Targets and Perpetrators: Hate-Reading Women on the Internet
My life is good.*
*good but I acknowledge it's because of my privilege.
*good but let me tell you some bad things because I don't want to be accused of bragging.
*good but not that good. My life isn't perfect.
When I saw A Practical Wedding's theme for April, The Good, my first reaction was to shudder. Not because I don't know what's good about my life, but because... well... you want me to talk about that? On the internet? Are you nuts?
A New Niceness?
Despite the ubiquity of the Like button, the dominant culture of most major blogs and websites is overwhelmingly negative. They (we?) find a way to hate pretty much anything. In fact, finding people who hate the same things you do is often what makes the internet so amazing. The hot app at SXSW this year? Hater, an app that is all about the thumbs down button. While the founder claims it's just a place to vent and to be authentic about the things you don't like, I'm not sure why he thinks we need a separate app for that. It's happening on every major social network already.
Recently, Nathan Heller wrote an article in New York Magazine claiming that the web has gotten nicer. "For those of us who learned to love the web best as a hostile, predatory, somewhat haunted place, this kindness is startling—but not as startling as it might once have been," he writes. "These days, life online has become friendly, well mannered, oversweet. Everyone is on his or her very best behavior—and if they’re not, they tend to be quickly iced out of the conversation. The sweet camaraderie that flourished during Sandy isn’t just for terror and crisis anymore; it has become the way the internet lives now.”
To which the women on the internet replied with a collective snort.
"Yo dude, what websites have you been surfing?" one commenter wrote. "I want in on some of them. All the ones I've been in are flourishing with rape threats, death threats, people who genuinely think I deserve brimstone and hell fire—well, I'd run out of characters if I enumerated all of them but you get the point. Unless, maybe you haven't got a vagina. Then yeah perhaps the internet has gotten nicer. For you."
Katie J.M. Baker echoed these sentiments on Jezebel. "A new niceness? More like the same old bullshit. The virtual world isn't really separate from the 'real' one, in which, to reference just one depressing statistic, one in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. We can't ask 'when did the internet get so nice?' without also asking to whom, exactly, the internet is nice—and why?"
Contrary to what Heller writes, in the past few years, a wide swath of the social media world has gone from criticizing the terrible shit that needs to be challenged to hating... everything. Apparently, we ran out of bad things to hate (I guess? I'm pretty sure there's still some racism out there that we didn't catch), so we started hating the good things, and the earnest, hopeful, without-a-trace-of-irony moments that people once felt safe sharing on social media. Those people being hated are often women, and those moments are often emotional ones. Women who just met a career goal. Women who just got engaged, or who are planning their weddings. Women who are pregnant, or whose IVF finally worked, or whose adoption finally went through. Women talking about hobbies that make them feel confident, happy, and fulfilled.
This commentary on women's bodies, choices, careers, and families started with celebrity culture, and it certainly hasn't ended there. Anne Hathaway and Lena Dunham are two of the most recent examples of celebrities to get an over-the-top amount of hate sent their way. Here are two women who are experiencing huge moments in their lives (Dunham is writing and starring in her own award-winning show on HBO, Hathaway took home Oscar gold and just got married) and the public refuses to be happy for them, or simply leave them alone. If you ask one of the rabid, anti-fans why they hate these women so much, they grasp for reasons. Eventually, they say they are "annoying," and then use a few throwaway comments that made it into the public discourse to support the idea that these women are terrible people who don't deserve their success.
Attacks on female celebrities are so pervasive, we didn't even notice when the internet made the jump to hating less-famous and more recently well-known women: bloggers. Most women writing on the internet for any semblance of an audience have found themselves subjected to harsh criticism and deeply personal attacks from total strangers. Those of us who experience it don't talk about it much, because to be honest about how hurtful it is only makes people pile on. It's a classic playground situation; someone pushes your buttons until you cry, and then makes fun of you for crying.
