It’s not just one joke, it’s all the jokes.

When this post appeared in the Kotaku AU re-feed today, I will admit that I allowed my mouse to hover over the “trash” button before I’d even read what it was about. Seeing the headline, I could already predict what the reader response would be, and as the only person on duty at the time, I did not want to  read every comment that would be posted beneath the article. I ended up publishing it, holding my breath as the comments rolled in. I already knew what kind of comments they would be. They’re always the same. You can take this Sexism Bingo Card into any comment thread about women/feminism/sexism/sexuality and it won’t be long before the room shouts bingo and everyone walks away with a tray of meat sweat.

I was not going to provide any substantial kind of comment on the post because I don’t feel comfortable putting myself out there, especially when it comes to a subject that generates so much anger and dismissiveness in the comments. I ended up commenting because a question was directed at me in a civilised manner and I thought it appropriate to respond. The question was:

I’m not justifying any sort of discrimination, but it seems impossible these days to make any sort of joke without offending people. Tracey, do you feel offended by this guys comments? Or do you find his joke funny?

Below is my response, which I have since extended for the purpose of this blog post (the original is still within the Kotaku comment thread (I’m going to get a bit more personal here because it is my own blog)):

Regarding this one comment in particular, I didn’t really find it funny, although I was annoyed that [Bissell] was perpetuating a stereotype. The thing I find frustrating when people say “it’s just a joke” or “you can’t make a joke without offending people” is this: people don’t just get offended for the fun of it. Generally speaking, women don’t enjoy getting angry about sexist comments. We don’t like writing angry blog posts, or calling people out for using gender-specific insults. We don’t get a kick out of this in any way at all. It’s really exhausting.

So WHY do we draw attention to it? Because sometimes it is genuinely hurtful. “It’s just a joke” doesn’t work when you’re constantly in a position of disadvantage. And the thing is it’s never just one joke in isolation. They stack up one after the other and they never go away. We hear it on Xbox Live, we read it in the comments, we see it in the games we play, we read it in the articles … when all these instances of sexism stack up, it’s no longer “just a joke”, it’s another hideous block of discrimination thrown on top of the mountain of blocks that we suffocate under.

A few years ago when I first started writing about games, I was able to easily shrug off sexist comments and “jokes”. I saw them as isolated incidents — moronic statements made by people who didn’t know any better. Sexism wouldn’t play any defining role in my career as a journalist who writes about games. After that first sexist comment came another, and then another, and then another. It didn’t end. The first time someone makes a sexist comment and says it’s a joke, it is easy to believe. But when it happens again and again and again, it just doesn’t sit right. The more I was told that it was all just a joke, the more I felt that I couldn’t say anything when someone was completely out of line. I began to second-guess myself, I was worried that if I said anything I’d be dismissed for simply not “getting the joke”. A friend of mine gave me an analogy: “It’s like when you die in a videogame and your friend says ‘You just died’, and you’re like ‘I know’, and then ten minutes later they do it again. ‘Oh hey look, you died again.’ Such comments attack the psyche like the . . . slower, more ‘adult’ version of a child repeating every word you say immediately after you say it”.

Today on Kotaku we had one post about sexism and the comment thread was full of people ready to dismiss the concerns of women who felt that the way we as gamers talk about women is an important issue. A few weeks ago we had a post on a sexist advertisement run by a game retailer and again the readers came out of the woods to put down any person who expressed that they were offended by the ad. Weeks earlier, a post on female characters in videogames evoked a similar response where the writer was accused of over-reacting and making a mountain out of an ant hill. It goes much, much further back, and it’s not just on Kotaku — it’s everywhere, and it’s not okay.

What I have just identified is what upsets me the most. The day after a certain post regarding sexism went up on Kotaku, I went home feeling more defeated than I ever have during the time I’ve spent writing about videogames. I was disturbed, deeply saddened, and I found myself in tears, bawling harder than I have in years. What upset me was that all the jokes, all the dismissive comments, all the times I’d been told to toughen up and deal with it — all of that had snowballed to the point where a new “joke” would serve as a reminder for all the previous “jokes” told. It was a reminder that this isn’t a new and isolated incident where someone has made a silly remark about women; rather, this has happened before and people are clearly okay with it to allow it to keep happening. And it will happen again. These jokes are a reminder that if someone writes a post about sexism on Kotaku (or where ever) tomorrow, or next week, or next year, or five years from now, if I make a contribution I will still be dismissed, my opinion will still count for nothing, and I will still be accused of being anything other than a rational human being. The moment I contribute to the discussion, it won’t matter what my role is — I will just be another hysterical woman who is over-reacting.

I’ve been told that things will change in time, I just have to wait. Really? Really? Is waiting all it really takes? How exactly will things change if I just wait? And how long do I have to wait? What people seem to forget is that people who are discriminated against are feeling it right now. They live through it every day. It bothers me that we’re all being told to wait with no end in sight. It bothers me that waiting appears to be the solution. It bothers me that I feel like I need to tip-toe around a subject that concerns me, that as a woman I am somehow less qualified to talk about how issues affect me lest I be accused of being a “feminazi” who is pushing an agenda.

Understandably not all women feel this way. Some don’t believe there is a problem at all. But enough DO feel this way to speak up about it, and when they do we shouldn’t be dismissing them for being overly emotional or hysterical because if you were in their shoes you would understand why it bothers them so much. It bothers me. It bothers me so much I freeze up every time I see a headline in the Kotaku CMS about women, I wince before I look at the comments, and I’ll often sit there moderating them, feeling completely deflated, wondering why I bother writing about games when so many readers don’t even respect me as a human being. So, since you asked, that’s my answer. And the important thing to keep in mind with these things is that this may have been “one joke”, but how many “jokes” of this nature have women had to silently deal with, and how must it feel to be dismissed every time you try to stand up for yourself?

[Note: This post is written on my personal gaming blog and does not necessarily reflect the views of any of my employers. With that in mind, I have posted this here to get some thoughts off my chest, not to spark a debate or discussion. I've heard plenty of opposing views in various comment threads, I do not welcome them here.]

46 Responses to “It’s not just one joke, it’s all the jokes.”


  1. 2 Dilyan December 1, 2011 at 10:21 pm

    I’ve always found it very very hard to apologise whenever someone got offended by a thing I said and didn’t mean the way it was perceived. Good intentions are no excuse for offending people, of course; but it’s so damn hard to admit wrongdoing when I just know that I was not trying to be inconsiderate on purpose.

    I know full well that the right thing to do in such situations is to say sorry and NOT TRY to explain how it was all just a joke; but the reaction triggers such powerful defense mechanisms in me that sometimes I just can’t.

    But my being defensive doesn’t mean that I’m not hearing what the offended is saying. I do. And I try to be more conscious about their feelings in the future.

    Which is to say: You are right to speak up, because that’s how Tom Bissell will know he’s done something wrong. And don’t be disheartened by the reactions. Many of them are just a sign of guilt (which is good, it means they’ll try to be better next time), rather than conviction.

    • 3 David Rose December 2, 2011 at 11:19 am

      If your actions cause someone pain–whether that pain was intended or not–it is *always* appropriate to apologize. Immediately, and sincerely.

      You may just know that you were not trying to be inconsiderate, but this has no bearing on whether you did wrong. If you unintentionally poked someone in the eye with a pencil, I hope you would immediately apologize profusely, and make your best effort to help the injured party. You wouldn’t just do nothing and say, “well, I didn’t mean it!” would you? Well, you might, if you were being juvenile.

      It’s exactly the same way with words that cause pain, even unintended pain.

      • 4 Ben Sizer December 3, 2011 at 7:11 am

        I don’t agree that “causing pain” necessarily means “doing wrong”. There are 7 billion people on this planet and many thousands of distinct cultures, meaning that it’s almost impossible to voice any kind of opinion without offending and upsetting some people. In some cultures, saying “homosexuality is unacceptable” will offend many. In other cultures, saying “homosexuality is acceptable” will also offend many. Should I therefore never state an opinion on the matter, even if it is important to me?

