Feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian has risen to fame by dissecting pop culture. Her series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, which breaks down gender-based gaming cliches ranging from kidnapped princesses to women as prizes, has become both a successful YouTube channel and a linchpin in the video game world’s culture wars. But her latest project involves talking about fact instead of fiction.
Ordinary Women: Daring to Defy History — created by Sarkeesian, former Offworld writer and editor Laura Hudson, and producer Elisabeth Aultman — is a biographical web series profiling influential women throughout history. The project will focus on “women who defied gender stereotypes but often found themselves pushed to the sidelines or erased from history books” while their male contemporaries were venerated. The first five-episode season features 19th-century pirate Ching Shih; anarchist Emma Goldman; mathematician Ada Lovelace; journalist Ida B. Wells; and Murasaki Shikibu, author of the first modern novel.
The crowdfunding pitch for Ordinary Women, with its $200,000 goal, is far more ambitious than that of Sarkeesian’s last campaign. In 2012, her site Feminist Frequency asked for a mere $6,000 to make Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, an outgrowth of her existing YouTube video work. The response — both positive and negative — was overwhelming. Backers pledged nearly $160,000 toward the project, leading Feminist Frequency to add several more videos as stretch goals. At the same time, the project drew unexpected ire from a wave of online anti-feminists, who launched a dedicated campaign of violent threats and abuse that has continued for nearly four years. In 2014, online reactionary movement Gamergate deemed Sarkeesian one of its greatest enemies, accusing her of "scamming" backers by releasing videos too slowly or of attempting to censor video games with her criticism.
Today, Feminist Frequency has broadened its scope significantly. Sarkeesian has so far put out 13 Tropes vs. Women videos covering both negative gaming tropes and positive examples of female characters, along with reviews of new games and movies. Now registered as a nonprofit, Feminist Frequency was chosen as one of Intel’s partners for a diversity initiative in 2015, and it’s one of the roughly 50 organizations Twitter has tapped for advice on handling harassment. Last week, it partnered with game developers Zoe Quinn and Alex Lifschitz’s anti-abuse project Crash Override, allowing the group to receive tax-deductible donations. And there’s still a year left of Tropes vs. Women, a project that Sarkeesian readily admits has left her exhausted.
"With Tropes, it was supposed to be five episodes that were like 10 minutes each, with a few examples. The international attention and the hate campaign against me really changed the way that we approached the project," says Sarkeesian. Each installment is packed with offhand references to dozens of games, constructed to carefully anticipate the counter-arguments of her most fervent critics, who analyze the 20- to 30-minute videos with the intensity of conspiracy theorists poring over the Zapruder Film. "It felt like writing a master's thesis in three months with every episode," she says.
In January, Feminist Frequency announced that the remaining topics would be divided into more specific tropes split across shorter videos, drawing to a close later this year. "I love Tropes. I think I'm really proud of that work, and we're still continuing to do it," says Sarkeesian. "But I did get really burnt out, and I'm really looking forward to doing something new."
Each episode of Ordinary Women will be devoted to a single woman, aimed more at depth than breadth. And Sarkeesian says that unlike Tropes vs. Women, which became increasingly large and amorphous as funding grew, the series will have a set first season that’s researched and filmed before the first episode comes out. Its creators are also aiming for something more complex and visually compelling than Tropes vs. Women’s straightforward editing. For Ordinary Women, the team will create animations and music based on art from the subject’s time period, and Sarkeesian will host wearing outfits loosely inspired by the era. Nearly half the total budget — including crowdfunding campaign fees and the cost of backer rewards — is intended for animation and post-production. If everything goes right, Sarkeesian, Hudson, and Aultman plan to release their first video in September.
Among other things, Sarkeesian sees Ordinary Women as a positive antidote to the hackneyed representations of women in fiction — many of them driven by a piecemeal or selectively edited version of history. "I often hear comments like, ‘We don't know how to write women,’ or ‘Of course women are oppressed and relegated to these degrading roles in games that take place in the past, because that's what women were back then!’" she says. "I want this to act as inspiration for creative folks to write more engaging women. [We want to show] that there were real women that you can tell the stories of — or base stories on — that have done extraordinary, incredible things."
If there’s a problem at the core of Ordinary Women, though, it’s that the first season arguably doesn’t deliver on its promise to profile important women we’ve forgotten. Ada Lovelace is one of relatively few women who is frequently cited in popular histories, often credited as the first computer programmer. Emma Goldman and Ida B. Wells are less prominent figures, but they’re still familiar names, and Ching Shih had the dubious honor of inspiring a Pirates of the Caribbean franchise character. I first encountered Murasaki Shikibu as a child, when she appeared in a ‘90s Carmen Sandiego game.
The counter-argument is that these women still don’t have the same iconic status as male historical figures, especially in the bare-bones curricula of primary and secondary schools. While the videos will be released on YouTube for everyone, Ordinary Women is primarily aimed at girls and young women growing up on a diet of textbooks that give all marginalized groups short shrift. "I want to help inspire a new generation of girls to be excited about their ancestors, and also inspire them to challenge the status quo and do amazing things," says Sarkeesian. And while famous historical figures of any gender were often free to pursue groundbreaking work because they were born to wealth and other privileges, Ordinary Women’s creators are trying to avoid making "woman" seem synonymous with "rich white woman."
Especially post-Gamergate, anything related to Sarkeesian’s work can take on bizarrely epic proportions. It’s difficult to logically square the furor over Tropes vs. Women, for example, with the videos’ mild tone. (Sarkeesian says people who hear about the series through her detractors regularly send her confused emails after actually watching an installment.) But if you forget the online controversy, Tropes vs. Women isn’t advanced gender theory or radical feminism, but a series of videos about recognizing common narrative themes and archetypes. And Ordinary Women feels like a similar project. If the series succeeds, it will concisely introduce young audiences to some of the women who have shaped world history — while encouraging the rest of us learn a little more about them.