Anita Sarkeesian is shutting down Feminist Frequency after 15 years

Anita Sarkeesian is tired.

It’s been more than 10 years since Sarkeesian first released Tropes vs. Women in Video Games on YouTube; it’s been 15 years since Sarkeesian’s oldest video and the start of what’s now known as Feminist Frequency. Over the years, she and her team created several groundbreaking YouTube series, hundreds of podcast episodes — done with dozens of collaborators — a games industry-focused support hotline, and a Peabody Award-winning nonprofit organization.

It’s the sort of work that’s both essential and draining — work that’s so meaningful it’s easy to feel an obligation to continue, even in the face of exhaustion. That’s why it’s time for a break. “I’m ending Feminist Frequency because I’m extremely burnt out,” Sarkeesian told Polygon. “I can’t vacation that off. I can’t offload that anymore.”

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Sarkeesian’s work made feminist critique of the video game industry impossible to ignore. And developers listened: Yes, the video game industry has a long way to go — not everyone listened — but Feminist Frequency’s criticism helped bring the language of feminism to a space that was often ignorant to it. Though Feminist Frequency started on YouTube, it grew into an organization that made a tangible impact on the industry through its work with studios and developers.

Though some of Feminist Frequency’s initiatives, like programs manager Jae Lin’s accountability group ReSpec, will live on in different ways, the organization as a whole will disband by the end of the year. The Games and Online Harassment Hotline, which the team spun up in 2019 as the industry reckoned with systemic sexism and harassment, will run through the end of September.

It’s not the first time Sarkeesian has considered shutting down Feminist Frequency. She found it had reached its natural conclusion several times before, but there was always something new pulling her and the team back into it. But this time, it’s sticking; beyond needing to rest and recover from that burnout, Sarkeesian deeply believes that there’s value to ending projects naturally. There doesn’t need to be some catastrophic ending.

“I don’t think we talk about that enough,” she said. “You built this whole thing, and why would you give it up? But sometimes it’s actually better that we can move on to new things — to take risks and do things that challenge us.”

Feminist Frequency’s legacy is twofold: There’s the unique video essays and criticism on its YouTube channel, and its external training and support programs born out of that initial success. YouTube itself was only a few years old when Sarkeesian started publishing videos on the site in 2009. One of the earliest is a five-minute musing on Dollhouse’s TV renewal compared to the cancellation of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. The videos are simple in premise, with Sarkeesian talking right into the camera, sometimes with accompanying video or images. She found great success with this format over the years, using it in Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, the breakout series that hit the industry like a lightning bolt.

Each episode of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games tackled a different prominent trope: Sarkeesian appeared on screen and explained to the viewer not only what these tropes were and where they showed up in video games, but provided critical feminist analysis. Sarkeesian took on concepts like “Damsel in Distress,” which explored the infamous trope of women being saved; “Women as Reward,” which is exactly what it sounds like; and “Strategic Butt Coverings,” an analysis of the way in-game cameras linger on women’s bodies — particularly their butts.

“Me and my team were pioneering a space,” Sarkeesian said. “It was at the very beginning of video blogging and internet video. We were talking about representation very early on in a mainstream way. It wasn’t a popular thing to do outside of academia.”

She continued: “And we did it. People paid attention, and people started caring aggressively.” Across two seasons of Tropes vs., Sarkeesian’s work has racked up millions of views, earning her an appearance on The Colbert Report and a spot on Time magazine’s 2015 list of the 100 most influential people.

The series’ influence persists to this day; Sarkeesian’s work can be tied to a rise in more inclusive portrayals of women. People started to recognize these tropes and began to reverse them. Arkane Studios’ Harvey Smith spoke with Sarkeesian about the influence of Feminist Frequency on his work; he specifically called out, and said he’d remember forever, Sarkeesian’s criticism of Dishonored’s women. “Every woman in Dishonored 1 is either a servant, a prostitute, a witch, a queen, or a little girl,” Smith told Sarkeesian in a video on Engadget. “Would the game be worse if we took an action on this, or would it be better? The game would be richer and more interesting.” Harvey said that from Dishonored’s DLC onward, Arkane made a deliberate effort to put women in more interesting roles. Similarly, Naughty Dog director Neil Druckmann has spoken about how Sarkeesian’s work influenced him personally, and how she influenced his decision making on Uncharted 4.

artwork from Dishonored 2 of half a woman’s face and half a mechanical face
Dishonored 2
Image: Arkane Studios/Bethesda Softworks

“I do think her work has informed the industry,” Mark Chen, a lecturer at the University of Washington Bothell, said. “I mean, part of the reason we keep hearing about harassment or sexism in the industry I think is because of her efforts and others like her who (forcibly) made space for others to follow.”

Her work also continues to be referred to in academia, where it influences students who may go on to develop games. Tropes vs. Women in Video Games is a staple on digital media and video game class syllabuses.

Marc Santos, an associate professor of English at the University of Northern Colorado, used Feminist Frequency in an undergraduate English class that’s focused on research writing on video games. Santos said he uses Sarkeesian’s work on Feminist Frequency because it stands up to this day, but also as a way to show students how to research and present analysis and criticism. In a recent project, students used videos like “Lingerie Is Not Body Armor” and “Strategic Butt Coverings,” which analyze the male gaze in video games, as a basis of analysis of clothing in the first 100 role-playing games that pop up on Steam.

“I think there’s a lot of students — both men and women — who sort of realize that the portrayal of women, and all marginalized groups, in video games is bad. But Sarkeesian’s work helps focus their attention,” Santos said. “She provides a lens through which it becomes almost impossible to deny or ignore the extent of the problem.”

