Failing to Defend Anita Sarkeesian

Can you debate a critic of Anita Sarkeesian? Is discussion even possible on the topic?

As a casual fan of Sarkeesian and her well-constructed, well-argued, and entertaining Feminist Frequency videos, I’ve been appalled to read about how relentless cyber bullies have been in condemning her work, threatening to rape and torture and kill her, and generally trying to silence her and drive her off of the internet. (This is one of many articles on the topic.) The handful of times I have visited the @FeministFrequency Twitter feed since finding out that death threats drove her from her home, I’ve been heartened to see the number of journalists who have publicly supported her with tweets, as well as noted the positive shout-outs from nerd heroes and fellow feminists like Joss Whedon. The problem is that, while there are a lot of nice comments to contemplate, mean remarks are – sadly – always more memorable. Also, some of the most appallingly aggressive bloggers post dozens of comments to every nice comment, and engage in some long, cringe-worthy debates with her defenders.

Ever since 1994, when I had my first, fruitless online discussion of a controversial issue, I’ve tended to lean towards the following two rules of thumb: 1) don’t read the comments section and 2) don’t feed the trolls. I like to have reasonable conversations with reasonable people, and I am concerned about how over-the-top and cruel we are to each other when we discuss even the lowest-stakes issues – such as whether or not Ben Affleck will make a good Batman – let alone how we talk to each other about critically important issues, such as feminism, climate change, and the second amendment. However, the recent online harassment of women who study and comment upon nerd culture has made me concerned that my not engaging in debate with “trolls” has somehow helped empower them. So I recently made an attempt to dive into the debate to defend Anita Sarkeesian.

I failed at what I set out to do.

I had two goals: one was to make a strong public statement on her behalf, defending her, and condemning sexual harassment, violence against women, and crimes against freedom of speech. My second goal was to take one of her more “reasonable” (?) critics and try to convince him to get off her back using my silver tongue. These two goals were incompatible, but speak to my two main instincts – I think of myself as both a crusader for social justice and as an educator. Partly because I can be a bit wishy-washy at times, I failed to make a strong enough statement of support in my Tweets to help truly condemn the architects of Sarkeesian’s suffering. And, during the course of my efforts to have a healthy, reasonably toned debate about her with one of her relentless critics, I made so many concessions about the “questionable” quality of her work that I essentially threw her under the bus in the process of winning the argument. So I am left feeling that I let down the very person I was trying to help.

I want to tell you about this debate I had to see what your feelings are about it.

Before wading into the Twitter maelstrom, I tried to get a sense of what the main “criticisms” were. I didn’t want to begin by assuming that all of the so-called trolls were rabid lunatics and horrible people, though many, many, many are. From what I have been able to tell from my here-and-there visits to the feed, there seem to be several kinds of negative posters. A number of those who have directed remarks (at) @FeministFrequency are clearly sexist, mean-spirited men. Some are just video game fans that are so committed to the medium that they can’t imagine that anyone would criticize it. After all, if video games are their whole lives and poor Anita tells them that video games can be imperfect, if not crappy, and are, generally, in great need of improvement, then what they hear is that their whole lives are imperfect, if not crappy, and are, generally, in great need of improvement. Perhaps the truth hurts, which is why these folks doth protest too much.  Other “trolls” haunting her feed have read some conspiracy articles about her that have since been discredited, but which they still believe. (She and Joe Wilson should get a beer together and commiserate about the high price of bringing information to the public.) Then there are those Twitter commenters who claim to be women who dislike radical feminists. Some of these women may be real women. Some of them may be 18-year-old boys in disguise, hoping to deflect charges of sexism and jack up their credibility. I’ll bet real money a couple of the most vicious and constant critics are members of various video game companies’ public relations departments, but I have no proof of this.

Ultimately, I decided that Sarkeesian has apparently committed four cardinal “sins”:

  1. She’s a public intellectual, and god-fearing Americans hate smarty pants types.
  2. She’s condemning aspects of the status quo, and god-fearing Americans fear change.
  3. She’s a woman with a strong opinion, and god-fearing Americans hate opinionated women.
  4. And she’s critical of mass-marketed corporate products – the crap merchandise that multinational corporations shove down our throats every second of every day. And they do this even as they lobby every second of every day to destroy the public support and funding of real, genuine education, art, and culture in America. And god help anyone who says anything bad at all about multinational corporations and their crap products they shove down our throats. God-fearing Americans love their crap products.

