Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.
As a society, we’re numb. Between film, television, and the Internet, we’re bombarded with more badness than we could ever realistically deal with or fix. As a defense mechanism, we pull back, lest we become Bobby Cobb in Cougar Town’s “No Reason to Cry,” spiritually paralyzed by the muck of the world. Wars seem worlds away until epic office towers come down, until our own personal safety’s been breached. We pick our concerns and battles, and often don’t react unless something hits close to home…
Unless it’s violence towards women. Though we’re surrounded by mothers, grandmothers, sisters, daughters, friends, and coworkers, we’re generally complacent to an epidemic that plagues as close to home as we can possibly get. Sure, part of this is due to historical attitudes, a world where newspapers used to ask men if a woman should be spanked if she “needs it,” where men would reply:
“You bet. It teaches them who’s boss.”
“Most of them have it coming to them anyway. If they don’t, it will remind them how well off they are.”
This seems like another time, and while it may be rare to see men condoning physical abuse in a newspaper, a woman is sexually assaulted every two minutes in the U.S. A whopping 97% of rapists will never spend a day in jail. Why does this matter right now? In a film column? Honestly, I can think of little else this week.
On Monday, I read an account of a woman who was recently assaulted, and how it was affecting both her and the other women around her. When I finished, I looked at my Twitter to see an alert that three women had been assaulted in my neighborhood in the last week, by different men. (Around the same time that three more were assaulted at my old alma mater.) A few minutes after that, I discovered that the vitriol spewed towards Anita Sarkeesian in recent weeks had hit new, disgusting heights.
To recap, Sarkeesian, the woman behind Feminist Frequency, had started a Kickstarter campaign to investigate the portrayal of women in video games. “I love playing video games but I’m regularly disappointed in the limited and limiting ways women are represented,” Sarkeesian wrote. The plan: To create a 5-video series on the topic, looking at damsels in distress, fighting f**k toys, sexy sidekicks, sexy villainesses, and background decoration. (More were created as extra funding was pledged.) It seemed like a perfectly reasonable research topic. You can’t so much as play Puzzle Quest without battling (or fighting as) otherworldly sexpots.
But before she could even begin, the harassment began pouring in. Video game forums vowed to “take her down” in what Sarkeesian describes as “a more organized and sustained effort than I’ve experienced before.”
“The intimidation and harassment effort has included a torrent of misogyny and hate speech on my YouTube video, repeated vandalizing of the Wikipedia page about me, organized efforts to flag my YouTube videos as ‘terrorism,’ as well as many threatening messages sent through Twitter, Facebook, Kickstarter, email and my own website. These messages and comments have included everything from the typical sandwich and kitchen ‘jokes’ to threats of violence, death, sexual assault and rape. All that plus an organized attempt to report this project to Kickstarter and get it banned or defunded.”
The mere notion that she’d critique quite obvious tropes led to violent threats. Yes, threats and Internet trolling are also lobbed at men, like Chris Tookey’s account of the backlash incited by his review of Kick-Ass. One of the big differences, however, is that this trolling doesn’t exist in a bubble and is part of a larger context of both implied and perpetrated violence. Moreover, trolling diatribes against women are always framed within sexual and gendered terms. Words like “whore” and “slut” are preferred insults, rape is framed as a way to “teach” women a lesson, and trolls strive to frame disagreement as an emblem of female-wide ineptitude.
Sadly, the backlash against Sarkeesian got worse. One gamer decided that the campaign was a scam, so he made his own game, where viewers could click on a real picture of Sarkeesian to beat her, bruising her skin, busting her lips, and making her bleed. Steph Guthrie found the creator, Ben Spurr, and proceeded to call him out on Twitter, where he said many things including: “I wanted to express my distaste for what she’s doing in a way she would listen.” That simple statement really boils much of the trouble into one brief sentence, much like: “Sarkeesian, again crossed that line. She insulted our waifus. This is why she was attacked ruthlessly.” Of course, Guthrie herself began to receive threats. And this is all after the many months Dragon Age writer Jennifer Hepler was harassed for words she’d said years before.
As this turmoil brews, another part of entertainment got into the misogyny. The Cookies for Breakfast Tumblr shared a friend’s account of going to a Dane Cook/Daniel Tosh show at the Laugh Factory. She recalls that after Tosh made statements about rape jokes always being funny, she yelled: “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!” This led Tosh to respond: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…” It was later, confirmed (in a manner of speaking) when Tosh tweeted: “all of the out of context misquotes aside, I’d like to sincerely apologize.” Whether rape jokes are funny is really irrelevant. Tosh’s statements were simple, clear-cut intimidation, creating an environment she immediately felt unsafe in.
As I write this, Martha Plimpton is tweeting Twitter responses she’s receiving after tweeting to Tosh: “I can’t wait to hear your ‘lynching is funny!’ bit. Or would that be a little TOO dangerous?” The latest:
I struggle with how to articulate this environment and how it feels as a woman, the anger that bubbles at the indifference to this epidemic that’s theoretical, spiritual, and physical. The above, of course, is some of the worst of it – the terrible threats and physical ramifications of a society that really doesn’t take violence towards women as seriously as it should. But it’s noticeable at every level – it’s a part of life for every woman out there. Amy Nicholson’s Avengers debacle is really common-place for female pop culture writers and film critics, who can in turn lodge it back to women like Scarlett Johansson whose kickass turn in The Avengers was whittled down to questions about her looks and body. Felicia Day’s many accomplishments were recently reduced to “could you be considered nothing more than a glorified booth babe? You don’t seem to add anything creative to the medium.”
Sadly, I don’t have the words because there are no words to encapsulate a danger that has so many manifestations from fleeting comments on the Internet, to organized harassment, to physical harm and spiritual degradation. I just keep coming back to this idea that we are affected by that which hits closest to home, and how that sentiment utterly fails in this context.
What hits closer to home than this – something that makes the women in our lives feel unsafe and be unsafe? I’m happy with every tweet I see from men and women condemning these sexist actions and forming a loud voice shouting that it’s not okay to behave in this manner, but I also think about how much louder it can be.
Violence towards women, rape culture, slut-shaming … this isn’t a “women’s problem.” It’s a human problem. If we could spend just a little of that energy we use complaining about Twilight and Twi-hards, about the minutia of superhero movies, or getting our Scientology hate on, the men who think it’s okay to harass, threaten, and rape women would get a much louder message (from women and men), that it’s simply not okay.