I’m not really sure how to start this blog post, so I’m just going to dive right in and get into it. Hi. I’m Elizabeth Tobey. I’m a woman, and I want to have a conversation about sexism and misogyny and what we can do to create more equality between men and women.
Before we begin, let’s frame this post a little: this is the beginning of what I’m going to make into an occasional series on my blog, so please take this as a jumping off point in our conversation and please understand I want this to be a conversation (so many blogs are soapboxes, mine included despite my best intentions sometimes) – so share this, leave a comment, ask questions, tell me what you want to talk about next. I’m not going to decree something. I’m not going to solve a problem or point a finger: in fact, a big part of what I aim to do here is to try and be a place where we can (figuratively) talk with normal voices, listen to each other rather than waiting for our turn to speak, and stop making this issue into a warzone and instead turn what’s (unfortunately) right now a debate into a dialogue.
Sexism is real and misogynistic behavior happens around us every day. There is a huge imbalance between the genders. Those last two sentences were giant generalizations and, generally, I detest generalizations (har har.) That being said, anecdotal evidence (of which I’ll present a lot since I am only one person) can only bring us so far. Anecdotes are just that: singular experiences. No two people are exactly the same, and as such, each experience is unique. And while, particularly when talking about sexism, I prefer statistically significant studies to help ground the conversation in facts and help take the emotions and anger out of the subject, we need people’s experiences to humanize the facts and help people who have never seen or experienced sexist behavior understand and visualize the problem and help us find a way to make things better.
Here’s a 40,000 foot view of how I view myself: I’m a really, really lucky human being. I was born into an upper middle class family and was raised and educated in an affluent community with a renowned public school system. I’m 5’6, 154 pounds, with blonde hair, blue eyes, and teeth that benefited from orthodontics. I have not had the perfect life: while I lived with a multi-millionaire step mother for a couple years while I was a teenager, I also lived in Harlem on 149th and Broadway in a first floor apartment when I was too broke to put bars on my windows and had to decide what bills to pay each month because the electricity, car, and food couldn’t all happen at the same time. That being said, I know who I am and how lucky I am compared to most people, even during the scariest and worst days of my life. On the spectrum of all women in the world, I’m really fucking privileged. I was given great genetics, great education, great opportunities, and I am a strong and driven person.
For the last eight years of my professional career, I was a public-facing figure in the video game industry. I began as a Community Manager and as the years progress, I ran a community and customer service department and then moved to become the director of an MMO Community department and then finally the entire Communications team. In the past three-plus months since I’ve left hardcore gaming (I now work at a mobile tech company) I’ve been thinking a lot about my experiences in the industry, both with other professionals and with the people who played the games I worked on. This hasn’t all been navel-gazing: in my current role, I manage a Community Manager and am helping to build and grow our own community, and so I am spending a lot of time using the wealth of knowledge I accrued in my previous roles to help build this new community from the ground up. Video game communities were on the bleeding edge of the "social revolution" in the early 2000s: it still bemuses me to say I’m a pioneer in the field, but I am. That aside, the video game industry (and really, tech in general) is one of the most difficult fields for women to break into and excel within and has a lot of problems with sexism. In addition, video game communities are inherently toxic, sexist, and very cruel. I’ve known this since I began gaming as a child, and lived with it firsthand professionally for the better part of a decade - but until I stopping living and breathing hardcore gaming, I didn't have the capacity to really process the state of affairs and realize how absolutely fucked up and abusive the situation is.
Let me be very clear right now: I love gaming. I can see a future where I return to a gaming company and continue what has been a successful, exhilarating, and rewarding career. I am also very happy to not be in the industry anymore, in large part because of overt and latent sexism and misogyny. I didn’t leave because of these issues. In fact, if you’d asked past-me whether sexism was at all a factor in my decision to go into mobile apps I would have rolled my eyes at you. But now that I’m out and in a safer professional space, I have found myself mentally unpacking the experiences I went through and finding them unacceptable. I may not have thought I opted out of gaming because of sexism, but I wouldn’t go back right now because of it. However, I owe it to all the women who want to be there, and are there, and will be there in the future to talk about what’s going on, help educate people, and try to bring about change and improve gender equality. So that’s what I’m here to do.
