anita sarkeesian

A Conversation with Anita Sarkeesian

While Anita Sarkeesian visited Kenan as part of our Ethics of Now Series, we had the opportunity to sit down with her in the West Duke Building’s Pickus Library. We talked about feminism, her role as a feminist media critic, the challenges she’s faced in her work, and of course – ethics.

What is your main goal or primary objective as a media critic?

When I started doing this work, I started it because I was really frustrated with how alienating feminist theory was in academic spaces. I felt like it was hard to understand. It was pretty elitist because you had to be privileged to go to school to learn about feminist theory and then the language and the texts were really difficult. My purpose was always trying to make feminism more accessible to a larger audience. I think in some ways that still is very much a part of how I see myself, but I think the landscape has changed so much that there are so many more people doing that work. Topics around intersectional feminism, oppression, white supremacy — all of these different issue areas are way more common in our public mainstream dialogue than they were when I first started.


Is this result a cue that feminism has gotten more approachable and people are more versed in the language?

One of the benefits of social media, which is a tricky thing to say because social media is very complicated, is it has allowed more voices to be heard. And in that process, we saw so many more voices who hadn’t been heard, who historically were silenced or undervalued. We started to see news outlets and different kinds of web outlets hiring folks specifically to address issues around racism and sexism and ableism and transphobia to bring different perspectives into the conversations about art and politics and technology in all kinds of different areas that didn’t exist before. It isn’t like it’s some bastion of amazingness out there right now, but it’s significantly different than when it was just newspapers and magazines. It was a very different time of whose voices got to be heard and whose voices got to be published.


What methods do you most often employ to make feminism more accessible?

When I started doing my work, visual media like YouTube was where I felt like my contributions would be best served – I don’t know if that is the best medium now. We need to look into the future at whatever is the next big thing. There are lots of different strategies and tactics for how to do this kind of activism work and it’s not all the same. Different topics and different people would approach it uniquely and will have different responses. I don’t think that one is better than the other. It’s about thinking strategically in terms of what one wishes to accomplish in the work that they’re doing.

That said, giving voice to incredibly harmful conspiracy theories, aggressive hatred of anyone who doesn’t look like them, Fascism – I think these particular types of attitudes are really dangerous when we lay them out as “This is the other side and they deserve the same level of debate and discussion.” Right now, what we view as “right politics,” on the spectrum of left and right, is so f-ing out there that I don’t think it would be considered an equal debate or discussion. To me there’s no debate between you think that my friends shouldn’t exist, like the bathroom bills and anti-trans rhetoric. The debate isn’t whether my friends are real and should exist or not. I’m not going to humor that and I’m never going to humor that, so I don’t have space for that conversation. There are many more examples we’re seeing play out in mainstream media that I think are extremely harmful. The more we engage and the more the media forces engagement of these incredibly extreme, fascist, hateful ideologies, the more normal it appears to the public. Therefore, it becomes incredibly skewed when we try to have what I would consider to be thoughtful, legitimate debate and discussion.


What is the primary ethical dilemma modern media is facing and that you are facing professionally?

Media means a lot of different things – there’s narrative media, pop culture media, news media. I don’t know if I can answer that question exactly, but I can bring up things that I’m concerned about. One thing is YouTube’s algorithms. YouTube is an incredibly important platform for discourse. It is very much a modern-day soapbox. YouTube is this space that very much serves, especially for young people, as a way to learn about things, as a way to take in media, as a way to engage with your favorite personalities or influencers. And because that is run by a private corporation and they make choices about their policies, and their tech, and their algorithms, that influences who gets to be heard and how often they get to be heard. The thing about YouTube is that they have algorithms that keep you on the site, because that is a part of the business model. To keep you on the site, they feed you more and more extreme material. You watch one of my videos and it says “You like feminism? Here’s a whole bunch of anti-feminist videos. You’re going to love this.” You can very easily go down a rabbit hole.  But a more subtle example is that you might see let’s say a video of Joe Rogan and you’re like, “Oh cool, this guy is interesting. He interviews interesting people.” And then you start to watch all of his programming and you start to see who he brings on. And while you think what he’s saying is totally reasonable, but his guests might say some things that are a little extreme, a little wacky, or a little conspiracy theorist and might begin to think, “But if this guy who I’ve been watching for a while thinks he’s cool, then maybe he is.” And then you go down that rabbit hole. You start listening to other folks who are more and more and more extreme in their beliefs when it comes to accusing people of color and women and trans folks for all that is wrong in the world, who really believe in maintaining the power of white men above all else.  These are wild conspiracy theories and the more you engage with this material, the more it becomes normal.

