Cybersexism is still the norm for women at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas

Clementine Ford, Emma Jane, Laurie Penny
Clementine Ford, Emma Jane, Laurie Penny

The Festival of Dangerous Ideas, held at the Sydney Opera house, is an annual event in Australia that aims to “discuss and debate the important ideas of our time.” This year, I was excited to see a panel on Cybersexism in the line up, but was also slightly apprehensive. Having researched in this area for a few years now, it is clear that the issue of online sexual harassment is constantly obscured in public discourse by virtue of patriarchal linguistic gymnastics. You know how it goes: online abuse is not a form of male violence against women, but a general issue about faceless arseholes and idiots online. It’s certainly not gendered, we’re told.

The Cybersexism Panel featured Emma Jane, Clementine Ford and Laurie Penny, all women with firsthand experience with the issue. Predictably enough, the discussion continually stumbled over how to conceptualize the online abuse of women. While Ford claimed that once you have heard a certain word for the 200th time, someone calling you, for example, a “fat ugly cunt” becomes meaningless. Jane was less optimistic about the idea that you could simply just ignore the problem, since its not just going to go away.

Ford’s case was that “the more you become exposed to the abuse online, the easier it gets.” She recommended solidarity among women to help alleviate the personal fallout, whilst also noting that she has been lucky enough to have gathered an “armour of women” to support her online as a result of her public profile. Her message to women was to draw on the women around you to try to find the humorous side of trolling, and aim to direct collective laughter at the perpetrators: these are men who are like “a pathetic group of insects that are trying to nip at you.”

I read Ford’s comments in light of what is undoubtedly a motivation to encourage women and girls to get online and contribute to public debate. While I do not wish to suggest that women do not have a right to exist online free from male violence and harassment (although I have written about whether the internet has been good for feminism here), I do wish to question the implication that getting more women online will necessarily lead to real and tangible social change. When we break it down, this is the classic liberal feminist position — its “add women and stir,” but for the internet age. Ford says she wants to impress on women that yes, it does hurt, and daily abuse can be incredibly anxiety inducing, but that it also gets easier. “Push through that and add your voice,” she urges.

Yet according to recent accounts, women now outnumber men on many digital platforms. Nevertheless, we have hardly seen a feminist transformation of digital technologies. Achieving equal numbers online is not akin to liberation, because numerical parity does not address the issue of hierarchical gendered power. Male dominance perpetuates itself, and we don’t want to have to act the aggressive male role and leave well alone the dominant structures simply to be allowed in.

Returning to the panel discussion, Laurie Penny mentioned early in the conversation that she finds it trivializing to refer to the issue of online sexual harassment and violence against women as trolling, yet what this panel highlighted for me was just how difficult it is to avoid these language traps. The dominant cultural message is so firmly ingrained; sexist abuse in any sphere of society is just life for women. At the closing of the session, the chair says to the three women, “thanks for copping crap on behalf of the rest of us.” The final taste left in the audience’s mouths is the description of the problem as crap, bile, incivility… Insignificant.

As feminists, we know language is important, and renaming has been crucial to women’s re-conceptualizing dominant cultural ideas. Indeed, the panelists engaged in this process themselves, with Ford offering the very astute insight that, although women online are being terrorized by men, as a culture we avoid this discussion. Ford suggests this is because in our cultural lexicon, “the only people who are allowed to be terrorists are people who are not white men.” Penny concurred, and used the example of Elliot Rodger to highlight how that which is really “misogynistic extremism” is culturally painted as merely the actions of a “crazy loner.”

We know that the words we use as a society set the tone for what can be said, thought and experienced as valid. Yet how can we, as feminists, think clearly when surrounded by dominant misogynistic cultural messages? In some ways it is extremely telling that we are all so confused about this. Which brings me to the point I want to make: The Cybersexism Panel at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas was effectively surrounded by cultural messages of blatant misogyny.

