“Still harping on the same subject, you will exclaim—How can I avoid it, when most of the struggle of an eventful life has been occasioned by the oppressed state of my sex: we reason deeply, when we forcibly feel.”
— Mary Wollstonecraft, emphasis mine.
When contemplating the locks behind which lay the internet id’s sewage, it always helps to remember what often causes them to swing open and let slip the furious, malodorous torrent of utterly degraded commentary: women who speak their minds.
Adding to the litany of women caught by the deluge of threats and bigotry, GameSpot editor and critic Carolyn Petit has been attacked by online commenters because she gave Grand Theft Auto V a near perfect review. A 9/10 was her verdict; however, some particularly and lamentably vocal fans wanted her to bless the game with a 10/10. Yes: for want of a lone point she has been called everything from a “bitch” to a “tranny” to “a shitty trap” to demanding that GameSpot “never, ever, let a woman review games like this!” to a “mentally ill freak”—the term “self-mutilating” came up far too many times to count.
Some of the more “reasonable” commentary bemoaned such extremes but, of course, sought to reassure us that not all gamers are like this and that, after all, these people are mere individuals (hovering somewhere between the ages of twelve and fifteen) who are solely responsible for their own vulgarity.
To this, I ask what I have always asked: How many individuals does it take before it becomes a social problem?
Time and again we see these cresting tidal waves of hateful spew, in which we can only see the screaming oblivion to which these people would consign democratic discourse. The comments Ms. Petit received display a singular lack of humanity that we must take upon ourselves to heal. To look at the hatred directed at women who speak their minds is to see the wracking death of discourse and, indeed, the source-code of patriarchy itself. Ms. Petit’s crime was to mention— offhandedly, no less, in an eight minute review that was mostly focused on non-political issues—the fact that GTA V relegates its women characters to outmoded and dehumanising archetypes. For this, she was put in the YouTube stocks.
For giving the game a 9/10 instead of a 10/10, it bears repeating.
There is much to be said here—I could go on a lengthy jeremiad about why reviewing games through scores is a terrible idea, but that is rather orthogonal to our present problem; the men, and minority of women, who complained would’ve done so simply because Petit broached sexism as an issue, score or no. The number merely provides a convenient and readily intelligible standard for the belligerents to bear. The problem remains what it always has been, and it is neatly captured by the implications of this lone comment: “no one gave a shit about how women were portrayed in video games 2 years ago but now because more women play its suddenly a problem. Terrible review and not objective at all, this person should not be in th position to state ‘her’ opinions as facts,” says a young man passing off his opinions as facts (poor grammar in the original).
Time and again comments like this emerge, revealing a deep dis-ease with the presence of women (and to varying extents, LGBT people) in the gaming community. Note how the transmisogyny all but forces an incredible cognitive dissonance here: for what is a game review but a professional opinion? An opinion can be well-argued and empirically supported (problems that none of these commenters appear to be suffering from, I might well add), but it is still an opinion; reviews are solicited, consumed, and sought-after precisely because they consist of pointed opinions. Yet when, suddenly, an opinion about misogyny is offered, there enters an off-key chorus of people suddenly whinging about “facts.” To be clear, that women are often relegated to the clichéd archetypes they inhabit in GTA V is indeed a fact and Ms. Petit was right to broach the matter as she critiqued the game. But the fact that casting it as an “opinion” should be seen as damning, in a medium whose very essence is opinion, says everything one needs to know about the effect of prejudice upon one’s rational faculties. If the term “double standard” means anything, it must mean this.
The dismissal of Ms. Petit’s review as “feelings” further betrays the ill esteem in which women’s words are often held. Shocking in a community that prizes and venerates men whose careers consist entirely of angrily venting their spleens about this or that issue in gaming—the Angry Video Game Nerd is not just an archetype, after all; he’s a real person beloved by his fans and well remunerated for his work. Emotion is deeply dyed in the wool of gaming; yet a woman’s opinion, however delicately expressed, however professional and measured her tone, becomes unforgivably “emotional” in its content and relegated to the level of “feelings,” despite how indispensable emotions are to our reasoning.
