Anita Sarkeesian in 2011
|Born||1984 (age 29–30)
|Education||BA (communication studies), California State University, Northridge
MA (social and political thought), York University
|Occupation||Media critic, blogger|
Anita Sarkeesian (//; born circa 1984) is a Canadian-American feminist, media critic and blogger. She is the author of the video blog "Feminist Frequency" and the video series Tropes vs. Women and Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, which examine tropes in the depiction of women in popular culture.
In 2012, Sarkeesian was targeted by an online harassment campaign following her launch of a Kickstarter project to fund the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series. At the same time, supporters donated over $150,000 to the project, far beyond the $6,000 she had sought. The situation was covered extensively in the media, placing Sarkeesian at the center of discussions about misogyny in video game culture and online harassment.
Sarkeesian was born near Toronto to Armenian immigrant parents. She later moved to California, and identifies as Canadian American. She earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies from California State University, Northridge and a master's degree in social and political thought from York University. Her master's thesis was titled I'll Make a Man Out of You: Strong Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy Television.
Sarkeesian is the creator of the video blog "Feminist Frequency". The blog includes the video series Tropes vs. Women, created with Bitch magazine to examine common tropes in depictions of women in film, television and video games, with a particular focus on science fiction. Videos produced in this series include "The Manic Pixie Dream Girl", "Women in Refrigerators" and "The Smurfette Principle". She has also produced a number of other videos analyzing popular culture from a feminist standpoint, such as applying the Bechdel test – whether a film has at least two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man – to films nominated for an Academy Award.
In 2011, Sarkeesian co-authored the essay "Buffy vs. Bella: The Re-Emergence of the Archetypal Feminine in Vampire Stories" for the anthology Fanpires: Audience Consumption of the Modern Vampire. She has spoken at conferences and workshops about media criticism and video blogging, and was interviewed by The Observer in March 2012 about modern media culture. Her blog has also been utilized as material for university-level women's studies courses, and she has spoken at universities on the topic of female characters in pop culture. In March 2012, Sarkeesian and her blog were listed in the journal Feminist Collections's quarterly column on "E-Sources on Women & Gender".
Tropes vs. Women in Video Games
Kickstarter campaign and subsequent harassment
On May 17, 2012, Sarkeesian began a Kickstarter campaign to fund a new series of short videos that would examine gender tropes in video games. This was featured as a campaign of note on the official Kickstarter blog, and reached its funding goal of $6,000 within 24 hours.
The project triggered a campaign of sexist harassment that Amanda Marcotte in Slate magazine described as an "absolute avalanche of misogynist abuse", in which "[e]very access point they could exploit was used to try to get to her". Helen Lewis of The New York Times reported that Sarkeesian was e-mailed images of herself being raped by video game characters. Attempts were made to hack her Twitter and Google accounts, doctored images of her were posted online, and negative comments were posted to her YouTube and Facebook pages. Her Wikipedia article was repeatedly vandalized with images of sex acts. Her website was subjected to denial-of-service attacks, and there were efforts to obtain and distribute her personal contact information.
Sarkeesian posted examples of the harassment on her blog, and supporters responded by donating over $150,000 to her project. The harassment was subsequently documented in the media. Particular attention was dedicated to one particular example, an internet game called Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian created by Ben Spurr, in which users could punch Sarkeesian's image until the screen turned red. Some harassers awarded each other "Internet points" for the abuse on forums; Sarkeesian argued that they had "gamified" misogyny.
Supporters of Sarkeesian were also subjected to attacks, with Toronto feminist advocate Stephanie Guthrie receiving "rape and death threats" after criticizing the Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian game and its creator on Twitter. The threats prompted Guthrie to file a complaint with the police and issue a statement that "the obvious goal of these people is to silence Anita...we can’t stop expressing our support; we have to just steer through the fear". One of the men behind the attacks on Guthrie was arrested and charged with criminal harassment and breach of a peace bond in November 2012. Sarkeesian responded to the threats against Guthrie in a statement to the Toronto Standard, condemning the "online harassment epidemic" she and other women have faced.
Women who speak out on all sorts of topics, from politics to entertainment, face the threat of cyber mob harassment as recently experienced by Bioware writer Jennifer Hepler, British columnist Laurie Penny, gamer icon Felicia Day and Shakesville blogger Melissa McEwan, just to name a few. In the last couple of days alone, there have been alarming online threats made against videoblogger Laci Green and Toronto-based organizer Stephanie Guthrie (who was attacked for exposing the creator of the domestic violence "game" targeting me).