Contemplating all this made me angry, and I couldn’t imagine how it felt to be Anita Sarkeesian. She’s a lot stronger than I am, let me tell you, but I think it is high time folks stopped putting her strength to the test and let her go about the business of being a critic. So, I thought I’d dive into the Twitter battlefield by firing a shot directly at the worst offenders – the easiest and most evil targets. I like my two tweets from September 8, around 6:40 am:

@DiPaoloMarc @femfreq too many Americans doubt the existence of pollution, poverty, sexism and racism while raging about how hard it is to be a white man

‏@DiPaoloMarc @femfreq I wonder if it is easier to teach science to religious fundamentalists than it is to educate male-chauvinist gamers about feminism

These tweets got a favorite or two, but were ignored for a couple of days until:

joy grrl syn ‏@magdelyn @DiPaoloMarc @femfreq Nobody wants your re-education, comrade. #gamergate

@DiPaoloMarc @magdelyn @femfreq  ha! What I was saying.

Then a new person appeared, who would become the main one I would engage with:

@TheCheeseAlone @DiPaoloMarc Tough to learn about Feminism from a very poor critic like Anita.

Who was this person? Who knows? All I had to go by was @TheCheeseAlone, an address paired with a picture of Magneto and the name Eric Lensherr, which is Magneto’s “real” name spelled slightly wrong. The anonymity of the online identity, and the cheesiness of it, bothered me, but I felt like a masochist, so I decided to engage.

Here’s where the debate begins. I will edit my tweets and @TheCheeseAlone’s together to make it easier to read. If you want the original posts, warts and all, they should still be findable in the Twitter-verse.

Me: I don’t get it. She uses mountains of evidence. Too much. Her arguments seem unassailable. Just because you can play the Princess in Super Mario 2 doesn’t mean she’s not correct. She underrated Mockingjay because she puts feminist perspectives over class studies. So? That’s her right. Read Virginia Woolf, Marina Warner, Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem and Margaret Atwood for context. [Note: the above are four tweets combined]

@TheCheeseAlone: Star Fox vs Mario 2- same situation, Anita contradicts herself by critiquing both for opposite reasons. Her arguments are far from unassailable. Look at her atrocious critique of Bayonetta.

Me: let’s say she got that bit wrong. How does getting that bit wrong invalidate her larger thesis? Stabbing at errors – that may not be totally wrong – doesn’t poke enough holes to destroy the tapestry, only damage it

TCA: She applies appalling double standards to ensure that her unfalsafiable statements are confirmed. She dismisses context to confirm her presupposition. She cites op-ed pieces as proof.

Me: Op-ed pieces provide a framework for the discussion. Everyone cites op-ed pieces in scholarship – no matter their ideology. She seems consistent to me. What is at stake for you in this? Why do you care what she says? You like video games. Play them and let her be. I love the novel Dracula. From a feminist perspective, it is a loada horseshit. I accept that, love it (& feminists) anyway

TCA: I am a feminist and a gamer. I don’t want some hack being the face of that.

Me: If you are named after Magneto, why pick on a rebel? You should respect her fighting for mutant rights (read: female)

TCA: She is Magneto in that she would see the humans destroyed. that is she is not pro-woman, she is anti-man and anti-sexuality

Me: Well, that’s just absurd. She wants better representations of women. You really think we can’t do better? Attention video games! Stop improving! Don’t make any worthwhile women characters! Stay at your current quality level, which is perfect and above criticism! You’ve convinced me. Anyone who says video games need to be better should be bullied into silence

TCA: I’m all for better female representation in games. I also think Anita Sarkeesian is a charlatan. Games not perfect. Sarkeesian is a shit critic. I think feminism deserves better than the club with a nail in it that is Anita Sarkeesian.

Me: She’s funny. Funny. Not a club with a nail in it. Did you see that bit when she pointed silently at the actor who played Peeta? Hilarious.

TCA: Her sort of Biased, utilitarian feminism only serves to further alienate both men and women.

Me: What’s utilitarian feminism?

TCA: Feminism that refuses to acknowledge feminine beauty or sexuality. Sarkeesian sees all displays of sexuality as being ‘for men’

Me: What do you think of Marina Warner’s essay “Boys Will Be Boys?” She knows nothing about video games but is still largely right.

TCA: Haven’t read it yet.

Me: Who is a good feminist critic who skewers video games? Who models what she does successfully?

TCA: Not Anita, anyway.

