“I do this work because I love pop culture stories,” said Anita Sarkeesian, a well-known advocate for feminism in mainstream media, during her March 2 lecture “I’ll Make a Man Out of You: Redefining Strong Female Characters.” Sarkeesian claimed that “the role of the storyteller has largely been taken from families and communities” and went on to discuss how that role is manifested and often marginalized in today’s world.
Characters are often described in the patriarchal sense, Sarkeesian explained; her examples included the video game “God of War,” Bruce Willis in “Die Hard” and Tony Stark of “Avengers” notoriety. She showed a video where Megan Fox said, “Guys don’t like it when you know more about cars than they do,” which she followed with the rhetorical question: “Have we really advanced in our portrayal of strong women?” Sarkeesian is the executive director of the video web series “Feminist Frequency,” which she started in 2009 while in graduate school at York University in Toronto.
The ever-popular Halo series also suffers from stereotype even without a playable female character; Sarkeesian noted that Cortana (a holographic sage to the “Master Chief”) is “more and more sexualized in every new installment.” Even the franchise director himself, Frank O’Connor, openly admitted this in October 2015: “One of the reasons she does it is to attract and demand attention. And she does it to put people off so they’re on their guard when they’re talking to her and that she has the upper hand in those conservations.”
Sarkeesian made an important distinction at this point between sexualization and sexuality: the former makes something sexual in character while the latter allows for the capacity for sexual feelings. The lecture worked to contrast these concepts; she said that “sexualization is a tool to minimize women’s power” that runs counter to the fact that “women have intrinsic value as people.” Sarkeesian also noted that women are commonly “not allowed to hold ‘real power’ unless they are sexually objectified” as a form of subservience. Her statistic that only four women have been nominated for Best Director at the Oscars in its history highlights the startling amount of disparity that has been present for generations.
Sarkeesian identified actresses that portray admirable traits as well, including Buffy Summers (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), Kathryn Janeway (“Star Trek: Voyager”) and Rey (“Star Wars”). She explained that Buffy “never uses her sexuality as power” and has a “very clear character development,” which proves that “we don’t need perfect human beings to tell good stories.” Janeway “valued diplomacy over violence,” Sarkeesian said, and Rey represents a counter to the notion that “heroes of legend are almost always male.” To the perception that the mainstream is censored to force women’s roles, she made it clear that “having more stories has nothing to do with censorship … studios actively change their culture to make them more inclusive.”
While her lecture focused on how women are portrayed in the media, Sarkeesian was inspired by her personal exposure to sexism and abuse while online gaming to represent women’s rights. She was featured in a TIME magazine article in 2015 as one of the 100 Most Influential People, where she discussed “GamerGate,” an online harassment campaign regarding progressivism and sexism in video games. She received rape and death threats from hateful misogynist male gamers. She shared a statistic that “70 percent of women [involved in online gaming] play with male avatars,” which lends not only to the stereotypes discussed previously but also fear for personal safety. Her video series “Tropes vs. Women in Videogames” gives detailed background on gaming and its demeaning treatment of women.
Sarkeesian remains optimistic about the future of feminism in mainstream media. She explained how developers are now being pressured to expand games in 2016 and beyond “another damsel in distress.” Her advice to students? “Speak up and say this isn’t good enough, we want more.”
Sarkeesian’s videos can be found on her YouTube channel feministfrequency.