For more than four years, the YouTube channel Feminist Frequency has published new entries in the essay series Tropes vs Women, carefully breaking down the many tired conventions about how women are portrayed in video games. 18 videos and millions of views later, the regularly controversial Tropes vs Women came to an end yesterday, with a video examining lady sidekicks.
Throughout its entire run, Tropes vs Women was hosted by feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian, who unexpectedly emerged in the wider public consciousness in 2012, after asking for $6,000 to produce the video series. Sarkeesian (and her project) became a target of grotesque harassment, prompting others to show their support by financially backing Tropes vs Women. It raised $158,922.
In raising that money, she endured waves of misogynistic attacks.
"What's most ironic about the harassment is that it's in reaction to a project I haven't even created yet," she said at the time. "I haven't had the chance to articulate any of my arguments about video game characters yet. It's very telling that there is this much backlash against the mere idea of this series being made."
It would only get worse in the years to come. In 2012, the term GamerGate hadn't been coined yet, a colorful label for a phenomenon that existed long before the start of a campaign to harass and discredit a woman who designed a game to help people who were depressed. Women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, and others had been targeted for years, it was just that people like me didn't notice.
It took me too long to pick up on that. It took most of us too long.
There's nothing funny about what happened to Sarkeesian over the course of making her videos, but it always struck me as ironic that everyone who worked to tear her down only made her stronger, more visible, and resilient. No one knew who Sarkeesian was before a group of sensitive snowflakes decided that criticizing video games from a feminist perspective was worth attacking someone over. If it wasn't Sarkeesian, though, it would have been someone else.
There's been a cultural whiplash since Sarkeesian set out to make her videos, too. She wasn't responsible for it, but the violent reaction to her commentary was one of many indications the ground was shifting beneath us. Sarkeesian asked for $6,000, but ended up with $158,922 in large part because people felt they were taking a stand by supporting her. In the years since, it's gone the other direction, with the rise of online personalities defining counter culture as pushing against "politically correct" rhetoric.
It helps explain why former Kinda Funny personality Colin Moriarty can raise nearly $40,000 per month to publish videos about "politics and history," including arguments in favor of cultural appropriation.
Tropes vs Women wasn't a revolution in critical thinking about games but it was a revelation for many. It smartly packaged patterns that were tough to pick up without seeing them strung together. One instance of a game treating a woman poorly is easy to write off as an isolated incident, seeing a dozen games do it over several decades suggest games were ignoring a problem—and could do better. Whether or not you agreed with Sarekeesian's conclusions, it undeniably facilitated a look-in-the-mirror discussion games had needed for a long time.
If that proves to be the lasting legacy of Sarkeesian's Tropes vs Women, rather than the ugly harassment directed at a person who dared raise a few pointed questions, that's one worth being proud of.