Games don’t exist in a vacuum and therefore can’t be divorced from the larger cultural context of the real world.
Of course. That quote from Feminist Frequency’s Women versus Tropes series makes sense. And this truism is exactly the reason why this list exists. I consider the “real world” work of Feminist Frequency damaging to the world of video games, and will try to show how and why.
Let’s start with something possibly unexpected. Are there things I like about Feminist Frequency videos? Yes. They are well produced, not boring, and Anita Sarkeesian is a charismatic speaker.
(Speaking of the speaker, please remember that Feminist Frequency is a duo, and there are two writers: Jonathan McIntosh and Anita Sarkeesian. It is debatable who does the majority of the work or if they both contribute equally — but there is little doubt that Sarkeesian as the speaker was the right choice for Feminist Frequency due to her charisma.)
The other thing I like about Feminist Frequency is the fact that their videos started a very long, very interesting debate. Yes, that debate was started for the wrong reasons. It’s like discovering a long lost love letter on the floor just because the bed covering it was stolen along with all other furniture. So yes, of course, I do think that the debate on the quality of game writing or design could have been kick-started in other, more positive way. Still, it is what it is and we all learned a lot thanks to the whole affair.
That’s about it as for the good things. There’s so much wrong in the Tropes versus Women series it’s mind-boggling. It actually starts with the title of the series itself. Tropes are tools, like metaphors. Imagine a series called Metaphors versus Women.
My initial personal experience with the series was a very short one. As a designer I am very interested in anything design- or writing-related that can teach me or inspire me, so I was curious what the series is all about. I watched about ten minutes of the first episode, laughed at the incompetency, sighed at the contempt and the condescending tone, and closed the page.
I never anticipated the series to gain any real traction, or to be deeply influential. I was clearly wrong. The episodes were and still are heavily promoted by basically all of the major gaming press, and with the help of the aggressive idiots and harassers — who Feminist Frequency expertly aikidoed into boosting their recognition and influence — the series gained incredible level of popularity. The first episode of the series has over 2.3 million views. There is a significant 50–70% drop for the later videos, but the numbers are still impressive.
There are three reasons why I care about this.
First, if you only read the mainstream gaming press, you would never guess a critique of Feminist Frequency exists, even if some of those videos have hundreds of thousands of views. And even if you could find a mention, it more often is a link to the defenders of Feminist Frequency “proving” how bad that critique was than anything actually challenging Feminist Frequency work. Meanwhile, I have been writing this post for over a month mostly because the sheer amount of the critique was astounding, and thus the research took me weeks.
Second, I would probably not care as much if not for the fact that the alternate reality created by Feminist Frequency along with some of the mainstream gaming press is affecting game design and writing, and not in a good way. Players are already complaining about the blandness of the latest Borderlands or Dragon’s Age: Inquisition (example discussion here). I have written on the cardboard “strong female characters” in Dying Light myself. The work of Feminist Frequency is one of the reasons for the stifled creativity we start to observe in game writing and design. This is basically censorship through social pressure.
Note that neither censorship nor social pressure are inherently bad. We don’t show pornography to children, and this is obviously a good thing in our book. But in this case, the pressure exists for all the wrong reasons and ruins the work of designers and writers who cave to it.
Third, at the end of the day, it’s simply about the truth, the right and wrong, and separating the wheat from the chaff. Sure, I am bothered by the press not offering their megaphone to the opposite voices, but lots of gamers rejected Feminist Frequency work anyway, and, as this post proves, produced a great number of counters. Sure, I am bothered by the politics negatively affecting the work of fellow developers, but I’m sure some of them go for it because they deeply believe in the worldview of the extreme left, and not because they’re afraid that the press will destroy their game for featuring a sexy NPC (because sexism) or racist NPC (because apparently NPCs = creators). Although that is certainly something to be at least a little bit concerned about.
I do care, however, about logic, reason, and truth. There will be people who read parts of this post, find something they do not like and their bias will dismiss the entire list wholesale. But I hope that others will try to dig in with an open mind and find the post useful, even if imperfect.
For two years Feminist Frequency have not addressed any real critique of their work, and neither of the writers has ever engaged in any sort of debate with any of the critics. This list — as a compilation, even if personal — is a proof that the quality critique exists. Hopefully it will not only help some people understand the problems with Feminist Frequency work, but also inspire them to continue the adventure of looking deep into the issues and challenges of writing and design. It’s a fascinating subject, way bigger than whatever we talk about here.
For obvious reason I am not including my own critique in the list, but I will mention it here to show I ultimately did watch and analyzed all of Feminist Frequency videos before I even attempted to compile this list. You can find a trilogy of longer essays here: Context Matters: On Feminist Frequency, Joss Whedon and Cherry-Picking
If you follow me on Twitter, you know I sometimes tweet on the subject as well, and here’s a couple of my favorite ones.
