New Feminism; Old Moralism


Anita Sarkeesian had a lovely piece in the NYT yesterday, explaining why she is happy that “gamer culture” as it once was is a much diluted phenomenon. Its points are as valid as the foul attacks on her (and so many others) are indefensible in any shape or form. Money quote:

The time for invisible boundaries that guard the “purity” of gaming as a niche subculture is over. The violent macho power fantasy will no longer define what gaming is all about. Those who police the borders of our hobby, the ones who try to shame and threaten women like me into silence, have already lost. The new reality is that video games are maturing, evolving and becoming more diverse.

Those of us who critique the industry are simply saying that games matter. We know games can tell different, broader stories, be quirky and emotional, and give us more ways to win and have fun. As others have recently suggested, the term “gamer” is no longer useful as an identity because games are for everyone.

This is basically an echo of my “let a thousand nerds bloom”. But then you come across some recent tweets of hers:

Reading right along, you realize she’s actually not that interested in letting a thousand nerds bloom. She’s interested in suppressing a certain subculture because of her contention that it leads to violence, rape and murder. That subculture is what she regards as “toxic masculinity”:

This agenda leads her to see a school shooting thus:

Her op-ed is, I’d say, in this broader context, a little disingenuous. In one version of her argument, gamer culture is simply dying out as it is supplanted and complemented by a new diversity. On the other hand:

Women are being driven out, they’re being driven offline; this isn’t just in gaming, this is happening across the board online, especially with women who participate in or work in male-dominated industries.

So which is it: women are being drummed out of games and male-dominated industries (on Democracy Now)? Or are they so triumphant that even her mom is playing games now? In the NYT, she’s proclaiming a great, diverse future for games and gamers; in her Twitter feed, she clearly wants to see this very male subculture “addressed” as a matter of urgency.

I’m not pointing this out to defend the gamergaters. After reading all your emails, and diving further into the virtual vortex of madness that has come to define this eruption, I’ve been convinced I’ve been a little too even-handed in sympathizing with the plight of the angry white nerd. I can’t see a world in which their version of gamer culture is truly under threat. But Sarkeesian clearly wishes it were:

Underlying this belief in the importance of changing other people’s subculture is an argument. For Sarkeesian, it seems that all differences between men and women, or between masculine or feminine identities, are entirely a function of culture, and can only be understood within a paradigm of patriarchy. All I can say is that I disagree. Of course culture matters a lot – but it doesn’t go all the way down. To deny the power of testosterone, or the stark difference it makes in all species on planet earth, can therefore lead you to misread what can and cannot be changed. My view is that there are certain aspects of testosterone that will always make men and male culture different: it’s gonna be inherently more aggressive, more physical, and more sexual in an objectifying way, and more promiscuous. The task of a mature society is not to abolish this difference (which is impossible), but to harness it to more constructive ends.

And so , in advanced Western cultures, we divert male physical aggression and in-group loyalty away from militias and gang warfare toward the spectacle of the NFL or professional wrestling or recreational hunting; we create a culture of sports that can channel a lot of what men want to do in peaceful and socially integrative ways; we allow safe spaces for this kind of culture to exist – and that includes things like violent video games and objectifying porn. And we attempt to offer a model of masculinity that can coopt the pride and ego of a testosteroned will to power into something more gentle. We praise good fathers and diligent husbands.

What a mature society does not seek to do is expunge human nature itself. All such projects backfire, or result in new forms of oppression. And there is a tendency – certainly in Sarkeesian’s work – to problematize maleness itself, to seek to expunge it, to remove all differences between the sexes for the sake of justice and fairness. Her defense will be that she is not attacking men as such – just a “toxic culture of masculinity.” And yet her prose often slips into generalizations that would never be tolerated if used against another group; and it’s hard to see what characteristics of maleness she believes are innate or at least unchangeable.

What worries me in this new era of “checking your privilege” is that men may be punished merely for being men. When liberals actually defend the conviction of the innocent in a murky world of “affirmative consent” pour décourager les autres, you see exactly where this can lead. And my concern is not just that it will not work, but that it may well provoke a backlash that compounds the problem. And that backlash, in turn, will only encourage well-intentioned people to double down on the project.

A little moderation can go a long way. And a little realism even further. Leave Kenny McCormick alone.