From Josie Cunningham to Anita Sarkeesian, women online are subject to a seemingly constant barrage of hate and abuse. The Gryphon explores the phenomenon of online harrassment.
At some point in most people’s lives they will be the recipient of online abuse, with so-called ‘keyboard warriors’ directing torrents of hatred at anyone and anything that they even slightly disagree with. Public figures naturally become a prime target for most aggression and hate, and in recent times Josie Cunningham and Katie Hopkins have received the lion’s share of this aggression. Both women have made a name for themselves in embracing a controversial lifestyle, with Cunningham most recently being dubbed ‘Most
Hated Woman’ by a Channel 4 documentary. Rather than try to avoid abuse, Cunningham seems to actively encourage it as the documentary follows her and her ‘agent’ conjuring up new ways to enrage the twitter hordes. Similarly, Hopkins never shies away from the limelight, with each radio, television, and magazine interview becoming more and more excessive. She even went on Celebrity Big Brother to bestow on the British Public the honour of non-stop Katie Hopkins.
A quick twitter search for both Hopkins and Cunningham brings up a wide range of abuse and anger directed towards these women and, alarmingly, seems more focused on their looks and gender than actual actions. Cunningham is compared to a pig in a wig and predictably called a ‘whore’, ‘slut’ and ‘slag’ within the first couple of tweets. Hopkins too, is frequently called ‘ugly’, with the Daily Mail dubbing her a ‘grotesque loudmouth’. Why does her appearance need to be brought into this discussion, and more importantly, why is it that opinionated women are always ‘loudmouths’?
Feminist blogger Sarah Dittum defines this online hate culture as a sexist issue, due to the recipients of this hatred being predominately female. Whilst controversial male figures do receive their fair share of abuse, the hate directed towards women is more personal. It is almost always engaged with their looks, sexual derogation and their children. We cannot escape the fact that the go-to insult for women is to sexually degrade them; whore, slag, bitch, slut etc. Rather than argue against the beliefs, ethics, and morals – which is what these women are hated for in the first place – it is simpler to give a generic sexual insult. When you only have 140 characters in which to release a torrent of hate and anger, it is a lot easier to go for these accepted abusive terms, rather than address and argue against an opinion.
Of course, there is the argument that these women invite this abuse. While this argument can be debated, it’s true that Cunningham and Hopkins do seem to relish the attention that this hatred brings. In their actions and opinions, they are asking to be harassed and attacked and are seemingly perpetuating the anger. Of course we can argue this, but should we? Is anyone, no matter how unpopular they are, really ‘asking for it’?
Why do these twitter ‘trolls’ feel the need to put women in their place whilst hiding behind a computer screen, threatening sexual violence?
After watching the Cunningham documentary, I was left very uncomfortable. The programme highlights the bullying she received when she was younger for having no breasts. She was literally urinated on because she has a condition which prevented her mammary glands from developing. It doesn’t take a psychologist to figure out that Cunningham is so used to being hated she would rather just invite the hate than attempt to be liked. How has it got to the point that women in this situation are now able to make a career out of being professionally hated? Surely the most sensible suggestion would be to ignore these people until they get off of our TV screens, yet instead the online community seems to relish in the opportunity to attack.
It is not just women like Cunningham and Hopkins who are attacked online. Popular feminist figures are usually the first in the firing line for online abuse and sexual harassment. There is an alarming amount of anger directed towards women who are fighting
for gender equality. Whilst many people who disagree with the feminist movement may not have the confidence to argue against it in public, behind the safety of a screen it is a different matter.
Anita Sarkeesian, blogger, media critic and public speaker, created the youtube video webseries ‘Feminist Frequency’ that ‘explores the representation of women in pop culture narratives’. She takes issue with the representation of women in film, TV, and video games. Her questioning of women’s representation in the gaming industry does not sit well with certain members of the online gaming community, resulting in many of them taking to twitter to vent their anger.
