Anita Sarkeesian: Do Not Feed the Tropes (Part 1)

Tropes vs. Women in Video Games Logo Thing

Have you seen these Tropes vs. Women videos? I’m not too big a fan of them (as you might suspect). Anita Sarkeesian says some good things (wow, don’t love violence against women), some alright things (media might be manipulative), and then some flat-out unfounded inferences on narrative tropes in video games (the subject of the present series).

Firstly, does it ever occur to anyone that, perhaps, our lives aren’t dictated by some patriarchal misogynist who set stereotypes in place long before we were born? I’m not sure why we always think that people develop ideas unconsciously. In some respects, yes, we do accept some assumptions. We always inherit a part of our cultural heritage, but we can choose to see it or accept it. This is a conscious choice in many respects, as I find myself doing constantly. I willingly reject many notions of modern culture, and accept those that fit within a Scriptural mindset. If it doesn’t, I throw it out. This goes for feminism’s modern militancy – I just don’t see the need for it.

Perhaps I am tainted by the influx of feminist theology I studied in graduate school. To explain: Feminist theology emphasizes the experiential element. As women’s experience is the measure, all problems stem from oppression of women. Thus, for example, the gendered nature of language is a patriarchal structuring mechanism to reinforce the subservient role of women in modern society. Religious stories that represent females as passive, weak, or merely caretakers serve as a method of oppression that utilizes religious authority to put women into their place, fearful that they might displace male dominance.

As such, the methodology of the feminist theologian starts with critiques of the past and its gendered assumptions, followed by the search for alternative Biblical and extra-biblical traditions that support feminist ideas. It is in this search that they can revise Christian categories to support and emphasize the role of women – at the expense of their male counterparts. Apparently, because men are emphasized through Scripture, it’s somehow fine to do it in reverse and in the most underhanded  and non-conciliatory way possible.

Feminist theology eve was framed

And boy, are those feminist theologians ever crazy! Yep, a male commenting on women’s issues isn’t going to obtain much traction, but I’d rather focus on ideas rather than the preconceived notions of gender politics. Most feminists really focus on the idea of liberation and un-focused bomb-throwing at their perceived opposition. The anarchist tries to dismantle her culture without understanding what’s good and bad about it, inevitably throwing the baby out with the bathwater (to use a phrase that makes no sense to me at all).

It begins to make female eyes the exclusive domain of real interpretive force, and that’s not a good thing. The “oppressed”, so called, become the “oppressor”. The patriarch and the image of “male”, real or imagined, must be dismantled and destroyed – so that women can rule. Look up Mary Daly, and you’ll see what I mean. She argues that Christianity’s a patriarchal religion, and destroying it remains our only path to getting at “true” religion. Any true pursuit of egalitarian religion will not include, as its mode of operation, an “oppressive reversal” – that is, placing a new group in power who can just as easily perform the same oppressive function as the latter. I’d argue that has already happen through the increasing need to make male and female the same, which they clearly are not, both in Scripture and biology.

In fact, feminist ideologies represent a return to the earliest human societies. The intent is separation, conflict, and winning the war against one’s enemies, in this case the ideological oppressors and under the guise of academic scholarship. The goal for these groups is conquest, victory, and regnancy for their particular interest group to which all others should bow, not an equal society. They believe in a cosmic narrative, of their own founding, which places them as the victims on the “right” side of history, and all who oppose them as the oppressors. Eventually, the tide of history will turn their way and the oppressor will be vanquished. To take Mary Daly, well-respect academic feminist at her word, is to encounter something quite frightful:

…women under phalocentric rule are confined to the role of vessels/carriers, directed and controlled by men. Since that role is the basic base reversal of the very be-ing of Voyaging/Spiraling women, when we direct our own Crafts/Vessels we become reversers of that deadly reversal.

If life is to survive on this planet, there must be a decontamination of the Earth. I think this will be accompanied by an evolutionary process that will result in a drastic reduction of the population of males.

Mary Daly

Anita Sarkeesian may not believe this, but making yourself a halfway house of ideas does not a consistent ideology make. Reforming male in female’s image (with such buzzwords as “sensitivity”) does not a good society make. New gender norms pop up yet again – it is inevitable. You swap the idol onto the pedestal, and think you won’t let the giant boulder out. Take the ideas to their logical conclusion; you don’t get to accept the parts you like at exclusion to the parts you don’t. I always find modern feminism has this inconsistency in it – some like men, some don’t, some have this strange construction to make them both revolutionary and/or conservative, but it all ends in the same revolutionary model. You don’t just get to criticize something and then propose an obvious solution.

