In the previous parts of this Medium series on the Feminist Frequency series, we looked at the body of work of Jonathan McIntosh and Anita Sarkeesian in their videos on Damsels in Distress and Ms. Male. We looked at some of the concepts they presented, discussed the nuanced nature of the concepts, and even discussed the very nature of nature and being.
In it, we addressed the minutiae in some of their arguments that go entirely without discussion in an attempt to discuss broad strokes. This piece will continue with the examination of the Damsels cliche. Keep in mind that the previous points also apply here regardless of the reader’s agreement. They are points I’m putting forth. The tropes referenced are not actually tropes. They are cliches. There’s no indication that video game characters have self-efficacy, self-determination, or the right to decide for themselves.
We also looked at research and statistical underpinnings. We examined feminist history, oppression, privilege, and power. We also looked at how McIntosh and Sarkeesian massaged their data, misrepresented the works of others, and even claimed the work of others as their own.
In this piece, we will look at the presented concepts of objectification, male gaze, negative self-image, sex positivity, research problems, and other concepts. As usual, none of this is meant to be completely exhaustive research. Expectation I present every single possible view, article, and idea is unreasonable. Additionally, this series is not meant to be an exhaustive attack, point by point, on the work of McIntosh and Sarkeesian.
As with the other pieces, this should not be construed as a personal attack against McIntosh or Sarkeesian. It is an attempt to showcase some of the shortcomings of their work as intellectually and academically dishonest. This does not mean that they are liars or any other personal insult.
Additionally, this series is meant to be my criticism of their work. It is not meant to be an exhaustive look at the research on a topic. It is not meant to have every link to every study possible. It is not meant to refute every point McIntosh and Sarkeesian make as some points are valid, some are acceptable, and some are invalid. It’s meant to highlight what I feel are problems in their arguments.
Women as Background Decoration Part 1
This is yet another trope that does not exist outside of the Tropes vs. Women series. The trope would appear to be related to Chromosome Casting as defined by TVTropes. However, it is quite clear that the Chromosome trope is in no way about having unimportant characters in the background that are women.
The subset of largely insignificant non-playable female characters whose sexuality or victimhood is exploited as a way to infuse edgy, gritty or racy flavoring into game worlds. These sexually objectified female bodies are designed to function as environmental texture while titillating presumed straight male players.
This trope conceptualization has many problems. The first is that insignificance is in the eye of the beholder. The second is that non-playable characters are not immediately background as many of the most rich characters are non-playable. The third is “infuse edgy, gritty or racy flavoring” which is again entirely beholden to subjective view. The fourth is that multiple statements as to the intention require the cognitive distortion of mind reading that assumes negativity from others. Designers may not have intended to design characters in a sexist manner. They cannot divine what McIntosh and Sarkeesian will decide is sexist.
This leaves us with the last sentence as meaningful to conceptualization. Women as Background Trope can be defined as sexually objectified female bodies in video games that titillate presumed straight male players.
Sources in this episode include a Tedx talk, the very first near-academic citation of the Sexual Objectification Spillover Effect which basically says that sexualization effects men’s perceptions of women by citing a single study where exploratory research is identified as proof which the pair link twice, Objectification Theory by Nussbaum, a book by researcher Karen Dill who always finds that media causes sexist behaviors, an opinion piece by Ben Kuchera, the very first study ever sourced by the pair on objectification priming thoughts on sex, a study by Dill which showed short-term effects with low correlation, another study on objectification, sexualized avatars result in women accepting rape myths and feeling objectified by their own chosen characters, exploratory research to show that sexualized avatars cause players to accept rape myths, and a final study which says social dominance orientation and some masculine norms predict negative opinions of women.
The pair cite 52 games.
This is the first time that McIntosh and Sarkeesian have cited academic research in their videos to support their assertions.
I’m also pleased, as a gay man, that this video is the first time that McIntosh and Sarkeesian chose to recognize that gays and bisexual men exist. Unfortunately, lesbians still cannot be attracted to women in advertising who are sexy. Men objectify women, but lesbians do not objectify women due to the mental Olympics of requiring institutional discrimination for any other discrimination or oppression to be present.
Incidentally, this video also marks one of the first departures from pseudo-academic examination to outright attack on heterosexual men. In this video, McIntosh and Sarkeesian vilify men and male sexuality throughout the entire clip as being egotistical and self-absorbed. The tone from this installment shifted dramatically.
Claims that have no source that need them:
Pong and Computer Space and promotional materials thereof, women were used uniquely for video game advertisements and this was gendered, gaming was sold as a lifestyle where women just exist, only heterosexual men are attracted to women, emergent culture of women being thought of as ornamental, women are seen as eye candy, racing game utilization is brazen, women as background decoration is a trope, NPCs are bad and must be foreground or non-sexy, sexy characters are misogynistic or bad, there’s a long tradition of “women of color” being sexualized for white men, subject-object dichotomy, heterosexual ego, media is restricted to gazing, players are participating in objectification, looking is objectifying, burlesque club history, the fundamental aspects of objectification are identified by Sarkeesian/McIntosh, women are dehumanized by video games, video game characters are human, characters must be defined independent of the player, male heterosexual dominance, male power fantasy, objectification and violence are intimately connected, having sex with a woman in a game violates their bodily integrity, dropping items from a woman uniquely incentivizes violence, vanishing bodies reinforces disposability, bodies not vanishing reinforces disposability, female bodies are specially placed to be acted upon, in-game consequences are necessary, video game violence translates to real world violence, men are rarely/never gendered in violence, women are represented as primarily for sex, negative impacts of sexual objectification have been studied extensively, research has consistently found anything, third person effect.
Objectification theory in relation to women does not have as long of a past as feminism itself. Much of objectification theory is rooted in the work of Karen Horney who stated that males have the “socially sanctioned right” to sexualize all females. Horney and Alfred Adler both took the works of Sigmund Freud and revised them into a Neo-Freudian school. The main point of criticism for Horney was Freud’s “penis envy” and devised the scheme that men actually held “womb envy”.
She also become one of the first feminist psychiatrists. She posited that women were held to a social standard where women became dependent upon men for all forms of social support and acceptance. Men became overvalued, women became undervalued, and women became only viewd as sexual objects of beauty put into place for men.
