In case you haven’t read the headlines, feminist Anita Sarkeesian recently cancelled a speaking engagement at Utah State University because of a death threat. It’s not the first death threat against a woman who has spoken so passionately about her love for video games and her frustration with the way the vast majority of games treat women. Earlier this year, Sarkeesian was forced to leave her home after her address was revealed on the internet along with a direct threat to her safety, and she’s not alone. (Finally, it looks like the FBI is beginning to take things seriously after the Utah State incident. It has taken far too long.)
In light of what happened this week, I thought I would talk about how Sarkeesian’s work has influenced my writing. To be succinct, she’s the most important reason two women became POV characters in my second novel The Far Bank of the Rubicon, but that’s spoiling the end of the story.
Back in 2012 Sarkeesian raised over $158,000 for a series of videos designed to take a critical look at the role women play in video games. Part one of her series was released in March of 2013. Unfortunately, I didn’t see the piece until late in the Spring when my first novel Aetna Adrift was nearly complete. I remember cringing while I watched. There was so much of what Sarkeesian said resonated loudly in my first science fiction book.
I had wanted to write a book that examined a certain point of view on sexuality that says that sex is best kept casual, without the entanglements of emotions or commitments. It’s usually, but not exclusively, expressed as a male way of thinking about sex. I believe this way of thinking leads to a lot of loneliness for men, and dehumanizes women. It’s a point of view which says if I can get sex through any legal means, it’s worth it. The end of such a point of view is that the value of any woman is only measured by her usefulness and sexual availability to a man. In this point of view, women are denied what academics like to call “subjectivity”—personhood. They become objects either available or unavailable for male sexual use. This tendency of many men to evaluate women by their sexual availability is the heart of what some feminists call “the male gaze.”
From this point of view, I believe Aetna Adrift succeeded. I created Jack—a not so lovable scoundrel who slowly, haltingly figures out how to see people, and in particular women, as more than objects through the course of the first half of the book. For some people, Jack is a difficult character. I’m asking my audience to sympathize with a man who’s trying to figure out his misogyny. I recognize that some people won’t want to take that journey, and that’s OK by me. In fact, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many people root for Jack.
From almost every other point of view in Sarkeesian’s critique of video games, my book Aetna Adrift fails miserably. Without listing all its faults, perhaps the most egregious error in Aetna is the complete lack of any independent and strong female character. Arguably there’s one, and she makes an early exit from the narrative. (She must have known something was wrong and fled. My wife and daughter keep bothering me to bring her back later in another novel. We’ll see.) Then to pour a large dollop of salt on the wound the book runs with enthusiasm straight into the damsel in distress trope that Sarkeesian critiques. No other positive female character in the book has a say in their fate. None of them have any significant subjectivity.
Now that having been said, the book has a lot going for it as well. The (male) characters are realistic, flawed, and holistic. Jack’s growth path as a character is away from the frat-boy in space cardboard cutouts which seem to be celebrated in so much of military science fiction. Many readers fall in love with the icy moon Aetna, and they love the action-packed second half of the book. From these important points of view, it’s a good book.
So in the spring of 2013, I faced a choice. I could release a book which I felt was flawed—a book whose structure undermined its themes—or I could do yet another rewrite. It was actually something Sarkeesian said that caused me to release the book. In her critique of women in video games she makes clear that just because she’s critiquing these games doesn’t mean that she can’t enjoy playing them or that somehow women should avoid gaming altogether, and that helped me understand how I wanted to see my first book.
Aetna Adrift is a good book. I think it’s worth reading, but it’s flawed. It has problems that I was determined to fix in my next book. So when I sat down to write The Far Bank of the Rubicon I worked hard to give all my characters—male and female—a voice and, in most instances, choices that determined their fate. The Far Bank of the Rubicon is a better book for having these goals front and center. I have Anita Sarkeesian to thank for that.