Technology

After Gamergate, Anita Sarkeesian has a new focus: History's overlooked women

Four years ago Anita Sarkeesian was a Web designer who made feminist YouTube videos in her spare time. Her budget was small and so was her audience: The videos got a couple of thousand views at best.

This was before she launched her first fundraising campaign.

When Sarkeesian sought $6,000 on Kickstarter for a video series on the portrayal of women in video games, she attracted the attention — and the ire — of gamers who felt she threatened their culture. The criticism came in droves, escalating from people telling her to get back in the kitchen, to death and rape threats.

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The message was clear: The gaming world, long viewed as a boys club, wanted to silence her feminist critiques.

But the more she was criticized, the more attention she got. The more she was harassed, the more support she received. It wasn't part of her detractors' plan, but in 30 days, Sarkeesian's campaign raised $158,000.

Since then, she has become one of the most high-profile feminist critics of the video game industry, a guest on "The Colbert Report" and a TEDx speaker.

And now, she's using the platform her detractors inadvertently handed to her to launch another crowdfunding campaign, this one more ambitious than the last.

The new video series, "Ordinary Women: Daring to Defy History," is expected to be released on YouTube in September. It will tell the stories of overlooked women in history, such as Murasaki Shikibu, the 10th century Japanese author of the first modern novel, and Ching Shih, a Chinese pirate who commanded a fleet of more than 40,000 men in the early 19th century.

Sarkeesian has brought on Los Angeles film producer Elisabeth Aultman, who recently worked on Gabrielle Demeestere's "Yosemite," to produce the series. The live-action components of her videos have already been filmed on a professional soundstage at YouTube Space in L.A. And the project will be crowdfunded on a film and television-centric fundraising platform, Seed and Spark, also headquartered in L.A.

The campaign is looking to raise $200,000 — a leap from the $6,000 she sought for "Tropes vs. Women in Video Games."

"It never occurred to me to stop," said Sarkeesian, who expects "Ordinary Women" to throw gas on the online harassment she has faced since "Tropes vs. Women." "I'm an activist first and foremost. So I did a risk assessment where I sat down and said, 'Do I want to take this on?'"

In 2014, when gamers clashed with video game critics and developers in a spat known as Gamergate, Sarkeesian was caught up in the furor and blamed for trying to force her feminist agenda on the industry. As one of the most visible critics of the industry, she became a primary target. In the years since she launched her original fundraising campaign, she's received thousands of death threats.

Instead of shutting down or going into hiding, she sees an opportunity, especially because she now has people's attention — her YouTube channel Feminist Frequency has more than 210,000 subscribers, some of her videos have as many as 2.5 million views, and she herself has more than 600,000 Twitter followers.

Where "Tropes vs. Women" challenged the video game industry to think critically about its representations of women, Sarkeesian hopes "Ordinary Women" will challenge storytellers to think about the stories and roles written for and about women.

"Women are usually relegated to the muse or the wife or the sidekick, and this series is saying: No. There are these extraordinary real women throughout history who have done these extraordinary things," she said. "Draw inspiration from that. Tell their stories and stories like those."

"Ordinary Women" comes at a time when diversity and the notion of underrepresented groups being overlooked in the workplace are front and center in Hollywood and the technology industry. It plays off the Black Lives Matter and #OscarsSoWhite movements, in which a growing chorus is demanding diversity of voice, characters and stories.

"It's been only the last few years that we've started to see true humanity in the way we talk about women on screen, at least where big-budget projects are concerned," producer Aultman said. "I think of Black Lives Matter, or half the NASA class being female, or how we have a leading candidate in Super Tuesday who is a woman. I think we need to be able to show that women can not only be and do anything, but have the vision to see what other people don't yet see."

It seems like an uphill battle. Sarkeesian's detractors are vocal and have turned to Reddit, YouTube and other social media channels to discredit her. But her videos have also attracted supporters within the industry, many of whom are paying close attention to what she has to say.

"Anita's work has had a massive impact insofar that developers are having a constant conversation about diversity in their games and the kinds of characters they put into their games," said Neil Druckmann, a creative director at Santa Monica video game studio Naughty Dog.

Naughty Dog has had internal discussions about the way it designs characters for its blockbuster games such as the "Uncharted" series and, more recently, "The Last Of Us," Druckmann said. But even he found Sarkeesian's videos "eye-opening."

One of her videos, which slammed the way female characters are often objectified and made to dress in a sexy manner that is unnatural to the situation they're in, opened a discussion within the studio about how the female protagonist in "The Last of Us" should be represented.

"I was conscious not to do that anywhere in the game unless there was a specific reason for it," Druckmann said. "For example, there's a part of the game where you're in a locker room, and one of the artists said it's a locker room — let's have posters of girls in bikinis. In the real world, we might have them, but we didn't need them."

Of course, not everyone agrees with the points Sarkeesian makes in her videos, and even Druckmann says there are often heated debates within Naughty Dog.

She's been accused of forcing political correctness into a place where it isn't needed, and her detractors worry that if her ideas gain traction, it might result in watered-down games.

Some critics have dissected her work online, accusing her of taking game characters and story events out of context for the sake of making a point. Bloggers have dedicated whole posts to disagreeing with her interpretation of certain games.

She's learned from this. She says people will try to poke holes into anything she does, which is why she's brought on a writer and researcher, Laura Hudson, to make sure the facts presented in "Ordinary Women" are airtight.

She sees the next wave of harassment as inevitable, though. And with her new project targeting more than just video games, she could attract new critics too. Yet she's never thought of quitting.

"I could make up some hokey inspirational thing," she said. "But the truth is this work is just so important. I have a voice and I want to use the platform that I have to amplify other marginalized voices, and help us all continue to do this important work.

"So let's keep doing this."

tracey.lien@latimes.com

Twitter: @traceylien

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A version of this article appeared in print on March 08, 2016, in the Business section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "An advocate for women's stories" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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