This does not just apply to women as such, but anyone outside the putative white cis malestream of gaming. Take one commenter who argued “You just dont put an african american to review a game about KKK, he will get his feelings involved”—once again emotions are illegitimate if their content is oriented against prejudice, and once again white men are the putatively “neutral” and sobreminded critics who can see “objectively.” Meanwhile, Yahtzee is cheered on for his sweary, stentorian insults, leaving fans breathless about what creative testicular metaphor he’ll use for lambasting next week’s game. For whom, then, is emotion reserved?
For all the pretensions about neutrality and objectivity, these would-be-critics ignore the ways that the exclusion of women or any intelligent opinions by or about women is not, in any way, a neutral act. It expresses a value, which merits a curiously absent moral defence. Most hide behind simple misogyny (‘women don’t belong here’) or inconsistent reasoning (‘talking about gender is subjective, talking about graphics isn’t’). But our aim is to repair the intellectual and analytic chasm left by this omission. To quote Catharine MacKinnon, we are “suggesting that not only must women be included in an analysis from which they have been omitted, not only that any analysis that leaves women out is distorted and partial, but also that it is necessary to recast the vision of the totality to be explained.”
I should end this with an immodest suggestion: it is long past time that we seriously re-evaluate ‘comment culture’ on the Internet and review a full range of options, up to, and including the severe moderation, abrogation, or even elimination of comments on most online properties. This is neither a unique idea, nor is it untested. Popular Science has just announced, to both fanfare and consternation, that (with only a few exceptions) comments will disappear from their online articles.
This is a courageous move by Popular Science, going firmly against the grain by asseverating that no, not all opinions are equally valid merely because they can be expressed. For far too long, we’ve indulged this malformed, pseudo-democratic impulse; far from emancipating anyone or granting voice to the voiceless, it has merely encouraged bullying, prejudice, and anti-intellectual vandalism on a hitherto unknown scale. Popular Science also grasps the serious harm that can be perpetrated by the proliferation of wrongheaded opinion and prejudice. It is as if the spectre of 19th Century yellow journalism has been reanimated– sans even the briefest glimmerings of wit– in the online world of commentary today, and with equally damaging consequences in the world of ideas.
In the words of Pop Sci online content editor Suzanne LeBarr:
“A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to “debate” on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.”
This profaning of intellectual discourse has profoundly deleterious consequences for us; it degrades us and this culture of hateful, uninspired commentary merely serves to police the boundaries of discourse in such a way as to stifle the blossoming of new ideas, or the reinforcement of long-understood truths (like the existence of sexism). The problem that LeBarr bravely pointed to is no less true of the ill-informed pseudo-debates that transpire beneath any article about the humanities or social sciences, and it is equally true of reviews such as Ms. Petit’s that suffer from a war on expertise wielded by women.
Our comment culture needs to be made more productive; the ability to talk back online can be a cornerstone of democratic dialogue, and it has often served that purpose. But it works best when we usher away those whose vulgarity and prejudice works to scatter away reason into the night and to silence oft unheard voices. Moderation must become a civic imperative, not an afterthought that overburdens a lone underpaid staffer or volunteer. This odious culture in the world of gaming is part of the reason that more women, more people of colour, more LGBT folks, more people who are open about their disabilities, do not speak in its primary forums.
That GameSpot is standing by its editor is surely an encouraging sign, but clearly more must be done, and it must be proactive.
Online commenting is here to stay, and that, in the long run, is more than likely a good thing. But civic participation requires a modicum of responsibility, something woefully lacking in the spirit of people who would flag a woman’s considered opinion as “terrorism” on YouTube. Such a gesture is also more than a little ironic, considering this monster with a thousand faces—as transfeminist Autumn Nicole Bradley perspicaciously names it—is often behind actual threats and online attacks.
We can and must do better than this.