It’s OK to admit there’s sexism in a lot of video games (no, really!)

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Paolo Uccello’s rendering of Saint George and the dragon, c. 1470

Media critic and Feminist Frequency creator, Anita Sarkeesian, received both praise and criticism for her videos highlighting the Damsel in Distress trope in video games. If you haven’t seen her videos, it’s definitely worth checking out. You can view part one here and part two here.

Now, full disclosure, I don’t play video games nor do I know much about video game culture. Therefore, I’m not in a position to say if the people who criticized Sarkeesian’s research for not being thorough are right or wrong. What I do know however, is that based on the responses to her videos, a lot of people seem to either dismiss the significance of this trope being prevalent in video games, or they don’t understand how the Damsel in Distress trope is sexist. These critics do this by making one of the following arguments:

1. These are just video games and shouldn’t be taken so seriously because it’s just escapist entertainment for gamers.

2. There are video games out there that depict strong women.

3. How can the Damsel in Distress trope be sexist against women, when it’s all about a man loving a woman so much that he risks his life to save her?

OK, *deep breath* I’m gonna take a stab at addressing these arguments.

The “chill out, it’s just a video game argument”: It might just be fantasy, but the symbols and depictions of humanity in even escapist forms of entertainment still reflect cultural beliefs.

For example, the sole purpose of an advertisement is to compel viewers to buy a product, but in order to do this advertisers have to tap into conscious and sometimes unconsciousness cultural beliefs.

The main objective of this ad, for example, is to simply sell perfume and cologne.  However, in addition to showcasing the product, the ad also reinforces popular beliefs about masculinity and femininity.

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The “there are video games out there that depict strong women” argument: To counter Sarkeesian’s argument, people have mentioned video games that depict ass-kicking females as the protagonist. Again, since I don’t play video games, I’m in no position to say if featuring an ass-kicking female protagonist is the norm or mostly an exception. However, trotting out a few examples of strong female characters doesn’t mean the Damsel in Distress trope isn’t pervasive. Some critics have called Sarkeesian’s Damsel in Distress videos misleading, but so far I haven’t come across anyone who solidly backs this claim up. For example, I haven’t come across any criticism that says something like “out of x amount of video games featuring someone being held captive and someone acting as the rescuer, only x amount use the Damsel in Distress trope.” Sure, there are probably video games out there featuring strong women, but in the very specific Hero Rescues Captive storyline, I suspect gender roles are much more rigid than Sarkeesian’s critics care to admit.

The “Damsel in Distress tropes can’t be sexist since it’s all about helping women” argument: Helping women (or anyone) is always a good thing, but if the Damsel in Distress trope is pervasive it’s problematic. This is because it reinforces the idea that in the face of danger, men are action oriented while women remain passive. This is a form of benevolent sexism (you can read more about that concept here). The Damsel in Distress trope infantilizes women by showing that they aren’t capable of saving themselves, let alone being capable heroes. Oftentimes, this trope paints a woman’s helplessness as being alluring. Sarkeesian explains this  idea perfectly when she says:

So narratives that frame intimacy, love or romance as something that blossoms from or hinges upon the disempowerment and victimization of women are extremely troubling because they tend to reinforce the widespread regressive notion that women in vulnerable, passive or subordinate positions are somehow desirable because of their powerlessness.” 

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“The Knight Errant” an 1870 painting by John Everett Millais is said to be a perfect example of the “erotic subtext” in the Damsel in Distress trope.

So does this all mean that people shouldn’t enjoy playing video games anymore? Sarkeesian doesn’t say that at all, in fact she’s a fan of video games and states:

It’s possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy a piece of media while also being critical of some of the more problematic aspects of that same media.”

The reason I mention this, is because I often see a reflexive hostility from fans whenever someone points out racism or sexism in a piece of media they enjoy. I believe the hostility stems from the belief that media with any hint of racist or sexist elements is by default not capable of having entertainment or artistic value.  It’s entirely possible for a piece of media to be so entertaining and effing brilliant it makes you want to squeal (or maybe that’s just me), while also not doing such a great job of depicting a certain group of people. The people pointing out things like sexism or racism aren’t a bunch of angry killjoys (well, to be fair a few might be). Most likely they’re hardcore fans themselves, and their aim isn’t to diminish a piece of media or genre. Their aim is to make it better by making it less cliched and more inclusive.

