Under fire for being a woman, writing

When I was writing for MSN Money last year, I noticed a disturbing trend: a level of vitriol on the comments section that wasn’t based on what I wrote, but on the fact that I’m female. 

The comments were vile and slanderous, ranging from alleging I had engaged in sexual acts to earn my job to simply calling me derogatory names often used for women, with bitch being one of the milder ones.

I’m not alone in being a writer who is woman finding herself singled out for abuse by the fact of her gender. Amanda Hess in “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet” writes in the latest issue Pacific Standard about the slanderous, insulting treatment women are subjected to online. (It’s a great piece: check it out.)

Ross Douthat writes in the The New York Times that women covering cultural or gender issues may attract or magnify the response from (presumably male) attackers. “There’s no question that women writing from that perspective come in for more personal, sexualized abuse than women writing about, say, monetary policy,” he writes. 

Maybe so, but it doesn’t mean women who write about monetary policy are exempt. I’m a business journalist, and much of my work at MSN Money was focused on covering issues such as the minimum wage, food stamps and Obamacare. These are certainly hot-button topics that span the culture war territory, yet my writing was not personal nor did it address gender or sexual issues. 

The issue that Hess points out, and which Douthat misses, is that any woman writing on the Internet is a target for abuse.  Cautioning women who address certain “liberal, feminist”  topics (Douthat’s words) that they will be more likely to be targeted is short-sighted at best, and victim-blaming at worst. 

My employer at the time, Microsoft, took the abuse seriously. I appreciated their efforts to track down and rout out the harassers. But the problem is that you can’t ever really shut them down. Microsoft would delete an account when the abuse started, but sometimes only a few minutes later the harasser(s) would be flinging slanderous insults again, under a new name. 

As for remedies, Microsoft said it didn’t want to involve their legal department, for fear the harasser(s) would notch up their abuse. There’s some evidence that responding to them doesn’t work, since it provides attention, albeit negative. (Don’t feed the trolls, as saying goes.)

When the abuse was particularly pernicious, my editor, who is also female, suggested I publish without a byline. Yes, that would have shielded me from gender-based abuse, but it would have been giving in to the trolls’ subtextual demand, which is basically, “You are a woman. You do not deserve to be heard.” Taking away my identity online would be giving in to their harassment, so I declined the offer. 

I’m not going to attempt to parse the mentality of a troll, but the widespread abuse that women writers endure at the hands of online harassers brings up the question of whether the behavior is linked to our culture’s pervasive portrayal of women as sexual objects — and the absence of portrayals of positive, authoritative women in the media. 

When the mirrors we look into reflect an unreal picture of “reality,” where only one out of three speaking characters in G-rated films are female and four out of five film narrators are male, maybe it’s not so surprising to see a certain portion of society struggling to deal with women with powerful voices.

Trolls with gender-based abuse want to shut women up, but their presence points out the need for more women in authoritative roles, not fewer, as well as better, stronger laws for prosecuting them, as Hess writes in her piece. 

And if you happen to see a troll engaging in gender-based abuse, consider calling him or her out on it (yes, women have been guilty of this type of behavior as well.)

Nellie Bly, a pioneering female journalist, was first lauded for traveling around the world in 80 days, but later faced criticism for seeking to (unwomanly) profit from the feat.

Nellie Bly, a pioneering female journalist, was first lauded for traveling around the world in 80 days, but later faced criticism for seeking to (unwomanly) profit from the feat.

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January 13, 2014 · 8:44 pm

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