[Some recent comments have motivated Lifesong to write about the rather delicate topic of sexism in the games, anime, and media we consume in general. I am obligated to point out that these are strictly Lifesong’s opinions and not those of the Glorio Blog, but we do think having open discussion is important. Expect to hear more from us soon. -Jel]
Words have power. They shape the way we think and how we define the world around us. Recently Nintendo Magazine UK published a blog about how Senran Kagura Burst is damaging the gaming industry. I personally think it is utter nonsense, but it brings western perceptions of sexism to mind and gives me a reason to write about things I’ve resisted saying for years because of how heated this topic can get. The words we use to talk about sexism in media need to change. We have fundamental misunderstandings about sexism and I want to challenge them.
Before I go any further, I want to say that I support the idea that all people should be treated equally regardless of race or gender. I would like to think I can write something like this without being accused of awful trespasses against women, but I’ve been around on the internet long enough to know that isn’t true. Part of the reason this whole issue is so important to me is because there is real inequality and using words wrongly robs them of the power they should have against that real world inequality. When words lose their power we end up with people who are either dismissive of real issues or become apologists defending a stance they may not even understand.
What is objectification? Basically, objectification is treating a person as an object without concern for their dignity. Sexual objectification is the same thing, it’s treating a person as an object for sexual pleasure without concern for their dignity as a human being.
Let me create a scenario to help illustrate what I want to talk about. Consider this: I have just told you that you are objectifying something. By that I mean you have disregarded its dignity and have treated it like an object. I’m not being specific about what that object it is yet because we can easily ignore the dignity of anything, it doesn’t matter. You are going to agree with me because honestly that is exactly what you are doing, the dignity of this object just isn’t important to you. Here is the kicker, you are now a bad person because the object at stake is something someone else holds in high esteem. Wait what, how did that happen? As I mentioned before, words have power, definitions also have power.
So what notoriously awful sexist game am I about to defend? None actually, my above example was Mario’s tanooki suit. Peta launched a promotional campaign against Mario to raise awareness for… something. The thing you objectified was an “evil” outfit that promotes skinning tanooki! More accurately I should say that what you did was to objectify tanookis as an object to be worn, discarding their dignity as a living creature and treating them like a suit. Technically they aren’t people, but otherwise the analogy holds up. You might be thinking I’m crazy, but this definition fits so just bear with me for now. Objectification is only half the picture, I’ll explain the perspective that gamers see things from soon enough.
This really happened.
There is no tangible connection between playing a video game with a tanooki suit and real animal cruelty. They only sound similar, it’s the equivalent of people fighting over a hash tag on twitter, something that I’ve seen happen a few times now. Someone starts using an old tag for something new and totally unrelated to the original purpose of that tag and the people who had used it in the past throw a fit.
Objectification of women is a real world problem that I don’t want to make light of, however objectification itself is sexist because it is a vehicle for inequality. If we take inequality out of the equation is there even anything wrong with objectification in the first place? I just said something dangerous so I hope you are paying attention!
Fictional media objectifies women because well, it objectifies everything, that’s just part of how fiction works. The dignity of a character within a story is only ever as important as the story itself calls for it to be, and it’s the story that objectifies everything held within. Storytelling in anime or anything else is the same way. Until someone makes an organic, living, breathing entertainment object that concept isn’t going to change.
Sexists also objectify women, shocker right? To challenge sexist people for objectification is to challenge people to higher standards of equality, to challenge video games and anime for objectification is to insist that you are entitled to content that appeals to you and to trample on the freedom of expression others value in the process. In truth, if we look at who is having their dignity ignored, the group being objectified is actually whoever enjoys the content of the games we claim objectify women, even women themselves if they enjoy said game. They are objectified for the sake of political goals and because of ignorant misunderstandings.
