Table of Contents
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.
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 Dawn are 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
I ask 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.
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 Tropes first 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.”
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.”
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.”
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 Chomski. “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.
“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.
Chapter 7: The Kickstarter
Sarkeesian asks me: “Are you ready for the actual real story of how Tropes happened that I’ve never actually said before?”
I raise my eyebrows. This is the transcript of her story:
“Video games were always a part of this project. Video games are a part of pop culture and they were always on my mind. But I spent a lot more time watching TV. That’s always been my wheelhouse. I was constantly coming up with ideas about things that I was watching on TV. But with games it was a little bit different. I didn’t really know what the ‘in’ was there. It was just easier for me to do TV at the time.
“One time, I was writing out a list of tropes and looking at different kinds of media. I was like, oh, there’s a lot of stuff in games. I feel like I should bring games into what we’re doing because I’ve put that on the back burner.
“That happened in tandem with someone from Bungie reaching out to me because they saw the series I did about Lego and they really liked it. They said, ‘Hey, we bring in speakers occasionally. If you’re ever up in Seattle and you want to come do a talk, let us know.’
“This was the first time I’d been invited into a corporate space with creatives who make decisions about making games. So, well, I guess I’ll do a talk about games. I needed to do a bunch of research really quickly. I only played the games that I wanted to play. I didn’t play every game that had ever been made, whether I hated it or not. So all of a sudden I’ve got to talk about all these games that I don’t really like, and I would never have played otherwise.
“So I did a ton of research. I put a talk together for them about tropes in games and problems with women’s representation in games. That video of that talk is still available internally for Bungie employees. And I bet you it’s a fucking embarrassing disaster. But it’s still there.
“What’s really funny to me is that 15 people showed up to see my talk. A few years later, the next time I went to talk at Bungie, the room was packed. People couldn’t even get in. I obviously created a name for myself in the time in-between, and people started to care more about this issue.
“Anyway, I came back from that first one thinking, well, I’ve been thinking about doing game stuff and now I’ve done a ton of research. Why don’t I just do it? So I had this format that I liked with Tropes vs. Women, the original series, and I kept hearing about this thing called Kickstarter. ‘If I’m going to do it, I might as well try to get paid a little bit.’
“I asked for $6,000 for five videos. That would have cut the general costs for me. But I wasn’t thinking about having this be a career. This was just a hobby and maybe I can help pay for some of the costs.
“The moment I was about to hit publish on the Kickstarter, I panicked and was like, ‘$6,000 is too much. We’re never going to get that much. We should just drop it to four grand just to be safe.’ Jonathan McIntosh helped me conceptualize and launch the Kickstarter and he was just like, ‘It’s fine. We’ll figure it out.’
“Within 24 hours it was fully funded. That was without a ton of promotion. It was just my networks, which weren’t really huge, but they also weren’t nothing. I was like, holy crap, people really care about this. People actually care about feminism and video games and representation. There was no harassment at this point. So all of the people who say that it was only funded because of the harassment, that’s not true at all.
“Days go by and we’re getting more and more funding. Two weeks in, we’re at around $25,000. Stupidly, because I didn’t know any better, we added a bunch of stretch goals. No one warned me that stretch goals are a terrible idea. So we promised a ton more videos and all this other stuff. Then I realized two weeks in that I had never told any of my YouTube followers that I had a Kickstarter. So I uploaded the fundraising video to YouTube.
“And that’s when it happened. That’s the moment when everything changed.”
Chapter 8: Hell
One of Sarkeesian’s earlier videos is called “The Straw Feminist,” in which she demonstrates how a variety of TV shows and movies — from Rugrats and The Powerpuff Girls to Legally Blonde and Veronica Mars — make use of villanous, over-the-top feminists in order to spin a fantasy that we live in a world without gender inequality.
In a foreshadowing of her later experiences, a notorious right-wing YouTuber picked up on her show and mocked the points she’d made. She received a wave of harassment and hate messages, but it was nothing she couldn’t handle
“Like all feminists, especially on YouTube, I’d experienced harassment,” she says. “It would be small waves. It wasn’t constant. It was enough that I could moderate them myself.”
One of the effects of this particular wave was that online misogynists “hate-subscribed” to her YouTube channel so that they could come after her the next time she posted something they didn’t like. After she posted her Kickstarter video, the small waves turned into a tsunami. “When I posted the fundraising video, they lost it. It was like, ‘How dare she come for our games.’”
That night, she went to bed as usual, but was woken by a call in the middle of the night. A friend warned her that she needed to take a look at her YouTube page. “It flooded everything,” she says. “It was at a whole different level than anything I’d seen before.”
