On july 8 I aired a rant about Spelunky, in which I called the makers out for using very explicit sexist imagery and content.
While I was prepared for the typical knee-jerk defense reactions, that usually come up whenever a game is charged with sexism… ..I was surprised to see where those defenses came from, this time.
People I genuinely consider to be progressive and thoughtful ‚Äö√Ñ√¨ indie developers, journalist and even feminists ‚Äö√Ñ√¨ were jumping to Spelunky’s defense using a very specific set of arguments. And after I recently fell flat on my face using the exact same set of arguments to defend a sexist public statement on twitter, I recognized that the discussions and conversations about sexism are fundamentally broken.
Here is what needs fixing and why Spelunky still needs to be recognized as sexist…
I don’t think the original article is madatory reading to understand, where I’m going here. I will discuss some of the content and will try to make sure you are not missing out on important details. But if you like to get the full picture, you find the article and some comments here.
I will use the terms sexism and misogyny synonymously.
Here are some quotes from reactions to my article:
(I highlighted a few words using bold font)
-I don’t feel Spelunky is any more misogynistic than Donkey Kong, but a few of its game mechanics make it appear as though it is. … Well I don’t know, you’re the first person I’ve ever come across who found Donkey Kong offensive. It’s more satirical really.
-Since you die all the time, you’re like a failed Indiana Jones, so mishandling your damsels doesn’t seem out of place
- I just think that a bit of comedy relief isn’t bad. Like knocking out the damsels to carry them, or getting a kiss for a heart.
-If you’re being offended by something/someone, it is your problem and no one else’s.
-The intention was to make a fun, challenging and addictive game with the thinnest veneer of story.
-I mean, to me this is intentionally silly, and calling this out as sexism looks pretty strange.
-The default ‚Äö√Ñ√∫yeah, girls actually find it funny too‚Äö√Ñ√π defense goes here.
-Spelunky is most definitely not one of the games worth getting offended about.
-I seriously doubt it was done on purpose.
-This is silly, the game is in all essence silly, you are silly, everything about this is just silly.
-This article is a stretch based on loose assumptions and an over reaction to a game‚Äö√Ñ√¥s simple mechanics.
-The devs probably decided to go all out and put their own spin on it to disperse any ideas that this is a serious thing.
-It seemed to me like the author was trying to find outrage
And here are a few samples I uttered myself in a debate on twitter about a sexist comment by Simon Pegg:
(again highlighted a few words. And please note, that I addressed a woman with my arguments)
-What I tweeted was to imply, that your visible anger over the issue may let you see things less clearheaded and accurate.
-That is a stretch. do you think he did something those girls are not comfortable with? Maybe they find his remarks coaxing?
Can you spot the theme here? All arguments assert in various ways that it is incorrect to call something sexist because it is incorrect to be angry about it. And it happens all the fucking time in debates:
Don’t be angry ‚Äö√Ñ√¨ he didn’t do it to make someone feel bad.
Don’t be angry ‚Äö√Ñ√¨ it is a joke, all in good fun, have a little more humor.
Don’t be angry ‚Äö√Ñ√¨ I wasn’t. So at least we have two opinions now, right?
Don’t be angry ‚Äö√Ñ√¨ it clouds your judgement. (still can’t believe I went there)
Don’t be angry ‚Äö√Ñ√¨ you are looking way too deep into this.
Don’t be angry ‚Äö√Ñ√¨ you are too easily triggered. Lighten up.
Don’t be angry ‚Äö√Ñ√¨¬¨‚Ä†it’s your problem, if you are offended.
Don’t be angry ‚Äö√Ñ√¨ men aren’t, if it happens to them.
Don’t be angry ‚Äö√Ñ√¨ some women aren’t.
Don’t be angry ‚Äö√Ñ√¨ others are more worthy of your spite.
Don’t be angry ‚Äö√Ñ√¨ you really should be used to it by now.
Don’t be angry ‚Äö√Ñ√¨ your complaints and attempts to censor stuff anger me.
Or the other way around:
Oh, you have been raped yourself? Well, I understand how you are offended, I will not make any more rape jokes for now.
Sexism Is Sexism ‚Äö√Ñ√¨ Anger Is Anger
Anger is not a determining factor in questions of sexism. Something can be sexist without anybody giving a crap and a lot of women can be angry about something that is not sexist. Sexism and anger are connected, but do not depend on each other.
Imagine you have an illness coming with strong pain. You complain about the pain, your pain needs to be treated, the pain alerts you to the fact that you may be ill, doctors take your pain into consideration when forming a diagnosis… … but your pain is not your illness. Your pain is the result of your illness.
