Monday, March 18, 2013

On Thunderf00t on Sarkeesian on Feminism

This is a point-by-point commentary on Thunderf00t's (TF) latest video arguing against feminism, which was itself specifically against Anita Sarkeesian's "Damsels in Distress (Part 1)" video. I added descriptions of the prompts from the video (italicized) to guide the post.


[2:30] Thunderf00t's first substantial point, after dissecting a game I don't know enough about, concerns the motivations of game developers not being to appease feminists or to subjugate women, but to earn a profit.

His checklist of game developer priority is flawed. Rarely is it a conscious effort to subjugate or oppress women when you hear feminists objecting to the sex portrayed in media. No feminist I know believes that game designers meet in a room to discuss how best to oppress women. Designers do, however, surely discuss how to best use diversity to appeal to and respect a wide audience, rather than discourage it. The problem is the culture of our society that some games and their creators don't escape.

[3:45] TF proposes an alternate plot to Double Dragon, a game in which the player's girlfriend is kidnapped in the intro and the beat 'em up game begins to save her. He suggests that the feminist angle would be that the two male players leave to allow this "grown adult" to fend for herself.

His example of an alternate Double Dragon in which the player characters decide a captured grown women can care for herself is a strawman. Feminism does not reject compassion for others, and I would argue instead embraces empathy for the plight of a group of people. Feminists want women to be treated equally to men, not elevated above. The issue is not the act of rescuing another human being's life; it's about objectification and an underlying trend for male-saves-female. Somehow TF equates women's autonomy and equality with removing empathy, which I do not understand.

[5:00] - TF counters Anita's description of objectification of the damsel in distress by describing them as "loved ones to be helped".

A damsel in distress could be a "loved one to be helped" if she had characterization, if she acted in a significant way as a character. I remember the Paper Mario games at least implementing this with Peach-specific levels that advanced the plot in one and having her as a regular playable character in another.

This isn't about nitpicking a single instance and arm-twisting an acceptable interpretation. It's about a systemic and continual trend portraying women being more helpless and less human. In a world without the gender bias we see today, there would be little objection to a damsel in distress, as a proportional amount of the time it would be a man needing to be rescued. In a society and industry that has demonstrated a healthy perspective on gender, there would not be these sexist threads to analyze.

[5:30] - TF describes how the feminist position he constructs from the platform of "helping others objectifies them" extends to dismantling medical care.

His entire hospital/doctor rant is a strawman. Feminists do not equate willingness to sacrifice with objectification. A long history of games that use women with little humanizing characteristics as a reward, goal, or motivation, however, does strongly imply objectification.

[6:14] - TF shows the climactic ending to the opening scene of 2009's Star Trek, in which Kirk's father saves him and his mother by sending them to safety while piloting his ship into the attacking one.

His Star Trek clip, while a powerful scene from a good movie, clings to one example in a series known for its multi-racial, sexually-diverse, and sexuality-embracing tone. A series that is known for being progressive on these issues and establishing a trust long ago strongly (daresay obviously) implies that the scene he played is assuredly not meant to establish male superiority. Not to mention the obvious necessity for the woman giving birth, the person literally carrying the child, to be the one to be saved. Many more plausible reasons exist for the choices made in that scene, which is why there is little objection from feminists.

[7:30] - TF says the following quote: "You can over-analyze this to come to your desired conclusions."

I'm sure this quote will be tossed around fruitlessly. I already accused TF of arm-twisting a sensible plot out of a beat 'em up game myself. The point of Anita's videos are, again, not to find individual flaws in single games to be fought over. It is to explore the continual trend in gaming, over many games and decades, to exclude, subject, or objectify women.

[8:00] - TF satirically over-analyzes games to spin them as anti-male.

First of all, male characters in games are often the ones to be given agency and power. They are the capable ones, the heroes. They do not suffer nearly the level of objectification or stereotyping that female characters do. This deserves to be mentioned and kept in mind when discussing how men are treated in games.

Feminists I know would agree that men are also sometimes portrayed as dumb, violent, simplistic, lazy, or bad at specific things women are stereotypically good at. Men stand to gain from feminism and women's equality because certain undeserved traits or interests will no longer be associated with a specific sex. Men who cry will not be stigmatized. Women who enjoy sex will not be labeled as "sluts".