I expect some of you think that some of the above statements are hyperbolic. You might say they are emotionally driven or attention-seeking. That’s not my motivation and I challenge you, if you are thinking that, to talk to yourself about whether you are having those thoughts because you are feeling defensive or another emotion that might be because you worry you are Part Of The Problem. We can talk about this some other time, but for now, let’s mutually agree to put all that aside: I’m not interested in blame right now, or Bad Guys and Good Guys. Frankly, we all fuck up sometimes. So rather than feeling uncomfortable, or guilty, or angry, or annoyed, let’s just talk this out.
Since I left gaming, I have not been threatened, called a sexist slur, had a person tell me (for better or worse) what they thought of me physically, or had someone tell me if they would or would not like to do something sexually to me. Before I left gaming, I had each of these things happen to me on at least a monthly basis. Being called a bitch, a cunt, a whore (or, for the enterprising, variations thereof) was par for course. Debates on whether I was fat or fuckable were also fan-favorites. I have, twice, had to send emails to corporate counsel because I thought that people might know where I live and felt that their threats were credible enough that someone might actually attempt to find me and beat me up (or leave shit on my front stoop, as one said, or sexually assault me, as another promised.) Here’s an example of a YouTube comment on a video I was in. (This is just a sample – I just found a random archived video and scrolled the comments to find a something representative. This is not the worst I've read or even a particularly notably bad comment):
After I left gaming, I was contacted by a reporter who was writing a story about women who were no longer in the industry. The reporter sent me a bunch of questions about why I left and whether I would go back. I answered honestly: I loved gaming, I loved the companies I worked for previously, but I was offered an opportunity that was too good to pass up. However, when asked about whether I would return and if I had any other thoughts about the industry, I found myself feeling that there was something fundamentally broken about how we treat each other within the industry (and how the community interacts with each other and with the people who make the games they play) and how that was really the core of what stopped me from saying “yes, without a doubt I would return to the industry.” Here’s an excerpt of that Q&A, since the answers themselves are better than me paraphrasing them:
Even writing this blog post scares the shit out of me. I actually felt a tightness in my chest when I decided to sit down and start my first draft – the kind of tightness you feel before you go sky diving for the first time, or give a huge presentation, or, you know, before you are about to have a panic attack. And that’s because I know the counter-arguments, the rebuttals, and the angry or condescending comments I can (and might) get for writing this piece. I have already taken each paragraph and plotted out all the possible ways someone could discount or belittle me for what I’ve written. Most of those responses are complete and utter bullshit and fueled by fear, hate, and sexism itself, but it’s still unpleasant to open yourself to more sexism, knowingly, all for the purpose of trying to stop it from happening in the future.
Case in point here: my dear friend and excellent editor let me know the first draft of this blog felt more like a cajoling handshake and she asked me to shake people with my sincerity and dive into specifics of what I’ve seen and experienced. She felt I was pre-defending myself (she’s right) and that I was playing it too soft (something people rarely say about me – so clearly, something I had to fix.) Here’s why I did that, though: I didn’t want this to be a manifesto, and I didn’t want to present examples that would cause people to dismiss me or say I was writing this for shock value and work to silence me before I even got people’s attention. And it’s easy to undermine a woman who presents examples: if she talks in statistics, folks say that they are too general and you need specifics. If she talks about individual experiences, folks can say that the information is anecdotal or not indicative of a wider problem: that’s just one bad apple. Counter-argument: go read #YesAllWomen. Hundreds of thousands of experiences aren’t just outliers.
There’s another sticking point here: present a shockingly sexist interaction, people say “well that guy’s an ass, surely that doesn’t happen frequently.” Present a more latent, less obvious case and people can say “that’s not that bad” or even “you are looking for sexist comments. He didn’t mean it that way – you are being hysterical.”
