Anita Sarkeesian was once the most controversial figure in gaming. Her infamous Feminist Frequency series caused a massive divide across the community because of its aim to showcase sexism in gaming and the often-questionable ways in which it did so. It seemed like all gamers had their eyes on her at one time, even if many of them were far from being supporters. It was a time of massive conflict for the online gaming sphere, though that’s far from true today. In fact, Sarkeesian is almost never brought up in gaming discussions online anymore and when she is, it’s almost always in reference to her long since passed peak in popularity, while her videos—which once regularly earned views in the millions—now struggle to reach an audience of even two thousand.
This turn has not made her quit, though, as she has become a prolific public speaker and still uploads regularly despite the declining online interest in her brand. So what happened to Anita Sarkeesian? How has she changed in her time since leaving the mainstream? Has she abandoned her more controversial points of view? We were recently given the opportunity to solve these mysteries, as we had the privilege of attending Sarkeesian’s appearance at the University of Winnipeg’s Axworthy Distinguished Lecture Series. Honey’s Anime was finally able to see one of the most controversial gaming figures of the past today.
Entering Riddell Hall, where the lecture would take place, the ambiance was lively but divided. Attendees all seemed to be looking forward to the evening's presentation, but much like online, many openly spoke of attending with the intent to mock the lecturer. It was difficult to gauge which side held the majority, but everyone seemed to intend to listen respectfully at the very least. Conversations from both sides still only spoke of Sarkeesian's work at her peak and even then, quickly turned to unrelated personal subjects, emphasizing her previously mentioned dip in popularity.
As the last five minutes before the lecture elapsed, everyone found their seats and happily waited for the event to begin. Likewise, we prepared ourselves for the night’s events, curious to see not only how Anita Sarkeesian has changed, but also how the crowd will respond to her.
Off to a Good Start
Before the host made her entrance, some representatives from the University gave some brief introductions to the concept of social justice and to Sarkeesian herself. As she reached the podium, Sarkeesian carried herself with a warm, smiling and friendly demeanor. While her earlier videos made her seem uncomfortable on camera, with awkward silences and cold delivery reminiscent of the Fine Brothers, she brought a happy and inviting demeanor to the lecture, a notable improvement. She began by speaking about important women in history who were ignored in spite of great feats—the subject of her new video series and book. She also played an episode of this series which focused on Ching Shih, the most dangerous pirate in 19th century China.
Once the video had concluded, she began speaking about her personal life and family history, taking a personal lens to her parents’ lives in Iraq and their immigration to Canada all the while adding occasional comedic non-sequiturs to which the audience reacted with consistent laughter. So far, the night was going much better than Sarkeesian’s less than glowing reputation may have suggested.
Tropes vs Comic Books
As the lecture moved towards the subject of Sarkeesian’s career, the audience was shown more videos, ones that inspired the idea of using YouTube and pop culture to relate feminism to the mainstream that formed the core of Feminist Frequency. Sarkeesian also interestingly referred to her early work as “a series of false starts.” A statement that probably came as a pleasant surprise to her detractors in the audience who would no doubt be happy to see her renounce her first handful of videos that brought her the ire of the gaming community, but she sadly never went into detail as to what exactly she meant, so we’re hesitant to interpret the statement that way. Especially after what happened next.
Yet another video was played, this time one of the most controversial episodes of her Tropes vs Women series. It was an episode that was mocked across the gaming sphere for comments that disparaged the medium for the Batman: Arkham series depicting the titular male hero as having a cape covering his ass, while the female Catwoman had none. This was something we would later see some attendees criticize once the lecture had concluded and we were unsure how to react to it as well.
On one hand, judging the medium of video games for the designs of comic book characters is completely contrary to the beliefs of Honey’s Anime and deserves to be called out, especially since Sarkeesian appeared to maintain a favorable attitude towards it in spite of the regret she had just expressed at some of her early work. But on the other hand, it’s debatable whether or not she should have verbally disavowed this segment, even if she really did no longer stand by it. After all, the goal of showing that video was not to sway the audience’s opinions on butts in gaming, but rather to provide context for where Sarkeesian’s career was at the time of making the video. Even though it was a problematic point that understandably irritated viewers, was it really fair to take its presence into consideration when gauging whether or not Sarkeesian had changed?
Unsure of the correct answer, we continued to listen patiently as she spoke of the subsequent harassment and threats of terroristic and sexual violence she received following her videos’ viral status. She credited her perseverance in the face of such opposition as an influence behind the increase of female representation in video games that she approved of, a take on the current industry we found interesting and saw some level of merit in, but she never went into detail about this either, so it was again left slightly unclear.