Robert C. Neville notes of these revolutionary Christian theologies that most “…are themselves un-revolutionary modernist developments of European modern thought, the very thought against whose institutionalized culture the social revolutions are believed to have addressed.” In Neville’s thought, these “revolutionary” theologies rely on the Enlightenment idea of power and the idea of narrative. Mathematical physics had removed the concept of value from the world, framing the conversation in terms of “inertial forces” whereby objects continue their motion until deflected by another object in motion. Thus, the perception of human beings began anew from the same scientific, valueless point.

One could say that individual subjectivity is intentionally directed inertial will, conscious or not. If humans are just a bundle of interests, then the objects pushing in the opposite direction – in this case, the male/usually white oppressors – must be brought low, and the oppressed brought higher to counteract that imbalance. Thus does the narrative of power struggle reach its zenith in the idea of inevitable human and social progress – there’s no need for the oppressed to address their own sinfulness, just that of the oppressor. Hence, the reflective gives way to the active, the inner life suppressed by that of the need for constant action. My personal sings get stuffed way down deep; yours are the ones we should address, obviously.

That’s just theology, though. Modern feminism comes as a result of a particular development in the modern world. Sigmund Freud’s idea of psychoanalysis affects us more than you know, as “tropes” and “unsophisticated male power fantasies” become things we desire…without quite desiring them consciously. You know, subconscious desires and stuff like that? Our view of psychoanalysis appears more tradition and heresay than scientific examination. We adopt it as a cultural idea for human analysis, not the actual science – more like conjecture of actual scientific analysis. In a phrase: psychonanalysis became a fashion, a fad by which we hang our presuppositions and understanding of human consciousness. Fashions don’t need to adhere to reality; they merely need to appear like it. Hence, their effectiveness.

We make science into a test of life, and since when has this ever worked out well? We use psychoanalysis for, among other things, literary criticism. Do you think Shakespeare knew that was happening, or do his characters operate on a Christianized worldview of free agency and definite personality, not a bundle of inertial emotions? Our modern narratives follow this same line precisely because it is the fashion, even if not the reality. Our criticism also follows from this invisible starting point, made wholly visible by a cursory analysis (har har) of analysis as Chesterton gives (apologies to those not familiar with literary characters, though you can get the gist):

Before men analyze the uses of the unconscious mind, it may, perhaps, be well for them to discover the use of the mind; and before we come in this connection to any consideration of results, it may be well to say a word about methods. Now, the passages most eagerly quoted, from the thinkers most ardently admired, in this school of philosophy, are generally enough to show that whether or no they could theorize, they certainly could not think. One of them is admired and quoted for his theory of the character of Hamlet; according to which Hamlet not only hated his uncle (which even a mere literary critic, with no scientific training, might possibly be able to conjecture), but that he also secretly hated his father simply for loving his mother. I know not what one is expected to do with this sort of thing except laugh, unless it be urged that it is inhumane to laugh at lunatics.

The professor might just as well reconstruct the real, but rigidly concealed, character of Ariel, deducing it from the observed effects of hypnotism as probably practised by Sycorax. He might as well interpret the “Midsummer-Night’s Dream” by psychoanalyzing the dreams of Moth and Cobweb. Few of us, I fancy, wish to be entangled in such cobwebs. Most of us would be decidedly relieved if Puck, another promising subject for psychoanalysis, would come with his broom to sweep such dust, not to say dirt, behind the door…

The mark of this sort of psychoanalyst is that he is always talking  about complexes, and seems never to  have heard of complexity. The first  thing to note about the movement as  a whole is that it is one of a historic  series of such movements, which may  be called the insane simplifications.  Each of them took not so much a halftruth as a hundredth part of a truth,  and then offered it not merely as something, but as everything. Having  never done anything except split hairs,  it hangs the whole world on a single hair.

Seriously, you can find anything if you look hard enough for it. You must takes things as they are, rather than what you want them to be. Any kind of phrase, any passing speech you make could be construed by someone, somewhere, as offensive. A minor slip-up could imply an Oedipus complex. Clearly, that’s hilarious to me, as hilarious as the idea of Tropes like “Damsel in Distress” in video games. The use of effective storylines get used because, hey, they work. It’s amazing, I know! Such ideas place clear tropes against everyone – so I get to dismiss the actual workings of reality for my own vision, set apart from God’s vision. It’s a form of idolatry, at its base, a ruthless and cold logic that makes a lively world into a dead, singular similarity. The grand narrative infects us at every turn.

I can find any number of seeming unrelated things, and relate them to something else under a unified narrative structure (like Anita Sarkeesian’s analysis) – that doesn’t take effort. I should know: I’ve done it before, and it’s always easy once you reduce the world to your opinionated point of view. What takes effort is to make it reflect reality. Christians should strive for this, not making our notions of egalitarianism or feminism or whatever get inserted into the Christian faith. In other words, Scripture is normative, not what I want.