She decided to take screenshots of the abuse, and to write a blog post about it. She knew this would likely intensify the abuse. “I gave people very strategic, very educated analysis of what was happening to me,” she says.
Jonathan McIntosh helped Sarkeesian monitor and record the abuse. He says: “When it first happened, she decided to meticulously document the abuse, almost in an academic way. She wanted to turn the harassment into an analytical project, the same way that she would treat a movie or TV show or a game.”
Her post talked about the ugly specifics of the abuse. “I wanted to show exactly the different ways that this harassment happens,” she says. “How they use pornography as a weapon to humiliate and degrade women.” The shocking abuse was shared on the internet and found its way into the media. “My life completely changed.”
Sarkeesian is often invited to give talks to colleges. One of her speeches is titled “I’m tired.” In it, she speaks of the exhaustion of abuse, how it’s shaped her work, but also how it’s defined her, against her own will.
The abuse she’s received, constantly, since 2012, and which peaked again during GamerGate in 2014, is well documented. She was threatened and doxed. Her face was pasted on to pornographic images which were posted online. She was stalked. She faced various bomb threats, including one in Utah, in which she cancelled her speaking engagement, due to what she viewed as the lackadaisical security procedures of the school. At GDC one year, a security detail was assigned by organizers and venue security.
The police weren’t much help, even playing into the hands of abusers and stalkers by claiming she had never filed a report on a threat against her life (she had). Her work has been constantly excoriated by the awful men of YouTube, profiting from her research with little more than insults and thinly disguised calls for further abuse.
She appeared on The Colbert Report, speaking about the abuse and about her work. When GamerGate came around, she became close with its principal target, Zoe Quinn, offering advice and support, even while being inundated with hate messages.
“Because I had already gone through this, I had a level of experience that a lot of the other women didn’t have,” she says. “But I ended up feeling really bad that I didn’t have enough emotional bandwidth to give them as much as I would’ve liked. I was barely making it through. I started developing a lot of guilt because I wished that I could have stopped this.”
Petit, who has also suffered online harassment and abuse, says: “Anita will routinely get on the phone with women who typically she’s never spoken with before. She comes from a compassionate place of knowing what it is that they’re going through. She can talk them through the extremely painful moment when everything feels like it’s just falling apart. Very few people know about it, but she has been a huge help in that regard.”
As the years have passed, Sarkeesian has altered her response to her own harassment. “While I was being harassed, I spent a lot of time hiding my feelings about it and I got a lot of respect for that,” she says. “I never said that it sucked. I never said that I was falling apart. I never talked at all about my feelings and how it was affecting my personal life and my professional life.
“I was trying to make it so that these people who were trying to destroy me, didn’t see my pain. But it hurt other women who were suffering because they might be feeling like they needed to live up to the example I was putting out there. So now when I talk about these issues, I think that there’s value in being transparent and honest about the reality of who I am and where I’m at.”
“When the harassment was off the charts, she didn’t feel like she could be a human being,” says Petit. “Any expression of humanity on her part would have been something that the trolls, harassers and abusers would have latched onto and exploited.”
The depravity of the messages she still receives almost defies comprehension. Sarkeesian says: “The ones that really got to me, I’m sorry to be graphic, they would print out photographs of my face and then [masturbate] on them and then take a photo of that. There was something very real about that in a way that just photoshopping my face onto a pornographic image isn’t.
“The first three times that I saw those, I was actually repulsed. I have seen dozens of those now and they don’t phase me at all because my brain goes into survival mode. It’s tragic that I can look at something like that and be like, oh, okay, moving on with my day.”
After the Kickstarter video abused peaked, she found herself inundated by the effects of the abuse. It got in the way of the work she was supposed to be doing: creating the videos.
“There are so many costs of the harassment that people don’t see,” she says. “It’s not just that it hurts my feelings. It’s that I can’t do a lot of the work that I need to do because I’m so busy dealing with that. I’m traveling around talking about online harassment when I would rather be producing cool videos.
“I was making sure that I was still safe and that there wasn’t anything major happening that I had to report. I was starting to talk to the social media companies to be like, what are you going to do about this? I was doing a lot of media interviews because I felt like it was important to talk about these issues. So I was doing a lot of unpaid labor to try to systemically change this problem.”
Online harassment was only beginning to be understood at the time. There were still those who denied it was even happening.
“The harassers said that I was lying about the threats, in the same breath that they were sending me threats,” she says. “They said that I’m doing it to myself. It’s not real. Some of them became especially obsessed with me, making rambling videos about me, like every day.”
