Aphrodite Refused

“I would calmly ask, is it reasonable that a candidate for immortality, for the joys of heaven, an intelligent being, who is to spend an eternity in contemplating the works of Deity, should at present be so degraded,” wrote Judith Sargent Murray in her landmark 1790 essay On the Equality of the Sexes.

Judith Sargent Murray, as painted by John Singleton Copley
Portrait of Mrs. Judith Sargent Murray. Portrait by John Singleton Copley, Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection.

One might also calmly ask to what extent our digital culture has become reliant upon a landscape of degradation, albeit one in which immortality is defined as the distance between an immediate impression and a regrettable decision. For women who deign to utilize the Internet as a social tool, that threshold has long been surpassed.

Such was the experience of Kristen Parisi, an unmarried, socially active woman who happens to have a disability. She joined Tinder with much the same expectations as any other user: a low-commitment method of exploring potential dating partners, quickly, without making a significant emotional investment. Ms. Parisi consciously chose to conceal her wheelchair in her profile photos, mostly to protect herself from hurtful comments made by users with whom she had no intention of connecting.

Since Ms. Parisi understood that she would not be able to keep her wheelchair a secret indefinitely to potential suitors, she typically disclosed her disability sometime within the first few minutes of messaging. What she did not anticipate was how quickly the perception of her would change upon discovery:

Even if I had great messaging chemistry with a guy, I would instantly go from being the “sexy redhead” he’s planning to go out with to the “girl in a wheelchair” — and that chair would define me … One guy I told responded, “So why are you on here? Shouldn’t you be dating someone in a wheelchair?” The men on Tinder apparently thought this was an okay thing to say to a woman.

Although the comments Ms. Parisi received only worsened over time (one user responded with an insensitive remark about her imagined sexual habits; another simply called her “gross” and deleted her profile from his list of matches), this story has a relatively happy ending. Eventually, Ms. Parisi pursued a short-term dating relationship and reaffirmed her faith in the male species.

Venu de MiloWhat is of interest here, though, is the steep slide into self-doubt that results from a handful of unfortunate encounters. Ms. Parisi acknowledges the blow she took to her self-esteem, to the point where she questioned whether her disability should disqualify her from the joys of modern sexuality to which she is rightfully entitled.

It’s not only the digital realm where this unhealthy form of self-reflection occurs; according to a study conducted at the University of Chicago, it’s actually a part of our psychological makeup. Researchers at the University’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience found that the lonelier we become, the more our attention is drawn toward negative social information. As a result, lonely people tend to be hypersenstive to threatening behavior—a scientific tidbit that explains but does not excuse perpetrators of abuse upon those they target.

Clementine Ford
Clementine Ford, Australian writer who fought back against a man who called her a “slut” on her public Facebook page.

Some of those targets are fighting back. Australian writer Clementine Ford discovered that vigilance comes with a price, even if the outcome is conducted in the spirit of support. When a male commenter called Ms. Ford a “slut” on her public Facebook, she openly wondered what the gentleman’s employers would think of his behavior. After being alerted, the company (a hotel chain called Meriton Apartments) promptly fired the commenter and offered Ms. Ford a public apology.

This should have been the end of it, but the tsunami of vitriol that followed led some to accuse Ms. Ford of overreacting to “mean words on the Internet” and “trawling the Internet looking to be offended.” The reaction was severe enough that Ms. Ford felt compelled to explain what freedom of speech really means in terms of personal responsibility, especially within a digital landscape where it’s not always possible to identify one’s attackers:

[Freedom of speech] is not the glorious, consequence-free paradise they imagine in which they get to say whatever they like to whomever they like while enjoying the luxury of that person silently taking it with no pushback. For too long, speech on the internet has been consequence free. It has mainly served to support abusive trolls who, despite the frequency with which they appear to be pictured with families, seem to have nothing better to do than stalk women online to try and scare them into shutting up.

Despite the tendency to attribute these case studies as simply two more examples of why the Internet hates women, the reality is that de-identifying behavior regarding female roles in society has manifested since the inception of modern civilization. Whether worshipped spiritually as divine bringers of life or castigated as second-class citizens, women have traditionally been co-opted to an idealized, largely masculine-influenced archetype of domination, exultation and (ultimately) control.

Lizzie Velasquez as a child
Lizzie Velasquez as a child. “Why would her parents keep her?!” read one of the comments on a YouTube video about her; “kill it with fire” said another. One commenter said people would go blind if they saw her on the street.