Sarkeesian has received so much abuse that she has even created a tumblr blog ‘One week of harassment on twitter’ chronicling a weeks’ worth of abuse sent to her @femfreq twitter account after her ‘Tropes vs Women in Video Games’ project. Her claim that
‘It can sometimes be really difficult to effectively communicate just how bad this sustained intimidation campaign really is’ darkly intimates how lightly we take threats of sexual violence towards women; the tweets sent to Sarkeesian are incredibly threatening and violent. One user threatens to ‘rape u all the way to 2069’ whilst another asks her to ‘go kill yourself oh wait did I hurt your tits with my keyboard’. These are nestled between the plethora of tweets calling her a ‘despicable whore’ and general threats of her rape and murder.
She is not alone in this. Caroline Criado-Perez, another feminist activist has also involved herself in campaigns for better media representation of women, has also been subject to online harrassment. Her campaign to get women on bank notes saw her receiving 50 threats an hour on twitter. Criado-Perez however does not think this is anger directed towards the feminist movement, rather “it’s that some men don’t like women and don’t like women in the public domain”, claiming that “men get attacked because they’ve said or done something someone doesn’t like, whereas women get attacked because they’re visible.”
Threats of rape and sexual abuse arguably rob women of their agency. In ignoring the valid and powerful arguments that these women make, ignoring their intelligence and mental empowerment, it renders a woman incapable of defence by turning her into a sexual object who deserves sexual violation. The casual use of negative sexual terms (such as slut etc.) arguably make it difficult to understand the seriousness of threatening sexual abuse as these abusive terms are used all the time – not just by men but by women as well. We all laughed at the Mean Girls ‘burn book’ calling other girls ‘fugly sluts’ for no apparent reason, but a few minutes on twitter feels like one big burn book. One of Criado-Perez biggest trolls was in fact another woman. When asked if she was surprised about this, she responded that the women had ‘internalized misogyny that was reflected in society as a whole.’
Why do these twitter ‘trolls’ feel the need to put women in their place whilst hiding behind a computer screen, threatening sexual violence? Lindy West, feminist writer, claims that online harassment has become a part of her daily life, to the extent that she is always surprised when other people find it surprising, “You’re telling me you don’t have hundreds of men popping into your cubicle in the accounting department of your mid-sized, regional dry-goods distributor to inform you that you’re too fat to rape, but perhaps they’ll saw you up with an electric knife?”
Surely if this did happen in reality we would start to take it seriously but instead Sarkeesian, West and just about every other woman who is harassed by the online community are just told that it’s part of the job. At the height of the abuse directed toward Criado- Perez, she was simply told to fill out an online form for twitter detailing the abuse she had received. It was only through her own personal drive that two of her abusers were finally convicted. Unfortunately this is not a determination that is shared by all women, with some such as Cunningham simply giving in to the torrent of harassment and capitalising on it instead.
West too, seemingly accepted it as part of her life until one troll created a fake twitter account parodying as her dead father. She wrote an article for The Guardian detailing her experiences with this harassment, and how she eventually came to confront this troll via a two and a half hour telephone call on ‘This American Life’. She asks of him the simple question, “Why?” Why did he feel the need to attack her so personally, and his answer is equally simple; he hated her for her not hating herself. At that time he felt fat, unloved and passionless and for some reason he found it easy to take that out on women online. This harassment started up around the time that West started to criticise rape jokes, with West saying that “what we say affects the world we live in, that words are both a reflection of and a catalyst for the way our society operates. When you talk about rape, I said, you get to decide where you aim: are you making fun of rapists? Or their victims? Are you making the world better? Or worse? It’s not about censorship, it’s not about obligation, it’s not about forcibly limiting anyone’s speech – it’s about choice. Who are you? Choose.”
I have had twitter for one week now to conduct research for this article. It’s been one week of chronicling and detailing every type of threatening message sent to prominent outspoken women, and it’s been a week where I’ve realised how serious it is every time we tweet a woman to let her know she’s a bitch or slut. It is a way of silencing women, of letting them know it doesn’t matter how intelligent or empowered they are, they can still be reduced to being sexually objectified. But West, Criado-Perez, Sarkeesian and countless others are not letting the trolls win, “Keep screaming trolls, I see you,” West says. We see what this harassment is attempting to do and we refuse to be silenced.
Photographs: twitter, Lindy West, guardian.com