Online bullies end up working against their anti-feminist agenda

Posted September 25, 2014

Written by Beth Lyons

Last Saturday British actress Emma Watson, who is best known as Hermione Granger in the film adaptations of the Harry Potter novels, launched a United Nations campaign that aims to engage men in the effort to eliminate the ongoing gender-based inequality women face around the world.

To launch this initiative, called He for She, Ms. Watson delivered an impassioned speech at the United Nations in New York City. She explained her understanding and acceptance of feminism, touching on issues like pay equity, gender roles (for men and women, boys and girls) and violence. Her speech called on men to recognize gender equality as an issue they have a vested interest in, and stressed that they are also suffering because of gender-based inequality.

Her speech received a standing ovation and the Internet immediately lit up with accolades. Ms. Watson managed to issue a clarion call to men, calling them to task while positioning them as allies. She also managed to detail how men will benefit from increased gender-based equity without erasing the reality that it is women that pay most dearly for our current state of inequality.

Despite, or perhaps because of having accomplished so much with one speech, backlash was almost immediate – and undeniably gender-based. Before the weekend was out, a member of the notorious 4chan website had created the website (note: I’m declining to link to it for obvious reasons). The site features a photo of Ms. Watson laughing and wiping away a tear and a timer set to expire later this week. What happens when the timer runs out? The threat is that hacked nude photos of the actress will be released (hence the website title referring to Ms. Watson as ‘next’ – a number of mostly female celebrities have recently seen explicit photos of themselves stolen and subsequently posted publicly).

Comments on the 4chan message board supporting this threat range from referring to Ms. Watson by derogatory expletives (often with her feminist identity thrown into the mix for good measure) to expressions of violence. Frankly, it’s hard to describe the general tone and content of comments in a way that can be printed in this newspaper.

A number of commenters clearly believe that the purported photos do indeed exist and will be shared, and that their existence means that Ms. Watson is precluded from being a feminist or being a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador.

These kinds of threat-based tactics are faced altogether too often by women who are engaged in addressing gender-based inequality and also prove how desperately these women’s efforts are needed.

Just last week, Canadian-American feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian, whose work primarily focuses on depictions of women in video games, was forced to attend an awards ceremony in San Francisco with a security detail.

Why? Event organizers had received a threat stating that a bomb would be detonated if they did not revoke an award Ms. Sarkeesian would be receiving at the ceremony.

Ms. Sarkeesian also received threats of violence this summer that forced her from her home and she has seen photos of her face turned into an online game in which users beat her until contusions and cuts appear (note: link contains graphic images of violence against women).

These are only two examples of women who face backlash for their activism on gender-based issues, but there are scores more. Feminist blogs regularly comment on the abuse that their staff and volunteers face; abuse that often includes explicit threats of sexual violence. The words that online abusers reach for most often can’t be written out in this space, but that I’m sure you can guess what they are: words that are vicious and undeniably gendered.

These attacks, of course, aren’t intended strictly for the women they’re directly targeting; they’re a message to all women watching to be careful not to step out of line, or else they’ll face this level of vitriol as well.

It’s incredibly disheartening to see women who are working to improve the world for all genders face such intense manifestations of the kind of attitudes they are challenging. This backlash, however, eliminates any doubt that may linger around whether work like that being done by Ms. Watson and Ms. Sarkeesian is needed in the first place.

Beth Lyons, associate director of YWCA Moncton, writes about equality issues and social justice

Update: Since this was published, the threats against Emma Watson have been discredited as a hoax.

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