In her works, Horney argued that women had special qualities as informed by biology and genetics. Lack of these special qualities actually caused men to become fundamentally envious of women. Men thus had to remove power from women in exercise of this envy.
Many of these processes occur in childhood through sociocultural shaping of relationship. For women, this meant a constant psychological state predicated on sociocultural child rearing. Culture demanded masculine traits — competition, hostility, solution orientation, and assertiveness. Women were kept from these traits socioculturally because men wanted to keep consolidated power from women. Women adapted, according to Horney, through subservience to the masculine culture with affection, submission, protections against humiliation and poverty through assumed power, and withdrawal from social structures.
From the work of Horney, objectification theory built upon the foundation that American culture is “saturated with heterosexuality.” This results in men examining women in a nature that separates body parts from personhood and renders parts of the female as only useful to men.
The important part is not sexual attraction or looking at a particular group of people. The point is power coupling with sexual attraction. Men, innately, have power. Women, innately, lack power. However, sexual objectification never quite answers a large problem with the theory.
The chief problem with objectification theory is a natural phenomenon that we see across the animal kingdom. Homosexuality and bisexuality undermine sexual objectification theory. Research has indicated that homosexual and bisexual men objectify heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual men. One can argue that gay men objectify gay men in a fit of sexual privilege, but they would be hard pressed to substantiate sexual privilege among gay men.
Men are privileged if one follows a radical feminist view. Women are oppressed. Men objectify women as a function of the exercise of their power. However, there are men who are sexually attracted to men. Does the attraction of these men aimed at other men mean the objectification magically disappears due to gay men being less privileged? Not according to research that has used sexual objectification theory to look at gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals.
This means that objectification theory is not something reserved for heterosexual men exercising sexual power over heterosexual women. Objectification theory is much more broad and can apply to gay men and lesbians who are rather historically oppressed.
Logically, this means that objectification theory also applies to heterosexual women. Exclusion from criticism utilizing objectification theory would actually serve to privilege women as immune from objectification of sexual objects. Logically, feminism stands opposed to this special privilege for any gender as feminism is for everybody and stands against gendered privilege.
This means that McIntosh and Sarkeesian are in violation of feminist thought when they privilege the feminine heterosexual as above objectification by stating,
But even if sexualized male NPCs were more prevalent, equal opportunity sexual objectification is still not the solution to this problem, especially considering the existing power differential between men and women in our society. Women are constantly represented as primarily for sex.
As covered previously, there is no solid definition of “power,” and McIntosh and Sarkeesian have yet to provide the conceptualization of this concept. They merely state that women are disempowered and leave it at that.
McIntosh and Sarkeesian are unabashedly sex-negative. They view women as disempowered victims of male sexual power. Expressions of sexuality are thus expressions of male expectations of sexuality instead of female representations of sexuality. The logic here is that men are creating female characters for players. Characters are sexualized in the conceptualization of the masculine instead of the feminine. Sex, for the sex-negative feminist, is a hedonistic practice that glosses over power dynamics.
Video game character Bayonetta has been called a “fuck toy” by McIntosh and Sarkeesian. The pair has also stated that the character was created for the pleasure of straight male gamers.
In an article written by McIntosh and Sarkeesian fan Jim Sterling stated that bayonetta was designed by a female who is named Mari Shimazaki who stated that, “I think I was able to put my feelings into her design, and she ended up a strong female character.”
Shimazaki designed Bayonetta, it would appear, for gamers to have a strong female character. This is far from McIntosh and Sarkeesian’s statement that she was designed by males for males.
As a gay male, I can say that Bayonetta is a favorite character of mine. I have no interest in her sexually. She does not attract me sexually or physically. I enjoy her character design and see her as a strong, sexy woman who owns her sexuality.
This view of sex as positive is the cornerstone of sex-positive feminism that McIntosh and Sarkeesian often profess does not exist. Sex and being sexy is not simply the exercise of a patriarchal, heteronormative culture that seeks to oppress women. Instead, sex is entered into by two completely empowered agents.
Sex, for the sex-positive feminist, is an exercise of able persons who can enjoy sex, sexiness, and sexual representations in media and interpersonally. Sexual representations such as pornography allow men and women to enjoy sexual situations in a healthy manner. This means that sex workers, prostitutes, and pornographic materials as the height of sexual expression are permissible and even worth celebration.
Typically, sex-positivity has met with quite a bit of push from radical feminists who demand that sex is an exercise of patriarchy. Allowing sex to be a place of agency for women, instead of an expression of patriarchy by men, takes a tool of attack from radical feminism. Sex must be the height of expression of inequality between men and women with men expressing absolute power dominance over women.
Is one view superior to another? That is up to the reader. However, this author ascribes to a sex-positive view of feminism. Sex and sexual representations need not represent a fundamental expression of power differential between men and women. Sex can, and should, be celebrated.
Likewise, expressions of sex and sexuality need to only meet the needs of the sexualized entity. If one is asexual, be asexual. If one is bisexual, be bisexual. Sex-positivity means that sex is not something to be reviled, ridiculed, or slapped into the patriarchy.
McIntosh and Sarkeesian show their sex-negativity quite heavily throughout the Background video where sexual representations of women are assumed to be only for heterosexual men who are exercising oppression against women through the male gaze. Instead of viewing the women as sexual agents, the women become sexual oppressed. There is no evidence other than subjective feelings to substantiate either argument in totality.
However, McIntosh and Sarkeesian have no problem asserting that gaming sells, “a lifestyle in which women predominantly exist as passive objects of heterosexual male desire.” Or maybe gaming sells a lifestyle where women are allowed to be sexy without fear of reprisal from angry sex-negative feminists.
NOTE: I have pulled this section from another of my writings.
Most websites will readily identify the 1975 article by Laura Mulvey as the basis of the male gaze in regard to cinema. However, in his 1943 book Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre discusses “The Look” in Part 3, Chapter 1, Section 4.
In this text, Sartre discusses the nature of the self and other. All outside of himself are others necessarily. A woman, a man, a dog on the street are all others. Sartre waxes for a while to the nature of the Other. A man walks in a park and he is an Other. Sartre sees him, comprehends him, but the writer wonders what this Other signifies. This man, this Other, this object is still a man, but the nature of that quality as a man is a question worth asking.
