Women’s expertise is constantly undermined and trivialized. For example, holding pop music in low regard (thinking it can only ever be frivolous, ideologically overdetermined, or sold-out) is one way of trivializing a field in which women, especially black women, have made hugely significant artistic, cultural, and economic impacts.
Women academics, writers, and journalists also face constant challenges to their expertise. There’s the calling someone “Mrs.” instead of “Dr.” microaggression. There’s mistaking someone for staff, or, as is often the case with me, for a student. This latter example is, in my experience, common to face-to-face interactions: every time I can remember having to respond to the “What are you writing your dissertation on?” or “Will you get a Ph.D. after your MA?” question with “Umm, I have tenure” has been IRL.
Tressie Cottom’s new piece “Who The Fuck Do You Think You Are? Academic Engagement, Microcelebrity, and Digital Sociology from the Far Left of the Matrix of Domination” breaks down the different ways white women and women of color are discredited when they engage digital publics. Or, put differently, Cottom shows some of the different ways that women’s expertise, epistemic credence, and legitimacy are challenged on digital media.
The tl;dr of Cottom’s report is: White women are sexually harassed. Women of color are treated as frauds. She writes, “whereas white women tend to report a significant number of rape threats when they write publicly, I find that the overwhelming threat issued in my comment section and inbox are threats to my academic credibility.” Rape threats tell white women they’re not allowed to be in academic spaces as experts; rape is about power, and these threats are a way of telling women they’ve overstepped their power. Fraud threats tell WOC that they’re not legitimately allowed to know things, or to affiliate themselves with “legit” academic institutions. This is different than pushing back against someone who oversteps her power; these fraud threats assume that WOC have no “power” (knowledge, affiliation) to assert in the first place.
I’m a white woman with some degree of academic-ish microcelebrity, and, on reading Cottom’s paper, I was seriously puzzled as to why none of that ever happens to me. I don’t get either of these sorts of challenges to my expertise–since I began blogging in 2009, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a rape threat on my blog or on social media (though I have been sexually harassed IRL). Mostly, it’s my arguments that are challenged (e.g., facts are refuted). If I’m dismissed, usually it’s some version of “Get a life, love. Stop trying to read so much into things.” Basically, I’m dismissed as too academic. ….which makes NO SENSE! I explicitly identify as a woman–in my pics, in my bio, hell, even on Facebook–but yet I seem to have avoided the kinds of gendered challenges to my expertise that are most women academics online commonly face. So why is my experience so different? I am sure Cottom’s findings are accurate, so what is it about my experience that makes me an outlier?
Driven by both intellectual curiosity, and some pretty intense emotional/psychological worrying, I spent a few days stewing over these questions. I don’t think my lack of online harassment is due to the fact that philosophy, my discipline, is different than others, or than internet culture generally (in fact, philosophy is probably WORSE in all these respects than the internet in general is).  I don’t think it’s because I’m too micro of a microcelebrity–I’m no superstar or anything, but women with less, erm, Klout, seem to get these challenges. I don’t think it’s because I have tenure; in my experience, tenure did nothing to ameliorate the misogynist micro- and macro-aggressions I face in my job/role as an academic. So what is it? WHY is my experience with online harassment so anomalous?
…It took me a few days to figure this out. I looked back at comments on Its Her Factory, I looked waaay back in my Twitter mentions…Then, one morning, when I was walking the dogs, it hit me: “DUDE, YOU HAVE A DUDE’S NAME: ROBIN. And not just a dude’s name, but one of the Anglo-iest of Anglo dude names (…Sherwood Forrest, anyone?). That’s why people don’t treat you like they treat other women online: your name masculinizes you.” My name lets me pass as a man, or at least as masculine enough to be a credible expert in things like philosophy, music, and technology. Basically, I’m passing for a dude.
Upon this realization, I went to the academic literature. I had a ton of questions:
- Do possibly male names, like Robin, read differently (i.e., as more obviously male) than explicitly non-gendered avatar names, like, say, Sputnik or Skylab or whatever?
- Do digital environments enable some kinds of gender passing that aren’t available, or aren’t as easy, IRL? Or do digital environments make some well-established types of gender passing more difficult than or less relevant than they are IRL?
- This article summarizing the new report on online harassment overlooks the ways that old methods and attitudes adapt to new media. Arguing that “unfortunately, the same gender stereotypes and hateful attitudes that exist in our culture are also following women in their online activities,” it does correctly attribute blame to patriarchy, not to the medium itself. BUT, patriarchy adapts itself to specific media–this is what Laura Mulvey’s famous “male gaze” essay shows us, right? That “the male gaze,” though now widespread, is the result of patriarchy’s adapting itself to/alongside classic Hollywood cinema?
- Women academics have historically strategically de-gendered their first names (philosopher L.A. Paul is an example); does this practice continue with digital microcelebrity women? This paper suggests so; it argues that women “prefer to use gender-neutral names to be accepted by mostly male audiences” (2).
- This paper finds that in hacker culture, skill and expertise is granted not on the basis of one’s work itself, but on one’s ability to defend it in flame wars (38). I wonder if something similar is going on in these attacks to women digital microcelebrities: they’re getting flamed (more or less), but because they’re women in patriarchy, the gendered flames are more intense and more threatening. Academic philosophy has a similar flame-y culture: we devour each other in barrages of absurdly aggressive questions and comments. Women just get an additional layer of misogynist aggressivity, too. And the character of that misogynist aggression varies according to race, as Cottom’s paper finds.
I don’t think I’ve sufficiently answered these questions; I need to read a lot more extensively to do that. But, I think my personal experience has relevance beyond my own self-awareness. If anything, it gives us a more nuanced understanding of how gendering works in digital environments, about the distribution of gendered challenges to women digital microcelebrities, and it raises some broader questions about gender performance and digital environments.
In particular, I think my personal experience shows that there is room for a lot more research and more nuanced data about online harassment and the role of identity in granting epistemic credibility in online environments. There is probably a feedback loop between new technologies and new forms of the good ‘ol -isms (racism, sexism, etc). And these feedback loops are likely specific to individual platforms (Facebook, Instagram, etc.).
 In fact, what goes on IRL in philosophy sounds a lot like what happens to women digital microcelebrities. Beingawomaninphilosophy shows that there’s tons of sexual harassment and lots of microaggressions that challenge women’s legitmiate participation in and affiliation with the field. Though there is scholarship on this, it would be nice to have more public awareness (e.g., on the aforementioned blog) of how women philosophers of color’s experiences of harassment and discrediting differ from white women’s.
Robin is on Twitter as @doctaj.