Anita Sarkeesian’s new video takes on male entitlement

Anita Sarkeesian released a new video in her Tropes vs Women in Video Games series on August 31, this time taking on the “women as reward” trope. As always, she is so right on when it comes to connecting male entitlement to the representation of women as consumable objects.

I don’t play video games and am kind of appalled at the level of violence and misogyny I see every time I watch one of Sarkeesian’s videos. At the same time, it’s hardly surprising considering the kind of messages we see in porn culture.

In her twopart Women as Background Decoration series she explained how sexual objectification works to dehumanize women and how women as “passive objects of heterosexual male desire” became so prominent in gaming culture. The “camera” in video games will often play to the male gaze by zooming in on “non-playable female characters'” body parts, who are, in many cases, positioned only as peripheral things that exist “to be used and abused.” (She was, it should be noted, attacked online for using the term, “prostituted women,” when discussing games that fuse objectification with the exoticization of impoverished women, by having male characters travel through shanty towns populated by prostituted women in the global south.)

feminist frequency
Screen capture from “Women as Background Decoration: Part 1 – Tropes vs Women in Video Games.”
Screen capture from "Women as Background Decoration: Part 1 - Tropes vs Women in Video Games."
Screen capture from “Women as Background Decoration: Part 1 – Tropes vs Women in Video Games.”
Screen capture from "Women as Background Decoration: Part 1 - Tropes vs Women in Video Games."
Screen capture from “Women as Background Decoration: Part 1 – Tropes vs Women in Video Games.”

In the case of the “women as reward” trope, she says that when male characters are “rewarded” in games with sex or when players are rewarded with sexualized, stripped down female characters, the result is that “access to women’s bodies, women’s affection, and women’s sexuality is reduced to a simple equation that guarantees delivery as long as the correct set of inputs is entered into the system.” She points out that this “fosters a sense of entitlement where players are encouraged to view women as something they have the right to, by virtue of their gaming actions, skills, or accomplishments.”

In some games, for example, players are able to “unlock” costumes for their characters to wear which are usually just “cool, wacky, or bizarre” except when it comes to female characters, where there is a pattern of hypersexualized and porn-themed options.

Screen capture from "Women as Reward - Tropes vs Women in Video Games."
Screen capture from “Women as Reward – Tropes vs Women in Video Games.”

“It’s important to remember,” Sarkeesian says, “that sexualization is not just about the amount of skin showing, but is instead connected to the question of whether or not a costume is eroticized for the express purpose of titillation.”

Female characters that are otherwise powerful — secret service agents, members of human rights organizations, etc. — can be put in sexy policewoman costumes, school girl costumes, and racialized costumes that exoticize women of colour that are reminiscent, Sarkeesian says, of “those patronizing sexy halloween costumes we see mass-produced every year.” It’s a way for male players to disempower otherwise powerful female characters.

Screen capture from " Women as Reward - Tropes vs Women in Video Games."
Screen capture from “Women as Reward – Tropes vs Women in Video Games.”

In Grand Theft Auto V, probably the most notorious of misogynist, violent games, players are encouraged to, Sarkeesian says, buy sex from prostitutes by offering things like increases to their “stamina ratings” when they do. Other games do the same, offering various points and rewards when they solicit prostitutes.

Screen capture from "Women as Reward - Tropes vs Women in Video Games."
Screen capture from “Women as Reward – Tropes vs Women in Video Games.”

Apparently game developers have no interest in subtlety, as Sarkeesian points out that kinds of scenarios directly link “the flippant consumption of female sexuality to an increase in male power.” The female character’s value is depleted through these interactions. “Like an empty energy drink container, she is simply cast aside after being consumed,” she says.

The pornography connection grows even more literal in games like Mafia II, which partnered with Playboy to offer real vintage centerfolds from 1950s issues as rewards for finding magazines hidden throughout the game.

Screen capture from "Women as Reward - Tropes vs Women in Video Games."
Screen capture from “Women as Reward – Tropes vs Women in Video Games.”

Other games will offer pornography to players as “collectables,” saved and made accessible to players for future use. Players are encouraged to “acquire as many different ‘flavours’ of women as possible” for their collections.