— Anita Sarkeesian in statement for the Toronto Standard, July 10, 2012
The events also led to speaking engagements on related topics. In June 2012, video game developer Bungie invited Sarkeesian to its offices to present on the creation of female characters in games. In December 2012, Sarkeesian was a speaker at the TEDxWomen conference, discussing online sexual harassment and the nature of online communities. She has also spoken at Lincoln Land Community College, Western Kentucky University, and Northeastern University.
Sarkeesian initially planned to release the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series in 2012, but pushed it back explaining that the additional funding allowed her to "expand the scope, scale and production values of the project". In January 2013 Sarkeesian launched a Tumblr web page called "Bits of Tropes Vs. Women in Games" previewing samples of the first video.
The first video in the Tropes vs Women in Video Games series, "Damsels in Distress (Part 1)", was released on March 7, 2013. The delay led some critics to question how she was using the money. Jesse Singal of The Boston Globe noted that the production values of the new series were high, saying "so far, she appears to have put the money to good use." Fruzsina Eördögh of ReadWrite also confirmed that the production quality of the videos had increased from her previous works, but suggested Sarkeesian disclose her plan for the rest of her Kickstarter money to "knock down the only legitimate point" from her critics and provide guidance for other video bloggers.
The first three videos discuss examples of the "Damsels in Distress" trope, in which passive and often helpless female characters must be rescued by the male hero. Paul Dean of IGN described the videos as an analysis of sexism that, while possibly "difficult to swallow" for some video game players, did not attack gaming itself but only "disappointing" stories in games. Aja Romano of the Daily Dot noted that even "strong female characters" are portrayed under this trope, and not treated as equals of male characters. Maddy Myers of Paste commented on the difficulty Sarkeesian faces due to the "impossible and insurmountable expectations" and intense scrutiny placed on her and other female video game critics. The Boston Globe wrote that the videos' strength lies in Sarkeesian's "deft[ness] at anticipating rebuttals", and said such work was important in challenging the industry to move away from overused tropes.
Scholar Nate Carpenter reviewed the "Damsel in Distress" video positively in the journal Women & Language. Carpenter commended the series for rendering the ideas and language of media criticism into a format accessible for a general audience. He found it limited in failing to analyze the cultural milieu that perpetuates damaging tropes, but overall found it an "intelligent, engaging, and entertaining point of departure" for viewers interested in media studies. Chris Suellentrop of The New York Times referred to the first four videos of the series as "essential viewing for anyone interested in video games", and cites it as the reason why he asked Shigeru Miyamoto about the themes of damsels present in his games (to which he responds "I haven’t given it a lot of deep thought over the years").
Awards and recognition
Sarkeesian's Feminist Frequency blog was highlighted by Feminist Collections and Media Report to Women. Sarkeesian and her work have come to much greater public attention following the announcement of "Tropes vs. Women in Video Games" and the harassment she subsequently faced. The events helped bring the issue of pervasive sexual harassment in the video game culture to mainstream media attention. Discussions occurred in a range of publications and outlets, including The New York Times, The Guardian and New Statesman. Sarkeesian told the news show 16x9 that online harassment and threats have become the norm for female gamers. She told The New York Times that "The gaming industry is actually in the process of changing. That's a really positive thing, but I think there is a small group of male gamers who feel like gaming belongs to them, and are really terrified of that change happening." The situation was a catalyst that led to new attention on the importance of diversity and inclusion in the gaming culture and industry that year; Gamasutra named this call for inclusion one of the "5 trends that defined the game industry in 2012". While noting that the support Sarkeesian has received "stands at a counter" to the harassment, Sal Humphreys and Karen Orr Vered suggest that ultimately the campaign may serve to discourage other women from following Sarkeesian's lead for fear of being subjected to similar attacks. In 2013, Newsweek magazine named Sarkeesian one of its "125 Women of Impact", writing that regardless of the harassment, "Damsel in Distress" was "racking up accolades". In 2014, Sarkeesian received the Ambassadors Award at the 14th Annual Game Developers Choice Awards for her work on the representation of women in video games.
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"When you get past the vitriol, their main criticism is that the production quality of Sarkeesian’s videos hasn't increased. [...] The quality of her videos has increased,[...] So the haters are wrong. But how much could Sarkeesian's production upgrades have possibly cost? [...] Tally all that up, and it's still less than $15,000. What happened to the rest of the $160,000? Answering this question would certainly knock down the only legitimate point made by Sarkeesian's online stalkers. Much more important, [it] would also help women video bloggers, who struggle with sexism every day on YouTube, better understand the financial costs of creating a successful video series."
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