From Samus to Lara: An Interview With Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency

GameSpot's Carolyn Petit talks to Feminist Frequency's Anita Sarkeesian about feminism, games, her visit to Bungie, and her latest Kickstarter project.

During the last week of May, I had the opportunity to interview pop culture critic Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency about feminism, games, and her upcoming video series, Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. In the time since, the project has become the target of an organized harassment effort. Of this, Anita says, "While I always expect some level of harassment when discussing gender issues online, this time it's a more extreme and sustained torrent of sexism, hate, and threats. All the horrible backlash has just made me even more determined and committed to creating this video series. I'm also happy that all the backers and supporters of the project have been and continue to be a source of encouragement and inspiration." You can read more about the harassment here on the project's Kickstarter page.

My feeling is that these kinds of reactions only underscore the need for serious considerations of feminism in games; if the idea of a project like this generates this kind of misogynistic outrage, clearly there are serious problems with women's portrayals in games and their place in gaming culture that need to be addressed. And the harassment campaign smacks of desperation to me, which gives me an odd kind of hope. If this small, vocal contingent is working so hard to derail the project, maybe they're scared, and if they're scared by these ideas, then maybe we are getting closer to a gaming culture that is welcoming to everyone.

Below is the interview, which took place before the harassment campaign began.

Let's start with some fundamental stuff. In your work at Feminist Frequency, do you ever run up against difficulties in getting people to be receptive to your messages because they have misconceptions about feminism? If you had to explain feminism in the simplest terms, how would you define it?

One popular quote that sums up how I feel about this is "Feminism is the radical notion that women are human beings." Of course feminism has a long, diverse, and complex history with many interpretations and applications, but at the very core it's really about working towards the equal treatment of women socially, culturally, institutionally, and economically.

Feminists want an end to gender-based oppression, and although we have made great strides in some areas, there is still a long way to go in others.
There are, unfortunately, a great many misconceptions about the term "feminism" floating around out there in the cultural ether. Much of the confusion can be traced back to a media/political backlash against women's rights and women's equality in general. The Straw Feminist trope, for example, is one popular rhetorical device created to propagate an exaggerated caricature of a feminist. Talk-show hosts and Hollywood writers deliberately use this trope to undermine and ridicule feminist movements by falsely painting us as crazy man-hating extremists. I interact with hundreds, if not thousands, of people who call themselves feminists--or feminist allies--and exactly none of them desire a society in which the scales of power are simply reversed, where women rise to dominate or rule over men. In reality, feminists want an end to gender-based oppression, and although we have made great strides in some areas, there is still a long way to go in others. Ultimately, we are fighting to be full and complete members of human society.

You're a pop culture critic who looks at all sorts of mass media--movies, television, games, and so on. When people respond to your videos with questions like, "Why does this stuff matter? Aren't TV, movies, and games just entertainment?" how do you respond?

Ah yes, the classic "but it's just entertainment" line is one of the most common defensive reactions to my Web show. My short answer is to quote the poet Muriel Rukeyser, who wrote, "The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms." I love that line because it offers a succinct way of saying that culture matters, that stories matter. Narratives have always been a core way human beings learn about, make sense of, and understand the world we live in. Stories have embedded myths and messages and can be carriers of positive, heroic, or subversive values, but they can also propagate or reinforce negative stereotypes and oppressive social norms. Historically, the telling of stories has been an important and revered part of any society, and that is no different today. Popular media culture--for better or worse--is currently where the learning is happening, and that means that movies, TV, music, books, and video games are helping to shape our collective cultural universe.

I think part of the misunderstanding comes from a misperception about how culture works. It's not a direct cause-and-effect situation where everybody just mindlessly copies the behaviors they see in the media. That said, media stories do have a profound effect on us, especially when messages, myths, and images are repeated over and over again. This is the reason why I choose to step back and look at the overarching patterns of how women are represented in video games over time. Because it's this collective repetition that can seep into our minds and shape, perpetuate, and amplify harmful or regressive perceptions of women.

To put it another way, popular culture is like the air we all breathe. It's in everyone's interests to make sure that air is not polluted with poisonous sexism so that we don't all end up with hideous misogynist mutations growing out of the back of our collective heads.