Now, we’re finally getting to the actual list. It’s divided into three parts: Consider Reading/Watching, Should Read/Watch (#10–6) and Must Read/Watch (#5–1).
Note this is a quite personal, subjective list. I am sure I missed something great (let me know if I did), but if I kept digging we’d see this list in 2016. And even that is not a guarantee, as new great articles keep popping up all the time— apart from the ongoing discussion on various forums.
More importantly, all critiques here — with only three exceptions as far as I recall — have two common elements: a) quality, b) civility. There might be some mildly offensive stuff here and there; Feminist Frequency can mock developers and call their work “crap”, there is no reason why their critics cannot do the same to their work.
However, I still tried to choose only the best cool-headed writers and YouTubers. One can rarely convince anyone to truly change their mind through aggression and anger. Sure, expletive-ridden rants with good arguments can have some use — they offer your fans some fact ammo for future conversations outside of the echo chamber — but sooner or later someone needs to be civil in order to be heard.
Also, I have focused as much as possible on the critique of the Feminist Frequency work and not anything surrounding it, as most of such critique is weak at best. For example, some people cannot live with the fact that Feminist Frequency disabled the comments under their YouTube videos. Something I would also do and recommend if I were certain that half of the posts will be incoherent ramblings offensive enough to make a sailor blush and faint. That is not attacking the freedom of speech, and this particular thing cannot be assumed the fear of criticism.
The stuff listed here is not without its own problems. Nothing is perfect, and neither is this list. If you really dig deep, you might even find that one critique contradicts another, e.g. on the question of NPC agency. However, unlike the work of Feminist Frequency — the problems of which form their own ten-dimensional universe — nothing here is outrageous enough to warrant a wholesale dismissal.
Finally, this was not my intention, as I do not judge the book by the author’s cover — but somehow the critics of Feminist Frequency work listed here are people of all colors, genders, and sexual orientation. Again, this was not done on purpose, and I have only noticed that after I had the list compiled. Still, I am quite happy about this.
There are tons of articles and videos that did not make this list. And there are tons of articles and videos that did, just weren’t impactful or deep or inspiring enough for me to choose them over other entries in my Top Ten. Sometimes it was, for example, just the question of length; an article might have been brilliant, just very short.
But whatever is the reason, let’s be absolutely clear that there might be stuff here that would be your number one if you compiled the list instead. It’s all good critique with some interesting observations. In general, don’t get to too hang up on what article/video is at what place or in which section. This numbered list is mostly just a fun framing for a serious subject.
Here is the select ten:
- A feminist critic Kristin Bezio’s articles on Feminist Frequency series
- John B. on the problems with the methodology
- “My Thoughts on Anita Sarkeesian” by a female gamer “Rabbit”
- On gender signifiers by Venaloid
- “Messiah Trilogy” from Cheshire Cat Studios; fun food for thought
- Are video games sexist? — asks Christina Sommers, an equity feminist
- Feminist Frequency Debunked, great video from DangerousAnalysis
- “Female Protagonists And Violence In Video Games, An Alternative Perspective” and “Getting Big Breasted Characters Off My Chest” from Angela Night and her Thoughts Of A Feminist Gamer blog.
- One of the first critiques of Feminist Frequency, a year before the TvW series; on the surface level it’s personal (which would suck) but in reality it is a good look at the ideology behind Feminist Frequency. “Anita Sarkeesian Part 1: The College Graduate” and “Anita Sarkeesian Part 2: Burqa Beach Party” by Instig8iveJournalism
- “The flaws with NPCs: A response to Women as Background Decoration: Part 1-Tropes vs Women” by Strana
Continuing my personal selection of Feminist Frequency critique, here are five articles and videos that I recommend if you don’t want to limit your experience to the absolute must-reads/sees only.
10. The Broadcast on Feminist Frequency
If you want to understand how bad Feminist Frequency is, watching their videos is a good place to start. Here is an extremely short (1:20) video that has some of the Feminist Frequency problems perfectly encapsulated.
Watched it? Fun, clever video, right? How can it be a manipulative lie?
Take a look at just one sentence:
“Ultimately what you dudes are saying is that in addition to Edward being emotionally abusive you want Edward to be violent, sadistic, and physically abusive.”
First, I am stunned that apparently anyone wanting a vampire to be a vampire is doing it wrong. You are bad and you should feel bad for expecting a vampire to be “physically abusive”. What’s next, a shark that can’t bite? A villain that can’t offend?
Second, note the bolded fragment. This is simply a lie. No one said that or implied that. Not that it would be wrong to do so — more on that in a second — but quite simply no one said that, period. That is putting words into someone else’s mouth.
