Californian blogger Anita Sarkeesian is one of the most famous cultural critics on the internet. Her Kickstarter to make a video series about “tropes vs. women in video games” was a huge success back in 2012 and raised much more than the $6,000 she had originally asked for. Her videos are some of the most thorough and well-researched examinations about gaming we’ve ever seen. It’s feminist criticism at its best: smart, witty, and intelligible to anyone who has spent time on YouTube.
Her work has also triggered one of the most violent abuse campaigns of recent internet history. Since her campaign took off, Sarkeesian has been blasted with misogynist bullshit: rape and death threats, Wikipedia vandalism, and even a game called Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian. (It’s all detailed here.) Last week, Sarkeesian had to leave her home and notify police after someone sent her and her family very credible threats.
Sarkeesian isn’t the only feminist critic on the internet experiencing this. Other commentators are reporting violent reactions, and even male allies on the sidelines are getting sprayed with the hate shower. But Sarkeesian is the most prominent case, and she’s not stopping anytime soon. She is still posting her thoughtful videos, just as she has planned all along.
To understand what’s been going on, I spoke to David Futrelle, who has tracked anti-feminism, the Men’s Rights Movement, and the campaigns against Sarkeesian and other women on his blog We Hunted the Mammoth.
VICE: Who are the people harassing and threatening Anita Sarkeesian? It seems like it’s an organized action.
David Futrelle: It’s what I like to call the new misogyny—basically a large amorphous internet subculture that is consumed with hating and attacking women. Some of these people call themselves men’s rights activists and portray what they are doing as somehow beneficial for men. Others call themselves “men going their own way,” the basic premise being that they want to live independently of women but end up talking most of the time about how terrible women are. That whole subculture is very heavily represented among gamers and on websites like Reddit.
So is this mostly coming out of Men’s Rights Activism circles?
I don’t think the harassment against Sarkeesian is all done by men’s rights activists, but it comes out of this subculture. And the people in this subculture share some basic obsessions.
One thing that happens again and again: They define certain cultural spaces as being properly male only and then go after women—women in general but often individual women—who they see as interlopers invading what they feel should be their safe space. You see this in general discussions about women and tech and women going into STEM fields. But also in other fields like atheist activism. For whatever reason that seems to draw a lot of very misogynistic guys too. Women like Rebecca Watson, who has talked about sexism in these spaces, face an enormous amount of harassment and abuse.
What did Rebecca Watson do?
That’s a good question. In most of these cases, if you look at it closely, what the woman being targeted has done turns out to be either nothing or something that has been exaggerated in all sorts of bizarre ways. Something that normal people wouldn’t see as provocation. In the case of Rebecca Watson, she was at the World Atheist Conference in 2011 and, after her return, posted a vlog in which she talked about her experience of sexism at the conference. Some guy followed her on the elevator and hit on her, asking her to come to his room. This was later known as the “elevator incident." Because of this she faced years and years of violent harassment.
So basically the “crime” these women commit is to call out sexism in a field that some men feel is their turf.
Yes. Watson’s case is really very similar to Sarkeesian's in that if you look at what the charges against her are, and you trace it back to the beginning, you see that there is really no argument. Basically people accuse her of scamming the public by raising a lot of money for her video series. These guys were harassing her before she even raised that money, and the fact that she was able to raise so much money was due to feminists particularly rallying around her because she was facing harassment for just proposing this.
Sarkeesian’s videos are very well researched. She’s not going for effect, but makes very sure to show lots of examples for any kind of sexist structure she is trying to point out in games. Why does this seemingly very levelheaded and not terribly offensive criticism still get people so angry?
Exactly. If you actually look at her videos, you see that she is not trying to censor games; she makes that very clear. She is critically analyzing them. But she is being made into some kind of demon when she is actually presenting a very straightforward and not very controversial set of arguments about the way sexist violence and sexism in general are prevalent in video games, which is pretty obvious to anyone who has spent any time playing video games.
So why all the anger?
What gets them really angry is when a feminist closes the comments on their YouTube videos or on their website. To them, that is an assault on free speech. So they harass her because she won’t let them harass her on YouTube, basically.
The extent of the vitriol is something that I don’t fully understand. My basic explanation, if I have one, is it’s a backlash against the successes of feminism since the 90s. Feminism has made progress redefining some things that men took for granted, such as sexual harassment and date rape. So I think it’s a backlash on what a lot of these guys see as restrictions on what they can say, how they can interact with women in a sexual way, and the idea that there may be consequences if they commit domestic violence. It’s mostly sexual resentment, the fact that they can’t get away with what guys used to be able to get away with with women, and that makes them very frustrated. Frankly I think a lot of them would prefer it if they could just go back to the way it was: Get women drunk and have sex with them. Without having the culture say, “Hey, this is date rape." And: “Your office jokes are actually sexual harassment.”
