Anita Sarkeesian on Amplifying Your Mission With Storytelling

At a point in your career, you’ll engage with new platforms to amplify your mission. How do you decide when to start a podcast, a blog, or a video series? How will you know it’s working?

We spoke to Anita Sarkeesian, media critic, blogger, and founder of Feminist Frequency—a not-for-profit educational organization that analyzes modern media’s relationship to societal issues such as gender, race, and sexuality.

She shares her insights and experiences on how she amplified her work to beget new opportunities to talk about her mission and create a greater impact.

You started Feminist Frequency in 2009 while you were a student at York University to create accessible media criticism from a feminist point of view. Throughout a decade, this platform has created opportunities for you to teach, speak, and broaden your mission. Was this a dream when you first started the platform or was this unfolding more serendipitous?

Anita: To be honest, back when I first started Feminist Frequency I wasn’t really thinking that far ahead. While I was in grad school I just used video blogging as a platform for activist work and my hope was to get social justice messages in front of audiences who might not be exposed to them otherwise.

At what point during FemFreq did you start feeling momentum? What did you do to keep feeding it?

Anita: My short answer is that it started when the Kickstarter for Tropes vs Women in Video Games took off and was wildly successful, but in actuality there were small waves even before then.

Particular videos of mine got some attention and notoriety, such as one I made about the Bechdel Test. But from this vantage point in the future, that early success seems quaint.

I think we just keep making media that is educational and fun, trying to keep an eye on how technology is changing and asking ourselves if we need to change with it. Some of our projects are more successful than others, but ultimately they all come from our passions as a team. I had several ideas for the new season of The FREQ Show and I presented them to the group.

When I suggested we go back to the roots and do entertaining and effective feminist explainers on fundamental concepts like privilege, intersectionality, and misogyny, their faces lit up, and I knew that with everyone excited and invested, we would be creating work that was valuable and that we believed in.

One of your biggest projects was the Kickstarter video series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, inspired by a talk you gave on the female representation in games and the toxic behaviors that women faced. There was an earlier version of this focused on characters in science fiction. How do you think about your projects when you start them and how do you scale, remix, or amplify the mission?

Anita: The earlier project was just called Tropes vs Women which I produced for Bitch Media. It was focused primarily on film and television but called out some games and comics too. My processes pre- and post- Kickstarter are very different.

Before, Feminist Frequency was just a side project I did when I had time or had an idea; sometimes it would just be one-off episodes and other times I would work a series around a specific topic, but outside of “pop culture” there wasn’t any particular process other than me asking myself, “Is there a compelling story here that I can tap into to illuminate feminism in some way?”

The Kickstarter changed everything, as the scale and scope of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games expanded tremendously in response to the Kickstarter’s success. After the crowdfunding campaign, I basically spent five years just trying to produce and finish that series. Between producing episodes that were far more in-depth and far more difficult than anything I had ever done before, I was also contending with ongoing, relentless harassment and trying to become an educator around that issue as well.

Since Feminist Frequency became a non-profit and hired staff, and with the lessons I learned from the experience of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, I’ve become able to scale and scope more effectively than I would have before. We created a series called Ordinary Women: Daring to Defy History which tells the stories of five brave women who time had sadly forgotten (which was turned into a book History vs. Women which will be available Oct 2nd, 2018). This was an idea I had long before Tropes and it was exciting to see it come to life. Now we’re running The FREQ Show, which is a constantly evolving work-in-progress that was originally birthed out of our frustration with the increased normalization of fascism and white supremacy in mainstream American and global politics. We wanted to create a video format where, in any given episode, we could talk about pop culture, or politics, or how these things are all interwoven together.

I think the biggest change for FemFreq, though, is that we are much more than just video projects; we have several podcasts, we livestream video games on Twitch every week, we post articles and reviews on our website among other things. The YouTube/video landscape has changed dramatically since I started FemFreq and I think it’s important that we have several avenues to help spread our mission.

Do you have a framework for how you decide on what platform to use next? How do you determine if a podcast or a livestream is the next step in amplifying your work? And ultimately, how do you know if it’s working?

Anita: Nothing is set in stone, and given the way the media landscape is evolving so rapidly these days, I think that’s key. We just look at how technology and platforms change, and try to adapt as best we can.

For example, Facebook decided it wanted to be the dominant player in the realm of online videos, and so everyone started uploading videos to both Facebook and YouTube. I used to be adamant about not splitting views across platforms, but at this point I just want to get our work out there and in front of people wherever it can make the most impact. Similarly, we initially only made scripted videos, but as the ways in which organizations engaged and interacted with their fans expanded, we expanded with them. It took me a while to feel comfortable with platforms like livestreaming and podcasting that encouraged more off-the-cuff conversations, because all the toxicity and harassment I’d experienced had taught me that every word I might say would be scrutinized, manipulated and regurgitated as part of some defaming strawman argument which, despite being transparently false and misleading, nonetheless would fan the flames and result in even more harassment.

Eventually I stopped caring, and I’m really enjoying the opportunity to be a little more human and available with our audience. It also gives us an opportunity to show people that Feminist Frequency is not just me, but a wonderful team full of smart and funny people.

Given how rapidly the online world is changing, I feel like assessing whether or not things are working is a perennial process. I’m constantly reassessing what it means to be successful or to have impact. Is it just raw numbers of views? Is it how many people reply on Twitter telling us they love what we’re doing, or write in to say that our work had a positive effect on their lives? I think it becomes a combination of all those things.