McIntosh helped deal with some of the practicalities of the abuse, sifting through the messages and screenshotting those that would be needed. “He helped me a lot with navigating the harassment. It was really helpful to have someone who had been around for all of it and who was emotionally stable in those moments,” she says.
She tried to hide her real emotions from the world. “I was having a fucking meltdown every day. I remember walking down the street crying, hoping that no-one recognized me. I thought, I shouldn’t have to deal with this. It’s too much for me to handle: the harassers, the cops, the creepy stalkers. It’s hard to explain how horrific that particular moment of time was. I don’t know how I made it through.”
Even today, Sarkeesian feels vulnerable walking down the street. She avoids sitting in window seats at restaurants. She gets nervous if a random tourist approaches her to ask directions.
“I spent a long time trying to fight it, trying to say that I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” she says. “But it’s not going away. I’ve been slowly working to rebuild my own identity. But I also recognize that this is a part of who I am. I’m a fucking expert in online harassment. How sad is that?”
When I ask Sarkeesian about the game industry’s response to her harassment, and the harassment of other women, she says: “None of them spoke up. Not one of the major companies spoke up at all. To them, money is more important than the safety and wellbeing of female fans and female employees. Blizzard made some remark on stage at Blizzcon [after GamerGate] but didn’t address it directly. That was it. That doesn’t count.”
Chapter 9: Creation and destruction
Even through this constant barrage, she needed to work on the first season of Tropes vs. Women in Games. It came with its own set of challenges. Following the successful Kickstarter campaign and the media frenzy around her abuse, the pressure was on to deliver.
She and McIntosh dived into a mass of research, script-writing, filming, and editing. A forthcoming documentary film about this time, from Area 5, shows them working together, debating each line, each piece of footage, scrolling through spreadsheets full of game names and examples of the tropes Feminist Frequency wanted to cover.
“I don’t think people have any concept of just how much research and how much work went into those videos,” says Petit. “That’s part of why the videos took so long to complete.”
Each video identifies a sexist trope in games that’s been grossly overused. The first, for example, was about Damsels in Distress, in which women are portrayed both as helpless victims and as prizes.
The team wanted to feature perfect footage of each trope, as it played out in dozens of example games. This involved playing the games all the way through to the appropriate moment. Sometimes, they’d play for an hour, grab the footage and move on. Sometimes they’d play for 30 hours or more, just to get a few seconds of footage.
Petit recalls playing Mass Effect 2, because she knew there was a moment of dialog that fit in with a video’s thesis. But when the scene played out, the specific dialog was gone. She realized she’d made some dialog tree wrong turns at an earlier part of the game. She had to begin again.
McIntosh would set up the camera and lighting, and then leave Sarkeesian alone to deliver the script. In Area 5’s film, she rarely gets through more than a sentence before wanting a do-over, sometimes multiple times. This meant a lot of editing
As the pressure mounted, creative disagreements between McIntosh and Sarkeesian began to appear. “The arguments were sometimes brutal,” says Petit. “It got very heated and towards the end, it was emotionally difficult for Anita to maintain the partnership.”
The central problem was that McIntosh favored lengthy videos that addressed every possible objection from critics. Sarkeesian believed in brevity, and making her point as succinctly as possible.
“Jonathan was bringing a lot of data to the table and then Anita was synthesizing the data and putting a human angle on it,” says Petit. “She wanted to nudge viewers toward considering the larger impact of the information that was being presented to them. Ultimately they were her videos and she had the last word and he didn’t necessarily take it well.”
McIntosh says he was feeling a lot of pressure from the abuse he was sifting through. It pushed him towards placing too much emphasis on the likely reactions of critics and harassers. “I wanted to anticipate and fight every possible counter-argument,” he says. “In retrospect, that wasn’t necessarily the best way to do it. You can’t beat bad faith arguments, even with the most detailed research. Looking back, I think her impulse to make things shorter, to hit the most important points and then move forward, was probably right.”
“We had different expectations about what that work should look like,” says Sarkeesian. “It was mostly the script-writing where we bumped heads. There was so much pressure to figure out what we were saying.”
There was also a conflict in style. “If there’s a problem, I like to bounce ideas around and work collaboratively,” she says. “He likes to go off in solitude and beat his head against the wall until he figures out the answer. I don’t think we were mature enough at the time to figure out how to find a balance between those two things. It got heated, but the work was better with having Jonathan on board.”
