Anita Sarkeesian, the Damsel in Distress and why I’m embarrassed to play video-games

The other day, I was talking on the phone with a girl I had spoken with for a while. She had gotten off work and wanted to talk before going to bed and I was happy to hear from her.

“So, what are you doing?” she asked me.

“I’m messing around on the internet,” I said.

Except, I wasn’t. I was playing Far Cry 3.

I lied because I was ashamed. I don’t like being a white, heterosexual male gamer because as a group, we seem pretty awful. We act like we’re victims because we’re fans of a medium that caters to our basest instincts and when someone calls us on our generally misogynistic, insular shit, we get all up in arms and it’s terrible.

Anita_Sarkeesian_smilingFew people have stirred up a shit-storm amongst the gaming community as much as the late, great Roger Ebert and Anita Sarkeesian, the host of Feminist Frequency’s fascinating “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” web-series, hosted on YouTube.

I think Sarkeesian scares gamers because she’s a woman and that hurts more than anything else. As I previously stated, gamers much like comic book fans, are an insular group, one dedicated to a very specific fandom which attracts a very specific fan and not one that’s welcoming to people who are willing to join or comment on the fandom itself.

I wish it wasn’t the case because Sarkeesian has a lot of interesting things to say in the first two parts of the “Damsel in Distress” series so far. The focus of both parts is more on the proliferation of the trend and less on reasoning behind said trends. There’s no stopping either of the tropes because they’re so embedded into our culture and pop appetites. It seems as if Sarkeesian realizes this and she more than anything else hopes that developers realize the power their products can have to change perceptions of women in pop culture. She also brings up the notable and incredibly interesting issue of the trope speaking just as much to the motivation of male characters as it does to the objectification of females, with characters such as Max Payne in “Max Payne 3” and Kratos in the “God of War” series are motivated less by the rescue of the women than in reclaiming their manhood and regaining their traditionally prescribed masculinity.

But not everyone seems to want to listen. Before the first entry of the series was published some dick made a disgusting flash game about viciously beating Sarkeesian and the abuse didn’t stop there. Her previous video on the trope attracted an unbelievable amount of replies, from nebbish, angry assholes who describe her as having “eyes that make you want to punch her in the face,”to some guy who loves taking quotes out of context and misses all the subtlety, to noted “that guy in your freshman dorm who’s never showered or fucking shut up since we moved in” male rights ass-hole and patronizing YouTube personality, The Amazing Atheist. It was all embarrassing but inevitable and I was ready to expect the worst when her next entry dropped.

It went worse than expected. The new video, released May 28 and embedded at the top of this post, was briefly taken down by YouTube after it was repeatedly flagged by harassers. It’s been brought, thankfully, back but the criticism hasn’t stopped. Gawker’s video-game arm, Kotaku, has hosted one of the liveliest, most ridiculous debates of Sarkeesian’s work and is the host of some of the most gruesome misogyny I’ve seen on the site.

Picture 2 Picture 4There’s a defensiveness to many of the comments that isn’t uncommon when this sort of debate occurs and it’s something we’ve seen before in things such as the “Fake Nerd Girl” and cosplay discussions several months ago.

I don’t have a problem with people disagreeing with Sarkeesian, feminists or any critic of a work. That’s a person’s right. I was a little uncomfortable with the way she seemed to target Shigeru Miyamoto for Nintendo’s early use of the damsel in distress trope but I understood her point, accepted her view and didn’t feel the need to attack her point or claim she was trying to destroy my precious toys.

Picture 1I’ve asked far too many people far too many times to be more accepting of new people into video game and comic book fandom. I don’t want to do that anymore. I don’t want to ask people to consider their privileges, their prejudices and their preconceived notions of gender. I’m sick of doing that. I’ve done it for too fucking long. I just want people to listen, to think and to be respectful, to consider the perspective of someone who may have a different opinion or experience of themselves. Don’t attack, don’t redefine the argument, don’t question intentions, just consider. And act like a fucking human.

