Thursday, June 27, 2013

#1reasonwhy: Is feminism an ideology of empowerment?

A relatively recent notable moment in the gaming community was the #1ReasonWhy twitter hashtag that floated around for a few days.  People in or related to the game industry wrote up little blurbs on twitter giving "1ReasonWhy" there are not more women involved in the video game industry.  Both men and women in the industry jumped in, giving little observations or anecdotes of personal experiences pertaining to gender issues in the industry.  These ranged from poor treatment by attendees at conventions, to email responses to blog posts and interviews they had done, to being confused for a marketing person instead of a producer or developer.  Some mentioned discomfort at having to work on games involving scantily-clad women, or annoyance that a pitch for a female-target game was not accepted at a company meeting.  The idea behind the spontaneous movement was to give people a chance to voice their concerns about gender issues in the gaming industry to a wider audience, in hopes of "starting a dialog" or "working to fix problems from a point of understanding."

My coworkers talked a bit about it around the bullpens, sharing article links, their own stories, and generally shaking their heads shamefully at the stories they read.  I didn't chime in, but I followed the tweets, and got more and more upset as I read them; but probably not for the reason most would assume.  Finally the tweets I was dreading popped up towards the end of the work day.  Young women in high school and college, talking about how worried the tweets were making them about their intentions to go into gaming or tech industries.  I finally snapped when I saw a post from a girl in high school saying she was now seriously considering rethinking her plan to study computer science.  I replied more light-heartedly to her, assuring her that these blurbs were isolated anecdotes, not the norm, and reminding her that "female dev has a normal day at normal job with respectful coworkers" does not make for very good tweets.

But as my contribution to the #1ReasonWhy "discussion" as a whole, I finally spoke up: maybe #1ReasonWhy there aren't more women in the industry is that things like #1ReasonWhy are considered by the women already there to be a legitimate path to shrinking the gap.  That highlighting your worst experience in years of a career, or listing all the times you've been offended, is not exactly an effective recruiting tool :P. Some women in the industry also saw this and started the #1ReasonToBe hashtag in response, but it became  a footnote, or just another example of one of those "reasons why."

I think this highlights a fundamental issue with so many of these spontaneous movements or acts of activism intended to deal with gender issues.  People will say they are giving voice to these women in the industry and thereby "empowering" them.  People will say that it is only by recognizing the problem (and focusing on it again... and again.. and again...) that any solution can be found.  And yet the consequences of such a strategy are easy to see (and not particularly surprising): highlighting every bad gender-related experience a woman could have in the industry, bombarding the community and the media with tales of woe -- devoid of context or hints at scale -- drives young women away in anger or fear or apprehension.  And that leads to the question: if the goal of female industry members truly is to empower women, why do they not recognize that they are accomplishing the opposite?

Feminists, or those used to coming at gender issues from such a worldview, tend to be the biggest voices in the "gender gap" dialogue in the industry.  And like I mentioned in my previous post, a key feature of feminist critique of social issues is the tendency to objectify women, aka work under the assumption of female hypoagency.  I see it as a fundamental failure to address the reality of the situation, causing them to focus on the wrong issues and completely miss the core forces at work, and incidentally causing them to work against the very thing that they claim they are fighting for.  Because regardless of how feminists choose to view women, it does not change the fact that women ARE people, are acting agents that have thoughts and make choices.  Regardless of whether a woman's path to the game industry is a waterfall or a leisurely walk by a stream, not a single additional woman will participate in the game industry if none of them CHOOSE to.  That is the point of action, that is the first domino: an individual woman's choice to embark on a career in the gaming industry.  The reality of the situation is that women already have the only meaningful power to address the gender gap in the industry.  It is literally by their choice alone that the egalitarian ideal can be realized.

