Culture

Why the internet loves to hate women for being themselves

Beware the moral police

Editor's note: Less than a month after Kim Kardashian was attacked by masked men in Paris, reports have emerged of Mallika Sherawat being attacked, allegedly with tear gas, in a Parisian apartment building. The shocking increase of violence against women, both physical and via the internet, clearly shows no signs of diminishing. You only needed to follow the US presidential elections to see the misogynistic vitriol directed against Hillary Clinton, much of which had nothing to do with her policy or politics. In our October issue, writer Sadie Doyle forces us to analyse why the internet hates women who aren't afraid to be themselves.    

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When I was 11, my parents got their first AOL account. By the time I was 12, it was an ongoing family project to pry me away from the computer and get me to do something vaguely social in real life. In the early ’90s, I spent every available moment of my life online.

I was a true believer in the coming internet utopia. I eagerly ate up every techno-futuristic fantasy about the Information Superhighway, devoured William Gibson novels about “cyberspace,” wore my one precious issue of Mondo 2000 into scraps with obsessive re-reading. To me, the internet was the new counterculture, a world full of colourful, super-smart freaks. They would talk to you about anything, from anywhere, at any time. They built alternate realities out of text boxes and shoddy pixelated graphics. You were never pinned down to one identity; no one had to know your gender, your age, or how popular you were at school (key concerns for a nerdy sixth-grader). The internet, above all, was a place to find your people: Type ‘feminism’ into a search engine and you’d be plunged into a community of women promoting the sort of heretical ideas about gender and power that you’d be called a freak for mentioning at school. Stay long enough, and those women might change your life.

When I look back now, I wonder what the hell I was getting suckered into. For all our utopian dreams, in 2016, the internet is mostly a live feed of women getting destroyed.

A man tweets me a photo of his hand holding a gun, finger on the trigger, with the text “when I see you, oh my god…” He deletes his account shortly afterward; I have no way to know if he lives close enough to shoot me, nor do I have any relevant details I can give to the police. Another friend announces that she’s leaving Twitter; a man has been sending her messages telling her to “get raped”, and no matter how many times she reports this, Twitter support won’t ban him. Leslie Jones, the Ghostbusters star, was able to fight off the racist trolls who assailed her after the movie’s release this year; however, a few weeks later, they came back and hacked her website, posting her driver’s license and passport information, as well as nude photos she’d taken privately.

The damage ricochets around the internet endlessly, hitting women at all levels of celebrity. Some cases make headlines, some go unnoticed. But whether the targets are celebrities or civilians, the cost of this endless stream of female wreckage is fear: Silent, everyday, encroaching dread, caused by the constant awareness that you could be next. After a few years of seeing my friends get hit by harassment campaigns and stalkers, I’ve stopped thinking about what will happen if I get doxxed or stalked, and started thinking about when. I don’t wonder whether someone will call me a cunt or a retard when I publish a new piece; I just wonder who will do it this time, and whether it will be a drive-by or the start of a dangerous obsession. The place I used to escape to, has become a place I want to escape from; what used to be a playground, an alternate universe where I could explore new interests and try on new personas untethered to my real-world obligations, now leaves me feeling hyper-visible, vulnerable and exposed.

It was partly out of that sense of vulnerability that I wrote my first book, Trainwreck. Although women are constantly told that visibility is what we should strive for, I couldn’t shake the feeling that being seen or heard, on its own, was not a solution to sexism. In fact, the more visible a woman was, the more likely she was to have her life burned down by a culture that needed to put mouthy women back in their place.

Most recently, we were promised that the internet would democratise fame. Start a blog, get a book deal! Make a YouTube video, become America’s next pop idol! But in practice, the drawbacks of fame are a lot more democratic than the paychecks. You’re less likely to become the next Britney Spears than you are to attract a cadre of Spears-worthy stalkers who monitor your every public utterance for things they can pick apart; less likely to get a modelling contract than to have an unflattering selfie captured by Reddit and turned into a meme. Micro-celebrity is just celebrity without the upsides. If we’re all famous, we’re primarily famous to the people who hate us most.

Rihanna

So the women who were most relevant to this new environment of crowd-sourced bloodlust and constant surveillance were not the success stories. They were the women who’d experienced fame’s downsides most intensely: Lindsay Lohan or Rihanna, whose experiences of domestic assault went viral and were turned into cruel jokes. Britney Spears, a woman whose natural ageing process led to countless posts about how “ugly” and “fat” she’d become, and whose need for psychiatric care was publicised mainly as a “meltdown.” Whitney Houston, a woman in an infamously abusive relationship who practically died in public, her most drug-addled and disturbing interviews became campy memes instead of reasons to fear for her life.

Yes, you could say that all of these women made wrong choices. They did drugs; they got drunk in public; they fell in love too often, or with the wrong people; they were too sexual, too sensitive, too outspoken, too much. But the fact is, you are doing something wrong right now, whether you know it or not. You’re either too sexy for someone, or too much of a prude; you’re opinionated or angry in the eyes of someone who disagrees with you. As long as women have had feelings, they’ve been called sensitive or crazy by men who wanted to hurt those feelings without getting blowback. And as for the partying, well: Getting drunk or high and doing stupid things has been the stuff of male coming-of-age tales since (conservatively) the time of Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac and Animal House. But when young women do it we act like civilisation is collapsing.

These women—their flaws and failures, their reprehensible personas, their forbidden desires—are human. Fully, publicly human, meaning the flaws came with the package. It nearly destroyed them. And it can destroy us, too. It’s humanity that’s currently being beaten out of us on the dystopic internet of 2016. Not just our moral or political stances, but the freedom to have an opinion at all, to make a stupid joke without being screamed at, to be sexual without having our most intimate moments posted online, to be sad or scared without some stranger mocking your pain or sending you messages that trigger your deepest fears. It’s humanity that is the most urgent task of feminism—to teach the world to see women as human and worthy of human consideration.

It’s humanity that I wanted to escape, back in those early days of the internet. I wanted to carve a portal to some other world, where I could be free of my small-town constraints and be whomever I wanted, in full colour. But I can’t have that. No one can. And I can’t leave, either. For one thing, I work there, but even if I quit, I’d be expected to have a Facebook profile or a LinkedIn resume to qualify as a trustworthy person. We all have to live on the internet and carry it around in our pockets, leaving only a few precious moments per day when we can escape.

This has made female humanity a more pressing project than ever. Can we even envision a world where women could be flawed without fearing the consequences? Can we imagine a place where a woman’s being is not hemmed in by violence and surveillance, and a chorus of voices enforcing false perfection by affirming that the cost of a mistake is having your life ripped apart?

When we envision that world where our true selves are unpoliced by the world at large—doesn’t that sound like a utopia? It’s certainly a truer one than any of the gaudy, neon-colored Information Superhighway fantasies I devoured in the early ’90s. I still don’t know if that world is possible. It seems more unlikely every second. But it’s a world we have the power to create, simply by making more space for each other, for treating with kindness the unflattering selfies, questionable fashion choices and the glorious attendant mess of being a person in progress.