Reclaiming the net: Twitter, trolls and threats

Jane Austen to feature on banknote

In recent days the media’s gaze has been firmly fixed on Twitter following the online abuse of Caroline Criado-Perez, the campaigner behind putting women back on banknotes, which has added new momentum to debates about misogyny that still haunts the web. However, I would argue that the internet itself is not a breeding ground for sexism, it merely offers sexists a podium therefore granting misogyny greater visibility, but with this transparency comes possibility. The challenge now is not to censor or to silence, but to reclaim the internet and exorcise it of the lingering presence of prejudice.

Take for example The Everyday Sexism project that gives women a platform to voice their frustration, to express their anxiety and most importantly to “shout back”. When scrolling through examples addressed on the project’s twitter page, one has the unsettling feeling of familiarity: the jibes, the condescension and unwarranted attention. Often the tweets mirror personal experiences and serve as an uncomfortable reminder of times we have felt silenced, belittled and unwilling to speak out.

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For many women, jeering in the street, wolf-whistling and groping has become so normalised and so mundane that it is merely the background music to everyday life and is as inevitable as a winter rain shower; as familiar and expected as it is grating. The project confronts sexism so ingrained that we have become desensitised, and defiantly offers women a chance to reclaim their bodies from the leering glances of colleagues and passers-by, whilst decrying perpetrators.

The recent harassment of Laura Bates and Caroline Criado-Perez has revealed even darker depths to sexism; showing it to be much more than the Carry On-style permissiveness of the 1960s or misguided attempts at humour. The deluge of taunts, teasing and threats has merged into the murkier waters of assault, threats to rape and harassment, which despite their undeniable severity, emerges from the same stem, upholds the same disrespect and provokes the very same anxiety for the recipient of unwanted attention.

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The tsunami wave of shared experiences has inundated Twitter following Criado-Perez’ fight against threats, and support for her has saturated newsfeeds, leaving the previously unknowing baffled in its thunderous wake. Stories such as young men threatening a girl of 13 with rape on Facebook have emerged with concerned parents claiming that “this wasn’t bullying; it was abuse but no one took my complaint seriously.”

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When debating the issue of online harassment faced by women, we are often presented with a dichotomy between feminism and freedom of speech which often misses the point: it is the female victims whose free-speech is under threat when perpetrators try to suppress their voices with promises of rape and violence. Furthermore, it was Criado-Perez who was silenced when Twitter moderators ignored her pleas for help following hours of threats and abuse; one moderator even went as far as to block her.

As argued by Criado-Perez, women face abuse online “because they’re women who are speaking out”. Laurie Penny, a journalist who has also had to face threats and hate-sites, claims that “having an opinion has become the miniskirt of the internet”: it is often assumed that women are “asking for it [abuse]” when they express their views online.

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Another common misconception is that death and rape threats, sharing of home addresses and hate-sites is simply the work of “trolls” and is par for the course. Such concerted efforts to terrify and intimidate is not light-hearted trolling that we should rise above, but criminal activity. Shouting back and demanding consequences, which luckily we have seen following two arrests of men aged 21 and 25, is not simply a feminist issue but a human rights issue. Nobody should be made to feel under threat of physical violence if they continue to campaign.

It is now expected that Twitter bosses will be questioned by MPs about complaints that they have failed to do enough to protect women from users posting violent and abusive threats. There have also been calls for Twitter to take immediate action; Andy Trotter, a senior police chief, argues that social media companies should “take steps to stop this happening” and “accept responsibility for what’s happening on their platforms.”

Hopefully, events of recent weeks have awoken the public to the pressing need to address realities of online abuse women face by sexists protected by the blanket of anonymity, and alerted us to the very real threats of the virtual world.

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The myth of Monroe: why do girls still want to be her 50 years on?

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Since 1962, the year of Monroe’s death, we have nervously experienced the outcomes of the Cold War, silently witnessed atrocities in Cambodia, Rwanda and Serbia and eagerly enjoyed the advent of the internet that has spawned new spheres of discussion and international exchange. However, the actress, the image, the phenomenon that was and is Marilyn Monroe has remained. Despite the dynamism of an ever-changing political, environmental and cultural landscape, her now wordless presence is with us still.

She haunts girls’ bedroom walls on black and white posters, looms on billboards and her thoughts have been immortalised on flesh, in films and on Facebook: “I’m selfish, impatient and a little insecure”, “I don’t mind living in a man’s world as long as I can be a woman in it” and “imperfection is beauty, madness is genius and it’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring.” What is most unsettling is not our collective attachment to her cultural memory, but rather the remnants of what Monroe represented: Monroe was a self-created myth, a male illusion or, as she conceded in her own words, “a fantasy.”

