Feminism and Cookies

Two recent stories about sexism have made me think about cookies. So I’m posting about them together.

1) When North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory was running for the office, he was asked, “If you’re elected governor, what further restrictions on abortion would you agree to sign?”  He responded, “none.” 

He recently signed a bill that put further restrictions on abortion.

His response to protesters who were upset with him signing a bill he promised not to sign?

He gave them cookies.  According to WaPo, “The cookies were returned, and it wasn’t because he forgot the milk. The note on the untouched plate read: “We want women’s health care, not cookies.””

2) Anita Sarkeesian just released the 3rd and final video on the videogame trope of Damsels in Distress. (Future videos will discuss other tropes in video games.) The video game development blog Gamasutra posted about it, to which many peopled commented.

Some of the comments stuck out to me because they were some of the clearest, most charitable articulations of why people see basic feminist arguments as untenable.

For instance,

“I don’t think there is anything wrong with the ‘damsel in distress’ type of game. Sexism comes in from how you depict the damsel. I just don’t think that every example she gave of sexist games are necessarily as malicious as she makes them out to be.”

When another commenter points out that Sarkeesian does not accuse these games of being “malicious,” the original commenter replies,

“Maybe malicious is too strong of a word to use, but her tone is definitely condemning. Spelunky developers made it so the player could rescue a male or dog instead of a female and instead of even saying thanks for trying but its not good enough, smacks them back down and further criticized them for making the female replaceable. If you don’t want to say malicious choose a different word for publicly talking down to them because she did not approve of their attempted fix.”

If I understand this argument correctly and charitably, it is something like this:

Yes sexism exists, but if someone wasn’t explicitly trying to be sexist, they deserve a cookie and not condemnation. [suppressed premise: Because not f***ing up is hard. And public disapproval makes us feel negative. And sexism makes us feel negative. And aren’t we trying to get rid of things that make us feel negative?] (Okay maybe that wasn’t so charitable. But accurate, I think.)

Takeaway ‘lesson’ from both of these stories:  Cookies and niceness–as opposed to actually doing the hard work of swallowing one’s pride and working to fix the problem–are the better ways to approach sexism.

Other takeaway lesson:  Some people think that equality for women is about making them feel warm and fuzzy; not about anything like giving them access to full agency and control over their image, their lives, and their destiny?
(Also they think women not being mad at them is more important than improving the lives of those women?)

21 thoughts on “Feminism and Cookies

  1. And there’s the whole “you can rescue a dog instead of a woman! See, that’s good right!” except it kinda… well, to me it feels off because they’re (unintentionally?) implying that a woman and a dog are equivalent in terms of agency and self-saving ability. Even if I thought this was a step in the right direction, that doesn’t mean the game designers are entitled to a cookie.

  2. The sexist angle in the cookie story is a little obscure. The closest the WaPo piece comes to articulating it (second hand) is when it relates that some protesters chanted “Hey Pat, that was rude. You wouldn’t give cookies to a dude.” Though dudes were clearly among the recipients of the cookies, so that hypothesis arguably started out life with one strike already against it. (On the other hand, it rhymes.)

    It seems debatable whether Gov. McCrory promised not to sign this bill (whether it should have any force if he did is a separate question). Reasonable people seem to disagree over whether to view the provisions in the bill as restrictions on abortion as such (except possibly for the provisions prohibiting gender-discriminatory abortions; that’s hard to view otherwise).

  3. It seemed to me that Sarkeesian’s point about women being substitutable for, and therefore equatable to, dogs (or chip and dale dancers) wasn’t very strong. The game allowed the user to replace one helpless sprite with another. This, at least, seems praiseworthy (or at least not blameworthy) – if you are offended by rescuing a foolish, helpless woman (or man) you can rescue an animal.

    Her second point, that the helpless female sprite reinforces negative cultural norms in ways that helpless males or canines don’t, seemed stronger to me.

