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.