Internet trolling is not new. Nor is it exclusive to women. Those facts, however, do not mean that it is any less important to discuss it. There is an alarming amount of vitriol and hate pouring out of every nook and cranny aimed directly at women who dare to refer to themselves as geeks, and (even worse) decide to openly speak about their fandom. This happens regardless of what these women are speaking about, but it is particularly harsh and abundant if/when a woman speaks critically about an aspect of gaming or comics. Recently, I had a rather disturbing back and forth on Twitter with a guy who apparently saw nothing wrong with the Milo Manara Spider-Woman variant cover. It seems that some guys still feel the need to mansplain just how much women everywhere have over-reacted to the now infamous cover art (often completely misunderstanding or blatantly ignoring why we’re upset about it). In this particular instance, the guy started off with a common argument: claiming that she’s supposed to be posed like a spider. When I pointed out just how not spider-like the pose is, his true feelings quickly emerged in a string of tweets that essentially called my intelligence, knowledge of the subject, and even my own sexuality into question:
“ALL Comic Book characters have a certain element of sexual fantasy to them. ALL OF THEM. What's wrong with that[?]”
“Female Superheroes are MALE fantasy characters. Where's OMAHA THE CAT DANCER? I know, you haven't read it[.]”
“.I wish all self-proclaimed “Geek Girls” would at least read Camile Paglia’s SEXUAL PERSONAE. They are fandoms most insufferable bunch.” (Note: This tweet was not sent to me directly, it was a general tweet to all of his followers.)
“Here's the thing, "Geek Girls," whom I respect, need to consider THOUSANDS of years of storytelling.” (Note: This tweet was directed toward me shortly after the one above. Emphasis added.)
“Your knowledge of the medium [is] VERY limited, judging by your blog. I'm OFFENDED by your uninformed ire.”
“Geek Girls are WOEFULLY misinformed. I’m sick of their butt-hurt bullshit. Read some history.” (Note: This was also not tweeted to me directly.)
“Goodnight to you. Perhaps you'll dream of hidstory and sensuality. Wiki that if you don't know what it is?” (Note: I assume he meant “history.”)
For those wondering, Omaha, The Cat Dancer is an erotic comic about a town of anthropomorphic cats that follows Omaha (who happens to be an exotic dancer), her lover, and a myriad of other characters. I cannot, however, figure out why this guy felt Omaha, The Cat Dancer held any relevance to the a debate about the appropriateness of sexualizing a non-sexual character that was being advertised as part of a new, well-rounded, aimed-at-women line of comics. This is a tactic commonly used in arguments as a way for someone to continue arguing when they actually have no relevant response. It happens constantly to those who attempt to criticize misogyny in areas like comic books and video games, and is usually followed shortly by a personal attack aimed at derailing any further intelligent discourse. The tweets I quoted above are, sadly, tame compared to many of the insults and threats being hurled left and right at those speaking out about the sexual objectification of women in comics and games.
So, let’s take a look at some of the other common responses you are almost guaranteed to face should you decide to openly criticize the treatment of women in comic books and video games (even if you are a fan yourself). It is important to note that not everyone who responds to your criticism is being abusive; however, those being abusive commonly use these tactics:
1. You will be called upon to “prove” your knowledge of the subject in a bizarre line of questioning that serves only to distract from the issue at hand. As with the above reference to Omaha, The Cat Dancer, these quizzes will often have little to no connection to the actual debate. Instead, these accusations will be thrown out either as a means to discredit your critique by “exposing” your lack of knowledge, or as a way to bait you into attempting to prove credentials and thus changing the subject. Make no mistake; there is no correct answer to this type of questioning. No matter how much you may know about the subject, it will never be enough. The absolute best you can achieve in this situation would be to prove your knowledge only to be told “then you should know better, so you’re an idiot and your argument is invalid.”
2. You will be accused of overreacting, and/or ignoring history. This response is almost as amusing as it is infuriating, and is certainly prevalent throughout all debates involving civil liberties and social justice. The basis behind this argument is that because something has been done a certain way without much protest, there is no reason to change things now that there is protest. Often, those who are finally speaking up against a traditional way of doing things (that clearly favors one group of people over another) are accused of being hypersensitive, exaggerating or cherry picking their examples, and of trying to force their ideals on others. Logically, however, we all know that simply because something is a tradition, that doesn’t mean it’s just. If that were the case, women still wouldn’t have the right to vote, Jim Crow Laws would still be on the books, and American factories would still largely employ children.
3. Your sexuality will be called into question. The insinuation here is that because you are critical of the sexual objectification of female characters, you do not have a healthy connection to your own sense of sexuality. This is yet another attack to which there is no right answer. Your sexuality is completely irrelevant to the existence of sexism and/or sexual objectification. Period. It’s no one’s business but yours, and any attempts to defend your sexuality will simply distract from the issue and likely result in even more personal attacks.
4. In addition to typical internet insults (name calling, attacks on physical appearance or intelligence, etc.), it is very likely that you may encounter the worst kind of reaction to criticism: direct threats. This is by far the most disturbing response one could face. Direct threats can range anywhere from financial hacking, to physical harm, to sexual assault. They can be graphic, specific, and potentially terrifying. They are also illegal, and generally fall under the FBI’s jurisdiction.
None of this should deter you from speaking up against sexism and sexual objectification when you encounter it. Change is facilitated by the hard work of courageous people who choose to stand up when it is easier to stay seated. Open and civil discourse is the best way to help others understand a social injustice that they may not initially see for themselves, so remaining open to healthy discussion is often important when presenting criticisms. Avoiding those who attempt to shut down open discussions with abusive tactics, however, can also be essential. Generally, it’s pretty easy to determine if a response is meant to be abusive, or if the commenter is genuinely open to debate, so use that big brain of yours and you should be fine.
Note: I am the last person to tell anyone not to get into an argument. I love arguing. Seriously, I treat it like a hobby; but, it is important to recognize when you're arguing with a brick wall so you can know what to expect. My personal approach (when I decide to engage these guys) is to go in with the understanding that I will not be able to change their mind, but what I say might just resonate with someone else witnessing the exchange or reading over it later. The moment the argument turns from point-counterpoint to blatantly slinging insults, however, I'm out.