  4. People seem to respond very poorly to criticisms of character and intentions (“you’re being racist/sexist/etc.”) and less poorly to criticisms of specific actions where you explicitly assume that the character and intentions are good (“I know you had the best intentions, but what you just did was a bit racist/sexist/etc.”). Since the person in (2) uses the word malicious, I think a different charitable interpretation might be ‘It seems like you’re condemning people who weren’t intentionally sexist, and were actually trying to overcome sexism. That seems unfair/unhelpful.’ It actually does seem like this kind of criticism would be counterproductive to me, but that this is not what the video was trying to do. So the response could be something like: ‘This wasn’t criticizing the intentions or goals of the developers – which are a welcome change – it was saying that the fix they tried to adopt didn’t actually fit their purposes. By pointing this out we’re giving them useful feedback on how to improve things and avoid untentionally perpetuating sexist storylines in their games. It’s important to do this, because people sometimes do sexist things even when they have the best of intentions not to.’ I guess it seems to me that there’s a middle ground between cookies and condemnation, which is to charitably assume that someone’s character and intentions were good, and to focus on condemning the actions alone whenever possible (not necessarily because the character and intentions are in fact good in all cases, but because it’s usually more effective to do things this way).

  5. “If I understand this argument correctly and charitably…”

    The actual argument being made is that because Sarkeesian condemns both P and ~P, there is something faulty with Sarkeesian’s reasoning on the matter. The suppressed premise is that if P is bad in virtue of its P-ness, then it must be the case that ~P is good. Thus, Sarkeesian is incoherent insofar as she condemns both P and ~P.

    Perhaps, though, my biases are getting in the way of a correct and charitable interpretation of the quoted commenter’s argument. If so, I apologize, and am as receptive to and appreciative of correction as ever.

  6. I don’t think the commenter’s argument is as simple as “Sarkessian is arguing both P and ~P” in that case. The commenter writes, “and instead of even saying thanks for trying but its not good enough, [she] smacks them back down and further criticized them for making the female replaceable.”

    The first part, where the commenter acknowledges that it is somewhat valid to criticize Spelunky for not really fully succeeding in not endorsing the damsel trope, makes their beef with Sarkeesian as much about her tone and attitude as about her reasoning. While the commenter does at the end imply that criticism for also not having a damsel is faulty, that only takes up a small part of their argument. They seem just as upset about her “smacking back down” this poor, well-intentioned game, and, as I argue, not giving them a cookie for trying. The commenter is focusing on how she is “talking down to them.”

  7. Great comment at Gamasutra:

    Matthew Shafer-Skelton
    3 Aug 2013 at 8:16 pm PST

    I actually am not Anita’s biggest fan. I would prefer for someone more talented, for lack of a better word, than her to be getting a lot of attention. But it just so happened that Anita did the right thing at the right time and a bunch of ignorant sploopers piled on attacking her thus catapulting her into the spotlight.

    What is lucky is that although Anita is not the greatest spokesperson for this issue, the conversation only started with her and a whole bunch of people have made their own brilliant points. So for all those people who refuse to contribute anything valuable but defend their behavior by making complaints about Anita, you are only hurting yourselves and not her. If you think her rhetoric has limitations, transcend them. Create a conversation with nothing but amazing commentary on the state of video games and women and minorities. Stop using Anita as your excuse to be intellectually lazy. She is not the topic, she is just a participant

  8. I am not clear on this one (possibly blinded by privilege, as you suggested in your amazing and persuasive Tim Allen post.) If a critique can be made in a public forum-that the game has this bunch of failings not repaired by this attempt to fix-and at the same time offer the conciliatory “tone” suggested by both the commenter in question (not the best) and by “A” at #4 on this thread (persuasive to me), I can’t help but wonder if there’s reason to prefer the conciliatory strategy (the reasons “A” mentions.)

    So I’m curious if Anita’s amazing, courageous arguments can have the same power, and if we can still reach our goals here WHILE AT THE SAME TIME using such an approach. If in fact Anita’s argument regarding the dog/object change succeeds (and I think it does) there is reason to think it would still succeed, and people will still see the need for a real fix (and btw this commenter gives no indication he would not support a real fix), had she offered conciliation in the way suggested by “A” at #4. I FULLY ADMIT that upon further inspection, it may be her argument, like the arguments against rape culture, could not possibly be made in any conciliatory manner of any kind, and it may turn out offensive I am suggesting they could be made that way (and if so my most humble and embarrassed apologies.)

