Game of trolls: on pop culture and the public voice of women

Women who write online receive far more personal attacks than their male counterparts.  When women are driven out of public conversations on pop culture, it harms all of us.

Harriet Williamson
9 June 2015

I recently wrote a piece for The Debrief, criticizing the presentation of sexual violence in the ever-popular HBO television series Game of Thrones. I expected there to be some backlash, mostly from die-hard fans of the show, but I wasn’t prepared for the tidal wave of vitriol that I received once my article had been published.

The majority of people who sent abusive and insulting tweets after the article was promoted online seemed to have skipped over the part where I said I was a huge fan of the show. I was accused of hating the programme, trying to ‘spoil’ it for other viewers, being a whining, sensitive ‘femtard’, and getting some kind of sick pleasure out of the violence onscreen, while condemning rape in a bizarre double standard. It wasn’t just me, The Independent’s Lucy Hunter Johnson wrote a similar comment piece and was tweeted that her article was the most efficient way of prompting others to call her a ‘cunt’ online.

It’s absolutely possible to enjoy media while simultaneously recognising that there are structural problems present in it. I purposely began the Game of Thrones article with a sentence about how much I enjoy the show, watching it every week and even wearing my Game of Thrones t-shirt to work. (It’s a casual office…) My love of Game of Thrones is exactly why I felt strongly enough to pen the piece in the first place. Pop culture is important, not least because it’s a language that we all share and can identify with. Music, films, television shows, games and advertising are a lens through which we see and understand the world. The kind of culture we consume says a great deal about our society and the kind of things we value within it. This is why criticism is so essential. It prevents us from becoming blind consumers of culture, too afraid of saying something unpopular to interrogate the media we’re presented with.

Feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian has been subjected to some of the most extreme online harassment following her online series exploring the portrayal of women in video games. She lives with constant death and rape threats, and has previously had to leave her home due to very specific threats to her safety. The content of her Feminist Frequency video series is not controversial. Sarkeesian’s critique is thorough and well-researched, and no different from the cultural criticism that films and books routinely receive. The reaction to her work is so disproportionate and extreme, that when I explain the situation to friends who haven’t heard of Sarkeesian or Gamergate, they are initially disbelieving.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Sarkeesian said “the reaction is like I'm trying to say that all games are bad, or all games should be taken away, or that these games shouldn't exist, instead of "Hey, we are complex and intelligent creatures and we can hold multiple ideas in our heads at the same time." We can be critical of the things that we love. That is possible.”

Why are we unable to have a meaningful conversation about certain areas of popular culture that some men wish to claim ownership of? Out of all the people who tweeted their disagreement with my Game of Thrones article, not a single one wanted to actually engage with what I’d written by having a discussion with me about it. Most of them didn’t appear to even have read the piece, and simply reacted to the headline. This is indicative of a bigger problem, namely that sexist abuse is consider part and parcel of being published online… if you’re female.

Women’s voices are routinely discredited and seen as illegitimate and lacking in credibility. If you’re a female speaking in a public space (on twitter, in a newspaper, on a message board, on YouTube etc.) the likelihood is that you will be the target of misogynistic abuse. This is particularly true if you’re talking about feminism or attempting to become part of a conversation about a typically male-dominated field.

It was interesting to recognise a disconnect between how those sending unpleasant tweets seemed to view me, and what was actually happening within the situation. The angry men appeared to believe me powerful enough to be ‘fair game’, perhaps due to my platform online or the places I’ve been published, and they attempted to take me down a peg or two. The reality is, of course, that I’m just starting out as a journalist, am pretty powerless within the industry, and I was being piled on by a group of largely much older men. Navigating the fraught combination of power and powerlessness that accompanies being a young woman with any kind of public platform is highly off-putting, and I’ve personally been tempted to give up writing on several occasions after similar incidents.

Women who write online receive far more personal attacks than their male counterparts. Personal attacks are not disagreement or debate, they involve comments about the writer’s appearance, sexuality, gender, mental health, and personal life. I don’t mind being told I’m wrong or that someone else holds a different view point. What I mind is being told I’m weak and stupid and ugly (one commenter encouraged others to check out the headshot accompanying my piece to confirm my displeasing appearance).  

I don’t doubt that there is a significant trend of would-be female writers being driven away from journalism and similar professions due to the fear of a misogynistic backlash. Why would you open yourself up to ridicule and abuse by daring to have a public voice? This culture of bullying is serving to further narrow public conversation and reduce the diversity of voices that we can engage with via print media and online. It represents a loss to public life as a whole.

Female voices in journalism are also repudiated on a wider level. There’s an obvious gender imbalance in terms of the topics women are invited to speak and report on, and women are rarely positioned as authoritative experts. In 2013, a study by Women in Journalism found that 78% of front page stories in national newspapers were written by men, and 84% of those quoted as sources or experts in lead stories were men. Moreover, women and writers of colour are disproportionately encouraged to write about their personal experiences in style that is often dismissed as ‘confessional’. The male voice is consistently positioned as rational and universal, and “when people who identify as women write about their own lives it is more likely to be dismissed as ‘trivial,’ ‘oversharing,’ and ‘gossip’ ”.

Dawn Foster, writing for openDemocracy last year, asserted that “women, far more than men, are expected to put themselves at the centre of stories, or plunder their own lives for material. Male experience is treated empirically, and straight reporting seen as the norm, whereas women are expected to have, and share, first person experience, often at the expense of their own privacy.”

This is has been absolutely true in my experience, with many publications refusing to let me write unless I exposed details about my own life. Writing about the personal is a double-edged sword, because in one way, it becomes a kind of ‘emotional labour’ that women and people of colour must perform and suggests that their domain is first person narrative due to a perceived lack of expertise, but cutting out personal experience altogether denies its political importance. When writing her latest book, Unspeakable Things, journalist and activist Laurie Penny proceeded in a dry, academic style, only to realise that “courage was missing” and that she had “spent so much time working and writing in a world where women’s experience was treated as trivial” that she had assumed her own experience must also be trivial, rather than politically charged and deeply necessary.

I have acquiesced to the requests of editors from several publications and written intimately about my struggles with type II anorexia, depression and Borderline Personality Disorder, because I believe it’s the best use of my public voice. If I can help destigmatize mental illness even a tiny bit by documenting my own experiences, then it will have been worth doing. Unfortunately, this has opened me up to more targeted abuse:

The relatively poor representation of women in ‘serious’ areas of journalism and the way women’s personal experiences are ‘othered’ and trivialized, are both intimately linked to the way female writers are treated by an online audience. If we agree to writing about our own experiences, we may open ourselves up to even more specific, personal attacks online. If we do not, we deny the fact that important experiences, particularly of discrimination, violence, structural inequality, sickness and poverty, are deeply political and deserve to be valued as such.

My piece on Game of Thrones is just a drop in the ocean in terms of the numerous examples of how women’s opinions and analyses are dismissed, and drowned out by angry internet voices. I was accused of being oversensitive about sexual violence in Game of Thrones, but that seems ironic coming from a bunch of grown men who can’t take some online criticisms of a fantasy television show. 

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