        The world has to accommodate differing opinion, because the alternative of expecting nobody to voice anything that could be upsetting to someone else is impractical.

        • 5 Tracey December 3, 2011 at 5:40 pm

          It’s about being respectful, and if your opinion happens to be racist, sexist, homophobic or discriminatory within that context then you need to be mindful of what you say.

  2. 6 Maggie December 1, 2011 at 10:35 pm

    Every single word resonated with me – both as a gamer and as an ‘adult woman’. Thank you so much for continuing to fight the good fight, especially when some of us have forgotten how.

  3. 7 Craig December 1, 2011 at 10:41 pm

    This must have been hard to write, Tracey, but it’s so great that you wrote it. Hopefully it’ll gain momentum and start to make a change by having at least SOME of the jerks question their attitudes. I find that’s the largest problem with this and many similar situations — culprits don’t even know that something is a problem, and without someone to actively call them on it, it continues (or worsens in larger groups — people get dumber in groups, even in the most diverse and seemingly intelligent workplaces and industries). And you’re right that many of these culprits automatically dismiss the opinions of those affected, as if the comments could in no way be even slightly wrong. It’s going to take people of both genders to start calling people on the behaviour. It’s a hard job — forums and comments pages make it easy for jerks alone in rooms to lob their grenades anonymously and without fear of taking damage, but it needs to be done. The irony is that intelligent, eloquent and passionate people like yourself are far more welcome in the industry than those who make those comments. I hope people can work together so that you, other women, EVERYONE, genuinely feels welcome soon.

  4. 10 Ollie December 1, 2011 at 11:55 pm

    +1

    I wonder how many repliers when writing their ‘joke’ stopped and thought hey is this joke considered sexist or will it be seen as abusive?

    Let alone think, this female might get a lot of these, so my ‘one joke’ may not be just be the only one joke which she gets today….

    Sad times.

  5. 11 NicF December 2, 2011 at 12:07 am

    I don’t know if any words I say can tell you how much respect and admiration I have for you for putting your thoughts, close personal thoughts like this, out in the open.

    It can’t be easy, but I hope you have the strength to keep fighting the good fight, even if some days it seems like no progress is ever being made, because it will change.

    It’s people like you (and the other great female commentators doing their best to shine light on the issue) who will make it happen now, though, not later. Later is a copout. Never settle for later. Keep your head up, and remember that there are always like minded people ready to stand with you against this insidious cultural phenomenon.

  6. 13 Leigh December 2, 2011 at 12:57 am

    In that thread, I said something along the lines of how the games culture online these days has become so poor. It’s us blokes, who play the games and frequent these sites, that’s the problem, we simply do not know how to treat other people courteously.

    Your writing is your greatest asset here though, do not stop!

  7. 15 Lady L December 2, 2011 at 3:59 am

    As a mechanical engineer in the construction industry 10 years now I can say I know exactly how you feel. It isn’t a joke people who believe that it is are exactly the type of people who honestly do believe that a woman spending her time in the kitchen rather than playing games is a woman spending her time “better”.
    Of course they will never admit not straight up but when handed a shovel they can and will dig their way to the molten core of the Earth.

    My way of dealing with sexism nowadays is to make sure I’m the one handing them the shovel and showing them wear to dig. Then it’s merely a matter of getting the popcorn and watching the show. While being offended is natural and highly justified it gets exhausting. Asking the right questions and watching the implosion as the individual spews forth more and more sexist comments is much more entertaining and a lot less wearing that righteous indignation.

    From his comments such as “I mearly meant women would have better things to do with their time” this ‘journalist’ is exactly the type of individual who when handed a shovel will starting digging with gusto.

    What I’m suggesting is simple. Instead of “not getting the joke” ask the simple questions. No “ranting”, no “raving”, no “getting emotional”, and no going femi-nazi just ask a question. Ask until you get answer, and keep asking simple questions till you get to the root of the issue. Then you will have it in black and white. No emotional debates, no jokes, no stereotypes to hide behind.

