Kicking off the Con With Anita Sarkeesian
Written by GeekGirlCon Copy Writer Winter Downs
Anita Sarkeesian, creator of pop-culture analysis webseries Feminist Frequency, joined us in the very first panel at GeekGirlCon ‘14 to talk about her work, her inspirations, and the pressures of being a high-profile feminist on the internet. For those keeping track at home, this was her fourth time at GeekGirlCon–she’s been with us every year since the very beginning, and we thank her for being such a strong supporter!
In her panel, Sarkeesian took us back to 2009, when she started Feminist Frequency as a response to her experiences in academia. She has a bachelor degree in Communication Studies and a master degree in Social and Political Thought, but decided to apply these skills to pop culture because that’s the language we all speak; when engaging with strangers, we often turn to pop culture interests to find something in common.
The decision to make Feminist Frequency available for free online was a deliberate one; Sarkeesian believes that feminism should be as widely accessible as possible, and new media platforms like YouTube make production and distribution accessible to underprivileged people, who never before had the means to get their voices heard. She cites Jay Smooth’s Ill Doctrine, a video series that connects hip hop culture with politics and social justice, as a major inspiration. Ironically, as Sarkeesian pointed out, the first video editors were female, and the first fan vids, made back when the process involved physically cutting up VHS tape, were by women, but as with so many professions, as it gained credibility it became ever more male-dominated. The spread of new media has allowed women to reclaim their place in video production.
She chose YouTube because it’s so prevalent, and makes all her videos available on her Feminist Frequency YouTube channel. It’s also the second-biggest search engine, which means that people who are generally interested in a pop culture topic might stumble across the videos and be exposed to a feminist perspective on that topic.
Sarkeesian’s first webseries was Tropes vs. Women (2011), a six-part series for Bitch Magazine about common tropes in general pop culture, ranging from the Manic Pixie Dream Girl to the Mystical Pregnancy. Each video was about 5-7 minutes long and featured a few video clips and still images to illustrate Sarkeesian’s commentary. Production time and cost were relatively low.
Following the success of Tropes vs. Women, Sarkeesian launched a Kickstarter to fund her next project, Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. Allowing viewers to pitch in via crowdfunding means that that the videos remain available online, ad-free and at no charge, for those who can’t afford it.
The initial plan was for 13 episodes, longer than the original Tropes vs. Women videos, but on a similar scale in terms of production. When the Kickstarter earned more than 25 times the original goal of $6000, Sarkeesian decided to scale up the project. Her company is now a non-profit organization that provides her with a full-time job and allows her to employ a co-writer/producer.
The amount of work that goes into each episode is incredible. First, she writes the script, which requires a great deal of research and analysis. From the very first topic, Damsels in Distress, it became apparent that much more detail was required than in the original Tropes vs. Women videos, because the trope has so many sub-tropes that needed to be explored in detail. In the end it was split into three approximately 25-minute videos covering many sub-tropes including Women in Refrigerators, the use of violence, and damsels as comedy. Since the videos are aimed at a general audience, Sarkeesian makes an effort to accommodate people who haven’t played video games before, to define the tropes, to walk through each step of the analysis, and to account for reasonable counter-arguments–including how the tropes addressed compare to video games’ treatment of men.
Next up is the huge task of capturing the in-game footage Sarkeesian uses to illustrate her point. She related a couple of stories that give you an idea of the disproportionate amount of work involved–she had to play through about three-quarters of God of War in order to get 20 seconds of footage. Unlike the movie and TV commentary in the original Tropes vs. Women series, it’s not just a question of fast-forwarding to the relevant scene.
The success of the Kickstarter has raised Feminist Frequency’s profile in good ways and in bad. Sarkeesian is excited to be able to engage in conversation with the developers making the games she loves, and maybe influence the game industry discourse to consider feminist critiques.
On the other hand, as Sarkeesian points out, “Being a woman doing this work, I cannot get anything wrong.” She’s had the experience of growing as a critic, as a video producer, and as a feminist in the public eye. It’s sometimes tempting, she says, to take down older videos that don’t live up to her current standards, but has made the decision to keep them available so that people can see that trajectory.
And then there’s the harassment. Sarkeesian has famously become a target for anti-feminist harassment and threats. (Content Note: Sarkeesian documents some of the horrifyingly misogynistic and violent comments she’s received on YouTube in response to her videos.) To the question of why she stays online after receiving so much abuse, she goes back to the same point she made when talking about her decision to talk about pop culture, and to make her videos available online: the internet is where we live, and, for Sarkeesian, where she has made her career.
Since coming forward about the harassment directed at her, Sarkeesian has received many messages from people in similar situations, asking for guidance on how to deal with the vitriol aimed at them. Panel moderator Jennifer Stuller asked Sarkeesian for her advice on a number of harassment-related topics.
How do we support people who are being harassed?
- The most radical thing you can do is believe women when they talk about their experiences.
- Be visible and vocal. Allies especially need to speak up.
- If you’re being harassed and you can stand to stay, don’t leave. More voices mean more power.
- Community-building and visibility projects are powerful because, as we saw with the #1ReasonWhy hashtag, women who were afraid to speak up started to speak up, and women who thought they were alone realized they weren’t.
Do you advocate for anti-harassment legislation?
Sarkeesian didn’t contact police for a long time, fearing that they wouldn’t take her seriously, and when she finally did they asked her questions like, “Why are they mad at you?” “Why don’t you stop?” and, “How does Twitter/texting work?” Law enforcement have lagged behind in terms of harassment awareness and training; she cites Danielle Citron’s book Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, which talks about how there wasn’t really a word for harassment until the 1960s and 70s, at which time police were trained not to interfere in ‘private business’.
Legislation, she says, is symbolic; it’s the training that police receive, and the understanding they show to harassment victims that count.
Sarkeesian gave us a couple of teasers about what’s up next for her. She wants to do more work to support women who are harassed, and to educate people about what online harassment means and the impact that it can have.
She’s also talking with her co-writer about a video series on feminist masculinity, on which he will take the lead and appear on-camera.