[9:00] - TF shows the many ways in which the knight can die in Dragon's Lair.

TF's satirical over-analyzing of the knight's many forms of death falls flat not only in the muddled minutia of his point but also when the game is placed in the tapestry of the many, many games for decades that repeat the "male hero saves female" trope. That's the point. Death totals hardly count when they don't capitalize on male stereotypes, especially when compared to the obvious sexualizing of the princess at the end as a reward for each correct choice.

[11:20] - TF reiterates that games are made for profit.

Yes, games are made to make money. But there's so much more to that idea. Games that represent the sexes fairly would capture more of the market, first of all. To alienate half the population that might otherwise be playing the same games that currently have male-dominated audiences is a true disservice to the developers' own industry.

But the larger point is that game companies, developers and publishers, that perpetuate old stereotypes should be avoided and no longer patronized. And reflecting upon the past informs our current state and our trajectory in the future.

[11:30] - TF satirically? comments on Anita wearing make-up and jewelry as indicators that she is a hypocrite and betraying feminist ideals.

Looking presentable for an informative video series is not submitting to the patriarchy or being hypocritical in any way. Obviously a feminist would try to look past societal norms and choose for himself or herself whether to wear make-up and jewelry. To assume this choice is a product of societal pressure is simply ad hominem in my opinion. And no, it's not as easy to paint the picture TF just attempted as it is to identify numerous games that continue sexist ideas. He is simply giving far too much leeway to the video game industry that all these examples of gender inequality in games can be explained away.

[12:40] - TF suggests for Anita and feminists to create "feminist games" themselves and see if they sell.

"Feminist games"? Games don't have to constantly push gender equality on the player to be deemed acceptable in a feminist view. Mass Effect is a trivially easy example where sex barely enters into the equation, except for, well, the act of sex, as well as biology (Asari, Krogan). Simply having men and women operating side-by-side exemplifies this ideal without calling attention to it, much like incorporating alien races do the same for a racial parallel. I already mentioned Star Trek before, but it holds the same standard in television and film. Skyrim creates a gender-neutral world, as well. BioWare and Bethesda have come a long way to appease a wide audience by treating different players fairly.

Much like games feminists would appreciate don't have to ham-fist the concept of privilege down players' throats, the games Anita discusses don't outright claim that women are inferior to men. It's not about being so overt, and TF knows this from his checklist, my first comment. It's about seeing women and men (and all else) portrayed in a reasonably balanced light. It's not about "sexist games" and "feminist games". It's about games that adopt one mentality or another, and how that effects society. And more women will enter the gaming market when games appeal to them, which will happen when they are portrayed fairly in them.

[15:35] - TF shows Tetris while positing that all games are over-analyzed by feminists to find sexism.

Don't put Tetris up to have the audience associate that with Anita's claims of systemic sexism in video games. Not every game follows every trope or trend, and puzzle games least likely so. The majority of relevant titles, ones that incorporate individuals with gender, however, do expose this sexist attitude.

[15:53] - TF tackles the following quote from Anita: "The belief that women are somehow a 'naturally weaker gender' is a deeply ingrained socially constructed myth, which of course is completely false" by pointing to biological differences (upper and lower body strength).

Anita is not ignoring the physical differences between men and women. She is emphasizing the numerous other dimensions for which a person can express capability or strength. "Weaker" is purposefully chosen to entail more than an arm-wrestling contest.

[17:07] - TF points to a sentence on Wikipedia coming from a feminist source, implying it is invalid.

Don't immediately associate Anita with some Wikipedia reference she never directly cited. TF's connections are tenuous at best and dishonest at worst. In this endless field of strawmen, it is mandatory that he connect the claims to whom he is arguing against.

[18:45] - TF notes "in passing" that she has disabled comments on her videos and refutes her reasoning of preventing harassment.

We have examples of what comments look like in videos that discuss gender equality. Look at Watson's initial elevator video for but a minute. It is not all rational discourse and disagreement you see, but threats, harassment, and sexism. Anonymous people ARE attacking women who speak on this issue because they are women and feminists.