    I’ve had a similar conversation in regards to sport with a male colleague. When he was going to the cricket and asked his best mate I asked why he hadn’t asked his wife. Here is roughly the answers I got:
    “She isn’t interested.”
    Me – Have you asked her?
    “Nah she has better things to do with her time.”
    Me – Like what?
    “Play with the kids”
    Me – You don’t play with the kids?
    “I’ve got two girls. They just want to play dolls.”
    Me- They want to or they have no other toys? Look just have your parents look after the kids and take your wife to the cricket.
    “The house is really dirty so she needs to clean it.”
    Me – uh get a cleaner.
    “No it’s the job of the wife”
    *dingdingding*

    Like I said give the guy a shovel and watch him dig. Eventually he will show his colours and have no “jokes” to hide behind.

    • 16 Tracey December 2, 2011 at 10:45 pm

      This is a very interesting idea. I do wonder how patient some people would be if you just keep asking them, though. Still, it’s good food for thought.

  8. 17 Steve Smoothy December 2, 2011 at 8:57 am

    Thanks for sharing your extended thoughts Tracey. It is people like you that will cause change to happen. I hope it happens quickly.

  9. 19 Quinn Stephens (@QuinnStephens) December 2, 2011 at 9:02 am

    I can only imagine how unbelievably frustrating this is for you, but I know there’s value to your contributions, no matter how exhausting and seemingly pointless the discussion can be. I know, because I’m a feminist, but when I was a teenager I would have been loath to call myself that. Sure, I believed in gender equality, but I was quick to dismiss a lot of feminist concerns as overreaction, because I’d never really examined my own privilege as a male (white, straight, and cisgendered at that).

    But over the years I started to listen, article by article, talk by talk, outspoken friend by outspoken friend. Every person I encountered who was unafraid to call themselves feminist helped me take a small step toward my own maturation and deeper understanding of what gender really means for everyone. I’m really glad that they all took the time and had the courage to speak out, because in the long run it’s made me a better person (and hopefully continues to). So thanks for this, and all your contributions – people are listening and learning because of you, even if they don’t realize it yet.

  10. 22 Trjn December 2, 2011 at 9:30 am

    Sometimes I’ve argued that people were making mountains out of molehills, other times I find it hard to disagree when people make a solid case to show why they’re being offended. This is one of the latter times.

    There are a lot of twats out there who have never outgrown the primary school mentality of “boy activities” and “girl activities”. Hell, some of them are studio executives that allow for some complete drivel to be released in cinemas. Don’t let the bastards get you down.

    Even if my comments don’t always make it obvious over on Kotaku AU, I do respect your opinion and loathe to see when comments are made by people who don’t look past your gender to see that you are an intelligent journalist with an opinion that is often well-thought out and deserving of respect.

    There is a problem with sexism that seems to run bone deep in the gaming world. I don’t know how the hell people are meant to start becoming mature and fix it, but I welcome the day it happens.

    If I’m being contradictory or not quite making sense, I’m going to just blame it on my lack of coffee this morning.

    • 23 Tracey December 2, 2011 at 10:42 pm

      Hey Trjn, thanks for commenting. I really appreciate you taking the time to do so, especially since I know you’re a regular Kotaku reader so it’s nice being reminded that there is a great community over there that is willing to keep an open mind.

  11. 24 Mike Birkhead (@flarkminator) December 2, 2011 at 9:54 am

    Just wanted to say I liked the article. Thanks for posting it.

  12. 26 Sumana Harihareswara December 2, 2011 at 9:55 am

    I got to your blog post from a friend’s tweet and have linked to it from

    http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Just_a_joke

  13. 27 Nick Young December 2, 2011 at 11:25 am

    I never know what to do to help, so this time, I’ll have to just settle for saying thanks for an excellent article, as always.

  14. 29 Harli December 2, 2011 at 11:32 am

    Chin up, stay strong.

  15. 30 Helen C December 2, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    Well said. Thanks.

