There’s no business like show business, least of all in the United States. Americans love celebrity, flamboyance, sensationalism and showmanship whether it is in the entertainment industry, politics, business, journalism or religion. I am reminded of this in looking at the careers of Aimee Semple McPherson and Anita Sarkeesian, two women from Canada, who found fame and fortune in the United States by means of shameless self-promotion, partnership with men endowed with shrewd business acumen, and through a masterful use of electronic media to broadcast their simplified and sensationalized messages to a wide and receptive audience. How they differ is that Aimee Semple McPherson found fame as a prominent Pentecostal evangelist in the first half of the 20th century; whereas, Anita Sarkeesian thrives in the present, promoting herself as a “pop culture critic.” Sarkeesian’s message is aimed at people who subscribe to the temporal ideologies of feminism and social justice. Despite these differences, if you look closely at the career of Aimee Semple McPherson and compare it to that of Anita Sarkeesian you will notice there are striking similarities, particularly as to the question of the character of both Aimee Semple McPherson and Anita Sarkeesian.
Aimee Semple McPherson was born as Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy on October 9, 1890, near Ingersoll, Ontario. She had a Methodist upbringing, but took up Pentecostalism at seventeen when she met Robert Semple, a Pentecostal preacher. The two were married in 1908 and began their ministry in Chicago before setting off on a mission to China in 1910. Misfortune struck when she and her husband were stricken with malaria upon their arrival in China. Her husband succumbed to the disease. After his death, she returned to the United States and remarried in 1912. Her second husband was Harold McPherson, a Christian businessman. Together they set off as travelling evangelists and soon were drawing large crowds at revival meetings across the United States. McPherson’s message was simple and defined as the Foursquare Gospel: “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, as the Savior, Baptizer with the Holy Spirit, Healer and coming King.” (Foursquare Church) She and her husband succeeded in raising $1,200,000 to found the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles in 1923. A year later her radio station KFSG was founded.
Aimee Semple McPherson built a large and adoring audience, but was not without her critics and enemies. There were death threats made against her and there were rumours she had an affair with Ken Omiston, the engineer for KFSG radio. In 1926 she went missing while swimming in the Pacific Ocean on May 18th. It was feared she had drowned, but a search for her body found nothing. Then she turned up alive and well in Douglas, Arizona on June 3rd. She told police she was kidnapped and held for a ransom of $500,000 under the threat her kidnappers would sell her into white slavery. She claimed she escaped from the shack she was held and walked to freedom across the desert. However, as Jim Hilliker notes in History of KFSG, to the police and reporters investigating her claim “Aimee didn’t appear sunburn[sic], if she had walked across the desert for many miles to freedom, and her shoes, clothes and overall physical condition looked too good to make her story believable. They also could find no sign of a shack where McPherson claimed she had been held captive.” (History of KFSG) Throughout the ordeal, McPherson stood by her story, appealing to her listeners on radio with the statement “That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.”
Aimee Semple McPherson continued her career as an evangelist following the scandal raised by this incident, but remained a public figure more for the notoriety generated by it. She passed away in 1946, but the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel continues its ministry in the present and the Angelus Temple is preserved as an historic landmark in Los Angeles. Angela Comstock, writing for Harper’s Magazine in 1926 summed up what remains the legacy of Aimee Semple McPherson as a public figure observing:
You may believe Aimee Semple McPherson to be a messenger direct from God Almighty to save his erring world. Or you may believe her to be the most unblushing fraud in the public eye today. Some do one, some the other; and there is every shade of opinion between. But the one fact stands out is that her influence is incredible, that it carries as that of few evangelists has ever carried, that she is today one of the most amazing phenomena of power in this feverish, power-insane United States. (as cited in Aimee Semple McPherson)
In comparison, Anita Sarkeesian was born in Toronto, Ontario in 1983, but was raised in California where she studied at California State University, earning a bachelor’s degree in communication studies. She continued her studies, earning a master’s degree in social and political thought at York University in Toronto in 2010. As was noted in the opening paragraph, Anita Sarkeesian promotes herself as a “pop culture critic.” She is in a partnership with Jonathan McIntosh who serves as the producer and co-writer on her Tropes vs Women in Video Games series started in 2009 and published on Feminist Frequency, her YouTube channel. In May 2012 they launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the series, setting out to raise $6000. By the end of the campaign on June 15, $158,922 from 6,968 donors was raised for the series. The first video in the series was released on March 7, 2013 . The latest video, the fifth in the series, was released on August 25, 2014.
In the Tropes vs Women in Video Games series Anita Sarkeesian sets out to criticize the video game industry from a feminist and social justice perspective. From the portions of the series I viewed she claims video game developers reinforce sexualization and violence against female characters and that this in turn leads to real world misogyny and violence against women. To her fans, the true believers in feminism and social justice, these claims are self-evident and point to a need for regulation of the video game industry to curtail the real world misogyny and violence against women it incites. Video game developers and enthusiasts point out she offers no evidence to support her claims and that the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association in 2011 that video games constitute protected speech under the First Amendment just as other forms of media. In addition, they point to the fact that as the video series progressed the number of views steadily declined. As of October 13, 2014 the first video in the series garnered 2.18 million views; whereas the fifth video in the series had 0.85 million views. (Wikipedia) They attribute this to the poor scholarship demonstrated in the video series.
Anita Sarkeesian is not without enemies either, or so it seems. She cancelled a speaking engagement at Utah State University in October, 2014, following a death threat directed at her and the intended audience for the event in an anonymous email message. She used the cancellation of her speaking engagement at Utah State University to sensationalize her plight as a “pop culture critic” standing up to the video game industry and its treatment of women to her advantage. Following the cancellation of her speaking engagement, donations flooded in to Feminist Frequency totalling $397,778. (PocketGamer.biz) However, Stan L. Albrecht, President and Noelle Cockett, Vice-President and Provost of Utah State University noted, following an investigation into the matter by campus police, state and federal authorities, “that there was no credible threat to students, staff or the speaker, and that this letter was intended to frighten the university into cancelling the event.” (as cited in Utah State Today) In spite of this threat, she continues with her speaking engagements and profits handsomely from them.
Just as Aimee Semple McPherson before her, Anita Sarkeesian is successful in connecting with her audience in broadcasting a simplified message that resonates with them. Not unlike Aimee Semple McPherson, Anita Sarkeesian is viewed by her supporters as noble crusader for the minds and souls of the feminists and social justice warriors whose core beliefs she promotes. To her detractors she is, as Angela Comstock famously observed in her review of Aimee Semple McPherson, the most unblushing fraud in the public eye today. As is the case for Aimee Semple McPherson, the controversy surrounding Anita Sarkeesian will continue for some time to come, and ultimately, the question of whether or not Anita Sarkeesian goes down in history as a noble crusader or an unblushing fraud will depend entirely on whom you ask.
Posted by Geoffrey