It was a snowy day in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when Anita Sarkeesian came to Harvard University. As part of the Sunday Speaker series, Sarkeesian was there to accept an award from the Humanist Community at Harvard, an organization not officially affiliated with Harvard University. The Harvard Humanist of the Year Award featured a Gloria Steinem quote: "A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men."
"Humanism requires feminism," said emcee Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University. The connection is not obvious. In previous episodes of Polygamer, I’ve examined (and lamented) the varying interpretations of the word "feminism". "A feminist is someone who thinks women are superior to men," I’ve heard one person say; "I’m a humanist, not a feminist."
When invited to accept this award, even Anita Sarkeesian was initially skeptical, not of the correlation between humanism and feminism, but of how people interpret and identify with those labels. She confessed that she expected most of her critics to be the religious conservative, and while they are indeed represented among their detractors, atheists have proven to be a larger, more vocal contingent. She read to the audience several angry tweets she’s received with such hashtags as #humanism and #egalitarianism. The educated Harvard audience chuckled at how misinformed those Twitter users are, but there’s nothing funny about the harassment Sarkeesian receives on Twitter, regardless of how her critics self-identify.
Fortunately, Sarkeesian and Epstein were of like mind. "Any definition of humanism that does not include feminism is not on the side of justice," said Sarkeesian. She addressed other groups that have erroneously positioned themselves at odds with her cause, such as Men’s Rights Activists, saying, "All the problems you’re having, feminism is trying to solve."
One audience member asked what they could do to help — which is a big question, one that would take more than a few minutes to answer! Sarkeesian ticked off several key points, including better representation of women in games, but she also included a personal plea: produce positive video responses to her Feminist Frequency series. "YouTube’s algorithm is such bullshit," she rightly griped. "’You liked a feminist video? Here’s a 100 anti-feminist videos for you to watch!’" Sarkeesian acknowledged that producing videos is a very public way to support her, and not one that many people would feel comfortable or safe doing.
After the talk and Q&A was a greeting line. I was in no rush to have my photo taken with Sarkeesian, having done so when she spoke at Northeastern University in November 2013. But I did want to at least say hello. Unfortunately, I was the last in line, and the line got cut off immediately after the person in front of me. Our reunion will have to come another time.
My thanks to Sarkeesian for enduring a snowstorm and a cold to come to Massachusetts. I went to her talk wondering why she’d bother speaking to a group of humanists, which seems off the beaten path for a media critic whose time I imagine is very much in demand. I walked away with a better understanding and appreciation of both sides.