Red Dead Suffragettes: When violence against women is reflected in our culture

The video of an in-game attack on an “annoying feminist” is a prime example of how endemic male rage against political women is in every aspect of our culture.

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Birmingham, 1914: three young men confront a woman in the street and ask if she is a suffragette. When she says yes, the boys tear off her clothes, cover them in tar and set the pile alight, leaving her in front of the fire, traumatised and nearly naked.

America, 1917: 33 suffragists are arrested for picketing the White House and demanding the vote. Taken to Virginia’s Occoquan Workhouse, the women found themselves at the mercy of the prison superintendent, W.H. Whittaker, who proclaimed his men, “would be glad to get their hands on them and handle them rough”. The women were routinely beaten and brutalised, threatened with being thrown to the male prisoners, and only released after reports of a “Night of Terror”, where the guards had tortured the suffragists en masse, appeared in the newspapers and horrified the general public.

Why does this matter today? Surely, over a century after these events took place, we’ve moved on from such basic sex wars? No one really believes that a women asking for the right to have a voice in politics means she should be abused, tortured or even killed?

Of course they still do, because one hundred years later, what has really changed? In the West, we might have our rights in law, but what does that mean if our society doesn’t protect them? If, instead, our culture only intensifies and rewards men attacking women, especially if they are taking part in politics. Culture is king, and without a change to our culture, the protections supposedly offered by law are meaningless.

On 28 October, 2018, the YouTube channel of “Shirrako” uploaded a gameplay video from hugely popular cowboy videogame Red Dead Redemption 2, showing the player’s avatar punching a woman into unconsciousness, under the title “Beating Up Annoying Feminist”. Shirrako had almost 500,000 subscribers and the video quickly gained over 1.5 million views. This isn’t unusual behaviour in the gaming world, the opportunity for players to live out the fantasy of violence against female characters has existed since Rockstar Games – a titian of the industry and creator of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, as well as Red Dead Redemption – committed to creating virtual worlds without limits. Players are rewarded for their violent behaviour against any character, and, after the release of GTA5, community-driven modifications exploited loopholes within the game, that even allowed players to simulate rape. Videos of this type of gameplay, of the player’s actions within this virtual world, were then uploaded and shared to YouTube.

So if violence against women is a standardised part of gaming culture, why did Shirrako’s video gain such attention? It wasn’t a random act, but a reaction triggered, not just by the fact she was a woman, but by what she represented to the gamer – A Feminist – that created such interest.

The ability to interact with any character is one of the joys of the Red Dead Redemption world, and this often leads to a pause in the game while storylines play out through scripted interactions created by the game’s authors. In the video, Shirrako’s avatar runs past the woman who can be heard calling out repeatedly, “Let me vote, let me vote, let me vote, come on people I can say this all day, let me vote”. Returning to speak to her, RDR2’s script sees the two characters verbally spar about the point of voting, ending with the gamer’s avatar giving a grudging support for female suffrage. When the scripted interaction ends, the game hands back control to the player, and Shirrako punches her full in the face and knocking her, screaming in pain, to the floor. She is then left lying in the street, unconscious.

There’s no way to escape the fact that the punch was political. It’s not a random attack on any woman, but on a figure whose identity the gamer finds so triggering that they take comfort and satisfaction from playing out a fantasy of physically assaulting her. Uploading the video of the attack under the title, “Annoying Feminist”, then signals to anyone who watches it that this is not just an attack on a random woman, but specifically on someone who believes in female equality. 

Set in 1899, the creators of RDR2’s universe wanted to include a nod to the many historical campaigns of female suffrage that existed at this time, in a way that modern audiences would recognise. The woman beaten in the video and the leader of a wagon load of suffragists players have to protect in another storyline within the game, both wear the purple, green and white sashes of the USA’s Women’s Political Union dating from 1910, who adopted the same colours as British WSPU, founded by the leader of the Suffragettes, Emmeline Pankhurst. Although neither of these organisations existed in RDR2’s timeline, the colours are universally recognised as part of the international campaign for female suffrage, linking modern feminism to its heritage.

After the video went viral, and speaking to Motherboard, Shirrako said “it was simply a funny moment from one of my streams which I've decided to upload as a separate video…the NPC [Non Player Character] is made to be rather annoying."

This “funny moment” Shirrako seems so blasé about, was so gratifying to them that a number of other videos of their attacks on the suffragist were uploaded over the next few days; “Annoying Feminist Fed To Pigs”, “Annoying Feminist Fed to Alligator”, “Dropping a Feminist To Hell” and “Trolling Feminist NPC Until She Gives Up”. This is an attack repeatedly played out, over and over again in different ways, with clearly identifying markers connecting the historical virtual world to our present. It has one message: watch me abuse, beat and brutalise this feminist.

This is not the game’s fault. The creation of a virtual universe “without limits” isn’t actually as salacious as it sounds. If a game’s creators remove behavioural controls from their gameplay, all they are actually allowing you is the chance to live as yourself within another world. It’s the behaviour of the gamer we have to question. We are slowly beginning to understand that we are just as responsible for our online behaviour as we are for it in the real world. Shirrako’s repeated violence, done because it gave them the opportunity to brutalise a feminist for clicks, is a prime example of how endemic male rage against political women is in every aspect of our culture.

How can we say anything has changed when the violence is still celebrated and rewarded with one and a half million views? Why is it that some people find political women so dangerous, so “annoying”, that their only reaction is an attempt to re-establish their power through fear and pain. I wonder, as the real world continues to collide with online life, how much longer we are going to keep insisting that “it’s only a game”?