To much of her audience, feminist critic and media blogger Anita Sarkeesian needed no introduction. Plenty had frequented her video blog “Feminist Frequency” and watched her clips on the representation of women in pop culture narratives. In her presentation “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You” (with no references to Mulan), Sarkeesian critically examined the way female characters are depicted in television, movies and video games.
She opened with her recent commentary on a Lego marketing campaign that focused on girls. ‘Lego Friends’ clearly drew attention to and perpetuated the differences between males and females by adding obvious “girly tropes, such as making the branding, box, and bricks all purple.”
Sarkeesian then admitted that most of her time as a graduate student was spent watching TV shows, which prompted her to more closely examine the female characters and question how they were portrayed in the media. “Pop culture is the way we tell stories today,” Sarkeesian argued. “Before these stories were handcrafted and passed down via the generations; now in our media-saturated environment, stories are controlled by a few media conglomerates.”
Showing clips from media such as Transformers, Sarkeesian illustrated how “the hot chick who knows about dude stuff – in this case fixing cars – is ‘strong.’” To her this did not constitute female strength, given that women are still operating in the male realm. She rehashed material from her Master’s thesis in which she had examined positive and negative traits for both male and female characters in media.
From this experiment she realized a significant discrepancy: far more of the “feminine” traits were considered weak. Sarkeesian’s criticism centered upon this dichotomous categorization, which has greatly stifled creative story writing and has “perpetuated stereotypes of women” as dependent on and inferior to men.
Sarkeesian then referenced several big pop culture names such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena: Warrior Princess and Veronica Mars. She pointed out the problems with characters of shows she highly enjoyed and gave concrete evidence in her defense, showing excerpts from the shows to her audience.
Unfortunately she cited numerous titles and did not have sufficient time to explore them, leaving only room for value judgments such as “We won’t talk about this show, because it sucks; no need to elaborate on the depiction of women in Haywire because everyone knows the series is just bad.” Student viewers were unperturbed, and largely agreed with her remarks and reasoning.
The final section of her presentation was on “what would I want to see” in media productions, where the dichotomous categories of positive and negative traits were broken down and reshuffled. As a result, both men and women would share a variety of human characteristics, rather than men being emasculated by specifically feminine depictions. “We can have more depth and engagement in authentic characters,” Sarkeesian argued.
She concluded by highlighting the importance of properly incorporating women – both white and those of color – with their individual histories, “instead of just casting them for roles written for the men or dominant groups.” Sarkeesian also illustrated the problems within the industry, including the lack of “decent roles for women,” and shared an anecdote about major American actresses all fighting for the role of Cat Woman in the latest film of the Batman franchise.
It would have been enlightening if Sarkeesian moved beyond science-fiction television shows and discussed what she has discovered in other media such as films and video games, yet her convocation was highly entertaining and informative on the reality of 21st century American storytelling.