January 17, 2011

My Interview with Feminist Frequency's Anita Sarkeesian

Anita Sarkeesian is on the forefront of feminist studies in American pop culture. With her media experience, she has created her own website and series of videos, both entitled Feminist Frequency. In addition to her own endeavors, Anita is regularly featured on Bitch Magazine's Mad World blog. Her work often focuses on the way gender and sexuality are not only portrayed, but also shape the ideologies of the viewers. This past week I contacted Anita and she agreed to answer a few questions with me about her life, work, and opinions on women in pop culture.


How would you describe your life story in 5 sentences?

My childhood was largely shaped by traditional Armenian culture, my parents immigrant experience and their liberal values. Between my family and other social influences I was lucky to be instilled with a sense of self confidence and to start thinking critically about the world. During high school and college, I joined with other students fighting for queer rights and an end to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Since then, I have involved myself in a number of social justice movements and have actively been working for gender equity.


Have you always been a strong feminist or do you remember the time in your life when these issues started becoming important to you?

I wasn't always a strong feminist or a self identifying feminist at all. Like many women, I would say things like "I believe in equal rights but I'm not a feminist." And sadly, I may have even uttered the conservative, anti-feminist backlash term "feminazi" a few times. I had been a part of the anti-war student movement throughout college, but it wasn't until I attended Z Media Institute and took a couple of classes with Lydia Sargent that I began to think twice about my dismissal of feminism. Sargent spoke a lot about her experiences during the feminist and anti-war movement of the 70's, and it connected with a deeper understanding of the struggle that my generation has inherited. I learned about the alternative history of the women's movement, not just the white-washed one that we hear about most commonly. Most importantly, I learned about how social systems of power and privilege work to oppress women (and many other marginalized groups). I read as much as I could from authors such as bell hooks, Allan G. Johnson and Tim Wise. The institutional model for understanding the world that these authors so eloquently and accessibly provide changed everything for me and is foundational to the analysis I use in my Feminist Frequency videos.

You describe yourself as a fangirl in addition to being a feminist. What are some TV programs or films that you geek out over with positive feminist values?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is probably my favourite show because in our limited media landscape Buffy serves as one of the only widely recognized feminist characters on TV. The show is of course not without its criticisms and problems (ie. race and sexuality and Spike) but overall it is brilliantly written with strong female characters and story development.

Veronica Mars is another show that I adore (well, until the third season). I love how witty and technologically savvy Veronica is, and I love even more that violence is rarely if ever used on the show to solve conflicts. Like Buffy, Veronica Mars isn't without its problems, and there are some very big ones that the writers remain accountable for. But it is still a show I come back to often because of the strength of Veronica's character. I speak more about why I like the show in "Why We Need You Veronica Mars".

One of the first things I look for in a TV show is the inclusion of prominent, fully developed female characters. For that reason, I like shows such as Star Trek: Voyager with Kathryn Janeway and B'Elanna Torres, Farscape's Aeryn Sun, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Avatar: The Last Airbender. I also really enjoy Olivia Dunham on Fringe and River Song on Dr. Who. I am especially drawn to shows that have themes of social justice, gender justice, shows that question and lament the use of violence, and shows that have humanist themes.


In your video, “Toy Ads and Learning Gender,” you call for the elimination of advertising for young children altogether. Do you think advertising is as polarized for adults and/or has the same negative effects? Or should adults be savvy enough to understand the way advertising panders to them?

I believe advertising has damaging effects on adults as well. I often hear people say that advertising doesn't work on them, or they can see right through it, but if that were actually the case the advertising and marketing industry wouldn't spend a ridiculous amount of money on psychological and neuroscience research. Advertisers know exactly what they are doing and it is a critical part of advertising that they make you think it's not working--believing you are unaffected by it is what the advertisers are hoping for. A particularly damaging aspect of advertising is not just that they are trying to make us buy products that we don't want or don't need, it's that advertising reinforces archaic, regressive and stereotypical values, especially when it comes to gender, race and sexuality. The values, myths and messages carried inside advertisements are built on a shared cultural understanding: the status quo. Critical to effective advertising is presenting this shared understanding of the world and sadly, the status quo is full of inequalities and awful stereotypes of gender, race, sexuality, class and ability.

In my Retro Sexism video there is a Twix commercial with a man who is gawking at three highly sexualized young women having a pillow fight in the street, and when he is confronted by his wife about his behaviour, he lies to cover up his sexism--this funny and obvious lie is the punch line of the ad. The commercial is propagating a myth that men are inherently sexist. The joke can only be funny if we believe that it's just "in their nature", and furthermore what's more problematic is the implication that there is nothing we can do about it. It is the myth that men and women are just different. This of course isn't true, but the commercial wouldn't be effective if sexism were not so deeply embedded in our social understanding.

Again, advertisers are not just selling us candy bars, they are selling back to us myths about ourselves that we already assume to be true. It's this reinforcing of the status quo that is damaging to us as individuals and limits our potential for progress and change.


I recently read your Master's thesis, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You: Strong Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy Television,” and was wondering if you had an opinion on this week's announcement that the Wonder Woman remake by David Kelley was rejected by all of the major networks. More specifically, what archetypes do you think Wonder Woman fits into? Does she embody more female or male characteristics? And do you think any of this has to do with the rejection of the program?

I haven't actually seen the full Wonder Woman series so I can't comment on which archetype she falls into, but I am a little concerned to hear that David E. Kelley wants to remake it in light of his track record with female characters ie. Ally McBeal. Over at Salon.com, Mary Elizabeth Williams talks about this further in her article "Will David E. Kelley dumb down Wonder Woman?"


Particularly in light of the recent shooting in Arizona, what effects do you think Sarah Palin's images, actions, and ideals are having on American women? Is the “Mama Grizzly” ideal positive or destructive for women?

I think Jessica Valenti talks about this wonderfully in her article "The Fake Feminism of Sarah Palin" written last year after Palin started spouting the word "feminism" when she spoke to an anti-abortion group. Palin is attempting to use the language of women's rights to push traditionally patriarchal, conservative values. The political movement that she is the spokesperson for is attempting to destroy affirmative action, roll back gay rights, destroy the social safety net, advance corporate interests and their profits, regress immigration laws and take away women's reproductive rights. This conservative political vision is destructive and regressive to women, even if the person who is advocating them happens to be a woman or a "Mama Grizzly".

Our society's economic and political power is structurally unequal and oppressive. Therefore, many of the women who reach high governing positions have had to emulate male, patriarchal behaviours meaning they are actively working against making any positive social progress. We need to be clear that while these conservative women are rising to power, they are not challenging male domination and male power. And it is precisely because they are not challenging it that there is space made for them in the boy's club.


You've achieved success as a web designer, a blogger for Bitch Magazine, and with your own website and video series. Do you have any more irons in the fire or major goals for your life?

I'm working on a number of projects right now so you'll have to stay tuned to see what's next! But my most current project is a collaboration with Anne Jonas of Nist.tv highlighting feminist online video creators, which will be released in the Spring.

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