THIS is true empowerment, recognizing your fundamental self-agency and ability to lead your own life.  Not only that, but individual women exercising this power and choosing to enter the game industry is, almost tautologically, the only way to increase the number of women in the game industry.  But conventional feminist wisdom insists this not be the focus.  Despite saying it is the ideology of empowerment, it denies this very fundamental power all women have.  It does not seek to encourage women to recognize that power in themselves, but instead reinforces the idea that women are at the mercy of outside forces.  In its rabid pursuit to prove that these outside forces are significant and devastating so that others will take action to change them, they turn attention away from women and their power to the world and their circumstances, and further cement the impression in new minds that the power a woman has as a human being is trivial compared to her vulnerability to things outside of her control.  And that doesn't sound like an ideology of empowerment to me, but an ideology of fear.  I KNOW, in a very deep, fundamental way, that I am an equal, acting agent in society.  I know, in a fundamental way, that I am equal to any man or woman by recognizing the agency I have over my own life.  I am an "empowered woman."  And refusing to recognize this core, humanist truth in favor of pushing a narrative of oppression and helplessness is fundamentally not empowering.

So a new generation of young women get to go on twitter and be subjected to bombardment by their predecessors of why they shouldn't be there, why they are right to be scared, why they are smart to be scared, why they would totally understand if they just gave up, why it's not even "giving up" but just being pushed away.  This coming from women that should know better, having exercised their own agency as human beings to get into the industry in the first place.  And the entire "dialogue" goes on under the pretense of empowering these young women, so that this poisonous worldview can take the moral high-ground as it boldly sabotages this ostensible goal.

Side Note:
I had a related thought while thinking up and drafting this post.  Besides the obvious fact that denying female agency is fundamentally dis-empowering, I also saw parallels between the feminist viewpoint of gender issues and psychological effects relating to anxiety and depression.  Something that can cause a person great anxiety or depression is the feeling of being stuck, not having control over your life, or being at the mercy of outside forces.  People have defense mechanisms for such things, like superstition, rationalization, or arrogance, and most people seem to get along fine dealing with things they legitimately don't have control over and controlling the things they can.  However, it can be extremely emotionally taxing if you see fundamental aspects of your life as being out of your control, or if it begins to feel as if more and more of your life is trapping you and throwing you about.  And because it's the brain and it can be silly or sick, it doesn't matter if those things really ARE out of your control, all that matters is that you THINK they are, and the feelings of anxiety and depression can overpower you.  Therefore, an important key to mental health is to make sure you don't get into such habits of incorrectly identifying when you are stuck or at the mercy of something you can't affect, and burning out what emotional fortitude you have dealing with completely fabricated threats.  This all sounds very similar to the sorts of things I end up seeing in feminist critiques of different aspects of society, and the idea of female hypoagency.  The idea that women are not makers of their own lives, but souls at the mercy of the whims of society and outside circumstances I could see being VERY anxiety-provoking, or as beliefs that at the least would elicit a strong emotional response.  When caught in the throes of those strong emotions, it can be very difficult to step back and look critically at the beliefs causing these emotions.  As someone who has suffered with anxiety before, it really angers me that such dis-empowering beliefs about the nature of society are purposefully reinforced and propagated, and that logical refutation them is so vehemently challenged.  Anxiety is absolutely no fun to deal with, and the thought that there are women out there who are having such anxiety-provoking beliefs constantly drilled into them by "fellow sisters" makes me sincerely sorry for them, and I can only hope that they do not let their fear blind them to the fact that they DO have control, and can steer their lives in the direction they want.


  1. To me, your final paragraph is much more than a "side note", it's a very good and summarized analysis of the core problems you identified in both your larger posts.

    It is precisely half of what has stricken me as wrong in the whole "electronic feminism" movement, ie. if they actively maintain a climate of dread and disenmpowerment without a socially-acceptable moderating medium, all they can do is fuel the fires of indignation, perceived inequalities and communitarianism. The only thing they empower is the status quo, actively --as you said-- discouraging efforts to make the video game industry appeal to women.

    The other half is, for me, the "without a socially-acceptable moderating medium" part. I don't know how the movement got journalists and gaming websites to unconditionally relay and support their messages so quickly but the results are there. Hardly any criticism, in-depth analysis or even thinking about the consequences was voiced on the more popular media outlets, opening wide the path to self-justification and reinforcement.