For tomorrow…

Proceed to Part 2

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • This is a very detailed post about Zach’s frustrations with feminism. And I see Miss Sarkeesian’s name pop up in there a few times. But I’m not seeing much in the way of an analysis of her 2 videos and where he agrees/disagrees specifically with the damsel in distress tropes that she detailed. That’s what I would find a bit more interesting.

    • Oh, I could do that. But I’d rather deal with the heart of the matter and not get wrapped up in the technicalities. Also, it has a lot to do with the Biblical/theological ideas in the next post. This monster got quite big 🙂

      Although I could do a sarcastic post where I detail the various tropes I see in film, television, video games, etc., as I said, you can find this stuff anywhere if you look hard enough. Specifically, it’s more because there’s an nigh-infinite amount of media to consume/analyze about these things. Your presuppositions are bound to affect the way you see things, and in this case you’d see the “damsel in distress” as a trope. But there’s lots of tropes! I think that’s partly the point.

      Furthermore, I’d add that Sarkeesian doesn’t make much of a distinction between American, European, and Japanese games, assuming they all come from the same cultural/ideological standpoint. I find the analysis pretty uncharitable, to say the least.

      • Yeah. But I think the technicalities in this case are the heart of the matter. I’d rather not speculate on where she’s coming from, and instead deal with the fact that quite simply the “rescue the female” character motivator in videogames is overly reductive and has turned some really ugly leaves. Quite simply, I’m fully on her side with her arguments and I don’t feel like I can engage with the subject with you unless we get into the technicalities.

        • I can’t imagine why these individual criticisms would help or hinder our dialogue.

          Imagine her worldview for a second; more than likely, it follows the standard party line in regards to feminism, at least its less egregious formulations that men can accept pretty willingly. So, the real issue here isn’t necessarily the “tropes” in video games, but the methodology of analysis. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that. And this is a common form of analysis in literally every feminist critique of any media product that I’ve ever seen, and it’s no different here. She totes the party line well.

          But even greater, it’s a cultural notion that we analyze things in terms of “narrative” and “story”, our personal story if you go that far. The world is a much bigger place than such a focused analysis – when you look at specifics, you can lose the big picture very easily. Most cultures find themselves very suspectible to this, and end up arguing about things that don’t actually matter (note that she can’t connect any of these tropes to practical, viable things that people do. Rather, she appeals to their complexity – hm…)

          Literature, and probably most things in general, aren’t reducible to simplistic notions of gender stereotypes or whatever. There’s too many variables as to what led to the creation of a particular thing; it’s not always the tortured artist, and it’s not always up to interpretation (Jon Blow believes in authorial intent, now that I think about it). This is what happens when you place one ideology on a pedestal: you basically make every other ideology subservient to it.

          I would argue that these tropes exist because they’re effective and they represent reality in some sense. BUT, due to our sinful nature and inability to right our own wrongs and correct our selfish and prideful influences, they turn out wrong. Any product from a worldly, rather than Christian perspective, will product such a thing. You can see that pretty clearly in the “violence against women” section, and some of the other tropes she mentions.

          Hence, I argue that Christianity’s the only proper way to look at it. Specifically, one grounded in an understanding of God’s Word, Scripture. More on the authority of Scripture on the next installment, which is pretty key to the whole argumentation here.

          My criticism honestly wouldn’t be relevant, simply because I’m a man. You can see how the cycle goes from that point. If I accept the criticisms on their terms, I need to immediately accept those terms of engagement and validate their source. I am not willing to do that, simply because I’ve already lost when I start going down that road.

          So that’s kinda why I am going about it this way, rather than a direct address. I could do it, yes, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter at all.

          • I still think you’re assuming a ton about her. And I think you’re doing it without addressing her cases. I think a point-by-point analysis would be more precise without using broad strokes.

            Maybe you are getting to the heart, but I just can’t seem to read you that way. As is often the case, I might just be misunderstanding you.

          • Zachery Oliver

            There’s a difference between assuming about her, and assuming about her ideas.

            To put it a different way: if she analyzes it in that way, she has a certain ideological framework already set up in order to do that. I am just laying the feminist worldview to bear, perhaps its extreme form, but at least its most consistent. Ideas change us more than we think.

            This is part 1, after all, so there is more to come.

          • From where I’m standing, there’s no “standard feminism.” You may be talking about some standard formed academically up to this point, but I’m seeing various expressions pop up all over. Sure, there’s some hyper-militant feminist extremes out there. But there’s also a lot of female gamers who simply hate being sexualized or called a “camera whore” because they stream, and as such express their frustration of their experiences. Also, women in the industry behind the #1reasonwhy hashtag on twitter. One of my occasional blog friends is in that camp as a “feminist game designer” and she doesn’t find anything wrong with female sexualization. So there’s a lot of diversity in opinion. And that’s just in the game industry. Then there Christian feminists (some of whom write for Christ and Pop Culture).