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The tale of two celebrity sex tapes and what it says about us

Celeb sex tape compyIt seems like every few months a leaked celebrity sex tape is released or is rumored to soon be released.  Last month there was chatter over a sex tape featuring Farrah Abraham, a cast member on MTV’s Teen Mom. Vivid Entertainment reportedly paid Abraham a whopping $1.5 million for the footage.

What sets Abraham’s tape apart from most other leaked celebrity sex tapes is the fact that this one wasn’t really leaked, but marketed to appear like it was. The ploy quickly unraveled when people pointed out that the footage looked professionally produced and James Deen, a professional porn actor, was her co-star.

This month, the latest celebrity at the center of a leaked sex tape scandal is Joe Francis, the founder of the porn franchise Girls Gone Wild. Apparently someone is shopping around a footage obtained from his girlfriend’s stolen iPad.

A few people have speculated that Francis is claiming the tape was leaked to create hype for it’s release, but so far there’s no proof of that and he maintains that the video was meant to be private. So for now, he seems to be a victim and that’s prompted a lot of news outlets to report on the scandal with a certain amount of smug satisfaction due to his reputation for being an exploitative jerk and all around sleazeball. Girls Gone Wild was criticized for releasing footage of intoxicated women and girls (some were under 18), who ultimately decided they didn’t want the sexually explicit images they filmed made public. Francis’s plight is being painted as a sort of ironic payback.

On the surface, the circumstances of the Abraham and Francis sex tapes appear to be wildly different. One was professionally filmed but intended to be released as a leaked tape, the other hasn’t been released and appears to have been legitimately stolen. What the two stories have in common though, is that they’re both glaring examples of how invading and exposing someone’s sexual privacy has become a disturbingly normalized. A leaked sex tape is an extreme form of violation because it turns someone into a porn performer against their will. And what makes it worse is that thanks to the internet, footage can be seen and shared with millions in a matter of minutes.

Vivid Entertainment could have easily marketed their video of Abraham as porn entertainment featuring a celebrity who wanted to be in porn, but instead they came up with a convoluted “leaked” tape marketing scheme. Far from being concerned about a backlash, they operated on the belief that the public believes pornography is extra titillating if it’s released against the star’s will.

It’s this same belief that some have used to justify the snarky coverage of the leaked Francis sex tape. For these folks, the thought of the porn entrepreneur being humiliated in this way is extra satisfying because he’d be getting a taste of his own medicine.

To be sure, it’s easy to understand how this could be satisfying for some, but such thinking is flawed and deeply troubling. To take glee in his humiliation is is to believe that it’s OK to violate someone’s sexual privacy if they happen to be a really shitty person. The act is always wrong and there’s never an instance when it’s a suitable punishment.

When it comes to all leaked (or fake leaked) sex tapes, I’d like for them to swiftly fall out of fashion (along with the exposed zipper trend!!). Whenever talk of a leaked sex tape hits the news, far too many of us seem to be passively accepting or rationalizing something that is clearly a form of public sexual shaming.

Best Reads of March: Pop Feminist Edition

Award MarchThe month of March brought us a wealth of thought provoking articles on gender and pop culture. I’ve compiled a list of what think are the very best 10.

These were the articles that made me pause and reflect, some made me chuckle and all of them made me think “damn! I wish I wrote that!”

So sit back, get comfy and prepare to get your pop feminist read on!

10. CNN Reports On The ‘Promising Future’ of the Steubenville Rapists, Who Are ‘Very Good Students’” from Jezebel (March 17)

Best quote:

It’s perfectly understandable, when reporting on a rape trial, to discuss the length and severity of the sentence; it is less understandable to discuss the end of two convicted rapists’ future athletic and academic careers as if it were somehow divorced from the laws of cause and effect. Their dreams and hopes were not crushed by an impersonal, inexorable legal system; Mays and Richmond raped a girl and have been sentenced accordingly.”


9. “Chris Brown Wants Everyone To Know That He Holds The Deed To Rihanna’s Pussy” from Dlisted (March 9) 

Best quote:

 I would say that RiRi should evict Fist Brown from her pussy and change the locks, but she’s probably creaming over this. And she’s the one who pays the mortgage and maintenance bills on her pussy!”


