Fanboys, White Knights, and the Hairball of Online Misogyny

Pop culture critic Anita Sarkeesian’s latest video was met with death and rape threats. The men who defended her were accused of “white knighting.” Nobody wins.


A harmless woman is being harassed online by a nerdy subculture. The fact that I can use that sentence in a unique way every day should be another strike against our species. But it appears there’s some ray of hope. It’s small, it’s flickering, but it’s there.

Recently, pop culture critic Anita Sarkeesian released her latest video. Her series, Tropes Versus Women, is an examination of various silly—but mostly lazy—tropes writers keep using when it comes to that alien species: the female human person. Even before Sarkeesian began making the show, she was the target of stupid amounts of harassment and threats.

She hadn’t hurt anyone, threatened a child, or strangled a cat. She’d done something far worse to “the Internet”: existed as a woman and spoke about video games. We know what happens to women in other domains too, again and again and again and again.

However, two prominent men in the geek sphere tweeted endorsements of Sarkeesian’s video. One of them is apparently quite famous or something.

Having done television, comics, and one of the largest grossing films of all times, one would assume Mr. Whedon knows a thing or two about what the industry and culture requires.

The other endorser is Tim Schafer, renowned in the gaming sphere for his work on such classics as Day of the Tentacle, Grim Fandango, and the Monkey Island games.

In response, Schafer was called an “asshole” and told to kill himself; Whedon was informed Sarkeesian’s show was a “cancer.” And so on. It’s the same nonsense, only without the rape and death threats.

Don’t worry: they saved those for Sarkeesian herself, as well as her family.

Now before we go over the boring cycle of “It’s just the Internet, they probably wouldn’t do anything,” I want to reiterate that we don’t get to decide that, and targeted women don’t get to decide what the outcome is either. Potentially violent men, with raging distorted views of reality, get to decide. Consider: these are the same people who think threatening a stranger and her family with death and rape are appropriate responses to her talking about video games.

I don’t think video games are mere kids’ stuff or just toys. Games mean something—but that gives no one any reason to go after a participant in the discussion about games because she’s the “wrong” gender, and saying the “wrong” things, and challenging us in the “wrong” ways.

Whedon and Schafer endorsing Sarkeesian is at least an acknowledgment in the crack of calcified skin that seems to have enveloped so much of the online community; here are men with major platforms, history and demonstrations of their talent, and importance to the very industries these fanboys love, saying “grow up.”

The rage of misogyny is to me the dying cries of a wounded beast. But such a beast still has claws. It can still draw blood. That’s not a reason, then, to be apathetic. It continues to happen and it doesn’t stop it being horrible every single time.

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Now, of course, there might be some irony: I’m using two men as some kind of saviours. But that’s not my point. This incident demonstrates what happens to men and what happens to women, when they antagonise the black hairball of hatred that is geek fandom. Women who write criticism get rape and death threats; men who are involved in creating the products geeks purchase and devote themselves too—TV shows, games, films—are also hated but with little to no threat of sexual violence. No doubt many will claim otherwise, that men are treated no different, are also threatened. Considering the vast amount of literature (some I've already linked to above), there's little one can do to convince such people that women's treatment, in general and online, is different and worse.

There is another thread in the hairball of misogyny society is coughing up: it’s the accusation known as “white-knighting,” which Schafer and Whedon got and others get labelled whenever they convey favourable views towards women’s existence, opinion, or work.

Again, praising Whedon and Schafer and other prominent men’s support of women shouldn't be seen as men overshadowing these women’s work. That feeds into the sexist narrative the bigots want. It shouldn’t be seen as poor women, as princesses, needing the brave strong man to save them. It’s about people helping other people because it’s right thing to do: standing in support of targeted individuals because they deserve our support.

“White knighting” is a pejorative term bigots use to undermine such actions from men who are using their voices for support, not for condemnation and misogyny. Bigots use it to claim men are supporting women in the hopes of sleeping with women. Because, apparently, that’s the only reason you would ever want to treat someone as a person.

It’s the one thread directly aimed at heterosexual men, while the others are all about silencing women. It’s a machine of antagonism, a tentacled, hairy creature wanting to wind its way into dominance. Men who are not targets of rape and death threats can use this immunity to the benefit of targets who are by showing support, as Whedon and Schafer demonstrated, but bigots use terms like “white knighting” to try curb even this.

Those of us who want to see less misogyny and sexism should be grateful that powerful people are openly demonstrating support of women and their views; that media are treating women as persons, even if they have some way to go. Fanboys will rage. Their fear and bizarre hatred will be loud (have you ever heard of a louder “oppressed” group than straight men on the Internet?) but that’s why those who are not targeted need to be speaking up more. If Whedon can do so, then anyone who cares can too.

Nonetheless, we should convey our support for women who have to be the lightning rods drawing out the poison from the spheres we love; they shouldn’t have to stand alone. It’s wrong that the only men’s voices that are loud are the ones shouting women down.