Screen capture from "Women as Reward - Tropes vs Women in Video Games."
Screen capture from “Women as Reward – Tropes vs Women in Video Games.”

So what these games are doing is reinforcing notions that women are things, prizes, and trophies that can and should be demeaned at any given moment in order to gift men with more power. The only reason, gamers learn, to interact with women, is for their own personal gratification and status. They quite literally teach men that they are entitled to women’s bodies, reinforcing a worldview that “defin[es] women’s social role as vessels of sexuality and men’s roles as consumers or patrons of that sexuality,” Sarkeesian says.

Screen capture from "Women as Reward - Tropes vs Women in Video Games."
Screen capture from “Women as Reward – Tropes vs Women in Video Games

“Unlike access to clean water or healthcare, which should be considered human rights that all people deserve simply for being human, access to a woman’s affections, her body, or her sexuality is not a right owed to anyone except herself,” she says.

Sarkeesian goes on to explain that male entitlement is what is at the foundation of rape and sexual assault, so much a part of our culture that we often don’t even notice it. Male entitlement isn’t created by video games, she says, but is reinforced in various ways in our society — through movies, pornography, religion, pop music, etc. Nonetheless games teach these ideas “in unique ways not found in other forms of media.” The rewards system in particular, Sarkeesian says, reinforces cognitive patterns that teach male players that access to women’s bodies and affections is a right, so long as you “perform the correct inputs.”

“Social science indicates that one of the primary ways we learn about the world and our relationships to one another is through a process of observation and imitation,” Sarkeesian says. So when we see behaviours modeled for us and then those behaviours are rewarded, that has an impact on our real-life behaviour.

Male entitlement is so strong in gaming that Sarkeesian says straight male players have thrown “angry pubic temper tantrums” when forced to interact in role-playing games with gay male characters or lesbian characters who are not there for their gratification. The same outbursts happen “when Western releases of Japanese games place women in slightly less revealing outfits or increase the age of young sexualized female characters to 18.”

All of Sarkeesian’s videos are excellent learning tools and provide accessible commentary on the sexism we see in media, but this one is particularly radical and particularly genius. It shows that media is enormously impactful and cannot be treated simply as neutral entertainment so long as these messages are conveyed. Beyond that, she’s made a point that is often pushed aside by many well-known feminist commentators today: sex is not a human right, women’s bodies are not consumable objects, and these ideas are enormously dangerous and have real-life consequences for women everywhere.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • DeColonise

    Really great article! As a gamer myself I just love her videos. While I don’t know for sure, it do feel like the sexualisation of women (human females) has grown worse as games has become more mainstream. Back in the days it could still be problematic, like save the princess for example. But it was not as over the top sexualised/pornified like it has become today.
    But with that said, its always been problematic in how the female sex has been portrayed in games and I’m happy that she takes this on in such a good way that she do.

  • northernTNT

    Explains so much about male attitudes towards females. I played a lot of arcade games in the 80s. There was an important transition in these nasties when games went from “play as a group in public” versus take home games. It’s pretty discouraging. And how many females play these very games?

  • Afrobelle

    Brilliant video! As I’m not a gamer and don’t particularly pay attention to gaming culture I was completely unaware that the misogyny is as blatant as it is, some of the stuff here is just plain barbaric. “Take me and crush me with your love” – I mean really?!!

    I remember playing Killer Instinct (SNES) back as a kid, and the only female character Orchid had a fatility where she opens her blouse and flashes the opponent her breasts. The opponent’s eyes shoot out in cartoon fashion and falls down dead. When the opponent is also Orchid she stomps her feet in a jealous huff and loses. Even then, back when I was tiny this and Orchid’s general ‘sexy’ appearance wasn’t abnormal – this oversexualised woman image is so entrenched it’s normal even to children.

  • Sabine

    I really admire Anita Sarkeesian. She is so spot on. The pornification of games is truly horrifying. Anything male-dominated is absolutely, inevitably going to end up as a cesspit of misogyny and the gaming world, where fantasy can run riot, is predictably rampant with truly sickening depictions of what men want and fantasize about.

