So at my ROFLCON talk, I stated that “much of internet culture is sexist, racist, and homophobic.” This is a weighty statement. I want to expand on this a little more and also talk about what people can do to change this.
Assumption #1: American culture is sexist, racist, and homophobic
If you don’t believe this, then you aren’t going to agree with most of what I’m going to say. I know that many people believe we live in a “post-feminist” culture, that racism is no longer a problem, and that gay activists want “special rights” and are overrepresented in mainstream media. If you are one of these people, you aren’t going to change your mind based on a single blog post. But you might want to read this New York magazine article about how the media has relied on sexism to cover the Hillary Clinton campaign, statistics from NOW about LGBT discrimination and (cheesy) the Wikipedia entry about racism in the United States, which is impressively comprehensive.
Assumption #2: LOLZ matter.
During the Anonymous panel at ROFLCon, several people brought up their use of the term “moralfag” to describe themselves. Anonymous is an anti-Scientology activist group that more or less started on the 4chan /b/ board, but has since migrated to various IRC channels, wikis, and so forth. I’m pretty much pro-Anonymous. I think it’s great for people to get involved with activist work, I think Scientology is pretty messed up, and I think it’s cool that the protesters are seeing immediate results from their efforts. But they throw around terms like “fag” all the time. This is part of the specific “internet culture” of 4chan, and a particular subculture of people who do it all for the lulz, and they argue that it’s “funny” and that they make fun of everyone. The subtext is: if it’s cloaked in humor, you can’t criticize it.
I teach a great article about Rush Hour 2 from the Journal of Communication called “Naturalizing Racial Differences Through Comedy: Asian, Black, and White Views on Racial Stereotypes in Rush Hour 2” by Ji Hoon Park, Nadine G. Gabbadon and Ariel R. Chernin. The authors look at the Chris Tucker / Jackie Chan action movie to talk about racial stereotypes as a source of humor. In comedies, stereotypes are frequently used, partly as a sort of shorthand to establish character types quickly (e.g. if a “dumb blonde,” “nerdy Asian” or “flaming gay guy” show up in a broad comedy, we immediately understand the character because we’re familiar with the stereotype), and partly because both conforming to and resisting stereotypes are funny. But, as the article argues, even in a comedic sense, presenting stereotypes as real and natural function to re-inforce those stereotypes. My students always begin by saying that this is a comedy, that it’s not meant to be taken seriously, and that picking it apart is “reading too much into it.” But after we analyze three or four movie trailers to look at racial stereotypes and how they function, and after we look at the disparate numbers of racial and ethnic minority roles in movies and TV, they usually end up agreeing with the article’s main points.
I think comedy functions as a sort of masking device. Shows like The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy have very sharp social humor (whether or not I agree with it) that “flies under the radar” because they’re ostensibly just funny cartoons. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report use political satire to critique business as usual in the government and the mainstream media. And from minstrel shows to In Living Color, comedy has been used to talk about race.
So I do think it’s important to look at “LOLZ” and things that are “meant to be funny.” Often, some very pointed social commentary is wrapped into humor, whether it’s resistive (here’s a way to critique mainstream society without boring people or getting censored) or functions to maintain the status quo (making jokes about women belonging in the kitchen, or career women being ball-busters).
Assumption #3: Language matters.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” The argument here is that sexist, racist, or homophobic slurs are “just words”, are often disassociated from their original meaning (as in the use of “fag” to mean “a generic bad thing” rather than “a gay man”), and therefore aren’t important to interrogate.
But language is a tool that we have to describe the world. It affects the way we see the world, and the way we can talk about it. It functions as a way to shut down certain subjects and open up others for debate. Think of the “pro choice” versus “pro abortion” or “anti-choice” versus “anti-abortion” nomenclature. Both sides fight for their preferred term, because the terms are so loaded that they frame the debate. “Pro-choice” versus “anti-choice” means something completely different than “pro-abortion” versus “anti-abortion.”
The other thing is that there are certain groups who just plain don’t have slurs associated with them. On many message boards, I see women called “bitches”, “whores”, and “sluts” for disagreeing with a poster, for posting something controversial, or just plain for existing. If a woman disagrees with you, you can call her a “stupid whore” and there’s an entire lifetime of sexism that exists behind those words, implying all sorts of demeaning sexualized things that function to shut her up, or at least to dehumanize her and intimidate her and to encourage other men to do likewise. You can call a guy a “dumb asshole,” but it doesn’t draw from the same vitrolic hatred. A dumb asshole is a single person, a dumb dude; but a stupid whore is representative of all women.
Assumption #4: Critiquing racism, sexism, etc. does not mean attacking white men
This misconception baffles me, because clearly these things are supported by the culture as a whole and not individual white dudes. My boyfriend, brother, and father are all white guys. I have nothing against the white man. I do have specific problems with specific white guys who are jerks, but I have specific problems with women who enforce sexism as well. In order for these power imbalances to continue, most of society needs to be invested in them, which involves lots of people besides white dudes. So brush that chip off your shoulder and get over yourself.
So: I do think internet culture is sexist, racist, and homophobic.
I see racist slurs being thrown around all the time like they are nothing.
I see women and gay people being systematically driven away from certain aspects of the internet, and then the maintainers of those boards/communities wondering why they can’t get any women to participate.
I personally know more about sexism than I do about other forms of oppression – not to say they aren’t connected, or related, but I want to address sexism specifically because it’s what I’m the most famliar with.
I see sexism on MySpace, YouTube, on political blogs, feminist blogs, on tech blogs, on IRC, over IM, in games, on bulletin boards, all over the place. And there is 20 years of research on sexism online that consistently has found sexism in all aspects of internet culture.
You may say “I’m not sexist. That’s just meant to be funny.” But in order to recognize a sexist joke as funny, sexism has to exist in the first place. If I made a joke about all Yugoslavians being bad cooks, that wouldn’t be funny and it wouldn’t make sense, because that stereotype doesn’t exist and you’re not familiar with it. But if I make a joke about women being bad drivers, it makes sense, because the stereotype exists.
So: What can I do to stop online sexism?
1. Stop calling women whores, sluts, bitches, and so forth.
If you’re going to disagree with a woman, take issue with her points or her arguments. Don’t fling around sexist insults just because you know they’re loaded words.
2. Actively speak out against people who use this language.
This is very hard for people. Both men and women who are invested in certain communities where sexist slurs are common don’t want to speak out. They think it will make them look humorless and uptight and not funny and a pain in the ass. But until we stop thinking that sexist slurs are funny and a way to indicate “laid back” attitudes, this won’t change. We need to do things that make us uncomfortable if we want anything to change.
3. Don’t emphasize women’s sexuality or looks when talking about them
Would you say a male journalist or tech pundit was totally hot, totally ugly, etc. when describing him? Then don’t say it about a woman. Obviously, there are situations where talking about a person’s looks are appropriate (e.g. you’re discussing an actress’s photoshoot or a new George Clooney movie), but if you’re just talking about a person who has a career that has nothing to do with her looks, lay off. Women have the right to be in the public and be normal looking or unattractive without getting reduced to their hair color, makeup, or clothing.
There are a million more, but these are three pretty simple, but enormously significant, tasks. If there are other things people are actively doing to combat online prejudice, I’d love to hear about them.