Jon Stewart recently asked Lena Dunham how she deals with everybody's anger over how much she's accomplished. "I like to say I don't read it," she said. "That's my sort-of token line: I don't read anything. But if I'm being honest, I read a quarter of things... I like to say I don't read anything and that you can't let it get into your artistic process but what you actually do is read half of it and then try to force it out of your artistic process."
I haven't achieved her level of fame and success, or even the sort of success that would bring me anything near the kind of criticism that some of my blogger friends have received, and yet... I get it. I know that once you've let it get in your head, it's damn near impossible to get it out. I took the brunt of criticism during a time when I was completely happy and confident in all other areas of my life; instead of feeling proud or excited of what was happening, I spent weeks feeling incredibly ashamed. I was unable to stop thinking about the sentiment spewed in blogger hate forums that I had ruined my blog and my writing career because I "settled" for Eric. I couldn't tear myself away from it, and I couldn't stop writing my blog in a way that tried to address every bit of criticism... which led to more criticism, this time for not being strong enough to just ignore it.
Right after Eric and I picked out my engagement ring, a particularly nasty thread about me appeared. Eric couldn't stand to watch me punish myself any longer; that was the day he shut my laptop. I quit reading everything cold turkey right then, something that was surprisingly easy once I gave myself permission to tune it out. But the things that were said about me, and the things I know are still being said about me, are never far from my mind. Every time I hit "publish" on a post, I'm second-guessing myself. Did I come across as arrogant? Was I completely inclusive? Did I make myself look bad? Did I try to make myself look good? Did I use the right tone? Will this post make anyone feel bad? Did I talk about stereotypically feminine things too much? What will they say about Eric? Answering these questions takes a lot of time and mental energy and often leaves me feeling so bummed out that I just don't hit "publish" at all.
Author Jessica Grose, author of the book Sad Desk Salad about a protagonist whose blog is plagued by hate-followers, chatted with Gawker's Adrian Chen on The Awl last year about the topic of hate-blogs. As for why we hate-read, it seems like there's some twisted sense of doing it for the greater good. Grose says people do it because "they claim they actually want the person they're blogging about to change (be less narcissistic, write about things that are less frivolous, etc.)." While there are certainly things that bloggers write that make me feel icky, the kind of criticism happening on hate-blogs is hardly an elevated discourse about blogs, nor is it a reasoned discussion of substantive disagreements with an author's position.
Chen adds that the more one's internet persona is about being a "real person," the more likely they are to attract hate-followers. This also seems to be the case; the notion that these women deserve criticism because they are not as authentic as they claim to be is one of the most common excuses used by participants in hate-forums. But my suspicion is that most bloggers don't keep things offline because they are trying to trick anyone into thinking their lives are perfect; it's because they don't want to subject themselves and the people they care about to more attacks. After each positive post, there are claims bloggers are too perfect. For every negative post, the same women are derided for complaining about first-world problems. Just like in the real world, we are damned if we do, damned if we don't. I've watched a lot of bloggers quit rather than deal with it.
I think about quitting every day.
She Deserved It
As we observe these constant aggressions toward women in the public eye, we try to convince ourselves that no one would ever say those things about us because we aren't like those women. We aren't famous. We aren't rich. We aren't well known. We haven't made it big. Not us! We still struggle. We are humble. We know better. But eventually, after we've spent enough time immersed in a culture where the things we once considered to be the good (or simply harmless) parts of life are just more fodder for some caustic blogger, commenter, or Facebook "friend," we realize, no, we're not safe. So we put up our asterisks, online and off, because we don't want anyone to mistakenly believe that we deserve that kind of negative attention.
"She deserved it." It's the exact excuse used by the people who hate-read when they rip apart successful women of all stripes. They defend their behavior by saying that the subject is the one to blame. They say, "She put herself out there." And you know who would agree with that statement? The guys who take "creepshots" (sexualized photos that are taken of unsuspecting women's bodies—mostly their butts, legs, and breasts—while they are out in public) and then post them on Reddit. Or your friendly neighborhood street harasser. "Why would you put it on the internet if you didn't want attention?" sounds a hell of a lot like, "Why would you dress like that if you didn't want attention?" to me.