  16. 31 Jasmine Choinski December 2, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    Thanks Tracy, for continuing to fight the good fight. Even as a woman who is just starting out in the industry, I’ve seen and experienced stuff that is unbelievable. There have been many days were I have cried and wondered why I bother – I can only imagine what it must be like for a ‘public’ figure such as yourself. But we can’t let them control our lives or drive us away from our passions – then they would have ‘won’ the ‘game’.

    • 32 Tracey December 2, 2011 at 10:40 pm

      I have considered on more than fifty occasions to move into a different field of writing… then I remember that I live in a country that won’t actually persecute me for doing what I want to do, so I should seize that opportunity and not let a group of narrow-minded people stop me. But man, sometimes it would be so easy (and it’s so tempting!) to just pack up and leave. :-/

  17. 33 Helen December 2, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    Never submit. Never surrender. Never feel this is the wrong thing to do. I love and admire you for speaking your truth, and as a woman I feel glad to have so much intelligence, passion and pride on my side of the gender gap.

    Besides, don’t these guys realise that in a world where an “out” guy gamer has about a one in 15 million chance of getting laid, they’ve just tripled the odds against them?

    Only joking, boys, don’t get so upset!

    • 34 Tracey December 2, 2011 at 10:37 pm

      That last part is The Best Thing. Perhaps if it were used more often in comment threads a few people would begin to understand how it feels. (Or maybe they won’t. In any case, thank you for your kind words. :))

  18. 35 Helen December 2, 2011 at 6:52 pm

    Hey, I just noticed that the perp offers the fact that he plays as “a lady Argonian” as if that were some kind of validation for presenting sexism as irony…

    I have to say, though, it’s proved a very clever way of generating attention.

  19. 36 Eric Spain / Parthon December 2, 2011 at 8:01 pm

    Thanks for such an interesting and enlightening blog post.

    I’ve never been a Kotaku fan, and I could never figure out why. I’m a “hardcore” male gamer, and it should be the site for me, but I just can’t stand most of the stories. This blog post finally allowed me to figure out why:

    It’s a lack of respect. Towards women, towards parents, towards the world. It’s the lack of respect of the over-entitled teenage white male, or those still stuck in that mindset. Occasionally a post might be worth reading, but the community as a whole really does not have any respect for anyone. I can’t tell if it’s because they loathe themselves, or are just plain selfish.

    Thanks for fighting the fight against this oppressive mentality. Waiting for it to change is a waste of time, because it won’t change by itself. It takes people to stand up and challenge it. You’ve inspired me to be one of those people.

    • 37 Tracey December 2, 2011 at 10:35 pm

      Hey, I appreciate this. I’m also really glad to hear that soemone else agrees that waiting won’t lead to change. Thank you. :)

  20. 38 Meghann O'Neill December 2, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    I think this is a good post. I’d like to offer an alternative perspective on the “harden up” thing people say. When I was a High School teacher, and subject to occasional verbal abuse, the school’s policy was that teachers should not have to “harden up.” Being upset by a student telling you to “F off” or equivalent is a natural response, because the student has done something inappropriate. If you are feeling offended, then it’s an opportunity to act on it and contribute to positive social change, not a sign to “harden up.” You deserve to be supported in that. Of course, this post illustrates that you are contributing to positive social change and that you aren’t shutting out important motivating impulses. I’d like to say that I have your back, but it is exhausting. I’ll probably have your back, when I have the energy. Will that do? :)

    • 39 Tracey December 2, 2011 at 10:34 pm

      This is a great point. I’ve been told so many times by friends and colleagues to “just be strong” and to “grow a thicker skin” … but why should I? Why should I have to change to accommodate sexism? I shouldn’t *have* to be strong, I shouldn’t *have* to grow a thick skin to shield myself from sexism. The sexism simply should not exist, I should be able to work in this field and not have to deal with the gender-based abuse and vitriol that my male colleagues are free from.

      So rather than telling me to “harden the f*ck up”, I would much prefer that those dishing out the sexism be told to shut the f*ck up.

    • 40 WC December 3, 2011 at 12:54 am

      Try telling a teacher to ‘f off’ and then tell them to ‘harden up’ when they get offended, and it’s suddenly an entirely different story. I’ve got no respect for people who tell others to stop having feelings.

