My Hopes for “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games”

There was a big to-do recently when Anita Sarkeesian over at Feminist Frequency received a barrage of nasty comments over her Kickstarter to fund a project to analyze common tropes concerning female characters in video games. A lot of the commentary was as you might (unfortunately) expect, citing her supposed jealousy of better looking women, her “hypocrisy” over wearing makeup, as well as threatening her with rape. Even if most of this turns out to just be purposeful button-pressing in order to get a rise out of her, it’s still pretty sad that it came down to this.

I do not think people should have to agree with her just “because” she’s feminist, but at the same time I do wish people would come up with better arguments against her ideas and her points than simply things like “sexualization happens to men too” (the nature of the sexualization is nowhere near the same).

Tropes vs. Women in Video Games is already more than well-funded as of this post, but having watched her previous videos in the Tropes vs. Women series, I still want to say something about my hopes and worries about the project.

While Sarkeesian makes overall good points in her videos pertaining to the types of tropes which can reinforce images of women as passive beings in service to more fully developed men, I find that her videos tend to take something of a sledgehammer approach to addressing problems. Tackling big problems with big answers is a valid method, and it does result in points which are more readily and sharply conveyed, but there is a loss of nuance in discussing specific tropes she addresses as a result, possibly due to the brevity required in making short videos.

The consequences of this loss of subtlety is that the presentation of the tropes themselves seem to center around the idea of the trope itself being sexist more than its overuse (though both are considered culprits). For the Women in Refrigerators trope, the idea of a side or major supporting character dying in order to drive the hero to action is a recurring theme throughout fiction, be it with men or women, and the use of a girl as the “sacrifice” is not so much the problem as it is the degree to which it happens in superhero comic books, a genre which is all about power and inspiration.

Similarly, in her discussion of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, she criticizes the character type for being something of a vague supernova of inspiration for the leading male character, lacking in qualities to make her fully realistic. To that I have to ask, since when does more realistic automatically equal a better character? While I certainly see the advantages and have argued for the strength of such characterization before, there is something to be said for characters who are their concepts distilled to an extreme. Furthermore, it risks leaving no room for the trope to be turned into something which can be positive for women without having to completely subvert it.

When it comes to Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, my hope is that Sarkeesian will not come at the female characters of video games with a “one strike” policy. While there are plenty of girls to be rescued and recurring roles for girls that can be explored and criticized extensively, I hope that she does not view individual characteristics isolated from each other, but rather sees the characters as a whole. In the end, any judgment she makes is hers, and characters can and will end up being considered problematically sexist (because let’s not kid ourselves, video games do have them), but if a character has positive traits in addition to negative or even harmful ones, they should be acknowledged in order to show where games have managed to make smaller progressive steps in addition to bigger ones.

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7 thoughts on “My Hopes for “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games”

  1. I fear this is unfortunately doomed to become another of those feel-good PC campaigns that solved nothing, because it aimed for a symptom rather than the root cause.

    Tropes aren’t the problem. The problem is the industry making vapid content in general, as you point out. Pointing the finger at the symptom just makes people overreact.

    I feel it would have been a far more effective use of her time to drum up support for generally improving writing standards across the board, and not just focusing on one divisive cause, no matter how correct.

    It’s the difference in message that people get. Rather than “you suck for enjoying what’s been made available to you”, the over-reactors would hear “we want to fight for better games so we get more than the 10 same games they’ve been remaking for the last 15-20 years.”

    People have become complacent because they don’t think they can get better games. They’re wrong, and she could have been delivering that message more clearly.

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  2. I’m looking forward to these videos. Like you, I hope she isn’t doing a one-strike policy, because that leads to the oppression of the One True Scotsman: deviating from an idea automatically makes you unworthy.

    For guys, that means looking effeminate like the newest Dante from Devil May Cry, cowardly, or daring to do poetry in his spare time.

    For girls, that means being ugly, or self-conscious, or emotional.

    It would be greatly ironic if she had a single idea for a positive female character, rather than many positive female characters who’re weak in certain areas, but then grow. Lest we forget, Cloud Strife was a wienie before he became badass. Let’s not deny the female characters their own path.

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