            This is why I take issue with the “idealogical framework.” I see so much diversity in opinion on the matter. That’s why I think it’s cool that Anita is expressing hers. She might not be right on all issues. But neither am I.

            That’s why I think issue-by-issue is more helpful for discussion. It’s the same with politics.

    • David Prysock

      I agree that the underlying worldview is where the real issue is. I find myself irritated with her because she at times makes declarative statements about the world as innately true, but are actually just assumptions of a worldview that I don’t share.

      But in addressing the specifics of her presentation, even there I found it inconsistent and one-sided. The “Damsel in Distress” trope does exist in many places, but she assumes that it is a bad one. Is it? From a Christian perspective, the church, the bride of Christ was a lost “woman” whom Jesus earnestly sought to redeem. The trope being addressed assumes that women are weak and need rescuing which is a biased and oversimplification of the examples she uses. As a Christian with a complimentary view of genders, I view the same examples and interpret them as men willing to sacrifice much to save something that is precious- women. The damsel in distress trope could actually be viewed as having a higher view of women since they are something valuable (but not just objects) that are worth pursuing and saving.

      But alas this is interpreted by feminism as weakness and taking away value. Sure, men mistreat women, objectify them, use them for trivial means. This is a point she makes very well when talking about domestic violence. Obviously no rational view of human morality would support violence against women for any means. But by bringing that up, she actually counteracts her own point. Women are victimized, and actually are often “damsels” in “distress”. As men, or anyone with the power to do something, why WOULDN’T I act much like the heroes in these games and save the woman? What she calls a cliche male power fantasy could also be interpreted as “doing the right thing for the good of women.”

      So in fact she’s pointing out that the fantasy in games happens in real life, and it shouldn’t happen in game just like it shouldn’t happen in real life. So if her rub is with the way women are treated in games which reflects life, isn’t her problem actually with real life? And if games are actually reflecting that reality, then is it the game’s fault for depicting art true to the real world? It sounds like what she wants is a female power fantasy where women outnumber and oppress men, like what Zachery touches on in this article.

      But then there’s something else. If her desire is that women not be depicted as powerless, then the implication is that they be portrayed as powerFUL and capable, even if reality sadly doesn’t match up. The problem I have with THAT part is that she’s essentially proposing that women be like men and do what men do. Or perhaps the abolition of gender entirely where both genders are alike and in some sort of powerful/sensitive middle ground. Their critique of men is that they are prone to power fantasies and aggression. Does it then make sense for women to desire the same thing they critique? Women biologically have the advantage of producing and nurturing life, something men are physically and sometimes emotionally incapable of doing. I would think that feminism would be better served by playing to the strengths of women rather than pursuing the strengths of men.

      • I’m assuming you didn’t watch all of her second episode of the Damsel in Distress Trope? I’m basing that on where you said: “It sounds like what she wants is a female power fantasy.” The games she cites as handling females well include Dear Esther, Passage, and To The Moon. Not one of them is anything close to a female power fantasy. In fact, the women in those stories are often disadvantaged or gone. And in all of them, the male is still kinda the protagonist, or at least the leader of the household. Crazy, right?

        • David Prysock

          That was speculation on my part, but perhaps it was unfair. I suppose it came after reading the article’s descriptions of more extreme forms of feminism. I guess it just seems that the whole frame of the conversation is wrong, and this doesn’t have to do specifically with these questions around feminism and video games. The view is “Men are powerful and women are victimized, therefore women should not depicted as victimized and should be depicted as equally powerful as men.” Well, women should not be victimized, nor should video game encourage violence towards them. But the power struggle is where I’m bothered. Women are capable and can have power, but they possess an altogether unique kind of power- the power to create life, nurture, grow, teach, etc. These are less popular in our culture because they’re viewed as weak or less important. So I guess she’s just a symptom of views that the greater culture has. The view should rather be “Men are powerful, but women can create life, therefore women should excel at what men can’t do at all.” This kind of talk tends to get myself and those who think like this labelled as misogynistic or chauvinist, but I truly feel that it demonstrates a deeper appreciation of women for what they truly are, rather than just how they compare to men.

          • That’s the thing, I think we’re having two different conversations. And that’s why I think Miss Sarkeesian’s Tropes videos are the wrong framework for the point Zach brought up. I see how it got there. But like I said, I want to talk about her videos and the examples she cites like games that use violence against women as a major storytelling plot point.

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