Anita Sarkeesian Is No Ordinary Woman
The feminist critic tells GOOD about life after Gamergate and her new video series on women who shaped history
Image courtesy of Anita Sarkeesian
When most people think of the name “Anita Sarkeesian,” the second thing they think of is “Gamergate.” This despite the fact that the infamous harassment campaign which targeted women in the video game industry technically kicked off two years after Sarkeesian was first besieged with abuse for Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, a video series dedicated to deconstructing misogyny in gaming culture.
Though the word for it came later, the outright terrorism that hit Sarkeesian in 2012—for calmly and plainly illuminating sexist stereotypes in a particular form of entertainment—was one of the first major moments in which the digital public began to truly understand the severity (and real-life consequences) of gendered online harassment. Gamergate was so major that it inspired its own (questionable) Law and Order: SVU episode.
Lately, though, harassment has become both quotidian affair and distracting spectre for Sarkeesian. In four years, her nonprofit Feminist Frequency has grown to employ several staffers and critics, sponsor activist resources, and most recently, successfully crowdfund its newest video series Ordinary Women. The five-episode project highlights major yet mostly ignored women throughout history, from the first programmer Ada Lovelace to the ruthless pirate Ching Shih. While much has changed since these women were alive, many of their contributions are still absent from textbooks.
On the eve of the first two episodes’ premiere at XOXO Festival in Portland, Sarkeesian spoke with GOOD about supplanting unwelcome notoriety, making progress through social media—and, yeah, a little about that SVU episode.
This new video series is a big shift from the last. Can you tell me a little about what happened from point A to point B that made you change it up that way?
When Tropes happened—my life is like Before Tropes and After Tropes—it took over my life. It was unbelievably huge for just two people, and the pressure we felt to make sure it held up to the invisible bar that was set, for the attention that we got, was so high. So between that, dealing with the harassment, then doing work to advocate to end harassment online, there was no room to do anything else.
[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]I’d always hear, 'It’s not believable to have a female character who does anything in the 18th century.' And I’m like, 'Oh, but time travel is?'[/quote]
Last summer, last fall, I was like, “OK, I am seriously burnt out, I cannot keep doing this.” So I decided to shift gears with Tropes to make it more manageable and more sustainable, by making them smaller, more focused episodes. At that point, I could finally see the end of [the series].
I circled back to this one idea I’d had before Tropes. I’m glad I’m doing it now, and not before. I have more resources available to me, so I can make something that looks spectacular.
So why make a video series about “forgotten” women in history?
One of the goals of Ordinary Women is to give creators inspiration to write more women into their stories. While we were doing Tropes, I began talking to more creators, speaking to gaming studios and publishers and just folks writing media. I’d always hear, “It’s not believable to have a female character who does anything in the 18th century.” And I’m like, “Oh, but time travel is?”
Those are the people who are just being assholes. But there are also people who aren’t. They say, “I don’t know how to write women.” I can come back with all kinds of witty, smartass responses to that, but at the end of the day, it’s usually coming from people who sincerely want to learn and grow. So this series is like, “Look at these amazing women who did these incredible amazing things!” Whether good or bad, whether heroic or villainous, they can see these stories are not fictional.
Did the fact that simple historical accounts would be less controversial factor into the decision?
It’s totally controversial! There’s still a group of men working very hard to be like, “No, Ada Lovelace is not the first programmer for all of these reasons.” Which is really interesting, because although she did come from a place of privilege, if you look at her life, she got pushed down and pushed down and pushed down. Doctors would say that she was mentally ill, and the reason is that math is not for her brain. Mathematics were for men. And then you fast-forward to today, when she’s long dead and contributed amazing things to this industry. And she’s still denigrated.
So you knew, basically, that even by telling these stories, men were going to be pissed off about it?
I don’t think anything I do is safe. I was wondering whether people would think I’m not being critical anymore. [With these videos] I’m saying that women have been written out of history, that these women’s names should be household names, like all of these other dudes. Like, Ching Shih should be named alongside Blackbeard when we talk about fearsome pirates, and she’s not. There is an inherent criticism of our education system and the people who write the history books, who determine who is and isn’t valuable. By bringing their stories to life and making them more visible, I think that’s very much in line with the work that I’ve been doing.
Image courtesy of Anita Sarkeesian
What you and the women targeted by Gamergate have been going through must change how you approach a lot of things.
Yeah, that harassment, much to my chagrin, became my identity, both in terms of what I was in the world, and what people put on me. I would do interviews, and the headlines would be like, “WOMAN HARASSED.” All the work that I’d done was pushed aside because the mainstream media really likes to sensationalize victimhood.
Being harassed is traumatic. We need to deal with it in the same ways we deal with all kinds of trauma. One of the ways that harassers and people who maintain the status quo trivialize harassment is by saying it’s not real. “The internet isn’t real, it can’t hurt you”—which is bullshit.
It’s like, hey, do you have a bank account? Do you log into your bank account on the internet? The internet is very real.
