Freedom of E-xpression: Overt and Covert Policing of Woman-Produced Internet Content

The infinitely expanding, ultra-dynamic place that is the internet in 2015 is a fascinating and sometimes terrifying place. The anonymity, viral potential, and a sense of “unrealness” that the internet provides has led to a very “real” culture of harm that is pervasive across social media and internet forums. In particular, this culture of harm seeks to silence certain voices and amplify others. I argue that the internet is a space in which policing of expression of marginal bodies (in this article, women) is increasingly prevalent, and that abuse and harassment are increasingly common and tolerated in this same space. In particular, these women who are silenced are those who tend to defy heteropatriachal standards of “acceptable” production: for example, those that encroach upon stereotypically masculine topics (sports, video-games, etc.), that are vocally anti-mysogynist, and those displaying their body in a way that does not gratify straight masculinity. In exploring this proposal, I will draw upon several very recent instances of anti-woman internet policing and covert “hushing”.

To begin this exploration, I would like to look at overt examples of content policing and silencing. A sickening example of this can be seen in the Twitter hailstorm endured by actress Ashley Judd. Judd tweeted during a Sunday TV basketball match that the opposing team was ‘playing dirty & can kiss [her] team’s free throw making a—‘ (Alter). The response was swift and malevolent. Fans, presumably in defense of the team that was “playing dirty”, began to tweet physical and sexual threats and insults towards Judd’s intelligence, age, and body. To compound the awfulness of the situation, this onslaught was particularly triggering for Judd, who had faced sexual abuse and incest in her youth. She took down the tweet shortly thereafter. Thus, simply by speaking up about a topic on which her “expertise” is questioned (due, by no stretch of the imagination, to stereotypes about women and organized sports), Judd was abusively silenced.

This experience of abuse parallels startlingly well with the harassment that has plagued other female internet contributors that are vocal on stereotypically “male” subjects, especially in a subversive manner. One of these women is Anita Sarkeesian, the producer of the YouTube series Feminist Frequency (Sarkeesian 2012). Her series of videos focuses on the objectification and exploitation of female characters in video games, and uses apt and fairly conservative modes of analysis to do so. As such, it is by no means “radical” (in the popular sense of the word): for example, Sarkeesian may explore how female bodies are killed and maimed for no gainful purpose in games. It is hard to imagine that anyone could disagree significantly with her straightforward analyses, however, the internet does not fail to amaze. Sarkeesian has begun a page dedicated solely to the threats she receives on a daily basis. These comments range from threats of rape to threats of murder, explicit descriptions of sexual acts that (mostly) gamers would like to inflict on Sarkeesian, and detailed descriptions of her home and whereabouts posted for all to see (Sarkeesian 2015). In 2014, Sarkeesian was forced to cancel a University lecture about her works of resistance after a message was sent to the school threatening a mass shooting if she were allowed to speak. And this is the crux of the issue: Who is allowed to speak? What does “free speech” really mean – i.e. when death threats are employed regularly?

The internet speech and internet-cultural productions of women are restricted in violent and terroristic ways such as those mentioned above, as well as by more subtle and pernicious methods. For example, in the summer of 2014, Instagram user Samm Newman’s account was deleted after she posted a photo of herself in a bra and boyshorts (Rose). For users of Instagram, this outfit should raise no red flags. Women are constantly featured on Instagram wearing less than this all the time. The only difference between Samm and these women? Samm is plus sized. After a pushback from Newmann’s supporters, Instagram apologized for their “mistake”. However, the message was loud and clear: Newman’s internet expression was not adequately palatable or gratifying to the sizeist gaze, and did not meet hegemonic standards of “sexiness”. Thus, it was relegated to the black hole of “unworthy” content, and “unworthy” female bodies. Another Instagram user and artist, Rupi Kaur, was banned from the site just weeks ago for posting works of art in which a small amount of her menstrual blood was visible (Cascone). Her response was incisive, and critically exposes what “acceptable” and “unacceptable” forms of the female body/female expression look like on the internet. She states: “I will not apologize for not feeding the ego and pride of misogynist society that will have my body in underwear but no be okay with a small leak, when your pages are filled with countless photos/accounts where women…are objectified, pornified, and treated [as] less than human” (Cascone). In both of these cases, the “imperfect”, unregulated, autonomously expressive products of women were squelched and hidden away, deemed unacceptable for consumption. And another question emerges – unacceptable for whom?

In this short exploration of the internet’s treatment of woman derived content, we have come across two major questions. For whom is freedom of expression and speech a reality, and who “benefits” when this right is curtailed for certain groups? The first question is one that often raises venom and spite. Many, especially those that are part of a very central (non-marginal) group, will argue that everyone has the right to free speech – and they should expect others to as well (i.e. they should expect harassment if speech is to be free). However, I see this understanding of free speech as facile. There are far more ways that speech and expression are policed than through litigation and a charter of rights and freedoms. I argue that abuse, threats, and harassment are just as effective in silencing people as laws and regulations. Indeed, this understanding of free speech also falls flat when one considers the policing of content considered “inappropriate” or “unacceptable”: Why is it that hateful comments and abuse are “Freedom of speech” that should be expected and protected, but the mostly covered body of a plus sized woman is so out of line that it must be deleted and the internet shielded from it? This leads into the second question: who is benefiting from the double standards of free expression? When abuse is tolerated but the expression of something as simple as a large body or menstrual blood is banned, it is misogynist and anti-woman society that benefits. It is individuals and systems who only want to see women as sexy and gratifying to their gaze, or not see them at all. And this certainly does not stop with women. Being on the margin means that your freedom of expression is curtailed significantly by these same factors. LGBTQ+ individuals, racialized individuals, disabled individuals, female and feminine individuals. With the amount of work being done to silence the margins, on might draw some wry optimism from wondering how powerful our words might be if they were to go unchecked.