Me: That’s no answer. By what standard are you judging her? You need a benchmark or you just sound like a video game fan with no perspective or distance. Look at music, movies, pop culture before 9/11 and look at it now. Women were given much more respect before the wars

TCA: Simply as a critic that 1) Contradicts herself 2) Manipulates data to confirm her presupposition 3) Ignores positives in order to push her agenda and 4) Engages solely with abusers while ignoring legitimate criticism of her work. She only engages with trolls, disables all comments on her website and YouTube.

Me: How do we know she ignores legit criticism? I think her opening disclaimer should disarm most people. It doesn’t. She is under no obligation to acknowledge other perspectives. Her role as a critic is to build her case well. She does

TCA: Watch that Bayonetta critique and tell me that she is not terrible at what she does.

Here I hit my first stumbling block. I don’t know who Bayonetta is. Frankly, I don’t think that matters. I remembered, back in high school, I saw a New York Times article that mentioned that Jim Carrey played the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman. Since I’m a comic book and movie fan, I knew that was an error, and my first thought was, “Aha! Caught! I know more than the New York Times! I’m smarter! They have no credibility! I will believe in nothing they write from now on!” While there are many reasons to take stories printed in the NYT with a grain of salt, I was not wise for thinking the above, but dumb. I was convinced that TCA was making the same kind of mistake about whatever he spotted as being wrong about Bayonetta in Anita’s essay. I decided to assume that Anita was, indeed, wrong about Bayonetta, but defend her anyway, since the criticisms he was leveling still seemed misguided and overstated, whether or not this Bayonetta critique was truly objectionable.

Me: What’s wrong with pushing an agenda? Don’t we all? You are pushing yours. If you are harping on Bayonetta, you are missing the big picture. Do you read the news? Do you know about the war on women?

TCA: And what is my agenda?

[Aha! The Cheese Alone is trying to trap me! I won’t fall for it.]

Me: What you say it is. I don’t know you personally and can only go with how you present yourself. You seem to know enough about video games as a fan to find a few minor errors in her work that you are using to prove evil. if you are on the same side as her, don’t waste your time fighting an ally. Go after the real enemy. Who are you trying to impress? Conservative men by being a more moderate feminist? You won’t win them over

TCA: My criticism of Sarkeesian is because of her very poor critical skills and confirmation bias. Feminism is incidental.

Me: I think a liberal confirmation bias is excusable in a far right-wing society. I’ve written books with confirmation bias. Sorry, I don’t want to say anything nice about Dick Cheney. I just don’t.

TCA: I am left wing. Doesn’t stop Anita being a rubbish critic though.

Me: No academic can know as much as a fan does. What critics have over fans is distance. Fans know more trivia but are less wise than critics. It is a trade-off. I say this as a fan and as a critic.

TCA: Rather patronizing statement!

Me: But true considering you still haven’t named your benchmark. Look, some errors may be real errors. Some may be differences in perspectives. Different perspectives are not wrong. Write your own essay making a different case and only mention her in passing, respectfully, to show where you diverge. Don’t join the nut squad haunting her twitter feed

TCA: I’m fine with differences in perspective! I am all for more complex representation of women in video games. I just think that Anita Sarkeesian is terrible at what she does. I can disagree with someone but respect their talent. I don’t respect her talent.

Me: I can’t reconcile your last few tweets. You seem to be picking the wrong enemy.

You know she’s broadcasting scholarship to a mass audience instead of hiding it in an academic journal. She’s performing a public service. Her citations would be stronger if not watered down for a video for mass consumption. I’ll bet her writing has all the citations and rigor you want but YouTube isn’t the Journal of Popular Culture. I think the problem you have is with YouTube. The format, not her. It is just my guess. I don’t know you. I’m asking you to consider that possibility and protest athlete rapists instead of her

TCA: I am not anti-feminism, I am anti-Sarkeesian. She is rubbish. Feminism is important. There are more than a few minor errors in her work and the standards she abides by (or doesn’t). Harassment is wrong. Anita seems to have set herself up as the guru of feminism in games. I just wish it was someone better. And that’s why she should be called out if she’s engaging in lazy critique. Otherwise, people will just assume she is right without examination.

Me: My worry is the opposite. Silencing her will discourage other, smarter feminists from risking making their work public. Write to her with your opinions on where she’s wrong and leave the charlatan hyperbole out of it. The punishment doesn’t fit the crime. A few questionably applied examples does not warrant public shaming

And that is where Magneto, a.k.a The Cheese Alone, stopped tweeting responses to me.

I won! I won!

Or did I?

Did I convince him? Did he run away? Did he just have to poo and then he forgot about me? I ended with a good point, but it was marred by the fact that I threw him a big bone at Anita’s expense that maybe I shouldn’t have. Certainly, Julian Darius felt that way.

