Tag Archives: sexism

Cybersexism: an essay that started life as a review

28 Aug

The internet can be a terrible and a wonderful place. Example: the other day, Laurie Penny, top journo and blogger (www.penny-red.com) tweeted to say that her new book was available from Bloomsbury for the stonkingly excellent online price of £1.50 BUT – if that was a stretch – we could email her and get it for free as long as we wrote a review.

And because the internet is delicious and exciting and facilitative of communication, I did. I emailed Laurie Penny and said ooh yes please me please and to my great delight and joy she emailed back in a perfectly friendly manner that made me feel she hadn’t sent more than about 3 such emails (even though I’m reasonably sure she sent hundreds) with a link. And so I read the book, and now, reader, I’m reviewing it. It’s about how the internet can be a terrible and a wonderful place.

Cybersexism starts out with the internet’s bold mission statement of inclusivity and goes on to explain, first, what that meant to the author, especially as a young woman, and second, how that trust in it can turn out to be wildly misplaced as soon as some users want to assert a hierarchy that they came there in the first place to escape.

Penny (I can’t call her Penny; it sounds too Enid Blyton. I’m going to refer to her as Laurie and hope she doesn’t mind) writes fluently and with a light touch about her discovery of the internet at what sounds like a time of extended personal crisis. As a girl who also wrote – compulsively, in ridiculous notebooks that I can never show to anyone but can also never throw away – I do understand to some extent (although obviously not the whole extent, *checks privilege* etc). And so I also understand how brilliant and beautiful the internet can be, providing a place where you can put all these words out there, or even just imbibe other peoples’ words.  You could close your laptop at 1am after you’d spent hours reading fanfic or looking at beautiful character renderings on DeviantArt and you would feel (what you would later call) tipsy on all those shared emotional connections with people you would never meet IRL.

I’m only three years younger than Laurie, so a lot of our experiences of this are very similar (more similar, than, say, my experiences compared with my brother’s, who is three years younger than me). Facebook hit us at around the same age. When she goes on to talk about the excitement and subsequent  drama of the photo/detag and the horror of the morning-after-the-night-before pictures, it’s all too familiar. Luckily I’ve never been accosted by someone in a professional context based on my social media profile, but I’m reasonably sure there are pictures out there that could be used against me. Even though the one time I dressed as a rabbit, I was actually Rabbit from Winnie the Pooh. Anyway, the point is, I get it. I get the newness and the excitement because it was new and exciting for me, too, in a way that my younger siblings don’t really get. And I get the horror and the woe and the finding out what you did last night via someone else’s camera and the learning where the lines are, too.

It’s around this point that Laurie makes it incredibly plain that there are people in positions of power who actively go out of their way to find and abuse women on the internet, and that this in turn creates a culture where standards of ‘internet safety’ for girls are much higher than they are for boys. And this feeds into and is generated by the vicious cycle which assumes that girls need protecting, and while they wait to be protected, while the men figure out how they are going to do this with their immensely superior ‘thinking’-oriented brains, they should just sit quietly and keep their mouths shut meanwhile. As she says, it’s the rhetoric of shame.

“Although the technology is new, the language of shame and sin around women’s use of the Internet is very, very old. The answer seems to be the same as it always has been whenever there’s a moral panic about women in public space: just stay away. Don’t go into those new, exciting worlds; wait for the men to get there first and make it safe for you, and if that doesn’t happen, stay home and read a book.”

 

It’s a salient point, and one that Laurie has real experience of. She mentions it later in the book, but you can read her blog post on it here, too: http://www.penny-red.com/post/57613813151/on-bomb-threats-and-boredom.

Women are routinely chased out of public spaces and told to shut up. I know this. Friends know this. Women are watched. Women, suggests Penny, and I’m not 100% sure I agree with this but I certainly agree with the sentiment behind it, have been the voice of calm and reason in talk about spy networks and data leaking, because women have always assumed that they are being monitored.

Women self-censor constantly in order to be acceptable, to other women and to men. Women are encouraged to make themselves as small as possible in order not to get in the way of male egos. Not all men! You will probably cry. Well, no. But studies have shown (and I’m scraping the barrel of my memory a bit here so you’ll have to forgive me if this isn’t quite right) that it only takes a women to men participation ratio of about 1:3 to make men feel that women are dominating conversation via computers. Zimmerman and West, 1975. I think we’d all like to think that has changed, now, but as anyone who has heard of Caroline Criado-Perez and/or Mary Beard knows, there are still a lot of men out there who resent any speech by women at all.

