- Mar 4, 2019
CHAPTER 1: HER FIRST BOMB THREAT
When Anita Sarkeesian tells the bleak story of her “first bomb threat,” she turns it into a joke, like she’s recalling a cherished memory. It’s a bitter gag about a difficult time in her life, but she pulls it off, and I can’t help but burst out laughing. She’s a practiced raconteur, good at self-deprecation. She swears a great deal and seems to relish the dark absurdity of her life experiences.
It’s difficult to square this cheerfully fuck-’em-all Sarkeesian with the serious person familiar to viewers of her hit YouTube series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. In the most popular first season of that show, she delivers her detailed script — the grim evidence of industry-wide sexism — without much in the way of humor.
But that was a time and place when she was on a mission, deep in dangerous territory. She could not afford to be flippant, could not afford to be anything other than focused. Her job was to awaken an industry to its own ignorance and cruelty. She did that job, her message resonating with large numbers of women and men who play and make games.
Her payment was appalling abuse from “gamers” and ongoing ingratitude from games companies.
“The games industry is like, ‘who the fuck is this woman?’” she says. “‘We don’t want anything to do with her.’ They think I’m too controversial. There is a major publisher that declined to be a part of something that was amazing because my name was attached to it. As soon as my name was removed, they agreed to be a part of it.”
Sarkeesian makes the point that these are the same companies that now profit from her critical video and podcast work, released by her not-for-profit, Feminist Frequency. Games companies now release much-lauded adventures that celebrate strong female characters while stripping their stories of the lazy, sexist tropes that her videos critiqued.
“WHO THE FUCK IS THIS WOMAN?”
Successful games like Horizon Zero Dawn, starring a young woman and released post-Feminist Frequency, demonstrate the folly of prior game industry dogma, that white, male protagonists were the only way to go. “Without a doubt, the work that we did with Tropes and that cultural conversation that we opened, directly led to these opportunities,” she says. “It’s mind-blowing because nobody is getting mad that games like Horizon Zero Dawnare being made. No one important is getting mad because Lara Croft has smaller boobs all of a sudden.”
Then there are the games companies that are demonstrably slow to react to change. “We’re seeing improvements but there’s still a lot of really awful things coming out of the industry,” she says. “Like Steam’s slow response to the rape game. Like women being fired for speaking out about things. They still don’t get it. In all of these conversations we’ve had over the last six or seven years, they still don’t understand. Or maybe they do understand, and they don’t care.
“That’s part of privilege. You can see the studios who just didn’t know any better, versus the ones that are now batting down the hatches and saying, everything we do must always be about men, and aimed at men.”
For our interview, Sarkeesian and I are sitting in an apartment in San Francisco’s Mission District. I want to talk to her about her life and her work. I want to find out more about her background and her formative years as a political activist and cultural critic. I want to find out why her non-profit orgaization, Feminist Frequency, is dramatically scaling back its operations, exactly 10 years after its formation.
But first, I want to talk about her achievements.
CHAPTER 2: MOVING AN INDUSTRY
Iask Sarkesian for her take on the impact of her work. “I do think it’s important,” she says. “It took me a while to be able to say that out loud, without feeling like an arrogant asshole. But in the time I’ve had away from it, I can see what it actually did, and I’m proud of it.”
She brought unfamiliar, academic ideas about feminism to a previously ignorant audience. Her work, which has been viewed by millions, helped to change the face of gaming. Although Feminist Frequency is, arguably, the most important example of criticism in the history of gaming, Sarkeesian says it was mostly an idea whose time had come.
“What I was putting forth was not radical at all,” she says. “For some reason, people’s minds were blown by me saying, ‘Hey, let’s not treat women like shit.’ Maybe asking to have a female protagonist in the occasional video game is not worthy of bomb threats?”
In her work, she provided evidence of how badly women had been misrepresented in video game portrayals. She made widely convincing arguments that gaming’s shameful disservice to gender had real ramifications at a wider, cultural level.
