During my time as a music critic, I was only occasionally described as a “bitch” or told I “needed a good root” for the crime of not particularly liking a certain single or album. In 11 years in the game, those unoriginal sledges were nothing compared to what women in tech and gaming journalism and criticism put up with on a daily basis.
It ranges from the infantilising to the truly infuriating, and from run-of-the-mill sexism to misogyny so virulent you have to take a timeout: remember what happened to writer Anita Sarkeesian when she dared to question sexist tropes in gaming? A bunch of dudes set up a “game” where you could beat her up. (That was after they called her a “hypocrite slut” and compared her to the KKK.)
Just this weekend, the top comment on the newly released cinematic trailer for The Elder Scrolls Online was initially that of a young man who wanted to “gorilla f-ck” the High Elf female in the trailer “into submission” (in a momentary victory for non-slime-based lifeforms everywhere, I briefly won top comment spot with my response to his comment).
If that’s an extreme example of misogyny that women in tech/gaming commentary face, then the day-to-day objectification and belittling they wade through is its more mundane (but certainly no less infuriating) flipside.
Female tech journos are referred to as “cute” or “beautiful” within the space of a Twitter link to their article in question (unless, woe betide them, the unwashed male masses don’t think them cute enough for the “honour”); female gaming journos regularly have their skills questioned (lest we forget the great Good Game uproar of 2009, when Stephanie “Hex” Bendixson’s hiring as co-host had fans up in arms that she was little more than “some chick who looks like she was picked at random from Suicide Girls”).
Well, in an effort to turn the tables, gaming and social media journalist Leigh Anderson planned the inaugural Objectify A Male Tech Writer Day for February 1st, the idea being to subject male tech and gaming writers to the same irrelevant gendered compliments that their female peers put up with.
In a piece for the New Statesman on the topic, she said: “Now wait a minute, you might say – what’s so awful about a well-intentioned compliment? Isn’t it better than a vulgar one? People love compliments! (And the ‘winking’ emoticon. Always that damn smarmy winking emoticon!!) Here’s the thing. Yes, the intention is usually harmless, even well-meaning. But superficial compliments have nothing to do with my writing, and coming from strangers, sometimes heaps of them at once, the net effect is creepy. This is the reality that many, even most women working and writing and speaking in tech fields face on a regular basis, and the reaction when we protest – please let’s focus on my work, not my face/body/hair – is telling.”
An example - if I may employ a fellow Fairfax writer as guineapig - would have been something like “Interesting piece about Facebook Graph Search from the always adorable Asher Moses ;) http://tinyurl.com/a3assvt #objectify” (As you can see, I’m not terribly good at objectifying people.)
However, in the planning and discussions surrounding the event, many people - including gay men, trans men, and men who don’t access “straight white guy” privilege - expressed concern that the event, however lighthearted, could create more problems than it solves.
In a post announcing #Objectify’s demise, Alexander writes: “[S]ome people feel that an environment of men tossing cute comments at each other ends up reducing women's sexual agency to a joke, since the compliments won't actually have the same effect on their intended recipients. But it's worse if the compliments do affect someone negatively -- is potentially triggering men who have body issues a victory for anyone? We also need to consider people who live outside of the specific gender binary our society enforces: There are trans women, genderqueer and non-conforming people struggling every day not to be misgendered, and people living quietly with gender issues they may not share in the open. If these people end up caught in the crossfire of our event it doesn't matter whatsoever how well-intentioned we are: We risk actually traumatizing them.”
That the event has been cancelled because Alexander has taken into account all of the above (and more, as her post details) illustrates the vast chasm that exists between simple human decency and the sexist, unthinking culture that exists in certain areas of the tech and gaming industry.
More simply put: the men who toss off “compliments” like “sexy” or “cute” or “always adorable” with regards to their female peers have not considered the consequences of their actions; the #Objectify team, on the other hand, considered the consequences to the point where the entire event was cancelled.
Despite the fact that the event won’t go ahead, perhaps more importantly, #Objectify has begun a conversation about the pointlessness of gendered compliments with men who hadn’t otherwise had pause to think about their actions, or the actions of their peers.
“This whole process and discussion has definitely increased my awareness of the issue itself. I will be watching for objectifications and likely call out male writers at times if I see them doing it,” offered Peter Fleck in the comments on Alexander’s post, noting that he is “white, male, 60”.
As the event’s official statement originally noted, “The insidiousness of gendered compliments in the online marketplace of ideas is A Thing. [...] The intention of this project is to help others see how insulting it is when the 'compliment' is irrelevant to someone's work. We need to change our language and call out problematic attitudes if women are going to feel welcome in tech and gaming!”
So, while you might have been excited to mark February 1st in your iCals and ask offended male tech writers why they couldn’t just take a compliment, perhaps it’s better that the #Objectify team - and the rest of us - have decided to take a more compassionate stance. Because god knows so many men continue to refuse to.
This copy was revised and updated after we were alerted by commenters below that the event has now been cancelled.