Anita Sarkeesian, the creator of Feminist Frequency, posted a series of videos detailing the portrayal of female characters in video games. The series, titled Tropes vs Women in Video Games, is a thought-provoking analysis of the story-telling devices employed by many different video games and the unfortunate implications endemic to these story-telling devices. It’s a brilliant series, and I strongly urge you to give it a look.
Naturally, Tropes vs Women created a backlash of at least several dozen Youtubers who have analyzed Sarkeesian’s videos and worked tirelessly to refute her central thesis…And that’s fine! You should be critical of new information! The problem is that most of the people who are trying to refute Sarkeesian’s points are doing so using faulty reasoning. And today, I’m going to rebut the rebuttals.
Let’s start with the source material.
Here is a link to Sarkeesian’s video “Ms Male Character.” In it, Sarkeesian discusses how game developers use stereotypical gender signifiers to tell their audience that a character is female. What are gender signifiers? Here’s a quick example.
Which one is the girl?
Wendy Koopa is differentiated from her brothers with a pink shell, a bow, a necklace, high heels and makeup. The other Koopa kids are all male. So why is this a problem? To understand that, take a moment and look at Wendy’s six brothers. What can you tell about them from the way they’re presented?
Lemmy (the one at the top) is clearly the crazy one. Morton (the brown one) is clearly the one with a temper. It suddenly occurs to me that there might be racial issues at play here as well. Ludwig (the guy in the middle with the dark blue hair) has kind of a mad genius vibe going on. All of the Koopa kids have unique personalities. So what can we say about Wendy?
Well…She’s the girl.
Wendy is the girl and nothing but the girl. That’s the problem. The creators of the Mario series have defined Wendy’s character solely in terms of her gender. By relying on these overused visual cues, they’ve created a flat, one-dimensional character. We don’t know anything about her other than her gender.
So now a response to Sarkeesian’s video.
I Will Always Love Video Games responds to Sarkeesian with the following. “But now onto the things that bothered me, the first one being a BIG ONE that quite literally stares you in the face. In her new video, Anita complains about the problems surrounding what she refers to as gender signifiers, items that have, over time, become synonymous with the female gender. Among those things are: the colour pink, ponytails, earrings and lipstick. All of which, Anita is wearing in her videos, including the one in which she’s vilifying them. Anita, you can’t sit there and look your audience in the eye, saying that these items are sexist and promote a negative or stereotypical image of women when you do so with plucked eyebrows, red lipstick and gigantic hoop earrings. It’s hypocrisy at its finest.”
Rule Number One of debate: respond to what your opponent actually says. Sarkeesian has not vilified the visual cues that we traditionally associate with femininity. Not at all. She even says right here that there are no problems with the colour pink, high heels, bows or makeup. On their own, there is nothing sexist about these design elements.
Let’s review Sarkeesian’s point. By relying solely on gender signifiers in Wendy’s visual design, the game developers have created in her a one-dimensional character. To quote Sarkeesian, “One look at Wendy and you know she’s female. But not much else.” Wendy’s character is defined solely in terms of her gender. When this is done to a wide variety of video game characters across a wide variety of platforms, it sends the message that the only important aspect of a female character’s personality is her gender. Women are not crafty or maniacal or prone to violence – traits that we see expressed in the design of the other Koopa kids – they’re women. Only women.
When these design elements are applied to the vast majority of female characters, they have the unintentional – or perhaps intentional – effect of painting all women with the same brush. Men are individuals but women are a category. They also reduce female characters to flat, one-dimensional characters. That’s what makes it sexist.
Sarkeesian articulates other problems involving the artificial gender binary, and I won’t repeat them here. Watch the video for more information on that. I’m moving on to the next point. “She then talks about Ms. Pac-Man as if there were some deeper meaning to the character. Anita, Midway created her without the consent of Namco to continue the franchise without having to do any real work?”
Then why not simply create Pac-Man 2? As opposed to Ms. Pac-Man. Sarkeesian is using Ms. Pac-man as a convenient example of how to create a Ms. Male Character. Take a male character and add visual design elements associated with femininity. A Ms. Male Character is different from her male counterpart in appearance only. Perhaps she’s also assigned stereotypically female character traits – a love of fashion and gossip, for instance – but these are still only superficial differences. A Ms Male Character is, in fact, not a character. She’s a stereotype.
“The section of the video that angered me the most was the part where she rips apart the Mass Effect Trilogy. Anita says herself that the narrative of the Mass Effect trilogy remains relatively unchanged regardless of whether you play as a female or male Commander Shepard. If that’s the case, Anita, what are you upset about? Wouldn’t you be angrier if there were a more stereotypical storyline for the female Commander Shepard?”
Rule Number One of debate: respond to what your opponent actually says. Sarkeesian was praising the Mass Effect trilogy for creating nearly identical storylines for the male and female Commander Shepards. This was praise, not criticism. There is nothing wrong with Commander Shepard. She is an excellent female protagonist.
Sarkeesian’s criticism is not directed at the games themselves but at the marketing campaign for the trilogy. Ads for the Mass Effect games feature only the male version of Commander Shepard. The first two games display only the Male-Shepard in their cover art. These marketing decisions reinforce the idea that Commander Shepard is a man and that his female counterpart was merely an afterthought. Campaigns such as these also treat female players as an afterthought.
What you’re seeing here, my friends, is called a Straw-Man Fallacy. If you’ve ever heard the term “straw-man argument,” this is what it means. A Straw-Man happens when you put words in your opponent’s mouth instead of responding to what he or she actually says. It’s easier to win if you change the other person’s argument to something ridiculous. (Ten bucks says I Will Always Love Video Games responds to this by saying I’ve used a Straw-Man on him even though I’ve quoted him directly and responded to his arguments. Another common tactic in bad reasoning is to accuse your opponent of making the same logical errors that you have made).
I had actually planned to address more than one video in this blog. I’ve got another video response to Sarkeesian that offers a great example of the Equivocation Fallacy. More on that later.