NWHL partners with Twitch: Popular feminism meets popular misogyny?

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I first learned about the platform, Twitch, six years ago from a student when I was TA’ing a second-year Media and Popular Cultures class. He tried to explain to me that Twitch was a site where you watched people play video games. The concept was completely lost on me at the time. However, with the growth of e-sports, now I get it. Kind of.

On September 5th, 2019, it was announced that the NWHL had signed a 3-year streaming deal with Twitch, the world’s leading live streaming video service for video games in the United States. According to The Hockey News, every game will be available to the platform’s 15 million viewers. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a deal that gives the NWHL broadcasting revenue. More money for the players is obviously great. More money for the league = ✅. Enhanced visibility is of utmost importance these days for women’s sports. I do worry if the production value will be any better than previously streamed games. But here’s my major 🤔: The NWHL hopes to introduce women’s hockey to a new audience through this partnership, but that new audience happens to be known for being an extremely misogynistic one.

#GamerGate. If you don’t follow gaming news, #GamerGate has become iconic for the misogyny that manifests within gaming culture. In 2014, an orchestrated harassment campaign was launched by men in the gaming community against game developers, Zoë Quinn and Brianna Wu, as well as media critic, Anita Sarkeesian. I won’t go into the details of the entire campaign here but suffice it say that the women received rape and death threats as a way to force their exit from the community, and a game called [Trigger Warning if you click on the following hyperlink] “Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian” was created in 2015, where participants could virtually abuse the face of Sarkeesian to their liking.

Sarkeesian reflects on the experience:

There’s a toxicity within gaming culture, and also in tech culture, that drives this misogynist hatred, this reactionary backlash against women who have anything to say, especially those who have critiques or who are feminists. There’s this huge drive to silence us, and if they can’t silence us, they try to discredit us in an effort to push us out.

Twitch (a subsidiary of Amazon) was not necessarily part of that harassment campaign but it has its own history of misogyny that is concerning. Twitch was originally created as Justin.tv in 2005, and ever since its inception, “many, if not most, of the women who broadcast themselves on Twitch seem to face sexual harassment, verbal harassment, and sometimes physical harassment.” Josh Katzowitch, for the Daily Dot, explains that men try to get women gamers in trouble by “eagerly reporting potential rules violations” while others take the revenge porn route. He writes, “At times, women on Twitch seem to be second-class citizens.”

As a broader society, we have begun to encourage young girls to learn how to code just as we also encourage them to participate in sports. Unfortunately, the techsphere has proven itself unready for women and girls to enter this space (arguably, so has sports). In Sarah Banet-Weiser’s (2018) book Empowered: Popular feminism and popular misogyny, she outlines the implications associated with a society that has increasingly fostered more confident and capable women against the backlash that those women receive from men and boys who see confident women as a threat to their own life opportunities. She writes:

efforts to include more women in the tech industries incur a response. Because technology industries are a centre of power, it is also not surprising that there is a significant response by popular misogyny to gender inclusivity; the territory of technology is one that is defended vehemently against potential interlopers…While women who work in the technology fields have repeatedly reported sexual harassment, those in the gaming industries routinely report death and rape threats. (p.130-131)

Sport has always been one of the iconic bastions of male dominance whereas technology and video games represented the lowest rungs of male hierarchy. Those marked as geeks “view themselves as perpetual outsiders and thus are unable or unwilling to recognize their own immense privilege,” typically as (white) men (Penny, 2014). The parallels between toxic masculinity in sports and gaming is actually eerily similar despite the imaginary chasm placed between these groups of men. But, as the technology sector becomes increasingly important and lucrative, there has been a cultural shift where “geeks” now hold more power than they ever have before. The problem then is that women entering this arena are seen as forcing a sharing of power that these men have only just grasped; if women can game too, then what is left for men? If women can sports too, then what is left for men? Where can men go to “just be men”?

Like other versions of men’s rights activism, toxic geek masculinity ‘seek[s] to provide a masculinized counterpoint to feminism’; but more than simply a counterpoint, toxic geek masculinity is a call to arms against feminism, because feminism apparently poses a terrible threat to livelihood and identity (Massanari, 2017 in Banet-Weiser, p.132)

978-1-4780-0291-8_prThere will be many eyes on the NWHL, that’s for sure. But are they the kind of eyes that we want on women’s hockey in this crucial moment? Alinity, a gamer based in Saskatchewan, often has 3,000 viewers watching her stream at any given time, but with the numbers comes increased harassment. She says she can handle one troll at a time but when they multiply “it becomes mentally exhausting. It kills your whole vibe,” especially when, “they might try to get her to bend over so they can see her backside.”

Twitch, much like other online media platforms, hasn’t figured out how to deal appropriately with harassment and abuse. The reason for this reactivity is that these platforms were never designed to be safe spaces for women. In a lot of respects, they were designed to be safe spaces from women. In 2017, a professional streamer known as “Trainwrecks” “lashed out at a group of female Twitch users he deemed ‘sluts,’ telling his audience to ‘put the pussy where it belongs, on the fucking ground.'” Furthermore, Twitch’s most lucrative and famous streamer, Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, has stated explicitly that he won’t stream with women because of the drama that might be created if others suspect any any sexual tension. This is equivalent to men choosing not to hire women in the face of the #MeToo movement because women are seen as too risky with which to be associated. Critics have pointed out that Twitch publicly promotes diversity and inclusion but the way it handles harassment on its platform and the partners it chooses do not necessarily reinforce the message of inclusion.

Sexism and misogyny exist on all media platforms, this is not necessarily something unique to Twitch. We know it happens on YouTube, Twitter, Reddit etc. Still, just because it is the way it is that doesn’t mean we have to accept it as the way it should be. Women are already discredited, silenced, and made to feel like second-class citizens in the world of sports — do we really want to venture into another space that does the same? On the other hand, maybe a flood of women’s hockey fans can shift the culture behind Twitch or at least make it a safer space for women across the platform.  Still, as Banet-Weiser states bluntly, “the popular feminist focus on girls and women in technology has not been received well, to say the least, by the men who have dominated these fields”; thus, it will be interesting to see how the NWHL is received by this crowd. More visibility for women’s hockey is obviously what we want, but considering the fact that many within hockey culture have not yet learned to appreciate women as legitimate actors in and around the game, I fear what the gaming community’s reaction might be to the NWHL’s presence (not to mention my critique of their safe space…).

The logic of popular misogyny is that of a zero-sum game: men lose and become invisible when women win and become more visible. (Banet-Weiser, p.156)

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