The Sketchy Feminist

Staring down the male gaze, or: Looking at looking at women in popular culture

Tag: video games

Why The Walking Dead is Important

No, I’m not talking about the TV show.

Nor am I talking about the Robert Kirkman comics on which the TV show is based.

Not that those aren’t important, because they are. They made a huge splash culturally and they do a lot of really interesting things.

But what I want to talk about today is not the comics or the TV show, but the Walking Dead video game (y’know, based on the comics and the TV show), which was released by Telltale games as “Season One” and “Season Two.” Each season is structured by episodes (which you could buy individually as they came out), and the format makes it seem like you’re playing through a Walking Dead miniseries.

And why do I find this game so important? Here are a few reasons:


In Season One, you play as a Black protagonist.

In Season Two, you play as a Black protagonist.

There’s also a DLC — which I have not played — which has five different protagonists, including (and I’m using the game’s wikia “ethnicity” tags here) an “Asian-American” man, an “African-American” man and two “Caucasian-American” women. Only one of the five protags is listed as a “Caucasian-American” man. I haven’t played the DLC yet, so I won’t really be focusing on it here, but I thought it was worthy of mention.

In case you don’t play a lot of video games, or in case you do play them and just haven’t noticed this, playable Black characters in video games are really rare. Like, really rare. And playable main characters, as opposed to characters who are, for example, part of the roster in a player-versus-player fighting game? Pfft. I think it would be really hard to fill a shelf with games that had Black protagonists. (Unless the shelf was really small and/or the game boxes were really oversized.)

Lee, the protagonist of Season One, and Clem, the protagonist of Season Two (as well as an NPC in Season One) are both fully fleshed-out, strong, compelling characters.

The game also does not shy away from issues of race, and your PC’s race matters to the other characters in the game.

It Doesn’t ask the burning question of, “Now that it’s the zombie apocalypse and we don’t have kitchens, should the women go back in them?”

Remember in the TV series, when Andrea got a lot of flak both from other characters and from fans for daring to challenge the whole women do the dishes/men do the shooting division of labor? Well that conversation never really comes up in the video game.

Why? Because Zombie Apocalypse is why. The characters in the game are way too busy running for their lives to try to divvy up “gender-appropriate” roles to each other.

It’s the zombie apocalypse. Everybody shoots, and everybody takes care of the baby.

Child Protagonist

In Season Two, Clementine is eleven years old.

The Walking Dead is a “horror survival” game, which means that, at most points, your goal won’t be to defeat an enemy, but to stay alive. (And therefore you don’t have to be a tank for the game to make sense.) And the fact that Clementine is eleven, and as such only has the height, reach, and endurance of an eleven-year-old, actually matters to game play. Fighting off zombies by hand is harder for you than it is for the healthy, adult members of your group. (Which makes fighting the zombies off that much more rewarding.) And the fact that you are a child is important to the people you interact with, as well. Other characters react to it, sometimes shielding you from danger because of it and sometimes dismissing you out of hand.

As a child, you usually have less power and less authority than the people around you. In an industry full to the brim with adult male action heroes (often the leaders of whatever team they’re in), it’s nice to see a little girl’s point of view.

Clementine Kicks Ass

She may not be a physical powerhouse, but Clementine is brave and determined and she can hold her own in a world full of people (and zombies) who are bigger, stronger and faster than she is.

In Season One, Clem’s role was largely to be protected by Lee. It’s nice to see her come into her own in Season Two.

Choices that Matter

Now, The Walking Dead is a pretty linear game. No matter what you do in this game, what choices you make, more or less the same things are going to happen in each episode. Most of the time, you’ll have no true influence on where your group goes or on who dies.

And yet, the choices in this game matter in some ways more than the “choices” I’ve made in any other video game I’ve played. Because these choices have less to do with determining an outcome than they do with defining, and refining, your character’s morality. Will you save the person you like the most, or the person you feel is most useful to the group? Whose side will you take in a fight? When will you lie to survive? Or steal? Or kill? Those are the kinds of decisions you make, and even if, from a plot perspective, they don’t matter much, the game is very good at making them matter personally. To the protagonist and to the player.