Like you, I grew up being exposed to video games. When I was young, I was excited to discover that Metroid's Samus Aran was a woman. But as the years passed, I realized that in many ways, Samus is handled problematically. The quicker you complete the game, the more of her suit she takes off at the end; her femaleness is presented as a reward, something for players to ogle. That was in 1986. I sometimes think that things haven't changed that much since then. Princess Peach still gets kidnapped all the time, and meanwhile, a character like Lara Croft appeals to me and to some other women I know because she's independent and very capable, but at the same time, there's no denying that she has often been presented as a sex object. Do you think characters like Lara do more harm than good? Can these issues even be discussed in such simple terms, or do we need to look at them more holistically?

Movies, TV, music, books, and video games are helping to shape our collective cultural universe.
I will be talking extensively about the Metroid franchise in my upcoming video series and specifically addressing the use of Samus Aran's body as a reward for players as a prime example of the "Women as Reward" trope. Similarly, as part of my video about the "Fighting F@#k Toy" trope, I will be detailing the problematic ways in which even female protagonists like Lara Croft are still objectified and sexualized for a presumed straight-male audience. Obviously, I'm in favor of more female protagonists across the board, but it has to be linked with an intentional shift away from the idea that women in games exist primarily as objects of sexual desire. Sometimes it definitely feels like a "one step forward, two steps back" type of scenario. On that note, though, it looks like Lara Croft is finally wearing pants in the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot. So perhaps we will see less objectification, but judging from the E3 trailer, there are potentially a host of other problematic gendered tropes at play.

There is also a marked increase of what I would called "ironic sexism," whereby game developers will rely on extreme or hypersexualized female characters in very over-the-top or obviously sexist ways. This type of ironic self-aware objectification is in some ways more damaging than the non-ironic forms of yesteryear. Because, as you point out, it's always more helpful to discuss these issues in a more holistic and sustained way, I'll definitely be giving this question a lot of attention in the video series.

Do you think the video game landscape has changed significantly in the way it handles female characters since Metroid and Super Mario Bros. all those years ago, and if so, how?

Female characters have definitely evolved since the days of the original Metroid, Super Mario Bros., and Zelda games. We now see a slightly larger number of female characters and more protagonists, but things have actually gotten worse in many ways, aside from the handful of fantastic and notable exceptions. In the 1990s we saw the rise of the "Fighting F@#k Toy," the ubersexualized yet violent female character--and today this trope has basically become the default representation for women in much of the gaming industry. On top of that, we've also seen a resurgence of the "Damsel in Distress" in recent years as developers rush to remake or reboot many of the classic 1980s games. This trend has also brought with it an upsurge in original retro-style games that pay homage to the classic gaming era but often borrow or reproduce the old sexist themes, plot devices, and humor. This kind of appeal to nostalgia can obviously be a lot of fun, but sadly it's often unnecessarily done at the expense of female representations.

You've dealt with women in games before. One example of your earlier work on this front is your very entertaining Too Many Dicks video, which juxtaposes a Flight of the Conchords song with images that demonstrate just how male dominated game narratives are, and pointedly shows Faith from Mirror's Edge and Chell from the Portal games at key moments to illustrate that this problem could easily be addressed by game developers. What do you think sets these characters apart?

I included those sequences from Mirror's Edge and Portal for a few reasons. On one level they are there because I love those games. On another level, both characters are women of color, and both serve as the protagonists of their own games without being overly sexualized or objectified, which may be partially due to the first-person perspective, but still it's something to celebrate. It's also worth noting that in addition to the female protagonists, both games worked to creatively expand the first-person/shooter genre--a genre overflowing with lackluster clones. Both employed interesting underdog plots, innovative gameplay mechanics, and emphasized less violent creative problem solving instead of brute force. I will definitely be highlighting both of these games plus several more in my special bonus video that showcases some positive female characters.

Bungie invited you to their offices to speak to them about creating female characters in games, which seems encouraging to me. Can you talk a bit about what your visit to Bungie was like, and what you think are some of the principles developers who are hoping to create great female characters should keep in mind?

I was a little surprised but honored by the invitation to speak at Bungie. As a media critic, who focuses primarily on gender issues, I don't often get the opportunity to talk directly with developers inside the industry. It was especially exciting that a prominent game maker was interested in hearing what I had to say about building strong female characters that avoid the typical stereotypes and cliches. The group that attended my lecture at Bungie was receptive and engaged. Plus, we had a great conversation afterwards that also included a discussion on the importance of developing more in-depth, complex, and diverse male characters as well.

