SocJus Thesaurus: “Reinforcement”, or how A. Sarkeesian misuses psychology.

In the first installment of my Social Justice thesaurus (about the world “problematic”) I said I would follow a certain structure when writing these posts. I don’t remember what I said, so I’ll ignore that and I’ll write this one following whatever order or structure may strike my fancy.

While the overuse and abuse of the word problematic are easy to detect, and it’s almost like a tribal badge for social justice berserkers, I suspect few people have realized that the verb “reinforce” (and, very rarely, the noun “reinforcement”) is a staple of social justice media/entertainment criticism. It is, however, a key concept of Social Justice rhetoric, and many of their arguments would be meaningless without it. If you pay attention, you will see that the word (or a synonym) appears in almost all social justice texts. Why? Because the key trick in any media criticism is to link media “exposure” to a behavioral effect or a change in beliefs, and reinforcement is the magical link. Basically: watch or play this, and it will corrupt you.

I don’t want to underestimate the importance that reinforcement has as a rhetorical concept. I’d say it is even more powerful than problematic. That one merely makes up problems out of nowhere, but “reinforcement” legitimizes and justifies the magic trick. However, as with problematic, the explanation is an empty one, and it’s nothing more than a circular argument.

Imagine how important it is, that Anita Sarkeesian has made her career out of spamming the verb to reinforce. Next I’ll quote her articles (the video transcriptions) and a few from other media sources, and you will see why to reinforce is so important in the War Against FunTM  It’s almost the only argument they have.

“Hollywood has a long history of making queer characters monsters and sociopaths and murderers who have no moral compass. This trope is used in order to reinforce a fear of homosexuality.

March 1, 2010. Caprica and the ‘queerness’ of Sam Adama.

“This Christmas favourite was popularized by Perry Como and Bing Crosby back in 1951. And while they sing about candy canes and silver lanes, they also celebrate and reinforce harmful gendered stereotypes in children’s toys.

December 21, 2011. Top 5 creepiest sexist Christmas songs.

“The repercussions of this ca be grave, relegating the responsibility for fostering healthy relationships and communications on women and simultaneously reinforcing to boys and men that using violence is a practical option for solving conflicts, even interpersonal ones.

[…] Friends is clearly marked as Not for Boys which defacto reinforces that the rest of the LEGO universe is ‘for boys’ and for boys alone.”

February 6, 2012. Lego and Gender, part 2, The Boys club.


“Unfortunately, in addition to all of these benefits, many games tend to reinforce and amplify sexist and downright misogynist ideas about women.

Video games are an integral and growing part of our pop culture of today, and as with all pop culture media, the gaming industry is playing a role in helping to shape our society, either by challenging or more often reinforcing existing values, beliefs, and behaviors.”

May  18, 2012. From her “Tropes vs Women” Kickstarter video.


“The brief intro sequence accompanying many classic arcade games tends to reinforce the framing of women as a possession that’s been stolen from the protagonist.

The belief that women are somehow a ‘naturally weaker gender’ is a deeply-ingrained socially constructed myth, which of course is completely false -but the notion is reinforced and perpetuated when women are continuously portrayed as frail, fragile, and vulnerable creatures.”

March 7, 2013, Damsel in Distress part 1.


“Not all tropes are problematic  [hehehe], of course, so I focus specifically on deconstructing recurring patterns that tend to reinforce or amplify regressive notions or attitudes about women and women’s roles in our larger society.”

June 6, 2013. IGN interviews Anita Sarkeesian.


“Second, and perhaps more importantly, damsel’ed female characters tend to reinforce pre-existing regressive notions about women as a group being weak or in need of protection […] “

August 1, 2013. Damsel in Distress, part 3.


“One repercussion of constantly relying on feminizing signifiers for character design is that it tends to reinforce a strict binary for of gender expression. […]

This Adam and Eve version of the creation myth reinforces a subordinate view of women -man is cast as the original concept and source code for women, who is derived from his body.[…]

There is a larger unintended consequence to ‘marking’ these birds as female with feminizing gender signifiers; it reinforces that all the other birds and pigs without these specific visual cues are all male by default unless otherwise noted.

Both the Smurfette Principle and the Ms. Male Character trope create scenarios that reinforce a false dichotomy wherein males is associated with the norm while female is associated with a  deviation from the norm.”

November 18, 2013. Ms. Male Character Trope vs Women.

“So these interactive algorithms transmit cultural messages of near constant affirmation of male heterosexual dominance, while simultaneously reinforcing the widespread regressive belief that women’s primary role is to satisfy the desires of men (either literally or voyeuristically.)