  21. 41 WC December 3, 2011 at 12:53 am

    First off, this is a serious concern, and my support goes to people who are offended at things that apply to them.

    But I have to correct you on something. You said, “people don’t just get offended for the fun of it.” But this isn’t true. There are tons of people on the internet who get offended on behalf of other people. Shorten “Japanese” to “Jap” and tons of non-Japanese people will come out of the woodwork to scream at you. The thing is, when a teenager does this, they have -no- idea that it was used as an insult during the war. Japanese people that I’ve talked to about it aren’t offended by it. It has actually ceased to matter, but people are still trying to attack people over it.

    If the people who the statement refers to are not offended, nobody else has a right to be.

    Having said that, there are plenty of women who are offended by the sexism in the gaming and tech communities. I stand behind them 100% and will not put up with such behavior.

    • 42 Tracey December 3, 2011 at 1:21 am

      I said “Generally speaking, women don’t enjoy getting angry…”. At no point did I suggest that the statement applies to everyone.

      I’ll have to disagree with you on the whole “if the people who the statement refers to are not offended, nobody else has a right to be”, and I think you may have contradicted yourself by writing in another comment: “I’ve got no respect for people who tell others to stop having feelings.”

      Every individual’s concerns deserve to be heard. No one has the right to tell anyone else what they can or can’t feel, and no one can speak on behalf of anyone else.

    • 43 Craig December 3, 2011 at 1:39 am

      I think the point here is that it’s not about giving support when people are offended, it’s about creating a place where people are educated enough not to offend in the first place. If someone is racist, sexist, or homophobic, then it offends me, regardless of whether or not I belong to the group against which the offense is being directed. These people are making humanity as a whole worse, and no one should tolerate it.

      It can’t be assumed that a small group of “people that [you’ve] talked to” represents everyone in a particular group, and nor should it matter. It’s not about where these remarks are being directed as much as where they’re coming from. Offense is offense, and it’s caused largely by ignorance and misdirected defensiveness, and it’s insane that such ignorance can still exist in an age of so much connectedness.

      Everyone has ‘the right’ to be offended by offensive behaviour – it’s about pushing humanity forward into greater awareness and making society a more welcoming place.

      • 44 Meghann O'Neill December 3, 2011 at 12:49 pm

        I totally agree with that ^.

        Still on the teaching analogy, support was a key part of the equation there, though. The reality is that many young people are still learning what’s appropriate about sociey, testing boundaries etc and that they will be offensive from time to time. It’s understandable but it’s not OK. Instead of being required to “harden up”, the school where I worked simply put supportive procedures in place to deal with it. If a student swore at you, they’d be given a suspension and integrated back into your classroom via some lessons with the Head Teacher, first. If the teacher felt threatened etc, you could raise it with the Executives or the Union. Lots of options, not just “You’re a HS teacher, you have to be tough.” Maybe you are tough, maybe you aren’t. The actual job is to deliver content, challenge students and make sure they are learning appropriately, in a safe enviroment.

        I wish I knew how to better support female gamers and people in the industry. It’s not like the Internet has a time out room, though. I don’t think it’s about jumping on a bandwagon in support of people when I’m not offended myself. But if someone I know is upset about something entirely sensible, offering an alternative perspective might be more useful than staying silent.

  22. 45 BertiBert December 4, 2011 at 8:18 am

    Thank you for writing this.

    I’ve worked in technical support for almost 20 years and the same problem exists in that environment. If I don’t get that “it’s a joke,” I have no sense of humor or I’m a radical feminazi who can no longer be trusted.

    Waiting is not the answer, education is. We must keep educating people in order to make it end.

  23. 46 Goosechecka December 4, 2011 at 8:44 am

    Thank you so much for writing this. I think you nailed it exactly – it’s not that we can’t take a joke, it’s that we as women gamers are tired of having our perspective ignored / discounted as hysteria. Having your world view invalidated is hurtful because it subsumes that you are not a whole person.


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