Here I am, sitting at my computer, reading the latest video game article about sexism, and I find myself getting bothered, not because people are denying it, or that people are bringing it to light, but because, well... I think people are going about it the wrong way. I think if we want to eradicate sexism, we've got to change the way we fight it.
The fight against sexism is a noble pursuit, and, like all noble pursuits, it's one that causes rational people to say stupid things, accusations to fly, and feelings to get hurt. It's an emotionally charged topic, and rightfully so.
Sexism must be stopped.
One of the issues that crops up in conversations about sexism is just what it is. The word is often thrown around frequently—if you disagree with a claim by (or, even worse, agree with and be misinterpreted by) someone arguing against sexism, and you could suddenly be labeled sexist. It's too often used as an attack word, a word of censure, a word for silencing. It's a word that says "you can't talk anymore, because you're not on the moral high ground." In an emotionally-charged discussion, its use is all too common.
That's not to say its use can't be valid. Sexism is, after all, a real thing. In simple terms, sexism is the hideous unpersoning of another human being. It's a point of view that says "you don't matter as much as that other person," and it does so often through the objectification of another person. Sexual objectification is one of the first kinds of sexism that leaps to mind, but there are others as well.
Following that train of logic, the sexist perspective says "as an object, this person has no agency." In other words, an object can't, or shouldn't, be making decisions for itself. It's not free to choose. It is, by its very nature, compelled to do things, but it has no real choice in the matter. "Men are sexist because they can't understand what it's like to be a woman," for instance, is a point of view that embraces the faulty idea that sexism is a one-way street. Another example would be "she can't take care of her self, because she needs a man to look out for her," which explicitly states that the woman in question is somehow worth less than the man—she's an object to be taken care of.
What this perspective, of people being objects without agency, leads to is unwarranted and undesired behavior. Whether this is a seemingly positive trait, such as endlessly doting on someone (essentially rendering someone helpless through a lack of independence), or a negative, such as a false accusation of rape made in the knowledge that most people will bend over backwards to see the accused put through hell, the outcome is that the victim of sexism is being mistreated, belittled, hurt, abused... at worst, lives can be ruined—you have only to look at pictures of the Muslim women who've had acid thrown on their faces as proof of that.
The consequences of sexism are immensely horrific, and as such, it is the duty of anyone who considers themselves a good human being to do what they can to prevent it. Those who knowingly choose to perpetuate it are monsters.
Unfortunately, overcoming sexism isn't easy.
You see, most rational people will deny that they're sexist. Most of us like to believe that we're good people, that we'red never mistreat anyone, and as such, when accused of sexism, we recoil, building up a wall between ourselves and the accuser. It's like being accused of a crime—the urge to protect ourselves from false accusation is overwhelming. How would you react if accused of, say, theft or murder? More than likely, you'd protest, get frustrated or angry, and any attempt at a rational conversation would fail before it even begins.
As an example, let's talk about the use of the word "bitch." I used it once, casually, to mean "complaining." Everyone in my social circle, regardless of gender, uses it to mean this. In that particular instance, I was in a conversation with a few women who happened to be feminists. While the conversation had been rational up until that point, I can't even begin to express the amount of vile that they began attacking me with. Even with our conversation ended, they, and their friends, continued to harrass me, the misogynist dick whose use of common parlance had offended them so.
Suffice it to say, their argument failed the instant they began accusing me of being a bad person.
I'd like to say that passing this hurdle is as simple as refraining from throwing the word "sexist" around at the drop of the hat, but that's not always true. If you've never been a victim of sexism, then you might not understand the immense emotional pain that can stem from such a violation. It's enough to change you as a person, and not always for the better.
Like I said above, any conversation involving sexism can quickly turn to ad hominem attacks. Deny you're sexist? Yup, sexist. Disagree with someone? Definitely a concern troll. Even simply asking people to chill out can result in accusations of sexism. An unfortunate truth of those fighting against sexism is that all too often, we use it more liberally than we should, and a lot of people who don't deserve it get blamed.
In other words, we need to bring a level of understanding to any discussion involving sexism. Many people are involved in these conversations, and nearly all are well-meaning. On one side, you have people who simply see themselves as being unfairly accused. On the other, you have people, both victims and their friends and allies, who see the others as perpetuating their hurt.
It's a very complex, challenging, and painful topic to explore.
Switching gears for a moment, let's talk about fandom. Have you ever wondered why people get so emotionally involved in video games? Do you see fights on the internet and wonder why they're so aggressive? While there are numerous reasons for this, such as anonymity on the internet, a big element is that video games are interactive—that is, they require participation on the part of the audience.
I'm not a psychologist, but I'll try to explain this next bit as it was explained to me: essentially, when someone participates in something, whether through time, action, money, or some other resource, it becomes a part of their identity, a part of themselves. As such, they become more likely to defend it, doubly so if they really like it. Look at rabid sports fans, for instance—they spend time and money supporting their team, so when someone disses that team, they feel that they've been personally insulted, as they get upset.