Works Cited

Alter, Charlotte. “Ashley Judd Speaks out about Twitter Abuse and Rape”. Time Magazine. 19 March 2015.

<http://time.com/3750788/ashley-judd-speaks-out-about-twitter-abuse-and-rape/>

Cascone, Sarah. “Artist Rupu Kaur Criticizes Instagram for Censoring Photo Showing Period Blood”. Artnet News. 3 March 2015.

<https://news.artnet.com/in-brief/instagram-slammed-for-censoring-period-283123>

Rose, Rebecca. “Instagram Apologizes for Deleting Plus-Size Woman’s Account”. Jezebel. 16 July 2014.

<http://jezebel.com/instagram-apologizes-for-deleting-plus-size-womans-acco-1605831194>

Sarkeesian, Anita. Feminist Frequency: Conversations with Pop Culture. 2012.

<http://www.feministfrequency.com>

Sarkeesian, Anita. “One Week of Harassment on Twitter”. Feminist Frequency. 26 January 2015.

<http://femfreq.tumblr.com/post/109319269825/one-week-of-harassment-on-twitter>

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3 thoughts on “Freedom of E-xpression: Overt and Covert Policing of Woman-Produced Internet Content

  1. Elin

    Hi Moira,

    I really enjoyed your piece! I thought that your analysis of how the internet, in particularly social media sites, are used as policing agents to perpetuate misogynistic and hetero-patriarchal agendas was thoroughly researched and well written. Your intersectional analysis of how such mediums perpetuate specifically straight masculine rhetorics was of particular interest. Further the examples of relevant cases that you used throughout your post added to the strength of your argument and truly emphasized the seriousness and pervasiveness of the issue. The question which you posed near the end of the piece, about freedom of expression and who truly is allotted such benefits and subsequently who benefits from such rights, was quite thought provoking and showcased your knowledge on the subject. Do you think that these forms of policing, which occur across all social media sites, can be mitigated? And if so, how?

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  2. Rosa Queen

    Hi Moira,

    As usual, you’re blog was well researched and well executed in terms of style and arguments. One of my favourite lines is when you mentioned that Judd’s expertise on one subject (sports) was based on several aspects of her identity that have little to nothing to do with the subject at hand. This sends a very strong message, that anyone’s expertise must align with their gender roles, and if these thoughts do not line up they are subject to an onslaught of criticism. In the Sarkeesian example, you also bring up the concept of free speech, where is the limit in terms of what people can say to each other? This also begged the question, since Sarkeesian has been recording these death threats have the police taken any actions? Or is this all chalked up to be standard and not worth police intervention on the grounds that it is over the internet? In the examples with Instagram, we can see the bold faced silencing of these women because the pictures that they posted on their private accounts were subjected to scrutiny and deemed unworthy to be seen by the masses. Who makes up these rules? Your blog has me asking a lot of key questions about the silencing of women in our culture. Who decides that a picture of a skinny girl in a bikini is perfect for the internet but a plus-sized girl in a one piece is not? The objectification of not only women’s bodies on the internet is harrowing enough to endure, but one also has to deal with invisibility of those that are not playing into this overt sexualization. I have really enjoyed the examples you have presented and I believe that they support your argument perfectly.
    Thank you for another lovely blog.

    Sincerely,
    Rosa Queen

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  3. Darkling

    Hi Moira!
    I really enjoyed reading this blog piece! You very effectively point out the way that “free speech” is used by privileged people to justify the silencing of marginalized people. The number of times I have politely critiqued a racist post or a transmisogynistic meme or a homophobic video only for people to respond “freedom of speech!” and “stop being so PC!” while simultaneously throwing slurs and threats at me is more than I can count. These people seem to believe that “freedom of speech” means “freedom from all criticism or consequence.” Freedom of speech does not mean that other people cannot exercise their free speech to criticize the oppressive things they say! The hypocrisy of such people is just astounding, and is very much founded in entitlement. They feel entitled to spew hate speech (which is NOT the same as free speech) under the guise of “free speech” but attack even the smallest critique of the oppressive society that benefits them. It says so much about the way in which marginalized voices are actively silenced, while even the most horrific expressions from privileged people are protected socially and legally. Do you think there are ways that hate speech on the internet can be regulated? Do you think that regulation would target the right people, or would it just contribute to the silencing of marginalized people? In a society structured on systemic inequity, who could be trusted to regulate bigotry?

    Thank you so much for your posts throughout the year! I’ve really enjoyed sitting beside you in class and hearing your opinions and reading your blog pieces! I hope you have an amazing summer!

    -Darkling

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