Occasionally, it feels like the comics and video game industries have a competition to demonstrate which group can be more hostile and unfriendly towards the women who want to participate in them. It’s like a particularly fucked up game of Texas Grope ‘Em; comics has the little blind with Joe Peacock’s comments about fake geek girls, video games make the big blind with Aris Bakhtanians1 and then comics raises the stakes by turning Starfire from a strong character with nuanced views on open relationships and body modesty (or a 12 year old girl who drinks mustard and believes in the power of friendship) into a hyper-violent sex beast with the memory of a goldfish. Next, games tries to buy the pot with Penny Arcade’s dickwolves AND the backlash against Anita Sarkeesian and then comics feels like it’s going to get lucky on the river and ups the ante with the story of Tess Fowler’s harassment by a prominent comic book author.
So of course, the games industry goes all in with the story of a female game developer who ends up being sexually harassed by a journalist. Naturally, people recognized this as being unacceptable behavior and were quietly supportive of the game dev and looked at how to break down the toxic culture that makes sexual harassment and mistreatment of women so disturbingly common in male-dominated industries.
No, I’m totally fucking with you. The comments sections turned into the customary shit show, with guys flinging their poop around like bored chimpanzees after a long night of Taco Bell and Sriracha, with the usual rounds of victim blaming, concern-trolling and the traditional cry of “get over it”.
Now, the story in and of itself is over; the harasser in question, Josh Mattingly, has delivered a long and very public apology on his blog and acknowledges that what he did was reprehensible. So I don’t want to beat on him. What I do want to talk about are the people who continue to not get what the big fucking deal was. Because, just like with the Tess Fowler story, this isn’t terribly unusual; as with the comics industry, every friend I have who works in games has a similar story, not just about harassment, but about the shitstorm that inevitably follows whenever they mention it.
Alice Mercier and the Drunk Journalist
Alice Mercier and Josh Mattingly were familiar with one another from the gameing industry – she a developer who worked with PR and he the founder and CEO of IndieStatik, an indie gaming website. They were casual acquaintances outside of job-related meet-ups – talking at events, following one another on Twitter. Then one day, Mercier recieved a friend request on Facebook from Mattingly. After accepting it, a chat window popped up. Mattingly was looking for information on projects being worked on by a developer called The Workshop. Thus far – standard industry chitchat.
And then, literally within minutes of starting the conversation, Mattingly proceeded to pepper his questions with inappropriate comments and explicit sexual references, such as “Do you know what they’re working on? I’ll kiss you on the vagina if you do.” and “Let me know if you need a penis for anything in the near future. Like, my penis. For your vagina”, followed by more comments about his fingers and a lengthy digression about oral sex several hours later.
The entire conversation was saved and screen-capped. Incoming wall o’ text:
Unfortunately, Alice Mercier’s experience is all too common, especially in an industry that is as male dominated – content creators and content consumers and attendant support industries – as gaming is. Too many women have had similar experiences, whether it is “accidental” gropings, unwelcome advances, forcing women to grab their crotch or playing slap-ass with female cosplayers. Thankfully, more and more people are willing not only to talk about it, but making a point of helping others. Case in point, Ann Lemay, a writer from Bioware, has been speaking eloquently on Twitter about the sexism that she’s encountered and counseled others on, as well as her hopes to see things improve.
I had stories for @RaeBeta‘s article which appeared on Kotaku yesterday. Did not have the time to write them for her, due to deadlines.
— Ann Lemay (@annlemay) January 29, 2014
I could try to type those stories here, in short form, but here’s the thing. I would break the Twitter posting limit. I would break myself. — Ann Lemay (@annlemay) January 29, 2014
I have advised long-time & fledging devs on how to deal with sexism they’ve faced in the industry. It makes me so angry & sad, each time.
— Ann Lemay (@annlemay) January 29, 2014
I am endlessly grateful when a woman in my industry tells me she’s not been subjected to sexism. I treasure those moments.
— Ann Lemay (@annlemay) January 29, 2014
Rachel Edidin has an excellent interview with Alice Mercier about her experience, and it’s heartbreaking at points. One of the first things that struck me about the interview – which Edidin is quick to point out – is how Mercier feels the need to explain about herself from the way she dresses to her professional demeanor. It comes across as an almost instinctual reflex, a need to justify herself in order to “prove” in the court of public opinion that she didn’t deserve this or somehow “bring this on herself.”
Because, unfortunately, that’s precisely the reaction that so many have. The comments section on Jason Schreirer’s story and Rachel Edidin’s interview are rife with people commenting about how she could have stopped it, how it clearly couldn’t have bothered her that much, that this was clearly blown out of proportion and how it’s unfair to cherry pick examples like this from the games industry because hey, it happens everywhere… as though this somehow makes things better.