Humankind has always had an uneasy relationship with customs of etiquette, especially with regard to women’s place in the ecosystem. What makes Internet unique is how rapidly this decoupling takes place. We see it today in the form of cyberbullying against a woman with Marfan syndrom and a professional violinist who posts messages she receives from anonymous fetishists on Instagram. Perhaps the most appropriate response, such as in the case of Ms. Ford, is to simply fight fire with fire and accept that someone, somewhere is going to bring a bigger torch.

Or maybe, to again quote Judith Sargent Murray, it’s best to just hide away from it all. Once wonders if Ms. Murray were alive to see what today’s Internet subculture has wrought from “the low manners of an injurious multitude,” as she wrote in 1793, she might be compelled to further revisit a desire to “shield [her]self in the fair asylum of conscious innocence” in order to escape it. And who could blame her?

I Sing the Body Electric

The first recorded instance of body-shaming in modern culture took place in 1863. That’s the year when Édouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) made its exhibition debut in the Salon des Refusés, shortly after being rejected for inclusion to the Salon. In the painting, we see a nude woman relaxing between two respectably dressed men in a pastoral setting. When writing about the painting, art critic Jules-Antoine Castagnary used the word “flabby” to describe it. But there is more to the story than a woman’s physique.

Manet's Lunceon on the Grass

The painting generated controversy for reasons other than the stark nudity of the woman in contrast to the male figures. At the time, rampant prostitution in Paris was considered too inappropriate for even casual conversation, let alone to be displayed on an oversized canvas. Viewers expected the presence of a nude woman among clothed men to hold a certain mythological or allegorical significance, neither of which Manet chose to reference in his work.

It was not the nude that most infuriated audiences, however, but rather what appeared to be a lack of technique on the part of the artist. Manet painted his characters in such a way that they didn’t seem to fit inside the composition, his landscape portrayed as a sloppy sketch of monochromatic brushstrokes. The artist’s deliberate exclusion of depth, subtlety and perspective infuriated critics who chided him for seeing the world in high-contrast swatches. Manet’s vision of the world (and the female form it contained) did not align with that of his audience.

proportions of the female formDéjeuner sur l’herbe is today considered a primary departure point in modern culture, gaining significance as one of the watershed moments in art history. Body-shaming endures as well, serving as a form of conjunctive imperialism among those who have very specific expectations of what the female form should represent.

Examples of celebrity body-shaming are rampant in social media. When Selena Gomez posted an image of herself on a Mexico beach, it didn’t take long for the trolls in Twitter, Reddit and Instagram to pile on with comments about her weight. Almost instantly, Gomez joined Demi Lovato, PinkKelly Clarkson and other female celebrities who dared to leave themselves publicly exposed to a jury of online executioners and self-assumed fitness experts. Gomez addressed her critics with a suitably appropriate response:

Selena Gomez self-portrait announcing that she is comfortable in her own body

Mary Poovey book coverBody-shaming isn’t limited to comments about a woman’s dress size. The message being imparted to females is clear and direct: don’t gain weight, don’t get old, don’t wear shabby clothes, don’t cut your hair, and don’t own your sexuality. In general: don’t put forward an image unless it’s been sanctioned by a societal norm. Our expectations of how women are supposed to present themselves are calibrated, at least to some degree, by centuries of misogynist behavior. This is a theme with many cultural precedents. Consider this essay on Charles Dickens’ classic David Copperfield by historian Mary Poovey, which describes how the relationship between the titular character and his mother influences his actions:

“The ideal that David will strive to re-create throughout the novel is the discrepancy between what Clara seems to offer and what she indirectly causes … the gap within himself between the infatuations he suffers and the perfect love he imagines [is] the symbolic reworking necessary to transform woman into the idealized mother. If his mother is not the ideal, then she must be transformed into this figure.”

Rachel BrykFemale celebrities are not the only targets of body-shaming. It could be argued that the transgender community is particularly vulnerable to online trolling, since the affected victims are people who have made the conscious (and often difficult) choice to alter their self-image on a very public stage. Rachel Bryk posted her last words in a posthumous Twitter message last week, after the transgender 23-year-old’s suicidal jump off the George Washington Bridge: “Guess I am dead. Killed myself. Sorry.” Bryk had previously complained about the “constant transphobia” she experienced online. Of note were the anonymous trolls who goaded Bryk to kill herself at a time when the pain she suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia was unendurable.

The Latin phrase “Mulier est hominis confusio” means “Woman is the confusion of man.” The theological context for this quote was to question whether a woman had a soul, from the Biblical concept of original sin to Helen’s role in the Trojan War. It could also be interpreted, however, as the challenge of ingenuity that men have always held regarding their female cohabitants. The unstated rule is that so-called “feminine” traits, especially those that can be detected by sight, must be accompanied by “feminine” behaviors. In the minds of body-shamers, any deviation risks upsetting the balance of power upon which rests their formulaic assumptions regarding gender roles.

