Last week the University of Massachusetts Amherst welcomed Anita Sarkeesian as a guest lecturer for their year long lecture series titled, “Perspectives on Resistance”. Despite her ongoing battle with Gamergate and its ilk in the past, Sarkeesian delivered her lecture “I’ll Make a Man Out of You: Redefining Strong Female Characters” to a curious, excited audience passionate about pop culture.
Sarkeesian began the lecture giving an overview of her background, her work creating “Tropes vs. Women”, and her interest in the subtle ways the media influences our very beliefs. Sarkeesian’s thesis for this lecture centered around the idea that pop culture is improving every year with increasing instances of strong female characters. However, these “strong women” play into the patriarchy’s idea of what an ideal female hero should be, and Sarkeesian posits that we should challenge this typical approach to fictional heroines.
Sarkeesian began to elaborate on this by introducing a quote from an unnamed Hollywood actor: “Both of the female characters in the movie were very strong characters. . . I thought that they were representing women very well.” She then showed a clip from the movie referenced:
“I suppose by ‘strong female character’ she meant ‘hot chick who knows about dude stuff’,” Sarkeesian quipped as the clip rolled to a finish. Female characters, much like Megan Fox’s in Transformers, are characterized as “strong” when they adopt traits that are often gendered as masculine. Said traits usually include strong, violent, unemotional, and knowledgeable of “dude stuff”. These masculine traits are valued in our heroes, whereas “female” typified traits, like emotional, compassionate, nurturing, and cooperative are seen as “weak” or are generally undervalued.
Sarkeesian then launched into some examples of female characters in pop culture who possessed these masculine traits, the first being Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica. Starbuck is unemotional, violent, and often reckless. While these (male) characteristics paint her as unstable and out of control, the same traits in her male cohorts are often celebrated. Sarkeesian pointed out Imperator Furiosa (Mad Max: Fury Road) as another “strong” female character with stoic and violent traits.
Sarkeesian’s other examples included Mako from Pacific Rim, who was about as flat as characters come, and a damsel in distress at that, as well as Lara Croft from the new Tomb Raider reboot. Tomb Raider improved its representation of Lara, but the game still retained oddly voyeuristic death scenes and suspicious camera angles.
Gendering human traits and giving them different values is harmful to both women AND men. It reinforces the idea that women are expected to behave one way, and men another. Men are celebrated for being masculine, which really boils down to being powerful and violent. When we see these patriarchal brands of gender performance in the media, it subtly burrows into our own perceptions of how society should function. Not only that, women classified as “strong” are often sexualized-they can only be powerful if they are appealing to men.
Sarkeesian was sure to celebrate different movies, shows, games, and graphic novels that did get things right. This touch of positivity was a reminder that there are people doing good work with female characters, and that they can succeed in popular culture. While not all of the examples were 100% perfect, Sarkeesian acknowledged this before praising the good points of each character. She cited examples from Saga, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek: Voyager and a number of others. The crowd cheered when their fandom of choice made the cut.
At the end of the rundown, Anita Sarkeesian took time to focus on intersectionality. There is a “fierce deficit” of women of color in the media-a problem that needs to be seriously addressed. She noted that shows like How to Get Away with Murder, Orange is the New Black, and Elementary were good examples to follow, but more work must be done moving forward.
In the end, Sarkeesian called for broader representations of women-women who are fully human and complex heroes with flaws. She noted, “Representations can only help us imagine what is possible for ourselves. It can’t simply be enough that we imagine only what we see.” Demanding more from the pop culture we consume paves the way for more nuanced and interesting narratives in the different forms of media that we love.
Drawing to a close, Sarkeesian stated, “We have to reimagine what power looks like outside of the patriarchy and redefine it for the benefit for all people.”
As for my take, this topic is nothing we haven’t considered already, at least in video games. The masculine “strong” female character is a trope pervasive in pop culture that we have been struggling with for years. That said, Sarkeesian’s laid-back conversation with the audience and her ability to explain these sticky issues in simple terms is important when trying to reach a wide range of people. Talking to people after the lecture, many weren’t familiar with this particular problem and found the talk eye-opening.
Sarkeesian’s work is clearly a passion project. She told the audience, “I do this work because I love pop culture stories,” and this showed in the lecture. She was able to talk about the TV shows and comics that she enjoys while also addressing their more problematic areas. Her message is one that’s important for other people to hear. Anita Sarkeesian’s willingness to continue the discussion despite the trail of threats that seems to always follow in her wake, her ability to power through despite the serious risk to her life is truly admirable.