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.
Alter, Charlotte. “Ashley Judd Speaks out about Twitter Abuse and Rape”. Time Magazine. 19 March 2015.
Cascone, Sarah. “Artist Rupu Kaur Criticizes Instagram for Censoring Photo Showing Period Blood”. Artnet News. 3 March 2015.
Rose, Rebecca. “Instagram Apologizes for Deleting Plus-Size Woman’s Account”. Jezebel. 16 July 2014.
Sarkeesian, Anita. Feminist Frequency: Conversations with Pop Culture. 2012.
Sarkeesian, Anita. “One Week of Harassment on Twitter”. Feminist Frequency. 26 January 2015.