Earlier this week, it came to light that vlogger Anita Sarkeesian was driven out of her home after receiving disturbingly specific death threats in response to her latest critique of sexism in the video game industry. Now, I have enjoyed Sarkeesian’s video’s in the past, but I think her commentary can, at times, be a little simplistic (I’m also not a gamer, so I can’t give an informed critique of her comments, either). That said, she does have important things to say about representation of women and how media, even something as seemingly trivial as video games, shapes our perception of gender roles and gender identity. (Totally off the subject of video games, but her examination of gender in Lego marketing from the 80s up until now is absolutely worth checking out.)
Whether one agree with Sarkeesian or not, however, is beside the point. Reasonable people can reasonably disagree, and some degree of debate is necessary for reasonable people to come to mutual understanding. But there is no excuse for the backlash she has received (from both male and female gamers) at her audacity to suggest that there might be something degrading towards women in popular video games. Indeed, harassment of women in the fan community, especially those who raise questions about the sub-culture’s inclusion of women, is sadly a well-documented phenomenon. It may seem like a silly issue … who really cares how we self-professed geeks relate to one another within the context of our own, admittedly dysfunctional, fan community.
It matters because the outrage some people who have traditionally held power within the community express when the suppression of other voices is mentioned is symptomatic of the same tendencies that happen on a larger scale in mainstream culture. How many people still deny that the shooting of Michael Brown (and so many other young, unarmed black men just like him) is racially charged? How many white voices are crying out that “we’re so sick of hearing about racism … Racism is over in this country!” Such a backlash comes undoubtedly out of fear. For certain men in the gaming community, being told their games are unfair to women presents them with the unwelcome challenge that their favourite hobby might have to change a little bit to be more inclusive. For those of us born into the position of white privilege, we might have to come to terms with how we still need to change and the work we need to do to fight systemic forces of racism in post-Civil Rights North America.
Now, no one likes being told that there might be some work we need to do to change ourselves and to change how we interact with the world. And I’m not going to pretend that work is easy to do. For me, as Amanda is nearing toddlerdom and the desire for proper children’s toys, I find myself going out of my way to search for empowering images of girls for her. You’ve probably heard me lamenting how hard it is to find any toys featuring female role models that are not Disney princesses, let alone female action figure … just as Anya and Stella. You know what I have to be a lot more conscious about? Making sure I don’t just buy Amanda books featuring white characters and toys with white faces. As a parent, it is my job to ensure she is taught that she can play and empathize with people who don’t look just like her. As much as I push online for there to be better female representation in toys and media, I needed to put just as much effort in representation of visible minorities and people of colour–and to go out of my way to seek and listen to their experience. I am a little ashamed to admit that it takes a conscious effort on my part to remember to do that. But my own sense of shame does not get me off the hook or justify my defensiveness if someone call me on it.
This is particularly important in terms of our spiritual lives. For those of us who are Christians, our faith compels us to be continually giving of ourselves to others. To think more of others than we do of ourselves, and to champion the cause of those who are suffering in any way. If we who enjoy the benefits of wealth, education, class, etc., cannot get past our own discomfort enough to engage with the experience of those without such privilege … we have something of a spiritual problem.