Their status as disposable objects is reinforced by the fact that in most games discarded bodies will simply vanish into thin air a short time after being killed.

Research has consistently found that exposure to these types of images negatively impacts perceptions and beliefs about real world women and reinforces harmful myth about sexual violence.

June 16, 2014. Women as background decoration.


“So, when games casually use sexualized violence as a ham-fisted form of character development for the ‘bad guys’ it reinforces a popular misconception about gendered violence by framing it as something abnormal, as a cruelty only committed by the most transparently evil strangers.[…]

Well, the pattern of utilizing women as background decoration works to reinforce the myth that women are naturally fated to be objectified, vulnerable, and perpetually victimized by male violence.”

August 25, 2014. Women as background decoration, part 2.


“The fact of the matter is that some choices have ramifications beyond ourselves and reinforce harmful patriarchal ideas about women as a group and about women’s bodies in our wider shared culture.”

March 24, 2015. How to be a feminist.


“One reason why we need more games that are fronted exclusively by female characters is that it works to counter the long-established, long-reinforced cultural notion that heroes are male by default.

As long as games continue to give us significantly more stories centered on men than on women, they will continue to reinforce the idea that female experiences are secondary to male ones.

June 22, 2015. Gender breakdown of games showcased at E3, 2015.


“We then discuss how this trope both reflects and reinforces the pervasive, socially constructed mentality of male entitlement that operates in the background of our culture.

When games such as these award players which achievement or trophies for sexual conquests they are directly reinforcing negative ways of thinking about the dynamics between men and women in our society.

Because video games are constructed around these formal input/output systems, they can be an especially powerful tool for reinforcing cognitive patterns by modeling and rewarding player behavior.

In this way, the women as reward trope in video games becomes a mechanism through which male entitlement is taught and reinforced in our wider culture.

Just as their [games] interactivity makes them a powerful tool for reinforcing male entitlement, so too could that interactivity be harnessed to disrupt gender dynamics and engage us with game mechanics that explore more equitable interactions between people of all genders.”

August 31, 2015. Women as Reward.


And now, from our favorite pop culture detective and future MRA activist, Jonathan McIntosh:





“Writers Leigh Alexander and Jenn Frank wrote about the cultures and attitudes that enable of harassment and reinforce long-held beliefs that gaming is the domain of young men, one unsafe and unwelcoming to women.”

2014 in review: the year that sucked. by Michael McWherton. POLYGON

“Popular media drives popular beliefs, which lead to reinforcement, adaptation, or abandonment of stigmatic views.”

Nobody wins when horror games stigmatize mental illness, by Ian Mahar. July 26, 2013. KOTAKU

“In a world where civil rights are at stake, does Brüno -played as a ‘limp-wristed, sex-crazed queen’ wearing hot pants, leopard bikini underwear and riding nude on a unicorn- shatter or reinforce stereotypes?”

Mixed feelings about gay stereotypes in Bruno, by Dodal Stewart. Junes 15, 2009, JEZEBEL.

“Many video games I’ve played leave me with that all too familiar sentiment. Often, their portrayals extend beyond the idea of a sameness in identity. Instead, these representations move into territory that reinforce unflattering cultural stereotypes.”

The Tropical Island dilemma challenging video games, by N. Ho Sang. January 7, 2014, KOTAKU.

“To this day, reality television and soaps continue to mine the image of women as catty, two-faced, jealous gossips. And it reinforces an old stereotype of women as very petty and small-minded, while men are off thinking More Important Thoughts.”

If women are catty bitches, it’s not about gender. It’s about power, by Tracy Moore. November 4, 2013, JEZEBEL.

And a more ancient one:

“But these ‘girl games’ offer little hope for greater gender equity in the gaming world. By focusing on popularity and fashion -even if this is what some girls want to focus on- the majority of them reinforce the very same stereotypes they purport to combat.

We live in a gender-segregated world, with social reinforcement at every turn. […]

perhaps even more important, segregating girl’s game from boy’s games can reinforce similar segregation in other aspects of life -such as work and school. 

Girl Games: Adventures in Lip Gloss, by Rebecca L. Eisemberg. February 13, 1999.