This part of our online discourse is a huge problem and it is right-wing radicalizing for especially young men. Or men who just feel a little disaffected, because they’re getting the answers to the problems that are legitimate in their life, but they’re getting these really harmful, wrong answers to their questions. They don’t have a job? Well these people are going to say it’s because Mexicans are coming over and taking them. They don’t have a girlfriend? It’s because women are bitches. And your boss is a woman? She must’ve slept with someone to get that position. Like it’s all of these really old, oppressive narratives that are being used to explain what I think are probably really valid concerns for a lot of people living in this country today or globally in various ways. In terms of employment, in terms of wellness and satisfaction and all of these other political issues – it’s taking people down this really terrifying path that leads to electing Trump. That leads to massive online harassment campaigns. That leads to the adoption of really dangerous ideologies.

I believe that there’s no way YouTube doesn’t know what’s happening at this point. This information about how their algorithms work has been leaked internally from YouTube. And the thing is, it doesn’t have to be terrible – there’s lots of cool stuff. YouTube is revolutionary – I built my career on it, but it’s also extremely dangerous. And when you think about who holds power right now in our discourse, it’s very concerning. All of this stuff around Facebook and elections and ads and the Cambridge Analytica, all of that is very concerning.


How should entities build in inclusion and representation? 

Hiring practices is definitely one area to be conscious about. There’s lots of talk about who gets hired, but what I think is really important is the issue of retention.  You might hire some people that don’t look like you, but can you keep them? And so, the issue is really a difference of diversity versus inclusion. You might say, “Yeah, we’re totally diverse cause we hired all these people.” But you do absolutely nothing to change your culture, you’re not going to hold onto those people and/or those folks never get a say that’s meaningful.  So it’s really critical that these companies, game studios, tech companies, Hollywood, whatever it might be, that they do inventory and take stock of what their culture is and what their culture should be and what active steps they’re going to take from the leadership down to make that happen. It’s important that marginalized folks are at the table, they get to make decisions, they get to be in charge, and they get a say. It’s important that folks who are in lower-level roles get to feel comfortable speaking up in a meeting and that HR is not just a liability machine, but rather a facet of a workplace that actually gives a sh-t about whether employees are being harassed, or gas lit, or harmed in some way. Because right now, folks don’t trust HR. They’re literally built to be a liability and only care about liability of the company’s bottom line.  A lot of these workplaces are not safe places to come forward about harm and people are not necessarily being heard. I think that when we talk about hiring practices, we absolutely have to talk about retention. We have to talk about inclusivity. We have to talk about workplace culture.


We’ve noticed not everyone who responds to your critiques is in agreement with you.  Why do you think there are such polarized views on your work?

I could answer that personally, but this is a bigger issue though. We are in a time, this sounds so dramatic whenever I say it, but we’re in a time of a culture war. I think Star Wars is an amazing example of this. Not only is it the public who is in a time of strife around the political messaging with Star Wars, the directors are in debate about it. The people who are making the media are antagonistic to each other. When I think about it and break it down, I kind of want to laugh because it’s so weird that this is happening.