The Other, due to being separate from Sartre also becomes the “Other-as-object” separate from Sartre as the self-as-subject. Sartre states that he is defined as an object in the environment while simultaneously being defined as an object in relation to him. Even more, Sartre is well aware that the man is much more. He has memories, he has a life, he has an existence outside of this moment.
So to reduce the man in Sartre’s story to merely something to be acted upon brings the puzzling question of personal value. If someone independent of you is an object devoid of power to be acted upon, are you not disempowering the other-as-object and relegating them through the mere removal of their qualities OUTSIDE of otherhood?
Worth noting is when Sartre’s observations of the world are interrupted by an other-as-object, he stops and allows himself to be appraised, judged, and examined himself as an object-as-other. Sartre is not a subject in absolute terms. He is relative — he is a subject to himself, but an object to others.
Sartre also discusses sex to some length in his text. He notes that “you” is a state of being. And as you are independent of me, my sexual desire is to inhabit “you”. It’s to experience not just the flesh of sex, but the nature of an other outside of ourselves who is given a unique identifier as “you.” By experiencing the desire of others in the flesh, we experience in a moment of being “you”.
Sartre argues that this attraction is somewhat intoxicating as it fills us with the realization that another person wishes to desire us as a body, an entity, a special other. We become, in essence, an embodiment of something separate from just an object or thing. We’re a “you.” Sartre sees this exchange as negative, however, as inhabiting others is a removal of freedom. In two people experiencing the same sexual desire, the freedom or independence of self fades as two entities wish to inhabit each other’s embodied being.
So in this way, the gaze as a sexual behavior is doomed as the only outcome, in Sartre’s view, is inhabiting of another and removal of the self in the process and the loss of freedom.
Research on gaze as a function of determining sexual attraction is plentiful prior to Mulvey’s 1975 article. It generally found that you can tell a man’s attraction through his gaze, where he looks, and how long he looks there.
Then in 1975, Mulvey utilized Freudian psychoanalysis to look at themes in video. In her second paragraph, Muley writes, “The paradox of phallocentrism in all its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world.” It is worth noting that Freud’s work was actually centered around sexuality. Penises were not the centerpiece of Freud’s work.
This examination, she writes, “gets us nearer to the roots of our oppression, it brings an articulation of the problem closer, it faces us with the ultimate challenge: how to fight the unconscious structured like a language while still caught within the language of the patriarchy.”
She then writes, “The determining male gaze projects its phantasy [sic] on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.”
This work was later utilized, along with others, to bring about the 1997 proposal of objectification theory wherein Frederickson and Roberts posited that objectification is the reduction of people to bodies and valued as such. Both frame that this phenomenon is uniquely experienced by women.
The image of woman as (passive) raw material for the (active) gaze of man takes the argument a step further into the structure of representation, adding a further layer demanded by the ideology of the patriarchal order as it is worked out in its favorite cinematic form — illusionistic narrative film. (Mulvey)
So as a result of this look, the works of Sartre and Freud heavily influenced the conception of the male gaze as a result of the patriarchy. So as a component of feminism, what is the effect of the male gaze?
Calogero states that she finds a correlation between women anticipating male gaze and body shame. The cause of this, according to Calogero, is that the woman anticipates the male gaze and internalizes the gaze even if it does not happen. As she does, she begins to feel more anxiety at the idea that the male gaze could happen. Sylvia puts forth that this is because women have internalized the male gaze to the point of self-objectification. The effects of media on women have been very well researched.
What about everyone else?
Lewis, in 1997, identifies lesbian gaze in noting that lesbians prefer certain visual forms of pleasure. She notes that lesbians consume media in such a way that often mirrors the patriarchal male gaze. She reports on a football spread in which women are scantily clad in a lesbian magazine and reports that the women are objects of lesbian desire. Paradoxically, she states that because they do not transcend male gaze, they cannot be fully lesbian.
Jacobsson, in 1999, posits the female gaze. In doing so, she utilizes Fatal Attraction as a story which heralds the change of the narrative as the female is gaining narrative importance. Cinema, Jacobsson asserts, is shifting desire to male figures and physiques.
Sylvia examined the effects of body image on males when playing muscular avatars in the second of its kind study. She had the men play games for 45 minutes and then measured their body satisfaction. Sylvia reports that men who played the overly muscular games had significantly higher body dissatisfaction than other conditions.
One response to the notion of muscular men in movies or media is that they are male power fantasies. Muscles are not for women. They’re for men. However, research shows that women and gay men prefer men with larger chests and small buttocks. Straight men also note that they are dissatisfied that they do not fit the ideal. This ideal transcends locations for men’s satisfaction.
In short, muscular men actually make heterosexual men feel more dissatisfied with their bodies. Muscular men tend to attract women and gay men. And muscular men tend to be the men that gay men and heterosexual women desire.
Both men and women across the sexual spectrum desire good lucks and facial attractiveness with personality traits falling behind in importance. Whereas culture defines personality traits, biology defines physical attractiveness.
So where does this leave us? Well, right where we started. Men and women alike experience body dissatisfaction. Men and women have gazes aimed at their gender of attraction. The problem is not uniquely experienced by the feminine. It is human regardless of who perceives. Sex and the desire to view that which is sexy or attractive is human.
There’s ample evidence that the male gaze, as a function of patriarchy, is considered more of a serious problem in Western culture than any other gaze. In spite of this, we see that all people experience the effects of poor body satisfaction based upon the chosen biological attractiveness markers. This seems to substantiate the possibility that internalized negative body image results from expectations of body shape put into place by sociocultural expectations by men and women alike.
As we have shown, the male gaze is not unique to men. Women are attracted to specific body shapes on men that result in body dissatisfaction in heterosexual men when they do not meet these shapes. Gay men do the same and experience the same. The same is true for lesbians. The only possible argument here is that the patriarchy magically and successfully tells women, lesbians, and gay men what they should be sexually attracted to.
At this point, we are getting into giant conspiracy theory territory where a secret shadow group of men travel the land and demand that everyone else like a certain male body shape.