You’ll have to forgive me for torturing you with those quotes, but it was important. As you can see, they are almost all indistinguishable, and they are as stereotyped as the prejudices they claim video games “reinforce.” There is a lot of information in those statements, but I will summarize it. This is what they claim:

a) Video games can teach, reflect, reinforce, and amplify behaviors, beliefs, ideas, and thoughts.

b) That learning process can happen through video game mechanics and basic plot elements (like rescuing a woman.) Note that they don’t give any examples of a character or text inside a game making an apology or defense of those pernicious misogynistic worldviews.

c) That learning process is controlled by people with a  goal in mind: “This trope is used in order to reinforce a fear of homosexuality.” In other words, it’s a tool, with a purpose, and a goal.

d) Those media effects are not mediated by the mindset, desires, preferences, interests, or cognitive schemata of the player. Or, at the very least, they don’t claim any of these things matter or exist, so I have to assume they would deny their importance. After all, they never mention them.

And this is the structure all their arguments follows:

A) Pick a game mechanic or a fact about a game with a passing association with something shameful and undesired.

B) Pick that undesired social evil and mention it (misogyny, racism, homophobia, etc.)

C) Link both by adding the word “reinforces.” Don’t bother explaining how that reinforcement process works. Assume it does, and just state it with the conviction of a religious revelation.

And that’s it.


But what is “reinforcement”?

Reinforcement is a psychological concept, the key concept of behaviorism. Although its relevance to human (and animal) behavior is complex, its definition is surprisingly simple: A reinforcement is anything that modifies the frequency of a given behavior.

The classic reinforcers are rewards and punishments but that doesn’t say much. A reward can be external, internal, expected, unexpected, randomized, serialized, immediate, deferred, real, imagined, physical, or abstract; and it can be a literal reward or your own emotional reactions. Also, it’s not uncommon that some actions are their own rewards; for example, anger is known to be a very satisfying emotion, so it’s self-rewarding. In other words, anger may reinforce (i.e. increase the frequency of) anger. Even things that are usually understood to be punishments, like pain, can become rewards under certain conditions. For example, some soldiers show signs of joy and, even, analgesia after being seriously wounded because they know they will be send back home.

So, yes, reinforcement is simple, but not that simple at the same time.

Now, when someone says that X reinforces Y, it simply means that X will make Y happen more. So, yes, Sarkeesian et al. are saying that video games will make you (and society) more sexist and -because sexism is undesired and shamed in Western societies- evil(er). They usually deny that or, at least, claim that their arguments are more complex, but that’s a lie. They are categorical arguments, and they don’t mention any mediating or moderating variables; they constantly link undesired social effects to video games, linking both with the magical word “reinforces.”

That is not, however, how a behavioral analysis is done; in fact, it’s not even how reinforcement works. Reinforcement is related to Operant Behavior, that is, behavior that is controlled by its consequences (the contingent reward or punishment.) What Sarkeesian and company claim is that an abstract and undefined behavior/thought pattern (misogyny) is controlled/reinforced by video game mechanics. The problem? Well, it’s absolute bollocks. That’s not how the human mind works.

This is how reinforcement of a real misogynistic behavior may work:

A) I punch a woman and demean her because I’m angry at her. B) Immediately [temporal contingency] my friends laugh and laud my behavior (a social reward). C) That behavior and, later, its underlying beliefs are reinforced. -> Now the probability of me beating a woman (even one who doesn’t “deserve” it) will be higher, and it will be followed by misogynistic rationalizations about their low social value.

In fact, I think the beliefs are not really “reinforced,” they just adapt to the new situation. Seeing that nobody cares about the woman, one would naturally adapt his beliefs and explanations to what you did (beating her) and what happened (nobody cared -i.e there was no punishment.)

This is what they claim happens:

A) I play a video game, and the goal is to rescue a princess. B) ??? C) misogyny is reinforced.

Note that the first example is concrete, and all that happens (the behavior, the reward, and what is reinforced) is objective and defined in operative terms. Social Justice analysis, on the other hand, don’t do… well, anything. They don’t explain why, from the thousands of stimuli that make up a game, they pick THAT one. They don’t define misogyny in any meaningful way, although it’s the behavior allegedly being reinforced. They also don’t explain the reinforcement program that is being followed or how the consequence is linked to the causes.

Logically, one could also claim that if something is being reinforced is the behavior of “Princess Rescuing” (and that’s… wrong, somehow?) However, that doesn’t even make much sense, since the behavior that is being rewarded is not even “playing a game about rescuing princess” but “playing THIS game (because it’s fun)” that happens to be about a princess (among other things.) While you play it, hundreds of micro-behaviors are being reinforced, and no, they are not micro misogynistic aggressions. Do you know how that learning process is called? Learning to play a game. And the pleasure it causes  (the reward) reinforces… the desire to play that game. That’s basically it. From all the artistic mediums, games are probably the absolute worst for teaching beliefs or to try your hand at value modification.