We are facing a backlash to perceived progress and, in a nutshell, that’s what’s happening.  From the last 40 or 50 years of our political landscape shifting, from Obama being elected the first black president, and I think that’s a huge marker in this conversation that people often leave out. From that moment, certain white Americans felt very empowered to verbalize their racism in a way that wasn’t quite as acceptable in the public sphere since the civil rights movement to now. With all of that, the rise of social media giving voices to folks who hadn’t been heard previously, to the rise of streaming, which streaming companies, namely Netflix decided to take a chance on niche markets and succeeded, we started to hear experiences from folks we hadn’t heard before in a mainstream way. All of that perceived and actual progress created a space for the folks who are desperately trying to hold onto their privilege and power – to find each other online, to band together, and to speak up. Their entitlement is creating a space for them to be violent, aggressive, hostile, to lash out, and have these massive temper tantrums. And to allow Trump’s horrific messaging to resonate.

Trump is not an accident, at all. It’s not like he just appeared out of nowhere and all of a sudden, these sentiments, and Make America Great Again, which is not even thinly veiled racism, resonated. It’s because this has been building, and for those who have been paying attention and those who have seen the dregs of the internet, it’s not a surprise that this is where we’re at. It will not be a surprise if he gets re-elected, because I think that the left is very confused about how to deal with this and might not even fully understand what this means.

The personal attacks on me were from a microcosm of different communities. Some didn’t give a sh-t about video games, they just hated feminists. It’s this very interesting Venn diagram of video game dudes and the sexist, racist atheist community, and men’s rights activists. Generally speaking, it’s coming out of a place of feeling very disaffected in life for a lot of reasons. They might hold certain privileges for being white and male, but other privileges they don’t have, maybe class. So, while being upset that all of the things patriarchy promised them as men, they’re not getting, video games were a space where they could still hold those power fantasies. It was their perception of this last bastion of masculinity and so how dare women come into this space and say anything about it at all – even if it was the most basic things to say like, “Hey, we play games, too.” Or “Hey, maybe it would be cool if we could see ourselves in games, but not as like sex objects and damsels.” And so they kind of lost it because they responded with, “How dare you take this away from us? How dare you ruin this?”


What does this kind of response mean for women working in the game industry?

Too often when we talk about women, we think white women and so definitely talking about women intersectionally, but also real microaggression and harm and racism against people of color and trans folks in these spaces. But yeah, it’s hard to be the person to speak up. It’s even harder to be the first person to speak up. If you have a job to lose, a promotion to lose, if you’re the only woman or person of color in this space, you don’t want all your coworkers to hate you. There’s so much that can happen that makes it really difficult to speak up. I think there are more conversations happening now than there ever were before in certain places. That gives opportunity to be able to bring in other voices to speak up, to present ideas that might not be perceived as so radical. Ideas such as, “Why is our female character wearing such little clothing when she goes into battle?” Or, “Hey, I noticed this thing that keeps happening in meetings where I’ll say something and nobody will listen to me, but then if a man repeats it, he will be praised for that.”  Bringing up these different issues is a lot easier when there’s more people that look like you in a space.

Also, trying to be the cool chick, and one of the guys, and not wanting to bring up these issues is a real thing that happens. I have been there in my life before I really understood feminism, so I understand that it can be a really hard place to be in. A great quote from Audre Lorde is, “…when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed. But when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak…”


If you were a fictional character who, where and why?

Wow, that’s the hardest question you asked. I’ve been watching Star Trek because Picard just came out, so I would want to be a random character on the Starship Enterprise. I don’t need to be one of the main characters, but I want to be someone that gets to go on adventures. But also, Avatar: the Last Airbender, I’d love to be Toph or an earthbender – that would be cool, too.


What does it mean to you to be ethical in today’s world?

Doing what’s right. I think a lot about what it means to have a moral compass and what it means to live in the world ethically. It’s f-ing hard and I think about it in my personal life and the choices I make with people in my life. I think about it in terms of my politics and when I choose what to do and say. I think those of us who try to lead an ethical life and live our politics, how do we also be human? How do we forgive ourselves or not be too judgmental of ourselves if we slip up or say or do something that you’re like, “If I was my best self right now, that’s not what I would’ve wanted to do.” I think a lot about that in terms of how are we forgiving of ourselves and others who sincerely want to be better. To me leading an ethical life is a forever educational experience that is up and down – not linear.

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Read more about Anita Sarkeesian’s visit to Kenan here.