Anita Sarkeesian is the founder of the fabulous blog and video series Feminist Frequency, where she analyzes depictions of gender in pop culture in an accessible, entertaining way. Sarkeesian believes that popular culture is a powerful force, one that can shape how we think about the world, and that it even though it can seem silly, it deserves serious analysis: she wrote her master’s thesis on representations on strong women in scifi and fantasy television.
Feminist Frequency is also about keeping that serious analysis accessible to those who aren’t well-versed in academic feminist thinking, or who are just learning to apply a feminist lens to the world around them. And it’s really good stuff. Check out her analysis of Kanye West’s “Monster” video, which is so spot on and well-argued that Sarkeesian can be forgiven for totally cheating on the desert island question.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Anita Sarkeesian.
Chloe Angyal: How did you come to start Feminist Frequency, and what’s the most challenging part about doing it?
Anita Sarkeesian: I started Feminist Frequency when I was in grad school. I was disillusioned with the often alienating, elitist and inaccessible texts that we had to engage with and I wanted to create a more fun and interesting way to talk about privilege, oppression, social justice, and feminism. I gravitated towards pop culture criticism because I’m a fan, scifi geek, and I love (good) television. I really feel like popular culture is the language that we commonly speak and that it provides a foundation for us to talk about some of the big, pervasive social inequities. Media criticism identifies the ruthless perpetuation of stereotypes and promotion of control mythologies but it can also identify the points where we can intervene and talk back. I wanted to use FemFreq to channel my joys and frustration with what I was watching; how limiting our media landscape is, but also how enjoyable really good storytelling can be. I wanted to show how fans can simultaneously enjoy media and also be critical of it at the same time.
The two biggest challenges I face are funding and harassment. I don’t receive funding to make FemFreq videos and while I want to create videos more often they are extremely time consuming to research and produce and I still have to pay rent each month so balancing paid work and FemFreq has been a challenge. The second biggest challenge is harassment. I had anticipated online harassment when I first began FemFreq because I made the choice to publicly use my face and identity but I don’t think I was adequately prepared for the torrent of hate that I get on a regular basis. This is a wide scale problem that far, far too many women videobloggers and feminist bloggers have to deal with regardless of the topics they are blogging about, as I’m sure Feministing readers are intimately familiar with. My commentaries are intended to push the status quo and to invigorate feminist pop culture criticism, and I’ve found that mix encourages men to remind me of my “place as a woman.” I get near daily comments telling me to “Get back in the kitchen” or “Make me a sandwich” (thanks a lot South Park), telling me I’m either ugly or hot and the explicit things they would like to do to my body all the way down to threats of physical and sexual violence. This gives me pause, and reminds me that we still have a long battle ahead of us. In my small online spaces, I combat this by moderating all the comments that come through my YouTube channel and my website. Even though I read them all, I don’t approve hateful and/or combative comments so that people who find my work can see and participate in genuine and thoughtful engagement in moderated and somewhat safer spaces, which are in rare supply on the internets.
CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
AS: I think I’d have to go with the Slayer on this one for a whole host of reasons which would take hours of fangirl glee to explain in detail. The major reasons though is that Buffy the Vampire Slayer has some of the most strong, complex, and interesting characters, both female characters and male allies. Buffy herself was created by Joss Whedon to subvert the common horror movie trope of the blond woman walking into an alley and being attacked, he wanted to reverse the stereotypical roles, and show what it would be like if the monster were actually afraid of her. Although Buffy the Vampire Slayer isn’t without its problems, it is a show about a woman who struggles with doing right, who makes mistakes, who is flawed and who then grows from those mistakes. While Buffy is considered sexy (by mainstream media standards) she never uses her sexuality as a pseudo form of power. She does not act like the sexy seductress to manipulate men into doing what she wants. This narrative trope in which women deviously use sexual suggestion to “get her way” from hapless, straight men is a far too common sexist plot device used by Hollywood writers with so-called “strong” female characters. Buffy uses her intellect, her skills and the help of her friends to solve problems.
As for real life heroes, bell hooks has been highly influential both in my political formation and my professional life. Her cultural criticism work continually inspires me, specifically her collection of essay’s Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations and the Media Education Foundation documentary “Cultural Criticism and Transformation.” Not only does she have a strong intersectional feminist analysis but she has an inspiring ability to speak on incredibly complex and even controversial topics in a lyrical, accessible, and easy to understand way using popular culture as her framework.
CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?
AS: You know, the internet in general kind of makes me want to scream, but more specifically how male privilege often manifests itself as misogyny and the way that fan communities and the mass media often celebrate this. One example is everything surrounding Charlie Sheen, which is pretty self explanatory at this point. Another is a recent article I read about a controversy that surrounded the webcomic/blog/mega gaming community called Penny Arcade. The webcomic was started by two white men in 1998 and has since become a widely popular and influential blog in the gaming community. The specific controversy is surrounding a comic they released last summer that had a rape joke in it involving “dickwolves”. This understandably pissed off a minority of their readers who then contacted the creators through email to complain. Instead of owning up and apologizing for the insensitive joke, they made another webcomic that had a backhanded, pseudo non-apology, apology, and included another rape joke. At a conference, one of the creators drew an image of a “dickwolf” to a cheering audience and later sold the image printed on t-shirts. It wasn’t until one of the creators received a death threat to his family that he came out and said enough is enough, and even then he still didn’t apologize.
A number of people came out publicly against the rape culture that Penny Arcade was openly contributing to. Courtney Stanton, a gaming professional refused to speak at and attend the PAX East conference organized by Penny Arcade and she is still receiving endless harassment and death threats. Although this happened last year Maddy Myers just wrote an excellent article called “Gaming, Rape Culture and How I Stopped Reading Penny Arcade” outlining the controversy and why, as a long time devoted fan of Penny Arcade she has stopped reading it. It’s bad enough that anyone is making rape jokes to begin with but the fact that Penny Arcade actually responded to criticisms by celebrating and encouraging rape culture is unacceptable and unconscionable.
CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
AS: What ISN’T the greatest challenge facing feminism today? Ha, but seriously, we are engaged in such a daunting struggle that it seems like this could be answered in a multitude of different ways. As a media critic I could talk about all the ways that the media perpetuates damaging gender roles but I think to move feminism forward we need to step away from a focus on individuals into a deeper understanding of the systems of oppression and privilege that we live in. Often the emphasis is put on individual actions and choices which works to obscure the power that patriarchy as a social system (and its intersections in other oppressive social systems) have on the struggle for gender equity and social justice. Allan G. Johnson does some of my favourite work around gender and systems. In his book The Gender Knot, he explains, “We are trapped inside a legacy and its core is patriarchal. To understand it and take part in the journey out, we have to find ways to unravel the knot, and this begins with getting clear about what it means to be inside a patriarchal legacy.”
Understandably, systems are not always obvious since nearly all popular culture narratives are constantly reaffirming the individual model by telling us that the world functions purely on individual choices and actions. I actually think we would have far more interesting and much better stories if TV and movie writers focused on individuals engaging and struggling inside of larger structures. So in addition to gender equity, the end of patriarchy might give us better entertainment too!
CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
AS: Since there will probably be loads of sushi on this desert island, I’ll bring along a bottle of gluten free soy sauce, some fresh mint tea, and my computer, complete with an internet connection so I can stay up to date with ALL my feminists!