Nerds and Male Privilege: Tropes, Trolls, Haters & Anita Sarkeesian

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I occasionally get accused of hating on dudes or telling them that they are scum and women are utterly perfect in every way and everything is men’s fault. This usually comes amongst the various accusations that I’m only writing articles about feminist issues or male privilege because I’m trying to get laid1 or to please my girlfriend/wife/woman I’m currently trying to sleep with2, which always makes me laugh.

I mean come on, I’m clearly doing it for the pageviews instead. Duh!

Real talk: I write articles like these because I want to help nerds improve themselves. I want to see them get better at dating and I want to see them be better people on the whole. Which is why there are some stories that just drive me out of my goddamned monkey mind.

Now call me naive, but I’d hoped after the blow-up with Cross Assault and Aris Bakhtanians’ sexual harassment of Miranda Pakozdi that we’d seen the worst that geek culture had to offer for a while; maybe nerds would get a little shaken up and think that maybe they should recognize that they were conforming to every negative stereotype that people have about geekdom being the He-Man Girl Hater’s club and step back.  Sure, there might be some ill-considered marketing, maybe trying to use rape as cheap character development or oversexualizing women for no apparent reason in game trailers, but come on, there’s a difference between being a little ignorant and straight up hateful. Maybe nerds would realize that things have gone too far and dial things back some… at least for a little while.

Hooo… man, that was a good one.

While I’m wishing, I’d like a winning Mega-Millions ticket too.

One of these days, I’m going to learn that when I think that nerds have started scraping the bottom of the barrel with stories of shitty behavior and attitudes towards women, somebody is going to toss in a shovel.

Last Time, On The Internet…

I am talking, of course, about the dedicated Internet Hate Campaign directed at Anita Sarkeesian.

To sum things up quickly – in the event that you have somehow managed to avoid the Internet for the last month or so – Anita Sarkeesian runs a blog and video series called Feminist Frequency that examines pop culture – especially geek culture – with an eye towards feminist issues. In June, she launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the filming and development of a series of web videos called “Tropes Vs. Women”, examining the way that women have been traditionally portrayed in video games3

And then a bunch of nerds lost their shit.

Before the project was even funded, never mind published, a horde of nerds and men’s rights advocates descended upon Sarkeesian like a pack of pissed off Capuchins in order to vent their fury at the idea that somebody was going to maybe possibly say something negative  about the way women are portrayed in games.

“What? You might say Ivy’s a sexist portrayal of women? NOW WE MUST DESTROY YOU!!”

They vandalized her Wikipedia page, spewed hate into the comments of her YouTube channel and tried to get Kickstarter to shut down the fundraiser.

Again: because people were upset and afraid about what she might say about video games. This wasn’t about trying to have a reasoned, even passionate debate about her views on games, this was about telling a woman that she was not allowed to have an opinion on the matter. The mere idea that she might express an opinion about the way that women are portrayed in games is apparently so abhorrent to some people that they felt that the only appropriate way to respond was to take away her voice. If they couldn’t intimidate her into silence with threats of sexual violence and online harassment then by cracky they were going to try to sabotage any attempt to make this happen.

“Women across the internet are attacked for speaking out on a variety of topics but there seems to be a particular entitlement-based rage directed at any woman who dares to say anything critical about video games” – Anita Sarkeesian, speaking to GamesIndustry

Needless to say, it didn’t work. Not only did Sarkeesian make her initial goal of $6000, the story of the abuse and harassment being heaped on her spurred such an outpouring of support and good will that the project was overfunded… to the tune of nearly $160,000. An overwhelming success by anyone’s definition and a story that shows there are more good people out there than haters and a repudiation of the misogyny and hatred that is entirely to prevelent on the Internet, right? Nice try haters, didn’t work, might as well go back to whatever festering hole you crawled out of, right?

As it turns out… not so much. Instead of trying to shut the project down, the attention has turned into a campaign of hate against Sarkeesian herself.

Trolls Vs. Haters

Before we get too deep into this, we should probably define some terms. Because while a great deal of the harassment directed against Anita Sarkeesian is about her being a woman and vocal critic of misogyny in entertainment, there are plenty of people who have leapt into the mix who get off on shocking people and being horrible on the Internet.