“We were the first ones to do this huge study of women and games and be able to dissect it and provide an educational tool for the public, without the restrictions you get in academia,” she says. “If I had done a PhD about women in games, nobody would have read it. Bless my friends who are doing that work right now. But it’s not like they’re going to hit the same way that Tropes did.”
Prior to Tropes, many gamers and people in the games industry understood that sexism in games was a problem. But the locus, the details, had not been cataloged. Criticism was mainly sporadic and particular to the most heinous game releases and PR stunts.
Her series of YouTube shows changed all that, by framing how the problem is systemic. Many of her millions of viewers were game designers who, having watched the shows, recognized something within themselves that needed to be changed. The shifting nature of gaming’s output is ample evidence of her impact.
“IF I HAD DONE A PHD ABOUT WOMEN IN GAMES, NOBODY WOULD HAVE READ IT.”
No one is arguing that sexism in gaming is no longer a problem, least of all Sarkeesian. But it’s a different kind of problem than it once was. In the wake of Tropes, we’ve seen a host of big budget games with great women characters including The Last of Us, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Dragon Age: Inquisition,The Walking Dead, Battlefield 5, Dishonored 2, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Horizon Zero Dawn, and Overwatch (as well as some missteps).
“When Dishonored 2 came out, I talked to [the game’s creative director] Harvey Smith,” says Sarkeesian. “He said, ‘We messed up [with the first game]. We heard the criticisms.’ The sequel did not have any of the problems that the previous game had in terms of representation. They heard us. And they listened.”
“A significant amount of developers listened to us and listened to writers who were talking about us, and they heard from the public. They decided, ‘This is right. Let’s not make these mistakes again.’”
Carolyn Petit, a one-time journalist with GameSpot, joined Feminist Frequency after being invited by Sarkeesian to see a preview of the first episode of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. “I thought it was incredible,” Petit says. “Of course, I was aware of the issues being discussed, but seeing it just laid out like that, it showed the tremendous ubiquity of these issues. It showed that a stupendous number of games were using these mechanisms and tropes.” Petit became a longtime part of the team.
Sarkeesian says that timing was a crucial element in her show’s success. “It was a very specific kind of criticism that hit at a very specific moment in time. I could not recreate that today. Tropes hit at a moment in our cultural history that allowed it to flourish. If I had launched it three years earlier or three years later, it probably wouldn’t have happened in the same way.”
Tropes delivered a toolkit that developers could use, to lever themselves out of the box they’d made for themselves. It taught producers and marketers that there were new red lines that ought to be respected. It delivered a whole new language of DON’TS that game designers needed to recognize.
“We revealed to people who play games, a pattern that had been right in front of their faces their whole lives,” says Petit. “And once they saw it, they couldn’t unsee it.”
It was one of those rare points of cultural division, between a definitive before and an absolute after. The games industry post-Sarkeesian is a different place than it was pre-Sarkeesian. She created criticism so sharp that it cut the past from the future. But there’s still room for improvement.
“A lot of people in gaming care deeply about making the industry better,” she says. “But their hands are tied by executives and higher-ups who don’t care or don’t understand.
“The studios that are doing better are the ones that have people in decision-making roles who actually care. Because it doesn’t matter how much a writer cares about making a great story, if the rest of the team doesn’t. It doesn’t matter how much the artists want to create cool female characters that aren’t in sexualized outfits, if the head of the art department is very motivated to continue that trend.”
CHAPTER 3: THE MESSAGE IS THE MEDIUM
Earlier this year, Sarkeesian decided that Feminist Frequency needed to change. She ceased taking a salary and laid off her co-creators and close friends Ebony Adams and Petit. She closed her offices and stopped making videos.
Feminist Frequency is still going, but it’s now mainly focused on a regular podcast hosted by Adams, Petit, and Sarkeesian. It’s a purely voluntary organization.
Sarkeesian has no pat answer to the question of why she’s decided to move on; no “it was just time.” The answers are more complicated.
