When I originally wrote about Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, a video series which plans to explore the treatment of women in the medium, I expressed my concern that the creator Anita Sarkeesian might potentially cast aside more subtly positive portrayals of women in video games because they might still be significantly flawed. “If a medium is sexist in certain ways,” I thought, “then progress has to come in not only big steps but also small ones.” However, after reading this article about the Pixar movie Brave (warning: spoilers, though I do recommend reading it) in which the author Lili Loufbourow describes growing up with film and essentially forcing herself to deeply cherish even the most remotely positive portrayals of women in a medium which often forces them into a very limited number of character types, I find myself somewhat re-evaluating my thoughts on these matters.
Critical theorist Theodor Adorno writes about how mass culture, that is to say popular culture created by modern industry and capitalism, has a tendency to take any sort of radical idea or value and simply transform it into something palatable for the masses until its progressive value is swallowed up. I deeply disagree with Adorno in this regard for a number of reasons, namely his disregard for small steps within the area of mass culture. I still believe that it is important to look at examples of mixed results, cases where movement forward might come with a couple of steps back, and to just pay attention to places where progress is not measured solely by overall success. This is the reason why, when I write about the portrayal of women in anime and manga, I think it’s important to not just label things as “sexist” and call it a day.
His view brings some important questions to mind, however. Enlarging the sphere of discussion from sexism/feminism to the greater topic of progress itself, I have to ask myself, what is the difference between “taking a small step forward”and “huddling over scraps?” Is there a difference? Does one turn into the other when filtered through the lens of personal imagination and the changing values of a society?
My immediate feeling is that there must be a difference between taking a small step and huddling over scraps, and that the boundaries between the two are not so rigidly defined given history and context, but just the idea that the two can be conflated makes it somewhat dangerous. For that reason I now recognize that Sarkeesian and Loufbourow are essentially fighting against the same opponent, the “good enoughs” of female portrayal that pay only lipservice at best and are actually subtly regressive at worst, and that for Sarkeesian this dictates her tendency towards hard, powerful language in her videos. When subtlety is utilized, there is always the risk that it will be overlooked to such an extent that any messages given will be overwhelmed by the greater whole, or at least be perceived as such. While I prefer to try and work with the nuances myself, I have to recognize the potential pitfalls of that approach as well.