Sunday, July 21, 2013

National Tell A Girl She's Beautiful Day, Everyday Sexism, Jo Swinson, and (Not) Feeding the Trolls

I'm often told that sexism doesn't exist anymore, that talking about sexism and gender inequality is a waste of time because men and women are treated equally these days. Yesterday, though, I had my first experience being trolled on Twitter (regarding the trending hashtag #nationaltellagirlsheisbeautifulday), and it's provided me an anecdote to illustrate some of the ways sexism definitely still exists and continues to thrive in our society.

I don't go on Twitter all that often---recent conference live-tweeting jaunts to the contrary notwithstanding---so before yesterday, I'd only ever understood the concept of "trolling" in the abstract: someone posts something, someone else replies or comments with the most inflammatory response possible solely for the sake of eliciting a reaction, the original poster then decides whether or not to "feed the trolls." I'd never had a personal experience with trolls, because, well, I'm not on Twitter all that often. Also, my social media circles are small and familiar: people I know/work with, people I meet at conferences, other Whedon scholars. I don't have tons of followers who are strangers to me, so interfacing with trolls hadn't come up yet. I'd followed the massive online harassment campaigns endured by Anita Sarkeesian and Lindy West, and I saw the deluge of heinous harassment both those brilliant, fearless women endured simply for speaking the truth, and I sympathized with how shitty it must feel for strangers to so callously and casually participate in dehumanizing you. I marveled at the strength it must take to shrug off hateful anonymous Internet comments, but that was theoretical sympathy, as until today my own Twitter experience was limited to jokes with friends from real life and occasional updates on my academic work, which never garnered much attention.

Yesterday, I signed in and noticed that the hashtag #nationaltellagirlsheisbeautifulday was trending. Can this really be a thing?  I thought. Having written and presented papers on how institutional sexism plays out--often unintentionally--in pop culture and everyday encounters, my mind started spinning. I remembered the controversy surrounding the Dove "Real Beauty Sketches" video that went viral -- how it rightly points out that we're our own harshest critics, how it admirably aims to build confidence in women, but how it also reinforces a normative "beauty" ideal that, as Jazzy Little Drops says, teaches young women that "physical, superficial beauty is the most significant part of who you are, and the most important determining factor in your life." 

And I remembered Still Failing At Fairness (a study on sexism in American schools originally conducted in 1995 and repeated in 2008, to depressingly similar results), in which the authors observe the manifold ways gender bias and discrimination are inadvertently reproduced and performed in classrooms. In every classroom they visited, boys dominated discussion time, teacher attention, and classroom resources, in every grade level stretching from the primary grades all the way up to high school school. This often happened through unconscious teacher behaviors, such as calling on boys more often or giving boys longer and more detailed feedback (69-71). Particularly engrossing are the descriptions of how girls primarily receive attention in terms of their appearance, while boys primarily receive attention based on their abilitiesBy the time they reach high school, girls have internalized the message that it's natural for boys to be front and center while they're off to the sides, that it's understood that being pretty and popular is more important for them than being smart or hard-working.  I thought about how, once I learned this, I began trying to try to compliment girl students more in terms of their abilities. I thought about how hard that was, and still is - seriously, spend a day just observing how many times a day women/girls get attention based on their appearance only, and compare it to how many times a day men/boys get attention based on ability or skill, and you'll begin to get a sense of how deep our cultural conditioning runs. 

I thought about all of that, and then I tweeted this.

"Really? #nationaltellagirlsheisbeautifulday? How about #tellagirlsheiscapablenomatterhowfocusedonherappearancesocietyis day? @everydaysexism"

I was not prepared for what followed. 

I was also not aware of the history of the phrasing in this particular hashtag, or in what context I was tagging @everydaysexism (which is a much-needed and empowering project you should learn more about here). Apparently, a few months ago Jo Swinson gave an interview in which she advised parents not to praise their daughters for being beautiful, but "for completing tasks or their ability to be inquisitive." In the interview, Swinson is pretty clear that she's not saying appearance doesn't or shouldn't matter at all:

                  I know as an aunt, you fall into the trap of turning to your niece and saying, 'you look beautiful’ — because of                       course all children do look beautiful — but if the message they get is that is what’s important and that is what                         gets praise, then that’s not necessarily the most positive message you want them to hear.

She's effectively trying to counterbalance the biased behavior documented in Still Failing At Fairness by encouraging parents to praise little girls “for their skill in doing a jigsaw and all these other things that they are doing, their curiosity in asking questions and a whole range of things” in addition to appearance. Of course, this is much more complicated and intricate than the headline DON'T TELL YOUR DAUGHTER SHE'S BEAUTIFUL would suggest (way to go, Telegraph). When boiled down to a misleading phrase like that, yes, it sounds horrible. And apparently, there was a bit of backlash from people reclaiming their right to tell their daughters they're beautiful (even though Swinson clearly never tried to take that away). While these responses seem to be more directed at the incendiary headline than at the actual gender inequality Swinson's trying to address, I'm still a bit baffled as to why such empowering advice -- raise your kids to value character, ethic, and skill alongside appearance -- would be seen as so threatening. 