    Get those two in a bed together and witness the birth of a particularly resilient, self-maintaining system that can ridicule and crush criticism without fear of dissent while becoming the focus of attention for all women interested in video games, replacing any kind of ingenuity with systematic world-weariness, displacing passion towards subjective and fuzzy but "grander" goals.

    1. Yeah, I kind of realized after rereading that my side-note about anxiety and fear was actually pretty important... but maybe I'll expand on that separately later :/. Mostly because my own experience with anxiety kind of filled me with a sense of dread about just how tricky it might be to fight this status-quo. It's hard to change a person's mind about something they believe in; it's extra-hard to change a person's mind about something that has been systematically reinforced and that they have tied strong emotions to. But it's the base beliefs that have to be changed to be freed from the negative emotional effects.
      But it makes me think that probably most of this atmosphere of vulnerability and fear, while actively maintained, is not PURPOSEFULLY maintained. I think the mindset of fundamentally viewing women as less self-acting than men or the state carries with it so many other harmful beliefs that just get reinforced over and over with every analysis done from that point of view, but if it's anything like the negative thought patterns I had dug myself into, most people that do this don't even realize that's what they are thinking, and don't see the emotional damage it is causing. Maybe really high-up political players intentionally use anxiety as tools to manipulate people, but all an individual has to do is take the core belief for granted and they will dig themselves into a ditch of fear without any outside help.

  2. "I KNOW, in a very deep, fundamental way, that I am an equal, acting agent in society. I know, in a fundamental way, that I am equal to any man or woman by recognizing the agency I have over my own life. I am an 'empowered woman.' And refusing to recognize this core, humanist truth in favor of pushing a narrative of oppression and helplessness is fundamentally not empowering."

    Well, that's the thing. Feminism has been co-opted by a more radical movement that, fundamentally speaking, doesn't actually give a good Goddamn about empowering you; they want to empower the government to act for you.

    Modern feminists don't want "empowered women" like you, because if all women were empowered they would be perfectly capable of speaking on their own behalf and pushing back against patriarchy by themselves; they would no longer need the feminist movement or its sympathizers in the Almighty State to speak "for" them or fight for them -- and the whole edifice, which has so long sustained so many speakers and theorists and agitators, would collapse right under their feet. Naturally, they don't want to starve. So they continue the tired narrative of victimology, insisting that the patriarchy is still not beaten yet... and so they will go on insisting unto the end of the world.

    1. Yes, I have actually been told to my (internet) face by feminists that they don't want me talking about why I feel empowered, why I didn't feel like a victim growing up, because "that's all well and good for you, but not everyone is as lucky as you in life so please shut up now if you can't say anything useful kthx." Which obviously ticked me off :P, because silly me to think that talking about my worldview, to talk about already having power and control over my life as a human, would possibly be empowering to other women. It's not something I was "lucky" to be gifted with, it's something I was taught, thought about, and actively lived. It's just straight-up true that women are people and agents of their own lives, it's not a lot you draw, but I just could not articulate that without sounding "privileged," apparently :P.

  3. This sums up perfectly my epiphany the other week of why feminism is not anything it claims to be. Feminism does not say women are empowered and have responsibilities and are capable just like everyone else; it wouldn't be much of an effective movement if it said that, because then why would we need it?
    Instead it says that women are oppressed and must be fought for, so the movement is necessary--ironic since that dichotomy of protected (women) and protector (feminism) reinforces the traditional roles of women (as a group) that need to be protected and shielded, except this time feminism is replacing the role traditionally filled by men (as a group).

    Just a thought. Thanks for sharing this post with me :)

    1. Thanks for reading :). Your blurb is probably better for "summing up" for being so concise, haha, but yes, that implication that feminism is still needed as a protector even in areas of society as voluntary and benign as the gaming industry doesn't send an empowering message. And it's disheartening to see female colleagues kind of "take their turn" of viewing the next generation of devs like this. I have to wonder if they felt like victims that someone raised up when they went into the career, or if it's just a "well it applies to most people except me" thing...