My gentleman friend recently sent me this article from Salon about creepy depictions of rape in video games, that also touched on the kerfuffle around Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency (her videos are a must-watch if you haven’t seen them yet) and her Kickstarter to fund a series of videos entitled “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games.” When Anita (who is a female gamer) proposed this project, she was faced by a torrent of misogynist hate speech and abusive trolling (read her response to it here). How dare she, as a woman, analyze the relationship between video games and gender!
There was an unexpected silver lining to all this trolling, however- Anita’s fundraising goal was $6,000. The attention that the trolling drew to the project meant that the Kickstarter went viral and her supporters fought back- with their wallets. At the end of the day, Anita had almost 7,000 backers and raised $158,922 in funds for the project- over 26 times her original goal.
This incident is bittersweet, and leaves me with mixed feelings. It’s affirming that Anita received such a dramatic outpouring of support in the face of the crazy, hateful bullshit she faced funding this project. On the other hand, would she have raised as much money if she hadn’t been trolled? This is the horrible reality of profit driven online media is often fueled by commenter drama (and Anita’s project, for the record, is NOT profit driven, this is just an example of how it works).
It was big news last week when XOJane’s Health and Beauty editor Cat Marnell left the site with the now infamous Page Six quote:
Look, I couldn’t spend another summer meeting deadlines behind a computer at night when I could be on the rooftop of Le Bain looking for shooting stars and smoking angel dust with my friends and writing a book, which is what I’m doing next.
An explanation so hilariously, inanely narcissistic that it reads like it was penned by Lena Dunham for an episode of Girls, and one can only hope she was poking fun at herself when she said it. We’ve gone way past first world problems right into trust fund problems. Doncha hate when your paid beauty editor gig gets in the way of your drug habit?
All snark aside, watching Cat self-destruct on the pages of XOJane was painful to watch. I didn’t think it was funny or entertaining when Amy Winehouse fell apart in front of the camera and wound up dead. Addiction is serious business, and sending someone to rehab is no guaranteed cure unless the individual in question is committed to getting better on their own terms. Jane Pratt’s decision to appoint an addict as a “health editor” was intentionally perverse by her own admission:
I was looking for someone to write about Health issues from a non-healthy perspective. I personally find it more interesting to read about someone trying/struggling to be healthy than someone who has it all together (plus there are plenty of those awesome experts out there already and I turn to them when I want sound Health advice).
I get where Jane is coming from, but Cat’s writings about her fridge crisper drawer full of Adderall goes a bit further than say, the average woman’s health challenges of avoiding the gym or snacking on junk food. Cat’s piece about using Plan B as birth control was irresponsible, creepy, and understandably raised a lot of hackles, but it also garnered a lot of attention, which translates into page hits, comments, and ad revenue. But is that really the person you want representing your brand? (A quick aside- one of the things that always bugged me about these essays was Cat’s framing of her self destructive behavior as “something that we as women need to stop doing” rather than something she personally needed to deal with. Sorry Cat, but most women I know don’t keep their fridge crispers stocked with Adderall.)
It came out post-departure that Cat was Say Media’s (XOJane’s parent company’s) cash cow: she generated more page views and comments than any other contributor. So essentially, Jane Pratt actively enabled her addiction because it was driving profits. This is hardly the first time a female addict’s struggles have been parlayed into profits- Lindsay Lohan’s still working, isn’t she?
But even “serious” feminist sites use drama to drive site traffic via flamewars and oppression olympics in the comments threads. Feminist media can seem so infected by toxic negativity and privileging policing one-upmanship that it stops seeing like a productive dialogue after a while. I’m all for talking about real problems, but without identifying strategies for working with these issues, as well as positive, affirming content, we’re simply digging ourselves a deeper hole to stew in. A hole that happens to make advertisers very happy.
I dealt with this first hand a few weeks ago, when I ran an article on MsBehaved about Health at Every Size, and the difference between healthy and thin. This is a topic that people love to debate into the ground- my article about talking to your doctor about fat shaming for XOJane got almost ten times more comments than a feelgood piece I wrote about how Capoeira drastically improved body image (no coincidence that this was the last piece of mine they ran.)
My HAES piece got picked up by the Reddit “Fitness Circlejerk Forum,” which sent thousands of hits to our site, which is nice, but reading a thread of comments demeaning me as a delusional fat cow? Not so much. For the most part the trolls restrained themselves from commenting on the essay itself, with the exception of a few pieces of bait that I chose not to swallow. Delete early and often is my personal credo when it comes to trolls: I’m too busy actually writing to fight on the internet for fun. I have no problem with a dissenting opinion that’s presented respectfully, in a dialogue-oriented way, but name calling and drama baiting is not cool.
There’s a certain freedom in running a site that’s driven by passion rather than profit. One of them is deleting offensive comments “because I say so,” and not making destructive editorial choices simply because they drive page hits for advertisers. MsBehaved isn’t my livelihood, and whatever traffic I lose by choosing not to stir the pot is not going to hurt me. I am by no means criticizing the sites that do turn a profit, because I think women are far too often pressured to work for free, and we all deserve to be paid for our hard work. But at this point, it’s liberating to have full creative control, and kick trolls to the curb. But unfortunately, drama mongering (whether deliberate or not) has become the business model for many comment-driven blogs and content sites.
I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I find trolling and flamewars kind of triggering and emotionally upsetting, so maybe I’m in the wrong line of work. As a friend said to me after I published the HAES that was shredded on Reddit, “You know you’d get these sorts of comments too, didn’t you?” Of course I did, but I can’t let that get in the way of writing things I think may be helpful and validating for many people. But it also feels like matyrdom, that speaking out about sensitive issues makes me a target for online abuse. And it’s not just me, either- women who write about rape and consent in particular are often accused of being “drama queens” and barraged with gross, victim blaming comments.
It’s easy enough to tell me “to grow a thicker skin” or to “ignore the comments.” I realize that online drama and trolling bullshit is an inevitable occupation hazard of being a feminist blogger, but I think it is a form of violence against women, and I don’t think it’s ok, ever. I don’t think it’s cool that people who perpetuate verbal assault and harassment online (where it’s relatively consequence free, unlike real life) aren’t held accountable for their shit. I’m sorry, I don’t feel like I SHOULD have to “tune out” rape jokes and racist bullshit and the degradation of women, non gender conforming folks, queers, and fat people instead of addressing the real problem of cyberbullying. This shit is legitimately disturbing and triggering for many people. This is why I really appreciated Hip Hop Blogger Jay Smooth’s response to the Anita Sarkeesian kickstarter drama:
Kudos to Jay for being enough of a man to stand up to online bullying, and encouraging others to do the same. And if online harassment is “just words,” why are we so scared to stand up to the perpetrators, anyway?