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.