It’s a brisk but not impossibly chilly Tuesday evening in Boston. The sun is already just beginning to fade as long grey-blue shadows start to stretch out over Huntington Ave. I’m pacing one of the smaller quads of Northeastern University, taking in the just-right fall atmosphere while trading texts with a friend who’d planned to meet me here, in this pleasant part of town I don’t get to nearly as often as I should. The overall milieu, right down to the busy rush of students dashing about furious puffing their cigarettes with wool-caps pulled down tight, is exactly what people think of when they picture The College Scene in Massachusetts.
My friend arrives, and we head into the auditorium foyer where a crowd has already begun to gather. I’m reminded, once again, how long it’s been (almost a decade now) since this sort of place was my part of my everyday world… These kids look like, well, kids. Fresh-faced, restless and eager; was I ever this young? We’re all here, of course – my friend, these kids, myself – for the same reason: She has come to town to speak.
By now I’ve gotten used to the idea that talking and writing about videogames can confer a certain strain of pseudo-celebrity on a person. Not quite “red-carpet” celebrity, but certainly “pack-a-college-lecture-hall” celebrity. I’m accustomed to seeing people I regard as colleagues and friends and know as regular folks get pulled aside for photos by legitimately starstruck fans or asked to sign autographs – however surreal it still feels when I’m asked to do so. But there’s an electricity here, tonight, that feels notably different from, say, the show floor at PAX or a launch event; and we all know it’s because the star of evening approaches under an entirely different kind of notoriety – the kind that includes inexplicable hatred along with fandom; infamy along with fame.
And then, just like that, there she is: Strolling casually through the crowd nigh-indistinguishable from anyone else there save for recognizability and being flanked by sharply-dressed folks who may as well be wearing sandwich-boards reading Teacher and Event Coordinator. The lady of the hour, at once the human lightning-rod for gamer-culture vitriol and – maybe – the beacon piercing the dark for large swaths of said culture who still feel alienated an even unsafe within what is supposedly a now firmly “mainstream” medium.
Anita Sarkeesian – The Most Dangerous Woman in Videogames.
If you spend enough time on The Internet, it can be easy to forget how inflated and meaningless so much of the back and forth is, or how adept it is at skewing the view of reality. To know Sarkeesian’s name is to know the ongoing story of hate, threats and controversy that surround her Kickstarted video series “Feminist Frequency: Tropes vs. Women in Video-Games;” and, if you chiefly know of her by the sustained relentlessness of all that coordinated intimidation, it’s easy to imagine her arriving at an event like this being hustled directly to the stage in a bullet-proof vest guarded by a small army of burly bodyguards like Salman Rushdie once upon a time.
But no, none of that. Because this the real world, the flesh-and-blood world where talking about diversity and gender-issues in popular culture doesn’t make you History’s Greatest Monster, or a figure of controversy, or anything other than the guest speaker at a college lecture hall. It’s a stark and refreshing reminder that for all the bellowing, the Must Destroy Feminist Frequency brigade that can seem so omnipresent and powerful on YouTube, Twitter or any other digital forum is, in reality, so very insignificant… so very small.
We get to our seats soon enough (after a pause to formally introduce myself: in the interest of full disclosure, Mrs. Sarkeesian and I arrive here already aware of each other’s work and sharing some acquaintances, though we’ve never met in person until tonight), and I turn around for a bit to observe that the place is, indeed, packed. The whole thing still feels extraordinary: Ten years ago I’d have never believed a lecture about video games could draw a crowd like this from a speaker whose name wasn’t Miyamoto or Kojima. Five years ago I wouldn’t have believed it could happen for someone talking about feminism in the medium. Then again, that same ten years ago Presidents only ever came in white – things change.
Whatever one thinks of her videos it’s immediately apparent that this evening’s scenario – standing at the podium, holding students at attention to a breezy yet info-packed PowerPoint-style presentation – seems to be her and her material in their natural habitat. Those who’ve critiqued (and I’m one of them) the occasionally “dry” point-point-point-point delivery and pacing of the TvsW videos might, I think, feel more positively about this “live show” version; where she has the freedom to pause for a laugh, slip into an amusing tangent or joke around with the audience (for example: simply tossing an “Oh, come on!” exploitative image onto the screen and letting it hang without comment plays much better when there’s a live audience to laugh it.)
The meat and potatoes of the presentation would be, at first, familiar ground for anyone who’s already watched what exists thus far of the series – the College lecture-circuit is, after all, the pop concerts of Academia – even incorporating clips from the inaugural episode. There’s more biographical detail here, though, and you can feel the generational divide in the auditorium when she describes having to campaign to her parents to let her get a Gameboy because “that wasn’t a toy for girls” (“It’s right there in the name, even!”) and the younger students can hardly conceive of such a time.
So too resonates the fleshing-out of her broader mission statement: To reclaim Feminism as a mainstream movement by wrenching it away from the arcane stuffiness of older Academia (I’m paraphrasing, since direct-recordings were not allowed as is standard practice for such presentations) and the angry-killjoy stereotypes foisted upon it by the Backlash Era of the 80s and 90s; and to do so by using the familiar language of movies, games and television – pop-culture, she opines, is what pedagogy is.