On the one hand, we have the trolls. These are folks who will spew venom in any direction in hopes of provoking a reaction out of somebody. They’re mostly interested in being disruptive and derailing a conversation into a dust-up. Some of them may well have a particular agenda – derailing discussions of misogyny, for example, but plenty of others are in it because, well, why not? Attention is the currency of the Internet and there is no easier way to get attention than to say something shocking or disgusting. Many trolls show up strictly for the lolz – they couldn’t care less about Tropes vs. Women, they’re just enjoying the chance to dogpile on somebody who happened to be noticed by the Internet Hate Machine.

“Get back in the kitchen and make me a sandwiiiiiiich!”

Haters, on the other hand, make it personal.  These are the folks who are directing their energy and filth at someone in particular and will usually spend a great deal of energy doing it… and just as much trying to deny that they did it in the first place when they get called on it. Haters will make a point of attacking an individual and, in this case, attempt to shut her up, while trolls tend to throw their shit at anything that looks convenient. While a great deal of the harassment that Sarkeesian has been facing has been rife with implied violence and misogyny, a lot of it is, frankly, low-investment. Image macro harassment doesn’t require much effort on the part of the harasser once the base has been made, which makes it easier for anyone who might want to waggle his dick in the same direction everybody else is.

A hater, on the other hand, will go the extra mile. He might try to hack her email in order to better harass his target. He might flood her inbox with pornography or deface her Facebook page with crudely drawn images of her being raped.

Or he might create a flash game and invite people to “beat the bitch”.

Portrait of A Hater

After the Tropes Vs. Women Kickstarter had been successfully funded, the tone of the harassment took an ugly turn. A game turned up on NewGrounds, created by someone known by the Twitter handle @Bendilin (real name: Ben Spurr), that encouraged visitors to “beat up this bitch”. Why?

Well, in Ben Spurr’s words:

Anita Sarkeesian has not only scammed thousands of people out of over $160,000, but also uses the excuse that she is a woman to get away with whatever she damn well pleases. Any form of constructive criticism, even from fellow women, is either ignored or labelled to be sexist against her.

She claims to want gender equality in video games, but in reality, she just wants to use the fact that she was born with a vagina to get free money and sympathy from everyone who crosses her path.

Yup, that sounds like a totally rational and completely understandable reason to threaten a woman with violence.
Via The New Statesman

Now before we get into Ben “@bendilin” Spurr  and why he thought that this was somehow a good idea, let’s parse this statement a little.

“Anita Sarkeesian has not only scammed thousands of people out of over $160,000…”

This has been a common theme in the hate sites and criticism of Sarkeesian following the completion of the Kickstarter fund. The criticism seems to be based around the fact that her project ended up receiving a significant overfund. A number of haters have accused her of being greedy and asking for far more than she needs for “just a YouTube series”, having determined the “proper” budget for such a project via… magic, one assumes.

Strangely, I don’t recall this level of criticism being leveled when Tim Schafer’s endeavor exceeded it’s funding goals by three million dollars. But hey, Tim Schafer and DoubleFine are beloved members of the gaming industry so it’s understandable that people might want to throw money at them. The only possible reason that someone might want to give Sarkeesian money is because she bewitched them with her feminine wiles! Clearly the only reasons someone might want to donate would be either because a) sympathy or b) they want to fuck her. As opposed to, say, trolls just like Mr. Spurr ended up bringing increased attention to the project and – shock! horror – those people might just want to see the finished product.

“…but also uses the excuse that she is a woman to get away with whatever she damn well pleases.”

This is something one sees a lot amongst Men’s Rights Advocates, but rarely with anything to back it up. In this case, it’s unclear exactly what Sarkeesian has done that she is “getting away with” other than having a greater-than-expected fundraising windfall.

“Any form of constructive criticism, even from fellow women, is either ignored or labelled to be sexist against her.”

