How Anita Sarkeesian Made Me a Better Writer

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photo credit: anitasarkeesian via photopin cc

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.

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4 thoughts on “How Anita Sarkeesian Made Me a Better Writer

  1. Hi Erik,

    I read your book, Aetna Adrift, and I have to say I enjoyed it greatly. However, I think your admiration for Anita is misplaced, and I hope you haven’t adjusted your writing too greatly in response to her work. Please take a look at the video posted by the Factual Feminist on the topic of misogyny in the gaming industry: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9MxqSwzFy5w There are many online critics that have taken Anita’s work to task, but Christina Hoff Sommers’ videos on the topic have particular credence due to her educational credentials, and it must be said, her gender. Thanks, and keep up the good work.

    1. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view) Christina Hoff Sommers has far more credence with stealth and open anti-feminists than feminists. As an example: http://fair.org/extra-online-articles/the-stolen-feminism-hoax/ just as an example, this critique was made back in 94 on the book that Sommers continues to bank on. Sommers herself views feminism as having two types: what she calls equity feminism which refers to the literal rule of law and she views as already largely successful, and gender feminism which is meant to refer to anything in feminism focused on the underlying misogyny in society and how that negatively effects everyone, which she has time and time again essentially said is nothing but bored women looking for things to get offended at. Also, there are a number of videos and articles that sussinctly dissect how the very video you linked is full of non-arguments and contradicts the sexism women in the industry regularly face.
      Are there problems with Anita’s video series? Yeah, quite a few. She has a bad habit of ignoring context of an example (some she has used have actually been examples subverting the trope she’s addressing) and verging on sex-shaming in general to name a couple. Is Christina Hoff Sommers a good example of an academic to defer to on topics of feminism as it relates to societal sexism? Nope, not really.

      1. Thanks for your reply, JP,

        It sounds like we more or less agree that Anita’s work is flawed, while at the same time disagreeing on the source of the critique. I guess I’m a little disappointed to see Anita’s work more or less accepted in the whole by Eric without his discussing the many flaws that are attached to her work as well. I really like what work I’ve read of Eric’s to date and feel he has nothing to apologize for stylistically or thematically. A lot of what he discussed in his article above has a self-censoring feel to it which I don’t like and don’t agree with. Erik certainly doesn’t strike me as a misogynistic individual, and I feel he is letting his writing be influenced by someone with an agenda, and with, shall we say, something less than the pureest of intentions. In short, someone with Eric’s intelligence could have chosen a better lodestone than Anita Sarkeesian.

        Yours civilly,

        Adam Becherer

  2. Yes, I agree. I recently watched some of the videos produced form the Kickstarter campaign as well and people are missing the main point. She isn’t saying games or specific games are all bad, she is doing a literary critique of the story telling and themes and focus throughout. In fact, you could apply her method to any storytelling media and it would work, she just chose gaming because it needed to be done.

    As a casual writer, I found her videos to be great discussions of storytelling. I too used it as a springboard to look closer at how I am framing stories and characters. If nothing else, she gives encouragement to not fall back on lazy writing cliches and that is what makes you a better writer.

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