In the Background video, McIntosh and Sarkeesian write, “Building off of philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s work on “objectification theory”, I’ve identified a number of fundamental aspects of objectification including instrumentality, commodification, interchangeability, violability and disposability”
Nussbaum writes that she proposes seven notions involved in objectification:
McIntosh and Sarkeesian directly lift instrumentality and violability from Nussbaum while stating that they have identified this aspect. The only identification here is that Nussbaum had an idea and McIntosh and Sarkeesian identified it and used it.
On instrumentality, Sarkeesian states in the video and McIntosh writes in partnership, “I use the term “instrumentality” to refer to the practice of using virtual women as tools or props for the player’s own purposes.”
Nussbaum writes, “The objectifier treats the object as a tool of his or her purposes.”
McIntosh and Sarkeesian state, “Since objects can be bought and sold, it follows that once women have been turned into objects, their bodies and sexuality can also be bought and sold.”
Nussbaum writes under ownership, “The objectifier treats the object as something that is owned by another, can be bought or sold, etc.”
On interchaneability, which McIntosh and Sarkeesian state they identified and have renamed, “This is a textbook example of another component of objectification referred to as fungibility or interchangeability. Nussbaum explains this as occurring when ‘The objectifier treats the object as interchangeable with other objects of the same type, and/or with objects of other types.’”
“Violability occurs when, as Nussbaum points out, ‘The objectifier treats the object as lacking in boundary-integrity, as something that it is permissible to break up, smash, break into.’”
The pair at least recognize Nussbaum here instead of pretending that they have identified this as their own work.
On Disposability, the pair write, “The dehumanization caused by objectification inevitably leads us to the concept of disposability, which is defined as “something designed for or capable of being thrown away after being used or used up”.”
To McIntosh and Sarkeesian’s benefit, this is not mirrored in Nussbaum’s work. It appears to be, however, lifted from Dictionary.com’s definition of disposable which the site says means, “designed for or capable of being thrown away after being used or used up.” The pair do not source their use of Dictionary.com’s definition. They present it as their own work.
This would not be a problem had McIntosh and Sarkeesian not stated, “I’ve identified a number of fundamental aspects of objectification”. The pair have not identified and defined these concepts or aspects. They were conceptualized and defined by Nussbaum and Dictionary.com. McIntosh and Sarkeesian then passed off the work of both Nussbaum and Dictionary.com as their own without any credit whatsoever. In fact, both state that they identified the concepts and even did so after building off, not stealing, the work of others.
McIntosh and Sarkeesian did not build off any work here. They used the work of others for their own while claiming legitimacy in being an academic resource. They stole the intellectual work of Nussbaum and Dictionary.com without proper attribution. Such behavior would not be tolerated in the academic setting they court with their educational series that has an accompanying academic teaching plan to be used in advanced education.
In looking at the work of Nussbaum, it is clear that objectification’s aspects are not reserved for men. Nussbaum identifies instrumentality as, “The objectifier treats the object as a tool of his or her purposes.” Emphasis has been added to this section.
In fact, Nussbaum even discusses objectification of young children by their parents. She states that children are denied autonomy through parental ownership. She also identifies that children are not taken into account in decision-making processes. Objectification, for Nussbaum, appears to not be a function of social power and institutionalization of oppression. Instead, objectification is an action that happens, and it happens due to perceived objecthood to meet the needs of the subject or objectifying.
Workers can be objects. Slaves can be objects. Men can be objects. Nussbaum even writes, “We should grant that we do not really know how central sexual desire is in all these problems of objectification and commodification, by comparison, for example, to economic norms and motives that powerfully construct desire in our culture.” In short, we do not know how sexual desire fits into the picture of objectification. However, it would appear that McIntosh and Sarkeesian have managed to answer this centrality by declaring that sexual desire is central. The source? The ever-important Jonathan McIntosh and Anita Sarkeesian.
One author took McIntosh and Sarkeesian’s work in this area and applied it to male-central video games utilizing a strict adherence to the cited concepts that McIntosh and Sarkeesian stole. In it, the author shows that the objectification criteria actually match with the video game Empire: Total War.
I want to draw inspiration from this piece now by looking at one of the most maligned video games in recent memory: Grand Theft Auto 5. All images were taken from this walkthrough play.
In Grand Theft Auto, the player controls a male character that is controlled for the purposes of the player. Additionally, the player character can control cars and people both male and female. The player character can also be treated as a tool of others within the game.
This is where we run into the first problem with the application of Nussbaum’s work to video games. Any character is going to be used as a tool for the player. The player is explicitly intended to be the one in control of the game world. This means that the player, male or female, is the objectifier.
Video game characters also lack self-determination. As we covered previously, video game characters cannot have self-determination. Their determination is explicitly tied into the pre-determined limits. The point of self-determination is that one is not pre-determined by another. Within and outside of the game world, the characters are all subject to denial of autonomy.
The character will also be inert. They lack all autonomy. They are controlled, in total, by the player. The character, without the player, lacks movement as well. The player must control the character. However, the player does not have to control the NPC characters as they are pre-determined to behave in a certain manner even when the player character acts. While this action of the player character may appear random, it is all defined within the confines of the developer coding. Accordingly, neither PC nor NPC have autonomy. The player is the one with the autonomy. The characters within the game world are all inert.
Additionally, all video game characters are interchangeable and thus fungible. The player character can be male or female with little consequence to the outcome of the game world. With a few character gender swaps, the protagonist can easily be any gender. The developer, and sometimes the player, define the nature of the character.
Further, all characters are violable. Every character can be dispatched, killed, or destroyed with little consequence. Every single playable character in every game in existence can be killed and resurrected without consequence through lives, continues, or restarting. Not even Roguelikes achieve character permanence as any particular character loadout can occur. In GTAV, the playable character can die, be “wasted” and quickly be resurrected with little consequence.
Video game characters and NPCs are also owned quite literally by the player. A character can be “my character.” In World of Warcraft, characters are often called “my toon” and even “I’m a Shaman” or any other permutation. Characters become part and parcel with the player. The player owns them. In a literal sense, the player cannot play the game with the characters without literal ownership of the game. The game, and its contents and worlds, are owned by the player.