8. “Let’s get ratchet! Check your privilege at the door” from Feministsting (March 28) 

Best quote:

Remember when people who weren’t actually from the ghetto started to use the word ‘ghetto’ to describe everything from their friend’s booty to a broken blender (real life examples)? The same phenomenon is happening with ratchet, even for those who do not use the word itself. It is super easy to borrow from the experiences of others as a way to be “fun,” or stretch boundaries on what is ‘acceptable,’ without any acknowledgement of context or framework.”


7. Mila Kunis, Jennifer Lawrence, and the Delicate Formula for Becoming America’s Best Friend” from the Vulture (March 7) 

Best quote:

Apparently it’s not enough for a woman to be smart and likable and humble. Audiences presumably don’t crave [Lena] Dunham as their best friend because they already have a best friend just like Dunham. They want an upgrade. The key is to act just like average humans, but not to look remotely like them.”


6. “Justin Timberlake and the Male-Celebrity Hall Pass” from the Vulture (March 13) 

Best quote:

If we held the omnipresent Justin Timberlake to the same standard as these women, he’d be a pariah — a self-aggrandizing sell-out like Beyoncé (Bud Light Platinum, anyone), a cloying fake like Hathaway (Serious Actor glasses?Instagram filter? Check), a self-indulgent nuisance like Dunham (an album of seven-minute space jam sessions and a love song about himself?), and a vengeful brat like Swift (that Joey Fatone joke had nothing on the Britney sketch. Also: “Cry Me a River”). “Instead, we call him charming.”


5. “Confessions of a Former ‘Sex and the City’ Fan” from Flavorwire (March 8) 

Best quote:

We loved it because Sex and the City was a coming-of-age show that just happened to be about women in their 30s and 40s.”


4. “Bigger than Rick Ross: an industry that glorifies rape and drug culture” from The Root DC (March 29) 

Best quote:

Still, there are many black men who seek to remain within the margins of the dominant hip-hop culture. Many of these men have bought into limited definitions of masculinity and are scared to be “outed” as weak, a hater, or – God forbid – gay if they speak out. There are, of course, even many women who fight endlessly to prove that the lyrics are about ‘those’ women and not ‘me’ or ‘us.'”


3. “The Finkbeiner Test” from Double X Science (March 5) 

Best quotes:

Campaigns to recognize outstanding female scientists have led to a recognizable genre of media coverage. Let’s call it “A lady who…” genre. You’ve seen these profiles, of course you have, because they’re everywhere. The hallmark of “A lady who…” profile is that it treats its subject’s sex as her most defining detail. She’s not just a great scientist, she’s a woman! And if she’s also a wife and a mother, those roles get emphasized too.”

“To pass the Finkbeiner test, the story cannot mention

  • The fact that she’s a woman
  • Her husband’s job
  • Her child care arrangements
  • How she nurtures her underlings
  • How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
  • How she’s such a role model for other women
  • How she’s the “first woman to…”

2. “Rape Is Not Inevitable: On Zerlina Maxwell, Men and Hope” from The Nation (March 12) 

Best quotes:

Here’s the thing—when you argue that it’s impossible to teach men not to rape, you are saying that rape is natural for men. That this is just something men do. Well I’m sorry, but I think more highly of men than that. (And if you are a man who is making this argument, you’ll forgive me if I don’t ever want to be in a room alone with you.)”

“And when you insist that the only way to prevent rape is for women to change their behavior—whether it’s recommending that they carry a weapon or not wear certain kinds of clothing—you are not only giving out false information, you are arguing that misogyny is a given. That the world will continue to be a dangerous and unfair place for women and we should just get used to the fact.”

1. “Feminism’s Tipping Point: Who Wins from Leaning in?” from Dissent (March 26)

Best quotes:

Sandberg assumes instead that the feminist question is simply, how can I be a more successful worker?”

“Sandberg has penned not so much a new Feminine Mystique as an updated Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.”

“… as a manual for navigating the workplace, it teaches women more about how to serve their companies than it teaches companies about how to be fairer places for women to work.”

The Jason Patric saga and how fatherhood is devalued

In late February TMZ reported that actor Jason Patric was “shut down” in his bid to gain paternity and custody rights over his son. A few other gossip sites picked up the story but I haven’t read much commentary, which I find surprising. An article on BabyCenter questioned if Patric was simply a sperm donor or entitled to paternal rights.

