Since feminist theory first found its way into the academic zeitgeist in the 1960s, critics have been taking a hard look at the way women are portrayed in the media. Movies, television shows, literature, advertisements.

Despite the fact that roughly 52% of gamers are female, until very recently, few people seemed to be applying the same critical eye to the portrayal of women in video games that they did to the portrayal of women in other mediums. Canadian activist Anita Sarkeesian was to mark the beginning of a considerable cultural shift.

An avid gamer, Anita set out to open a dialogue about just this subject, and in doing so, she ignited an internet firestorm and created a much needed cultural conversation that ultimately led to her becoming an authority on women in pop culture, and, according to Time Magazine, one of the 100 most influential people of 2015.

The power of pop culture stories should not be underestimated, and there is an enormous potential for inspirational stories that can have a positive, transformative effect on our lives.

It all started in 2009. Then a graduate student at York University studying social and political thought, Anita found herself wanting to take critical feminist theory out of the classroom and into pop culture. Since she wanted to make it relevant for the general public, she took the most direct route — a youtube channel. Just like that, Feminist Frequency was born.

We can be critical of the things that we love. That is possible.

Feminist Frequency is an online web series that explores representations of women in pop culture narratives. As part of this, in 2011, Anita put together a series of videos called “Tropes vs. Women” designed to bring feminist textual analysis to the masses. In it, she examined the portrayal of women in everything from movies to comic books, breaking down six archetypal characters like the “Evil Demon Seductress” and the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” The series was a hit, and so, in 2012, Anita set out to make the next edition: “Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games.” What happened next is hard to imagine.

In an effort to raise fund for the series, Anita launched a kickstarter with the goal of raising $6,000. The campaign was far more successful than anyone would have anticipated. Not only did the campaign raise the full $6,000 in less than 24-hours, within a month, it had raised more than $150,000. That success, however, came at a very steep price.

Anita soon found herself the target of a massive Internet attack. In a controversy that has since become known as “Gamergate” an incensed group of people, most of them gamers and/or men’s rights’ activists, launched an online war against Anita. They re-wrote her Wikipedia page, they fabricated pornographic images of her. They flagged her videos as “terrorism” and began trying to hack her accounts. Perhaps most horrifically, they developed a “beat the bitch up” video game where players could pummel Anita by clicking on a picture of her face. The more times a player clicked, the more cuts and bruises would be reflected in the photo.

Online harassment, especially gendered online harassment, is an epidemic… This is happening across the board online, especially with women who participate in or work in male-dominated industries.

The abuse wasn’t limited to Anita’s virtual life either. She was met with frequent threats to her real life as well. Her personal information, including her address, was leaked online. Numerous participants in Gamergate contacted her through nearly every form of social media imaginable with promises that they would find her and rape her. Others sent death threats. Extremists promised to bomb her presentations or commit mass shootings at her lectures, and those threats haven’t gone away. This wasn’t a quick, flash in the pan controversy. Years later, the constant threats continue. Still, Anita isn’t backing down.

I’d be lying if I said I never considered stopping. I mean, anyone in this position would have doubts now and again… But I feel like the work I’m doing is really important.

Despite the near constant threats to her safety, Anita has heroically continued her work as an activist. She travels the world giving lectures, presenting at conferences, and consulting for game development studios. She also continues her work with Feminist Frequency, developing and disseminating free, high quality videos, which are used as teaching tools in both high schools and institutes of higher education. She is the recipient of the Game Developers Choice Ambassador Award, a nominee for Microsoft’s Women in Games Ambassador Award, and one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People.”

References include Rolling Stone, New Yorker Magazine, Time Magazine, Feminist Frequency, The Guardian and Brainy Quote.

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Amber Karlins

Written by Amber Karlins

Amber works as a professor in Florida, teaching writing, literature, and theatre. Her first book, a work of creative non-fiction, was published in 2011. She also enjoys academic writing and has published papers in such places as the African American National Biography and the Journal for the Society of Armenian Studies.
Carrie Love

Image by Carrie Love

Carrie is an artist who has an interest in finding ways to empower ourselves as women and expanding our view of what it is to be a woman in our society. She believes we must dare to dream radically, for ourselves and girls growing up in our influence, looking past the distractions of a hollow media and outdated paradigms to learning to inhabit our strength and visions for the future.