Finally, very few people take into account the feelings of a video game character upon death. Did you look at the above screenshots and wonder about how the man felt when he was somersaulting through the air after being ejected from the car? The answer is likely not. Did you wonder how the looter felt when he smashed into the bank and started to take everything? Likely not.
This is why McIntosh and Sarkeesian’s application of Nussbaum’s work is objectionable. When applying the work as a player, the characters inside the world all become objects to the player who becomes the subject. When applying it to the main character alone as subject within the world, the aspects still fall short as the main character is treated as a tool, lacks autonomy and self-determination, lacks agency, is interchangable, is permissibly harmed, can be bought or sold, or is not taken into account.
Simply put, Nussbaum’s work does not translate well to virtual worlds that exist only by the virtue of the player’s engagement. Attempting to apply Nussbaum’s work from either perspective leads to more problems than answers for the critical thinker.
McIntosh and Sarkessian are aware that this argument of character agency is not convincing. This is why the pair double back on themselves at the end to state the interactive nature of video games means that games ask us to enact sexism, “The player cannot help but treat these female bodies as things to be acted upon, because they were designed, constructed and placed in the environment for that singular purpose. Players are meant to derive a perverse pleasure from desecrating the bodies of unsuspecting virtual female characters.”
However, the pair completely ignore that the player also cannot help but treat male bodies as things to be acted upon for the singular purpose as to act upon. It is likely that this would be waved off under the tired misapplication of “sexism=power+prejudice” as the ultimate ace in the hole.
McIntosh and Sarkeesian took a break from stealing the works of others and claiming the works as their own to source a handful of articles.
Sexualized avatars affect the real world, Stanford researchers find found that avatars can affect the real world They cite, for example, that a taller avatar means more confidence. The researchers created attractive avatars where men have overly-pointy chins and women have incredibly high cheekbones as derived from pictures of undergraduate students. They then put the avatars into the virtual world and measured how closely people walked to the avatar.
Those who found the avatar attractive were .98 away while unattractive were 1.74. The difference? Just .76 m or 2.5 feet. The idea here is that we walk closer to more attractive individuals and thus attractive people are more confident thus will walk closer to the avatar.
Yes, because a group of undergraduates who were paid $10 walked 2.5 feet closer, attractive avatars make people more confident and therefore change behavior meaning McIntosh and Sarkeesian can say that video games can make people sexist. This is why reading the research is vital. Especially considering the second study saw participants disclose just 2 more pieces of information which means they are more confident. Translated to the real world, this means little to nothing as 2.5 feet or 2 pieces of information in the lab does not translate 1:1 to long-term behavioral changes.
The second is a news piece by Psychology Today which again asserts that people perceive sexualized women differently. The articles cited include one article, co-joined by the author of the parent article, where 86 people with a mean age of 20 years of age completed a questionnaire where they ranked women in pictures where some women were full-body, others were not. Those who saw a body ranked the woman lower. How lower? anywhere from .73 points lower to just .04 on a Likert scale ranging from 1 to 7.
This repeats itself over and over with the pieces McIntosh and Sarkeesian present. In each piece, a group of undergraduates are tapped either through providing credit, money, or other incentives to measure through survey, questionnaire, or researcher-decided behaviors. In each one, the outcome is generalized to state that sexism or sexist attitudes are caused by video games. None of the methods actually lend themselves to those outcomes.
It is also worth noting that all of the research on video game objectification and violence was published after 2005. A majority of the studies were published after 2010. There are also less than 20 studies spanning less than 10 years. This flies in the face of McIntosh and Sarkeesian boldly declaring, “Well, the negative impacts of sexual objectification have been studied extensively over the years and the effects on people of all genders are quite clear and very serious.”
One researcher encapsulates the problem with laboratory research captured by surveys and observation that is summarily generalized to behavior:
Perhaps the most fundamental question in experimental economics is whether findings from the lab are likely to provide reliable inferences outside of the laboratory. In this paper, we argue that the choices that individuals make depend not just on financial implications, but also on the nature and degree of others’ scrutiny, the particular context in which a decision is embedded, and the manner in which participants are selected to participate. Because the lab systematically differs from most naturally occurring environments on these dimensions, experiments may not always yield results that are readily generalizable. Specifically, we argue that lab experiments generally exhibit a special type of scrutiny, a context that places extreme emphasis on the process by which decisions and allocations are reached, and a particular selection mechanism for participants. In contrast, many real-world markets are typified by a different type of scrutiny, little focus on process, and very different forms of self-selection of participants.
In analog to the discussion of video games causing sexist behaviors or attitudes, there is extensive research (over 100 spanning 50 years) on video games causing violent behaviors or attitudes. Research into sexism and video games is still very young. However, research into violence and video games has a strong history going back into the 1960s. Throughout the research, researchers argued back and forth over this question. The researchers were even called into court in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association where the justices rejected, 7–2, the argument that video games cause exceptional violent behaviors requiring censorship or regulation.
Factorial analysis by those involved in the research find that the outcome is typically small. Correlations of .2 or less often mar research that conclude significance from small effects. Research, and therapeutic practice experience, both show that primary supports (family), innate aggression traits, drug use, and gender account for violent behaviors or attitudes. There has yet to be a single factorial analysis of sexism and sexist attitudes in regards to gaming.
As discussed time and time again, McIntosh and Sarkeesian are stating a definitive outcome based on a dearth of research. The research simply is not plentiful enough to make a definitive claim. When we look at the closest analog to show behaviors and attitudes arising from gameplay, we see that the outcomes are often small if existent at all.
The pair simply cannot substantiate a definitive statement. At best, they can state that exploratory research that is full of laboratory pitfalls shows a short-term attitudinal shift that rarely persists outside of the lab due to the differences between the laboratory and the real world.
How about sexism causing violence and the lab showing this?
McIntosh and Sarkeesian insinuate that domestic violence is linked to sexism, “Of course, we can’t really talk about sexual objectification without also addressing the issue of violence against women, since the two are intimately connected. Once a person is reduced to the status of objecthood, violence against that object becomes intrinsically permitted.”