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Monroe claimed that she had “too many fantasies to be a housewife” before bitterly adding “I guess I am a fantasy.”  Although somewhat stagnant debates still rage about her tenuous status as a proto-feminist and theories continue to point to her natural intelligence in spite of her very minimal education, I feel that such ideas neglect the crux of what Marilyn Monroe was and still is: a sex symbol. This is not to say that sexual attractiveness and feminist beliefs are mutual incompatible. Nonetheless, what made her a sex symbol was a naïve embodiment of an ideal.

Despite occasionally voicing frustration, she once commented that “a sex symbol becomes a thing; I just hate to be a thing”, Monroe soared to staggering heights of success after films in which she was type cast as the archetypal dumb blonde. Her popularity skyrocketed following a string of roles in the early 1950s, during which she appeared in the annual “Quigley Poll of the Top Ten Money Making Stars”, but she failed to attract attention for more serious roles. Monroe told The New York Times that her dramatic coach, Natasha Lytess, told “everybody that I have a great soul, but so far nobody’s interested in it.”

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Despite clamouring for more significant acting roles, Monroe’s main contribution to cultural memory has been her relationships with notable men, such as JFK and Arthur Miller, her most prominent film roles have been in The Seven Year Itch, in which she shot that iconic skirt-blowing scene on Lexington Avenue, and in Some Like it Hot in which she is the love object of two men on the run. Her sexuality is her superpower, it serves as a central vehicle to the plot; it is both her tool and her singular agency in what she describes as a “man’s world” in which she is very much “a woman in it” and sadly, little else.

Much as we should not personally condemn Marilyn Monroe for her use of her body as currency, we should not hail her as an icon, an inspiration and most disturbingly, a female idol. Monroe did not challenge the status quo: she participated in it and upheld it. Although this should not be used to vilify her in a self-righteous display of condemnation, should we really plaster our walls with her image and reproduce her words without interrogating their context? Do we really want to be little more than women in “a man’s world”?

What is further problematic about Monroe is how she is held to be a bastion of bygone femininity; images of Monroe are disseminated daily, sometimes even in feminist circles, hailing her figure as a true example of a “real woman.” Yet instead of liberating women from a rigid framework of aesthetic expectation, this further tightens the bondage of beauty, forcing women to stay within the ever-constricting straightjacket of femininity.

What underpins the whole argument of what is visually means to be a “real woman”, whatever that is, is the assumption that being female relies on image; the idealisation of Monroe has merely altered the focus from extreme thinness to the need for curves. However, this continued emphasis on appearance is unsurprising given that a recent poll suggested that contemporary women would prefer to be attractive rather  than intelligent due to the presumed social value of beauty.

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So why do girls still aspire to be like Marilyn Monroe and why aren’t girls’ rooms lined with images of female astronauts, or inspiring activists such as Aung San Suu Kyi or writers like Alice Walker or Margaret Atwood? Sadly cultural conventions have led us to assess women on aesthetic criteria, rather than ideas, innovation or intellect and Monroe is no exception to this rule. Undeniably she was a talented actress but as to whether she was a feminist icon, or a mythical figure bent into adherence to male fantasy and conventional notions of sex appeal, we should ask ourselves whether she is more remembered for her IQ of 163 or for huskily performing ‘Happy Birthday’ for J F Kennedy, or for her skirt blowing up on the set of The Seven Year Itch.

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The cult of Daily Mail bashing: Amanda Palmer’s open letter to ever controversial tabloid and what it means for women

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This week Amanda Palmer’s open letter to The Daily Mail, the British tabloid, has reanimated the debate about the representation of the female form in the media. After being mocked by The Mail Online for a nipple slip, Palmer wrote a song expounding her frustration at the hungry leer of press cameras. Although Palmer’s song has taken its place in The Daily Mail bashing hall of fame, sadly her very legitimate annoyance has merely been added to an ever-lengthening list of grievances.

It seems blithely mocking The Daily Mail has become something of a sport: the tittering, the false feeling of superiority and the smug glee. We’ve all chuckled at The-Daily-Mail-o-matic that generates panicked titles from combinations of The Mail’s favoured gripes: tax, immigrants and cancer. Many of us also enjoy a playful glance at The Mail Online. Reading The Daily Mail and then self-righteously mocking it has become something of a guilty pleasure, a national past time.  Yet despite how light-hearted this appears, we should not neglect the uncomfortable undercurrent of objectification and shaming that female celebrities are often subjected to.