I’m skipping around a bit here but you’ll have to forgive me for that. I want to talk about Laurie’s discussion of the (false) distinction between IRL and the internet. I watched a TED talk recently that made this same distinction: http://www.ted.com/talks/sherry_turkle_alone_together.html. Thankfully, I had also just read this article, which gave me some hope: http://www.newstatesman.com/martin-robbins/2012/09/trouble-ted-talks. When Turkle made the claim that the internet and real life are separate and occupy different levels of reality, I was immediately suspicious. And Laurie picks up on this. The internet is not separate, not any more. What is said or done on the internet can really affect you. This is what the abusers subjecting women on Twitter to a barrage of insults and threats do not seem to realise and what some – those who have been charged by the Met Police’s cyber crime unit – have been made to find out the hard way. But not just the horrible stuff – the internet is also a place where people meet and love and have sex, break up and show their heartbreak and have fifty people ask them what’s wrong. It can genuinely make you laugh out loud and it can make you cry, too. I dated a boy because of the deep chats we had over instant messaging, and I broke up with him because he changed his facebook profile to ‘looking for a relationship’. This shit, positive and negative, is real.

My favourite bit is undoubtedly the section about geeks and the misogyny of the geekspace. This is insightful, well-written and tremendously reassuring. I work in the tech industry and I see exactly what Laurie is describing – not (thankfully) to the same extent in most cases, but certainly in many. I also know I’m the biggest nerd in the office, if such things are quantifiable. And yet – the technology doesn’t belong to me. It’s not for me. It’s something I’ve fallen into by accident after a lifetime of being told that I’m a humanities girl. (I am, but not because I’m a girl. And that doesn’t mean I’m any less of a nerd). I suggested I could learn to code in my spare time and my boss said he didn’t think it was a good idea. Coding’s not for girls. So to see such a vibrant defence of what ‘geek’ means without having to identify geekery by gender is lovely and wonderful. I hope that many people read this. I think it should be immortalised in some sort of nerd manifesto.

Ultimately, Laurie has, I think, several hopeful messages. That the internet is as real as real life is all too true – and just like real life, it’s as real and meaningful as you make it. It’s also an opportunity for people to come together and seek support and encouragement when in the past they would have been silent.  Witness the Everyday Sexism project, Misogyny Online, Everyday Victim Blaming, etc. Freedom of speech means allowing all the voices to chatter at once and being able to respond as you see fit, and it is not the inalienable and overwhelming right of white, straight men to speak before all others. And finally, and mostly pleasingly for me, that geeks may be (a part of) the problem, but they are also the solution.

Well. That was a long one. Thanks for sticking with it. I think Cybersexism is a great little piece of writing and you should definitely buy it. You can do that here, as it happens: http://t.co/uk3eCIKstB

Strong Female Characters

20 Aug

The New Statesman ran an article this week about Strong Female Characters, and how actually, they are really quite odious. Not in an ‘urgh, laydeez!’ way, you understand, but in a ‘this is a lazy way of satisfying our need for interesting women on screen’.  I read it because I was mildly outraged by the headline and came away agreeing with it quite vehemently. (you can read it too, here: http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/08/i-hate-strong-female-characters)

A while ago I wrote something rather similar, at least based on its starting point. I too bemoaned the lazy attempts to make female characters ‘strong’ by not giving them obvious romantic motivations, equipping them with guns, etc. That stuff still stands, I reckon, so I’m going to reproduce it here.

“The film world is choc-full of sensitively portrayed, emotionally interesting, intelligent and personable men. It’s also got its fair share of sappy romantics, gun-toting action heroes, maverick cops, family men faced with difficult choices, cuddly pet-owners and lads about town. Film has all these characters and many more, and actors seem to be able to play any of these they like, in just about any sequence. This is why Daniel Radcliffe can play a boy wizard, a disturbed Victorian gentleman and a Beat poet all before he hits 25. And we love a bit of variety, so let’s not grudge them that.

