Feminist media critic and video blogger Anita Sarkeesian raised $160,000 in Kickstarter funds last summer after she publicized the online bullying she endured upon announcing the project. Earlier this month, to much fanfare, Sarkeesian finally delivered the first installment of her controversial Tropes Vs Women in Video Games video series.
But Sarkeesian hasn't yet explained why that video still fell more than six months behind schedule — it presumably wasn't because of a budget shortfall — nor offered any accounting of how she's spent the funds she raised. Is it sexist of me to ask about the money?
The Story Thus Far
For those unfamiliar with the online drama to date, Sarkeesian’s feminist video essays critiquing pop culture — sometimes scathing, sometimes lighthearted — regularly disturb the darker side of the Internet. Her Kickstarter project, which focused almost exclusively on sexism in video games, so perturbed a large group of male gamers that they organized and harassed her relentlessly online.
These charming fellows didn’t stop at social media harassment, death threats or comments about how happy they would be if Sarkeesian died. They took the time to put up their own crowdfunded Indiegogo project devoted to mocking Sarkeesian’s own, even though it later disappeared without a trace. (The group insists the project is still on, despite acknowledging that its page was pulled while Indiegogo reviews it.)
Even more damning, they made a video game about punching Sarkeesian in the face. The angrified dudes who thought they were defending their favorite digital pastime openly referred to their online harassment campaign as “a game.” Sarkeesian, in her TED Talk about their hate campaign, dubbed them “a cybermob.”
It was this cybermob that caught the attention of the press, which shared Sarkeesian’s project beyond the gamer community. Sympathy money poured in, much as it did with that bullied Michigan bus monitor, and Sarkeesian reached her fundraising goal in days. She received more than 25 times her proposed $6,000 goal from people like this self-identified radical feminist who wrote on Tumblr recently:
I like and play video games, but they’re not a particular passion of mine, and I never would have donated to that project. However, I donated $20 after the vicious backlash that involved creating a video game where you can beat the shit out of Anita Sarkeesian.
Is Transparency Too Much To Ask?
Which brings me to Sarkeesian’s finances. I raise this subject with some trepidation, because Sarkeesian's critics have twisted it into photoshopped tweets about Sarkeesian spending $1000 on new shoes, complaints that she’d donate to charity if she were really a good person and blog entries wondering if Sarkeesian got a nose job. (Her nose looks the same, men. I checked her older videos.)
When you get past the vitriol, their main criticism is that the production quality of Sarkeesian’s videos hasn't increased.
In a Kickstarter update issued days into the original campaign, Sarkeesian herself raised this issue, writing that she’d like to use the extra money “to really bump up the quality and the professionalism as much as I can,” possibly by buying a light kit, a better computer, a microphone, editing software and other pricey gear.
Sorry, angry male gamers. Sarkeenian has apparently been as good as her word. The quality of her videos has increased, particularly in terms of sound quality and, evidently, via use of a light kit.
So the haters are wrong. But how much could Sarkeesian's production upgrades have possibly cost?
A good midrange light kit should set you back between $400 and $1,800, while a crazy good desktop that can edit video can go for as much as $5,000. A high-end professional video camera would be another five grand. (A Hollywood-style camera, which she was apparently not going for, would go for $20,000 to $50,000.) The most expensive editing program around, Adobe Premiere, is $400, as is a good microphone. Tally all that up, and it's still less than $15,000.
Show Us The Money
What happened to the rest of the $160,000?
Answering this question would certainly knock down the only legitimate point made by Sarkeesian's online stalkers. Much more important, though, a good financial breakdown of Sarkeesian's Kickstarter project would also help women video bloggers, who struggle with sexism every day on YouTube, better understand the financial costs of creating a successful video series. (Actually, it would be helpful for anybody dreaming of a career on YouTube).
Disclosing her finances should, in theory, be easy, especially now that Sarkeesian hired a producer. As a popular media figure, she has the power to bring some transparency to what can otherwise be an awfully murky business.
Kickstarter in general is a hard nut to crack. According to Kickstarter's own data, more than half of all projects -- or 56% -- fail to get funded at all. Only about one project in nine raises twice its funding goal. YouTube is also difficult to master. Sarkeesian is skilled at both, having raised a sum in the low six figures on Kickstarter and netted more than a million YouTube views for her first video in 11 days.
When popular viral video maker Freddie Wong — who also ran a successful Kickstarter campaign last year — released an infographic outlining the cost of his first web series, Video Game High School, he was lauded by the DIY video community. Wong wrote on his company’s blog:
We believe that the future for content-creators such as ourselves lies in being able to source project money from an audience and deliver on those projects in a timely and cost-effective manner. However, we realized to do this effectively, we must be completely open and honest about the money we spend and how much things cost. Simply put, we cannot expect our fans to support us financially if they have no idea how much things actually cost.
So show us how it was done, Anita Sarkeesian. Not because I don't believe you did it, but so that others can follow in your footsteps. And if you had to spend that money on flights to give TED Talks, doing research or licensing fees for game footage — or even to pay for therapy as a result of the harassment you endured — I want to know that, too.
Sarkeesian did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Updated on March 19, 11:57 a.m. PT: Revised figures on Kickstarter projects that failed to fund using Kickstarter data and an academic paper (both linked in the text).
Lead screencap from Sarkeesian's YouTube video Damsel in Distress: Part 1 - Tropes vs Women in Video Games