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Feminist pop culture critic Anita Sarkeesian talks media tropes at UMass

By Colby Sears

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Tristan Brand for Broadbent Institute/Flickr

(Tristan Brand for Broadbent Institute/Flickr)

Anita Sarkeesian, pop culture media critic and creator of the video web series Feminist Frequency, is no stranger to resistance. She spoke about just that at the University of Massachusetts on Wednesday, embracing the theme of the year-long “Social Science Matters: Perspectives on Resistance” lecture series presented by the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

Recently named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, Sarkeesian is without doubt a controversial figure. She was targeted in 2014 by the male-dominated video game culture associated with the hashtag #GamerGate, most specifically for her “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” web series. She received a surplus of death and rape threats and was even forced to cancel a Utah State University speech in October 2014 due to threats of a mass shooting.

In her “I’ll Make a Man Out of You: Redefining Strong Female Characters” talk at UMass, Sarkeesian discussed the tropes and stereotypes associated with women across all media types, particularly how female characters are presented in video games, movies and television. Although there has been an increase in female television and movie characters in recent years, Sarkeesian asks whether or not these roles have actually helped the representation of women or are simply imitating masculine qualities in a sexualized female body.

“Media can inspire greatness and challenge the status quo, or sadly more often it can work to reinforce and normalize systems of power and privilege,” she said.

This philosophy is what encouraged her to start Feminist Frequency in 2009 as an effort to make feminism and the issues of privilege and oppression more accessible. She said her goal in doing so was to use the lens of pop culture to make these concepts more relatable.

Sarkeesian made it clear that all the mass media discussed in the talk has been produced for a society that has “existed within the system of patriarchy for decades”, which can produce harmful gender stereotypes that some may not even realize exist in the media they consume.

Traits like being strong, confident, passive, timid or nurturing, for example, are qualities that all humans are capable of possessing. She said these characteristics, however, are often confined to a gender binary in which some are seen as purely masculine and others associated only with femininity. She believes these qualities should be regarded as human traits rather than traits classified by gender.

Part of Sarkeesian’s talk focused on her case studies of female characters who contribute to these tropes. She began by showing a clip of Kara “Starbuck” Thrace from the television show “Battlestar Galactica”, in which the woman gets in a confrontation with a male character in the scene. Sarkeesian explained that whereas a man would be valued for expressing the dominant, aggressive and violent traits Thrace shows, these stereotypical traits are used against her because she is a woman.

Imperator Furiosa, from the 2015 film “Mad Max: Fury Road,” the animated character Wyldstyle from “The Lego Movie,” Black Widow of “The Avengers,” and video game characters Lara Croft, Bayonetta and Cortana of the “Halo” video game series were just a few of the other examples Sarkeesian used as representations of poorly developed female characters.

She referred to Black Widow as “merely a part of the boy’s club, without ever challenging the male-dominated status quo” and Bayonetta simply as “walking sex,” citing all of these examples as hypersexualized characters whose sexuality is “highlighted above all else.”

Talking about men, Sarkeesian said, “They’re taught to believe women are always sexually available and that the image of an empowered woman is one not to be feared or respected, but to be placed severely in the realm of sexual desire.”

Sarkeesian believes there are, however, female characters in the media that are doing it right. She said Buffy Summers from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the transgender character Sophia from “Orange is the New Black” played by actress Laverne Cox, Leslie Knope from “Parks and Recreation,” and Merida from the Pixar animated film “Brave,” among others, are all positive examples.

She also discussed the “gross deficit” in the amount of roles given to white women compared to those given to women of color, queer women and women with disabilities.

“We need to see a much wider range of women’s roles in non-stereotypical ways with different lived experiences,” she said. “I think that feminist characters should, like feminists in real life, push beyond the societal norms, challenge gender roles and the institutions that actively work to maintain them.”

Sarkeesian spoke in the Student Union Ballroom at 4 p.m. Wednesday and answered questions from the audience after she concluded her speech.

The event was sponsored by the Master of Fine Arts Program for Poets and Writers, the College of Information and Computer Sciences, and the English, sociology, and women, gender and sexuality studies departments.

Speakers for the “Social Science Matters” series are chosen by departments within SBS to represent the overall theme of the series and demonstrate cross-disciplinary connections.

Colby Sears can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @colbysears.

3 Comments

3 Responses to “Feminist pop culture critic Anita Sarkeesian talks media tropes at UMass”

  1. Ugh on November 6th, 2015 8:39 pm

    Ugh

  2. Useless degree on November 6th, 2015 10:59 pm

    “Looks at her degrees”

    Communications studies and social and political thought? Geez no wonder she does this she can’t get a job doing anything else.

  3. Tricia on November 19th, 2015 7:31 am

    Could you please stop calling her feminist and instead “extrem-leftist”? Because she isn’t feminist.

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