Partly it’s about money. “Fundraising is always a struggle,” she says. “Paying my staff is always a struggle. I’m capable of fundraising. I learned how to do it through the process of running a nonprofit. But I didn’t get into this work to be a fundraiser.”
Feminist Frequency relied heavily on corporations willing to fund the sort of work that looks into intersectional feminist critiques of commercial art. When corporations make financial commitments to non-profits, they like to make song-and-dance about their noblesse-oblige, most especially when it portrays them in a positive light.
But they’re also prone to nickel-and-diming once favorable media coverage fades. Sarkeesian won’t talk specifics, but it’s clear that corporate generosity crept away once she outlived her usefulness.
Certainly, games companies have never been a major source of funding for the non-profit. Feminist Frequency’s last series, Queer Tropes in Video Games, was only partly funded, by a small cadre of indie games companies.
“There are a lot of reasons why this landscape is really challenging,” she says. “But I also don’t want someone reading this and thinking that if they wanted to drop $50,000 in our lap to make a video series, I wouldn’t do it. Like, I absolutely would,” she laughs.
The changing dynamics of social media are also a part of the decision to scale back. A cursory look at Feminist Frequency’s YouTube page shows that each episode of the first season of Tropes hit 1-to-3 million views. The second season saw episodes hitting the hundreds of thousands. More recent work is in the tens of thousands.
“It’s almost impossible to maintain the level that we were at with when Tropesfirst started,” she says. “I never thought that we would maintain millions of views on our videos forever. It would’ve been nice, but that’s not what happened.”
“As we started shifting into new projects, I had to recalibrate my thinking,” she says. “People would say to me, ‘You got 50,000 views. That’s great.’ I’m like, ‘No, it’s not.’ But now I’ve started to realize that in the landscape of nonprofits, 50,000 views is really good. A lot of nonprofits would kill to have that many views on their videos.”
“IT’S ALWAYS BEEN ABOUT THE MESSAGE.”
More significant is what Sarkeesian calls the “slow, painful death of social media.” When she began, YouTube and Facebook were the hot new platforms. Nowadays, their algorithms have turned them into monetization swamps, in which hateful misogyny and propaganda are often given the same weight as highly researched editorials.
“We are living in an outrage culture, but people are exhausted by it,” she says. “It’s a lot harder to convince a person to hit retweet than it is to just ‘like’ something, because they don’t want to flood their friends’ feeds. We are all much more conservative about how we share other people’s work.”
Finally, the change to Feminist Frequency is about her own aspirations. Sarkeesian isn’t a YouTuber or a journalist or even an academic. She’s an activist. She measures progress through change. Feminist Frequency, as a media-educational platform, is delivering diminishing returns.
“It’s always been about the message,” she says. “What is the best medium for the message? It doesn’t necessarily have to be through the lens of video. If the message is better served by writing or by installations or by photography, then I’ll do it that way.”
“We could have kept going for another couple of years,” she says. “I decided not to. I made the choice. Feminist Frequency did something amazing. We put out a ton of great resources. We made a lot of great stuff that is lasting and relevant and that’s being used in education.
“When I started, I was one of the only ones talking about media representation. We would release a video and every single media outlet would cover it. Everybody was watching. It was like a huge event. Now, there are so many voices that are talking about the same subject.”
CHAPTER 4: CHILDHOOD AND TEENAGE REBELLION
From an early age, Sarkeesian learned about the conflicts inherent to media messaging and representation
Her parents had immigrated from Iraq to Canada before she was born. They settled in Toronto. Her father was an engineer, while her mother was an accountant. Her parents had loved ones and family members in Iraq.
When she was around six years old, she watched television coverage of the First Gulf War, as American bombers pummelled Baghdad. While her peers bought into the tales of heroic liberation and derring-do, she was exposed to a different perspective.