    But I don’t think that question can be answered without getting to the particulars of the criticism/goal. Do you think there’s a particular argument or goal of Anita’s that would lose steam if she employed the conciliatory strategy suggested by “A”?

  9. Re “Also they think women not being mad at them is more important than improving the lives of those women?”, it wasn’t entirely clear who “they” and “them” are (game writers? Gamasutra commenters?). I’ll presume, subject to correction, that it’s the former, as that seems to make more sense even if it doesn’t really emerge from the comments at issue.

    What is the responsibility of game writers qua game writers to improve the lives of their audiences or any subset thereof, at least other than by virtue of whatever greater or lesser degree of pleasure (aesthetic or otherwise) their audience may derive from sharing the fruits of the creative labors of the writer?

  10. If game writers qua game writers have the obligations of game writers qua humans, then they have a responsibility to improve the lives of their audience by virtue of a more general moral obligation. If game writers qua game writers don’t have this obligation, then it’s not clear why we should care about their obligations qua game writers, since the prudential and aesthetic obligations they have in this capacity are clearly going to be overruled by their more general moral obligations as humans.

  11. Well, that may be right if you think humans have a general obligation to improve the lives of their fellow humans. I think that’s dubious. But that might be because I have a more heavyweight notion of ‘obligation’ than you have.

  12. “A”, I’d gladly assume for the sake of argument the syllogism that all human beings have some moral obligation to improve the lives of their fellow human beings, that all game writers are human beings, ergo all game writers have some moral obligation to improve the lives of their fellow human beings. It doesn’t follow from this that game writers need be especially preoccupied with improving the lives of their audiences through their games. Their audiences, after all, are only beneficiaries of this obligations by virtue of being human, not especially in their capacity as people who play the game writer’s games, and the game writer can discharge his or or general moral obligation in ways other than game writing. Put another way, it’s not obvious why failing to write games that improve people’s lives (according to some yardstick) necessarily constitutes a dereliction of a general moral obligation. I think by “responsibility qua game writer”, I meant some obligation (whether a general human obligation or otherwise) that, for a human being who happens to be a game writer, is required to be discharged in part through the writing of games that improve people’s lives in particular ways. (Of course, some people I know would dispute that video games effect a net improvement in anyone’s life.)

    At any rate, I guess I’m still not closer to making sense of the parenthetical at the very end of the OP.

  13. So here’s the thought: imagine you’re a maximizer rather than a satisficer, or a satisficer with a sufficiently high bar for moral obligations (assuming these are small fry, in the global scheme of things, which is probably true). Now the game writer has two options in this context: write a game with problematic storylines – i.e. ones that produce or entrench social harms – or write games with less problematic storylines. Now let’s suppose for the sake of argument that the former produce a small amount of greater aesthetic pleasure than the latter. Does the moral benefit of the marginal increase of aesthetic pleasure outweight the moral cost of the social harms in this case? Probably not. So if you’re at least a high bar satisficer, then the game writers have a moral obligation – as humans – to write games with less problematic storylines if they’re already going to be writing games, all else being equal. Now one concern might be whether game writers should be ‘especially preoccupied’ with this kind of issue in this case if all else isn’t equal. That depends on what their time would have been spent on if not preoccupiation with improving lives via games (if it were, say, preoccupation with improving lives via some more effective means then they of course shouldn’t be preoccupied with problematic game storylines). But it’s not clear that anyone’s claiming that they need to be preoccupied with it at all – insofar as other people have done the moral research, all they need to do is to write the less problematic games. And since they were going to be writing games anyway, the additional time cost of checking the moral research is probably negligible unless they’re doing something super morally effective in their spare time, which I take it we’re assuming not to be the case.

