Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Liana Kerzner's smart feminist critique of Anita Sarkeesian's Feminist Frequency

Kerzner has posted three parts of a five-part series titled "Why Feminist Frequency almost made me quit writing about video games." If, like me, you know little about gaming, you'll find yourself skimming bits, but don't skim too much. It has brilliant bits like this, from Part 2:
...cultivation theory ... doesn't claim television shapes behaviour. It claims television shapes perception of social reality. For instance, studies were done of schoolchildren, and they found that the kids that watched the most TV thought the world was more dangerous than the kids that watched less. The thought was that television cultivated the idea that the world was scarier. This was referred to as "mean world syndrome."

I repeat: watching television made people more afraid of violence, not more likely to commit violence. Television doesn't figure into predicting criminal behaviour, nor does it turn people into Sherlock Holmes.

Extrapolated to sexism, this would mean that viewing sexist material would make people believe the world is more sexist, not turn men into perverts. The implications on Feminist Frequency's theories on that point alone are significant. If true, the concern shouldn't be that sexually violent or objectifying content is going to make consumers mimic these behaviours. The concern should be that this content makes people more afraid of rape, abuse, and second-class status because our entertainment is cultivating this mindset.

This is a very valid concern. Excessive fear will hold back entire portions of our society -- in this case, women. But our current approach has not been fear reduction.

For example, Anita Sarkeesian does talks where she displays horrid, vicious tweets and emails she's received. According to cultivation theory and mean world syndrome, if exposed to heavy doses of this messaging, her audience will become more afraid that they too will be attacked. If Sarkeesian is cultivating fearful attitudes through repeated, systematic exposure to vicarious abuse, this is, to borrow the word, "pernicious."

For the record, I'm not saying she should be muzzled from talking about her experiences. I'm just applying the theories Feminist Frequency uses to their own work.
And there's this, from Part 3:
That doesn't mean that prostitutes aren't sometimes used as interchangeable set dressing in games. However, Feminist Frequency uses clips that don't match the assertion that the prostitutes are always there to titillate. For instance: the Watch_Dogs scene in which Aiden Pierce infiltrates a human trafficking ring. In context, that scene is uncomfortable because the women placed on objectified display are there against their will and are obviously frightened. The game makes it clear that these women are sometimes brutally beaten by sadistic customers. A player has the option to complete a set of side missions to free the women and break up the human trafficking ring, and Aiden is never rewarded for that with a roll in the hay. According to Feminist Frequency, these victims of human trafficking in this scene are there to titillate straight men, but their actual in-game role is to horrify the player. I don't know why the people at Feminist Frequency found that scene pleasantly arousing, but I'm pretty sure that wasn't the reaction Ubisoft intended.

The problem with claiming that the Watch_Dogs human trafficking ring scene was intended to titillate is that it confuses an act of consensual sex - which is an understandable ego boost -- with rape -- which is an act of violence. Sex with a trafficked sex worker is a form of rape because she is not empowered to say no. Sex with a call girl making Charlie Sheen-level money is a totally different paradigm.

Anti-rape advocates have spent years making the distinction that rape is a crime of violence, not of sex, and yet Feminist Frequency insists that video games use the victimization of women to titillate players. Most men do not get turned on by rape. To imply that they do demonizes male sexuality, and that's not fair critique.
The series so far:

Part 1: An introduction to my perspective on the current state of the gaming community.

Part 2: Cultivation Theory and Gaze Theory. Are they good fits for video games?

Part 3: Objectification and the Tropes - We all know it happens. Can we prove it hurts?

ETA: Major support for the critique of cultivation theory: New Study Finds No Link Between Gaming And Sexist Attitudes