- Anita Sarkeesian
media critic and executive director of Feminist Frequency, a video web series that explores representations of women in pop culture.
Anita Sarkeesian, a prominent feminist critic of video games, was forced to cancel a speech at Utah State University last week after the school received an email threatening to carry out “the deadliest shooting in American history” at the event. The email sender wrote: “feminists have ruined my life and I will have my revenge.” The sender used the moniker Marc Lepine, the name of a man who killed 14 women, most of them female engineering students, in a mass shooting in Montreal in 1989. Sarkeesian canceled the talk after being told that under Utah law, campus police could not prevent people from bringing guns. We speak to Sarkeesian about the incident, the “Gamergate” controversy, and her campaign to expose misogyny, sexism and violence against female characters in video games despite repeated physical threats. “Online harassment, especially gendered online harassment, is an epidemic,” Sarkeesian says. “Women are being driven out, they’re being driven offline; this isn’t just in gaming, this is happening across the board online, especially with women who participate in or work in male-dominated industries.”
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show by looking at the violent threats faced by a feminist critic for pointing out sexism in video games. Last week, Anita Sarkeesian was forced to cancel a planned lecture in Utah after threats of a shooting massacre. She was scheduled to speak at Utah State University, when the university received an email threatening to carry out, quote, “the deadliest shooting in American history” at the event. The email sender wrote, quote, “feminists have ruined my life and I will have my revenge.” He used the moniker Marc Lepine, the name of a man who killed 14 women, most of them female engineering students, in a mass shooting in Montreal in 1989. Anita Sarkeesian canceled her talk after being told that under Utah law, Utah State [University] police could not prevent people from bringing guns to her lecture. A university spokesperson told the Standard-Examiner newspaper the school had determined it was safe for Sarkeesian to speak because, quote, “The threat we received is not out of the norm for (this woman).”
Sarkeesian has long faced bomb, rape and death threats from online harassers opposed to her criticism of the ways in which women are depicted in video games. In August, she was forced to leave her home after an online harasser posted her address and threatened to kill her parents and, quote, “rape [her] to death.” Another harasser created a video game called “Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian.”
Sarkeesian’s viral web series on video games is titled “Tropes vs. Women.” This is a clip.
ANITA SARKEESIAN: Welcome to the second part of our miniseries examining the women-as-background-decoration trope in video games. I need to stress that this video comes with a content warning and is not recommended for children. The game footage I’ll be showcasing will be particularly graphic and includes scenes of extreme violence against women.
I define the women-as-background-decoration trope as the subset of largely insignificant, nonplayable 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.
In our last video, we discussed the concept of sexual objectification and looked at a specific subset of non-essential female characters, which I classify as nonplayable sex objects. In this episode, we will expand our discussion of the women-as-background-decoration trope to examine how sexualized female bodies often occupy a dual role as both sexual playthings and the perpetual victims of male violence.
CENTO OCCHI: Are you here for the whore?
FEMALE PRISONER: Aiutatemi!
EZIO: I have your money. Let her go!
CENTO OCCHI: No! Take it up with Cesare!
ANITA SARKEESIAN: The use of sexual or domestic violence as a form of scaffolding to prop up dark and edgy environments has become a pervasive pattern in modern gaming.
JASMINE JOLENE: Well, if it isn’t long-lost Andrew Ryan? Mmm-mm-mm, come here, tiger. I thought you had forgotten about poor Jasmine, but I am so glad you didn’t. I’m sorry Mr. Ryan, I didn’t know. I didn’t know Fontaine had something to do with it. Ah, what? What are you doing? No! No, don’t! Please! I loved you. Don’t! Don’t! Please, no! No!
AMY GOODMAN: That was a clip from Anita Sarkeesian’s web series, “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games.” Since Anita launched her critique of misogyny in video games, some in the video game community have launched a relentless campaign of threats and harassment against her.
To find out more, we go to San Francisco, where we’re joined by Anita Sarkeesian, the media critic and executive director of Feminist Frequency, a video web series that explores representations of women in pop culture. Rolling Stone recently called her “pop culture’s most valuable critic.”
Anita, welcome to Democracy Now! Let’s start by what happened, or didn’t happen, last week at Utah State. Explain the threats and what you were going to Utah State for.
ANITA SARKEESIAN: Sure. So, the school received some threats against my life and of the students on Monday night. The threats were, as you had described, very much reminiscent of these copycat killers of these, you know, big misogynist school massacres. I didn’t actually find out about the threats until I landed at Salt Lake City airport on Tuesday afternoon, and I found out with everyone else through Twitter and through the media.