“Papa don’t kill Terminators” – 7 ways “Tomb Raider” could have avoided the sexual assault trap

The constant videogame news stream has nearly gotten to the point of players knowing the whole game before they even pop a disc into their console. Unfortunately, this is ending up causing a lot of controversy that may have been otherwise overlooked. Let’s take the “Tomb Raider” rape scene for instance. In an interview with Kotaku, the unreleased game’s executive producer said that the intent was to reduce and debase Lara Croft, “turning her into a caged animal.” And of course, what better way to do that than attempted sexual assault.

I’ve hated on a lot of writers, directors and artists for the use of sexual assault as a plot device but really, I don’t think its an enormous problem when its treated with respect. The problem with the Tomb Raider controversy was the way that it nearly implied that the only way to turn the character into a killer was to make her a rape victim, rather than a determined, self made treasure seeker. Of course, even that can be problematic when we look back at what Lara Croft is primarily known for.

We all know that we don’t need female characters to be defined by trauma, particularly sexual trauma. With that being said, let’s find some other pop culture examples of female heroine’s origin stories and see how they’d work out in the Tomb Raider reboot’s premise. At the end of each entry, we’ll port the character traits over to Lara, assuming that the basics of the game, namely that it takes place on an island where the prime objectives are survival and escape, hold true.

1. Sarah Connor – Terminator

Where “Terminator 2” gets a lot of credit for its still amazing special effects, the first “Terminator” film is vastly forgotten, despite the incredible characterization of Connor. Her transformation from bystander, to confused participant, to terrorist, to robot killer, to savior of the future is a joy to watch and her moment of catharsis is so well earned. We, as viewers, know just as she does, that the future can be saved.

Characterizing Croft: Lara’s time on the island is guided by another, more experienced character. They eventually die, forcing Lara to become a killer and survivor in the unforgiving environment.

2. Kate Kane – Batwoman

Kate Kane would have been a hero even without putting on the cape. After quitting an illustrious career at West Point because of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” she joined with her General father to hunt down the terrorists that killed her mother. Of course, things weren’t what they seemed and Kate was forced to kill her own sister, putting her into a tailspin that turned her into the brutal but compassionate Batwoman that’s become a fan favorite.

Characterizing Croft: Whoever ended up marooning Lara on the island may have some secret motives, particularly related to the Croft fortune. She has to figure out how to survive and get back home if she’s going to protect what’s hers.

3. Hitgirl – “Kick-Ass”

I hate Mark Millar’s “Kick-Ass” so much that it physically hurts me to even mention it. But, y’know, she’s raised by her dad to kill. Its really lame and exploitative.

Characterizing Croft: Someone else on the island teaches Lara to be merciless, killing everyone in her path. Hey, its not good but at least its not attempted rape.

4. Katniss Everdeen – “The Hunger Games”

Speaking of things that I really don’t like, the protagonist of the eponymous teen series at least had a strong base for a developing character. Katniss had trained to survive in the depressed village she grew up in and her development to one of the champions of the games required her to use those same hunting skills for murder.

Characterizing Croft: Lara’s trained well with her trademark dual pistols but she’s never had to turn the barrel on an actual person. To survive the trials of the island, she’s going to have to do just that.

5. Miranda Lawson – “Mass Effect 2”

Sure, Miranda was a cybernetically augmented cloned killer, but what motivates her abilities is a single minded desire to do what’s right by her more vulnerable sister. Her dedication to protecting the one innocent is even enough to help her break from Cerberus.

Characterizing Croft: Sure, maybe she would have been able to simply stay alive on the island. That’s not going to be enough when someone close to Lara disappears and she realizes that she’ll do anything to get them back safely.

6. Talia al Ghul – “Batman Incorporated”

I mentioned last week that I adored the way Grant Morrison finally gave Talia a motivation for her attack on the dark knight, a quest to find out who she is and with the goal of getting out from under the long shadow of her father.

Characterizing Croft: The best characters are the ones that have motivations that we can associate with. Lara’s potential quest to find out more about her lineage and where she fits into the Croft family could be a deeply compelling reason to help keep her alive on the island.

