Anita Sarkeesian & Crit Theory Insanity

I don’t know WHY I did it, but I actually found and read Anita Sarkeesian’s grad thesis. And wow. I used to just think that she was wrong about some stuff, a hypocrite on others, but she is either crazy-go-nuts for real and/or (as is implied in her acknowledgements) Jonathan McIntosh’s sock-puppet.

Before I found out more about who she was and what she did, I was initially interested in the Tropes vs. Women project, but I was also interested in hearing others’ opinions on it before I made my own. After watching all of her videos, listening to the opinions of others and doing some of my own research, I cannot possibly be convinced that she actually wants to “fix” anything or make anything better; she only wants to profit and raise her own profile on the back of pointless deconstructionist semantics.

Because ‘positive’ traits are labelled as being ‘masculine’ rather than simply being considered (gender neutral) positive traits, no women possessing these positive traits can, in fact, be positive representations of women because they are embodying masculine ideals.

Women in positions of leadership are simply emulating men.
Women with physical prowess are simply emulating men.
Women who are cool-headed are emulating men.
Women who are courageous are emulating men.
Women who are rational are simply emulating men.

If you choose to label all ‘positive’ character traits as ‘masculine’ OF COURSE you’re going to see women characters as replicating traditional male hero archetypes.

While I’m of the “More awesome women characters in video games, please!” opinion, the stances that Anita takes and ideas she puts forward prevents ANY sort of successful or pleasing (under her criteria) portrayal of women in video games or any media. Feminine characteristics are negative because oppressive male patriarchy has reduced women to those (motherhood, nurturing, blah blah blah), but masculine characteristics are negative because they are masculine.

table of traits

(Sarkeesian, p46)

table of traits 2

(Sarkeesian, p47)

Now, you’ll note that many of those traits listed as “masculine” ARE portrayed in media as either positive OR negative given the context of the situation.  Even with how traits are rearranged in the second table, you still have the issue of most of the positive traits people look for in characters being considered “masculine” and therefore failing to address her initial qualms with masculine women protagonists. 

Interestingly, her own video game proposal does not meet her own criteria and its protagonist falls into the trap of being an example of “many masculine identified traits” (using violence to accomplish her goals, for one). Long Live the Queen is probably more feminist than the game she proposes.

So if it’s bad for a character to possess masculine traits and it’s bad for a character to possess feminine traits and bad for a character to possess a combination of these traits, what the hell could she possible want? It’s not a problem to me for someone to say “I want less of this” or “I want more of that”, but when what you’re saying is “I want none of anything!” you’re not actually asking for anything at all other than to be pointed to and laughed at.

Go ahead. Destroy the patriarchy by bitching about how female characters who have their shit together are embodying masculine traits. I’ll be waiting.

In regards to gaze theory, like most critical theory things, is more fun to play around with and see how far down the rabbit hole you can actually go rather than take it seriously. Oh, crap, people are looking at people in a visual medium! Gasp! You can’t have a woman on a screen and men in the audience without those men looking at her. But the same goes for men on the screen with women. One of the reasons why I liked Pacific Rim so much was that in it Del Toro played with the idea of using female gaze; the male character existed as a thing for the female lead to oggle, and invited the audience to oggle with her. But the only way to eliminate male gaze would be to banish men from the audience or banish women (especially attractive ones) from the screen.

In regards to the academy awards and the stories and people they choose to honor, it’s been known for ages that the academy is decades behind public, who have been making women and minorities wealthy stars by going to see their movies, in terms of race and gender.

In the end, I think that what would actually make some sort of positive change would be to de-gender both postive “masculine” traits and negative “feminine” traits and allow them to just be considered traits. But that’s not what academic critical theory is for. Critical theory is jumping through enough hoops of obsequiousness that you can ultimately reach any point or any conclusion you want given any bit of media. And doing that is fun, it really is! But it’s not a useful tool for constructive change and a horrible way to come round to a rigid ideology, especially since theory exists to destroy rigidity and meaning.

Show me a successful woman, and I can use theory to destroy her validity as a female character. She’ll either be too masculine or too sexual. When people say “feminists will never be happy”, they are in part correct, because theory exists to nitpick things to the point of exasperation, not to actually create anything positive.

Final thoughts:
The real answer to the question “Why was Sarah Connor Chronicles cancelled?” was that the second season had lousy pacing, not because it had too many good female characters.

Addendum: I like how in her appendix, she considers the asexual blue plant lady and the bisexual blue-grey lady from Farscape as white heterosexual characters.  While she states in her conclusion that she wants to see ” people of colour… (not) killed off more often then their white counter parts”, her own numbers show that % wise they are statistically identical within her sampling.

Addendum II: If you’re too lazy to actually read her thesis, Thunderf00t gives a few highlights here along with his normal snarkiness interspersed with clips of shrill ideologues:  

But I still recommend you reading it for yourself and drawing your own conclusion, as he doesn’t really dig all that deep into it.

19 responses to “Anita Sarkeesian & Crit Theory Insanity

    • Exactly! And that’s one of the reasons why playing around with Theory is fun. Mental exercises on things like “how can this chair be not a chair?” and other dada nonsense. The problem is it’s based on a denial of concrete realities. Thunderf00t has harped on Sarkeesian more than most, so I’m a bit hesitant to mention him, but he made a great point about Joss Whedon (a huge Sarkeesian fan) and his works that if you apply the same rationale and criticisms that Sarkeesian uses, his works are just as gross and sexist as the video games she critiques; ironically, the same criticism of his stuff is happening here in her paper.