Sexual objectification of women is in no way intimately connected with violence against women. The first and chief risk factor for violence against anyone is a failure in the primary support system — the family. The child has witnessed violence in their own home as 80–90% do, attempted to intervene as 100% of males above the age of 14 did, and failed. In 50% of those houses, the child was also the target of abuse.
Those boys then go on to become more at risk for abusing their partners as well as an increased risk for psychological, biological, educational, and social problems. These can include PTSD, bed-wetting, oppositional defiance, and more. 15 million US children live in families where violence happened in a year. Girls who are exposed to this abuse are more likely to become victims of violence and suffer all of the above symptoms of boys as well.
In assessing risk factors of abused women, a jealous partner, a controlling partner, drug use, or violence outside of the home were all the largest predictors. If a partner threatened to kill, was constantly jealous, controlled, or used drugs then the risk for abuse also increased.
We found in this study that young women, reporting fair or poor
mental health, or women separated from their partners, were more likely to
be abused. Perpetrators of IPV were more likely to have not graduated from
high school, have problems with drug or alcohol use, be in fair or poor
mental health, and have a history of threatened or actual pet abuse.
In another research piece, the risk factors found to be related to probability of partner assault for men and women (75% of all factors transcended gender) were Anger Management, Antisocial Personality Traits, Borderline Personality Traits, Relationship Conflict, Communication Problems, Dominance Negative Attributons About the Partner, and Substance Abuse.
Substance Abuse and Post-traumatic Stress Symptoms were associated with an increase in the probability of assaulting a partner for men but not for women. Relationship Conflict and Violence Approval were associated with an increase in the probability of assaulting a partner for both men and women, but the relationship was stronger for men.
Notice that dominance of partner is NOT on this list as directed from men to women. In fact, the researchers directly address this in their conclusion when they say that there is no significant difference between female and male dominance of abusers. Both men and women have dominance as a risk factor for abuse. The CDC mirrors this assertion with their risk factor list where sexist belief systems are listed quite low on the list and apply both to women and men.
McIntosh and Sarkeesian are incorrect when they say that sexual objectification is”intimately” tied to domestic violence. Partner dominance transcends gender when it comes to violence.
Video game play is also listed nowhere on any of these risk factor analyses.
Third Person Effect
McIntosh and Sarkeesian write, “Scholars sometimes refer to this type of denial as the “third person effect”, which is the tendency for people to believe that they are personally immune to media’s effects even if others may be influenced or manipulated.”
The Third Person Effect in communication means that someone believes that they will not be influenced but “they” (third persons) will be affected. This does not translate to the same that someone believes they are immune. They simply believe that they will not be as influenced by media. A study in Sweden showed that, “third-person effects may be driven by beliefs that communication processes, or more precisely attempts to persuade, have more powerful effects on others than on the self.” Third-person effects are possibly driven more by the perception of persuasion on others, not on presumed, arrogant immunity.
It is important to note the difference between immunity and not being as affected. Take for example research on Disney advertisements. In this research, people were shown to be suggestable to suggestion that they shook hands with Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny (who is WB, not Disney). These people may be incredulous that their memory is affected. They may also believe their memory will not change.
This does not mean they believe they are immune. This requires knowledge of the participants and their attitudes. Instead, they simply underestimate the affect of media on them.
One paper found that men and women believe that the opposite gender is more susceptible to negatives of gaming. Conversely, both men and women believe that women receive the most positive benefits of gaming. Men believe that they are more harmed by gaming than women who they believe benefit more. Women believe they are more harmed AND helped than men. Additionally, women are more likely to have a gender-based third-person effect than men; both men and women are exposed to games in equal amounts, but women gamers appear to believe they are less affected negatively by this media than men.
This pattern also held for pornography. “Females tend to perceive greater negative effects of internet pornography on males than on other females, and they are readier to support restrictions on Internet pornography.” The same outcome occurred with road advertisements as women reported higher adherence to the advertisements while rating their susceptibility lower.
It would appear that women may actually be more susceptible to third-person bias than men. If this is the case and exploratory research like the above holds, it is possible that Sarkeesian is more susceptable to third-person effects than McIntosh.
This could also address the desire to censor media as third-person perceptions and effects are not as simple as “you’ll be more affected the less you think you will.” It is possible that these exist both in susceptibility (how likely will I be affected) and severity (how much will I be affected). This research found that the larger the conseqences of perceived effect, the more readily persons are to censor media.
Women may be more susceptible to third-person effect in perception of negative effects for men and women in gaming, may be more likely to associate increasing ranks severity to a media as with pornography, and may be more ready to censor as perceived severity is correlated with preventative action and censorship as with advertising.
The more one thinks they are immune to the desire to censor, the more likely they are to be affected by it, right?
Women as Background Decoration Part 2
In this final installment of the Tropes vs. Women series, McIntosh wrap up their Women as Background Decoration series. Much of this video is simply a repeat of previous work. As such, readers are encouraged to keep previous points in mind here. This section will be much shorter due to the repeating of points by McIntosh and Sarkeesian.
The pair source 29 games in this video. They pair also source just five sources this time. One of them is a repeat article by Ben Kuchera. The second is a blog by sociology student and transgender activist Katherine Cross. The third is a blog post. The fourth are statistics on sexual violence from the CDC. The final is a news story on a survey on sexual assault.
It is worth noting that McIntosh and Sarkeesian back down from the harsh tone of the previous video. They appear to be much less hostile to heterosexual men. Interestingly, gay and bisexual men as well as lesbians and bisexual women no longer exist and are lumped back in with heterosexual men and women.
Claims that were not sourced that require sources:
Female bodies are sexual playthings, Hitman advertisements, Hitman advertisements were designed to sexually arouse, dead bodies were selling points, Drop Dead Gorgeous trope, men are aroused by dead bodies, developers regularly utilize brutalization of bodies, bodies in video games cause harm, qualities of sexualization of bodies, bodies require equity in posing, women are designed to occupy minor narrative roles, women must occupy major narrative roles, rape and sexual assault are frequently used, scripted events are typically not part of storyline, the intention of developers to paint with harsh brushes, Damsel trope, women are the ball in patriarchy, scenes serve no purpose to the plot, sexual and domestic violence are at epidemic levels, games lead to sexual and domestic violence, dramatic rise in anti-hero narratives, critiques vs commentaries, games have to center on women’s struggles, game creators have to do what McIntosh and Sarkeesian want, games express values and normalcy, games convey that women are fated to be objectified etc, dominant narrative of female objectification, a world without sexual violence is deemed too strange, patriarchy has not existed across all time in all cultures.