Because the one question The Walking Dead is always asking is not “What do you want to make happen?” but “What kind of person do you want to be?”

And that’s pretty extraordinary.

The Not-Really-A Timeline Continues (only this time I didn’t make a timeline): More Feminist Frequency Stuff

Apparently I’m following Anita Sarkeesian’s career. And while I’ve been interested in her projects ever since I first heard about her, and that was well before the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series ratcheted up her visibility like woah,* I never really actively planned to keep tabs on her.

But she just keeps cropping up. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her name in so many different print and online publications as I have over the last year (especially from, say, around October 2014 on). Not to mention that Colbert Report interview. Months ago (because I am a lazy, lazy person), I started putting together an “Anita Sarkeesian media sightings” post-type thingie. And then I kept procrastinating on finishing it, and then, hey presto, Sarkeesian and her team went and made my job all easy for me (as well as sorta redundant), by releasing an annual report. (And even then I still failed to post this immediately.)

That’s right, folks. If you have trouble keeping up with all of your Sarkeesian-related news, there’s a handy document over at the Feminist Frequency website in the form of a downloadable PDF (note that the link is to the page where the PDF is hosted, not the PDF itself): “Feminist Frequency 2014 Annual Report.” It has links! It has graphs (and other data visualization stuff)! It has pink and teal headers!

There’s also a “Media Interview Link Round up for October 2014,” just to prove there really was a spike in the Anita Sarkeesian news coverage at around that time.

And one of the big reasons behind that spike? See the following introduction to said “Media Round Up” on Sarkeesian’s site:

I was invited to speak at Utah State University on Wednesday October 15th, 2014 about women’s representations in video games. Sadly, the university received a series of emails threatening to commit “the deadliest school shooting in American history” if I was allowed to speak on campus. When USU and Utah police refused to screen attendees for firearms, citing the state’s concealed carry laws, I was forced to cancel the event. Below is a round up of media interviews I have done recently speaking about the threats in Utah, the epidemic of gendered harassment online, and the larger problem of sexism within the games industry as a whole.

— Anita Sarkeesian, “Media Interview Link Round up for October 2014,” Feminist Frequency

So, basically. More terrifying death threats! And gun control laws (or the lack thereof) that make those threats even more terrifying.

Since the “Annual Report” was released, Sarkeesian has posted two new videos (with transcripts) to her site. They’re both from panels at the “All About Women” conference, described on its “About” page as a “festival [that] aims to invigorate discussion on important issues and ideas that matter to women, and to bring global and Australian perspectives to the stages of the Sydney Opera House.”

One of the two speeches was given at a panel entitled “What I Couldn’t Say”; the other was given at a panel entitled “How to be a Feminist.” They’re both short (running at around 4 and a half minutes on the one hand and 5 and a half minutes on the other) and both worth a watch:

“What I Couldn’t Say” speech

“How to be a Feminist” speech

In the second video, Sarkeesian (briefly, obvs) articulates how she developed her own feminism, which is cool if you’re interested in or even just curious about where she’s coming from, and the kinds of frameworks she’s been using/is using to contextualize her arguments–whether on sexism in popular culture or on the systemic misogyny of online harassment.

On a somehow lighter but also somehow terrifying note, David Futrelle–at the hilarious but also soul-crushingly depressing MRA-mocking blog We Hunted the Mammoth**–has been following the development of the “Sarkeesian Effect” project, and you can find a bunch of those posts under the “Sarkeesian Effect” category tag at his site. What, never heard of the The Sarkeesian Effect? (I wouldn’t have, if not for Futrelle’s blog.) Well, you’re in for a . . . um, not a treat, but . . . a . . . a something. Anyway, the Effect is apparently a proposed “feature-length documentary” about exposing the evils of the evil SJW agenda. So, there’s your sign, I guess. For in-depth mockery of both the project and the dudes making it (and I can’t wait to see what up-and-coming comedy duo gets cast as Davis Aurini and Jordan Owen in Anita Sarkeesian’s first biopic), see Futrelle’s posts on the subject.