“My classmates and their parents and the teachers were all like, ‘Yeah, let’s go to war. Saddam’s bad. Let’s bomb the crap out of them.’ They weren’t thinking about the costs or the history of that country.
“I was only six, but I knew that there was something very out of sync between what my family was telling me, while the news media was saying something else. So from a very young age, my family instilled critical thinking in me about the media, about the narratives that we were being told. They were not the same narratives that I heard at home.”
Sarkeesian’s relatives were Armenian Christians who had fled Turkish genocide earlier in the century, settling in Mosul. “When my parents talked about back home, it wasn’t like these tales of strife,” she says. “My mom played team sports in Iraq. So the demonization of Iraqis and the attempt to show that Arabs and Christians can’t get along never made sense to me. There were definitely stories that are a little bit problematic, but for the most part, they were all a part of this community. They grew up in this town and everyone got along just fine.”
Sarkeesian’s home life was a blend of Armenian and Arabic culture. When she started school, she could barely speak English.
“I spoke Armenian. My parents were like, ‘You’ll learn English at school.’ So all of these kids made fun of me. I came home. I said, ‘I’m never speaking Armenian again.’ And I never did. It became a tension where I needed to become more like these [Canadian school friends]. I wanted to fit in.
“I struggle a lot with my own racial identity because I very much pass for white. I have a lot of white privilege. But my whole life, I’ve also gotten a lot of dumb, ‘Oh, you’re so exotic looking.’ I’ve been asked if I’m this race or that. I’m like this weird, ethnically ambiguous thing. But my family is Middle Eastern and I grew up in a city that was very, very white. My home life was such stark contrast to my friends’ home lives.”
“I’M LIKE THIS WEIRD, ETHNICALLY AMBIGUOUS THING.”
She recalls a play date at a friend’s house, her first time in the home of a non-immigrant Canadian. “In my house, if you want something on the table, you just grab it. There’s no decorum. There’s no etiquette. You’re eating dinner! In this house, they were all ‘please pass the salt’ and ‘can I be excused?’ I was terrified. I didn’t know what to do.”
She learned to fit in and as she moved through middle school and the lower reaches of high school, she earned good grades: “As a child of immigrants, my dad had a very clear plan for what I was supposed to do and that involved being a lawyer or a doctor and going to the best schools and living in the best places.”
But she was also, as she says, “a bossy kid who had to be the center of attention.” She began to experiment in a counter-cultural identity. “I started really getting into Nirvana and Marilyn Manson and grunge. I would change my clothes at school so that my mom wouldn’t see, because I wasn’t allowed to wear all the weird shit that I was wearing.
“I also had a big mouth. I got beat up a few times by the preppy kids. I didn’t pick fights … I didn’t fight back. I remember being like, oh, someone’s punching me, cover your head and wait till it’s over. And then they just got really bored.”
Her father found Canadian winters discomforting, especially as he carried an old leg injury. When she was 15, he snagged a job in California. The family moved to Orange County.
“I was so mad,” she says. “I was coming into the school in sophomore year. I had to make friends quickly, which is very hard. The school wasn’t big enough to have a lot of different cliques. So everyone who was weird, whatever that meant, all hung out together in the same place.
“I went hard into counterculture. The goth kids, the punk kids, the hippies, the metal heads, the stoners, and the queer kids — because unfortunately that was seen as being weird — we all had this insular space, called Hippie Hill, where we gravitated. Everyone else left us alone.”
Sarkeesian endured the teenage angst of smart, suburban kids who feel like they’re on the outside, looking in. “I was very ragey,” she says. “I liked anything that was angry. I didn’t like anything that was normal. I didn’t understand the sophistication of looking at the world and identifying specifically what’s wrong. But now I get that I was trying to understand a world that didn’t make sense to me.”
Drugs were a part of this high school scene. “I did that for a couple of years and then I just was like, I don’t want to do this anymore and I stopped. I was done with this group of people, who were being pretty destructive. It was good because when I later went to college and other students were experimenting, I wasn’t interested. I’d already tried it.”