I will not be addressing much in this video simply because it is a repeat of the previous video. Women are objects that are treated only as sexual by oppressive men who enact sexual bias and oppression by cultural messages. None of this statement is verified. All of it is personal opinion and explanation.
As covered before, McIntosh and Sarkeesian lifted the concepts of objectification from uncredited sources, claimed the work as their own, and then incorrectly applied it in a manner that typically confirmed their hypothesis.
McIntosh and Sarkeesian single out Hitman’s advertisements as a sign of sexism. Here is one that they decry
Here, however, is one that the pair do not condemn and even say does not exist.
Here, the duck potentially stands in for an erect penis of a man who is in his bathtub. This sexualized promotional item is not seen as “pernicious” by the pair even though it does sexualize men. However, the pair have this covered by rationalizing further that the power dynamics between men and women mean that the male image reinforces male power somehow.
Frankly, the mental Olympics required to abstain women from sexual identity are exhausting.
The pair also spend quite a bit of time on this scene quite famously and assert that their chosen actions in the game represent a problem.
As others have noted, however, one must actively seek out the dancers, avoid guards, wait for the right time, and then murder the strippers. You are then penalized for attacking the women which is purposefully glossed over by McIntosh and Sarkeesian. You are intended to bypass the strippers. Hitman is, in fact, a stealth game. Any actions one takes to violate stealth, including attacking strippers and electing to drag them around, is punished.
This punishment actually serves to undermine the objectification argument as the women are perceived as important — they have guards and killing them results in a punishment meant to decrease behavior of harming civilians.
Now compare the murder of the strippers in the clip to the following. A man is killed outside of the gate, a man is killed in a hallway, a man is killed outside overlooking a river, a seated man is killed, a walking man is killed, three more men are killed, two more men are killed, another man in a white suit is killed and shot repeatedly. A guard is killed in a bathroom, a passer-by male is killed. A delivery man is killed. A guard is killed, a builder is killed, another man is killed, a man in a locker room is killed, a guard is killed, 3 more guards are killed, another guard is killed, four men in suits are killed, another 2 guards a killed, more guards and workmen are killed. Two military men are killed. Another man is killed, a workman is shoved off a platform to his death. Two male patients and a doctor are killed. A man in the bathroom is killed. Another man is killed.
Within the first 4 minutes, 41 men were killed. Many of these men looked identical, had no personality, and were objects to be killed, disposed of, or that disappeared. Somehow, these 41 men in 4 minutes are not as important as one woman.
At what point do we consider violence against men to be serious and epidemic? It appears that 1 woman is worth apoplectic fits. At what point, if violence against people is a problem, are hundreds, thousands, and possibly millions of male characters in video games worth one woman in video games?
It would seem that we have yet to reach that point. Men are still acceptable, disposable objects for Feminist Frequency.
This is in spite of men being more likely to be victims of every violent crime and property crime other than rape and domestic assault. In fact, men are more likely to be assassinated or murdered than women. Most video game violence in McIntosh and Sarkeesian’s examples are actually enacted between a stranger and an NPC. Men are more likely to be victims of violence from strangers.
The group most affected by violent victimizations? Not white college-aged women. Multi-racial or Native American men aged 12–34 who have never been married and make little money. White, middle class, heterosexual McIntosh and Sarkeesian are the least likely demographic to be victimized by crime.
As for rape statistics, McIntosh and Sarkeesian purposefully present only the lifetime factoid to alarm viewers. However, of 1,163,146 violent crimes in America in 2013, only 79,770 were rapes. Approximately 10% of those involved a male victim. This means 71,793 rapes in 2013 were reported to police by women. There were 316,128,839 people in America.
Of all crime reported in 2013, .0002% were rapes.
When it comes to family violence, simple assault was the most common crime. The rate has been decreasing over time, and has held steady at 10% of all violence. This means that 90% of all violence is between non-family members. In fact, between 1998 and 2002, there were 3,554,900 reported family victimizations in America with 73% of women affecting women. In the same time, there were 28,617,970 non-family crimes affecting 58.4% of men.
This means that women were victimized by 2,595,077 family crimes and 11,905,075 non-family crimes. Men were victimized by 942,943 family crimes and 16,713,478 nonfamily crimes. Between 1998 and 2002 women were victimized by 14,480,152 crimes; men were victimized by 17,656,421 crimes.
Men were victimized by 55% of crime between 1998 and 2002. Women were victimized by 45% of crime.
To get a better understanding of the relationship of victimization, violent crime, and , I did some original research here. I utilized gender victimization information and compared it to video game sales. I utilized reports in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 as well as historical data from 1973–2005. I crossed this with data from video game sales ranging from 1973 to 2013. I utilized victimization as not all victimizations are reported to police as crimes.
As this graph shows, violent victimization reports actually decreased in years that gaming sales spiked in 1981, 1992 and continuing from there. Spikes in crime when video game sales decreased include in 1984, 1987, 1991, and 2000.
As this graph also shows, video game profits and sales do not translate to increased violent crime either. Sales in 1982 spite while crime decreases. Sales in 1984, 1985, and 1986 level off. Crime then picks up in the 90s while game profits and sales do not. Then when there is a spike in game sales in the early and mid 1990, crime begins to fall and continues while games sales increase. Crime then continues into freefall while video games increase sales and profits.
This table again shows that it is very difficult to associate rape rates with video game sales. When profits increase in 1981 and 1982, rape rates decrease. When game sales decrease in 1984–1987, rape rates increase. When game sales increase in 1989, rape rates tick up slightly, but large increases in 1993 until 1996 see rape rates lower. Rape rates get so low that game sales continue to soar in the 2000s while rape rates continue to fall.
