Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Feminist Frequency backlash: Explaining, not excusing or defending

If you're a part of nerd culture, if you play video games, or if you're remotely interested in gender issues, I don't need to bother summarizing what's happened, recently, with Anita Sarkeesian (of Feminist Frequency fame - we were also, briefly, in the same department at York University, though our paths never crossed) and her campaign to raise money for her 'Tropes vs. Women in Video Games' web series. But I'll summarize it, ever so briefly, anyway: she plans to talk about how misogynistic video games are, a bunch of game-playing misogynists call her names, and the rest of the internet notes that this is somewhat ironic. In more extreme cases, those misogynist gamers create games where they (and you) can vent some of your misogynist rage on Sarkeesian's likeness. Classy.

(I can't help but point out the similarities between what's happened to Sarkeesian and the misogynist video game writer who mocked Felicia Day and her nerd-credentials on Twitter. Also, this. I don't think it's a coincidence that they faced these attacks almost simultaneously. Something has snapped in that particular corner of the interwebs. And I don't think it's over yet, either.)

Now, I've been plenty critical of geek-culture myself - in spite of my claims to be a part of it - because there is plenty to criticize. But I think that we're doing ourselves a disservice if we chalk up the response to women like Sarkeesian and Day as just another instance of boilerplate misogyny. There's something else going on, here.

That something else, I think, has to do with a shared (to some extent) experience of oppression. Because, and I don't think this is going to shock anyone, men who actively identify as gamers and geeks tend to be grown-up - or growing-up - versions of kids who have been socially ostracized and victimized by their more normatively masculine (and, I should add, feminine) peers. Now, this is absolutely not the same thing as being a victim of sexism or misogyny - geeky men still, for the most part, will pass as men and be able to access varying degrees of masculine and heteronormative privilege, and many of them enjoy class and race privilege, too - but it goes a long way in explaining why the reaction to Sarkeesian has been so rabid.

Put simply, Sarkeesian is poking at a raw wound and, not unlike cornered animals, the male gamers are lashing out instinctively. Gamers, if I can generalize, participate in a performative culture of excessive masculinity precisely because they can't access that masculinity in "real" life. And, for the most part, they - unlike the purveyors of equally excessive and performative "real" masculinity - realize that it's a performance, that it's a novel and entertaining way of addressing some lack. (To be clear: every man is made to feel like they're lacking in some way. But not every man is conscious of that lack. Geeks aren't only conscious of it, but they're often reminded of it.) And this is a problem for them because it may be the only access that they have to a sense of masculine adequacy. To take that away, then, is to threaten their very sense of themselves as men.

That "sense of themselves as men", of course, is a hugely probematic one. Again, this is an explanation, not a defense - I'm not going to defend a practice of identity-building that's predicated on hyper-aggression and the objectification of women. But I do want to suggest that the where men who feel "manly" in other aspects of their lives can survive the attack on sexism in videogames, it might not be so easy for men who don't - and how have been made to feel all the more inadequate by that first category of men.

And for that reason, the existence of this misogyny and the defense of it isn't surprising - the history of the world's oppressed people is full of these seeming contradictions, where the once oppressed respond to their empowerment by turning on and oppressing the people immediately below or beside them on the totem pole: think of how political franchise movements in the USA pitted black men against black women or white women against black women, rather than all three against white men; the reputation that communities of gay men have for misogyny; or even how the little kids who get bullied by big kids will bully the little kids when they themselves get bigger. (An even more direct comparison? The similar way that criticism of sexism in superhero comics has been received.) You might suspect that oppression would breed empathy, and it does to some extent and in some cases, but it's equally likely to teach people that power (male power, in this case) is most easily achieved and maintained by adopting the same tactics that were used against you.

Being bullied doesn't grant you a license to bully, though it does provide an explanation for why bullying might strike you as a reasonable response to a threat. Clearly, though, the fact that Sarkeesian's work is perceived as threatening to an entire subculture would seem to suggest that we've missed something - that it's not enough to point out that geek culture is misogynist, and expect that change will come quickly and easily. Because that misogyny? It's part of the core around which geek identity has been built, and removing it would be like removing sexism from patriarchy - a totally unrecognizable system, the end of geeks and men as we know them. And that, not surprisingly, might be too terrifying for them to consider.


Jen said...

