Years ago, when I wrote about the fashion industry, I put together a slide show that married my feminist impulses with my love for my beat.
I had become appalled at the way women were depicted in fashion advertising. In so many ads, women were oversexualized, disembodied, made to look as if they had just been drugged or assaulted. When they were photographed with men, they were often submissive.
No one ever told me to shut up, or threatened to kill me or rape me for simply pointing out that it's offensive to see women depicted over and over as objects of male sexual pleasure, and that we'd allowed an industry aimed at women to promulgate images that were, not infrequently, insulting to women.
Now we are in the Internet age, where the freedom of anonymity overpowers any urge to be civil. Feminist critics who are raising their voices against the sexist depiction of women in video games are being harassed and threatened by cosmically immature male gamers who seem to view rational, thoughtful critiques as an existential threat.
Never mind that nearly half of all gamers these days are women, according to the Entertainment Software Assn., the video game industry's trade group. Or that women increasingly populate the ranks of game developers, as well.
You may have read by now about Anita Sarkeesian, the cultural critic whose 5-year-old website, Feminist Frequency, is devoted to deconstructing the ways in which many video games reinforce negative, usually sexual, stereotypes about women. Her delivery is calm and respectful; the response in the gaming community has been anything but.
She has received the usual torrent of online abuse--death threats, rape threats. She's been the target of online impersonation -- fake social media accounts are a "favorite tactic," she says. Conspiracy theories about how she "misspent" money raised on Kickstarter or her website have taken on a life of their own.
The larger controversy—known as #GamerGate--has been raging for some time among gamers, who began the hashtag as a campaign against (real or imagined) ethical corruption among gaming journalists, but have watched it morph into a shorthand for the harassment of women like Sarkeesian, whom the gaming community has dubbed "social justice warriors," or SJW.
GamerGate, however, did not burst into the mainstream media in a big way until this week when Sarkeesian, 31, canceled a talk at Utah State University after the school refused to ban guns in the auditorium where she was slated to speak. According to news reports, the school had received three specific death threats against Sarkeesian, including one that promised "the deadliest school shooting in American history."
Campus officials told the Salt Lake Tribune that a Utah law prevented them from disarming anyone with the right to carry a concealed weapon. Sarkeesian had asked for metal detectors; the school declined and told the Tribune it offered to check backpacks.
Not only did Sarkeesian cancel her talk, but in tweets, she said "USU & Utah police" refused to conduct "any type of search whatsoever to determine if someone was bringing a firearm into my event." She urged a speaker's boycott of all Utah institutions "until such time as firearms are prohibited at schools."
Since then, Sarkeesian, a Cal State Northridge graduate, has been featured on network news programs. The New York Times fronted a story about the barrage of threats aimed at her and others on Thursday. Also on Thursday, Tech Times reported that game developer Brianna Wu was forced to leave her home after an angry gamer published death threats, as well as her address, on Twitter. She, too, had criticized #GamerGate, which Tech Times aptly described as "a misogynistic online mob harassing female developers, journalists and even academic researchers."
The negative attention has some gamers worried.
"We have a New York Times hit piece on their front page and millions are turning against us," said someone called "The Leader of Gamergate" on a site called 8chan. "I can't help but think that we're outgunned at this point. Like the Aztecs."
In her video series "Tropes v Women," Sarkeesian illustrates how video game developers rely on cliches like "the sexy sidekick," "the woman in distress" or "woman in the refrigerator" (a man enraged by the murder of his woman sets off on a revenge quest).
Her most recent episode, "Women as Background Decoration," is a dissection of 30 games – including "Grand Theft Auto IV," "Super Mario Galaxy" and "Assassin's Creed." She looked at what she called "the subset of largely insignificant, non-playable female characters whose sexuality or victimhood is exploited as a way to infuse edgy, gritty or racy flavoring into game worlds." These women, she says, are "hollow shells with little to no personality," "sexual playthings" who "allow the perpetuation of male violence."
Sarkeesian's critiques are mild and straightforward—academic, even--but they are a much needed counterweight to the rampant oversexualization and denigration of women in the gaming world.
Turning Sarkeesian into a "folk demon" as she put it in a speech at a Portland, Ore., technology festival in September, is not going to change the fact that there is a sexist rot deep in the soul of the video game industry. Angry gamers may believe, as she said, "If they take me out, all will return to normal."
But gaming is probably never going to return to "normal. "There's a massive paradigm shift," Sarkeesian said in Portland. "Gaming is becoming more diverse and inclusive."
I think Sarkeesian's work should be required viewing for parents who may have no idea what messages their children are absorbing about women during all those hours spent glued to their controllers. (A report released in April by the Entertainment Software Assn. found that 56% of parents said video games are a "positive part of their child's life." I'd love to know more about the 44% who don't, but that, alas is not in the association's report.)
Some of my nearest and dearest are video game aficionados, and they are among the most sensitive and loving men I know--not anything like the tiny portion of woman-hating "misogy-nerds" (as 8chan dubs them) who harass critics.
"The whole game industry must stand up against the harassment of women," Sarkeesian tweeted Thursday.
So will it?
"Threats of violence and harassment are wrong," the Entertainment Software Assn. said in a statement this week. "They have to stop. There is no place in the video game community — or our society — for personal attacks and threats."
But what does the industry group have to say about the way women are depicted in video games?