Another common complaint, although once again, it seems to be stemmed from the fact that she either ignores the haters (more on this in a second) or the fact that most of the criticism levied against her falls squarely in the 3 Ds of  arguing. While there could in theory be a reasonable debate held over Tropes Vs. Women, a) it hasn’t been released yet, which makes any debate speculative at best and decidedly premature and b) most of the “constructive criticism” involves men calling her a “fucking bitch cunt whore.”

“She claims to want gender equality in video games, but in reality, she just wants to use the fact that she was born with a vagina to get free money and sympathy from everyone who crosses her path.”

Now after the Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian game showed up (and was later taken down) on NewGrounds, blogger and activist  Steph “AmIRightFolks” Guthrie tracked down Ben Spurr via his twitter handle @bendilin and engaged him in conversation (and an Internet name-and-shame campaign).

To give you some context to the conversation, allow me to quote to you from Ben Spurr’s Steam profile:

Can’t a ~*GaMeR GuY*~ game in peace without some obnoxious durrgurrl begging to flirt with him every time he tries to go online?

I think it’s just adorable how absolutely no girls are any good at video games, just like how no woman has ever written a good novel. They are nothing but talk and no action, probably because girls are such emotional creatures and base everything they do on their current feelings and then try to rationalize their actions later. How pathetic.

You know what’s priceless? When a gamer girl posts a pic of herself looking as slutty as possible and then throws a fake fit when people talk to her like she’s a whore. What did you think was going to happen, you dumb broad? Lose thirty pounds.

Yup, no woman ever wrote a novel that redefined Western literature and created an entirely new genre. Nope.

So first question: how does Ben feel about actual violence against women?

So why did Ben create this game?

Because nothing says “valid criticism of somebody’s work” likepunching them in the face. Couldn’t you have, I dunno, tried talking like a normal human being?

Oh. How dare she ignore him? BEN SPURR WILL NOT BE IGNORED, ANITA!

But wait! Let’s be clear here: Ben Spurr created a game threatening her with violence and inviting others to – his words – beat up the bitch – wanted to get a response?

Hang on… threatening someone with violence so a woman will finally pay attention to you. Why does that sound familiar?

Oh. That’s why.

Now, I’m not terribly crazy over Steph Guthrie leading an Internet mob, replete with virtual torches and pitchforks, after Ben. Calling someone out by name and making sure folks know exactly what he did and why is one thing, sic’ing the Internet after ’em for retribution is another entirely… and entirely too close to the initial “shut the bitch up!” campaign that Anita Sarkeesian underwent for my tastes. Internet mob justice tends to take on a life of its own and rarely sticks to just one target… or even the correct target in the first place.

That being said, it’s hard to fault her for calling Ben out and making sure that he’s known as the author of one of the most disgusting examples of misogynistic harassment I’ve seen in quite some time. Ben Spurr is a prototypical example of the haters – someone who wants a right to vent his vitriol all over the place without facing up to the consequences of his actions. The bulk of his Twitter feed (which is, at the time of this writing, suspended) is alternately attempts to defend what he did as not misogynistic and using false equivalence to justify what he did as “criticism” rather than intimidation and threats. Because, y’know, he’s totes not sexist ya’ll.

Except for that whole “lose weight bitches, ya’ll are worthless sluts” thing.

Of course, this being the Internet, Steph Guthrie is also facing blowback for “outing” Ben Spurr as the author of Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian game. The Internet Hate Machine stirred itself into life and started harassing her for daring to “talk shit” about men.

(More can be found here)

Rather understandably, these were reported to the police. And just as predictably, the haters and trolls promptly started insisting that Guthrie was over-reacting and what was “obviously” copy-pasta from some obscure meme couldn’t possibly be taken seriously as a threat. Wash, rinse, repeat. This has happened before and it will happen again.

 What’s The Point of All This?

There’s a good question as to just why there’s this active core of hatred and fear of women in geek culture and why they seem so determined to silence anyone – women especially – who dares question male privilege.

Now let’s be clear: I’m not an expert by any stretch of the imagination, so take this as just my opinion borne out of what I’ve seen in over 20+ years of being on the Internet.

The misogyny we’re seeing in nerd culture is more about what happens when entitlement and resentment melt together and form a bitter little pill.

