Gaming, Girls and Gender Theory: An Interview with Liana K

gaming, feminism, sexism, liana k

Liana K focuses on gender and sexuality within gaming. She talks about her experience as a female gamer and what gaming implies for the feminist movement.

With her quick wit, sharp tongue, and inability to suffer fools gladly, Liana K has long been someone worth following within gaming media. I was first introduced to her on YouTube a few years ago, and she quickly became a mainstay of my subscription feed along with better-known gaming figures such as TotalBiscuit, Jim Sterling, and Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw. Unlike those larger commentators, Liana focuses much of her content on gender and sexuality within gaming, something that would send most game pundits screaming for the hills considering the recent history of such issues within gaming culture.

Liana’s background helps to explain her willingness to tackle difficult subjects that many others would rather leave well alone. Growing up working class in a highly multicultural Toronto neighborhood, Liana was well placed to view the differences (as well as similarities) between cultural ideas of gender, and what it means to be a man or a woman. At York University she studied English Literature and Anthropology, which only fuelled her desire to know more about human beings and the ways in which we interact with one another.

Liana has a long history in entertainment media, having had her first major break when she abandoned her academic studies in 1997 for Ed & Red’s night party, the all-time highest rated and longest running late night Canadian talk show. After the show ended in 2008 she decided to take her lifelong passion for video games and make it into her profession, writing for major game outlets including Polygon and The Escapist. It was around late 2014 that she began to focus on her YouTube channel, taking part in the still ongoing shift in games media from print to video-based content.

Since then her channel has been growing steadily, and she has gained a reputation for tackling subjects that many others within the games press don’t want to deal with, all while retaining her distinct, wry personality. More recently, she has become known for her attempts at explaining the feminist theory and critique to a gaming audience, first through her 2016 series A Gamer’s Guide to Feminism and now through her ongoing kickstarted project Lady Bits.

I was curious about the ongoing project and what it said both about Liana’s feminist ideals and where her content was going more generally (Full Disclosure: I donated £5 to the Kickstarter for Lady Bits when it appeared last year). So I contacted Liana and arranged an interview where she could discuss her ideas in more detail. The results of that communication can be seen below.

With her quick wit, sharp tongue and inability to suffer fools gladly Liana K has long been someone worth following within gaming media. Credit: Bahbs

Will: I think it’s fair to say that identifying both as a feminist and as a gamer is an unusual position to be in, given the apparent clash between feminist critics and gamers that has been taking place over the past few years.

Liana: To put it lightly!

W: With this in mind, what is it that you are hoping to achieve with Lady Bits? And do you think that identifying as a gamer will help in your feminist analysis of video games?’

L: I think that being a gamer helps in my actual knowledge of games.  The feminist theory is relatively easy because it’s pretty established at this point.  It’s the stuff about video games that tends to make things a hot mess.  In order to do an effective feminist analysis of video games, you have to know both components.

Granted, people hear “feminist” and think of what I call the “Dworkside”. I’m a sex-positive feminist, some would say “liberal feminist”.  I prefer the term “mosaic feminist”.  I think there are multiple ways to “woman rights”.  This puts me at odds with the radicals.

W: The type of feminism that you call the “Dworkside”, what would you say are its core beliefs? And why would you encourage people to consider your brand of ‘mosaic’ or ‘liberal’ feminism instead?

L: The Dworkside is the kind of radical, sex-negative feminism espoused by Andrea Dworkin.  It gets laughed out of the room everywhere but academia and, apparently, gaming.  Sex negativity preaches that all sex with men, even consensual sex, violates a woman somehow.  Obviously, this makes no sense, because… how else would we breed?

Liberal feminism is based on the idea that women, as individuals, are perfectly capable of making decisions for ourselves. We believe that healthy sexuality exists and should be encouraged, though the type of sex that tends to be shown in media is often not healthy.  In liberal feminism, things like porn have a place, because sexuality is a part of life.  Feminist porn is a very real thing.

I refer to myself as a mosaic feminist because I love the idea, on paper, of intersectionality, but the reality of its influence… it just misses the mark.  Intersectionality is about recognizing that people’s experiences involve a lot of different factors, and a one-size-fits-all approach to gender issues doesn’t work.  The problem is, in practice, intersectionality encourages people to compete for who is most oppressed, and there’s absolutely no way to determine that with certainty.  Intersectionalism really broke when trans women joined the conversation because transmisogyny is very real and very dangerous, but there are also benefits that come with being raised like a boy: greater assertiveness, for example.  How do you measure privilege in a dynamic this complicated?  There are just too many variables.  My argument is, you don’t, because no two experiences are alike.  Stop measuring privilege like it’s a contest.

