Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Misunderstanding Feminism's Critique of The Witcher 3

Erik Kain's recent article on the issue of sexism in The Witcher 3 has prompted me to write a piece in response. The reason for this is not that Kain's arguments are particularly interesting or novel, but because they highlight some of the most common misunderstandings that prevent many intelligent people from grasping the feminist arguments advanced by critics such as Anita Sarkeesian. I'm going to elaborate on three of these misunderstandings in this blog post in order to bring some clarity to the situation.

Misunderstanding 1. Confusing the portrayal of sexism as dark and gritty with its thoughtful criticism. 

Kain uses his defense of George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series and its representation of rape as an example of how the sexism in The Witcher 3 might be justified. He writes:

Some critics at the time argued that author George R.R. Martin included rape to titillate, not to show how dark and gritty Westeros was. They responded to the argument that this was a genuine attempt to show how bad things were for women in Medieval times by saying “Well it’s fantasy so that’s just sexist.”

This idea, that violence towards women in fantasy fiction works as a criticism of "how bad things were for women in Medieval times," gets raised a lot, but shows a misunderstanding of what most feminist writers mean by "critique." One point made repeatedly by feminists is that no matter how disturbing the portrayal of sexual violence against women in a work of fiction might be, it does not count as critique unless it goes to significant lengths to examine thoughtfully the systemic causes and cultural prejudices behind it. Lacking this level of development, the appearance of sexual violence ends up being a matter of exploitation, a means to stimulate and excite the player emotionally at the expense of a woman's dignity.

So if The Witcher 3's depiction of prostitutes, rape, and misogyny is more than just the usual forms of exploitation, it's up to the defenders of the game like Kain to show us where and how the game thoughtfully critiques sexism (beyond something like, "oh isn't it just awful!"). Kain doesn't provide such an account in his article.

Misunderstanding 2. Thinking that feminists want to counter sexism in fiction by forbidding its representation outright.

Kain makes this broad point in defense of The Witcher 3's inclusion of sexism in its universe:

Fiction is supposed to highlight real world issues. Rape is a real world issue. Sexism is something women actually confront in their jobs, at home. Why is it off limits to actually address that with fantasy fiction? 

This argument gets brought up a lot as a counter to Sarkeesian and others. It suggests that feminist critics are arguing for the wholesale elimination of the representation of sexism from all fiction, regardless of its context.

This is simply a misinformed view of the situation. No serious feminist critic is pushing for sexism, or any other topic for that matter, to be off limits for fiction. That would just be censorship.

Rather, what most feminist critics are focused on is how sexism is included in our fiction uncritically, unreflectively, for the sole purpose of entertainment (see point 1). Rape, physical abuse, sexual slavery, and other forms of misogyny are frequently put into fictional fantasy worlds to give it "color," to make it intense, stimulating, and/or exciting, without taking the time to responsibly explore the subject matter.

Fictional sexism might be reflective of real world sexism, but without contextualizing that in some way that interrogates the situation thoughtfully, simply putting it in the fiction contributes nothing positive, but has the effect of perpetuating it without any check.

Misunderstanding 3. Failing to see how one's own unconscious biases prevents one from understanding the debate on sexism. 

This one is more of a challenge than a misunderstanding. It is one of the harder points to grasp too, so I'll take it slow.

First, Kain argues against having something like gender equality in The Witcher 3 by stating the following:

There is fantasy out there where gender roles are much less traditionally defined. Lots of fantasy has tough warrior women who don’t need to be rescued by the knight in shining armor. It’s a genre that has a little bit of something for everyone. But much of it—the good stuff anyways—is believable.

What Kain goes on to argue from this paragraph is that putting gender equality in The Witcher 3 would undermine the realism of its medieval setting, and along with that, his ability to enjoy it. That's just how it was back then, he claims, and censoring that for the sake of some small group's "political agenda" would be silly.

At the same time, it must be noted, he has no problem with the inclusion of sorcerers and monsters (which certainly did not exist in any period of history) and does not see them as detracting from the game's realism.

Now why is this so? Why is it "the good stuff" if it breaks realism with magic and monsters but not the good stuff if it does that by changing the gender dynamics? What is behind this arbitrary preference for one flawed version of realism over another?

The reason, I would offer, is that Kain's preference is not really motivated by a desire for "realism" and beliveability but, like a lot of male gamers, by his unconscious wish to have his ego gratified. The sexism of The Witcher 3 flatters the male ego by repeatedly asserting its freedom to objectify women. Objectifying women gives men power over them and hence helps fulfill a typical male power fantasy. In other words, Kain tries to pass off his desire to indulge in a male-centered fantasy world in which women are objectified as a matter of realism when it is anything but.

If you don't believe this, consider for a moment how Kain and others who use the realism argument to justify misogyny in The Witcher 3 completely overlook how the game's so-called realistic depiction of medieval sexism is largely inaccurate. Women did not wear anything like the skimpy costumes and underwear portrayed in The Witcher 3 during that period, nor did not speak or behave in the ways represented in the game. No one, including Kain, however, seems to bothered by this lack of historical realism regarding the representation of gender in the game.

Kain therefore merely picks and chooses the bits of "reality" that most flatter his own sense of self-worth and accommodate his fantasies while ignoring the inconsistencies that come from this cobbling together. At the same time, he actively resists anyone that tries to point this out. Believability is only code for pleasure in his argument. Kain accepts what fulfills his fantasy (consciously and unconsciously) as reality and rejects what doesn't as unrealistic.

The psychological principle operating here is akin to the one used by con-artists. People are less likely to question things that please or flatter them, so hiding deceptions and lies within compliments is an effective way to create belief in them. Kain, like many male gamers, accepts the things that flatter and please his sense of self without much interrogation.

Conversely, male gamers like Kain will fight adamantly to convince themselves and others that they are not being conned. Games like The Witcher 3 appeal to sexist attitudes and fantasies that are gratifying to male egos. Because they flatter the male ego, male gamers are motivated to defend it. They don't do this consciously, but unconsciously they recognize that this certain thing (game) makes them feel good and because of this they see anything that would force them to see it for the flattery it is as a threat. If the fantasy were exposed, they would be deprived of the pleasure that believing in the fantasy (which is, by definition, a lie) gives them. So they attempt to argue that the fantasy (lie) is realistic (true).

Inevitability, because this line of argument is inherently irrational, it will fall apart when anyone looks at it carefully. This is the case with Erik Kain's defense of The Witcher 3, which, at its core, tries to convince us that a world populated by dragons, elves, and unicorns is more "realistic" than one in which women are not subject to ritual scorn and humiliation.