Taking painkillers doesn’t make the illness go away. Trying to ignore the pain and to be cool about it also doesn’t make the illness go away. Other people ridiculing you, pushing you or ignoring you, because you say you are in pain, sure as hell does not make you well again. And just because it doesn’t hurt at the moment does not mean you are cured.
Women being offended or people from the rest of the gender spectrum being offended for women is not what makes sexism a reality. Sexism makes sexism a reality. Offense is just the pain that is caused by sexism.
Debating the offense away or ignoring it doesn’t solve anything. On the contrary, it keeps us from tackling the actual problem.
Why I Say Spelunky Is Sexist And Problematic
While my anger about the sexism gave me the motivation to sit down a couple of hours, do the research, structure my arguments and then write everything down and edit pretty pictures ‚Äö√Ñ√¨ my anger did not cause me to determine that the damsel is sexist and problematic. And while I articulated my anger and disapproval in the article, I did not use my feelings to add credibility to my sexism charges.
I used objective criteria to determine the sexism in Spelunky. I for example simply applied word definitions to what is presented in the game. The Damsel is objectified, because the player has to use her as an object. There is no opinion involved here. If you treat a person like an object, you are objectifying this person. Also if you treat a person as if this person is unable to accomplish basic things on her own like a toddler, you are infantilizing this person.
I also applied semiology to determine that the Damsel is sexualized. For this I analyzed two images: her appearance (red dress, cleavage, long blonde hair) and the event of kissing (a smootch on the cheek of the player character with an icon of a heart popping up). Both images are subject to individual interpretation, yes, and some people might not read any sexual connotations into it. Granted. But both images are more often than not commonly used to strongly articulate or imply sexual connotations for decades now and are read by most people this way. This assessment is based on statistics and research in visual language (I teach that stuff, btw).
This approach of using objective criteria was applied to my other detailed charges as well. Now regarding the question, if it is fair to call Spelunky sexist, since you can choose to have all the degrading imagery and gameplay driven abuse aimed at men and dogs as well: Yes it is fair.
Sexism is about gender inequality. Since men and women are not equally supported and protected by society, devaluation of men and women in popular media does not result in equal damage. Also just treating gendered attacks as some sort of damage score ‚Äö√Ñ√¨ and calling Spelunky therefore even ‚Äö√Ñ√¨ is a massive oversimplification. All the detailed charges I brought up in my last article are feeding into pervasive misogynistic arguments. The detailed charges do not however feed into pervasive anti-male narratives (maybe anti-gay narratives, judging from the male damsels outfit). I also still don’t see how the depiction of the female damsels gets improved by showing that the way she is shown and should be handled is perfectly applicable to dogs.
So, yeah, it’s fair to call Spelunky out for prominently featuring sexist content and messages.
By The Numbers
How problematic the sexist content in Spelunky is regarding individual people’s feelings is subject to your empathy with those individuals. I always like to advocate for empathy in general, but that’s up to you. But don’t be confused, when people think you are ignorant, if you don’t care.
How much Spelunky feeds pervasive sexist narratives stands in relation with the exposure the game gets. XBLA, indie stardom, I say it’s not just a little. (and yes, I’m aware that I contribute to its exposure here, thanks).
How problematic the sexist content in Spelunky and the sexist narratives are regarding societal health depends on numbers. For example:
- Forty-seven percent of all game players are women. (so far, so equal)
- Wikipedia features 217 articles on male videogame characters, while only featuring 95 on female characters.
- only 27% of jobs in computer sciences (includes video games) are held by women.
Nearly one in five women surveyed said they had been raped or had experienced an attempted rape at some point, and one in four reported having been beaten by an intimate partner. One in six women have been stalked, according to the report.
The earnings gap between men and women has narrowed, but a new White House report shows that on average women still only make about 75% as much as their male counterparts.
1. A piece of media is sexist because of content that supports and feeds a sexist narrative, not because someone is angry about it.
2. Sexist content feeds sexist narratives, ideas, stereotypes or behavior in people, no matter if they are entertainend or appalled by the sexist content.
3. Sexist narratives, ideas, stereotypes or behavior is what makes us treat and see women as lesser humans and makes women feel like lesser humans.
In debates, fokus on the most objective and measurable aspects of the sexist media, not the feelings they trigger. We don’t solve the problem by making it difficult to talk about one’s feelings, by victim blaming, by treating offense as a subject for debate or conflating one result of sexism with sexism itself. … we actually exacerbate problem by doing so.
Debating facts and caring about other peoples feelings. Understand the difference and do both.