* That’s right, haters. I watched Feminist Frequency videos before it was cool. A hat tip to my bestie, L, for introducing the series to me.
** I say “soul-crushing” because I can only read so much misogyny–even secondhand, on a blog that exists for the express purpose of mocking said misogyny–before it starts to get to me.

New Feminist Frequency!

I haven’t updated much lately, but the good news is that Anita Sarkeesian has. On November 18th, she released the video “Ms. Male Character – Tropes vs. Women,” which is the 4th installment in her her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series.

So go check it out!

Anita Sarkeesian is an Epic Badass

Anita Sarkeesian Portrait Sketch

Anita Sarkeesian, looking sharp at her TEDxWomen Talk about Online Harassment & Cyber Mobs.

This post is just a shout-out, or an homage, or a what-have-you, to say that Anita Sarkeesian is an epic badass.

So, for those of you who don’t know, Anita Sarkeesian is the creator of the online video series Feminist Frequency and she is basically the Internet’s Bill Nye for feminism. In her series, she discusses the treatment of women in and by the media, explains feminist terminology and deconstructs the (often harmful) tropes used in the presentation of female characters. She explains her findings and her arguments in an accessible, step-by-step way, which is usually augmented by visual aides in the forms of still images, clips and bullet points.

I like her videos a lot, and my favorites are generally those in her series (sub-series?), “Tropes vs. Women.” As most of the Internet knows by now (it seems), not-too-long-ago, Ms. Sarkeesian began a kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a new line of videos, “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games.” And something happened.

Something not very nice.

A particularly nasty sub-community of gamers (who represented as predominately male) took offense. Lots of offense. All the offense. A quite staggering and bewildering amount of offense, really. And these . . . enthusiasts . . . began a campaign of their own, to discredit and revile both Ms. Sarkeesian and the project through a torrential rain of misogynistic online harassment. And you can still find a lot of it out there if you want to look, and Anita Sarkeesian saved some of it so you can find it through her website, but I don’t feel like going into the details here, as looking at all of that vitriolic, threatening bullcrap for too long makes me feel all depressed and queasy.

So what did the Feminist Frequency creator do? She turned it around, made all the money (with support from gamers and fans of her series that was in part a backlash against the trolls’ original backlash), expanded the project to include more videos and made Feminist Frequency her full-time job. (She even hired staff.)

Also, and importantly, she started raising awareness about online bullying and harassment, using her own experience as a kind of case study. The above sketch is of her giving a presentation at TED talks about the phenomenon that is the “cyber mob.” (The video is available on her site and through the TEDxTalks channel on YouTube.) In this video, Ms. Sarkeesian details how the harassment campaign launched against her was thought of and treated by its ‘players’ as a “massively multiplayer online game” in which she was cast in the role of villain. (Even now, with all of the awareness and support that she has gathered, two of the first three versions of this talk that show up on a YouTube search have more than their fair share of ignorant misogynistic vitriol in their unfiltered comments sections. One of them is even a–and I use this term loosely here–“parody” video*: an edited version of the original talk to which some enterprising soul added a laugh track and crickets chirping in the background . . . sigh. And commenters on the other unofficial version wonder why commenting was disabled on the official channel.)

I don’t like bullies.** My own experiences of being bullied in school have stayed with me well into my adulthood and they’re not just a memory. They affect me. They manifest in both emotional and physical ways, as trust issues and stress-related disorders and other lovely things that I will not go into now.

As a result, however, I have a lot of admiration for someone who can stand up to bullying on such a massive scale, and who has the drive and ability to step back and turn something so potentially poisonous into a teachable moment.

* * *

*No, I won’t link to it. Why would I do that to you? Last I checked, it had received under 700 views, anyway. Let’s do our best to keep it that way.

**Feel free to imagine Danny Phantom‘s ghost kid Sidney Poindexter (from “Splitting Images”) wailing “Bullies! . . . Bullies!” here. I know I do.