After the first season, McIntosh was out. But the videos were a major hit, successfully presenting Sarkeesian’s ideas with bags of research. The haters went to town, offering various ripostes, mostly exercises in bad faith whataboutism.
Sarkeesian returned with more videos, shorter and punchier. “People really like those nugget-sized videos,” she says. “But also there’s a lot of value. In a 10-minute video we can focus on one thing, give some examples of what it is, then show you how to not do it. The one about strategic butt coverings is a funny video. It makes you laugh. I refocused, with more humor in the second season. It’s a little more personable than the first season.”
In the years that followed, she launched a video series about feminist icons as well as follow-ups like Queer Tropes in Video Games, hosted by Petit. The team brought Ebony Adams on board. Adams and Sarkeesian co-authored a book: History vs Women: The Defiant Lives that They Don’t Want You to Know.
“Anita appreciated that I brought a different perspective,” Adams says. “I’m a cultural critic who is a woman of color. She is very assertive and deliberate about seeking out those perspectives. Having people on staff who are trans [Petit is a trans woman] or black, it helps grow the conversation. I think that’s what she was looking for.”
She adds: “I’m the first person to get on her case if I think there’s something that we haven’t considered. But there were very few instances when I thought Feminist Frequency wasn’t bringing a pretty nuanced discussion to our analyses.”
“Anita knows how to be a manager,” says Petit. “She has that skill of managing people, managing production and managing an organization. When the pressure is on, she gets very, very serious but she’s always confident.”
Chapter 10: The future
Sarkeesian won’t talk about her next move, mainly because she has a variety of options that she’s looking into: partnerships, consultancy work, and brand new challenges that are far from the world of games.
But it looks like she’s about done with YouTube. “When I go and speak at schools and colleges, students tell me they want to do what I do. But you can’t do it on YouTube anymore. You need to go and figure out what the next YouTube is. Ten years ago, YouTube was new. It was the platform to talk to people through.
“What’s the next one? What is the new way that you talk to people? Digital video is a really difficult place to navigate right now. I don’t think it has a shelf life, as it stands.”
Adams, Petit, and Sarkeesian are still releasing their regular podcast, called Feminist Frequency Radio. Petit says: “I think that the three of us — me, Ebony, and Anita — have a great rapport with each other and we can bring our feminist analysis to the big films, TV shows, or games of the moment.”
Adams says she’s sad that she’s not working at Feminist Frequency full time, but there’s no hard feelings. “We hang out, we talk to each other all the time,” she says. “Our senses of humor really vibe together. It’s just wonderful. I love these women. I love them.”
”There’s no question that we had a big impact in nudging gaming culture toward having more serious conversations about representation,” says Petit. “Maybe that organization has run its course. We said what we wanted to say.”
“Without the conversations we generated and the pressure that we indirectly put on games companies, I think we’d now be living in a much more Duke Nukem world of video games than we are today,” she adds.
Sarkeesian says Feminist Frequency’s work has had an impact outside of games. “People from a lot of different types of media, like Hollywood screenwriters and comic book writers, found value in our work. Most of the tropes that we talked about aren’t specific to video games.”
But she knows that the job of educating game-makers about representation is far from over. “There is progress being made, but I struggle with how to talk about it. It’s like a pendulum swinging: This one thing is great, and then, oh, this other thing is shitty.
“When we talk about, oh, we solved the problem, we’re moving forward … no, we haven’t even begun to solve the problem. We’re just taking the next step to the greater vision. I’m always trying to remind people to look at the vision of what we’re fighting for. Understanding that helps influence how we work. It influences how we tell our stories and what stories we want to tell. It influences students coming out of school and the careers and jobs that they want.”
Part of the problem is that many of those who are willing to be persuaded have been persuaded. And those who are not will never come around. “They’re either not paying attention to the conversation or they are, and they’re on the other side of it. And I don’t like talking about it as a ‘sides’ thing. Because you either care about the humanity of people or you don’t. That’s the side you’re on.”
Sarkeesian gave the game industry a crash course in representation, and many people responded positively. But this, she says, is just the beginning. On this subject, she is serious. There are no jokes.
“For some reason they thought that was going to be really hard, but it’s not hard,” she says. “You just put in a female character, with some good voice acting. You write some decent dialogue into a shooter and people are going to praise you.
“Now the question is, whose stories are you telling? How are you telling those stories? What mechanics are you using to tell those stories? How are you going to marry your story and your mechanics? How do you take the gaming industry to the next level?
“We all love games because of this specialness of interactivity that comes with gaming. There’s something unique about games that no other medium has. Stop wasting it. Stop wasting it.”