W: So what would you say is the main driving force behind mosaic feminism? How is it ideologically distinct from the other forms of feminism available?

L: Mosaic feminism is about returning the dignity to all experiences.  Everyone is a piece of a mosaic and all women’s experiences combine to create a picture of modern femininity.  It recognizes that different women need different things, and “equality” is complex.  In mosaic feminism, more traditional views have validity within a larger context of freedom, as long as they allow other people to have different views and make their own choices. Mosaic feminism believes that women grow stronger through questioning our own assumptions regarding femininity, and that means listening and understanding other viewpoints.  Mosaic feminism strives to focus on the beauty of each woman’s experience, instead of judging ourselves via comparisons to others, or focusing on class-based politics.

Instead of looking at the world through a pinhole the way intersectionalism does, mosaic feminism is an inclusive, big-picture approach.  We treat each woman as an individual, with her own story.  Her own place in a greater work of art.  This recognizes that the right to be an individual is really the greatest mark of equality.

This obviously lends itself to a rather libertarian bent, but it sees a role for government in protecting and enforcing freedom and equality.  So, access to affordable and convenient childcare, healthcare as a right, equal parental leave for all genders, debt-free education, legal and regulated prostitution, a version of the Equal Rights Amendment, and access to safe and legal abortion are pillars of the philosophy, because these positions enshrine maximum choice for women.

It’s not enough to tell a girl “you can do it”.  If we want anyone to succeed, we need to give them the tools to know how to go about that.  A roadmap, if you will.  Focusing on oppression is a mind trap.  I had to shake it off, and I’m sure I’m not alone.  We need to present young people with the good as well as the bad, and the language of intersectionalism alienated a lot of women and a lot more men; because men have their own mosaic that interconnects with the greater whole.  White straight cisgender men have a mosaic based on class, mental health, able-bodiedness, and other factors.  It’s silly to have a system that leaves anyone out.

Mosaic feminism strives to focus on the beauty of each woman’s experience, instead of judging ourselves via comparisons to others, or focusing on class-based politics. Credit: Sonia Halliday

W: You’ve made it clear where your issues with contemporary feminist activism lie, where do you think these problems have come from?

L: If I’m going to be glib, I’d say my issues with contemporary feminism come from prudish spoiled brats with a chip on their shoulder.  But let’s be more productive here.

There are numerous different “paths to god” so to speak, within feminism.  Four big groups are postmodern feminists, radical feminists, liberal feminists, and Marxist feminists.  These four groups really don’t agree on anything.  So who is right?  Of course, every faction says they are, but each only holds a piece.  Liberal feminists have had the most impact, but post-modern feminists are right that there is no universal female experience.  The Marxists are right that class matters, but the radfems are right that sometimes you have to push for change, even if I don’t like the way they do it.  But instead of focusing on what they can agree on, these factions spend more time fighting each other in an ongoing turf war.  The only times they can unify, even partially, is for wishy-washy, weakly focused stuff like marches and protests.  I say “wishy-washy” because they can’t agree on goals or outcomes, so they claim they’re for “raising awareness.”  And this does… what?  Most people are aware of the basics of feminism. They’re just not persuaded.  And how could they be, when no one seems to be able to agree on anything?

The splinters have actually existed from the beginning, and because most activists don’t know their history, they keep making the fractures worse instead of finding common ground.  There’s a lot of emotion but not a lot of knowledge.  No logical progression from one step to the next.  Which means power in the feminist movement is determined by access to academic structures and media.  In other words, privilege.  Who gets left out under these circumstances?  The lower income, predominantly non-white women who need advocacy the most.  Hopefully, it’s pretty clear why that’s something I have issues with.

W: Regarding the views you’ve expressed here, how would you say that they’ve shaped the way you designed Lady Bits? How have your choice of topics, costume and set design been impacted by your own perspectives on women and feminism?

L: Lady Bits embraces the feminine, including feminine sexuality, without being “girly”.  So, for instance, the set pieces are all colors that complement the color pink without actually being pink.  The cosplay is definitely in line with that too.  Cosplay is fun.  There’s a decided lack of fun in a lot of feminist programming.