But hey: let’s talk a little about this. Because one of the most important parts of, y’know, cleaning up nerd culture is to understand just why these attempts to brush it under the rug and pretend it’s not so bad is bullshit.
“She Didn’t Say Stop.”
One of the most common accusations that the victims of sexual harassment face when they come forward is that it must not have been such a problem since the target didn’t immediately get up and leave. Miranda Pakozdi, for example, was blamed for her own harassment when she was seemingly sitting there, even giggling as Bahktanians continually made jokes about her breasts, about taking her into the bathroom and other inappropriate comments.
In fact, one of the first thing that people will focus on in the chat transcript is that at no point does Mercier call Mattingly out on his behavior. She doesn’t say “stop it, you’re being creepy”, “that’s inappropriate” or just closing the chat entirely. To many, this is taken as a sign that she’s not nearly as bothered about the inappropriate comments as she claims to be or that it’s just not as big of a deal as “all those feminists” are making of it. A few even take her reticence in not speaking up as proof that she’s toying with him or leading him on… presumably because any woman who doesn’t immediately call someone out for sexual harassment is just stringing him along for the lulz, proof of victimhood, or in hopes of getting those tall sexual harassment dollars from a lawsuit that will be a quick and simple process and in no way expensive, emotionally draining or humiliating.
Others insist that this was all just “a bit of banter”, and clearly was being said in jest and that Mercier must’ve understood that since she seems to zing him back, so how bad could it possibly be?
The problem with all of this Monday morning quarterbacking is that it’s easy to say “yeah, I’d do this, that and the other thing, if I were in her position. Nobody fucks with me and gets away with it,” when you’re doing so from the safety of behind your keyboard. But when it’s actually happening to you… suddenly things are different. When you get hit out of the blue with seriously inappropriate behavior, then it’s a goddam surprise. All too often your brain vapor-locks as you take a moment to process what the fuck just happened. This isn’t just a case of how men and women handle rude behavior; I’ve seen just as many dudes freeze up when they get blindsided by unwelcome behavior, regardless of whether it came from men or from women.
From Edidin’s article:
[Mercier] goes on: “It gets difficult, because you’re in shock, and your brain isn’t really thinking, ‘I am going to tell this guy that this is not appropriate.’ It’s more of ‘I’m just going to ignore this and hope that it gets dropped.’ Because, you know, there was the original intent to his conversation, which was trying to get information about another studio and their game—which I legitimately know nothing about…
It gets twice as hard when not only are you having to fight to recover your mental bandwidth to focus on what the hell he just said, but you’re pushing against a lifetime of socialization that teaches you that women don’t get to be confrontational. In fact, it becomes clear that Mercier is trying to defuse the situation – in the way that women are socialized to do. First, she pointedly ignores it, hoping that by not engaging he’ll drop the matter and focus on the question at hand. Then, after he doubles-down by offering his services in the event that she has a “need some dick” emergency, she tries to deflect the issue without being first salvo – “are you tipsy?” – is a gentle nudge that he’s acting weird. Whenever he attempts an innuendo, she deliberately chooses to misinterpret it and makes a non-sexual joke instead. Mattingly, however, is determined to get his point across and becomes even less subtle (as impressive as that is) before leaving her with his final ode to cunnilingus.
So why doesn’t she just drop the pretense and tell him to go fuck himself?
Don’t Be That Woman
Even in this era of Third Wave feminism and greater social equity than ever before, women are taught over and over again that they aren’t allowed to be assertive. They are taught to go along to get along, to not make waves, to be deferential to the feelings of others – especially men’s – even when it’s at the cost of their own emotional well-being. But even if and when they do overcome the social programming, being “that woman” – the one who’s willing to make a fuss, who’s willing to stand up for herself – can have profound consequences.
Women in male-dominated fields, whether it’s STEM, games or even comics, come in at a disadvantage. No matter how qualified they are or how good they are at their jobs, they’re forever a girl ((Not a woman, a girl)) before whatever else she is. She only has so much credibility before she’s no longer an engineer, a game dev, an artist or what-have you and just “a girl” again. Suddenly traits that would be welcome in a man – persistence, assertiveness, a willingness to stand up for herself in the face of unacceptable behavior – becomes a liability. She’s no longer a co-worker; she’s suddenly an intimidating ballbuster.
As a result, there’s tremendous pressure – sometimes unstated, sometimes incredibly overt – to be “one of the guys”, to be “the cool one”, and not “that woman”. Make too many complaints or take too strong a stand and suddenly her concerns will be dismissed as “overreacting,” or “being hysterical”. Women are taught to suck it up because to do otherwise is to tacitly admit that they’re just “not tough enough to hack it”.
In fact, there’s a trending hashtag on Twitter, #thatwoman, that is an incredible view on all the ways that women are told not to stand up for themselves, to keep their heads down and just take the ration of shit that they’re given without complaint.