    Like I said above, all of this seems to come from the writers’ general moral obligations as humans. I guess I think those moral obligations exist in cases like this and that moral obligations are not easily (if I’m honest, never) outweighed, and that they render obligations qua anything else pretty obsolete. If you think that non-moral obligations that result from being a particular subset of humans can outweigh these moral obligations, then I suppose you’re going to have less sympathy for my view – but this view just strikes me as implausible. But even if you have a less demanding moral theory, it still seems like pointing out the social harm of doing x gives one a pro tanto reason to refrain from doing x, even if that pro tanto reason doesn’t support an obligation, either because it is outweighed by other moral and/or no-moral considerations in the relevant case, or because one has a fairly undemanding moral theory.

  14. A, any time I was using the term obligation there, I meant a moral obligation. You seem to think I was talking about some kind of non-moral obligation.

    Anyhow, the moral considerations associated with the mechanisms by which stereotypes are entrenched, and with the mechanisms by which entrenched stereotypes can ultimately operate to produce social harms, are not at all straightforward. The harms (if they are realized) seem highly contingent, far removed, and greatly separated by other intervening moral agents from, say, our hypothetical game writer’s choice of MacGuffin. That being the case, the moral connection between the harm and the writer is arguably so attenuated that even a strong, demanding general obligation yields only a very weak specific duty, if any. In this connection it’s worth clarifying when describing one of these storylines as “problematic” that there is nothing intrinsically problematic about the storyline, right?

    When I read literary, film or art criticism of particular works, the critiques I usually find weakest, least coherent, least fair, and most, well, problematic, are those that boil down to a conscious or unconscious complaint (on whatever grounds) that the artist chose to tell this particular story rather than another story, or to paint one scene rather than another. I sort of get the impression that some of these video game critiques, at least applied to individual games, stray into that territory.

  15. I guess I don’t see the reason to worry about whether the mechanism by which the harm occurs makes one a less proximate cause to the harm. For example, consider the ethics of eating meat. When you eat meat you increase demand for meat products which means that the supply of meat products will go up, which means that the result of your eating meat is probably that someone in the future will kill or harm an animal that wouldn’t otherwise have been killed or harmed. That’s a fairly good distance-creating mechanism between your demand and the harm caused, and there are many more agents required in order for the harm to occur: the factory workers who kill the animal, the executives who make the supply decisions, the supermarkets that stock the increased supply of meat, etc. But the important fact is that *if* you weren’t to demand meat, then the future harm wouldn’t happen (in this case I think it’s more that there’s a chance that the harm wouldn’t occur rather than a guarantee, but I also don’t think this makes too much of a difference to the obligation, and – anyway – we can imagine a case in which markets respond perfectly to even minor changes in demand such that the counterfactual will always hold). To me, it seems like that fact alone should give you an obligation. It’s an obligation that could be overridden by others, but whether it is will depend on what other actions the agent could and would perform in its place (e.g. telling the princess rescue story and donating the proceeds to charity) and not the nature of the agent-to-harm mechanism.

    Maybe your thought is that it’s not even clear that the storylines are causing a harm, but then it seems like we can just do some easy conditionalizing to check out the case: if there is a harm, it may be a pretty large one (social harms like disempowering women are presumably fairly large simply because even if the harms are small, they affect a lot of people). And if there’s not, the cost to avoiding the potential harm needlessly was rather small. There are also other benefits to avoiding harms like this even if in this case there is absolutely no harm: for example, it encourages others to take the same ‘rationally cautious’ approach to potential social harms, and encouraging this behavior seems like a good way of reducing such harms in the future.