Third, what exactly would be wrong with a movie about violent, sadistic, physically and emotionally abusive guy who plays the supporting role to the female protagonist? Say, like Silence of the Lambs?
So yes, not many things will open your eyes to the awfulness of Feminist Frequency better than Feminist Frequency themselves. Just be aware of the manipulation and enjoy the ride. And let’s not get our knickers in a twist here, it is all just entertainment, and Feminist Frequency never claimed their work should be taken too seriously, or used as an educational help.
9. The Kicks of Thunderf00t
Let’s start with the controversy and be done with it. I mentioned earlier I chose “civil” and “level-headed” critique only, but with “three exceptions.” First exception are some Thunderf00t’s videos, one a direct response to the series (part one, part two), and the other, which is an absolute riot, on tropes, Joss Whedon and Feminist Frequency — I especially encourage you to watch this one indeed, starting from 6:13 (and yes, at one point he misrepresents Whedon’s work on purpose, just watch it to the end and you will see why).
Thunderf00t’s videos are entertaining, informative and thought-inspiring, but he often comes across as petty and focuses way too much on Sarkeesian instead on issues. Still, if you can live with the form and enjoy the matter, you will find a lot of interesting observations in those videos.
The other controversial thing — the second exception — is this post from Naughty Nerdess. Comes with an “explicit content” label, but under all that crudeness and name calling some good valid points are made.
The final exception is the video from Karen Straughan. It’s not about the Tropes versus Women series directly, it’s about other Feminist Frequency work, but it’s just so right on the money — and hilarious — I have to mention it. As previously, “parental advisory, explicit lyrics”. Part one, part two.
8. The Activism of Philip Wythe
Philip Wythe is a “non-binary feminist” and a social justice activist. I should not be a fan of their writing. The overload of “sexism” and “misogyny” in their articles and even the unfounded, simply untrue stuff like “sexual violence against women is an epidemic issue in Western society” should make me pull Homer Simpson hiding back into the bush.
And yet there’s something about Philip’s writing and videos in various places that makes me consider them a perfect SJW to have a chat with. I don’t see the contempt, I don’t see the authoritarian approach, I don’t see the hypocrisy. Keep an open mind and give their “Frequency Measure — Anita Sarkeesian’s Strengths and Weaknesses” a chance.
7. The Truths of Ola Rogula
Ola Rogula is a female game developer working on casual games, with some experience in the indie scene as well. This video is only seven minutes long yet somehow manages to offer a great amount of truths about women in gaming (both in games and in the industry) that everybody needs to listen to.
6. The Writing of Trinity
What I am going to do now is I am going to cheat and put three people in here. But there is a good reason for it: they are all running a blog on gaming theory and practice, they wrote about Feminist Frequency work a couple of times, they are all scarily well educated on video games, and they write in a way I personally find engaging.
This is good old school written critique, full of interesting facts and remarks. All of the below articles were a pleasure to read, and I recommend checking out other posts from the authors.
The Males Of Games:
Damsel in Distress: Part 1 — Feminist Frequency Returns
Damsel in Distress: Part 2 — Tropes vs Women in Video Games
Damsel in Distress: Part 3 — Tropes Vs Women in Video Games
Ms. Male Character — Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games
Fewer Tifas or More Sephiroths
And finally, here are the top five articles and videos, my own personal canon of Feminist Frequency critique. There isn’t any real difference between, say, number five and number four, but there is a reason why the top two slots are occupied by these two particular videos — and I will explain that reason in a second.
05. The Fight of Liana
This is not meant to be an academic piece, just an op-ed (opinion-editorial), but what an op-ed it is. It’s both top- and low-level look at the problems of women in gaming and the challenges of the industry in general written by a gamer, a journalist and a cosplayer. Unlike most other pieces here, this one is very personal, and that is wonderful. It’s a great read just for the perspective, but of course it has much more to offer — otherwise it wouldn’t be here. Start reading Liana’s five-parter here.
Side note: you may also want to read this very interesting interview.
04. The Eloquence of Hoyt
On the other side of the political spectrum to the earlier mentioned Philip Wythe, we have Mytheos Holt, a conservative writer for Gamesided, among other things. Personally, I don’t really fit into any clear political category, and I guess the closest would be a soft libertarian — and yet I found myself nodding to a lot of what Holt had to say about the Feminist Frequency work. I guess this is what happens when you’re dealing with a very civil, well written, well researched and well thought out analysis.
Did I mention it is very well written? I love Holt’s style. As a bonus, there’s some interesting discussion happening in the comments as well.
