For feminists and gamers in Toronto, the Internet’s hottest misogyny debacle during the first week of July wasn’t Daniel Tosh’s poor attempt at a rape joke. When local activist Stephanie Guthrie chose to call amateur game designer Ben “Bendilin” Spurr to account for his vile, violent game Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian, she didn’t expect to attract the attention of local and national media, the writer and director of The IT Crowd, or the ire of anonymous angry male gamers. But through it all, she stuck to her guns and dragged an ugly but important issue into the spotlight. Matt Blair spoke to Guthrie via email about the issues, the backlash, and the gamers and non-gamers alike who came to her defense.
Dork Shelf: Tell us about how this whole thing started. How did you find Ben Spurr on Twitter? What happened as you started engaging with each other?
Stephanie Guthrie: Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter story struck a chord with me from the beginning. In addition to my involvement as a founder of Women in Toronto Politics, I also worked on a project called Game-Changers about gender diversity in game design. So this story was meaningful right off the bat.
When I shared on Facebook the articles in New Statesman and Huffington Post UK about the escalation in harassment she was experiencing, most horrifically exemplified by the video game, it sparked deep disgust and anger, not least in my sister Caroline. I couldn’t bear to click HuffPo’s link to where the game was hosted, but Caroline did, and she shared the name Bendilin Spurr, which she said was prominently displayed as creator of the game on Newgrounds.com. Intrigued, I visited Newgrounds and verified such a unique-sounding name was indeed that of the game’s creator.
Twitter is my home on the internet, and it’s also a great megaphone. I sought Bendilin Spurr on Twitter and found him easily – the sexist gaming-related tweets in his feed confirmed it. So I called him out in a series of tweets, many of which are captured here in this Storify, as well as his responses which both confirmed and attempted to trivialize my allegations. Both these early tweets and particularly the Storify were retweeted pretty heavily and the story spread rapidly over the weekend. While I met with a significant amount of backlash and anger from Bendilin’s supporters, his detractors definitely overwhelmed them in number and stamina for debate. And debate is what I was after by bringing Bendilin into the open.
DS: Ben has already been suspended from Twitter at least twice. He’s reportedly lost his job, and of course he’s now under constant attack from people on the web who are rightfully offended by the game and by his attitude towards women. But you’ve repeatedly said that you don’t believe he should have been suspended, and that he should be free to express himself. What have been the benefits of having this sort of conversation in public?
SG: The biggest benefit is that by publicly holding people to account for unacceptable acts like creating that game, you make it impossible for the reality of misogyny to escape people. It’s a vivid example of a culture that pervades our lives both on and offline. Not only does a public conversation make it difficult for Bendilin himself to avoid accountability for having made the game, it makes it difficult for people reading about it to believe something absurd like “feminism is no longer necessary.” So it’s valuable for general awareness-raising.
By holding the conversation in public, I also have an opportunity to model the kind of constructive but critical dialogue I’d like to see in the trolls besieging Anita Sarkeesian. There’s been no shortage of humour or profanity in my engagement of Bendilin and his supporters, and at times perhaps even belligerence, but I challenge the idea that this kind of behaviour should be tolerated with a smile and curtsy for the sake of the high road. You can have constructive discussion that involves the word “fuck.”
The important thing is to sift through the threats and blatant trolling to identify and respond to the real questions and challenges people present (no matter how silly I deem them to be). People’s negative views of feminism tend to centre on hostility, so it’s important to avoid that while confronting them for misogynistic actions/statements/assumptions, as well as any entitlement, derailment, and all kinds of other #argumentfails. If you can pull this off, even if you don’t sway the person you’re debating with, you may have an impact on an observer.
Another advantage of having this conversation in public is that it places gentle pressure on supportive allies to not be simply bystanders. The amount of support I’ve gotten has steadied me in the days that have passed, but what’s even more heartening is how many people have said explicitly that they’re leaving the sidelines for this. We need more allies leaving the sidelines at all times. Any movement does if it wants to achieve its goals.
DS: As the story took off, you started getting death threats. People who felt you’d crossed a line by compelling someone to take personal responsibility for a misogynist video game were now defending these threats, saying they were part of an Internet culture you just didn’t understand. What have you learned about that culture, for better or worse?
SG: I think you’re talking about the hikikomori, right? Key to note that I don’t know if they have been behind any of the death threats, and also that my hikikomori interlocuter has been one of the more constructive conversationalists I’ve interacted with. The ideas were difficult to swallow, though.
It’s hard to take what my interlocuter was telling me at face value, but this person told me that much of the backlash Sarkeesian has faced is driven by a sociological group called the hikikomori. It’s been vaguely dubbed a psychological condition in Japan involving intense withdrawal from society through isolation in the home.