Now all of this is not to say that gamers are blameless, or even that gamers can’t be sexist. The truth is that plenty of gamers are sexist and do objectify women and that we do have have real problems in the gaming industry, but none of that is relevant to this particular topic. The important thing to note here is that fictional media and the characters contained within ARE objects. Objectifying them is natural, it’s a matter of course while playing with or making them. No one is going to afford a fictional character the equality of a real person. Anyone who would do so is probably insane. If you want an example of what it can look like when someone gives a fictional story and its characters the same level of dignity we afford for people, take a look at the bronies who seriously relate being a fan of My Little Pony with being a member of a real world religion.
Just don’t expect anyone to take you seriously.
So we’ve established that video games and anime are objects and by proxy so are all of the characters contained within, what now? Are we still allowed to experience negative emotions from fiction? Of course we are! But the perspective we take when we experience fiction isn’t one of objectification. Lets take a look at what stories actually do with the characters they create.
What is personification? It’s taking an object, in this case an object in a story, and assigning it personality traits. Basically this means treating an object as if it were more than an object. Every fictional story does this.
When someone invests in either creating or appreciating the characters in a story they are actually doing something that is essentially the opposite of objectification. When you take an object, sculpt it and assign it personality traits what you are doing isn’t objectification at all, it’s actually personification. Think of it like this: When you buy a game do you do it for the things that aren’t in your game? Or do you do it for the things that are in it? When we participate in a story do we discard the dignity of the characters in that story? Maybe, red-shirts come to mind and they certainly aren’t afforded much dignity. The important thing to note is that before we can even do that we must first personify them. Why MUST things be in that order? Because we know it’s fake.
Personification in fictional media has two parts. One part is people breathing life into stories and personifying entire worlds for the sake of our entertainment, the other part comes from the audience who invests in that world and personifies it and its characters within their own mind. Fiction is not a passive thing. Be it anime, games, American TV, doesn’t matter. You are an active participant being asked to invest in something that doesn’t actually exist in reality.
The reason we can get excited about Mario when he transforms into a tanooki isn’t because we love to casually throw away the dignity of a make believe character, it’s because the transformation gives Mario new personality traits as well as a new way to interact with the world he lives in. That probably seems pretty obvious to most of you, but don’t worry, I have another dangerous statement to make. Boobs, or rather the gameplay which is focused around boobs in Senran Kagura Burst serve the same purpose as Mario’s tanooki suit, they are an object that helps personify the world and characters of Senran Kagura Burst.
Yes, this is part of the personality of Senran Kagura as a series.
The important distinction to note here is that even if you are a sexist asshole who just wants to play a game for the sake of beating up women and ripping off their clothing, what you are doing is still personifying them. Fictional objects don’t actually have dignity for you to remove. No matter how offensive the act of a story may seem we can only give an object more dignity than it deserves, we can’t give it less because it can’t react to the real world action of having it’s dignity removed and holds no concept of equality.
You may be wondering, what of the people who personify “bad” things? Aren’t they still awful people for objectifying women? You know what? They might be, but they also might not be. Judging a person for the fictional media they like won’t tell you what morals they hold as a person. Being judgmental in this fashion is both unfair and unjustified. The insinuation that partaking in fictional media makes us bad people is utter nonsense. It ignores the fact that we know fiction is fake and forces moral judgement to go places it does not belong and where none is required.
On the flip side of all this, the debates that often come out of fictional media can often highlight the awful ideas that people hold. If you want to read more on that Guy Shalev recently did a good job of illustrating the mentality of apologists in his blog on discussing hot-button topics. My challenge is to stop questioning the content of the media they enjoy and instead question the reality they allow it to influence. Fictional media gives us a wonderful platform to talk about issues, but instead of talking about them in an intelligent and reasonable way we are often guilty of becoming judgmental and dismissive of the very apologists we hope to influence. If we don’t endeavor to be better than that are we not guilty of objectifying the very people we hope to influence with our judgement?