Back to the previous formatting with sales in bar form, we can see that the violence and victimization rate has always been higher for men than women. As McIntosh and Sarkeesian seem unconcerned with male violence, we will focus here on the female violence. We can see that the sales in the 1980s did not cause a large spike in female violence and that the increase in sales in the 1992–1994 did not cause a large spike in violence. Game sales spiked in 1999 and female violence rates went down. There was a small spike in 2006 for men and women, but video game sales continued to increase from there as violence rates decreased.
As we can see here, men again are the top victims of known-assailant (known-perpetrator) crime. However, again, we must only care about women as the violence rate is at epidemic levels. Due to data gathering, I had to restrict this timeframe from 1980 to 2005. However, it should again be clear that video game sales do not correspond to known-assailant victimization. When video game sales spike, victimization does not. When games spike in sales in the 90s, victimization decreases.
Males, by the way, have always been victimized in larger rates by known-assailant relationships. This is due to a large number of friend/acquaintance assailants in non-fatal violent victimizations. However, men and women are starting to see more parity here as well.
Finally, we come to female intimate partner victimization. As is clear here, video game sales do not line up entirely with games sales. Games sales increase in 1988 but intimate victimizations decrease. Game sales in 1983 drop off until 1987 while victimizations increase. Game sales increase dramatically after 1997 but victimizations by intimate partners to women do not increase.
To finish all of this up, I did correlation tests on all of the data. Here is a table of the data with correlates.
Of importance here is that video game sales are only positively correlated in one instance — the increase of population. It appears that if the population grows then sales grow. The effect size for the correlation is .697 meaning nearly 70% of the variance in sales can be accounted for by increased population.
Video game sales are actually significantly negatively correlated with male and female violence rates. Video game sales are insignificantly correlated negatively with crime, violent crime, rape, known-perpetrator crimes for men and women, and female intimate violence.
The passage of time is negatively correlated with crime, female and male rates, female and male perpetration, and female intimate violence. This means that as time passes, one could expect these to decrease. Crime and rape were not correlated significantly. Rape just barely missed out on significance here.
Crime is positively correlated, across the board, with all other crimes. This seems to fit quite well with the existing research that previous exposure to and of violence is an excellent predictor for violence in the future.
Therefore, we cannot say that gendered violence rates increased because of or in relation to video game sales. Anyone who makes the claim that violence or sexist violence against women are directly related to, correlated with, or caused by video games is completely wrong and ignoring research for their own biases.
Throughout this series, we have looked at many of the shortcomings of the work of McIntosh and Sarkeesian. In the Women as Background Trope two-piece, McIntosh and Sarkeesian literally engage in intellectual theft. They use the work of another person, state they have “built on it” and build on it by wholesale swiping definitions of words.
However, the very concept that McIntosh and Sarkeesian champion in objectification as defined by Nussbaum does not match with female characters in a special manner. Instead, Nussbaum’s work applies to male and female characters both within the game world and outside of it. Male playable characters are not realizing their own destiny — they are being controlled by the player.
McIntosh and Sarkeesian are aware that the argument falls very short. This is why they purposefully switch between talking about the agency of the character and the agency of the player. They are aware that character agency is not a convincing. Characters have only as much agency as the player and developer allow.
Therefore, the pair have to then try to back out and state that it is the player’s exercise of agency, and the playing of these roles, that cause a problem. The player is affected, even if they do not believe they are, because of a concept the pair incorrectly present.
The third-person effect does not state that perceived immunity is directly correlated with effects. Research on gender and the third-person effect actually show that women could be more susceptible as they view themselves as benefiting more positively and negatively. Meanwhile, men are assumed to be affected negatively by men and women.
The third-person effect states that one ranks the effect of media on others more highly than they do themselves. Nothing more. The consumer of the media is biased to believe themselves “better” than a removed third person. They do not believe that they will never be affected.
It would appear that McIntosh and Sarkeesian misrepresent the concept of third-person effects just like they misrepresent objectification and the male gaze. Research indicates that all men and women objectify their gender of sexual desire regardless of sexual orientation or identity. One only needs to look at the growing popularity of Ryan Gosling, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Pratt, and Chris Evans. All of them became very popular with women because of their physiques as displayed in movies.
Research also reveals that the body ideals affect men and women alike. Women internalize negativity of bodies more regularly, but this could be accounted for more by social messages of emotional internalization. Women are expected to care more than men; women are allowed to express their emotions more openly than men. This cultural expectation is not something that is put in place by the patriarchy. This expectation is put into place by men and women including feminists. Jezebel, a feminist website, often displays muscular men and calls it harmless fun.
McIntosh and Sarkeesian also misrepresent the risk factors of domestic abuse. Video game play and sexist ideals are not risk factors. Men and women alike show traits of dominance of partners when in abusive relationships. It is likely that men internalize the guilt of being unable to protect mothers as most children will attempt to defend their mother who is being victimized. They often fail and become targets themselves resulting in PTSD symptoms and eventual identification with the abuser’s tactics as permissable.
The reality of video games is that men and women play video games. Men and women play characters. Those characters, men and women, experience pain, hardship, and suffering. Pain, hardship, and suffering can be graphic for both men and women.
McIntosh and Sarkeesian want consumers to listen and believe when they state that videogames have a sexism problem.
Unfortunately, research indicates that McIntosh and Sarkeesian are simply engaging in intellectual and academic dishonesty. They are doing so willfully and happily for their own personal profit. They show a fundamental failure to understand the very concepts that they present. They then go on to misrepresent the concepts and ignore research that shows the concepts are universal.
Anyone who dares to question this behavior is excommunicated as heretics of the highest order. Those who question the Church of McIntosh and Sarkeesian are quickly whisked away as harassers, sexists, and misogynists. Any criticism is immediately dismissed in true fashion adherent to heresy in the first degree.
Much like the Church of yore, this new proverbial church demands one simple requirement to reside under the protection of the empowered, ethnocentric, proselytic intellectual elite:
Listen and believe.
Preamble: 8,549 words, ~200 links.
Damsels in Distress Part 1: 6,631 words, ~138 links.
Damsels in Distress Part 2: 7,054 words, ~113 links.
Damsels in Distress Part 3, Ms. Male: 9,176 words, ~162 links.
Women as Background Art 1 and 2: 10,621 words, ~106 links.
Grand Total: 42,031 words, 719 links, $0 Donation dollars received.