Sarkeesian found a new sanctuary: the internet. “My dad taught me how to build computers. I had my own in my bedroom. I was building Courtney Love fan pages on Geocities. I was learning how to code.”
By the time she graduated high school, her parents’ aspirations had evaporated. Sarkeesian drifted between jobs and college courses, did some semi-homeless couch-surfing. She worked in a hotel. She did some freelance web design.
In 2003, she nabbed a place at community school Santa Monica College, where she studied communications. This was a catalyst in her life. Once again, a war in Iraq would force her to see the world differently.
CHAPTER 5: POLITICAL AWAKENING
At SMC, Nancy Grass taught Sarkeesian intercultural communication. “Every once in awhile you get a class that is made up of some of the most extraordinary people,” Grass says. “It’s like the universe conspires to bring you just the most incredible people.
“That class was really off the charts. Anita and a few others gave me a run for my money. They would ask questions and challenge my own assumptions so deeply. As an educator, that’s a wonderful and terrifying thing.”
“She’s fiercely curious and incredibly intelligent,” says Grass. “Her desire to grow was immense. She was just a sponge and just hungry for information all the time.”
Grass, who is still at SMC, says the school is a hotbed of radical ideas and activism. In 2003, as George W. Bush’s Iraq War began, the student body was especially animated.
“A lot of people got radicalized around the Iraq war,” says Sarkeesian. “Like now, with the Trump administration, it was a big moment.”
“I STARTED READING A LOT MORE POLITICAL THEORY.”
Sarkeesian was new to activism, but she joined campus anti-war protests and found herself moving deeper into the college’s political culture “There were rooms where the Anarchists would meet across the hall from where the Marxists would meet and they didn’t get along,” she says. “I didn’t know any of the philosophy or politics behind any of this stuff, so I started reading a lot more political theory.”
“I learned about public speaking and audience analysis and understanding what gets people emotionally engaged,” she adds. “I ended up doing a lot of organizing; spending time in horribly ventilated back-rooms, having meetings and discussions.”
Grass encouraged Sarkeesian to focus on communications studies and media. “It’s a field that allows for somebody who’s extremely inquisitive and bright to be able to explore lots of different routes,” says Grass.
Following Santa Monica, Sarkeesian gained a bachelor’s degree in communications studies at California State. Her work was increasingly focused on economic theory and alternatives to modern capitalism.
She then moved to New York, where she once again joined forces with political action groups, while working various jobs.
“I got really interested in performance and guerrilla theater as a mode of activism,” she says. “I supported nonviolent direct actions. I learned how to do photography. I would take photos of protestors scaling up buildings and dropping banners off of cranes. We figured out how to use the social media that existed at the time, which was still very new.
“We would figure out how to send out press releases, and how to get the media to cover this. He worked on crafting our message. I was interested in getting the message out there.”
Sarkeesian did not want the protestors’ actions to go unnoticed. “You can do a die-in in front of the [military] recruiter’s office, but it doesn’t matter if only three people see it. You need to get more people to see it.”
A friend from that time remembers: “We were training protestors in how to deal with the media, and we did our own media support work for the protests. Anita understood how to tell stories, and how to work the media.”
Sarkeesian recalls attending workshops and group meetings and speeches by activists like Noam Chomsky. “I had already been politicized but I realized then that this is a life of work that people commit themselves to doing,” she says.
She began to focus more on feminist ideas. “I had done all this work on economic theory but I literally had no idea about identity politics. So I started learning about feminism.” She linked up with women who had been activists since the Vietnam era, who had experienced hostility and marginalization from male protest leaders. She listened to the stories of how women had to force their way into the conversation, sometimes storming the stage.
“The thing about the activist’s life is there are a lot of meetings,” she says. “You’re sitting on these conference calls with a hundred people. There’s all this sectarian politics and all this strife. It’s just the same bullshit that is everywhere else. I was watching these young people reproduce the same systems as white, male-dominated spaces.”
