Anita Sarkeesian may have made her name by analyzing video games. But for her next project, the founder of Feminist Frequency is turning her attention away from the high-technology storytelling of video games and toward the past, and from criticism to original storytelling.
Today, on International Women’s Day, she’s kicking off a $200,000 campaign to fund a new video series called “Ordinary Women: Daring to Defy History” that will explore the lives of historical women ranging from pirate Ching Shih to reformer Ida B. Wells. Sarkeesian will narrate the videos — the first season will be five episodes long — and they’ll feature animation and costume design inspired by the era in each woman lived as well as original music to be performed on period instruments.
The project has been on Sarkeesian’s to-do list for years. And though the video series that made her both famous and a target of ferocious online harassment, “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games,” explored a very different subject — the way female characters are depicted and function in many games — it also renewed her belief that “Ordinary Women” was important.
“I’ve been lucky enough to find a fairly large and mainstream audience for my work, including a lot of people who haven’t necessarily been exposed to feminist theory or women’s history before,” Sarkeesian wrote in an email to me. “I wanted to use some of my visibility to bring these women’s stories to light, and also to connect them to the experiences of contemporary women. Because if they could do this back then, then how much more can we do now? If they can captain pirate fleets in 19th century China, and if they can write computer programs before computers even existed, then we can change our culture to create more inclusive media and more inclusive communities. We have this long legacy we can look back now and say, ‘I’m a part of that.’ ”
“Ordinary Women” also represents an opportunity for Sarkeesian to pivot from critic to creator and to try to implement some of the ideas she has raised in “Tropes vs. Women.”
“Looking at media critically is central to what I do and to the mission of Feminist Frequency, but it’s not the only way to get our message out,” Sarkeesian suggested. ” ‘Ordinary Women’ spends a lot of time examining the same sort of issues of representation, privilege and oppression that I often talk about when I critique entertainment, but in the context of real people’s lives.”
Specifically, Sarkeesian and her team, which includes writer Laura Hudson and producer Elisabeth Aultman, felt drawn to stories of women who, despite living in a pre-Internet age, had to surmount enormous obstacles to pursue their passions.
“I know that there were aspects of their stories that really resonated with me, particularly around the sometimes violent pushback some of them received for being outspoken women. I was surprised at how many elements of their lives resonated deeply with me and my creative team,” she wrote. “The harassment and the death threats obviously hit very close to home, but all of them had to be defiant and all of them had to take risks. Emma Goldman–agree with her or not– was so committed to what she believed in. Even when everyone around her was saying, hey, maybe you shouldn’t do this, she believed in her work so deeply that she was willing to risk everything.”
But Sarkeesian doesn’t want anyone to think that this new project is any sort of signal that she’s giving up on video games, or the attempts to build more productive conversations around them.
“I think there are actually lots of productive and important conversations happening about video games. It’s just a matter of finding them and signal-boosting them, and learning to tune out the background hum of negativity and harassment,” she wrote. “All of our work takes place in an environment where we know we’ll get harassed for everything we do, or don’t do. It’s just kind of the background radiation of my life. It doesn’t mean that you stop talking, or stop working for something better.”