When Just Pointing Out Misogyny Qualifies As “Feminist”

I haven’t really gone over the whole “#GamerGate” controversy, mostly because it confounds me and leaves me depressed, but the short version is this:

  • Ex-boyfriend of female independent game developer Zoe Quinn writes hate post
  • Accusations are made of games journalism being too comfy with games industry
  • Anita Sarkeesian releases a new Feminist Frequency, celebrities tweet it out
  • Extremely vile and graphic misogynist harassment causes some female journalists and developers to give up, Sarkeesian flees her home due to nature of death threats
  • Quinn shows that 4chan pushed the whole thing off the ground
  • Everyone begins to move on

A whole bunch of issues were pulled into the debate. Some of it was criticism of the media, so you had polemics against the PR business, games journalism, etc. Some of it were issues of what it meant to be a “gamer” and you had critiques of it as white, male culture, critiques of consumerism, etc. Some of it was old-fashioned reactionary thought, so you had people attacking feminists and anyone perceived to be in favor of social justice.

There are so many angles to it that it’s worth reading gaming sites, mainstream press, watching videos, and whatever will provide you information about it to get the full idea. But what made me sad is how even the most basic things get called “feminism” even when they’re not.

Just so we’re clear on terms, at its most basic level feminism is the belief that all genders should be equal. There are tons of paths to getting there, plenty of theoretical work about society, and large amounts of disagreement within the feminist community. But it’s really simple: if you believe that women should enjoy equal rights and privileges as men, you are a feminist.

Feminist Frequency is definitely feminist, but it’s often pointing out examples of misogyny within video games. That alone isn’t feminism. It’s possible to create a non-misogynist game and still have something that isn’t feminist, even if it deals with people. What makes FF feminist is that Sarkeesian ties the examples of misogyny into a larger critique of developers’ choices when it comes to representing females on screen, and how often they go out of their way to create a misogynist option even when it provides no real value to the game.

To take an example that might be a bit more familiar, it was widely reported last year that some Swedish cinemas were adding a “feminist” ratings system, the Bechdel Test. The Bechdel Test for fiction is simple: there are at least two named female characters, who talk to each other, about something other than a man. Tons of movies fail this test, regardless of quality. It’s not just dumb action movies that do this, it’s Oscar-winning dramas. But here’s the thing: the Bechdel Test doesn’t show the presence of feminism.

You can have two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man and still create a work dripping in misogyny. What the Bechdel Test is usually indicative of is whether there are well-crafted female characters in the work. If the work of fiction fails the test, then you can make a safe guess that the women in it are men’s things, not fully-realized characters.

While the Bechdel Test as a concept is feminist, passing it is not. The Bechdel Test’s value is in looking at the mass of pop culture and illustrating the way that men’s perspectives are privileged and women’s perspectives are ignored. And it has an implicit call to bring female perspectives up to parity with male perspectives.

What #GamerGate showed is that there are still plenty of people who are very uncomfortable with even that basic call. And they’ll lash out in the worst ways to protect what they perceive to be theirs.

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