Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Amanda Todd: the problem is sexism, not the internet

Amanda Todd's recent presumed suicide made me very sad, and then made me very angry.

My heart goes out to her family, and to those who cared for her. What a terrible loss. That's the sad part. I was myself bullied for years and years and years, and it was awful. And that was in the 1980s, so at least the vicious commentary was all in pink pen on ruled paper pulled from notepads. Every story like Amanda's brings me back to what it feels like to be so gleefully excluded, to have random acts of cruelty visited upon you, just so that the rest of the group can bond over your expulsion from it. So sad.

The angry part is just getting angrier, every time I read about how Amanda was bullied, about why she was bullied, and about the terrible terrible paradoxes that being a girl has always entailed, only now much more publicly. I am angry that we are calling this "bullying" like it's not very specifically gendered. And how we are blaming the internet, rather than endemic sexism. It is a re-victimization to deny what is really going on here.

To review. When she was 12, Amanda and a friend were goofing around a webcam chat, having a flattering interaction with a stranger. She flashed her breasts. Screenshots, it transpires, were made. At 14 she found herself confronted again by these images, now being used to try to extort further webcam performances. She refused, and the pictures went public. Vicious public shaming and bullying, online and off, ensued.

What happened to Amanda is an amplifed version of what happens to all women who were once girls: we suddenly found ourselves with new bodies, and a social system that tells us, at one and the same time, to manifest an increasingly normative hypersexualized self-presentation (to be popular, to fit in, to have friends) and to viciously slap down as sluts any other girl who went just a shade too far in this hypersexualized self-presentation (again, in order to be popular, to fit in, to have friends). Dating introduced further complications: be sexy, but not necessarily sexual; put out, but not too enthusiastically. The range of acceptable teenage girl behaviours and self-presentations is very, very, very narrow. The band widens a bit for those who are conventionally pretty, if they also happen to have good self-confidence, and a higher than average starting social or economic position. Kim Kardashian can made a sex tape and become a global brand icon; Amanda Todd can flash her nascent boobs for one person over a webcam and be driven to suicide.

What if we lived in a world where 12 year olds didn't feel like they had to flash their breasts at men to make friends? Or, perhaps more radically, what if we lived in a world where when people wanted to flash their breasts at some point, the later circulation of these images wasn't so incredibly shameful as to bring down a virtual lynch mob onto this girl?

[Let's go further: what about a world where boys didn't learn about adult sexuality from a pervasive porn culture, or where such a large part of their own social standing didn't come from treating girls as some kind of social currency to acquire and just as rapidly spend?]

The internet is a gossip and picture machine. No law in the world is ever likely to curb the wildfire of teen gossip, stop the screen shots or the camera phone snaps from zipping around a school before the bell finishes ringing. What we can change are our social relations. Maybe we can stop being ashamed of our bodies and our sexuality. Maybe we can stop letting these be manipulated to our detriment by parties who would exploit or harm us to exert power over us.

Adolescence is awful. It's a time of separation from our childhood and the various kinds of security it offered us. We are meant to rethink who we are, to take social risks, to experiment with identity at that time. This shouldn't kill us. It shouldn't, either, lead us to become monsters in the name of social standing either: so terrified of not fitting in ourselves, even those of us who were bullied are quick to turn on anyone a little weaker, a little more precarious, than ourselves, just to turn that heat away, to feel like we belong even momentarily. And of course puberty is a misery as well, perhaps particularly for girls, who, it seems to me, have absolutely no way of getting through the physical and emotional changes without feeling like they have in some very significant way failed very significantly: too hairy, thighs too squishy, desires too strong, boobs to big or too small or too visible or too hidden. Too tall or too short. Too 'boyish' or too 'womanly'.

Adolescence plus puberty is bad. Adolescence plus puberty multiplied by an unforgetting, unforgiving internet? Multiplies the capacity for harm.

But the internet isn't really the problem. "Bullying" isn't really the problem. The problem is systemic, pervasive, all-encompassing sexism, and the stifling of female power, the rigid policing of female identity at the time when this identity is barely nascent, and its bearer so very vulnerable.

