“I want freedom, the right to self-expression,” turn-of-the-century activist Emma Goldman once said when a man chided her for dancing. “Everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.” Those words, from a woman once dubbed one of the most dangerous figures in America, ring even louder when spoken in a new web series by Feminist Frequency founder Anita Sarkeesian—the fearless vlogger who has shaken up the gaming industry, taken on Gamergate, and is now more determined than ever to unsettle the patriarchy.
Plenty of her critics still see Sarkeesian as a danger. They’re mostly men, like the ones that still harass her online, or alt-right “internet supervillain” Milo Yiannopoulos, who sicced his followers on her in articles and tweets long before he got booted from Twitter for doing the same to Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones. Mostly they see her as a danger to gaming, and they’re right: The sanctity of the status quo in games has rarely been challenged so brazenly as it has been by the Canadian-born firebrand in her YouTube videos, in her writing, and at public events.
Sarkeesian first made a splash in 2012 when she launched a Kickstarter campaign, seeking $6,000 to create a video series on female representation in video games. She ended up attracting an astronomical $158,000 from enthusiastic backers as well as a brutal and relentless campaign of online harassment ranging from rape to death threats. When she debuted the completed Tropes vs. Women in Video Games in 2013, her haters multiplied—but so did supporters grateful that someone was intelligently deconstructing the sexism that was, and still is, deeply entrenched in gaming culture.
Sarkeesian’s latest project, the five-part series Ordinary Women: Daring to Defy History, is a departure from Tropes in that it’s about real female stories, not fictional pixelated ones. But as she told The Daily Beast last month in Los Angeles, the family-friendly series is also a companion piece of sorts to her critiques of misogyny in video games.
“Tropes was the first time that I really saw an industry pay attention to the work, and that changed the way we approached it,” she said over lunch at one of her favorite haunts in Silver Lake. “It became very important to us that creative folks can watch the videos and walk away with a tool, some kind of ability to make change in their own work.”
Sarkeesian found that as her Tropes videos went viral, garnering global media coverage as well as attention from gaming pros and civilians alike, developers and games studios slowly began to respond. “I’ve had several game developers come up to me and say, ‘You criticized my game. You’re totally right—and I will never do that again,’” she said. “That just happened to me two days ago. It happens regularly, and that’s when I go, ‘Oh…this was all worth it.’”
Still, change has come slowly to the massive gaming industry. “They’re still very old school in terms of thinking who their demographic is, in the same way that Hollywood is, because the risk is higher,” said Sarkeesian. “If your multimillion dollar game tanks, your studio might close. So they don’t understand that opening up their audience, doing things new and fresh, can benefit them in the long term.”
“In the same summer we had Ghostbusters we had Suicide Squad,” she continued. (Sarkeesian noted with a smile that she’s pretty sure she never wants to see Suicide Squad.) “It’s the same thing in games. One step forward, two steps back—some publishers care a whole lot, and others super don’t.”
For Sarkeesian, the past five years have been dominated by Tropes vs. Women. The media critic had launched her website Feminist Frequency only a few years before the Kickstarter campaign thrust her into the non-stop marathon of intensive research, gaming, scripting, and producing Tropes that took up the better part of two years. Each individual episode she turned out in the initial run of Tropes would take months to craft and complete, which she did by taking virtually no breaks, filming herself on a Nikon DSLR out of her San Francisco apartment with the help of just one other person.
“It felt like we were doing a master’s thesis for every episode,” Sarkeesian said. “Not only that—when you’re looking at games, you have to capture games. I might need a ten-second clip and have to play a game for nine hours to get it—and if you screw it up, your clip is ruined because you can’t go back in certain games.” She exhaled. “It was just utter madness.”
Unsurprisingly, Sarkeesian found herself burned out by the pace. She recalibrated, refocusing what she describes as Tropes Season 2 into shorter, more focused videos. She learned to adapt, started plotting out future projects, hired staff members to help with the workload, and this summer moved the operation into an actual office, all the while enduring the relentless harassment of online trolls who kept sending hate messages across her socials and even got YouTube to briefly delete her Feminist Frequency channel.
As she learned from her Tropes experience, Sarkeesian crystallized the idea for Ordinary Women: A series highlighting different extraordinary female pioneers otherwise forgotten by history. She crowdfunded over $200,000 on filmmaking platform Seed & Spark and, with journalist Laura Hudson and producer Elisabeth Aultman (James Franco’s Yosemite) produced the series at the YouTube creator spaces.
Animation studio Noodle House lent different animation styles to episodes that will be released each month, starting with early American anarchist Goldman and continuing with African-American journalist Ida B. Wells, seminal English computer programmer Ada Lovelace, Japanese novelist Murasaki Shikibu, and Chinese lady pirate Ching Shih.
Part of the impetus for Ordinary Women, Aultman says, was to show the gaming and entertainment industries how easy it is to not play into easy stereotypes about women—that strong, intrepid, compelling, and perhaps even morally ambiguous female figures existed in generations past. “There’s the idea of, how am I supposed to be aware of gender dynamics in projects set in a time when women were not supposed to be anywhere but in the home?’” explained Aultman. “The reality is, that’s not true. There are amazing stories in history and that’s part of where this series came from.” Basically: Stop being lazy, creative. Stories about real, interesting women are out there if you only look for them.
“In the Tropes episodes we’re identifying patterns—we’re not saying your one game is the problem,” added Sarkeesian. “As opposed to: your one game contributes to this larger pattern of treating women terribly in these really oppressive and repressive ways. Why don’t you recognize that we all have the responsibility, and all creative folks have a responsibility, to start changing those patterns and not reinforcing them?”