    I’m not really sure what you mean by the storyline being intrinsically problematic. I only think the storyline is problematic insofar as it leads to bad outcomes, and I can imagine lots of possible worlds in which the storyline wouldn’t be problematic. So no, it doesn’t need to be intrinsically problematic for any of this to apply. However, I don’t really understand why you associate weak criticisms with those of the form ‘the author did x instead of some readily available alternative x’. For one thing, this doesn’t undermine the view that’s being defended in this case: that x (a rescue storyline) is in fact harmful regardless of whether there’s a salient alternative or not. In fact, it strengthens that criticism insofar as it shows that x wasn’t necessary, even given various contingencies (i.e. even if the authors *had* to produce a game and *had* to have such-and-such characters in it). Moreover, such criticisms presume some kind of optimality requirement which I’d want to endorse even in cases (unlike this one I think) where x is not actually harmful at all: sure, it’s good that you gave to charity x but it would have been even better if you’d given to (better) charity y. Of course, someone who gave to no charity at all is more criticizable than you, but you still should have given to charity y. Even in this case the ‘salient alternative’ criticism doesn’t seem weak, incoherent etc. The same seems to go for the game case, but even more so because there’s a potential harm involved in the original action, rather than mere suboptimality.

  16. Thanks for the discussion A and Nemo! I look forward to Nemo’s reply.

    One second on this blog pretty much destroys the illusion I have ever had any knowledge or intelligence of any kind.

  17. DavidRLogan,

    Thanks; I’ve experienced myself many times what an intellectually humbling experience reading this blog can be.


    You make some very cogent points, I must say. I believe, though, that the meat-eating scenario is distinguishable in morally important respects from the game writer’s case. I’ll assume for the sake of argument that there is some net harm involved in the result of the meat-eating.

    My choice to eat meat entails a demand that an animal be killed so that I can consume it (I realize, of course, that in many cases the animal I am consuming at any given time would not be one that was killed as a result of my present act). Although you’re right that many agents may intervene to bring about that ultimate result, and that in one sense it is not proximate to my demand, there is nonetheless in that scenario a certain moral kinship between my choice and the end result that I don’t perceive in the game writer’s case. After all, least to the extent the acts of the intervening agents are reasonably necessary (and not all of them may be, of course) to realizing my choice to be a meat-eater, haven’t they really conformed their will to mine in furtherance of my choice – albeit that our motives may not coincide?

    In the case of the game writer’s choice to tell a princess-rescue story, the significance of the intervening agents appears markedly different to me. For one thing, it could not fairly be said, I think, that the game writer’s choice entails or demands the potential harm in the same way, and any plausible hypothesis joining the game writer’s choice to an instance of someone else carrying out an unjust act (thereby realizing the potential harm) would seem to involve many novae causae supervenientes that weaken the moral connection between the two it to a much greater degree than in the meat-eating case – that is, if they do not sever it outright.

    You mention that “if there is a harm, it may be a pretty large one (social harms like disempowering women are presumably fairly large simply because even if the harms are small, they affect a lot of people). And if there’s not, the cost to avoiding the potential harm needlessly was rather small.”

    I’ll grant for the sake of argument that the cost to avoiding the potential harm does appear rather small. Yet are we sure that it’s small relative to the potential harm avoided? After all, the potential harm avoided here is only that potential harm that would not occur but for, say, the game writer’s story choice. That quantum of harm, particularly given the diffuse mechanisms by which the harm is supposed to be realized, strikes me as being, itself, quite small if actualized.

    You also mention that you only think the game writer’s choice of storyline is problematic insofar as it leads to bad outcomes, and that you can imagine lots of possible worlds in which the same choice wouldn’t. But this is not the only thing I was getting at by suggesting that the game writer’s choice is not intrinsically problematic. I think few people would argue that there is no morally unproblematic place for prince-rescuing-princess stories on video game store shelves (contrast this with the meat-eating scenario, assuming one finds the killing of an animal for meat to be problematic). On the other hand, the disproportionate number of these stories, uncomplemented by reasonable numbers of princess-rescuing-prince stories, gender-balanced-protagonists-pursuing-their-own-ungendered-goals stories, &c., is argued to be problematic. I realize I’m oversimplifying here for illustration, but you get the gist.

    So even in the actual world, it seems difficult to deny outright that there is some room for game writers to legitimately aspire to make morally unproblematic choices to tell a story about a rescue-the-princess quest, because some number of those stories can be written without creating any risk of the problems in question. And it becomes even harder (I think) to articulate a well-founded moral reproach of our hypothetical game writer based on an ostensible link between that writer’s choice and the kind of potential harm we’ve been talking about. But this is just how it appears to me.

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