Why does this whole debate exist in the first place when we can seemingly cut it into small pieces so easily? Because in many cases we aren’t arguing about the same things in the first place. Debates on sexism in video games almost always break into two sides concerned with different things that sound similar. One side will argue that it’s just an anime or just a game, the other side will argue that people are influenced by games and media. Both of these are true, but they need to be understood as separate things.
Should the offensive things that happen within a fictional story be offensive to us those of us outside a story?
Understanding the Mentality of “It’s Just Fiction”
I’ve no doubt that anyone who is invested in this debate has seen this argument of “it’s just fiction” before and you probably either lean toward agreeing with it, or think that a serious issue is being dismissed too easily. Ironically both sides have merits that should be taken seriously.
Sexism is a real issue that we need to talk about, but this topic of sexism in media has been wrongly attributed to the media itself. Take Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women for example. She isn’t necessarily wrong when she points out tropes and the ways they work, but her implications that they are sexist toward women is clear, obvious and in direct conflict with the way fictional storytelling actually works. As I established above, objectifying characters isn’t what we are really doing when we partake in fictional media. We are personifying objects and assigning them characteristics. The difference between the perspective of someone uninvested in a story can be dramatically different from someone who is invested. It becomes incredibly easy to ignore personification when you are not personally invested.
Something that needs to be understood is that the awful things that may happen in a fictional story are just that, the awful things that take place in a fictional story. The perspective of someone who enjoys that thing is different from the perspective of the person who doesn’t, but both sides are equally capable of understanding when something “bad” happens. Indulging in “bad” fiction doesn’t strip anyone of their ability to tell right from wrong, it might challenge it, but that challenge is up against reality. It quickly becomes insulting when someone finds something morally offensive and implies that anyone who enjoys that insulting thing is guilty of the same sin.
When someone insinuates a connection between their real world morality and the morality of a story they are challenging the morality of and insulting the intelligence of anyone who is okay with indulging in that thing that bothers them. This misunderstanding arises when we fail to acknowledge that fictional media is fake, and more importantly that it is understood as fake by the people who enjoy it. It shouldn’t be hard to see why those people start looking for a quick out when someone tries to tell them that the thing they like makes them a bad person. If you have ever had a religious person come to your door and try to save your soul from some damnation or another you probably know what I’m talking about.
This is ironic because it’s something that we shouldn’t need to be told.
Another reason why this whole debate infuriates me is because attacking the content of fictional media itself is also to attack freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is something that is challenged in the modern world and isn’t absolute anywhere. Even in the US our entitlement to freedom of speech is limited by obscenity laws, copyright violations and more. It is scary to see things you love threatened by misunderstanding and natural for people to feel threatened by that I think. No one wants to discuss something with someone who is threatening them, even if those threats are only perceived threats. The risk is alarming to anyone invested.
Do Anita Sarkeesian and others with concerns for sexism in games and anime have ground to stand on then? Of course they do, but not for objectification. There are plenty of sexist gamers in every gaming community I’ve ever been a part of and there is often a real need to challenge their mentality. The industry itself may have the same issues in the workplace and face an even greater need. Those are real problems that need real attention and real solutions, but they are not even relevant to this topic of content. “It’s just a game” is actually a pretty good defense against most complaints aimed at the content of fictional media.
So what about the influence of fictional media? Stories have power just as words do right? Yes they do, but one of the important and understood facts of fiction is that it is fake. What we need isn’t the removal of elements from fiction, it’s a clear understanding of reality. Research, education and meditation will easily trump the ideas we get from fiction because we know those ideas aren’t real.
There is another more personal side to all of this for me and that is this: It’s actually rather insulting to be told that I’m sexist for enjoying a game. The insinuation that I or other people indulging in a fictional story can’t tell the difference between fiction and reality is infuriating and frankly, when this topic of sexism comes up about a game that I enjoy, it’s not women being objectified and having their dignity and intelligence insulted, it’s actually the gamers being objectified for the sake of a political debate.