So, when I spoke to the organizers of the event and the police, I wanted to know what security precautions they were taking. It wasn’t the first time I was threatened at an event, but this one was—the language was very—it was much more intense in terms of that sort of misogynist, antifeminist attack. So, you know, the school said that they were going to take—not allow backpacks in and have extra security. And when asked about Utah’s concealed gun laws, they said that they couldn’t screen for firearms. I asked them if they could have metal detectors or patdowns, and they said no. And that was just too big of a risk for me to take in terms of my life and that of the students, when the threat was specifically about firearms.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, the person signed their email threat “Marc Lepine.”
ANITA SARKEESIAN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to a Canadian news report about what became known as “the Montreal Massacre.” This is an excerpt from the TV show 100 Huntley Street.
MAGDALENE JOHN: December 6, 1989, started off like any other day, but ended in horror, forever being labeled in Canadian history as the Montreal Massacre. A young man, identified later as Marc Lépine, entered L’École Polytechnique in Montreal, opening fire, killing 14 female engineering students before turning the .22-caliber gun on himself. This was the first school shooting of its kind in Canada.
AMY GOODMAN: That report from 100 Huntley Street, Magdalene John in Canada. So, Anita Sarkeesian, for those who didn’t know what that name meant in the email that was sent to the Utah State officials, if you could take it from there?
ANITA SARKEESIAN: Yeah, it was very much, you know, specifically referencing Marc Lépine as his hero, using his name, referencing this Montreal massacre about this mass shooting that was very specifically antifeminist. He was going to kill—and actually did kill—these women, because he considered them feminists and that, you know, feminists ruined his life, apparently. The threat that we received at the school last week was exactly the same as that. There was another threat that came in that mentioned Elliot Rodger, which was a young man who committed another school shooting at UC Santa Barbara earlier this year, and his manifesto was very much the same language of antiwomen, antifeminist, very deeply misogynist.
AMY GOODMAN: Again, in that, what you’re referring to, Elliot Rodger, killing seven people, including himself. In a video posted hours before his rampage at a sorority house at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Rodger said he planned to attack, quote, “you girls” for what he called the “crime” of not being attracted to him.
ELLIOT RODGER: On the day of retribution, I am going to enter the hottest sorority house of UCSB, and I will slaughter every single spoiled, stuck-up blonde slut I see inside there.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Elliot Rodger, the video he posted right before he killed seven people at the University of California, Santa Barbara. So, this decision that you made, your response, Anita Sarkeesian, to the university saying you get threats like this all the time, that they had no reason to up the security?
ANITA SARKEESIAN: That was immensely frustrating. You know, the school did take some security measures, but they didn’t—I didn’t think what they did was adequate for this type of threat. You know, to say that I’ve received threats in the past is inconsequential. I mean, I think we need to take all of these threats seriously. There’s a sort of sentiment that online harassment is not real, that we shouldn’t take it seriously. But, you know, as you just showed, Elliot Rodger had his manifesto online and his videos online before he actually took action. So, this is a larger culture of women, you know, one, not being believed about their experiences with online harassment, and when it is seen that they actually are being attacked in really vicious ways, it’s just brushed off as, “Oh, it’s just the Internet,” or, you know, it’s just boys being boys, when that’s really not what’s happening here. These threats are very real, whether they are committed or not.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then go to your larger critique in the gaming industry. Anita Sarkeesian, media critic, executive director of Feminist Frequency, a video web series that explores representations of women in pop culture. The students at Utah State didn’t get to hear what she had to say after she canceled her speech because of an email threat to the school, that the shooter, named for the Montreal massacre shooter, would make this the worst massacre in American history. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Anita Sarkeesian is our guest, and I want to start, asking about your whole critique about video games, by talking about Gamergate controversy, how it emerged. This is a video game developer, Brianna Wu, speaking to CNN over the weekend about so-called Gamergaters threatening her.
BRIANNA WU: I posted a meme making fun of—one of my fans sent me a meme, and it made very gentle fun of Gamergaters, and I posted it. And, you know, as a response to that, pro-Gamergater people and the site 8chan ended up making thousands of memes targeting me, and it escalated to death threats.
AMY GOODMAN: That was video game developer Brianna Wu. Anita Sarkeesian is with us today, media critic and executive director of Feminist Frequency, a video web series that explores representations of women in pop culture, who withdrew from her speaking engagement at Utah State after the school got an email threatening to commit the worst massacre in American history. Anita, can you talk about what Brianna said and talk about these video games, your overall criticism?
ANITA SARKEESIAN: Sure. So, one of the things that she’s referencing is, you know, we have this larger culture in gaming where a subset of mostly male gamers have been viciously going after women and attacking them. It’s mostly women who speak up—excuse me, who speak up against, you know—actually, speak up for the inclusivity of games, right, speak up in terms of creating more diversity in games. And right now, this reference of Gamergate is sort of this big culmination of these toxic harassment—this toxic harassment campaign that’s been happening to me for years and to many other women. And so, they’re sort of lashing out and going after women in these horrible, vicious ways, sort of as trying to preserve gaming as, you know, a male-dominated space, as the status quo. But they’re doing it under the guise of journalism ethics. But really what’s happening is they are attacking women.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened to Zoe Quinn.