What about the women? Think of the last two films you saw. I can pretty much guarantee that even if one of them contained a sympathetic and interesting view of women, or at the very least, passed the Bechdel test (that’s the one about a film having female characters who talk to each other about something other than men), the other one didn’t. Unless you make a special point of only watching feminist-friendly movies, in which case, props to you, but I bet you don’t get to the cinema much.

For a bit of light relief I here refer you to the excellent Canadian cartoonist Kate Beaton, who did a great series of drawings of some lady superheroes called Strong Female Characters.  For your perusement and amusement: http://harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=311.

Such violent bare-chested women are not everyone’s idea of a strong female character. That’s ok. That’s the point. As I said earlier, variety = good. But – they do seem to be the prevalent ones that appear in the movies. Giving a girl a gun is apparently sufficient for many directors to feel they have secured the goodwill of the lady demographic who are interested in something other than a romance. And ideally, said girl will also be hot, which will get the men onside who might otherwise be worried about dangerous levels of over-empowerment.”

So. That’s what I identified to be the situation when I wrote that, some time in the spring.

I return now to the New Statesman article. The hatred of ‘Strong Female Characters’ can be summarised thus:

“Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong.”

The author, Sophia McDougall, goes on to explain that ‘strength’ is the standard recourse for making a female character more than just an object, a shadow on the narrative. Strength is the substitute for any other characteristic. Strength becomes the only adjectival defining feature of the character. Strength is frequently portrayed as anomalous, ‘not like the other girls’. And strength is limiting, and also boring. We want characters with personalities! Characters that swing between being a bit dippy and useless and inspired and woebegone! Characters like people in real life!

McDougall absolutely rightly and sensibly says – it doesn’t make sense to ask if our favourite male characters are ‘strong’. All of them have different, unusual traits and ways of handling themselves in situations that may or may not be deemed strong. Some of them are unbelievably self-destructive. Some are crushingly indecisive. Some are arrogant dickheads. Tony Stark says he’s a ‘genius, millionaire, playboy, philanthropist’ and that’s a summary. He says that to Thor, a Norse demi-god whose biceps are bigger than Stark’s thighs, but even Thor couldn’t be solely categorised as ‘strong’. Thor (in his own, titular movie, at least) is headstrong. Among other thngs. That’s why these guys are fun to watch, and why we root for them. To shamelessly pilfer yet more of this excellent article, they expand across more than one axis of characterisation.

It’s also assiduously noted by McDougall that an apologist for the SFC phrasing suggests that ‘strong’ actually means ‘well written’. Well. That’s nice. As she goes on to point out, however, a) that doesn’t stop it being misinterpreted by writeres to make their jobs a bit easier, and b) it’s pretty rubbish that it’s considered a perk when female characters are well written, rather than just, y’know, something we should expect to see. ‘The Strong Female Character has something to prove’ she says. She has to be a character in herself but she also has to represent her whole gender, because frequently, she’s the only example of it you’re going to see for the next ninety minutes.

We know that there are three men on screen to every woman. We know that only a tiny proportion of directors are female. There are disporportionate numbers of male to female screenwriters, which is odd when you consider that the gender disparity in other types of writing is not nearly so great. We also, presumably, know lots of women. I mean, half the world is female. Even without the women behind or in front of the camera, there’s no excuse for not knowing what women can be like. Women are as flawed and unpredictable and wonderful and stupid and impassioned as men. But in order to see all these facets, there has to be more than one woman per film to demonstrate them.

McDougall concludes with this:

“What do I want instead of a Strong Female Character? I want a male:female character ratio of 1:1 instead of 3:1 on our screens. I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or both or netiher, because they are more than strength or weakness. Badass gunslingers and martials artists sure, but also interesting women who are shy and quiet and do, sometimes, put up with others’ shit because in real life there’s often no practical alternative. And besides heroines, I want to see women in as many and varied secondary and character roles as men; as female sidekicks, mentors, comic relief, rivals, villains. I want not to be asked, when I try to sell a book about two girls, two boys and a genderless robot, if we couldn’t change one of those girls to a boy.”

It’s a big change but it’s not an unreasonable one. Right?

Anyway. I’ve added my thoughts. McDougall’s article is really very good and I recommend it to you all once again.

The last thing she writes is a paraphrase of a performance poet. I like to think that in her titular statement, there’s more than a touch of Dorothy Parker’s Hymns of Hate. Maybe someone should write that and take this to the next level.

“I hate Strong Female Characters. They suppress my individuality.”