She proceeded to speak about another person who inspired change in the face of adversity; Ida B. Wells, famous African-American investigative journalist and early leader of the civil rights movement. When she proceeded to show another video on the matter, we began to feel that her reliance on such visual material was becoming overused, as it felt like it began replacing words from Sarkeesian instead of supporting or elevating them. The audience’s attention showed no sign of waning, though, so that may not have been the popular opinion. Regardless, she ended the lecture off well, with a pep talk for those attending saying that they should never let others stop them from being the social influencers they want to be.
Anita After Dark
Sarkeesian’s lecture moved forward to a short discussion between herself and a faculty member which mostly touched on the topics covered in the lecture. And much like in said lecture, Sarkeesian maintained a balance between an engaged demeanor and some occasional humor, which seemed to keep the audience at large invested. She did blank and stutter on occasion, but she was speaking unrehearsed at this point, so it was understandable. She talked about her new book, History vs Women, which—as mentioned earlier—showcases important women in history that have been forgotten. This is another area where her improvement since the early days of feminist frequency was put on display as her tone and her goal to give the women featured in the book the platform they deserve both convey a sense of importance in the material and a feeling of investment that felt genuine. She also avoided saying anything that was factually incorrect, a major faux pas that occurred in the Tropes vs Women series on occasion.
Awkward moments could still be found during the discussion, though. Detractors often claimed that Sarkeesian doesn’t actually play the games she criticizes and whether that’s true or not, the fact that she was unable to give a direct answer when asked for an example of the recent games she mentioned being more in line with her worldview probably wouldn’t help with that image. It also took her an oddly long time to remember that the game she had played most recently was Guacamelee 2, which she didn’t give any thoughts on. That was a significant blemish on the evening, if for no other reason than the fact that Guacamelee 2 is a lot of fun and doesn’t deserve to be slept on as much as it has been.
In spite of some minor hiccups, the discussion was going very well. We were firmly set to come away from the experience with an opinion of Anita Sarkeesian the public speaker that was much more favorable than the popular opinion of Anita Sarkeesian the video creator and her new book seemed to hold a lot of interest and promise to boot. But then she made an offhanded comment about other women, specifically those that did not identify as feminist, crediting their decision solely to “internalized misogyny.”
We’ve been dancing around this issue a bit, but Anita Sarkeesian has always had a reputation as somewhat of an extremist, a radical feminist with a black and white outlook of what is good and what isn’t and whether or not she deserves that; it’s certainly true about this comment. It may be redundant to say at this point, but Honey’s Anime does not stand by this idea either and will not judge women simply by whether or not they call themselves feminists. We were looking forward to seeing a new, better side of Sarkeesian and hoped that we could come away from her lecture with an uncompromisingly positive outlook on how she had changed in her time away from the online spotlight, but this sort of comment only gets in the way of that. It was an unnuanced and inflammatory remark that served not to criticize but insult any who were not already with her.
Despite the turn near the end of the discussion, the conversations of those around us as we left were overwhelmingly positive, much more so than when we entered. Whether nobody else was upset by that comment or whether they simply looked past it since it was only brought up as a minor tangent we can’t say with certainty, but finding negative comments in the crowd took effort and they only criticized things like her overuse of video or her comments on Batman’s cape. A far cry from the backlash she’s been known to receive. Getting up to leave, we noticed an enormous line to buy Sarkeesian’s new book, which we had only seen roughly a dozen people purchase prior to the lecture. The amount of positive feedback the crowd was giving was almost surreal, especially since the audience was not nearly this supportive of her before her presentation. As we were ready to leave, we spoke to a young attendee who wore a red MAGA cap who told us he appreciated a lot of what Sarkeesian had said, probably the best example of how peculiar the positivity amongst the audience was.
Despite the severe backlash she received in her early career, Sarkeesian appeared to have won the crowd over, and though we sadly can’t say her comments all reflected well on her, we can at least recognize that she has gotten better since her early days on Youtube, even if it’s not by as much as we would like.
The attendees were also very respectful, with not a single heckler or rowdy listener present in spite of some expressing clear opposition to Sarkeesian before she arrived. It was a stark contrast to the most infamous responses to her more popular videos and a change we were happy to see. Although the night had significant issues, we were happy to be able to leave Riddell Hall comforted by the knowledge that not only has Anita Sarkeesian changed for the better but that our sub-culture has as well.