  • Rotifer

    I don’t know why people get so angry at her. Her tone is very academic. I would think it would be beyond a number of gamers or just bore them. I quite enjoy her videos and the discussion of arcane details like ‘easter eggs’. Some of features seem less repellent than silly – like the breast enhancer (which just makes the avatars into grotesques when the enhancer maxes out, see Second Life Avatars).

    As someone who likes television series that are probably on some people’s ‘to avoid’ lists (e.g. Supernatural) because they feature some pretty retrograde male characters (with questionable and borderline racist taste in erotica) and also some pretty interesting villains, many of whom are women (not all but the major ones (e.g. Lilith, Knight of Hell, Ruby). I understand the love some have for the entertainment genre. I think you have to be a bit of an actor to like RPGs (and get into acquiring bling for your character). I did like Ubisoft’s Child of Light (though having to duke it out with various monsters, repeatedly, not my scene). I generally like adventure games like Fran Bow (http://www.franbow.com/) set in 1920s and Valiant Hearts set in WWI and some games of strategy (e.g. Plague Inc.). However I would never describe myself as a gamer, maybe a casual (and generally done for purposes of research for my own design work).

    I designed an educational game around the topic of climate change (water resources specifically and related issues like water borne disease, water quality, etc.). I also animate (another male centric discipline until recently) and have written about animation. Specifically about the work of selected female animators. When I initially presented my paper at a conference in 1994 I remember getting snide comments from another presenter from New York to the effect that the paper would not have been considered by a publisher (I was asked to re-write the paper for publication in a journal and later in an edited book on animation) if it was not about women. The women animators I wrote about were in some cases critical of the male gaze (e.g. Joanna Quinn’s “Body Beautiful”) and sometimes of female-to-female interaction. Just writing about women and animation was somehow illegitimate. Now if I had written something criticizing the sexism in male animator’s work, well that might required more severe sanction. Some men think they own everything and have the right to oversee any stories about women and their experience.

    • DeColonise

      My 5 cents on the anger is because she brings out very good points, and way to many of us boys/men who likes videogames can’t stand these facts and want to silence her.
      Personally the hatred against her (and those who tries to voice similar opinions as her) simply shows in what a sad state gamingculture is.

      I remember when I was first beginning to play videogames, way back in the days now. Up to the mid 90s you could still be bullied for it at school. It was something only idiots/loosers did.
      Today, that same groups of people (almost exclusively an all-male club I might add) who could be part of bullying you are playing their Call Of Duty games, Grand Theft Auto games and other violence centred games and claiming to be gamers and ruining the whole culture.

      Last year I read an article written about a younger woman that said that she and her female friends usually made nicknames so that other players would assume they were boys/men otherwise they got so harassed by sexism and misogyny and so on if they played online that it became unberable.
      That is the culture gaming culture has become.

      I’m ashamed that it has gotten this far.

      I will put a trigger warning on this video I post here, but if one want a insight just how male aggression can look in terms of playing a game such as call of duty, this video speaks for itself.

      Rage Compilation – Call of Duty European Championships
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7HbCkU_-cM

  • Rotifer

    There are many games out there so I would advise people who think all games are horrible to reconsider. The ones I listed earlier may not be to peoples’ tastes (e.g. Fran Bow, Child of Light, Valiant Hearts, Plague Inc.) but there are many games that don’t focus on a very toxic male/female dynamic and it would be sad if they were lumped in with these other games. I am not a fan of first person shooters or violence so … I don’t really engage with those games. I am not really into role play games either, I can never really identify with my avatar – don’t care about its fate (many a time I have crashed into buildings (while surveying the island I was developing in SL) and just not cared, other people claim a much closer connection to their avatar. I have zero interest in acting … I make this statement because a subset of actors seem to play RPGs in their down time (William Shatner WOW and Felicia Day) – which makes sense. Though I animate and you have to become a bit of an actor while hiding behind plasticine or whatever medium you use) to do that.

    Games sans (overt) sexism.

    Journey
    http://thatgamecompany.com/games/journey/

    Spore
    http://www.ea.com/spore (created in 2008, EA shut down the studio that developed it, so probably no longer available)

    I think that Felicia Day’s web series did a lot to legitimize women’s participation in gaming. Though even her mild response to #GamerGate garnered a number of negative responses.