The creation of great and complex female characters in video games is an involved process, but ultimately developers are going to have to take some risks and step outside of the expected or established conventions.
The creation of great and complex female characters in video games is an involved process, but ultimately developers are going to have to take some risks and step outside of the expected or established conventions. Very briefly, some very basic things I look for in female characters are: protagonists with agency not tied directly to their sex appeal; transformative story arcs where characters are struggling with or overcoming personal flaws; and some emotional depth and expression.

With regard to the problematic ways in which women are so often portrayed in games, do you think the fact that game development is a male-dominated field is a factor? Is this something that needs to be addressed in seeking to address the issue of how women are portrayed in games?

Yes and yes. The fact that the gaming industry has historically been and is still so male dominated does play a big role in the types of games, narratives, and characters produced. Including more women on development teams is critical for change, though it's important to keep in mind that the problem is not necessarily solved by simply having a few token women on staff, or even by just putting one woman in charge of a particular project. So in addition to hiring and including more women in creative and decision-making roles, game companies need to intentionally change their male-dominated spaces and internal cultures to actually shift away from the old boys' club mentality and atmosphere--a few companies are already taking some encouraging steps in this direction. Change is coming to gaming, and like all structural or institutional transformation, the process can be slow or painful for some in the old guard, but in the end it's imperative that the shift happens--and I think it will ultimately move the industry to a better, more-equitable place producing better games with better and more-dynamic female characters.

Your latest video project is called Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. It was funded through Kickstarter and very quickly passed its initial funding goal of $6,000, and then a number of stretch goals you added for the production of additional videos were quickly achieved as well. The series is now slated to contain 11 videos in all--10 that examine problematic stereotypes that female characters in games too often fall into (the damsel in distress, the sexy sidekick, and many others), and a bonus video that looks at examples of that rare creation: the positive female character.

What will the videos be like in terms of length and analysis? Will you be looking mostly at contemporary games, or will the series look at games from throughout the medium's short history?

Every video in the series will be between 10 and 20 minutes long and provide a detailed overview of each trope while highlighting why that particular convention is a problematic representation of female characters. These videos will trace the history of each trope beginning in the early '80s and follow its evolution into more recent releases, including the resurgence of retro-style games. Some of these tropes have been used so frequently over the past few decades that it's next to impossible for me to include each and every instance, so I plan to focus in on the most important trend-setting incarnations.

What's your goal with the series--what do you hope people who watch the videos come away with?

I have a few goals in mind with this video series. On one level, I want to promote media literacy and give people some tools to look critically at the games we play. My hope is to clearly present the issues surrounding women's representations as a systemic problem by identifying reoccuring patterns. Sexist representations are not limited to just a handful of games or selected marketing strategies but are part of a larger institutional problem across all entertainment industries. That said, it's also really important to me that my viewers understand that engaging with media is not always an all-or-nothing situation. We can play and enjoy many games while simultaneously being critical of some of their harmful aspects. We can recognize and point out the more problematic representations without necessarily throwing the whole game out, though god knows there have been a handful of occasions when I've been tempted to use a particularly sexist game as a mini Frisbee out my window.

I want complex female characters because it will make games and gaming better overall, more diverse, and more innovative. Making gaming better is not just good for women and girls; it's good for people of all genders.
On another level, I would like this series to serve as a piece of the larger ongoing conversation already happening elsewhere about women in games. Some of the best comments I've received on my videos have been from young women happy to know that they aren't alone in their misgivings about sexist characters, that these issues are real, and that many of us want to see change in the industry. It's important that we speak out collectively and say, "It's not OK to constantly portray women as sexualized objects for male desire. We want genuine female characters!" I want complex female characters because it will make games and gaming better overall, more diverse, and more innovative. Making gaming better is not just good for women and girls; it's good for people of all genders.

When should we expect the videos to start debuting? If people want more info about this project or about Feminist Frequency in general, where should they go?

For more information about my Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series, check out my website at www.FeministFrequency.com, and for more frequent updates, you can follow Feminist Frequency on Twitter or Tumblr. Backers of the Kickstarter campaign will also see more detailed updates on my process and production as it happens on the fundraising page.

The Kickstarter fundraiser will end in mid June, but the research process began a couple months ago, and that phase is ongoing. We hope to have the first video out in the late summer or early fall, and the rest of the episodes will follow at regular intervals.

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