So here are two examples, one from each camp. For the sake of narrowing my experience, I’ll choose only from work experiences.
When I was applying for my first job in the gaming industry, I made it through several rounds of long and grueling interviews. I loved the people I met: I really wanted to work at the company. During one of the last rounds, I was meeting with a high ranking man. We talked for over forty-five minutes about the work, the industry, comics, movies – everything. I was thrilled: everything was clicking. As the interview drew to a close, this person said his goodbyes and gave a wrap up that made me feel I’d passed one of the last (if not the last) hurdles to being hired. As I began to do backflips of joy in my mind, he nodded once and then said “you’re also pretty and have a great voice for podcasting. You’ll do.”
Okay, next story.
This is about an instance where I was working on a game that was going through a difficult time. (I’m going to gloss over this part because the game itself isn’t important. Suffice it to say I’ve worked on games that have had all kinds of issues and I’ve never in my life released a game that was universally loved and I've certainly helmed games during very troubled times, sometimes with irate community members. This was one of those times.) One community member, who ran a fansite, was very angry about the game, the communication funnel and me, personally. Now, I want to explain here that lots of people shoot the messenger (happens every game, that’s what comes with the gig of a public facing job) and I know both men and women in forwarding-facing gaming jobs are the objects of demoralizing personal attacks (but by qualifying this, I’m pre-emptively self-defending, imagining the responses I’ll get from people who say “but men have that happen, too” so I’ll stop that now.) In this instance, another community member told me to never go to the man in question’s fansite forums and read what was said about me. I asked why and the person could not actually type out what was written about me on the website - it was that offensive. So I went out and googled my handle to figure out what horrible things folks were saying about me. It couldn’t be worse than what has been said about me before, right?
Well, there were a lot of nasty things said about me on that forum and it definitely ranked up there with the worst I've ever heard, but that's not why I'm telling this story. I'm telling this story because the admin had changed the code in the forum such that whenever any poster mentioned my name or handle, it would automatically replace the words with “Bitch Face Cunt Bag.”
All right. Enough of story time.
So, that’s a lot of words for the introduction to a longer conversation. You might be asking “okay, what’s the point? Why are you doing this?”
The reason is simple.
I want to help bring about gender equality.
I want to expose sexism and misogyny in the workplace and within the tech and gaming industries.
I do not want to opt out of an abusive system.
I want to help people who are dealing with these issues.
I want to tell women that they are not alone.
I want to tell men that I can help them become advocates.
I am here to help everyone understand the issues and problems with sexism and misogyny.
I am here to help everyone mobilize to make gender equality a reality.
For eight years of my life, I did not talk about the sexism and misogyny I faced within the industry and the sexist threats, comments, and condescension I endured from the community I worked for and was a member of. In fact, when people asked me how I put up with it, I would say “I’ve grown up in the gaming community. I’m used to it” or “I have a really thick skin” or, most frequently, I would say “the only way to face a troll, a bully, or a sexist is to face them, unflinching, and let them know that they aren’t going to stop you. That they aren’t hurting you, and that they can’t get to you.”
I still believe all of those things and I still think they are the best pieces of advice I can give to a woman deal with sexism, particularly in the gaming community and industry. The problem with that last piece of advice, though: don’t flinch, don’t show pain, don’t show fear – it takes away a woman’s voice.
I am not going to be silent about my experiences. Succeeding despite adversity is half of the battle: letting the wider world know what’s going on and helping them understand the problems and giving them the tools to help craft solutions is the second part, and I am someone who can help in that effort and by god, I owe it to myself and all the women I want to succeed to do just that.
Consider this the beginning of our conversation: it’s an invitation to ask the questions you’ve been afraid to (for whatever reason – seriously, even if you worry you sound stupid or any other ugly word, go for it – I’m not going to judge) here’s the place to do it. If you want to learn more, or hear from my perspective, let me know what’s on your mind. It’s time to start having a conversation about this and leave defensiveness and fear at the door: we are all responsible for changing the way we talk about this topic and we have to do it together in order to make real progress.