Meanwhile, my interlocuter tells me they consider it a sexual orientation wherein hikikomori are attracted only to women from the games they play (or “2D women” as my interlocuter called them). Their feelings about real-life women (“3DPD women” – I think the PD stood for “pig disgusting,” actually) range from indifference to outright contempt, but in none of these cases are “3DPDs” considered people worthy of care or consideration of any kind. And since Sarkeesian’s project is seen to conflict directly with the characteristics that many of them know and love in their waifus (“2Ds”), such as impossible proportions and near-nudity, they’re doing their level best to derail her. However, my interlocutor did note that the look of waifus is to an extent a matter of personal taste (though it seemed within a narrow and highly idealized range to me).
I’ve argued that as a very small group with openly hostile and dehumanizing attitudes toward women, they are excluding a huge swath of people from gaming (or certain games, or certain platforms). It’s hard to know how productive the discussion could possibly be between me and a person coming from this kind of perspective, which I find impossible to relate to. I’ve tried, but it has too negative an effect on too many other people in the world for me to think it’s okay under any circumstance. My interlocuter was very thorough in detailing the culture though, which I found fascinating.
My understanding of this culture has been, at this point, gleaned entirely through my conversation with the interlocutor. There’s a lot of research I could and will do about it. For right now, I’ve already got enough on my hands to take me from 8:00 AM to 3:00 AM every day without following the hikikomori into a Wikipedia black hole.
DS: How anonymous are these critics? What, if anything, do you know about them, aside from the fact that they’re men? How much of the backlash has come from 4chan, for example?
SG: Honestly, I don’t know anything about who any of them are. I’m not looking into it, and most of them are anonymous. After the first few days, I followed my friend Charlie (@Charlie_Berger)’s advice and decided not to respond to any tweets from anonymous detractors.
I think it’s notable how many of them are anonymous, and I think that’s something we need to address as a society. That doesn’t have to mean legislation or international treaties that bind us to bearing our identities online. It can mean people just deciding that, when they’re going to be hurling abuse at a person, they’ll stand behind it with their own name. That’s just deciding to be a good person who has integrity.
DS: Many of your critics have treated this issue as a matter of men versus women, but many of your most dedicated advocates have been men. How have they supported you? How have they helped to move the conversation in a better direction? Have your critics been as willing to engage with men as they have been with you and other women?
SG: The men who’ve engaged in this discussion have bowled me over with their passion and eloquence in debating with our critics. That support from men ranges from my #TOpoli friends @alekt, @sol_chrom and @popeshakey, to newly encountered allies like @stillgray and @TheJosephChrist, to my own boyfriend (who has been, it’s worth noting, the best possible support I could hope for right now).
I don’t know if I could say there’s an influence they’ve had on the conversation that’s especially different from the women supporting me, except that they can serve as role models in a way that women never could (to a man who has contempt for women). The critics have been similarly willing to engage with the men, but in a less derogatory and abusive way. The language they use is often more restrained. The death threat thing is way less common (only one of them has been threatened, but that’s still too many). The same arguments just seem to mean something different coming from a man, which is completely unsurprising. And yes, it’s frustrating and we should be mad about that and want to change that, but we should also work with that when we have great men who’d like to be our allies in these discussions.
If you’re a male ally and you’re unsure of whether you should join a discussion (there is justifiable trepidation or anger among some feminists when men try to speak for the movement), you can always ask. I’d say the vast majority of the time your presence would be more than welcome, especially if you’re a good listener and can determine any points at which it may be best to step back and let the women do the talking.
DS: What do you hope the men who are attacking you might eventually learn from this experience? Reading their tweets, one gets the impression that they genuinely don’t understand what’s wrong with this game and the attitudes that go along with it. Are you hopeful that they might learn something from all the attention it’s gotten?
SG: I’m hopeful that some of them may learn something from it; after all, a great many of them are very young. What I’d really like to see come out of this is an understanding that it matters to be considerate, to give the benefit of the doubt, and to make a genuine effort to see from the perspective of the person you’re debating or discussing or disagreeing with. If we lose sight of the human element of our online interactions, we simply lose.
It seems there is a significant number of men (many of them young) who are especially inclined to ignore the humanness in the women they interact with online. I think greater emphasis on being accountable for what we say and do online is necessary. That kind of shift might impact women with some special force because so much of what women like Anita Sarkeesian have dealt with depends on no accountability.
This is such a kindergarten lesson, but we should just encourage people to be prepared to stand behind their words, and thus to give serious thought to the purpose and worth of their comments that impact or implicate others.
Matt Blair lives in Toronto with his wife and daughter. He blogs at mattblair.ca and his Xbox gamertag is MJMBca.
Photo Credit: Nick Warzin (nickwarzin.com)