of myself as sexist, and no-one who knew me would ever have said I was, but this isn't about making sure we're blameless, it's about recognising centuries of social prejudice, and the damage done to us by forced gender roles and toxic masculinity, and understanding the responsibility I, and all men, have to step back and listen to what women are saying.