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?

Watch Me Quit

Marina Shifrin dancing in her quit video

In an era where U.S. unemployment figures typically range between five and eight percent (and were as high as 10% in 2009), it might seem oddly inappropriate to celebrate the mundane act of quitting a job—especially when the event is made public at a significant risk to one’s reputation.

Yet, this is exactly what people are doing with their final hours at work. People are using company property and time to choreograph elaborate media happenings, recording them on video and posting them online for a global audience. Although we have no idea who these people are, what they do for a living or why they’re leaving, we are captivated by the spectacle.

Girl holding sign saying "I quit"It’s not difficult to understand why “quit videos” are so magnetic. Nearly everyone who works for a living has been compelled, at some time or another, to seethe silently while enduring an employment scenario that left us wanting more. Perhaps it’s a stupid boss that sets us on edge, or a noisy cubicle placed near the break room. Or it could be the vapid nature of most work environments, a landscape overrun with micromanaging leadership, indecipherable buzzword jargon, and organizations who incessantly bang us over the head about their “commitment to culture.”

Most of us follow the rules of cordial professionalism when leaving our place of employment: we provide two week’s notice, complete the required paperwork, and hand off any projects currently in-stream. We might even have a small party or a round of drinks with our coworkers. We promise to keep in touch, say nice things and move on. It’s all very benign.

Increasingly, though, departing employees are electing to tender their resignations in the form of elaborately staged events. The sheer orchestration required to pull off these stunts is impressive: there’s the coffee shop barista who hired a barbershop quartet, the Renaissance Hotel employee accompanied by a marching band, an insurance salesman dressed as a banana, and the GoDaddy engineer who announced her new puppeteering career via Super Bowl commercial.

And sometimes, the employers fight back. When Marina Shifrin quit her job by dancing to a song by Kanye West in front of 18 million viewers, her viral legacy was cemented (including a number of copycats). However, her former company countered the attack with a video of their own, taking advantage of the opportunity to elevate their name in front of a newly-expanded audience.  Today, Ms. Shifrin writes for Glamour and tweets about orange juice, but one gets the sense that her fleeting celebrity will sustain the semblance of a career (for the time being, at least).

From the perspective of the departing employee, it’s difficult to pinpoint the intended benefit of quit videos. It could be the chance to become an Internet celebrity that’s so intoxicating, or it could be something more deeply psychological. Quitting a job is an inherently solitary exercise; everyone else is a part of something, and we’ve made a decision to extricate ourselves from it. Perhaps the mass exposure of fame provides a sense of immediacy, smoothing the transition from one social circle to another.

factory workers sitting at tables doing menial laborStill, one interesting aspect of note is that most quit videos begin with a sincere explanation of what we’re about to see. Sometimes the tone is almost apologetic, as if the creators are aware that what they’re doing is borderline inappropriate but Darn it, I was mistreated and my story must be heard. Taken in this context, quit videos operate as a rejection of the flawed organizational dynamics found in many corporate ecosystems.

Smart, creative employees long ago stopped thinking of themselves merely as human capital. Perhaps this form of social media offers a greater good yet to be discovered: the actualization of the self, and a public opportunity to reclaim one’s dignity in the face of dehumanization. Whatever the rationale, Frederick Winslow Taylor is surely spinning in his grave.