7. Ripley – “Alien”

Ripley doesn’t seem as if she’s going to be the one to survive the first encounter with the Xenomorph in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” but she’s the only person to get out alive. How does she do it? Pretty simple really, she’s smarter, braver and more willing to make the harsh decisions than anyone else on board.

Characterizing Croft: You know what turns Lara into a killer? Necessity. She’s going to survive, going to do what she has to do to get off the island and she dares anyone to stop her.

“Look, a Suicide Girl!”

The internet has had a grand tradition of putting anachronistic figures together and just watching them bounce off of one another. The recently abandoned but still glorious “Bob Hates Andy” threw Bob Dylan at his one-sided rival, Andy Warhol, to hilarious results. Now, the Sarcastic Voyage podcast has offered us a brand new pair of rivals, starring the overly peppy and pissy Neil Gaiman pestering Alan Moore. Making everything better, they’re both puppets in the most homemade and low-fi sense. The two episodes that have been released so far both revolve around Moore’s frustration with “Before Watchmen” but watching the crotchety recluse yell at Gaiman couldn’t possibly get old.

“Jan” – Somehow more predictable than the Brady

I’m fascinated when someone tries to make YouTube work for anything other than racist jokes aimed at children, really obnoxious stoners who vomit up nonsense while playing video-games, or amazing rap cats. All of those videos, except for “Rap Cat,” killed my brain.

There have been some attempts at using YouTube as a vehicle for a serial. A couple of years ago, the uploaded sitcom, “We Need Girlfriends,” debuted to, at the time, stellar views and got picked up by CBS for a deal that slowly disappeared from memory and only the show’s Seth Kirschner has found a career on TV. The show was interesting if nothing special. It featured lots of cutaways, something that the very similar “How I Met Your Mother” has trafficked in for years and was able to use course language and some obscure references. Mostly, it was a thoughtful, heartfelt ode to sitcoms and is to this day, one of my favorite web series.

There have been a few other attempts to make serial television independently, set far away from companies. CollegeHumor and Machinima both attempted the feat, neither succesfully, and last year’s appearance of the Mortal Kombat series was a noticeably high profile attempt to go for serialization online. Now, WIGS, a production house that has been making high budget shorts on YouTube, one of which starring formerly TV famous Jennifer Garner, has received a huge push advertising push from the video sharing web site for their new series, “Jan.”

Sorry, I just vomited my cosmo right onto my Audrey Hepburn poster.

So what’s “Jan,” you say? Well, according to their unfathomably lame and self aggrandizing press release, the show tells the story of the eponymous character whom lands “a dream first job but a series of blunders makes it feel more like a nightmare.” Sound beige enough for you? Well, you’re goddamn fucking right it is!

In an attempt to spice things up, Jan works for a bitchy photographer played by Virginia Madsen of the unbelievably good “Candyman,” and is working on a series of photos of women taken immediately after they’ve had sex because that sounds…vaguely pretentious. Regardless, we’re supposed to be getting a “Devil Wears Prada” vibe and it never quite lands because things are so sitcom-y. Oh no, Jan stepped on her glasses! Oh no, helpful sexy British man! Oh no, Jan took the pictures instead of her boss! Whatever shall she do!?!

What makes “Jan” so hard to get into is how much potential it has. Jon Avnett of “Fried Green Tomatoes” and Rodrigo Garcia, who directed the fantastic “Carnivale” pilot and last year’s underwhelming but ambitious “Albert Nobbs” are behind the camera but they direct with all the ambition of someone on their first film. Shots are dark, sets are empty, dialogue is bereft of character or tension and I struggle to connect with any of the characters. This isn’t the work of a competent studio trying to produce high end products. This is someone showing off their first movie to some poor saps at a film festival.

I hate shitting on people who are genuinely trying to break barriers and come up with something new for lots of people and WIGS is genuinely trying to connect with an audience. The comment sections for “Jan” are overflowing with the company’s responses to comments, both positive and negative and it is wonderful to see someone engaging with the community like that. I just wish they were talking about something, y’know, better.