Sarkeesian’s crusade to enact change within the culture at large mirrors the personal hell she survived during the worst of Gamergate, a period of extreme harassment she says took a larger toll on her than she wanted to admit when she found herself targeted alongside female gaming figures like Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu.
“We don’t think the internet is real,” she shook her head. “We still don’t. And when it comes to harassment we all internalize this message, this sticks and stones kind of thing, which I think is bullshit. Because it is trauma and we are being traumatized. It’s hard to believe that things that people say online can hurt us and affect us that much or impact our daily lives, but they do.”
Sarkeesian made it a rule to not engage with her harassers. For a long while she avoided reporting them to police, until she was forced to in 2014 when an anonymous source threatened to bomb Utah State University, where she was set to speak. She’s frustrated that law enforcement still doesn’t seem to have any clue how to handle cyber threats.
“Do the police even know what Twitter is?” Sarkeesian remembered a conversation she’d had with a San Francisco officer who half-jokingly insisted he’d heard of Twitter. “He said, ‘Yeah, we all know what Twitter is because we have to take the delegates to visit Twitter when they come to town.’ What about all the people who would never talk to the police for any reason, ever?”
As pervasive as anonymous menace against women and marginalized persons is in our everyday online lives, what is seldom discussed is the emotional costs victims pay to suffer through the harassment. “It’s so easy, and I’ve done it: You hole up, you become hyper-vigilant because you have to,” Sarkeesian said. “You kind of don’t trust anyone anymore. You go into a shell.”
“If I run into someone on the street or in the grocery store I go to all the time and someone recognizes me, I awkwardly go, ‘Thanks so much… but please don’t tell anyone I come here. And I know it’s a weird thing to say. One thing that harassment does is it takes away your ability to fully feel. You’re in survival mode. And I’m still very vigilant and I’m still very cautious of my surroundings and what I do online. But I want to be a human again.”
During our interview, Sarkeesian would later tell me, she received yet another violent threat via email.
Sarkeesian’s elevated profile in the gaming space and as a target of Gamergate has gotten her foot in the door at social media companies like Twitter, Facebook, and even Google, where she’s talked to execs about how they respond to unfettered harassment on their platforms.
“All the sites are struggling to do something about it,” she said. “The best that they can do is put Band-Aids on the problem and that’s never going to be enough. They need to structurally change the platform.”
And while much of the free internet world praised Twitter this summer for banning trolls who deluged Ghostbusters’ Jones with sexist and racist abuse, Sarkeesian sighs. “I have met with Twitter regularly for the last three years,” she explained. “They are working on stuff and trying to do things. I don’t think it’s fast enough.”
“With the harassment of Leslie Jones, the fact that they responded to that and tried to handle it is great, and I hope that that’s a trajectory they’re going on,” she continued. “But she wasn’t the first one, and there have been so many of us whose lives have been destroyed. There is a little bit of [the idea that] she is a celebrity and that’s why [Twitter took action]. Some days I’ll be like, yes, Twitter is moving forward and trying to do something. And other days I’m like, what are you doing?”
“Leslie Jones is just the most current one that we know of,” she said. “This happens every day.”
Sarkeesian co-authored a guide to fighting harassment online and is a fan of Crash Override, the pro bono support network for victims of online abuse founded by Quinn and Alex Lifschitz. But she’s trying to bring more diverse voices to the conversations she has with the social internet companies, because “the way that racism and sexism and transphobia and more play out on the platform is different, so we need to approach it understanding that.”
She describes her online activism as something of a digital intersectional feminism. That might be the only force that can counter the kind of internet abuse that has emerged in recent years across seemingly disparate but eerily similar online worlds—aggressively nationalist Donald Trump supporters, MRAs, and the rabid Gamergaters that have given actual respectable gamers a bad name.
“They definitely feed off of each other,” Sarkeesian agrees. “They are trying to compete with each other and one up each other and also show off to each other. One of the quotes I use a lot is, ‘In the game of patriarchy women are not the opposing team—they’re the ball.’ That is exactly what online harassment is. Destroying our lives is just a part of the game.”
She terms the similarities between these intersectional trolls an “aggrieved entitlement.” “I’ve co-written a couple of chapters that dive into aggrieved entitlement in games, where men—specifically white men, but also men in general—feel like they are entitled to all of these things: money, cars, women. And if they don’t have those things and they see women who do have them, then fuck them, they slept with someone to get there or they lied or cheated or whatever. That same idea of aggrieved entitlement I think also can help explain and illuminate a lot of how elections play out, and not just this one.”
In other words: It’s not just about harassment in gaming.
If other victims of online abuse can take heart in Sarkeesian’s story, it might be in realizing that she’s endured and adapted to the distress of extreme online and IRL harassment and come out not only stronger, but determined to be a force for change.
“I once had a woman at a conference come up to me who works in games and has been harassed a bit, and she said, ‘How does it not affect you?’ And I was like, ‘Whoa—why do you think it doesn’t affect me?’” she recalled. “And I went, oh shit; my public persona is that it doesn’t affect me because I never wanted the harassers to feel like they ever got to me.”
“And that’s when I switched: It was more important to me that I talk to folks who were being harassed about what worked for me, and it does suck, and here are the steps that I took. Fuck the harassers. I don’t care what they think because we’re in this together, all of us who are online and getting attacked. The patterns repeat.”