Or maybe it’s not that complicated. Kellie Maloney, a boxing promoter who previously lived as a man, suggests that perpetrators of online abuse have something more on their minds than what a woman is supposed to look like:

“You’re always going to get the keyboard warriors and the guys who want to make a name for themselves. I’ve had some messages like ‘You’re always going to be a man, just because you’ve had your genitals cut off doesn’t make you a woman’. I just laughed, even when it got really abusive and personal. I would think if people want to say these things they are hiding secrets of their own. “

In Numbers Too Big to Ignore

I am woman, hear me roar,” sang Helen Reddy over thirty years ago. Based on two recent developments involving high-profile women, that roaring comes at a price: the risk of public shaming via social media.

Monica Lewinsky and Ashley Judd
Photo of Monica Lewinsky by James Duncan Davidson of TED/Reuters from the TED website. Photo of Ashley Judd by Dave Martin of AP from an article on USA Today.

In a TED talk delivered on Thursday, Monica Lewinsky described herself as one of the earliest victims of cyberbullying. She also called for more compassion from Internet users, joining the large number of those already looking for solutions to online harassment. Four days earlier, actress Ashley Judd received an “avalanche” of sexually abusive tweets for remarks she made on Twitter during a University of Kentucky basketball game.

Monica Lewinsky is a curious name in American history, given the events that made her famous and her resulting legacy as a media figure. Her reemergence as a compassionate spokesperson is unfairly overlooked, however, particularly her efforts to raise awareness of issues relating to digital abuse. “Public humiliation as a blood sport has to stop,” she told the TED audience on Thursday, asking that Internet users exercise judgment where the efforts of tech companies to police abuse have proven inadequate.

The case of Ms. Judd is interesting, because she is a respected actress and humanitarian who also happens to be a die-hard University of Kentucky Wildcats basketball fan. While watching her team play on Sunday, she posted a since-deleted tweet suggesting that the Wildcats were being subjected to “dirty play.” The responses she received were violently sexual, often resorting to vulgar name calling and threats. And yesterday, she was ridiculed for bringing a working dog to the game.

Later in the week, Ms. Judd announced on CNN that she would press formal charges against the Internet trolls harassing her on Twitter. “Everyone needs to take personal responsibility for what they write and not allowing this misinterpretation and shaming culture on social media to persist,” she said. In a subsequent article on Identities.Mic, Ms. Judd (herself a survivor of sexual assault and incest) detailed the level of verbal abuse to which she was subjected:

I read in vivid language the various ways, humiliating and violent, in which my genitals, vaginal and anal, should be violated, shamed, exploited and dominated. Either the writer was going to do these things to me, or they were what I deserved. My intellect was insulted: I was called stupid, an idiot. My age, appearance and body were attacked. Even my family was thrown into the mix: Someone wrote that my “grandmother is creepy.”

In a bullying culture that reserves its most vitriolic ammunition for the female gender, misogynistic cyberattacks are rising with alarming velocity. According to a 2014 report by the Pew Research Center, women between the ages of 18 and 24 experience severe types of online harassment (with a quarter of cases being of a sexual nature), and 26% have been stalked.

Chart demonstrating the disproportionate number of sexually charged online harassment cases against women. The key figure represented here is the 26% of women who claim to have been stalked, versus 7% of men and 8% overall.
Young women are particularly vulnerable to severe forms of online harassment, with 26% having been stalked and 25% sexually harassed. From a Pew Research Center study on online harassment.

While it’s easy to attribute female-directed cyberbullying as another in a long line of masochistic atrocities, there is something deeper and perhaps more sinister in digital harassment. We are living in a time where online interaction is learned at an early age, often before interpersonal skills can be cultivated as a form of common etiquette. As a result, abhorrent behavior can be explored anonymously, free of the consequences we risk when behaving badly during face-to-face contact. Unfortunately, Silicon Valley has done little to improve online decorum on user-generated content sites; even Twitter CEO Dick Costolo acknowledged this week that “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform.”

Possibly the most disconcerting aspect of the Judd case is the demarcation it exposes between male and female sports fans. Consider this hypothetical: if a man had tweeted the exact same remark at the exact same time, would it have been subjected to the same level of vitriol? Or would have been viewed as exactly what Ms. Judd intended: an innocuous comment by a passionate, loyal sports fan in support of his favorite team.

Update 03/22/15: there is a fascinating story in today’s Sunday New York Times on Monica Lewinsky’s reinvention, touching briefly on the digital harassment she received and her historical importance in exposing “humiliation as a commodity.” Recommended.