Yeah, exactly. I think we internalize that message, no matter how much we say, “No, it is real.” Can someone sending me sexist slurs actually affect me? Yes, absolutely. But we try to think that it doesn’t, even though repercussions of it are the same. Multiple events get bomb threats, this happens, then that happens, threat here, threat there—you’re gauging the level of risk all the time between threats.
After years of this, I eventually got to a place where I needed to really take care of myself in a serious way. I wasn’t trusting anyone; I was going inward. I had really strange relationships—all textbook trauma. So I got off the computer, started going on hikes, working out again, which is super helpful for depression. And I started trying to take days off more often, which is still hard to do. But I’m getting better about trying to balance.
So what do you anticipate from this project? What are you prepared for?
I’m prepared for everything at all times, actually. Or, you know, you come to expect the worst, and are really pleasantly surprised when it’s not. I just hope people want to share it and use it in classrooms and watch it with their kids. I really want to target younger folks and have it be a fun educational thing. I don’t even want to call it educational, because it sounds stuffy, but it is.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]When you’re harassed consistently for four years, it becomes the background radiation of your life. That’s part of the bullshit trauma work—I can’t ever actually fully process it, because I’m still living it.[/quote]
How has your day-to-day life changed over the past few years?
My life changed so dramatically, so quickly that the dramatic change has become so normalized that I don’t know. It feels the same as it’s always been. But it’s not. When you’re harassed consistently for four years, it becomes the background radiation of your life. That’s part of the bullshit trauma work—I can’t ever actually fully process it, because I’m still living it.
I needed to contact XBox support the other day for something, and I didn’t want to use my account, because you had to be logged in. My gamer tag is just a random name, and I didn’t want them to connect my name with it, in case the representative knew who I was and was not supportive. It was a whole rigamarole. Little things like that are different. I don’t like opening my curtains in my living room, because I don’t want people to see into my apartment. I think about where I sit in restaurants, because people can walk by and recognize me. Whether I actually act on it or not, I’m very conscious of who I am and the possibilities of being recognized in certain situations. If I see a dude walking down the street, I might cross the street.
It sounds like just like an amplified version of being a woman in the world.
A while back I was walking down the street, and there was a guy on his bike on the sidewalk, and he grabbed my ass as he biked by. It was horrifying, super violating. My first thought was, “Did he take my phone?” because it wasn’t in my pocket. My second thought, though, was, “Does he know who I am?”
And then I realized he didn’t even see my face, he had no fucking idea who I am. It was just a garden-variety shitbag misogynist. But to me, I get recognized on the street, and there’s always that moment of, “Is this person okay?” Sometimes it’s exhausting. I don’t want to think about it, but you can’t stop thinking about it.
Have more experienced, “famous” people offered their support to you since you’ve become so hypervisible? Like that Law and Order: SVU episode happened, which was just…
That was… fuck that shit. Did you watch the episode?
I was travelling when that came out. We had gotten a tip that it was happening before it was announced. When I got home I watched it, the character was wearing hoop earrings—it was an amalgam of me and Zoe [Quinn]. Like, it was so much of me, aesthetically. And it was super cheesy.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]Online harassment isn’t new to the internet or the world... It’s easier to do now, but it’s nothing new.[/quote]
So, I’m watching it, and kind of laughing. Then she gets abducted from a speaking engagement. Then tortured. Then Ice-T uses his [first-person shooter] skills to shoot the [kidnapper]. Because games. And suddenly I was like, oh my god, they literally created the fantasy of what all these dudes want to do to us.
I was laughing but then as soon as it stopped, I started bawling uncontrollably. It was so triggering—the laughing was a defense mechanism, and as soon as there was nothing to laugh at anymore, it just disappeared. I don’t get triggered by things very often, but that was about my goddamn life, literally, in the most exploitative way possible.
Image courtesy of Anita Sarkeesian
I think I’d heard it had been awful for you, so I didn’t plan on bringing it up.
I can talk about it now. But I had a very intense reaction to that. Anyway, I’ve had conversations with people who are much more visible than me since, but not really at the time, which is why I do it now. I try to reach out to women, and be like, hey, I get what's happening. If you need support, I can give you resources, but I can also just be here to listen. Some of the conversations I had with Zoe, I couldn’t have with anyone else—because no one else understood it in the same way. I could say something that would sound really fucked up to other people, but Zoe would be like, “Yep, totally get it.”
You know, online harassment isn’t new to the internet or the world. But like when you talk to feminists, I’ve talked to some girls in the riot grrrl movement and some second-wave feminists, and they all have stories. They have stories about people throwing chains and shit on stage at them, stories about death threats being handwritten and mailed to them. It’s easier to do now, but it’s nothing new.
How have you adjusted to the positive aspects of your success thus far? It seems like there’s a bit of mythology surrounding you now, that must feel a bit celebrity-like.
I actually hate fame. I’m so lucky that there are a lot of supportive people; when I go to conventions, there are lots of folks who want to tell me how my work has influenced them or mattered to them in some way. But some people get really, really nervous. No judgment on that—I really value my supporters, so I feel like an asshole saying that—but also like, I’m just me!
Image by Susanne Nilsson