Sunday, 9 June 2013

Is feminism for educated middle class women who want to feel important?

Today I read the following comment on the internet: 'Feminism is all about educated middle class women and their need to feel important.' I am considering this comment.

By Iago4096 via Wikimedia Commons

Internet comments

Oddly (I think) the comment was on an article about feminism, on the Guardian's Women's section. It seems strange to me that you would bother reading this section at all if you disliked feminism. Personally, I find it difficult enough to keep up with the sections of the media I am interested in, let alone finding time for those I'm not.

But then, there's something about internet comment spaces that seems to attract an awful lot of detractors, who deliberately seems to seek out people and ideas at which to hurl abuse. 

This comment isn't abusive at all. It's a perfectly valid view, if a bit snide. It's not nearly in the league of the kind of hate that I talked about the feminist video games critic Anita Sarkeesian receiving last week. 

What is feminism for?

Certainly I am educated, middle class and a woman. And I would quite like to feel important (wouldn't everyone?), although I can't say I do. But I have a voice, so I'm going to use it to shout (or at least argue) for the things I believe in.

Feminism is about equality, calling for the same rights and opportunities as men. In the cosy middle class UK we're pretty well off in this respect, but this hasn't always been the case, and it doesn't mean we're finished with feminism - there's still a bit of a way to go. Outside the UK, in less well off countries, there's a long way to go. Feminism still has a lot to offer. 

Ch. Chusseau-Flaviens [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons

Middle class origins

Feminism came from the educated middle classes. Emmeline Pankhurst and her cronies were mainly middle and upper class. Well of course they were, working class women were too busy trying to get by and feed their families, to involve themselves in politics, although as the campaign went on, support across the classes grew. Here's an interesting article about working class women in the suffrage movement.

Feminism in the 20th century developed from a campaign for basic rights into an intellectual movement, albeit one that still campaigns for basic rights. It's proponents - women like Simone de Beauvoir and later Germaine Greer were middle class intellectuals. 

After the 1960s more and more women from all classes have taken the opportunity to embrace equality in more practical ways, having their own bank accounts, jobs, cars - all things that we may take for granted and not consider particularly feminist, but which a lot of women in the world today wouldn't dare to dream of. 

And although these things might have come out of the middle classes, they certainly didn't stay there. Maybe middle class women like me have the luxury of being able to sit around reading, writing and discussing feminism, but women across all classifications are taking advantage of the opportunities it's given us. 

Is feminism middle class?

So is feminism middle class? If you still believe the antiquated class system, then yes, feminism is most discussed, by name, among middle class educated women. 

But its practical impact - giving women rights, freedoms and opportunities, is felt and used across all demographics.

Many women don't consider themselves feminists, but they would find the idea absurd that they should give up their job and car and put any money they own entirely into the safekeeping of their father/husband/brother. But that's where we'd be without feminism. 

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Taking feminism to video games

So a feminist thought she'd turn her attention to video games did she? Well the boys showed they wouldn't take her bra-burning antics lying down. How dare she!

Anita Sarkeesian, via Wikimedia Commons
Feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian is making a series of three films exploring female characters in video games. So far she has released the first two on and YouTube.

The project was funded by backers on Heading up the project page on the site is now a video games style cartoon with the caption 'Thankfully Anita has decided to face down the trolls and continue the project.'

Damsel in Distress

Sarkeesian's videos explore the 'damsel in distress' trope in video games. She defines this as 'a plot device in which a female character is placed in a perilous situation from which she cannot escape on her own and must then be rescued by a male character.'

She suggests that the damsel in distress has become the video game staple for female characters, giving examples of video games, from the earliest and most well-loved games, including Mario's Princess Peach and Princess Zelda, to more recent titles, which portray women as weak and incapable.

A male character will usually be the subject of a video game narrative, while female characters tend to exist as objects for male characters to rescue and/or receive as a reward for completing a quest. Sarkeesian suggests that repeating these tropes in video games 'helps to normalise extremely toxic, patronising and paternalistic attitudes about women'.

Criticising video games

Video games have traditionally been hugely male dominated, in terms of the people making them, playing them and the characters appearing in them. The balance has shifted a little in recent years, with increasing numbers of women and girls being drawn to gaming, but as Sarkeesian shows, the role of women in the games themselves has not really moved on in the genre.

Sarkeesian has clearly been interested in video games for a long time. She makes the point that you can enjoy something whilst finding some aspects of it troubling. I discussed a similar issue, in my post 'Is it OK to enjoy sexist films?'

But Sarkeesian received so much abuse on YouTube for her measured critique of the video games genre, that she has had to disable comments. If you want to read the kinds of horrible things people have said, she blogged about them here.

Henry Meynell Rheam, via Wikimedia Commons

Distressed damsels

The distressed damsel character is a problem that extends far beyond video games.

We grow up on fairy tales - Rapunzel is rescued from her tower by the handsome prince, Sleeping Beauty is woken from her sleep by the prince fighting his way to her, Snow White is brought back to life by the prince.

Before we can even read and write we learn about these helpless female characters who get themselves into sticky situations and wait around for a bloke to come and rescue them.

Thinking that her role in life is to dress like a princess and wait around for a nice chap to come and get her hardly seems a good way for a 21st century girl to begin life, and nor should boys grow up thinking they have to spend their time getting girls out of trouble.

Critiquing this trope in video games is one woman's attempt to reconcile the contradiction between enjoying an art work, whilst worrying about some of the assumptions about gender that it presents. And so we must help our children to enjoy these fairy tales and the characters they present, which are an important part of our cultural history, and yet also help them to understand that real life isn't like that, and nor are real men and women.

The fact that Sarkeesian was shot down for doing this says far more about the shooters themselves, and perhaps a certain cohort of video games fanatics, than it does about her project or the games by which it was inspired. And of course, by persevering with the project, she proved that 21st century women aren't damsels in distress.