For a lot of these guys their experience of feminism is being denied to do what they want to do. Maybe they had to go to a seminar about sexual harassment or they had to sit through a presentation on date rape in college.
The other thing is women starting to move into these areas that these guys have just decided that they want to claim for men. They don’t want women to come into gaming and tell them not to call women whores when they are playing Call of Duty.
So the extent of the violence is a sign that feminism is actually winning, in the sense that it is calling out sexism and rallying to ban it?
Yes, you could say that. But at the same time I think that this backlash is a threat to the victories of feminism. Because of the nature of online culture and the anonymity it offers, you see these virtual mobs forming very quickly. And I do think it’s a threat to the gains that feminism has made in a wider culture, because a lot of women know that if they go online and talk about feminism, they will have to deal with an entire army of these guys showing up and harassing them.
So this is a free speech issue, in the sense that women on the internet who are trying to exercise this right by expressing feminist ideas are facing rape and death threats.
And not just women. As someone who writes about men’s rights activism on a regular basis, I get harassed as well. Some of it is awful, but what I get is really nothing compared with the kind of relentless harassment that Sarkeesian gets. I got death threats the other day after writing about her, and it’s very telling that the only time this happens is when I write about her. Guys get so mad at her that they are even threatening to kill people who defend her. Other people from the gaming community and beyond who have spoken out for Sarkeesian, like Joss Whedon, have faced similar attacks.
And it’s not just Sarkeesian or Watson. There’s lot of other women out there. Chanty Binx, a Canadian activist, got into an argument with some men’s rights activists a few years ago and yelled at them. She has been harassed ever since. It becomes a civil rights issue. Women, when they want to talk about anything concerning gender, face this kind of vicious harassment, and it does have a chilling effect. It takes a lot of courage for people like Sarkeesian to carry on and keep on doing the type of work that she’s doing.
In Germany there have recently been some similarly violent attacks against scientists researching gender. It’s always the same pattern.
If you talk to the people threatening Sarkeesian, they all feel completely justified. They are saying: She is trying to destroy gaming, so we have to destroy her. Women—mostly women—are getting targeted for critiques of sexism. When people write movie reviews, they don’t get death threats from movie fans. But feminist cultural critics writing about games do. Men’s right’s activists think like abusers. They actually do nothing to help out men who are having difficulty in society. They talk a lot about how men get killed more often. But basically all their “activism” is finding women they can scapegoat and attacking them. They go after academics, critics, individual people they see at demonstrations.
Do you think it’s a conscious strategy intended to make these women shut up?
Not for all the guys. Some actually do want to argue with her. Mostly they just want to force her to pay attention to them. A lot of times these guys will pick a woman and send her a list of questions and say, “You, as a representative of feminism, will have to answer all these question about feminism for me!” And if they decline to do it, they harass them and call them cowards. The guy who made the “Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian” game, when people asked why he made that, later said he thought it would get her attention and make her engage in a discussion with him. Which is funny, because if someone would make a game about beating me up, I would be less inclined to talk to them.
But for a lot of them it is a very conscious strategy to shut women up, and this is something you see a lot from men’s rights sites. The leading site A Voice For Men regularly goes after individual women they don’t like and spreads terrible lies about them. They say, “We don’t want to shut all women up, but feminists, if you keep posting, we are going to keep doing this and fuck your shit up."
When Elliot Rodger went on his killing spree in Santa Barbara earlier this year, his “manifesto” was full of the misogynist rhetoric found on the men’s rights sites. Their radical hatred of women was the ideological basis for his violence. Do we have to be worried about someone actually pulling a gun on a feminist critic or making true on the rape threats?
Aside from the very loopy stuff in Rodger's manifesto, most of what he wrote, if he had posted it in on a men's rights message board, people wouldn’t have batted an eye lash at. If you looked at his videos, you’d think this guy is a joke. He sounded like an actor trying his best to play some super villain, but he actually went out and shot people.
A lot of people are trying to blow off these threats, saying things like, "Oh, people threaten me all the time. Doesn’t mean they are going to act on it." But the fact is, it’s impossible to know. And threats directed at women from men—there are legitimate worries that those might be real. When a guy is threatened with rape, he doesn’t actually say, “Oh, that has me worried." At least outside of prison men don’t spend any amount of their time worrying about rape. But rape is something that women worry about. And some of these guys have the mentality of stalkers. When you look at men who stalk romantic partners, a lot of times it ends in violence. So there is a very real threat.
But regardless of actual physical violence, just the threats in themselves already do an incredible amount of damage.
In terms of psychological violence?
Yes, or threatening their reputation. Many of these men are trying to manipulate the Google results. Antifeminist activists very clearly try to harass women by making sure that all sorts of nasty things show up in their Google results. They say: We try to fuck things up for them and make sure they don’t get hired in the future.
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