If you like it to argue with Anita Sarkeesian about the existence or not of male privilege, we’ll make it easy for you: she’s not interested. It’s been ten years since her groundbreaking web series, Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, sparked a storm of discussion and criticism surrounding the treatment of female characters. It’s been almost as long since Sarkeesian found herself in the eye of the Gamergate storm, where she faced an onslaught of intimidation for her efforts.
If it were up to her, she’d never talk about it again. The problem is she has to.
That’s because for Sarkeesian the historical context is important. She hears echoes of Gamergate in modern online harassment and disinformation campaigns, and it would be remiss to point out those similarities. her new series, That time when?, is a map to the intersection between pop culture and politics. Over the nine episodes she covers everything from Star Trek to the satanic panic of the 1980s, which she explores in this week’s episode. But it culminates in Gamergate, even if it’s a period Sarkeesian would never want to watch again. “Not only did I experience this history, I was part of this history,” she says. “I’m really tired of talking about it.”
Hollywood, video games, TV – many industries have evolved over the past decade. So is the politics of the day. People understand media representation better now than before. But there has also been precipitation, such as when Obi-Wan Kenobi star Moses Ingram started receiving racist messages on social media after the show’s launch, or when Kiki Farms users ran stalking campaigns. These things have precedents. “Moments where pop culture and politics clash are about regressive, Puritan control over women’s bodies, about culture, about challenges to the status quo or perceived progressive shifts,” Sarkeesian says. That time when?Like it Tropics– like all her work – aims to make those connections.
A lot of That time when?, currently running on streaming service Nebula, focuses on past decades, but one episode goes back to the early 1900s and the films of filmmaker Lois Weber. There is an episode devoted to Canceling the Chicks (formerly the Dixie Chicks), an episode about racial politics and the impact of Star Trek on black public figures. There’s even one on another famous “gate” – Nipplegate, when Janet Jackson’s chest was temporarily exposed during a Super Bowl appearance during halftime.
One episode, about the panic that ensued when Ellen DeGeneres appeared on her primetime TV show, features rhetoric eerily reminiscent of what’s going on in the trans rights debate. The same goes for the issues of “traditional” family values and reproductive rights that surfaced when TV character Murphy Brown became a single mother in the early 1990s.
Even the so-called cancel culture is not new, but rather a tactic that has long been weaponized by the right, Sarkeesian notes. She points to the episode in her series focusing on the Chicks. In 2003, singer Natalie Maines expressed her opposition to the war in Iraq during a show in London, a statement that put the band on the blacklist for years. What makes that episode important, Sarkeesian says, is the recognition that the term “uplifting culture” is itself “made and maintained by the right” to discredit progress on the left.