If we all learned that lesson, about the impossibility of being female, we might become kinder. We might push out the boundaries a little further, to allow the Amanda Todds of the world (among whom I would place my own teenage self) a little breathing room, a little kindness, to become who they are, without shame, without coercion, without violence.

With love.

11 comments:

  1. This is an incredible post. I will share it in any way I can, because people need to read this.

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  2. This is a great post. I definitely will share/have shared this post. Although we have more options for self-actualization as women and girls emerging at this point in time, I strongly believe that we are facing an anti-feminist/anti-woman backlash now and have been for the past decade. The internet is not the problem, you are right, but it affords new ways of exposing young people to damaging ways of understanding themselves (both in and of themselves and in relation to others/society).

    Also, for the record, I hate slut shaming and have had to fight the urge to yell at random undergraduate students engaging in it when I pass them in hallways.

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    1. I agree with you. Thank-you for calling out what this really is-- Sexism and misogyny. It was reaffirming to me to read your words and realize that I am not just a crazy feminist who is overreacting and over-analyzing this horrible tragedy. (I've been told as much.) This should not be branded only under the rather broad term of "bullying". We should be addressing individual cases of bullying by the underlying factors and causes. Sexism, misogyny, homophobia, racism, and the discrimination of boys who do not adhere to "hyper-masculine ideals". I feel like kids and teens glaze over when we say, "don't bully". It seems more productive to say to kids and teens, "Sexism is unacceptable." or... "someone else's sexuality is not a threat to you." This Creates a deeper, and more poignant conversation that could possibly create change, rather than the common, "bullying is bad." message they hear all the time. Thank-you thank-you, I happened across your blog, and I am now a big fan!!

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  3. Carly Weeks had an article in the Globe and Mail the other day about bullying and Amanda Todd. In it, she gave three other examples of young people who had recently committed suicide after bullying, two of them were young girls, the third was a young boy with a disability. The bullying of LGBT children is also well-known. Yet, Weeks didn't point out what was so obvious in her examples and what you so effectively examine here, that the problem is a culture that is hostile towards girls and women, towards those with disabilities, towards those who are different.

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  4. I agree completely with the argument here that interrupts the blaming of the internet in the Amanda Todd story. But there's more to this problem than sexism (which doesn't mean sexism isn't a problem) There's also something else going on here, too. Two something elses: (1) The first is one that Aimee hints at when she says her own bullying came via pink ink, on notepaper. The fact that a lot of girls are doing the bullying complicates the analysis of sexism. While it's no doubt true that the girls are enforcing the sexist standards they see around, it still seems worth pointing out that gender is asymmetrically enforced. All sexisms are not created equally. I agree that difference seems to be a marker here, as Liza Piper points out. But I wonder, too, if the kinds of difference at stake here read to the bullies as something more--something like weakness. Which brings me to the second x-factor (2) What general structures create the sense of some children's specialness at the expense of others? I wonder if this seeming epidemic of bullying might not have something to do with child-centred parenting. Could it be that what makes a bully is a mode of parenting that ordains the always-rightness of the child? How is the specialness of an individual child inculcated? Bullies assume a sense of superiority over their victims. But more than that, it takes a village to support their viciousness. In order to interrupt the persecution of difference or perceived weakness among children, we might also need to think systemically about bullies. They're not necessarily exceptions or outsiders themselves (even if it's convenient to think of them as lone wolves or even rogue packs). They're produced through processes of normalization, too. It might have been one man who was responsible for circulating those screen shots, but it took a lot more people to enforce their stigmatizing and vicious effects and to overlook the ways they participate in creating the conditions for that very enforcement.

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  5. "If we all learned that lesson, about the impossibility of being female, we might become kinder."

    I really liked this post but I do find it to be be slightly biased towards the 'female,' and the irony is that it was written by a female. It is one of those 'blame the man for everything', and 'being a women is so hard in this day in age because of peer pressure yadda yadda,' stories. Don't be ignorant towards a man's experience in life. Men also have it just as hard as women- easier in some respects and harder in some respects. But don't play the blame game and start whining because then you are the one who looks like the sexist.