I’ve mentioned before that nerds frequently see themselves as “special”; we are the outcasts and misfits whom society looks down upon but are unaware that secretly we are in fact superior beings in disguise. And in video games – since that’s what started this whole mess -that’s exactly what we are. Nerds can be the unstoppable powerhouses and mighty heroes that men envy and women desire. Women as consumable objects, designed specifically for their tastes? Perfect! Fits right in with the fantasy world they long for.

Increased female particpation in geek culture makes them feel that their special little world where they are kings is being threatened. The fantasy is being rudely interrupted by reality. They worry that, once again, they’re going to be left at the supposed whims and mercies of women. And they resent it.

Mix in a whole lot of frustrated desire and sublimated anger over never getting the girl they think they deserve and you get folks like Ben Spurr and the other asshats who rampaged all over Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter.

Nerds and geeks, for all that we like to pretend that we are a separate and superior culture unto ourselves, want the same things everybody else wants; community, intimacy, love, sex… However, thanks to a combination of social awkwardness, inexperience and an unfortunate trend in anti-intellectualism, we frequently find ourselves cut off from a lot of it. We form our own community because, well, we all understand each other.

You know. Kind of like this.

But it’s small, insular and reinforces a certain level of reclusiveness; when you spend most of your time communing with people who speak the same language and understand all of your references, you tend to be most comfortable with them and are less likely to branch out.

The problem, of course, is that these insular communities tend to be boys clubs. A lot of nerd culture has catered to men exclusively almost since its inception; science fiction – for example – was born out of the hard sciences; most of the early SF writers were scientists and engineers in their own right, and these were industries that actively discouraged female participation. While there were exceptions – women were involved in Star Trek fandom from the beginning – it’s really only been recently that women have made inroads into geek culture.

Now, nerd guys are still guys; they want sex. They want love. They want relationships. But that social awkwardness isn’t improved by the fact that nerd communities are still predominantly white and male. Turning geek culture into one giant heteronormative sausage-fest doesn’t really allow for one to get used to dealing with women. Nerd guys want those relationships, but they don’t really know how to get them and they’re afraid of being rejected and humiliated. They tend to feel as though they have to beg for a relationship because they don’t have the confidence that says they deserve one. As a result: you end up with the idea that women are the ones who get to choose. This means that women have the power.

As a result, they tend to see women as intimidating.

That intimidation makes them angry.

They’re it because they feel as though they’re *owed* a relationship and somebody isn’t playing by the rules. And now even their fantasy worlds – because everything in life is a zero-sum game to them – are being taken over and THAT’S being taken from them as well.

So what happens when you have a combination of desire frustrated by intimidation and a sense of being kept from something that they are entitled to? In some cases, you end up with people getting bitter and resentful towards the very thing they want. And they lash out.

Might as well make this the front page of the Internet.


So Now What?

Here’s the important thing: As horrific the harassment campaign against Anita Sarkeesian has been – as similar campaigns against other industry icons and luminaries such as Felicia Day, Aisha Tyler and Jennifer Hepler – it hasn’t worked. Tropes vs. Women has been funded and all of the impotent nerdrage can’t change that. Sarkeesian hasn’t backed down or shut up in the face of harassment. Neither, for that matter, have Steph Guthrie or any of the others. As disturbing as it may be, the haters’ goals have been to shut people up. 

The harassment and arguing that occurs whenever the topic of sexism or privilege comes up is an attempt to make people stop talking about it; if we quit bringing up the misogyny in gaming then maybe people will quit challenging the trolls’ and haters’ ability to wallow in it. Standing strong – not letting the bastards win by letting them silence the voices –  and calling them to task for their fucked up attitudes and actions means that they lose.

The fucked up part is that this isn’t a zero-sum game. Nobody is trying to take men’s toys away – unless you are so vested in the ability to revel in the worst impulses of bullshit images of masculinity that you can’t stand life without it. All that’s being asked is that we acknowledge that things in geek culture have been a little fucked up and to try and make things less fucked up in the future so that everybody can enjoy it.


  1. If that actually worked, I would be out of a job []
  2. really, she’d rather I just clean the litter box more often []
  3. Spoiler alert: NOT WELL. []

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