Video games, as an art form that players derive enjoyment from through participation, is an incredibly potent form of this. As such, when someone says "hey, this video game you like is sexist," people display a tendency to get really upset. Remember, most people feel they're rational, so an accusation of sexism is one they're going to reject almost instantly.
If you're going to try to debate sexism, there are numerous ways to do it that don't involve making people feel bad about themselves. Though it seems innocuous, one of the best ways of highlighting sexist behavior and calling it out is through webcomics. I can't even begin to tell you how many gaming webcomics I've seen that visually illustrate the absurdity of poor armor design.
What's great about this is that they bring sexism to light as an undeniable example, but they don't cause immediate offense, much less come across as insulting to any players. That, right there, means that people are more willing to listen to claims of sexism.
On the flip side of this is, say, going through a list of tropes and saying "hey, so that's bad." As an example, we've got the Damsel in Distress trope, which is one of the most common plot devices of all time. It's gotten a lot of coverage lately, and, in some ways, rightfully so, since it presents a damsel as an object who has been imprisoned and must be rescued.
But here's the thing: it's not inherently sexist.
Woah, wait, what?
Okay, let me back up and explain some basic Storytelling 101. Most people just think stories are a series of events that is relayed to an audience, but this, while being definitionally accurate, is not entirely correct. Storytelling, you see, is an art form. If you've ever wondered why humans create art, the answer is simple: art is the means by which we explore the fundamental questions of our existence. To borrow the cliche, art is what separate us from animals. Sure, gorillas and elephants might paint, as a child scribbles on paper, but this is merely drawing, not art. Art is how we contemplate who and what we are, why we're here, what we're going to do with ourselves, and what anything means.
In other words, storytelling is a way in which we explore our humanity.
Sexism is anti-human. It denies the humanity of one gender or the other and turns them into an object. Any story that resorts to sexism, then, is a bad story, because it fails to live up to the lofty goals of art. It's shlock, it's crap, dreck, it's shit, it's nothing.
So let's look at a game with the damsel in distress trope, and try to determine whether or not it explores human existence or not, shall we?
To summarize its premise: you, a long-dead science experiment, are returned to life by a girl you were genetically bonded to before your demise. She asks you to save her because her mother is trying to turn her into a superhuman, in the hopes that she will rule the world.
Yeah, "save the girl" wrapped in a sci-fi plot.
Thing is, through every character you encounter, every decision you make, every person you talk to, it becomes clear that this isn't just some weird science fiction game. It's a game about being a family. In your case, you're the divorced father. Your sojourn to rescue Eleanor isn't simply a grail quest—she's not an object—it's a quest to be a father. Through the game, the decisions you make impact Eleanor's view of the world, leading to a multitude of endings. Bioshock 2 is a game about how parents impact their children more than anything else.
Yes, she's a damsel in distress, but that's a real-life situation that happens: sometimes, fathers must protect their daughters. That's what good fathers do. Bioshock 2 is a game about putting you in those shoes. There's actually a lot more to it, and unless you consciously agree to embrace the role of Subject Delta and truly become him, it's unlikely that you'll enjoy (or even understand) the game, but at its core, it's a game about human relationships, rather than sexism.
So it's not as easy as simply looking at tropes and going "that's sexist!" While it might be pretty easy to, say, look at an outfit and proclaim sexism, it's a lot harder to do it with stories. You have to have both a rock-solid understanding of storytelling (which inevitably means an equal measure of understanding in regards to people and how they act) and the ability to devote your full attention to the story.
If you can't do that, you run the risk of making faulty criticisms, which only serve to upset rational people who do not believe themselves to be sexist.
I think we've been fighting sexism with too little understanding. If we're going to do this right, we need to change tactics. To combat sexism after we've educated ourselves as best we can, we need to first define it, so that everyone involved is on the same page. Then, we need to explain what it does to people, to show how bad it can be. After that, we need to show examples, explaining with clarity and intelligence why they are examples, proving that sexism exists.
The goal here should not be to attack people we perceive as sexists, but convince them to join us. Again, many of them are rational people engaging in behavior they understand to be acceptable. They're unaware of the harm their actions bring.
We must educate, not assault.
If we try anything else, if we say "that's sexist and you're sexist for liking it," if we throw accusations and try to hurt people, if we fail to prove our point, then we'll never get anywhere.
In other words, being right and getting the message out there isn't enough. In some cases, it can actually do significantly more harm than good, convincing people that those fighting sexism are discourteous and not worth listening to. In order to combat sexism, we must ensure that there are no holes in our insights. We must not attack others. We must convince people that they want to be on our side, because it's the right thing to do.
Let's fight sexism, but, please, let's fight it with intelligence and compassion.