    And the sexism seems present in offline (real world) RPGs like D&D. http://analoggamestudies.org/2014/10/constructing-the-female-body-in-role-playing-games/

  • Fantastic analysis!

  • Buzz kill

    Awesome. Love her work and her thick skin.

  • Lucia Lolita

    Great article.

  • Nicole

    I LOVE Anita. Her work is so important to me as a female gamer. My sister introduced me to the Nancy Drew games as they don’t degrade women. I also love Skyrim and think they did a pretty good job. In Skyrim, your character is not treated differently for being a woman and the armor is real armor, not bikinis. Your character can also be gay. I can’t wait for the sixth Elder Scrolls to come out. Great article btw!

    I grew up playing arcade games and Nintendo from a very early age. My sisters and I had almost all of the consoles (Sega, Nintendo, Playstation, etc) and also played a lot of computer games. But whenever games were brought up around boys I would always brush it off like I wasn’t a “real gamer” since I was a girl. Funny though that once I did finally play games with the boys they hated playing against me because I always beat them haha. And of course it super hurt their ego that a girl was better than them. They would want to keep playing over and over to try to beat me…rarely did they though haha.

    • The Raddest

      Loveeeeeee Skyrim! I still can’t stop playing it. Also, there seemed to be a pretty equal distribution of Queens/Kings throughout the map.

    • asialita

      I’m a video game buff, also. I absolutely loved Skyrim. After having finished the game (every single little task and quest), I am suffering from severe withdrawal! Dyyyyyyying to know what the next Elder Scrolls game will be like.

  • fencepost

    The internet obsession over her is ludicrous. So many people out there with with endless blog posts, tweets and youtube videos all cause she criticized their games. Good grief! Get a life people before you go plaid!

  • Sam Berg

    Anita’s list of the “host of factors” that foster male entitlement (found at 27:45 in the video)

    families
    religions
    peer groups
    movies
    pop music
    mainstream pornography
    video games

    See the porn-user concession she did there with the adjective “mainstream” only being applied to pornography? It’s the same mealymouthed tiptoeing around prostitution that results in bullshit phrases like “forced prostitution” when other crimes aren’t appended with “forced” to separate the Real Victims from the Victims-Who-Asked-For-It.

  • Nom Nom

    I love Anita and you should write more about her, to show support. The amount of abuse, death and rape threats she gets in just one day is not normal. Reddit especially is determined to destroy her, poor girl had to move 3 times, because she was afraid that those subhumans will kill her. I am glad someone wrote about this, she really has good points.

    • Meghan Murphy

      She is an excellent human being and thinker.

  • asialita

    So very, very upsetting and deeply sickening. I always do a lot of research into how a game treats the female characters before I will purchase it. Sometimes I will put up with some level of sexism in a game after weighing all the pros and cons (we all have our unfeminist guilty pleasures). But some games make me so ill, I refuse to touch them, ever. Every time I hear about the shit that’s in these games, GTA especially, it makes me feel physically ill. It hurts. Hurts me heart and soul. Nothing but interactive pornography. Pornography is male supremacist propaganda. And it works. GTA fans (and that includes the female fans!) mock and laugh at torturing, murdering, and raping women. They literally do not give two shits about what messages this game puts out to the masses.

    As much as I love video games, I will admit that some things will have a negative impact on society. People argue that movies, shows, porn, video games, etc. do not have an impact on the way we think. If the media has no impact, then why do companies spend millions on advertising alone? Because it works. Propaganda works. I’m a sensible gamer/movie watcher who does not let media influence me, but I also know that there are many people out there who are easily influenced. Those of us who aren’t so easily influenced have kind of a responsibility to speak out and try to counteract this crap.

    Thanks to these games and Hollywood movies, etc. the women as prizes trope is producing generations of men who feel that they are owed women and sex simply for being born with a penis. We see all these teenaged boys shooting people because they are pissed off that they are “still” virgins at age 17 or whatever, shooting up schools like they are in a video game but with no “hot chicks” to f*ck at the end.