    ". And of course puberty is a misery as well, perhaps particularly for girls." Not just girls! Sure they go through a bunch of hormonal changes but boys also are experiencing changes with their bodies and where they fit in in the world. You can't be so unbalanced, you have to see both sides to this story. I find it funny that, at no point is a man's perspective seen or attempted to be seen. It seems all too jadedly one-sided.

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    1. There is all kinds of stuff in your comment that I disagree with (and your tone and vocabulary are...unpleasant, to put it mildly), but I'll limit myself to pointing out the fact that there is absolutely nothing in this post that is guilty of your "blame the man for everything" accusation. The author is discussing the effects of systemic sexism and misogyny, which, as Nat pointed out, is perpetrated by the culture at large, not just men. And, what, if you don't mind my asking, do you see the male perspective contributing to this post, which was written by a woman? I'm not saying that there are not a great many men with relevant and important things to say on this topic, but are you seriously accusing the author of being one sided because she isn't offering a male perspective (aka being a man)? Also (ok, I'm bad at limiting myself), do you really feel that men and women are equally effected by slut-shaming?

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    2. I agree with S.P.H. that a male perspective doesn't add much to this discussion, and that TheSportsKid may not have quite understood what he was reading, given what he says.

      I would add, though, that having gone through standard adolescent misery as a male, exactly the kinds of changes called for in the original post will help make male adolescence less miserable for lots of people, too ... not only for gay or disabled or otherwise obviously vulnerable males, either. A wider range of legitimate options for self-expression, and room for healthier interpersonal relations not based on some weird amalgam of 1950s TV values and 21st century porn culture, won't hurt the mental health of anyone.

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    3. I just want to support what ddvd has said, and S.P.H. ddvd is correct in stating that the called for changes in the original post definitely would make life easier for many people growing up--men face a lot of social pressures too. I want to invoke the concept of the kyriarchy here--that there are multiple axes of privilege. Think of intersectionality, the concept--originated in Kimberle Crenshaw's work--that multiple forms of oppression such as race, gender, class, and ability/disability combine to increase social inequality. Similarly, kyriarchy acknowledges that there are multiple modes of privilege and multiple ways in which people can be alienated from social power. This means that not every man is going to have greater individual social power than every woman, etc. . . I think that learning to treat young women with respect and that allowing for healthier ways to explore and construct identity can also help young men to develop healthier relationships with their own bodies, and sexualities--and these healthier relationships will extend into, and be reinforced by, better socio-cultural contexts.

      I do not read the original post as being antagonistic toward men, but for someone who has unacknowledged privilege as a young man, it may seem as though everything he believes in is being attacked or that the male perspective is being ignored. This is not a statement about TheSportsKid, just a general observation about comments I've come across on the internet where women's issues are being discussed.

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  6. Linked here from someone who linked through facebook...

    If I may attempt to maybe mediate TheSportsKid's comment on this post and the responses to it:

    I think it is fair to say that the experience of bullying can be gendered and sexualised, especially in a hypersexualised society. This does not mean that women, men, or transgendered people necessarily suffer more or less at the hands of bullies. As a straight man who survived years as a child and early teenager of a very acute hell at the hands of bullies, some of it highly sexualised, I don't think for a minute that the experience of young women in bullying is worse for the individual than it is for men, the transgendered.

    Crenshaw's kyriarchy concept mentioned by Stephanie seems to be a much more nuanced description of of the social milieu under which patriarchy and the teenage experience in a capitalist Western society falls. Patriarchy as term I can be used too loosely. As a concept describing the overall social structure that underprivileges and oppresses women, I think privilege is very useful. However, I sometimes sense it is used too readily to simplistically explain more complex social scenarios and may not apply well to highly individualised contexts. Here, pervasive sexism is part of it, but so is an adolescent culture and psychology that attacks individualism and mercilessly promotes conformity, which often stems from an identity and empathy mutilating desire to belong.

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