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After the backlash: video game critic Anita Sarkeesian is concentrating on 'Ordinary Women' and still daring to defy online sexism

After the backlash: video game critic Anita Sarkeesian is concentrating on 'Ordinary Women' and still daring to defy online sexism
Anita Sarkeesia (John Lee / For the Los Angeles Times)

In Anita Sarkeesian's San Francisco apartment, a photographer makes a seemingly innocuous request. He wants to open the drapes.

Sarkeesian, the world's most famous video game critic, is used to taking bold stands on YouTube or even late-night talk shows — her series "Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games" has put the industry on blast with thoughtful critiques about its portrayal of women.

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But when it comes to allowing sunlight into her apartment, the 32-year-old cultural critic is hesitant.

What if the photo reveals surrounding buildings, cluing in people to where she lives? She's already considered moving at least once, but hey, she jokes, "I have rent control."

It's unlikely the most famous of Hollywood celebrities have the same sort of target on their back as Sarkeesian. As one of the few high-profile women in an aggressively male-dominated field, her website Feminist Frequency hasn't shied away from pointing out what many would now say is relatively obvious — that video games have long catered to a male audience and have often been sexist because of it.

The backlash: Sarkeesian's no longer surprised to wake up to dozens of anonymous emailed death and rape threats, as well as crude, manipulated photos. Some images are too lewd for a family newspaper to describe, but like her cat waking her up at 5 a.m., the harassment is now a part of her daily routine.

"I've seen it so many times now that I'm like, 'Well, that's a thing that exists in the world,' and it's one of the most degrading forms of online harassment," she says of the vile photos that arrive daily in her email inbox or Twitter feed. "It's sexual harassment. It's such a clear picture of power dynamics and trying to exert control over me in a very overtly sexually assaultive way."

She's sitting on her couch, with her cat curled before her, and surrounded by unframed posters of Patti Smith, TV on the Radio and Florence & the Machine concerts. There's also a whiteboard, as her family room doubles as a workspace. Right now it's graced with a drawing of a feline.

"So what, do I stop?" she asks rhetorically, anticipating a question she's likely tired of. "No, I don't stop."

Far from it. In fact, Sarkeesian is ready for more attention.

She's hoping to move forward with a new project, an in-development Web series titled "Ordinary Women: Daring to Defy History." The planned five episodes will showcase some of history's most overlooked women, detailing their lives with animated sequences.

To make the series, she's turned to crowd-funding, where she's already had one success story. "Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games," for which she raised more than $158,000 on Kickstarter, challenged the industry — and its consumers — to rethink the ways in which women are portrayed in games. Over the past four years Sarkeesian and the "Tropes" series has led a shift in mainstream game criticism. The conversation is slowly turning from "Is it fun?" to "What does this game say about our culture?"

"Ordinary Women" — which has brought in more than $181,000 at press time toward a $200,000 goal on a Seed & Spark funding campaign that ends Thursday — has revolutionary aspirations of its own. Though it may not be clear at first, the work carries an underlying activist bent. There are even lessons for content creators.

"We can change the narrative about women," says Elisabeth Aultman, the project's producer and a veteran of the legal department at Lucasfilm. "We can demonstrate that women in history have accomplished great things. Women can be anything men can be, and things men have not been. If we change the stories that we tell about women, we change the roles that women can have in the world and we change the world."

Or at least change Hollywood.

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"Here are five women who have these incredible stories," says Sarkeesian of the series' first subjects. "Tell them. Tell their stories. Or use them as inspiration for your characters. Storytelling borrows from previous stories and real life and real people."

People like Ching Shih, a 19th century pirate. Shih was no mentor but is said to have commandeered a fleet of tens of thousands of men.

"She's not a good person. She's not virtuous and fighting for justice. I'm pretty sure she murdered a lot of people," Sarkeesian says. "She's not a role model at all, but she's also this amazing woman in history who did something outside of the constraints of her time period and what was expected of her as a woman in her time period. She challenged the status quo of who could be an evil villainous pirate."

The project is a step to reach an audience beyond game and pop-culture criticism, to do something that's as educational as it is entertaining. It places Sarkeesian and her collaborators in the roles of documentarians and storytellers as they look at the lives of five historic figures who changed humanity, many of whom are far from household names. Sarkeesian would love it, she says, if the project reached young women, an audience she says she doesn't always reach with the "Tropes" series.

