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Anita Sarkeesian to visit UMass amid controversy

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(Broadbentinst/flickr)

(Broadbentinst/flickr)

Feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian, the subject of death threats that spewed from her critiques of the male-dominated gamer culture, will speak in the Student Union Ballroom at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on Wednesday, Nov. 4.

Sarkeesian, creator of the video series Feminist Frequency, will give a talk entitled, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You: Redefining Strong Female Characters,” as part of the year-long “Social Science Matters: Perspectives on Resistance” lecture series presented by the university.

Sarkeesian’s “Tropes vs Women” YouTube series examines the often negative ways women are portrayed in video games. Sarkeesian references the way female bodies are used in games, typically as a reward, and explains both the narrative of a damsel in distress and the sexualization of female costumes. She draws from 50 video games in her 30-minute “Women as Reward” video.

Last October, the critic’s videos caught the attention of instigators in support of the male-dominated gamer culture. The group, aligned under the hashtag #GamerGate, targeted Sarkeesian with bomb, death and rape threats in response to her videos.

Department of Communications Chair Erica Scharrer says Sarkeesian’s name came up “early on” when the board was selecting speakers.

“She is a perfect speaker for the series,” said Scharrer. “She’s a controversial figure and has been at the center of threats to her own safety.”

The #GamerGate threats escalated until Sarkeesian was forced to cancel a speech last fall at Utah State University after the university received a mass shooting threat. An email circulated at the university, reading: “This will be the deadliest school shooting in American history, and I’m giving you a chance to stop it.” The threat was signed “Marc Lépine,” the name of a mass shooter who killed 14 women in Montreal in 1989 before turning the gun on himself.

Gawker’s “How We Got Rolled by the Dishonest Fascists of Gamergate” reports that this online movement claims to be “protecting the ‘gamer’ identity.”

Issues with online safety and the gaming community came up again recently, after the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival canceled two panels, one anti-harassment panel titled, “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games,” and another titled,”A Discussion on the Gaming Community” because of threats. The latter was supposed to feature speakers affiliated with the #GamerGate movement.

SXSW Interactive Director Hugh Forrest released a statement on Monday, Oct. 26, explaining that the panels were cancelled for safety reasons.

“SXSW has received numerous threats of on-site violence related to this programming,” wrote Forrest. “Maintaining civil and respectful dialogue within the big tent is more important than any particular session.”

As a result, Buzzfeed, The Verge, and Vox all decided to pull their participation from SXSW due to the festival’s “troubling decision to succumb to threats,” as reported by The Verge on Tuesday afternoon.

Sarkeesian tweeted from her @FemFreq account in response to the controversy: “SXSW should reinstate the online harassment panel and release a statement apologizing for including the GamerGate panel in the first place.”

Forrest issued another statement later in the week, saying that the cancellation was a “mistake” that sent “an unintended message that…SXSW tolerates online harassment.” Directors then offered to reinstate the panels and host a day-long “Online Harassment Summit” at the festival.

Sarkeesian’s lecture is still set for 4 p.m. on Nov. 4 in the Student Union Ballroom. It is free and open to the public. Photos and videos are not permitted at the event.

Email Stephanie Murray at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @stephmurr_jour.

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Anita Sarkeesian to visit UMass amid controversy