Consider this: There are often women included in the fandom of gamers who enjoy “sexist games”. Shocker right? It really shouldn’t be. It’s not sexist when a game is made for a male audience, it’s sexist when a woman isn’t allowed to enjoy that game because she is a woman. The feminist argument that these things are responsible for alienating women is ironically sexist against any women who might enjoy those games for the very elements that have been called out as sexist.
Talking about entitlements is nasty business. I am tempted to skip this section, but I won’t because I think it’s a vital piece of the puzzle. Much of this whole debate on sexism in media really boils down to a debate of what we are entitled to as individuals. To tackle this issue with the depth and finesse it deserves is beyond the scope of this essay, but none the less I wish to explain what they are and how they work on a very basic level.
I want to be careful with how I say this because holding an entitlement mentality is often viewed as a negative thing on the internet and sometimes it very much can be. As I mentioned before, this is a topic that goes beyond the scope of what I can practically cover in one essay. Basically I would like you to keep this in mind: Entitlements are not simply something that spoiled kids on the internet have, they are what define our rights as individuals and they vary depending on where you live. Giving my own detailed opinion on how I feel these entitlements should be is perhaps a topic for another day. Instead I am hoping to educate anyone who might not understand how they work and how they relate to this debate.
The thing that is immediately important to understand is that at the core of both attacking and defending the content of fictional media is an argument over entitlements. To use Anita as an example again, Anita’s entire angle boils down to wanting entitlements for women over the content of fictional media and the defense against it boils down to wanting to protect entitlements for the content we already have and the rights of content creators to make that content the way they wish. That is a gross oversimplification and this topic of entitlements needs to be broken down into many smaller pieces for any sort of meaningful dialogue, but this basic understanding of entitlements is important to understanding the nature of what is at stake.
I look at it like this: Debates over sexism are about discrimination against a gender, debates over entitlements are about what we deserve as fundamental rights. Misunderstanding is a given when we disguise a debate on the entitlements of a gender by dressing it up as sexism. Even if unintentional, this is what Anita Sarkeesian has accomplished with her Tropes vs. Women. Dialogue on the entitlements of a gender look similar to sexism on paper, but sexism implies discrimination. Sexism is discrimination of gender, entitlements are what we believe we deserve. Entitlements for a gender are what we believe a gender deserves. We need to stop confusing these points with our language.
The reason entitlements are so important to look at when talking about sexism is because of the language we use to talk about sexism. In particular talking about the objectification of woman makes confusing entitlements with discrimination a very easy thing to do. They are both important topics worthy of dialogue on their own merits, but no one wins when we fail to understand them as separate things.
but they’re still humans.
So what is the next step toward getting what we want out of fictional media? Honestly, that depends on what it is we do want, what I want is probably different from what you want. It might be majorly different or only slightly different, but it won’t be identical. Frankly, I’m not entirely sure what we should be talking about once we debunk objectification, but I can tell you where it starts. We need to break down the walls of us versus them that this debate has created. You simply can’t fight discrimination with more discrimination. No one wins and everyone sounds like an asshole or and or an idiot when they try. Just see the way so many people have become apologists and dismissive of real problems or the way people are emotionally manipulated by their own false ideas and become judgmental.
How do we break down discrimination? Though acceptance and respect. I think we need to accept that different people want different things out of their fictional media and we need to stop discriminating against people for their taste in fictional media. Meaningful dialogue will never happen otherwise. Discrimination is what formed this misunderstanding in the first place and giving acceptance and respect are what we need to do in order to tear it down.
There are many issues at stake with the treatment of women in our culture, but we need the wisdom to discern what those are and the kindness to respect people who indulge in things we may not like. We also need the patience to put up with the damage that has already been done and the compassion to be accepting of things we do not fully understand.
Words have power, if we want to move forward with this debate we need to start using the right ones for the right things.