Anita Sarkeesian on the set of "Ordinary Women."
Anita Sarkeesian on the set of "Ordinary Women." (Feminist Frequency)

"Parents who said they used to sit around and watch my videos with their kids told me they couldn't do that anymore," she says. "Our videos are so graphic."

Initial episodes will zero in on pioneering novelist Murasaki Shikibu, fearsome marauder Shih, activists such as Emma Goldman and Ida B. Wells, and Ada Lovelace, who's celebrated as the world's first computer programmer.

Sarkeesian's ideas for the series are ambitious — each episode is to be animated in a different style. Right now, work is being done in West Los Angeles on the Shikibu chapter, which boasts intricately carved shadow puppets that are filmed and then animated.

The artwork, says Sarkeesian, must reflect Shikibu's world of 10th century Japan. A work in progress looks alternately fragile and contemporary.

But there's a question that looms over the whole series: Will Sarkeesian find success beyond video game criticism? For everywhere she goes, there is one word that trails her: Gamergate.

To unpack Gamergate for the uninitiated takes some doing, but the word rose to prominence in mid-2014 and became an Internet hashtag championed by those who feared that any sort of cultural criticism about games — as well as a rise in diversity in those who make them — would result in some sort of politically correct makeover of the medium.

Female game designers, and cultural critics like Sarkeesian, became primary targets. Their lives were threatened, their personal information was posted online and some were driven from their homes.

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The harassment and the ever-present shroud of Gamergate are inescapable. In a recent story in The Times announcing Sarkeesian's "Ordinary Women" project, she was introduced with a headline that once again paired Gamergate and her name. She was incensed and uses some language not usable in print to explain what she thought of it.

I'm more than harassment. My existence is more than to be harassed.


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"They say they have to put that in it because that's what gets the draw, which is infuriating to me. I'm more than harassment. My existence is more than to be harassed."

Still, even Sarkeesian will admit the harassment has become interwoven with her life. She often speaks at universities and game studios on the subject, and Feminist Frequency is on Twitter's safety council, which is a group of people who consult with Twitter on its policies related to online abuse.

When new neighbors moved in next door, Sarkeesian says she had to warn them that some "shady" characters may come around.

"The first day I met them I was like, 'I get threats. A lot.'"

But despite living with a constant online assault on her work and life, Sarkeesian is surprisingly forthright and open. She describes herself as "optimistically cynical," only to correct herself moments later. "Cynically optimistic," she decides. She doesn't shy away from answering questions, but she'll also tell you what she thinks of them.

Don't ask, for instance, for her parents' thoughts about all the threats.

"Every journalist wants me to answer that, especially on camera," she says. "It's an infuriating question to me because my parents have nothing to do with it, but my parents get threatened, too. They're very aware. I'm going to leave it at that because I hate that question. It's the weirdest thing to ask an adult."

Born outside of Toronto, Sarkeesian spent much of her life in Southern California but prefers to be vague when it comes to locations. She does confirm that she completed her undergraduate studies at Cal State Northridge and launched Feminist Frequency while a graduate student at York University in Toronto.

Though Sarkeesian is thinking of a life beyond "Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games," the series isn't behind her just yet. She still has a full second season to complete, the most recent episode of which was released in March.

The eight-minute program detailed the ridiculous ways in which women's body movements in games differ from those of men, and with humor. "This is supposed to be a hardened space warrior, and yet she is sitting around like she's Ariel from 'The Little Mermaid,'" said Sarkeesian in describing the characters of "Destiny."

She admits, however, that "Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games" has left her a little "burnt out." Sure, she's tired of playing games in which she's asked to shoot "dudes in the face for 20 hours," but she is also eager to be known as more than, in her words, "'the video game critic who makes these long videos."

So consider "Ordinary Women" a message to not just the video game community but to Hollywood. It's a reminder that many stories remain untold.

"I want to meet my audience where they're at, and I want to say, 'Here's a really fun story. Just listen,''' she says. "As you're listening to these stories, all these light bulbs are firing. You're going, 'Why have I never heard this before? She did what?' In the scripts, we weave together connections to the way women are still oppressed today, to the horrifying statistics about sexual assault or the numbers of women in Hollywood."

Sarkeesian knows that pushing for change in Hollywood isn't easy.

"I spent the last several years talking to game developers and talking to creative people. I hear all the time, from men, that 'I don't know how to write women,'" she says. "So they just don't."

But that's starting to change. And with "Ordinary Women," Sarkeesian just might shift the conversation in Hollywood too.

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