When I told Julian about my discussion, he took issue with me for mentioning “better, smarter feminists” in my last tweets to the cheesemaster. “We’ve no evidence Anita has failed and would require us to hypothesize a ‘smarter’ feminist critic, so I feel that’s a little throwing her under the bus, or bowing to criticism of her, even though neither of us seem to know of a criticism of her that’s legitimate.”

He also thought that I gave the benefit of the doubt to someone who was not debating in good faith, “You might also be aware that those organizing this #GamerGate conspiracy theory stuff have issued talking points advising people to pretend to be feminists and to claim that Anita is just a bad scholar, whom they’re out to destroy by any means necessary. So this person on Twitter is following the party line, and it doesn’t strike me as fair play or good-faith discussion at all.”

“Man,” I thought. “I didn’t know that. ‘New shit has come to light’ that I wasn’t ‘privy’ to. If I’d known that, I would have handled the whole thing differently. ”

Julian added, “And the end result of this [Twitter user's] quibbling over nonsense (without evidence) is obviously to endorse or be seen to legitimize Anita’s treatment. So to me, this person on Twitter is part of that movement — that attempt to shut Anita up — and you can tell by this person’s lack of citation or evidence. The real agenda is obvious, to me, and no strong feminist interpretation is going to be acceptable or not reach this backlash.”

“I guess I just wanted to see if it was possible to have a discussion with one of these people,” I said. Then I thought to myself, without saying to Julian, “Maybe if I was a more seasoned Twitter user, I’d have a stronger bullshit detector.”

He seemed to read my mind, “I’ve also spent a lot of time on social networks (and in life) assuming others are arguing in good faith. Over time, I’ve learned that this [good faith] is the issue, and an awful lot of the time, when people seem to me to be being unreasonable, or seem unresponsive to what I’m pointing out, it’s not really that they’re coming from a different place. It’s that they’re arguing in bad faith, and they’re immune or even hostile to actual discussion or argument.”

Is that what happened? I wondered if I’d had any effect on @TheCheeseAlone at all. I thought I’d see if he’d moved on to other topics, or softened his stance on Anita. Well, lo and behold, since our discussion @TheCheeseAlone has continued to Tweet negative assessments of Sarkeesian and engage in debates with her supporters. So I failed to convince Magneto that Sarkeesian, like all women, is a human being with a soul and deserving civil rights and some goddamned respect. I’m shocked – shocked that all those “progressive” video games he plays didn’t already teach him that women deserve respect.

As it happens, I like and agree with Anita Sarkeesian’s scholarship. At this point, her treatment is so appalling, that even those who don’t like and agree with her scholarship should stand up for her and defend her freedom of speech, because way too many insecure folks seem to want to take it away from her.

On the one hand, I’m glad that I at least tried to be reasonable and to talk to someone on the other side of a hotly debated issue. On the other hand, I think I was taken in by a con artist and a bully and tricked into saying more bad things about Sarkeesian on her Twitter feed and adding to her years’ long migraine. I really didn’t want to add to her pain. I had set out to help.

So I have a new message I want to send out there, into the world of the Internet:

If you think that you are justified in joining in with those who have designed arcade games in which the object is to beat Sarkeesian up or rape her, I have a message for you.

If you have tweeted her death threats because you don’t like how she discusses Bayonetta, I have a message for you.

And if you think she should be shouted down and bullied into silence because she doesn’t appreciate artistically rendered sexy women enough, then I have this balanced, reasonable, intellectual message for you:

Fuck all of you.
Get off Anita’s back.
Go read a book once in a while.
Go out and get some fresh air.
Try talking civilly to women for once, for a change, you nuts.
Get professional help.
Go to jail.
Get a life.
They’re just video games, you assholes.

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Marc DiPaolo is associate professor of English and film at Oklahoma City University. He wrote War, Politics and Superheroes (2011) and Emma Adapted (2007). He is editor of Godly Heretics and Unruly Catholics from Dante to Madonna, and coeditor (with Bryan Cardinale-Powell) of Devised and Directed by Mike Leigh (all 2013). His personal web site is here.

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  1. I’ve been a victim of bullying. It sucks, but no one has ever threatened to rape me. The video game industry I follow very closely and it’s a shame that it’s fans are so one-sided. Indie developers make some well rounded characters. Valve made Half Life 2, which featured Alex Vance, another great female character. It’s just too bad that everyone plays the bullshit that get published these days that overshadow these other great games.