Tropes vs. Women in Video Games continued until the end of 2017, and through years of abuse and harassment that one could simply call hell. The harassment Sarkeesian and her team experienced is unconscionable and included dangerous levels of violence, like bomb threats made at events Sarkeesian was attending. Sarkeesian’s first work predated the period of time now called Gamergate — a movement that is now considered a watershed moment in the rise of far-right extremism, a channeling of decades’ worth of bigotry and hatred embedded into systems, platforms, and communities both online and off. When Tropes vs. Women in Video Games continued through Gamergate, that hatred was channeled toward her and others who advocated for better representation in games.

“Sarkeesian’s work helped illuminate harmful themes in games content, and her challenge of misogynistic comfort zones helped make that existing hatred visible by providing a clear target,” game designer and Tufts University lecturer Jason Wiser explained to Polygon.

Sarkeesian described how exhausting it was not only to experience this level of harassment and abuse, but to be expected to speak to this experience in interviews and on panels.

“I was so over talking about abuse, the dog-and-pony show of trotting out my abuse,” she said. “At that point, at my talks about online harassment, I started to be like, ‘I’m not talking about my experience anymore. It’s online. You can go and check it out. I’m not retraumatizing myself for the sake of this audience anymore.’ And that’s when I started realizing that I’m just really fucking over this.”

Art for the Games and Online Harassment hotline featuring a pixelated person in a pink-and-black space. Image: Games and Online Harassment Hotline

Feminist Frequency ultimately evolved in 2019, during a time period that game developers and journalists alike consider the first big #MeToo moment in video games. Game developers had been speaking about the abuses they’d faced for years, but often in private and through whisper networks. Months after Hollywood’s #MeToo reckoning and Kotaku’s exhaustive report of sexism at League of Legends developer Riot Games, a dam burst. People from across the industry came forward to speak about the industry’s problems with sexism and harassment; accountability was finally starting to happen. In 2021, things came to a head once again when the California Civil Rights Department sued Activision Blizzard for its alleged culture of harassment and gender discrimination.

“That just sucked me back in,” Sarkeesian said. “People were reaching out to me for help. I understand why people were coming to me. It was this interesting moment where I recognized that my career up until this point made me the perfect person to spearhead some of this work, which is kind of sad. But here we are.”

With the help of several collaborators, the Feminist Frequency team started the Games and Online Harassment Hotline, which opened up to the public in August 2020. Anyone involved in the video game industry — players, streamers, developers — could use the confidential text message service. Jae Lin, Hotline director and programs manager at Feminist Frequency, spearheaded the project. Staffers at a call center that specializes in mental health and suicide prevention work were trained in video game-specific issues, according to Lin, to answer these Hotline messages.

It’s hard to quantify the hotline’s success; all of the conversations are anonymous, and it’s hard to judge even the impact of the hotline on a single person, Lin said. It’s a single conversation before a person moves on, and they may never text again. And if they did, agents won’t ever know — it’s all anonymous. “But we have heard that it felt surprising and refreshing to find a space that’s specifically for games,” Lin said. “It’s a games space where they could be met with so much compassion and empathy. It was slightly redefining what a games community space could look like.”

The support community space extended to the hotline workplace itself, with the team coming together in high-stress, high-traffic situations to carry the emotional load of it all.

“We’re really grateful we could be for some people the only place they could talk about this stuff,” Lin said. “There’s all this stigma around sexual violence, and gag orders are not uncommon in this industry. A lot of people felt they couldn’t talk about it in other places. That felt so powerful that we would be here for that and be supportive to each other. We’re able to share and hold all that secondary trauma and emotional ripples together so that it wasn’t too heavy and didn’t break any of us individually.”

Lin and Sarkeesian said they were surprised to find that people who had done harm to others in the industry were also texting the hotline. “We were prepared for people who were being harassed, but we were not prepared at all for people who were doing the harassment,” Sarkeesian said. The two had to make quick decisions around these sorts of messages: What do we do? The hotline was created as a space for victims, but Sarkeesian and Lin quickly realized that transformative justice had a role there, too.

“It fell in line with the values we had around understanding harassment and violence as an ecosystem and this environmental issue rather than just one bad apple,” Lin said. “We can’t force people to change, but for whatever reason, people are showing a bit of vulnerability to admit their mistakes to us. We grew into this role where we could hold the door open for change.”

That’s where ReSpec, a program and support space for people who have caused harm, comes in. From that work on the hotline, Lin created a separate, small group initiative. Though they don’t know what ReSpec will look like after Feminist Frequency closes, they remain committed to keeping it running — it’s part of the organization that’s clearly influenced the video game industry, even on an individual scale. “I really feel like I’ve witnessed transformation and seen actual cycles of violence and harassment and harm start to get broken in the industry,” Lin said. One of ReSpec’s core tenets is healing through community, removing that sense of isolation.

Sarkeesian keeps coming back to that sense of isolation in her own healing, as she moves on from Feminist Frequency. “For a really long time I was alone,” Sarkeesian said. “That makes it worse. It’s really easy to sit in fear constantly. I had some support, but I was afraid of everyone.” She said she was forced to create a shell to get through it: “I don’t want people to have to toughen up in order to exist online, but I could have never gone through any of this if I didn’t create an emotional shell around me.”

Sarkeesian recognizes that the amount of online harassment she gets currently is abnormal for the everyday person, but that things have slowed down considerably. It’s not bomb threats daily, not doxxing.

“It gave me space to breathe a little more,” she said. “I remember a moment where I did get harassed, I don’t know what it was, but it was either a Twitter [message] or an email. And [when I saw it], I was like, Oh, that hurts. And then I was like, Wait a minute. That hurts. That’s cool. Being able to feel again, that’s a form of healing.” And by stepping away for a bit, she hopes to keep giving herself more and more space to grow.