- Sarkeesian vs Truth, Part I: Self-Appointed Straw Feminist and Trojan Horse for Censorship
- Sarkeesian vs Truth, Part II: The Phantom Sources and Dixie Kong’s Double Standards
- Sarkeesian vs Truth, Part III: Impossible Arguments and Men as Koopas
3. The Science of Cain
This is the legendary “best critique of Feminist Frequency work that no one has ever read in full”. It’s written by Cain, who describes himself as “Bachelor’s of Psychology with a minor in Anthropology, Master’s of Social Work, former educator, current social worker (and focus in undergrad was statistics, research methodologies, and social/cultural theory)”.
And this particular critique is very, very long, and quite hermetic in parts. The language used and author’s deep professional knowledge of the subject give it weight, but a fun YouTube video it is not.
Fine by me, it was not supposed to be. I am fascinated with this piece. It requires your deepest attention (which, accidentally, makes me disagree with Cain’s conclusions every now and then) and takes you down a rabbit hole full of actual scientific research and unusual “I never thought about it this way” angles. It’s both a disciplined critique and a lecture, and you can clearly see how complex the subject matter is. It’s a must read for anyone interested in psychology and sociology, and I urge you to check out some other stuff that Cain has written too, like this excellent piece called Video Games: Art that Needs Criticism and Protection.
- Dishonesty: Feminist Frequency, Part 1
- Dishonesty: Feminist Frequency, Part 2 — Damsels in Distress Pt. 1
- Dishonesty: Feminist Frequency, Part 3 — Damsels in Distress Pt. 2
- Dishonesty: Feminist Frequency, Part 4 — Damsels in Distress Pt. 3
- Dishonesty: Feminist Frequency, Part 5
2. The Light of Kite Brite
I chose this particular video as my number two simply because of the overload of the positive. I mean overload literally, as Kite Brite keeps on repeating ad nauseam she not here to “invalidate anything Anita has presented” — which she totally is and there is nothing wrong with that. But I consider this approach as a heartfelt attempt to offer a different way of discussing important subjects: highly positive and focused on offering alternatives rather than destroying the source.
You will see how Kite can look at the same subject as Feminist Frequency from a different angle, proving how art is in the eye of the beholder. It also invalidates the authoritarian approach of Feminist Frequency, who present their musings as objective truths. Remember, with jade-colored glasses nothing is safe from being sexist or misogynistic, even the feminist darlings like Gone Home, a game I love dearly as well and have even written an ode to. But come on, it’s a game which allows a man (the player, and we know that vast majority of core gamers are men) to be in full control of a woman (the protagonist), tell her what to do, where to go. That is normalizing the patriarchy, isn’t it?
Excuse this dark cynicism in a paragraph devoted to the light of Kite Brite. It is a perfect metaphor for the poisonous influence of Feminist Frequency on gaming, and I don’t have the same amount of good in me as Kite does. Which is exactly why you should stop reading this and watch the video.
1. The Mind Voyage of Gaming Goose
We fought, and we fought hard, and we have shown how bad, dishonest, and insidious the work of Feminist Frequency is. We also learned a lot. And just seconds ago, Kite injected some optimism and love into the discourse. Can it all get any better?
Nothing inspired me more to drop and forget the whole Feminist Frequency nonsense and just start creating like Gaming Goose’s videos. They are fantastic insights into history and culture, and Gaming Goose tells the story full of twists and turns around every corner. Sometimes you think he lost the subject and drifted into a completely new territory, only to hear it how it all gels together a second or two later.
Two warnings. First, at a certain point in the second part I have WTFed at Goose saying “men run the world and rightly so”, but its striking dissonance with the rest of the videos is explained in the comments (look for “I am bothered that I missed this possible interpretation that you saw because it is not what I meant.”). Second, more importantly, the second part gets very dark in its second half. I think Goose handled the subject responsibly — but you have been warned.
The big problem with the videos is that while they are engaging (and I adore Goose’s body language — never change), the audio is simply atrocious. Gaming Goose has done some edits that a help little but the audio quality is still low, and, sadly, unlike in Kite’s video, there are no captions. Just learn to live with it and watch the videos anyway, they are so worth it. Here’s the list of audio-edited versions and a proper watching order: 1) the first half of Part One, 2) the second half of Part One, 3) Part Two.
EDIT 2015–05–06: A new series of critique materialized, supposedly very good. I watched a random episode and it does look promising. But be warned, all episodes in total… That’s eight hours of critique. Yes, eight! Check out the series here.
EDIT 2015–07–10: Must watch video appeared. Just do it. Trust me. If I wrote this post today, this video surely would have been in Top 5. Not a mere parody, but a well-researched, revealing take on “Men as Damsels in Distress”.
My big thanks to all who have written an essay or made a video in response to Feminist Frequency’s Tropes versus Women series. The gaming world owes you. To anyone reading this, please consider thanking the creators, or, if you feel inclined to do so, following them on Twitter or YouTube.