And then there’s the fact that standing up for oneself frequently brings professional consequences.
“Did I Mention Your Job Was On The Line?”
It’s easy to say “shut it down” or “tell him to fuck off” or “punch him in the balls” when you’re a bystander who has no skin in the game. It’s another entirely when your job is permanently in jeopardy. The video games industry is already notorious for its shoddy labor practices; overworked and underpaid is the rule rather than the exception, and shitty treatment of the employees is almost an expected standard. But it’s hard to take a stand when your state of employment is tenuous at best and there is a long, long line of people eager to take your place.
When you’re a woman in the industry, you’re standing on even shakier ground. Women involved in gaming are already viewed with suspicion and skepticism – witness the treatment of Dina Abou Karem or Zoe Quinn – being seen as a “troublemaker” has the potential to make you unemployable. Working in the games industry means working with absolutely zero protections, and in a community as small and interconnected as gaming is, it takes very little to label someone as too problematic to work with. Why should companies want to take a chance on someone who might be too disruptive an employee when there are literally hundreds, if not thousands of other possible hires waiting who don’t bring the same potential for drama?
Moreover, oftentimes complaining does absolutely no good whatsoever or actually backfires, even when the case is as obvious and clear-cut as Mercier’s is. From Edidin’s interview:
Sometimes, the danger of confrontation is more concrete: a group of women tell me about a team leader at a major company who they say serially and aggressively harassed the women he supervised, singling them out and isolating them from colleagues before he allegedly began to make sexual advances. They say that, when they confronted him or rejected his advances, as all ultimately did, he began to systematically undermine their careers, cutting them off from opportunities, leaving them out of critical e-mail threads, or simply ignoring them entirely.
“It still makes me sick to think of how many young women left the industry, an industry gasping for more female contributors, because of this one guy,” one of the women he allegedly harassed tells me. Frightened for their jobs, she and several colleagues finally compared stories and collectively went to HR. They say that their harasser was fired but that he got an equivalent job—again, in a managerial position—at another company. The women who reported him, meanwhile, tell me they were banned from discussing the case.
Then there are the specifics of Mercier’s case, where a game developer’s responsibilities include working with the press – including Indiestatik, the company that Mattingly founded. How long do you think that a woman would keep her job after telling a member of a prominent gaming site to shut up, fuck off or otherwise go screw? For that matter: would the consequences stay with just one awkward conversation with a journalist? Could it potentially lead to backlash that would affect the entire company? How are you supposed to stand up for yourself when it feels like doing so might endanger more than just your employment… even if you could get people to side with you in the first place?
Fighting the Court of Public Opinion
As with the Tess Fowler situation, part of the reason why Alice Mercier’s story is so depressingly common is because, frankly, few people are willing to even see this as a problem that exists, never mind something that needs to be addressed. Far too many people are quick to blame the victim, insisting that she somehow “brought it on herself”, that “she just wants the attention” or wanting to know why she’s making such a big deal over “some stupid Internet shit”. They are quick to dismiss it as an aberration, or as somehow insignificant because “it happens everywhere”. Still more are quick to pounce on the people who protest it, insisting that this is somehow cheapening women by saying that they are incapable of standing up for themselves. And still more will gleefully attack the victim just because she made the mistake of being a woman on the internet.
As a result: the women who are sexually harassed are often attacked twice. Once by the culprit, and then again by the Greek chorus of troglodytes who can’t wait to pile on for no reason other than the fact that a girrrrrrl dared to make a fuss.
Of course, there’s also the army of dudes who are quick to defend the harasser and explain why women like Alice Mercier or Tess Fowler or Miranda Pakozdi or Zoe Quinn or any of the dozens of others are overreacting. Cries abound about how guys misunderstand or that we have to give them a break because they’re socially awkward, or that it’s only harassment if the man is ugly that society is so “pc” or “uptight” that anything a woman dislikes is immediately harassment and a guy just doesn’t stand a chance, maaaan. Which is bullshit. Social awkwardness or “political correctness” has absolutely nothing to do with, say, this:
Or any of the many, many cases of harassment at conventions, from RTX to Readercon.
I single out all of these instances – and believe me, these are the tip of the iceberg – in geek culture because I love geek culture. I want it to be better. And incidents like Alice Mercier’s damage it. It takes a psychic toll on people who want nothing more than to take part, to create, hell to simply exist within it. It grinds them down and spits them out, because we let it, and then it robs us of everything they might have contributed. Because more people are making excuses for it, or misappropriating blame or just trying to sweep it under the rug, than are standing up and trying to change the culture. There are too many bystanders, too many blamers and not enough allies.
We can be better than this.
We need to be better than this.
- AKA Dirtbag Hagrid [↩]