Amanda Palmer, an American performer who first rose to fame as the singer, lyricist and composer of The Dresden Dolls, featured in The Daily Mail following her set at Glastonbury. The article was entitled: “Making a boob of herself!” and included a photograph of her exposed breast. It left me with a feeling of righteous frustration, accompanied by an aftertaste of despondency that this was deemed news-worthy, or particularly notable. Little was written about the music, her set, or her career; the camera’s glare and the journalist’s writing fixed firmly on her exposed form.

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However, Palmer retorted with characteristic boldness and ingenuity, penning an open letter to The Daily Mail put to music. The song condemned and loudly mocked the absurdity of the article, this time shifting the shame of exposure towards The Daily Mail for the attitudes it revealed, rather than on a musician for unknowingly exposing her body. Palmer chirpily sang about how their “focus on debasing women’s appearances ruins our species of humans” and later hits a crescendo, liberates herself from a kimono and decries The Daily Mail as a “misogynist pile of twats”, incisively interrogating the lack of “newsworthy cocks”.

The power of her protest lies in her reclaiming of her body, not as something inherently sexual or shameful, but as something that is her own, something for her solely to appraise rather than the sharp nib of a journalist’s pen. Much as The Daily Mail is certainly not alone in its bowing to the ever-growing demand for flesh, trawling through The Mail Online it is all too easy to find examples of flagrant objectification of the female body, coupled with an unsettling discourse of shame.

Take this article  which details Liz Jones’ rage about Rihanna’s glorification of “drugs, guns and sleaze”: the tone is feverish and furious. It features captions rejecting her as “wanton” for photo shoots, comments about how she “invites rape at worst, disrespect at best” and a hearty dose of shaming. The shift of blame towards a female artist to the extent of legitimising rape is undeniably more poisonous than Rihanna’s occasionally questionable outfit choices. What messages does this send to legions of Rihanna fans that Jones, very ironically, is trying to protect and save? Amusingly, we are also provided links to equally hard-hitting articles about female celebrities’ beach bodies: the tone veers erratically from titillation to outrage in a cycle of condemnation and objectification.

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So when we disregard such articles as “entertainment” or as amusingly facile, our egos sufficiently bloated after having a good snigger at the expense of Daily Mail readers, we should remember that newspapers are a gauge of social change. More outraged and brilliant Amanda Palmers should emerge, loudly denouncing rather than idly laughing at retrograde articles that blight our newspapers. We shouldn’t just get over it and laugh, we should get angry.

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Television: the final frontier? Presentation of LGBT issues and Feminism in the media.

         Television: the final frontier? 
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Watching television is an opportunity to “switch off” as we switch on: TV is considered by many as a sedative and herein lays its power. Whilst we unwind, television works overtime as a wholly underestimated agent disseminating a continuous stream of ideas. Television can act as a night school for the masses but can also prop up reductive notions that linger on in society, as an insidious haze that obscures our vision and locks us in ideological stasis.

The immensity of the influence exerted by television media is exemplified by the statistic that in America, hours spent gawping into the cavernous depths of widescreens actually outnumber hours spent in school. So, given the authority wielded by television, what messages are being transmitted by the ominous black box?

It is revealing, and disturbing, that television has been rather resistant to ideological evolution; like an indolent and maladapted organism it continues to languish in its own ignorance and therefore has had to be forcibly wrenched into the present. In only 2008 a Heinz Mayonnaise advert was pulled following more than two hundred complaints due to its “offensive content” – two men kissing. The first gay kiss, which was dismissed by many as a tentative peck consciously drained of sexual intent, was only shown in 1987. Over twenty years have passed and gay relationships in the media arena still possess the somewhat dubious faculty to bewilder prudish audiences. The kiss shared by Nick and Todd in Coronation Street in 2003 provoked fierce debate; Ulrika Jonsson regarded the scene with distaste, asserting that it was inappropriate subject matter before the watershed. It would be amusing, were it not so alarming, the vast hypocrisy shamelessly enjoyed by a medium characterised by the proliferation of pornographic imagery when faced with the seemingly menacing prospect of gay scenes.

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Feminism in the media, however, has no such landmarks to plot its stilted progression into representation and is thus often neglected. Women in the media are often reduced to consumable goods, like products in an assembly line made more palatable and appealing. We long for multi-faceted female protagonists that interrogate stereotypes embroidered onto our social fabric and are frequently disappointed by the fairly uniform representation of women: the classic tropes of the overtly sexualised femme fatale, the bimbo and the witty female often condemned to a peripheral role due to wielding no sexual promise leave us feeling disenchanted. Women are characterised either by their sexuality or by their absence: over half of viewers are female, yet in TV drama for every female character, there are two male characters (36.5% female roles to 63.5% male roles). Leading male roles are dominated by actors over 45, whereas it is at this age that female actors begin to vanish from view.