Sarkeesian won a scholarship at the prestigious York University in Toronto where she took a masters degree in social and political thought. For the first time, her work was focused more intensely on feminism. Her thesis was about the portrayal of women in science fiction TV shows, like Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica. She began using YouTube to state her beliefs, speaking direct to camera.
She branded her shows “Feminist Frequency.”
CHAPTER 6: THE EARLY VIDEOS
This was 2009, the era of “viral” videos and a great hope that the people could make “content” that was just as compelling as the mainstream media.
“Video blogging was becoming a thing,” Sarkeesian says. “YouTube formalized something that was already happening. I was influenced by people like Jay Smooth. He made a video around 2008 about racism and that video still gets play today, over a decade later, because it’s such a good video.”
Most of her early videos are simple affairs, in which she speaks into camera. She has a habit of occasionally looking sideways, something that she later conquered. “You can see how I got better,” she says. “I didn’t have an acting or performance background at all. I wasn’t as scripted, so I would just get in front of a camera and talk and then I would try to edit something together from my ramblings. It was an ad hoc process of me trying to figure out what I was doing and why I was doing it, and how to be appealing.”
One of Feminist Frequency’s early videos tackled the question of the Bechdel Test which counts how many times a work of fiction portrays two named women characters talking about anything other than a man, making the point that such an occurrence was rare. Her video made the cogent point that this was a systemic problem, rather than just a list of examples. The video was retweeted by the film critic Roger Ebert. Today it’s gained nearly 1.2 million views.
In many ways, the Bechdel Test video is highly representative of Sarkeesian’s later work. It took a term, widely understood in her circle of academic media interpretation, and explained it to a wider audience. In the years since, the notion of the Bechdel Test shifted from an academic, elite concern, to something widely understood. So much so, that it’s now viewed as a somewhat passe metric that’s served its purpose.
“Even though I have a lot of feelings about how useful that is at all, it gave people something very easy to ascribe to the media, be able to do an analysis,” she says. They can just look at the media quickly and be like, yes, no, yes, no.
“In my grad school work, I was looking at tropes and archetypes and I was like, oh, if we give people the language, if we give ourselves the language, it helps us understand better.”
Sarkeesian is not solely responsible for widening public understanding about the Bechdel Test, but she saw its significance at just the right time.
“ACADEMIA IS NOT CONCERNED WITH DISSEMINATION OF INFORMATION.”
“The work of academics is valuable and important,” she says. “But the problem is that academia is not concerned with dissemination of information. They’ll say they are, but the structures they have in place don’t allow for that. Part of it is the language that they use. Part of it is the medium in which they release that information. Part of it is access. You have to learn how to read dense, thick, complicated texts that most people can’t understand.
“I felt it was incredibly important to take these concepts and make them accessible, without using academic language. If I do use an unfamiliar word, I make a point to explain it. Words like ‘intersectionality’ and ‘objectification theory’ are more common now, but they weren’t at the time.”
As she completed her studies, she created more successful videos, including one that excoriated Lego for its heavily gendered marketing. “I go back and look at my old work and it’s super embarrassing,” she says. “But the Lego one, I think is still really good.”
Her Lego video was seen by another filmmaker, Jonathan McIntosh, who now publishes a successful series of cultural critiques called The Pop Culture Detective. McIntosh and Sarkeesian began to collaborate.
“She’s very personable and friendly on screen and off,” McIntosh says. “She’s puts everybody at ease and that comes through on camera.”
Part of her work at the time was sitting around with friends, watching TV shows and identifying some of the concepts they were discussing in class. “I wanted it to connect with the person who maybe sees something [in media] a lot and it probably gives them this weird feeling. But because they don’t have the language for it, they move on. But if it has a name, they’re going to see it everywhere.”
Sarkeesian graduated and moved to San Francisco. She decided it was time to expand her horizons from TV, to video games.
The rest can be read here, if you want to age at an exponential rate: