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I am a feminist

15 min read

There is the discussion about whether calling yourself a feminist is a bad idea. A lot of people will explicitly avoid calling themselves a feminist and use humanist instead, and some will even disavow the term for fear of being categorised with extremist factions within the ideology. There is an obvious reason for the disclaimer that often follows after a statement about feminism: most people learn about the issue in a society that is still highly sexist. Feminism is about equality for women. I believe in equality for everybody, thus I am a -amongst many other things- feminist.

Feminism is a hot button issue. If you have somewhat of a podium and you want to be sure to cause a controversy on the internet, all you have to do is speak up again feminism. Based on the few times I’ve spoken about the issue on Twitter, I can say that without a doubt, it will absolutely guarantee that your Twitter feed is completely filled for the rest of the day.

What is contained in this blog post is nothing new. These are things infinitely reiterated by minds that spend way more time thinking about these issues, people that are way more eloquent in discussing issues like these. People like Leigh Alexander and Anna Anthropy and Mattie Brice and Anita Sarkeesian, whom create amazing works while having dealt and continue dealing with sexism and discrimination in their day-to-day life. The worst that happens to me is discrimination towards Arabs, but beyond not being caucasian white, I’m pretty much a heterosexual male living a life full of economic, social and able-bodied privilege.

That’s something a lot of white, heterosexual males scoff at – the idea that just because they’re white and male and heterosexual, they’re not capable of discussing these topics to their fullest. The irony is that people complaining about not being allowed into the discourse because of their skin colour, their sexuality and their gender, do not realise that this exact situation is pretty much the only time they’re on the ‘other’ side of normativity. They are lamenting being thrust into a situation once, a situation many people are living on a daily basis.

So yes, I do believe that unless you’ve lived through structural discrimination, you’re less capable to argue about this topic. That doesn’t mean that any white, heterosexual male is unqualified to write about this topic – one is free to have opinions, after all – it just means that their opinion is by default less qualified. Just like I’d rather have a person that has already flown an airplane teaching me how to fly, I much prefer someone that has dealt with systematic oppression to discuss the effects of discrimination.

My single understanding of being discriminated against is my nationality and skin colour. It’s a pervasive thing, that I’m reminded of in my daily life more often than I’d like.

Ugh, I just had to snap myself out of feeling bad looking up Ramadan times in the airplane because the site is in Arabic. That’s awful.

— Rami Ismail (@tha_rami) July 22, 2013

I never quite realised how much impact it had on me that I would always be selected for random security checks at airports, that a lot of antagonists in action movies are Arabs who use explosives to kill innocents and that the awful effects of September 11th are still vividly carved into my memory until I sent out above tweet. I literally felt uncomfortable in an airplane with opening a website that’d show me at what time I was allowed to eat again – an Arabic website showing a countdown in an airplane is obviously distressing, right? Yet, my ability to simply exist was limited severely by circumstances and personal fear of causing “unnecessary” trouble.

Sexism is way more insidious, and I will honestly admit to not understanding the dynamics of sexism enough until a few years ago. Like many men in this generation, I was of the opinion that ‘if women want more influence in something, they should just gain more influence in something’. That seems fair, but it is also completely ignoring the socio-cultural circumstances that exist in our society.

To me, the proverbial ‘click’ happened when I read a riddle.

A father and his son are in dad’s car, driving through the night. They pass a railroad crossing and are caught off-guard when a train hits the car, flipping the car over several times before the wreck comes to a stop. The father dies immediately, but the son is rescued and rushed to the hospital, lifted onto a surgery table and prepared for surgery. The surgeon runs in, slamming the door and looks at the bloody body on the table. The surgeon looks at the other doctors in the room and exclaims “I can’t perform surgery on this child, for this child is my son”. How is this possible?

If you got the answer right, the answer should be obvious to you. Congratulations. If your answer was that the father did not die, the child was adopted or the parents were gay, you gave the same answers I did and those are all valid theories for what happened in the riddle above. However, it also means that you skipped over the most likely solution: the surgeon is part of the majority of human beings in the western world. She is female.

For me, that was an eye-opener. I had always thought of myself as well-informed about inequality. I’ve been raised bi-culturally, so a healthy dose of cultural relativity had been part of my life since birth. I’d been raised male though, and I never had to deal with people attacking me for how I dress or whether I am ‘too friendly’ with someone I’m talking to. I’ve felt scared to walk down an alley at night, but I’ve felt scared because my wallet might be stolen, not because someone might do terrible things to me. I’ve never ran into the problem where a position is more likely to go to someone, because ‘I am less stable and will drop out when I get kids anyway’.

I had been wrong all along. The house of cards I’d so carefully constructed – the meritocracy of the world – started collapsing. A lot of discrimination is simply invisible because it is ‘simply the way things are’. I realised that you cannot see the fundaments of our culture because you are part of it. It’s like asking a fish about how the water is. To be able to perceive such fundaments, one needs to be alienated from a social construct that is ubiquitous in their life.

I was like that, and I am not ashamed of that. In fact, I’m proud that I’ve struggled my way out of that. What I was unaware of was invisible, until something made me see. It is not a failure to be ignorant, but it is a failure to reject evidence presented. Well-known cognitive biases are rampant in the defence of sexism, most commonly backfire effect, in which people who are confronted with proof of beliefs contrary to their own will further persist in their original beliefs. Simply not understanding that sexism exists is problematic, but not malevolent. As somebody famously argued, it’s the equivalent of being told your zipper is open: it might be slightly awkward, but instead of stubbornly keeping it open, or defending why it is open, or feeling upset at the person who told you, you might be better of just accepting that whoever told you did you a favour and zip it up.

As such, the basis of the problem is simple: many people simply do not see there is a problem. Many people see a meritocracy. Many people believe success is earned and therefore, lack of success is equally deserved.

Success is an interesting concept, and something I’ve been struggling with. Obviously, some part of me would like to think the things I’ve achieved are off my own accord, but as I discussed in my previous blog post on impact, I do not believe that is completely true. I was lucky enough to be born me, and many choices in my life are dictated by circumstances more than conscious choice. Many of these events defined me, and even though I worked (and continue to work) extremely hard to achieve my goals, simply saying that ‘just hard work’ got me there would be a perversion of the truth.

The truth is that a lot of things lined up for my ‘hard work’ to get noticed. That does not mean that my success is ‘luck’, but it also doesn’t mean that it’s ‘just hard work’. Some people work just as hard as I do, or even harder than I do, but their goals are to bring clean water to their parents from the spring.

That is a relatively extreme example what we call privilege. Privilege is something that is based in normativity – the idea that there is a certain norm that is ‘the default state’. The default state, in Western society, is commonly defined as able, white, heterosexual male. The reasons for that are historical and cultural, but suffice to say that they’ve traditionally been the people in power. They were the ‘humans’, and others -women, people of color- were often simply serving their purposes or in the case of sexuality or gender identity even legal outcasts.

Of course, strides have been made in the past few decades, but the idea that things are equal nowadays is misguided. A lot of things are still being discussed as ‘female’: a man having trouble parking a car is not often discussed in terms of ‘all men being bad at parking’, a male scientist is discussed in terms of his achievements, while a female scientist is often described in stereotypical views of her sex, the icon for a male toilet is a human being, while women are a man with a skirt. A male playing video games badly is ‘playing like a girl’.

Games have traditionally been considered a male medium. The stereotypical ‘gamer’ is a white, young, heterosexual male in the basement of his mother. Advertisements are created aiming at this group, narrative is written assuming a male player, characters are designed to appeal to white, heterosexual male tastes and game mechanics are created to adhere to male interests. And more importantly, creating games is still commonly portrayed as a male occupation.

There are six common ‘defences’ against sexism in video-games, and generally if you’re applying these or agree with these, you’re engaging in sexist behaviour.

  • Morality of creation / Freedom of artistic expression defence
  • A variation on the claim that “games are art”, and as such the artist has no responsibility towards the user to display empathy for specific causes and as such, should not be held accountable for views communicated through their creation.

    While it is true that an artist has no responsibilities beyond their work, that does not mean that they are not to be held accountable for messages passed on through their work intentionally or unintentionally. In fact, freedom of expression means that anybody who feels that a work portrays unwanted stereotypes or views is free to complain about it, rally others to their cause or cause public outcry about their feelings.

    Artistic freedom does not limit the freedom of others to criticise their work.

  • Meritocracy defence
  • A variation on the claim that “if a certain socio-demographic wants more say in something, they should simply work on doing that”, implying that the world is a perfect meritocracy in which every human being has the same chances on success. The claim implies that if women want more representation in the medium, the simple solution is that more women should make video-games. Also commonly constructed as ‘feminists already have caused women to have so many advantages over men’.

    Beyond the fact that the meritocracy argument has been statistically disproven dozens of time, either through pay inequality or the male/female ratio in management roles, it is a defence that simply foregoes the fact that technology in Western society has a cultural context that favours men. Technology is presented to children as a ‘male interest’ from an early age, and similar prejudices exist in math, programming and game design.

    Game companies still consist out of a majority of males – especially in more influential positions – and even though the queer development scene is making massive progress, even the indie scene is sadly homogenous in terms of sex and gender. This means that even if somebody manages to defeat the prejudices in their youth, they’re still unlikely to be considered equally effective at their job.

    Feminism has caused quotas to exist in management positions, forcing boards to take on more women in the management of companies. Diversity quota are not implemented to make it harder on men – that’s normativity tricking you again. There is no inherent right for men to hold any position, but there is the cultural context that improves men’s chances for certain positions. Diversity quotas simply restore balance through legal means, and can be disbanded safely after a position is reasonably divided between two sexes.

    Claiming the world is a perfect meritocracy ignores the fact that socio-demographic context exists.

  • Tradition / economic defence
  • A variation on the claim that “companies are companies and they exist to make a profit, thus they target the traditional main demographic, which is Straight, White, Males”. That’s perfectly fine, but it is also perfectly fine to criticise and object to those games. Voting with your wallet or with public criticism is not antithetical to business – it is supportive of a healthy capitalistic environment. Also sometimes constructed as “Women are trying to destroy video games”.

    There have been many things in history that were extremely lucrative that we now consider racist, offensive or a sign of a structural lack of civilisation back in the days. These things were also considered traditional in contemporary culture.

    Not to mention that in 2012 women 18 and over represented a far larger demographic than boys age 17 or younger, while the distribution of sex in the demographic of most frequent game purchaser is almost evenly split.

    Nobody is saying games for men shouldn’t be made. Yet, as long as games for men is the overwhelming majority of games being made to the point where trying to buy a retail game that considers women a potential audience is difficult, there is a structural problem that needs to be called out. That means that, similar to having quota in management position, it is likely that until consideration in games for alternative audiences, it might be good to make trouble as long as the volume of games reinforcing sexism is so disparately large.

    Tradition or economic viability does not disavow moral responsibility for an issue. In fact, the fact that somebody is making money of off something increases their responsibility for their product. The fact that something is traditional should not mean that any form of progress is to be shunned.

  • Relativity of offensiveness defence
  • A variation on the claim that “I’m not offended, so it’s obviously not as big a deal as you make it out to be”, most often used by white, heterosexual, males. Another use is the idea that “men get objectified as well” or “some women do like these games”, but it is also commonly used as an ad hominem constructed like “there you have those feminists again, complaining about video games”.

    What is offensive to somebody is highly personal, and relies on their personal frame of reference. Whether something is offensive to somebody relies on context, on framing, on delivery, on timing, on mood and many other factors. It is also commonly affected by someones personal stake in an issue.

    The fact that something is not offensive to somebody does not invalidate the fact that somebody else might be offended by that exact same thing.

    Nobody is arguing that less games focused on white straight males should be made, but people are definitely arguing that more games should be made that do not assume that the user is a white straight male be default. If that requires speaking up against games that do adhere to the old standards, then that is their right – they are being directly affected by this issue, while people arguing the relativity of offensiveness stance are not being affected at all.

    And yes, men do get objectified in games as well, but they’re idealised from the male perspective, not a female perspective. An idealised man from a female perspective is not likely to be a usually sexist, badass, overly muscular murder machine.

    Relativity of offensiveness clearly establishes that somebody has the right to be offended by something. The fact that there is an actual and concrete stake in the issue for non-white, non-male or non-heterosexual people in arguing against normatively only further establishes their right to be offended.

  • Societal defence
  • A variation of the claim that “this is not an issue in gaming, it is an issue in society”. Often used to marginalise complaints about sexism, often implying that we as a society have bigger issues to deal with. Also commonly used to imply issues in gaming cannot be fixed before societal issues have been tackled. Also used as “and what about another minority?”.

    While it is true that society at large has issues that are more pressing than sexism, that does not mean that sexism does not have a major impact on almost 50% of our society. Sexism is something that almost invisibly affects half of the worlds population. The problem of other minorities being discriminated against is not diminished by trying to tackle sexism – but tackling sexism definitely increases our chances on focusing on other forms of discrimination.

    As for ‘the bigger issue’, the often overseen fallacy in using this defence is that by arguing this way is that anybody applying the defence is actively engaging in an argument about whether sexism is important – rather than dealing with inequality in the first place.

    Finally, the fact that society has problems with an issue does not mean that every subculture in said culture has to adhere to those same standards. Video games are our community, and we shape the written and unwritten rules of the medium. The fact that there is an increasing outcry about sexism in video games simply means that an increasing amount of people cares about this issue.

    Larger societal issues do not relinquish personal responsibilities. The fact that other minorities are also facing discrimination are additional issues, not arguments against this particular issue.

  • Political / censorship defence
  • A variation of “games are supposed to be fun, stop making this about your political views”. Through the assumption that sexism is a political issue, also often constructed as “don’t censor video games”.

    Obviously, not every game has to deal with worries about sexism, but the larger discourse about games is not governed by this misconception that games have to be fun. The fact that serious social problems like inequality are discussed in the larger conversation about video games is completely acceptable and even a large victory for our medium. Ironically, people using this defence often engage in online arguments about what console is better or whether the ending of a particular game was disappointing.

    Censorship is suppression of speech by a government or other controlling body. Public outrage is not part of a government of controlling body, therefore it is not censorship.

    This claim is false because political or humanitarian stances in the larger discourse about video games are not detrimental to the games themselves.

    Sexism is a complex issue and a highly difficult subject to deal with, but there are things you can do:

    • Call out manifestations of inequality, whether it is in a video game or at a developer party.
    • Listen to people suffering from the effects of inequality and keep asking whether you’re doing the right thing.
    • Unless you are the victim of inequality, do not try and make the discourse about you.
    • Watch your wording. It’s relatively common to have at least some common words in your vocabulary that might reinforce inequality.
    • Stop just thanking men for speaking up for being so considerate and start thanking women that are dealing with these issues every day.
    • Realise that tackling sexism is beneficial to everybody.

    This is not a problem that only appears in games, but it is definitely a problem with technology in general. Walking through a kids store, the majority of anything remotely technological will be aimed at boys. LEGO is for boys, while LEGO Friends is a simplified version for girls. A four year old girl once told her aunt, a friend of mine, that ‘girls don’t make robots’, while my friend is an accomplished programmer. This is not a natural state – girls aren’t born with the idea that they can’t work in technology – this is a cultural effect that is imposed by media, by teachers and by people in general, often unaware of the prejudices they’re passing on.

    Over the past few years, the democratisation of development tools has opened up our medium to many more developers than ever before. Twine and RPG Maker alone led to wonderful experiences ranging from Zoë Quinn’s Depression Quest and Mattie Brice’s Mainichi to Porpentine’s wide variety of work, while even our own work at Vlambeer is only possible due to the existence of Game Maker, a tool developed for ‘tinkering with game development’.

    As part of the technologic spectrum of creation, our goal as a community should be to make technology less gender-normative. Recent Kickstarter projects like GoldieBlox or Kano are opening up technology as either focused on girls or on humans. As part of a increasingly global medium, our goals as a community should be to ask for any choice we make related to race, sex, gender or sexuality, whether we are making those choices consciously or because we accept them to be ‘normal’. As a species with such high dependence on technology, we should be inviting as many perspectives into technology as possible.

    Every perspective we add to our industry is self-reinforcing. If there are more women in tech, there will be less prejudice because suddenly, they end up teaching children that women can do technology. If there are more women making games, more games will be considerate of sex and gender related issues. If there are more women making games, more women will be playing games. If there are more women playing games, gaming grows as a whole. This same effect holds true for every minority in our industry.

    Making gaming less homogenous and more diverse will solve so many problems we’re dealing with as a medium. It will improve the public image, increase the sizes of our audiences, diversify the types of experiences the medium can offer and inspire to make more interesting games.

    I think technological democratisation is a large part of improving this situation, but that responsibility is not on the young girls that are being taught that they can not be scientists or engineers. This responsibility is ours. While democratisation can help, it cannot exist without humans. We need to fix this.

    As human beings, we should be striving for equality. This is our industry, this is our culture, and even though these battles are giant, societal problems being fought against, we can try and improve our little corner of the world. Not for personal gain, not for making this a broader medium, but because it’s the right thing to do.

    Equality should not be a goal.

    Equality should be the norm.


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