Screened at the beginning of the panel was a short trailer, which an audience gathered to discuss the very real problem of cybersexism was made to sit through. The series, called Viral Girls, is comprised of six short You Tube clips and “follows the disappearance of Belle Mackenzie, AKA ‘bestbitch93.'” According to the promotional material it is:

“A story about the internet and online culture. It takes us on a quick trip across the internet and its sponsored news content, YouTube stardom and hysterical fans, with conspiracy theorists and sophisticated corporate marketers thrown in for good measure.”

I get it — this is a parody. It’s for the laughs. But somehow the videos manage to mock everything but the misogynistic overtones. The central premise is that a much loved YouTube vlogger, who is famous for giving fashion, hair and make up tips while posing seductively on her bed (there is also some corporate sponsorship thrown in for good measure — yay, empowerment!), goes missing. Immediately, given the context in which it is being shown, I assume this will be a critical film about violence against women, the digitalization of sexual abuse, and the highly gendered ways in which women are encouraged to express themselves online. The soundtrack, which features a jarring male voice chanting “bring our bitch back” and a female voice sobbing “where is she?” is ominous and, frankly, frightening.

It is clear from the trailer that Belle’s fans have taken to social media to try and find her using the hashtag #bringourbitchback. I get the point that this is about the dumbing down of youth culture, and poking fun at the fact that we do live in an age where raising awareness of social issues online is often more about self-promotion than revolutionary change (ice bucket challenge, anyone?). But what the video completely fails to recognize is that we also live in a culture where women do go missing, and are raped and murdered daily. A culture where distressed family and friends do in fact appeal on social media to try to find their loved ones. A culture in which these stories do not often end well.

During the panel discussion, Ford, Jane and Penny all referred explicitly to the real world consequences of the online abuse of women. Emma Jane in particular mentioned that attacks from online are now flowing offline, referencing how intimate partner violence is now being carried out digitally, with men inciting other men to join in the attacks. Giving the example of a case where a man put a post on Craigslist urging men to come and rape his ex wife and daughters, Jane reported that when he posted her home address 50 guys turned up. It is presumable enough that a crowd of (mainly) women gathered to address the issue of cybersexism already have some familiarity with these issues and have likely experienced it themselves. Yet this is the video they are shown.

Watching the video series when I got home, the misogyny only gets worse. In episode three the “Fizz a Bitch Up” challenge is invented to raise awareness for Belle, and features two teenagers gyrating to music while squirting soft drink at each other. Their social media trainer continues to film them (keep dancing!) even when they are obviously distressed and on the ground crying, having fired soft drink into each other’s eyes. Episode four, a man in a mask addresses the camera from his bedroom and announces that Belle is still missing. Did he take her? Is he holding her hostage? Will we now see footage or images of her in distress, having been forced to perform sexual acts? No, hold up, this section is merely poking fun at conspiracy theorists and digital piracy. The final nail of horror for me was episode five, in which the female Minister for Men (a uniquely Australian reference regarding our sexist Prime Minister recently designating himself the Minister for Women, and perhaps the only evidence of critical feminist thinking in the whole series) makes fun of Belle’s vlog to the media, making light of her taking antidepressants. Never mind that antidepressants are also a highly gendered phenomenon, which some feminist theorists suggest function to “make women more pleasing to men…less difficult, critical, demanding, high maintenance, needy, angry; and more relaxed placid, and easy to be with.”

My point is that these videos contain no critical awareness of how mainstream cultural norms feed into violence against women, or how the cultural messages contained in these videos contribute to policing female behaviour through sex role stereotyping and the very real threats/overtones of violence. Just to backtrack, this film was produced by the Festival of Dangerous Ideas (an organization whose modus operandi is to promote a questioning of the status quo), and was seen as an appropriate opener for a serious discussion about cybersexism.

As far as issues of male dominance are concerned, the Viral Girl web series promotes mainstream culture rather than undermining it. What is marketed here as cutting cultural critique is rather trading on stereotypical social scripts that are implicitly related to female subordination and violence against women. The Festival of Dangerous Ideas seems ready enough to mock the very real impacts of corporate and government control on our everyday lives, but somehow this critique does not extend to misogyny. This is the context in which we are trying to have feminist discussions and it is a very dangerous problem.

Jessica Megarry is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. Her research explores feminist theory, new media, social movements and violence against women. She tweets @jessicamegarry.

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