Continue reading The Jason Patric saga and how fatherhood is devalued

Accidental Feminism and the 2013 Oscars

MacFarlane 2013 OscarsDid this year’s Oscar host Seth MacFarlane, go too far with the jokes? BuzzFeed ran an article called the “9 Sexist Things That Happened At The Oscars.”

Meanwhile, Maureen O’Connor writing for New York’s fashion blog The Cut, listed the most egregiously sexist moments of the night.

It seems that for the most part, the critics were right to feel outrage. Many of jokes he made that night gave off a strong sexist vibe. His joke about the Kardashians, for example, managed to be both sexist and racist. Here’s the joke if you missed it:

This man has gone from starring in “Gigli” to becoming one of the most respected filmmakers of this generation. I feel like we’re six months away from having to call him le Benjamin Affleck.  I thought we’d cut this joke but really, want to do it? First time I saw him with all that dark facial hair I thought, my god, the Kardashians have finally made the jump to film.”

Other jokes MacFarlane told weren’t so much sexist as they were awkward. One example of this was the “We Saw Your Boobs” number, which gave a shout-out to actresses who’ve appeared topless in movies. The bit could have worked if it had served to humorously point out the fact that in film, a woman’s body is much more likely to be treated as ornamental than a man’s body. Instead the number fell flat because the humor seemed cruel. The mockery was directed at the women and not the men who call the shots.

Amy Davidson, writing for The New Yorker, had a particularly scathing assessment. She wrote:

You girls think you’re making art, the Academy, through MacFarlane, seemed to say, but all we—and the ‘we’ was resolutely male—really see is that we got you to undress. The joke’s on you.”

However, one joke MacFarlane that night is being unfairly derided as sexist. It’s this one:

So let me just address those of you up for an award, so you got nominated for an Oscar, something a 9-year-old could do! She’s adorable, Quvenzhane. She said to me backstage. “I really hope I don’t lose to that old lady, Jennifer Lawrence.” To give you an idea how young she is, it’ll be 16 years before she’s too old for Clooney.”

This joke succeed in doing something the “We Saw Your Boobs” number failed to do. On the surface it was a not-so-subtle dig at Hollywood’s youth obsession. Ultimately however, the joke put a spotlight on the sexist, age gap double standard when it comes to dating.

When a  man dates a younger woman, it’s considered the norm, when a woman does it, it’s considered an abnormality. How is it treated as an abnormality, you might ask? It’s done using terms that can range from being patronizing  (cougar and puma) to outright hostile (like grandma or granny).

If 51-year-old George Clooney were a woman, you can be sure he’d be called things like desperate and pathetic for not being married and for dating women who are (a) much less famous and (b) much younger.

To give you an idea of this double standard, consider this; Clooney is 18 years older than his current girlfriend, Stacy Keibler. Biologically, he could easily be her father, yet no fuss is made over their age difference. We never hear concern tolling stories about whether or not the aging star can hold on to someone so much younger.

At 50, Demi Moore, who was once hailed as the cougar poster child, was only 15 years older than her 35-year-old ex-husband, Ashton Kutcher. Yet as we all know, so much was made over that age gap.

A recent development that’s particularly appalling is that the age gap double standard is also being used against women in their early 20s. Back in December, Gawker ran an item titled “Cool Mom Taylor Swift Took Her 18-Year-Old Boyfriend to Get a Giant Tattoo Yesterday.”At the time she had only recently turned 23.

It seems like the only time a man receives this kind of teasing or ridicule is when the age gap is so extreme.  Stories about the  60 year age difference between Hugh Hefner and his wife, Crystal Harris, portray their age gap as being repugnant.

So why does this age gap double standard in dating even matter? It matters because it boxes women in sexually; it puts them in their place, so to speak. As a woman ages she’ll find that her pool of “acceptable” men to date has gotten smaller, while for men the opposite is true.

Seth MacFarlane made a lot of lot of sexist remarks on Oscar night, but his joke about the fact that the women Clooney dates keep getting younger and younger wasn’t one of them. Feminist sentiment was almost certainly not MacFarlane’s intention when he made the crack, but in the end he used humor to focus attention on a double standard that’s so often overlooked. It’s just too bad that it got lost in all the tasteless remarks he made that night.