Very interesting post. I haven't seen much that deals with the reasons for this backlash and your post certainly provides some insight. But the backlash to people pointing out sexism (or racism or any other sort of "ism") is usually the same whatever sub-culture it's in. People can get extremely defensive. I don't think games themselves are that much more sexist than other entertainment mediums. However, an atmosphere of misogyny within the community is generally more tolerated which seems to lead to the assumption that sexism is expected to be part and parcel of games even by developers! Perhaps this is because it is generally an anonymous environment where people feel safe in saying what is really on their minds. This allows the vocal minority to shout over everyone else and silence the more good natured majority who just don't want to attract that sort of attention to themselves.

If I could nitpick on one little thing though:

Gamers, if I can generalize, participate in a performative culture of excessive masculinity precisely because they can't access that masculinity in "real" life.

Do you think this is why women play games too? When I play Team Fortress or Red Dead Redemption or Gears of War am I performing masculinity because as a woman I can't access that sense of male power in real life? Are women playing games because they are essentially trying to escape the feminine gender "role"?

I know you are generalising and I don't think that this is the only reason people play games (there are many different aspects to escapism) but it certainly might be a part of it.

bryesque said...

Jen: Perhaps gaming isn't more inherently sexist than any other sub-culture (most sub-cultures have whole segments that are massively sexist... like, y'know, culture as a whole), but certain gamers and aggression do go together very naturally. To be fair, this usually isn't outward violence, instead a fantasy aggression that they may not see as "real", but clearly has a real-life impact - you know that many of these guys are dismissing that horrifying Sarkeesian thing as "just a game".

Neil: You make some good points, though I'm glad you make a point not to excuse any of it. A lot of what you describe in your fourth paragraph here could well have applied to me in my younger years, but I seem to have learned the right lessons from being socially ostracised and believe very strongly that any group or sub-culture benefits from being inclusionary and welcoming. Lately I can only feel comfortable when sub-cultures also represent the diversity of the larger culture - I've fallen away from games and superhero comics quite a bit recently, and I've realized this is a major reason.

I understand where this defensiveness/hostility comes from, and the way that certain hardcore gamers isolate themselves in their world only helps foster that mindset. It's important to be aware of where it comes from though, and I think this spells it out pretty well.

neilshyminsky said...

Jen wrote: "When I play Team Fortress or Red Dead Redemption or Gears of War am I performing masculinity because as a woman I can't access that sense of male power in real life? Are women playing games because they are essentially trying to escape the feminine gender "role"?"

Maybe, but not necessarily. There's a tremendous pressure on men to enact masculinity - to suck it up, not cry, be strong, be tough, don't be whipped, etc. The game becomes a way to engage with that power-fantasy and escape from the feeling you've learned that you're failing to be a man.

I'm sure that some women feel the same pressure. But I'm also pretty sure that most women don't feel the same pressure to be manly men. As to whether they're trying to "escape" something... I have no idea. I just don't know many female gamers!

Nathan Plastic said...

I made a similar observation on FB earlier this week. Gamers/geeks are acutely sensitive to unfairness, stereotyping, and victimization - but only when it's directed at them. This is particularly true when they self-identify as participants in 'geek culture'. Many geeks (and I'm generalizing broady, obvs) can't really see beyond their own (perceived/real) marginalization.

What they *do* see is the increasing alignment of forces that are changing the way that games are played and being made. I would argue that it's not just the content of 'traditional' video games that is hyper-masculine, but also the way those games are played. Have you ever listened to gamers who hang out at the local E/B brag about how they only play on the hardest difficulty settings? About how many newbs they pwned last night? Pros on the international fighting game circuit (it really exists!) have argued publicly that the use of explicit racist/sexist/homophobic slurs is an integral part of their "culture".

The defence of white/male/hetero/etc privilege is being fought largely in masked language right now. The old (male) guard are "hardcore" gamers, who are cast as defenders of the faith against "casual" gamers. Of course hardcore games will mean shooters, fighters, and RTS games while casual games are any category that is played largely by women. Forums are full of hardcore gamers frothing about the fact that game developers are dedicating resources THAT BELONG TO US to making games for the casual gamers. Don't these companies understand who put them where they are??? etc.

Anyways, yes, good post. It's an angle not many folks have approached, and I think there's a lot to investigate here.

neilshyminsky said...

Nate: You're the second person who has pointed out the hardcore vs. casual distinction, which, admittedly, I really don't know much about beyond the obvious. Definitely worth exploring, though, and I'd be interested to read more responses from people inside the community who are covering that angle. (I was aiming this blog at an audience comprised of people who are shocked that this could have happened in the first place.)