But the topics and approach were heavily influenced by the community that watches my content.  The whole point of the show is to be a part of a dialogue, not be the final word.  The topics were based on issues I’d seen come up repeatedly.  Things that seemed to be at an impasse or lacked objective data.  I discovered in a lot of cases the data just isn’t there.  No one’s bothered to test.  The core values of the show were determined by the Lady Bits community through a voting process.  Granted, one of the things they thought was important was my perspective and sense of humor.  Where that comes in is that I think that feminism, or any belief system, has to function in the real world.  It can’t exist in amber somewhere, remaining untouched by the realities of day to day life.  But I also think that any form of feminism that discourages women from being whole, authentic people, isn’t feminism at all.

[…] Instead of focusing on what they can agree on, [feminist groups]spend more time fighting each other in an ongoing turf war.  The only times they can unify, even partially, is for wishy-washy, weakly focused stuff like marches and protests. Credit: The Guardian
W: What then do you see as being the point of feminist activism, both within gaming and in wider society?

L: The end goal of feminism is true equality of opportunity, and that doesn’t exist if women are afraid to throw their hat in the ring because being labeled a “slut” or a “bitch” is the kiss of death. There’s no male equivalent to those terms.  It’s “manslut” and “manbitch”, and when you start putting qualifiers on terms, you Other them.  Same goes for “girl gamer”.  There’s nothing inherently male about being a gamer.  Are more men gamers?  Yes.  But being male isn’t an innate requirement to explore gaming.  Betty Friedan wrote at length about how women are deterred from doing things that make them appear mannish.  This correlates to the reduced interest that women have for “male” hobbies or professions like gaming.  It’s important to note that these preferences are NOT innate.  They’re the results of a push-pull from society.

Many women avoid games not because they don’t like them, but because they’re afraid of how they’ll be judged if they try them.  That’s why Lady Bits presumes that the audience is going to be primarily male, but the show isn’t FOR men.  You’d never use the colour scheme I did on a show FOR men.  The whole idea is to get people thinking about gaming as something that’s FOR women too.  It isn’t inherently male.  Never was.  That was a marketing requirement imposed by toy stores.  Toy stores are heavily gender binaried.  So Nintendo had to decide whether their Nintendo Entertainment System was going to go in the boys section or the girls section.  Because there was a robot included, they went with boys.  Before that, numerous arcade games, including Pac-Man and Centipede, were designed to appeal primarily to women because arcades wanted to be date night destinations.  The challenge for marketers and content creators now is broadening the appeal of video games to women.  That’s going to require a leap, because marketing is so targeted, and non-casual gaming marketing is laser-targeted at men.  If you go and pitch a show about gaming for girls to any media outlet, it’s rejected as “too niche”.  This isn’t a problem created by games.  This is a problem created by the attitudes about games.

W: Would you say then that one of the reasons gaming is so male-dominated is because of the unwillingness of female-centric media outlets to see gaming as a hobby women and girls might enjoy?

L: Media outlets are risk-averse.  I get that.  But to be blunt, yes.  But it’s not the job of linear media to advocate for video games. The industry should be funding that outreach to increase its potential consumer base.  Traditional media doesn’t have a problem running risky shows.  They just don’t want to pay for them.  So in order to get past this impasse, the funding model will have to be pretty creative.

W: Liana, thank you so much for your time, is there anything you would like to add in closing?

L: If you’re a woman who loves games, be open about that. We have to become more visible so people know we’re here.  If you’re a woman who is curious about video games, you don’t have to invest thousands all at once.  You can buy a second-hand console and buy used games, or wait for sales. Remember that no one is good at games right away.  The improvement is part of the joy of gaming.

To everyone else – yes, I’m trying to not be binary here – it would be a huge help if people could be open to listening to understand instead of listening to judge.  Remember that gaming was the place that made many of us feel safe and accepted when life was pretty crappy.  You can choose to make gaming that welcoming place for new players by being gentler and less reactive.  Watch the trash talk with strangers of all genders, and offer to show a newbie some tips instead of lording victories over them and teabagging.  Yeah, I know, that aggressiveness is a cultural thing, but remember that gaming isn’t a single community.  Different people want different things from video games, and we should be able to accommodate different tastes without all this fighting.  Granted, the fighting is because the industry hasn’t handled its ongoing evolution well.  If any publishers would like to talk about creating more positive communities, I’d be happy to chat with them.  I love games, and I believe in them as a form of entertainment and art.  I believe that since I feel this way, gaming has a lot to offer other women too.

Liana K’s work can be found on her YouTube channel, Twitter feed, Facebook page and Website.

The Lady Bits series, the most recent episode of which is 10 Things Women Were Doing in Video Games in the 1980s, can be found here.

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