      • People seem to think theory is an idea with some basis or logic to its creation, when in fact theory can be anything that you can conceive about anything, it just isn’t a very hard theory to debunk if you have nothing to base it on.

      • Yep. And crit theory as a means of analysis was all about tearing down the structuralist school by stripping away any and all underlying meaning to, as I mentioned before, the point of obsequiousness.

        I think one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much and don’t hate theory as much as ideologues who use it is that my professor was a manic-pixie-dream-girl-turned-sex-positive-lit-professor who was more interested in all of the fun and lurid sex that literature had to offer than the stuffy Marxist cultural undermining aspect of it. (fun story; my final paper for my CT class was on the male gaze in the graphic novel medium, particularly in regards to motoko kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell as a feminist icon and how the artist’s decision to remove a compromising graphic lesbian sex scene fundamentally transformed how the reader views her as a character; incidentally, professor lady says that the only thing that kept the paper from getting an A+ was that I did not append color copies of said sex scene to the paper).

      • Exploration is so much more akin to the minds nature than deconstruction and criticism…..and you really should have appended colour copies of said sex scene knowing what the professor is like.

      • The unfair part is I asked her if she wanted them before-hand, but at the time she said no. Maybe my paper got her hot and she was let down by their omission?

      • Even if they say one thing, you should have known the nature of your professor would not be able to stand it, the lips don’t always want to admit everything!

  1. Hehe, I read that paper too. I haven’t seen any of her videos. I think I used her list of masculine and feminine traits to compile a list of generic positive and negative character traits (modified to be actually usable).


    • The thing is, I have no problem with the idea of certain traits being considered positive and negative. Trying to assign certain traits to genders, though, is where it’s problematic.

      It reminds me of Clan of the Cave Bear; most of the conflict between Ayla and the Clan is because certain traits and behaviors are so rigidly codified by gender that when someone is outside that norm, it is inherently some bad juju!

    • There are times I was really suckered in by her videos, even knowing what I know about her. For instance, I was all “WHOA! THAT’S MESSED UP!” about the dragon age origins “bring out the whores” dude. Then I saw some lady do a lets-play, and the intro-quest is some elf-lady kicking the ‘bring out the whores’ dude’s ass.

      • There’s a quest in Borderlands 2 that really bothers me. An NPC is portrayed as hopelessly misogynist toward a sympathetic female NPC, and the quest involves aiming a mortar at his precariously-placed house and… let’s not mince words here… murdering him.

        You know, for being a misogynist, right? *wink* *wink*

        If I remember correctly, he doesn’t actually do anything apart from spout a bunch of offensive threats, but responding to his hatred by murdering him?

        Right. We should totally encourage the outright murder of people whose opinions we disagree with… said every hypocrite ever.


      • Wow.

        We truly do live in an era of cultural Jacobins. Sure, they eventually eat their own, like what we’re seeing with that catcalling video, but what a wreck they tend to leave in their wake!

  2. I haven’t read the thesis, but if it is making these absolutist claims, yeah that’s pretty nuts, though in my experience student papers in general do tend to be somewhat extremist — a nuanced approach to a topic is less valued than “arguing for your position”. So I wonder if, in the context of the decline of academic rigor, this is really such an off-the-wall thesis. 😦

    If you take the histrionics down a notch and make the more moderate claim that the masculine traits in the first chart are generally portrayed as positive for men and unfeminine for women, though, that seems pretty accurate for TV, at least for TV in the 80s and 90s and early 00s — I don’t watch much TV any more so I don’t know if it holds true for the period you and she are talking about. I mean the “strong but silent type” is certainly a valorization of being inexpressive and emotionally distant, right? But I have no idea whether she is looking back at older stuff or making these claims about *current* shows.

    From your critique, I take it that her thesis makes generalizations that you can quickly find exceptions to and counterexamples to… I venture to guess her thesis advisors were not necessarily familiar with genre TV shows. 🙂

    Having read just a biography of Hatshepsut, I am pretty struck with how women who are powerful or seek power are pretty much always slagged for it, from the silly rumors about Catherine the Great to the demonization of Hilary Clinton. So I think there is a kernel of truth to what she is getting at, but it sounds like she’s looking in the wrong places to support the theory, or the theory should be about something other than TV shows.

    I’ll have to look at her paper now.

    • One of the problems with Theory is that it advocates a sort of parity of interpretation regardless of creator intent and thus allows for anyone to find anything in anything. It’s the same school of analysis that gave us “Batman is gay”. If you can make a case for something, it is so.

      It’s also a school of thought, ironically, that makes it easy to demonize Hillary Clinton (attempting to embrace masculine traits, bad! attempting to embrace feminine traits, bad! Standing by her man, bad! Attaching herself to a man to achieve political goals, bad!). Just imagine how much shit she would get from feminists if she were a fictional character!

  3. The most memorable female characters in video games I played growing up to me were Chun Li from “Street Fighter 2”, Lara Croft from “Tomb Raider”, and Zelda from “The Legend of Zelda”. I never really thought of any of these games as sexist.

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