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.