I didn't hit everything TF brought up because of my lack of knowledge on the tone and content of specific games and the validity of various sources he complains about. I also ignored some of the more trivial points, especially concerning semantics.

One of Anita's last points is crucial to understand her overall message:

"Just to be clear, I am not saying that all games using the damsel in distress as a plot device are automatically sexist or have no value. But it’s undeniable that popular culture is a powerful influence in [our] lives and the Damsel in Distress trope as a recurring trend does help to normalize extremely toxic, patronizing and paternalistic attitudes about women."

Thunderf00t completely misses this subtlety, and it is his consistent failing to recognize the remarkably reasonable goals of the feminist movement that fuel this heated disagreement.

This is my first major post concerning feminism. I am open to constructive criticism from readers who feel I have misstepped or misrepresented the feminist position at any point.


  1. This is the first post I've seen responding to TF's video and I just wanted to say, well done.

  2. Good post overall, I agree with most of the points, save for one nitpick.

    "A series that is known for being progressive on these issues and establishing a trust long ago strongly (daresay obviously) implies that the scene he played is assuredly not meant to establish male superiority."

    Just as it is with games, intent is never the issue when it comes to how gender roles are presented in media. I would argue that most video games that contain the damsel in distress trope are "not meant to establish male superiority."

    It's about context. In the context of Star Trek's history of presenting positive examples of gender roles, one man sacrificing his life for his wife and child is a blip and doesn't really perpetuate any negative stereotypes.

    1. Yeah, I agree. I thought I was using many different terms to mean the same thing, but that one wasn't in line.

  3. I could start nitpicking through the entire post, but I would rather discuss some of the more general topics.

    You seem to believe that:

    "It's about a systemic and continual trend portraying women being more helpless and less human."

    That is a large claim and a claim that is going to be difficult to prove when using vague discriptions such as "less human".

    But you seem to be convinced that it is true. I myself have not seen this trend (and I have watched Anita's videos), but perhaps I am looking at it from a wrong perspective or have not been reading the same research on the subject as you have. So I am curious if there is something you could explain to me or some research you could point me to so I could be convinced that this large claim represents reality to some degree?

    Then the second point I would like to make revolves around this quote:

    "In a world without the gender bias we see today, there would be little objection to a damsel in distress, as a proportional amount of the time it would be a man needing to be rescued."

    When would it be proportional? If it where in fact true that men in reality safe women in distress, relative offcourse to it happening the other way around, as much as it is portrayed in games and the media in general. Would that be proportional? Or should it be 50/50 or 52/48, based on the ratio of men and women in the world?
    I ask it because I am wandering about your perspective and whether or not you yourself are being a bit objective in your judgements. You seem to be making some pretty strong claims that I don't think you can back up with much evidence. That is oftenly a sign of some ideological thinking.

    Last but not least. Without wanting to go through any specific points here, but at some points you seem to be making a argument as follows: TF says x about feminism, but according to me feminism is y, therefore TF is wrong. Who are you to define what feminism is? And on the basis of what do you claim that TF's experience of what feminism is invalid or wrong?

    I am sorry that at time I might come across as a bit attacking. I am not trying to attack anyone personnaly,(since this is the internet and I don't know anybode here I would have nothing to gain from that) but I am sincerly curious to your response to these questions. I have watched both Anita's and TF's videos with great interest and this is the first time I have seen somebody come back at TF from the feminist perspective. So I am simply curious about the way you think about these issues and if you can convince me of what you are claiming.

    With friendly greetings from Amsterdam

  4. PS whenn I say ideological thinking I mean that in a Marx kind a way. Starting with a big idea (an aircastle as he calls it) in which you believe very strongly and which informs your perspective on reality, making you see the empirical reality incorrectly because you did not start from the bottom, with the empirical facts. Untill a point is reached where cognitive dissonance kicks in, in order for the big idea to be protected from reality and the empirical facts. That is when ideological thinking degrades in to hollow frases and empty talk.

    I put in some Marx parafrases for you as well :) Again nothing, personal, not directed at anybode here. I just like to throw in some Marx and his emoiricism every now and then :D