Defenders of creepshots believe that by being attractive and in public, a woman is asking for attention, and therefore she has no right to be upset about what kind of attention she gets. And similarly, we believe that when a woman shares her good news or talks about her life in a positive way that she's doing it for attention, to show off, or because she wants commentary from everyone. But women don't post on social media for attention; we post because we have something to say. Because in so many other areas of our lives, we're denied a platform. The internet feels like a godsend for those who can't get past the gatekeepers and be heard in real life. But we can't believe a woman would be posting for herself, or for the attention of a select audience. And even if we can believe it, we don't care; we buy into the idea that she's a woman, so merely existing in public is enough to make her public property.
And it really is "we" who buy into that idea. Women are the biggest users of social media, which means we are the most likely targets... but we're also the most likely perpetrators. While much has been written about the way misogynistic men harass women who write about feminism or social justice online, most of the vitriol that is directed at lifestyle bloggers (those who write about fashion, food, family, healthy living, or weddings) comes from other women.
If we see men harassing women online, we're disgusted; if we see women doing it, we shrug and move on. We say, "Just ignore it," and, "Don't feed the trolls," putting all of the responsibility on the person being attacked, and none on the attacker. And we say nothing to our friends who are proud of their hate-reading habits. But why would we? Both men and women have been conditioned to believe that women are objects, so both men and women are going to treat them as such.
Much of the time, when a woman is harassed in a public forum, her "crime" or the thing for which "she should accept some responsibility" (another go-to defense) is simply doing something that women aren't supposed to do: wearing a short skirt, enjoying sex, putting her work out there, talking about herself, or being proud of her life. Just like street harassment isn't really about the way she's wearing that dress, complaining about the way women talk about their success isn't really about the way she said it. It's about power.
Don't Be An Asterisk
This isn't just hurting celebrities or bloggers; it's sending a clear message to other women who are reading, commenting, and observing these toxic messages. The number of newer bloggers who ask me how I deal with criticism is really upsetting; their expression always says, "I'm afraid if I share my life or my opinions online that will happen to me too."
I've watched all my blogging friends water down their content, and everyone reading knows the reason why. And so it's no longer bloggers who hesitate to be heard; now we see it on other sites. On Facebook or the comment section of websites, women put up their asterisks promising their life isn't that good, or just lurk in the shadows, not saying anything at all out of fear of being torn apart. Considering the number of privately shared emails or photos or videos that go viral after being taken without permission, we have good reason to believe our safe zone is shrinking.
If we speak publicly against this kind of negative attention, we're told we should get over it, that it's a compliment. It's not a fucking compliment. Having people you've never met rip apart your life is no more a compliment than having a stranger say filthy things to you while you're walking down the street. Having vitriol spewed at you and those you love isn't a sign you've "made it." It's a sign that our culture is toxic toward women.
Telling women that they should be flattered is just another way of saying that we only exist for attention and therefore should appreciate any attention that we get.
So we put on a longer skirt, we don't send the status update, we don't start the blog, we don't leave the comment, we don't ask for the promotion, we don't stand up for ourselves. Instead, we put up the asterisk in conversations and hope that it will protect us from those who are bothered by our audacity to exist—to have bodies and voices and the courage to aim for contentment or success or a happy life. We apologize in advance.
Let's do something radical. Let's stop putting up asterisks, and let's stop expecting other women to do it and getting pissed off when they don't. If you tell me you had a great day, or only post good things on Facebook, (no asterisk), I'm not going to assume your intention is to trick me into thinking your life is perfect.
I don't need you to tell me all the reasons your life isn't perfect; I'm just going to think that you, like everyone, deal with enough shit in your life and that today you wanted to celebrate the good things. I'm not going to tell all my friends, "OMG SHE NEEDS TO STOP ACTING LIKE HER LIFE IS SO PERFECT BECAUSE I KNOW IT'S NOT." Because, well...duh. Of course it's not perfect. It should go without saying. So let's stop saying it.
Because overall, my life is good.