Yesterday David Banks did a fantastic job outlining the technical issues at work in the matter of the ongoing comment harassment in Jezebel’s comments sections and Gawker Media’s inability/refusal to deal with it directly (though to their credit, as of yesterday they disabled image posting until a better solution can be found). I want to use that as a jumping-off point to talk about the discursive aspect of this, how gendered spaces are explicitly being made unsafe for certain kinds of people, and about how those tactics at once obscure what’s going on and justify it.
To recap yesterday, gonna just steal from David:
For months now, waves of violent pornography gifs have been posted to Jezebel stories using anonymous accounts untied to IP addresses or any other identifiable information. That means it’s effectively impossible to stop abusive people from posting to the site. Instead, Jezebel writers and editors have to delete the posts themselves, hopefully before too many of their readers see them.
Jezebel went on to explain that their higher-ups at Gawker knew about the problem, had known for a while, and had not acted, hence Jezebel’s announcement to the public regarding what was going on (and yay, it seems to have at least sort of worked). But looking at and thinking about the problem, it struck me that both the harassment and the subtle – and really not so subtle – ways in which Gawker’s priorities are coming through here are part of a process that I’ve seen before. That we’ve seen before.
The idea that technical spaces in general and the internet in particular are gendered male is well established by now. The phenomenon of cisgender men getting resentful at ladies ladying up the internet isn’t a revelation to anyone who’s paying attention. When something is gendered, especially when it’s gendered according to the population in power, that population protects its territory by making that territory unsafe for what it perceives as the invaders, who will ruin it by putting makeup and nail polish and doilies all over it.
(Makeup and nail polish are awesome. I can take or leave the doilies.)
Okay, fine. We all recognize this, or we should. Hence the death threats in the comments sections of female bloggers, hence the rape threats, the body-shaming, the slut-shaming, the general abuse, et cetera ad finitum.
What’s interesting to me here are the images and the fact that these specific images are being used – rape porn, gore, violence in general. Rape and death threats are upsetting and triggering, and words can wound, but images are designed to bring you right up against what you find horrifying, temporally all at one go. You do not have the option of refusing to imagine it, or imagining it only in part. Even if you look away as fast as you can, you’ve still seen it. You can’t un-see it. At that point, whatever emotional and physiological reaction you have is no longer under your control.
And let’s please not forget that emotions are embodied. They are one of the most embodied things we ever experience. Emotional pain is physical pain. Emotional trauma is physical trauma.
Emotions are also gendered, and so is trauma. Emotional pain is something women feel; if men feel it, they’re supposed to suppress it, and really they’re not supposed to feel it at all. Conspicuously not being fazed by the ugly and the violent can in fact be a mark of mental toughness, something desirable and praiseworthy. If you find a violent or disturbing image upsetting or triggering, you’re weak, which means you’re feminine, and you don’t belong in this masculine space. You should leave.
Add to this the whole “you’re too sensitive/you’re just looking to be offended/you like playing the victim/you’re taking it too seriously” dismissing/derailing tactics usually used against people of color/women/trans and gender-nonconforming people/people with disabilities whenever we point out what’s going on, and you have a rather effective arsenal for keeping a space reserved for certain people and shutting out the voices and even the very presences of people you don’t want. Plus you get to hurt them in order to do it, and who doesn’t enjoy that?
But the dismissal of the hurt is additionally interesting. The people who are posting these images in Jezebel’s comments are doing it because they know it’s an effective weapon. They know it hurts. They know it’s brutal and ugly. And at the same time, often in the same breath, they downplay the significance and power of what they’re doing.
The last time I noticed this was during 4chan’s most recent attack on Tumblr, part of a feud that’s been ongoing for literally years. Earlier this summer, 4chan launched a loosely coordinated attack on Tumblr fandom and social justice-oriented users – often the two groups are are one and the same – by posting graphically violent images tagged with fandom/social justicey things.
Now, whatever you may think about Tumblr users as a whole, it shouldn’t escape notice who was actually the target of this attack.
I’m on Tumblr for both reasons – fandom and politics – and I was interested in this for sociological reasons as well, so I poked around a bit, looking for what others were saying. Some people were taking it seriously, but I saw a lot of both dismissal and outright glee on the part of external observers. I didn’t save all the links I found – I should have – but these selections from Reddit (I know, I know) are pretty representative of a lot of it:
I’m still cracking up. I made a point earlier where the reason why 4Chan spread so widely on Tumblr is because people were stupid enough to tag warnings and flood the tags with peaceful stuff like puppies, oceans, various things. A site so opinionated didn’t know when to shut up and stop calling attention to itself.
You know what, I think some tumblrinas are enjoying this raid because there’s a little voice in the back of their heads saying “now you’re actually a victim of something tangible. Your martyrdom is more legitimate now than it has ever been”. I can just feel the wave of bullshit rumbling on the horizon.
I am tired of Tumblr being the place for oversensitive (edit: and sometimes overly hostile), special snowflakes and all the clusterfuck of circle jerking going on there. This is one of the best raids 4chan has done, IMO, and it makes me laugh seeing all these people squirming on Tumblr. I give it 3 thumbs up.
Seriously, though, this is almost always what we see, and I’m not arguing that any of this is consciously calculated on the part of the people doing it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. You have the “asking for it” aspect, the “too sensitive” aspect, the “victim” aspect, the “enjoying being a victim” aspect. And at the core of it, the dismissal of the fact that these are mostly people who are members of marginalized populations who are legitimately being hurt. The hurt is being dismissed, the people are being dismissed, and the entire thing is justified with “they were asking for it”.
Even sympathetic parties often respond to this kind of thing with “Well, that’s the internet. What do you expect?”
To me, that’s the capper. Emotions are weaponized, the damage they do is dismissed, the people who have been hurt are dismissed, the entire thing is done – rather effectively – in the interest of making space unsafe for certain people and punishing them for having the gall to be there in the first place, and finally the possibility that maybe this isn’t necessarily how it has to be is foreclosed upon.
That last, I think, is what’s behind things like Gawker’s inaction: the general sense a lot of people have that yeah, it sucks, but there’s not much that can be done, so oh well, and maybe you should just toughen up anyway. “Trolls will be trolls” has a direct discursive connection to “boys will be boys”.
So no, I wasn’t surprised by how long it took Gawker Media to react. I’m glad they did. But I won’t be surprised when this exact thing happens again.
Sarah has a massively thin skin on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry