Media Responsibility and Sexism/Racism
I’m a bit late to the party when it comes to the firestorm and backlash that Anita Sarkeesian faced after announcing her intent to cast her critical, feminist gaze at the interpretation of woman in video games. I commented on the backlash itself in my article about approaching conflict, but I never brought up how I personally feel on the issue of gender politics and inequality in video games.
But I don’t really need too. I’m your standard left-winged progressive whose opinions on this matter have been stated over and over by other voices on the internet. People arguably more qualified and more articulate have listed off reasons why sexism in video games is a problem, what can be done about it, responses to common arguments for sexism in games… I don’t need to throw my lot in with those people, because it won’t do either of us any good and frankly I won’t get anywhere just singing along with the choir.
So alternatively, I want to look at a broader issue that ties back to sexism and video games–namely, media responsibility. Because I think it’s pointless to demand less sexist characters, more female leads, and less discrimination, until we understand more about the industries that started these trends in the first place. And sadly, the results of this analysis are… well, not good, but not hopeless.
When proprietors and equal rights protesters like Anita Sarkeesian press for equality of gender, sexual, and racial representation in TV, Movies, and Video Games, often times they qualify their desires with a reminder of how urgent these matters really are. To people who say “It’s just a TV show, stop taking it so seriously”, the response is that “Media shapes how we look at the world and it shapes our culture. Media is a driving force in altering our perspectives, our outlooks, and our beliefs–and as long as media IS segregated, it will continue to encourage disparity in our real lives. And as such critical parts of our culture, media providers like directors, writers, and developers have a responsibility to put an end to these practices.”
Now, free speech, censorship, and other issues aside, I think the core of this argument is largely true. As Uncle Ben once told us, “With Great Power comes Great Responsibility”, and our media outlets do have great influence over our lives. But at the same time… there are two other responsibilities media has to the consumer, namely, 1) To be entertaining, and 2) to make money. And sadly, those two responsibilities will often be compromised in the pursuit of the aforementioned first responsibility of pressing equality.
Now, naturally, it’s POSSIBLE to do all three. Consider My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. While I don’t doubt Miss Sarkeessian could find something wrong with it, it’s largely a very progressive show. Almost an all-female cast, with well-developed character arches and exceptional dialogue and I just sort of admitted I watch My Little Pony, didn’t I? What matters is, though, that it’s both popular, and a cash cow, and feminist-friendly.
But the vast, vast majority… well… aren’t. My Little Pony was a stroke of good luck, with all the right people riding all the right brainwaves and with all the right people in charge to greenlight it. Not all TV shows, movies, and games have that kind of opportunity. They might have sub-par writers, or primarily male viewership, or be Fox News or whatever–and in those cases, looking at the numbers alone, trying to be more ‘equal’ would compromise 1 and 2. Sad as it is, sometimes people just want to see a guy save a girl from muggers, or not have to worry about if gender is being represented fairly in whatever show they watch. By drawing attention to it, it can scare away viewership, which reduces sales.
It’s like how our video games and movies are saturated with sequels and remakes–we repeat what works because it works, and satisfying two conditions at the cost of the third is simply easier than trying to make anything of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic quality. Which… ironically, is a remake, but still, my point remains.
Now, what can we do about it? Well, the same thing we can do any time a company does a job we don’t like—just don’t buy their product, play their game, or watch their show. Publishers and networks know what doesn’t work and they respond to a lack of profits a lot quicker than they’d react to any emotional or moral appeal. But more than that, if you’re the type with these sorts of ambitions, you could help by becoming a writer or producer or developer yourself. It’s not often a company is intentionally anti-feminist or homophobic, and even less often a company is racist, and usually when this stuff becomes an issue it’s just because they have really bad writers who resort to using troupes because they’re easy. For real change, you could try to raise the bar, and then meet that bar, then profit.
Media responsibility as a whole will only get more and more important as we continue to advance into a more for-profit, technologically advanced age, and keeping things fair and balanced is just one small facet of this huge issue. Maybe we’ll look at media responsibility again in a future article. Or maybe it’ll just be the next one. Or we won’t at all. Who can say?