Context Matters: On Feminist Frequency, Joss Whedon and Cherry-Picking

I am reading critics of the anti-Feminist Frequency critique, and to be honest their arguments are not very good. Let me give you an example from a post called “a thorough and well-reasoned rebuttal” on Kotaku, and “excellent” on Gamasutra.

There’s a common trope of framing Sarkeesian’s work as “cherry-picked”, […]. That’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what it is Sarkeesian is doing with TvsWVG, and what cultural criticism in general is. These are tropes — they’re fragments of a whole. By definition they don’t make up the entirety of a work of art by themselves, but are instead definable cultural touchstones which artists, writers, developers etc, can use when creating a fictional reality.
In other words, Anita Sarkeesian only presents sections of games as sexist because she’s only talking about the sexist bits of games, and how, of the tropes developers choose to put in their games when designing for female characters, they frequently fall back on sexist ones.

Here’s the thing. Cherry-picking is not inherently bad. For example, Feminist Frequency proves that Damsel in Distress trope is present in video games, and for that they did not have to play every single game in existence. Out of all games available, they cherry-picked games featuring the trope to prove that some games use the trope. Good.

That is basically everything they did, though.

They state the trope is foundational for video games”. If so, do they show how the introduction of the trope affected video games by providing a growth graph, one that makes it clear that each year more and more percent of video games use the trope? No. Do they provide any numbers that allow us to understand the current state of the trope in video games, in comparison to the past? No. Do they?.. No.

All we learn is that the trope is used in video games. Which is true, of course.

However, some believe that Feminist Frequency did more than merely proved the existence of the trope in video games. That they showed us its sexism and harmful influence.

The idea that the trope as such is sexist makes no sense, unless you believe that a story of a woman disempowered then saved by a man is sexist. If you do, realize it means that any movie or book inspired by real world events of a disempowered woman saved by a man — like this one, or …aw screw it here is a thousand examples at once — would automatically be sexist. And we should not have that. Point me to the universe in which this makes sense.

But let’s assume we know nothing about life and writing, and that the trope is, indeed, sexist. In such case, we have two options: 1) any use of the trope results in the part of the game that uses the trope being sexist, 2) whether that part is sexist or not depends on the context.

Let’s see. The defenders of Feminist Frequency say that option number 2 is out of the question as the trope’s sexism means its use results in a sexist fragment of the work (see the “sexist bits of games” quote above). All we need is a sexist trope for a fragment of the work using it to be sexist.

Go big or go home, so let’s forget about the boring sexism and talk about pure hardcore violence against women. Let’s analyze the use of such violence in the work of Joss Whedon. Take a look. One picture is worth a thousand words, so six must be worth, like, a million.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

Now, if I was to prove that Joss Whedon uses violence against women in his work — and these are just six examples out of many — well, success. Just as Feminist Frequency proved that video games use the Damsel in Distress trope. But if I were to draw a conclusion out of my cherry-picked examples, while ignoring the context

Let’s revisit our two options. Choose one:

  1. I have proven that Joss Whedon’s work is peppered with sadistic examples of misogyny-fueled violence against women. This way Whedon normalizes the toxic masculinity and violence against women, and reinforces the harmful stereotype of women as helpless victims.
  2. I have cherry-picked the examples of violence against women in Joss Whedon’s work, presented them without context and thus misrepresented his work. While women (and men) are indeed disempowered, brutalized and even murdered in his movies, the often tragic, complex and deeply human stories ultimately send the message of hope and personal empowerment, especially for women.

If you actually know the work of Joss Whedon, then unless you are really, really stubborn I hope we can agree on the second option. However, when we do, understand that we also agree that defending Feminist Frequency’s dismissal of context is wrong — whether the tropes are sexist or not.

But hey, it’s not all for nothing. While we do seem to disagree on what it means, I do thank the defenders of Feminist Frequency for acknowledging that the aforementioned duo cherry-picks out of context.

Two side notes.

First, realize that Joss Whedon uses all of the Feminist Frequency condemned tropes in his work — from Damsel in Distress through Woman in Refrigerator to Euthanized Damsel (you can find actual examples in this unfortunately hostile but otherwise informative video) — and more. In Buffy, a woman is unprecedentedly objectified (Dawn Summers is literally a key), and in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog a woman is killed as a result of two men fighting, confirming Feminist Frequency’s worry that “in the game of patriarchy, women are not the opposing team. They are the ball.”

A photo out of context

Some people claim that Whedon gets a pass because he kissed the ring. I like to think he gets the pass because tropes are tools and he is a master story-teller who knows what to do with them and the messages he sends cannot make anyone sane accuse him of misogyny.

But if you suddenly stopped liking Buffy for after watching Feminist Frequency you see “evil tropes” everywhere, it’s only because you have been exposed to how sausage is made and got depressed there’s actually a limited amount of plot devices in the world. Also, you have been lied to and indoctrinated, and tropes like Damsel in Distress, existing to celebrate the power of love and as a promise to never leave the beloved one alone in their troubles, now somehow look to you like a poison. Keep descending into madness and you will discover that Whedon’s world is the one of a rapist.

Second, context can go beyond the content of the work itself. Many critics believe that once a work of art is made public, the artist loses control over it. Yes, they do, but that doesn’t automatically mean that, say, the intent is meaningless.

As an example, lately a character has been added to a little indie game called TowerFall Ascension. Players who strongly dislike the work of Feminist Frequency would enjoy this character perfectly fine, had they not known she was based on Anita Sarkeesian. But now that they do, it’s hard to imagine their enjoyment unaffected. If you think this is silly or unfair, imagine the same game adding whoever-you-currently-despise as a great hero, and then let’s talk again.

The point here is, context matters: within the work itself, and whatever surrounds the work (however unfair, illogical and regrettable that might be). And that is why any serious critique of anything cannot be done with disregard for the context. I am working on a compilation of Feminist Frequency critique which will show how ignoring the context tainted the work of McIntosh and Sarkeesian to near the point of uselessness (other issues moved it past that point into the space and time before the Big Bang, but that’s a different story), and I hope to publish it soon.

Meanwhile, part 2 here.