The agreeing nods of women (and more than a few men) in attendance are noticeable at this, and why not? These girls are living in the curious generational niche that, statistically, agrees with nearly every tenet of classical Feminism yet just as statistically bristles at actually adopting the label. That she explains this in-between clips of feminist icon bell hooks being projected on a huge screen behind her – a screen that moments earlier held images of Princesses Lala, Daphne and Peach and will later display everyone from Juliette Starling to Vinyl Goddess – virtually defines surreal.
Clearly, though, what hits closest to home is an abbreviated recap of the unexpected fury that greeted the announcement of the initial Kickstarter, back before anyone had heard of her or the series. It’s easy to get jaded about The Internet’s ability to gin up bile; but seeing a selection from the now infamous torrent of “ironic” sexist insults and graphic rape-threats that greeted the mere proposition of doing a feminism-centered video critique of gaming narratives projected in a semi-public setting on a huge screen is quite a sight. There are gasps among the students, but not that many – after all, cyber-bullying of this stripe is reality for women in tech fields, to one degree or another.
She’s also quick to not make it “just about her,” noting that while it was encouraging that members of the gaming press rallied to get YouTube to reverse a falsely-generated “flagging” or her work, some others not as visible didn’t have as happy of endings; a lead-in to retellings of the harassment campaigns directed at Carolyn Petit and Jennifer Hepler.
Fortunately, that unpleasantness quickly gives way to more amusing examples of the medium’s frequently embarrassing use of its female characters. The anachronistic 90s “tough broad” advertisement for Perfect Dark gets big laughs at the expense of an era/aesthetic not even nostalgia can defend; an archetype she calls “The Fighting F*ck-Toy” that encapsulates characters that offer an illusion of “empowerment” but in fact merely combine the mostly-male audiences desire to gawk at women with that same audience’s desire to be the hero. But even more eyerolls are generated by the introduction of Wonder Pink, the lone heroine of WONDERFUL 101,” a brand new game of this year.
At one point, she offers up a direct challenge to the famous counter-argument that “sex sells.” “Sex doesn’t sell, objectification is what sells, is her contention, supported by the rather obvious evidence that even vaguely honest depictions of relationships and human sexuality are rarely at the heart of these controversial characters and their games. “Sex in stories,” she’s quick to point out, “is not the problem.” It’s objectification, and the dehumanization that can’t help but follow – even in the classics of our shared nostalgia.
Speaking of nostalgia, though, she’s loathe to spare any: There’s NES-era Samus Aran in her pixelated “Hey! It’s a lady!” bikini – held up for decades now as one of the Golden Age’s best stabs at gender diversity – juxtaposed with its later-gen progeny in the form of cheesecake alternate-costumes or Splatterhouse’s collectible nudes. Less amusing still is a subsequent digression into Women in Refridgerators.
But the still that brings the room into stunned silence comes as a preview for an episode yet to air focusing on the medium’s frequent exotification of women of color. Seeing them all together – a lineup of black and tan women in animal skins, bone necklaces or headdresses with no discernible root in any authentic “tribal” or “primitive” tradition – it sort-of says it all even before she points out the most obvious issues like animal-skins reinforcing the “animalistic” conception of nonwhite peoples, or climate and materials becoming excuses for plunging necklines and bare midriffs.
The talk concludes (simply too much ground is covered to include it all here) after a brief, moderated Q&A session during which hegemonic masculinity comes up (“does gender-stereotyping hurt men, too? Of course!”) as does the million dollar question: “What can be done, really?” Her answer, it turns out, is to keep learning about these issues and looking for them – not necessarily to toss this or that game or character out entirely, but to recognize the room for improvement and seek it out.
But the sight of the evening comes after the event itself has concluded (I’d been asked to hang around with my aforementioned mutual fellows for some friendly shop-talk) and Sarkeesian finds herself surrounded by a large group of audience members seeking advice, autographs and – really, just mutual acknowledgment. A guy would like his DS autographed, several folks are seeking photos. A group of young women from the schools new-ish Game Design program are there, too, beaming excitedly and almost tripping over one another to declare their own commitment to get into the medium renewed and refreshed. How can you not feel good about that?
Because make no mistake, as innocuous as Tropes vs. Women turned out to be in comparison to the rage that preceded its debut, there is a status quo in gaming and it does seem recognize that a tipping point has been reached and that its time as the status quo is coming to an end. For whatever reason, the relative progress that the last few decades saw for diversity and broad-mindedness in film, television and music had been able to bypass gaming for what seems an unnaturally long time – allowing it to become a kind of “last bastion” of certain anachronistic views of gender and power-dynamics that had been allowed and encouraged to recede elsewhere. But that time is coming to a very discernible end, which is why those who’d rather it not change at all are screaming so loud and fighting so violently.
Because the young women and men paying rapt attention to this particular lecture represent the future of gaming and of so-called “gamer culture,” and it’s a future that looks radically different from the way the medium has looked up to this point. And while Anita Sarkeesian may or may not be the tip of the spear when all is said and done, she’s been made a tangible symbol of what progress means and looks like in gaming – and if that progress is something you somehow consider a threat then… well, yes, in that respect she is The Most Dangerous Woman in Video-Games at this particular moment…
…even if, behind all the digital fog, the reality is simply one more young woman who loves video-games but simply wants what others have and take for granted and what she concludes that games won’t allow most women to do: Love them unconditionally.