What’s your personal framework for deciding who to partner with or where to share your work? Are there any principles or criteria that you follow that helps you make smart decisions for working with the right organizations or people?

Anita: I enter into every partnership with other people and organizations on a case-by-case basis. I look at the work they’ve done and try to determine if we have similar goals, a similar mission, a shared worldview. We don’t have to agree on everything or have the exact same strategies and tactics in our activism, but we should be fighting for the same ultimate goal.

In particular, I like partnering with people and groups whose work I think is really valuable and that I want us to amplify, so that it can reach people it otherwise might not. And often this sort of thing can go both ways; those groups may have access to an audience that we don’t, and by sharing each other’s work, we can do something mutually beneficial and help make more people aware of the work that we’re all doing.

Depending on the type of relationship, it’s also important to be able to communicate well, and figuring out that dynamic early on is key. If we’re collaborating with a producer or director, or some other creative partner, being able to give and receive criticism in ways that are healthy, empowering, and ultimately good for the project and the mission is really essential.

Nothing is set in stone, and given the way the media landscape is evolving so rapidly these days, I think that’s key. We just look at how technology and platforms change, and try to adapt as best we can.

Your mission in your work is profound and clear. How do you stay focused on the change you seek to create? Have you ever felt tempted to start a whole new endeavor completely outside of what you’ve created thus far?

Anita: I always dodge the questions about what you would tell your younger self because, let’s be real, none of us would listen so what’s the point? I think we’ve all gotten plenty of advice in our lives that we wish we would have listened to but didn’t because we were stubborn, or prideful, or just didn’t have enough information to really understand the advice.

I think the piece of advice I’m still trying to learn is to trust your gut. It sounds like such hippie-dippie woo-woo nonsense but every time I have made choices when my gut told me otherwise, it’s always been the wrong choice. So I guess, learning to trust yourself, and have faith in yourself…which just feels like the kind of maturity that comes with time and experience.

When I was first politicized, in my early twenties, I decided I was going to do work that would be meaningful to the world, that would promote and fight for social justice. I didn’t know what that work would look like, I didn’t know if it would be paid or volunteer, but there was definitely a moment of clarity when I realized I wasn’t going to go down the “American Dream” path. That drive has never left me and I think that’s what keeps me focused. The means and tools can change but the goal of social justice never does.

I love Feminist Frequency and I love the team I work with but of course I’ve thought about what I would do if Feminist Frequency couldn’t sustain itself–but nothing else has seemed as captivating so I am still here. As hard as this job is, I am tremendously lucky to do this particular kind of work and get paid for it. While we are constantly working on new projects at FemFreq, I do sometimes get antsy to do different things, which is what side projects are for!

I’m working on something that I’m really excited about right now that has literally nothing to do with anything related to Feminist Frequency. It’s called Mixed Flour and we believe that emerging technologies such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR) can be used in real life settings to build memorable, collaborative experiences. Our first project is a pop up in Copenhagen that will integrate technology, interactions & high end cuisine. I’m a bit of a foodie so it’s exciting that I can work on projects that bring together my interests in technology and food in meaningful ways.

Depending on the type of relationship, it’s also important to be able to communicate well, and figuring out that dynamic early on is key. If we’re collaborating with a producer or director, or some other creative partner, being able to give and receive criticism in ways that are healthy, empowering, and ultimately good for the project and the mission is really essential.

What’s your definition of owning your content?

Anita: Well first, I actually hate the word content. It feels like our creative, artistic, and intellectual work is just filler for ads without merit of its own.

Early on, when I first started doing online video, I was very open about my work, and used creative commons licenses. I love the idea of sharing, remixing, reusing and repurposing work. Or even just having access to creative works. All of which is discouraged with restrictive frameworks like copyright.

Unfortunately, because of all the harassment and attempts of people to co-opt, distort and erase my work, I tend to lean towards traditional models of copyright with Feminist Frequency. But I don’t make creative works so that I can own them; I make them to share with others, to hopefully change the world.

What does the future of content look like to you?

Anita: This is a really good question that I have no answer for but I have been thinking more and more about interaction and immersion. I am increasingly interested in how we bring interactive technologies such as those in video games, virtual reality, augmented reality etc. into other facets of our lives whether for pleasure or work or disseminating information or stories.

When I was first politicized, in my early twenties, I decided I was going to do work that would be meaningful to the world, that would promote and fight for social justice. I didn’t know what that work would look like, I didn’t know if it would be paid or volunteer, but there was definitely a moment of clarity when I realized I wasn’t going to go down the “American Dream” path. That drive has never left me and I think that’s what keeps me focused. The means and tools can change but the goal of social justice never does.


This interview was produced in partnership with WordPress.comCreativeMornings.

Morning people get 15% off their WordPress.com site at wordpress.com/creativemornings.

Interview by Paul Jun. Illustrations by Jeffrey Phillips. ‘Own Your Content’ illustration by Annica Lydenberg.

Recommended tools:

  • Feminist Frequency is both in person and a remote workplace so the essentials like Slack, GDrive, Google Hangouts, Asana are critical to day to day operations
  • For media production (YouTube videos and Podcasts) we have a combination of our own studio equipment as well as renting cameras when needed.

Recommended reads:

 

2 Comments

  1. On Mon, Apr 23, 2018 at 8:51 AM, Own Your Content wrote:

    > pauljuncm posted: “At a point in your career, you’ll engage with new > platforms to amplify your mission. How do you decide when to start a > podcast, a blog, or a video series? How will you know it’s working? We > spoke to Anita Sarkeesian, media critic, blogger, and founder o” >

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s