Thoughts on Liana Kerzner's Feminist Frequency critique

Liana Kerzner’s recent excellent five-part article series on Feminist Frequency and the work of Anita Sarkeesian spurred me to think on previous writings, and I thought I would revisit some of them in the context of Kerzner’s work. If you, the reader, haven’t read the article series yet, I strongly urge you to do so as not only is it of great quality, but is illuminative of many of the inherent problems with Sarkeesian’s work from a feminist perspective.

Though, personally I found part two to be the most compelling, and damning, of Feminist Frequency. I’ll preface this by saying my words are my own, are not reflective of Kerzner or her work, and are not to be construed as such. Though, I will be quoting from the article and adding my own perspectives. I am not as charitable as Kerzner when it comes to Feminist Frequency, Anita Sarkeesian, or Jonathan McIntosh.

And, it is McIntosh, co-founder of Feminist Frequency and co-creator of the Tropes vs. Women series (as co-writer and producer), who would be the best starting point for my analysis. McIntosh is, sparing euphemism, a propagandist [and, in my opinion, a rather amateurish one at best, as propaganda is marked in quality by message exportability rather than simply exploiting extant internal biases, which seems to be the extent of his ability]. His use of “vidding“, that is to say “remixing” audiovisual content to change that message’s content (in McIntosh’s case, the simplification or disfigurement of conveyed political messages with a decidedly left-wing slant), is years-long and well-known:

So is his trend of seizing on pop culture trends to gain notoriety, only to drop them as soon as they fall out-of-vogue (a phenomenon to which I will refer as “pop culture carpetbagging”):

Perhaps this sheds light on why Feminist Frequency videos often depict violent or sexualized content grossly out-of-context, often contradicting the message intended by developers and publishers, in favor of the arguments made by Sarkeesian in the course of the video and the narrative presented by Feminist Frequency videos. Kerzner, in her article, refers to this phenomenon thus (emphasis and commentary in brackets mine):

This is just one example of how Feminist Frequency oversimplifies its analysis by treating games more like films than interactive experiences [the rule of simplification being first and foremost in Norman Davies’ rules of propaganda, as set forth in Europe: a History]. […] But the idea that video games can cultivate a predictable change in the opinions of a player is central to Feminist Frequency’s critique. There’s no reason to show clip reels of a given trope unless the underlying concept is that the sheer volume of that content passes the threshold for long-term, cumulative exposure required for a cultivation effect, even though we don’t know that video games influence shared values the way television does.

I would argue the underlying concept is vastly more pernicious than mere misunderstanding of cultivation theory. In fact, I would say the minds behind Feminist Frequency understand cultivation theory all too well:

The implications on Feminist Frequency’s theories on that point alone are significant. If true, the concern shouldn’t be that sexually violent or objectifying content is going to make consumers mimic these behaviours. The concern should be that this content makes people more afraid of rape, abuse, and second-class status because our entertainment is cultivating this mindset.

This is a very valid concern. Excessive fear will hold back entire portions of our society — in this case, women. But our current approach has not been fear reduction.

For example, Anita Sarkeesian does talks where she displays horrid, vicious tweets and emails she’s received. According to cultivation theory and mean world syndrome, if exposed to heavy doses of this messaging, her audience will become more afraid that they too will be attacked. If Sarkeesian is cultivating fearful attitudes through repeated, systematic exposure to vicarious abuse, this is, to borrow the word, “pernicious.”

This is precisely the underlying concept: to foster a climate of fear. Remember, one of Feminist Frequency’s co-founders is an avowed propagandist, and the appeal to fear is among the most powerful and persuasive of tools in the propagandist’s toolbox — a fact clearly not lost on McIntosh:

“But, why?” one might ask. Perhaps this might shed some light on why. Or, perhaps this. Or, the nearly $160,000 donated to the Tropes vs. Women kickstarter, or the new multi-million-dollar partnership with Intel. It is clear there is serious money in Feminist Frequency’s unique style of propaganda (I refuse to call it criticism on the basis of its poor quality, which Kerzner’s five-part article demonstrates), and Sarkeesian and McIntosh have clear, personal, financial stakes in its perpetuation, which on its own calls into question their true motives, let alone when coupled with the points I have already made. Is it any wonder Feminist Frequency or its founders offer few if any solutions to the nebulous issues they claim to criticize? Doing so would endanger their meal ticket.

Especially when what precious little prescriptive relief to be proffered by their “analysis” is easily left to audience conclusion, while maintaining plausible deniability on the parts of those behind Feminist Frequency (hint: it’s censorship). McIntosh is already on record as a supporter of censorship:

Yes, that is in fact censorship, as the origin of the censorship (private or governmental) is immaterial to the adulteration or prohibition of artistic work. In Hollywood, the Hays Code was censorship; the Waldorf Statement was censorious; even the MPAA ratings code is employed to censorious ends (and the censorious nature of each and every one, despite being private and partially market-driven, is beyond dispute). Indeed, as Kerzner states, “either something is harmful or it’s not”; if sexism in games and the games industry is harmful to the degree of pervasiveness and depth Feminist Frequency claims, limiting consumption is insufficient to provide relief.

So, there we have it. By my reckoning, Feminist Frequency and its founders are not considerable as feminist pop culture critics. They’re propagandists out to capitalize on the very real problems of gender in games and the games industry, to the detriment of women who actually play games and work in the games industry. This is the conclusion — in my opinion — that fits the evidence put forth by Kerzner’s article series.

None of this is, of course, meant to muzzle Feminist Frequency or its members, either. Quite the opposite: I want them speaking, at as great a length as they desire. The longer they operate, the more people will wise up to their game, and either speak out (as Kerzner bravely, given the current climate, has to conclusions that are her own and in understandable accordance with Hanlon’s razor) or refuse to buy what they’re peddling; when Feminist Frequency ceases to be profitable, I’m certain they will move onto greener pastures (as they have done in the past) and the games industry can repair the damage done.