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It seems that subsisting inequalities that have riddled society are abound in television media, so taking into account the media’s status as a barometer of social change and given our control as viewers over what we watch and our right to exert agency over content via complaints and petitions; is it television that is resistant to change, the last bastion of the bygone days of chauvinism and homophobia? Or is it us who are simply unable to progress?

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The political smokescreen and the women behind it

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                                             An Exploration of Rape Culture

The ever problematic question of “legitimate rape” or to use a term quaintly coined by Whoopi Goldberg the issue of whether an act constitutes “rape-rape”, has yet again been splattered across newspapers as part of another ungainly tableau of sexual politics. US Congressman Todd Akin’s frightening faux-biological supposition that in an act of “legitimate rape” a woman cannot become pregnant as “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down”, is another example to be added to the ever lengthening list of erroneous insensitivities uttered by politicians on the question of the female body.

What is most disturbing, despite the alarming ignorance of the comment, was the entire exclusion of the woman as an agent more important than a biological vessel. Akin, who sits on the Committee for Science, Space and Technology, goes on to say that in the seemingly unlikely case of pregnancy “there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.” Where is the woman in this debate? Akin’s comments present the women as little more than a depersonalised body; the inevitable spoils left disregarded after the political war has been waged upon it. Sadly, Akin’s opinions are not anomalous; the Republican platform committee has recently called for a constitutional ban on abortion that includes no exemptions for rape, incest or even to save the life of the mother. This motion would engender total state control over a woman’s body.

The exclusion and muzzling of the female voice is inherent to the ideological scaffolding which bolsters the unjustified impunity enjoyed by male celebrities; since pleading guilty to the rape of a thirteen year old Roman Polanski has won an Oscar, has married and has fathered two children. Meanwhile, discussions on Julian Assange have centred upon his political role as the father of Wikileaks and his fears of extradition to the US, which has effectively camouflaged the reasons why Sweden has attempted to extradite him in turn diverting ever more attention from his two alleged victims.

This seeming immunity from moral and legal action that we have granted and continue to grant to household names when serious crimes have been committed against women sends a damning message. George Galloway’s assertion that Assange’s behaviour was at worst “bad sexual etiquette” diminishes women’s claims of rape to querulous and oversensitive whining. The assumption that underpins Galloway’s tenuously cobbled together argument is the specious view that once a woman has consented to sex, her body is no longer in her possession but in that of her one-time sexual partner, who never need ask her consent again. This reasoning is, of course, ludicrous but whilst we may view Galloway’s commentary with derision, we must ask ourselves how seriously our culture regards crime against women.

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Chris Brown’s violent assault of Rihanna in 2009 has since been obscured after his fourth studio album was released in 2011 and after his so-called glorious comeback at the 2012 Grammys.  Disturbingly,  one woman tweeted that she would “let Chris Brown beat [her] any day”. Western culture’s wilful amnesia when it comes to the rich and successful serves to render deeply embedded prejudice against women acceptable and demonstrates the efficacy of Thorndike’s Halo effect: the human tendency to assign a person with a positive character trait, in this case attractiveness or fame, with other positive traits. Our overzealous readiness to forgive exhibits a great carelessness or rather a lack of empathy for the women concerned; a shared ability to shut out their presence and silence their cries.  However, what makes the case of Chris Brown unusual is that he has received punishment for his crime; Polanski’s only punishment has been living in “exile” from the United States and time will tell as to whether Assange will be tried for his alleged indiscretions.

The smokescreen of fame and politics has long left female victims of violent crime as shapeless figures cast aside in the dry ice of celebrity; Galloway has claimed that it would be “inexcusable” for the British government to enter the Ecuadorian embassy without consent, a sanctity clearly not allocated to the female body. The halo that society willingly has bequeathed to the rich, the famous and the creative has left female victims with the struggle to assert their presence and reclaim their bodies from a clamouring and insatiable media hungry for momentary scandal, but ever-ready to exonerate men with status. Firstly however, we as consumers must actively deplore those implicated in crimes against women, and as women we must condemn these criminals rather than adopting a naïve and light-hearted stance as exemplified by the careless words of Whoopi Goldberg. Instead of passively tolerating lamentable attitudes towards rape and violence against women, we must exercise our voices and our buying power to banish the smokescreen and clear the ideological haze in order to face the overlooked women behind it.

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