ANITA SARKEESIAN: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: And who she is.
ANITA SARKEESIAN: Zoe is an independent game developer, and an ex of hers wrote a big diatribe saying awful things about her which were not true. And, you know, he claimed that she had slept with a journalist to get coverage for her game, which was also not true. And, I mean, her game is a free game; there’s no need for her to try to get any press for it. But it was another example of going after women and trying to discredit us and silence us, and in some very personal ways.
AMY GOODMAN: And why did that become so extreme, and that became what is known as Gamergate?
ANITA SARKEESIAN: I think it became—I think it culminated at this time because they sort of latched onto this idea of journalism ethics, and that became something that sounded good, but it was a way for them to mask their sexist temper tantrum, where they’ve been going after women for years. And so, I think, because of the intensity and how many people they’re going after and just the sheer toxicity of their behavior, a lot of people in the games industry and in the community and in the industry have started to really take note of the fact that we have a problem. We have a problem with sexism and misogyny, and we need to do something about it.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to play two short clips from a video game you’ve critiqued, “Dragon Age: Origins.”
FEMALE CHARACTER: Let go of me! Stop, please!
LORD VAUGHN: It’s a party, isn’t it? Grab a whore and have a good time. Savor the hunt, boys.
GUARD CAPTAIN: Well, that’s one less elf breeder in the world.
GUARD 1: A shame, though. Nice body on that one.
GUARD 2: She’s still warm. How picky are you anyway?
AMY GOODMAN: That’s from “Dragon Age: Origins.” Can you respond to this, Anita Sarkeesian?
ANITA SARKEESIAN: Sure. So, one of the big—one of the most important pieces of what I do is talking about how we can love a piece of media and also critique it at the same time. So, a series like “Dragon Age” is a highly beloved series that has a lot of great things about it. But there are some examples of, you know, violence against women and sort of exploiting women’s bodies or exploiting their vulnerability in these really awful ways. And so, that’s just one of many examples of games that do that, that sort of take advantage of this vulnerability to try to make players feel more intense, right, to make these worlds more gritty. So—
AMY GOODMAN: So, can you—yes, go ahead.
ANITA SARKEESIAN: Well, no. I just wanted to say, like, so it’s not just one game. You know, in my series, I look at hundreds and hundreds of games, and so I don’t want to just sort of pick out “Dragon Age” as, you know, this big horrible example, when there are so many other examples.
AMY GOODMAN: So give us a sense of this world of video games. How many people use them? Who develops them? How many are women? How many are men?
ANITA SARKEESIAN: Sure. You know, gaming is a multibillion-dollar industry that is bigger than Hollywood at this point in terms of revenue, so it has a huge cultural impact on our society. The last statistic that I saw, I believe, is about 27 percent of developers are women. So we still have a huge problem with gender equity within the development community. But about 40 to 46 percent of gamers are actually women. So this idea that gamers are all men is actually not true, that we are almost—women are almost half of the gaming players.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the comments that, “Come on, this is just online stuff, it’s pretty harmless”—why you take it so seriously, Anita?
ANITA SARKEESIAN: Online harassment, especially gendered online harassment, is an epidemic. Women are being driven out; they’re being driven offline. This isn’t just in gaming. This is happening across the board online, especially with women who participate in or work in male-dominated industries. So the harassment actually has a very real effect on us as a society, in terms of making this space unwelcoming for women. But it also has a chilling effect. So, women who are watching this happen, who are watching me get terrorized for two years, are going to question whether they actually want to be involved, whether they want to speak up, and whether they want to participate.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk more about what you feel needs to be done at this point.
ANITA SARKEESIAN: Yeah, so, in terms of the immediacy of the harassment against women in gaming, I think developers and publishers and key figures in the gaming industry need to vocally step up and say, “We do not accept this harassing behavior. We support women,” and further outline steps that they’re going to take to try to make the gaming community more inclusive and more diverse, both within their hiring practices and also within the games that they’re making.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Anita Sarkeesian, I want to thank you for being with us, media critic, executive director of Feminist Frequency, video web series that explores representations of women in pop culture. Final question, the response that you’ve gotten after canceling your speaking engagement at Utah State University?
ANITA SARKEESIAN: I’ve received an enormous amount of support. And that’s one thing I’m really thankful for, is throughout doing this project, there’s been so many people who have been incredibly supportive, that really value and like what I do. And that just means the world to me.
AMY GOODMAN: Anita Sarkeesian, thanks so much.
ANITA SARKEESIAN: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’ll talk with people who are representing their own lives, filmmakers from the United States and from Russia who have banded together to raise awareness about disability issues through films. Stay with us.