They claim, however, that if you see a scantly clad female character, that reinforces… what exactly? Your desire to play that game (fan service)? That you wish there would be more women like that in the real world, or the belief that dressing like that should be the norm? Does that image of the sexy virtual woman become a fantasy, a moral imperative, a form of sexual escapism unrelated to real-world beliefs or…? What exactly are they implying? They never explain. But they don’t need to because they are scare-mongers, their business is scaring you into believing your hobbies may be a corrupting influence. They could be… harming women. And you don’t want that, don’t you? You are gentlemen, and you would always help a damsel in distress, wouldn’t you? Donate to her Ppatreon, then.

And the irony is that this worksbecausee Western society is not what they claim it is. It’s because you despise racism, misogyny, and so on that you (or many people) swallow their stupid arguments. After all, only people who believe in witches can be scared by a witch hunt.

If you claim that something reinforces something else, you need to explain how, and there is a whole science of behavioral analysis (and it’s not something you learn studying media analysis or gender studies, by the way.) It’s not just about linking an undesired social belief to something (whatever) that is somehow associated with it. Otherwise, you’ll end up making arguments like this one, which according to SocJus logic it should be perfectly valid:

In chess, pawns are routinely sacrificed, and the only important goal is to save your king and capture the enemy monarch. Chess reflects, amplifies, and reinforces tyranical worldviews of society. It teaches that monarchy is the “normal” system, and reinforces the socially-constructed belief that individuals are disposable and can be sacrificed to save the a member of the elite.

Laugh away, but that’s exactly what Sarkeesian has been saying all the time about video games and sexism.

4 thoughts on “SocJus Thesaurus: “Reinforcement”, or how A. Sarkeesian misuses psychology.

  1. Qoheleth

    I think you’re unnecessarily narrowing the scope of the word by treating it solely as a psychological term. To reinforce something, surely, is simply to strengthen it (as in “reinforced concrete”). And it isn’t obviously preposterous to say that one strengthens a cultural habit or thought process – be it desirable, undesirable, or neutral – by making uncritical use of it in an attractive setting. (Whether ’50s Christmas songs actually *do* make such use of unfair stereotypes about women, or whether it is at all undesirable to strengthen the habit of taking Genesis 2 seriously, is of course a separate question.)


    1. Perhaps, but “strengthens a cultural habit or though process” although the later not so much being cognitive, would still be described as “psychological reinforcement.” There is social psychology after all, although it’s true not many of them are (pure) behaviorists.

      The concept and its aplications are quite wide. In fact, the definition of reinforcement is pretty much “anything that makes the probability of certain behavior increase or decrease.” And that seems to be the meaning of the misaplication of reinforcement… or other words and terms that a certain brand of commentators or even journalists use casually. Besides, it’s a scientific term, it has applications and it can be tested, which is what I usually don’t find in these forms of cultural analysis.

      And I’m not sure the unfairness or morality of such “reinforcemente” is a different issue. The types of writing I was criticizing are quite moralizing and they can’t be read otherwise.

      (I honestly can’t remember much of what I wrote in this post you are commenting, it was a long time ago, but I think my opinion hasn’t changed that much)


  2. Qoheleth

    Granted that the quotes are innately moralistic, still I don’t see why it should be considered impossible to distinguish mentally between (a) the basic premise that media can reinforce certain habits of mind or will, (b) the specific assessment of a given piece as doing so, and (c) the moral judgment formed upon it in light of that assessment.

    Take the Lego quote, just for the sake of argument. The thought here appears to be, “Marking a certain Lego set as not being for boys reinforces the existing habit of treating Legos in general as boys’ toys, to the detriment of girls everywhere.” Now, surely it is possible to disagree with this without saying, “Only behavioristic psychologists are allowed to talk about reinforcement, and you’re using their private term the wrong way.” One might wholly accept Sarkeesian’s understanding of reinforcement, and still be free to say any of the following to her: [i] “No, it doesn’t. Saying ‘Some A are not for B’ in no way encourages people to think that most A are only for B.” [ii] “What existing habit? Who on Earth thinks of Legos as just being for boys?” [iii] “Oh, stop being such a wet blanket. What’s wrong with boys having certain toys intended uniquely for them?” And this is very much what I meant by all of these being separate questions. (You’ll note that I, II, and III needn’t agree with each other any more than they need agree with you.)


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