Anita Sarkeesian, Video Game Rape Culture, and Why Online Harassment Is Not a Joke

I tend to be pretty lucky around these parts. Occasionally, someone will show up in comments here and complain about the fact that we’re talking about pop culture rather than politics, and y’all will set that person straight. Once in a very little while, a true creep will show up and comment on my looks based on a cartoon of my face, my sex life based on…I’m not even sure what exactly, or fantasize about seeing violence done to me, in which case the banhammer comes out, sometimes before y’all can even run them off. And as a media critic who does a lot of feminist work, I hate the fact that I’m grateful for the fact that I’m not harassed for doing my job.

Which is why I was so angry to hear about what’s happened to Anita Sarkeesian. For anyone who’s unfamiliar with her plight, Sarkeesian wanted to start a project to cover a subject that’s not exactly radical: the portrayal of women in video games. Her YouTube account, in which she explains the project, was flooded with comments equating her to the KKK, calling her a “fucking hypocrite slut,” comparing the project to an act of war, and flagging the video as promoting hatred or violence. Her Wikipedia page was vandalized, her picture replaced with pornographic images, and people tried to get the Kickstarter proposal Sarkeesian was using to raise money to support the project shut down. Fortunately, in this case, despite past issues with harassment victims, it seems like Kickstarter’s been more helpful to Sarkeesian than not.

But the whole incident is a reminder of how deeply some men are invested not simply in the structures that provide them tangible advantages, but in the conventions that let them wallow in culture that indulges their worst, stupidest impulses. And if folks are willing to fight this hard against someone doing criticism of culture, there are others who will do worse to preserve the laws that give them privilege in the world. Culture in this area, as in so many others, is a canary in a coal mine. And women who complain about online harassment aren’t being oversensitive: they’re trying to stop an ugly cycle before it spirals out of control. Both psychologically and substantively, it’s key to our ability to do our work.