I'm guessing yesterday's hashtag relates to that backlash surrounding "don't tell a girl she's beautiful" phrasing misleadingly being attributed to Swinson. Given my academic background, I immediately read #nationaltellagirlsheisbeautifulday as an unexamined part of systemic sexism, which is why I included @everydaysexism in my tweet.

I didn't know all that when I tweeted this morning, but I still think it's a fairly neutral thing to say. Nowhere in those 140 characters did I say "everyone participating in this hashtag is wrong and sexist" or "you aren't allowed to compliment women, EVER" or "telling women they're beautiful is bad." I didn't say these things, because they're silly, nonsensical, and counterproductive things to say.

But many people seemed to think I did.

"I do not think it means what you think it means"

For about 2 hours there, I was getting a response every 2 or 3 minutes (small potatoes in the grand scheme of things, but for me, that's a FLOOD). Obviously, their reactions say more about their thoughts and experiences informing their misinterpretation than they do about my actual point. That last guy's such a beacon of chivalry, right?

Ah, begrudging assent, although it's obvious looking at what others were using the hashtag to say that, uh, most entries were about *superficial* beauty. By which I mean there were multiple entries about gang-banging cheerleaders.

Some trivialized the issue...

Obviously, as we feminists are notoriously ugly and hairy! And also we burn bras or something!

Later, this same guy told me he knew what the definition of sexism was, because he Googled it. Mr. Rocket Science, ladies and gentlemen!

While others were downright crude...

This guy's my favorite, because I've never actually heard anyone use the word "bint" unless they were Spike or maybe Giles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer:

That guy ibh lemur was cool. He spent some time schooling Mr. Rocket Science up there.

Some responses were more thoughtful,

but amid the torrent of hateful tweets, I found myself reverberating with anger/adrenaline and unable to form thoughtful responses in terse enough terms for Twitter's 140 character capacity (hence this lengthy post).

As I saw these notifications rolling in, I got upset, of course, as it felt like strangers were bursting into my living room and thrashing their anger in my face, but I was also fascinated. So maybe this is what's meant by trolling, I thought. Does it just keep going on, or will they tire soon and move onto something else? Should I respond? What's the expected Twitter etiquette here? My cheerful and teacherly disposition compelled me to want to elucidate and educate, but my in-the-moment agitation made me want to spew equally flippant curses at them.

Obviously, you can't reason with someone who tells you to eat shit or calls you a bint. But I have responses to some of the other tweets, because I encounter the thinking encapsulated in these tweets all the time. Part of my job entails teaching lessons on recognizing privilege and inequality at work in society and in themselves-- often to people exhibiting thinking similar to these Tweeters. People who've been raised to think that it's only natural that girls are to be valued in terms of their appearance first and foremost, just by virtue of living in the world as we make it. People who don't even realize how well they've learned the "women should be seen and not heard" mentality. People who've spent years in schools in which teachers praise boys' thinking and girls' appearances. People whose school experiences feature boys pushing and shoving and shouting for attention while girls remain to the side, preening themselves in hopes of getting noticed. People who think this is natural. People who don't bat an eye when reporters ask female politicians what designers they're wearing and don't ever ask a male politician the same.

People who get angry when a woman raises her voice against sexism, even in so harmless and small a way as I did.

In person, I'd sit down with these people and talk to them about sexism and privilege (fabulous resource here). Clearly, I can't do on Twitter what I'd do in a face-to-face situation. 140 characters just isn't enough space, not to mention that the instantaneous, rapid-fire rhythm of Twitter is more conducive to zingers and one-liners than for for facilitating self-reflection and deep thinking (although I do think there are very legitimate uses of Twitter for academic discourse; more on that soon).  So what I did was avoid responding in the moment, and instead begin writing about what was happening. In my mind I was repeating the mantra: don't feed the trolls. Don't feed the trolls. And truly, I didn't. My only actual response last night was to send Mr. Rocket Science a link to Still Failing at Fairness on Amazon. ....Okay, so I fed that one a little bit.

Now that I've had a chance to process, I'm beginning to wonder about the most productive response to encounters such as this. I wonder if I should have at least responded to the more thoughtful ones.  So I want to begin here to pin down the ways in which the #nationaltellagirlshesbeautifulday hashtag demonstrates some of the ways that our daily habits and our thinking enact everyday reinforcements of institutional sexism.


No one's saying you can't compliment a girl. You can. In fact, I'm trying to do just that! Being called capable, or smart, or brave, should be as validating and happy-making as being called beautiful. But the truth is, it doesn't quite feel that way, right? Being called "beautiful" carries this almost benediction status, as though the art of calling a girl beautiful is sanctified and noble, a charity generously bestowed and gratefully received. And it is true that girls get the message that it's good to be beautiful, and if you call a girl beautiful and she feels good, then that's super for you all. But when we acknowledge that we think it's better for girls to be beautiful than it is to be capable (which is still a compliment, by the way), we're acknowledging we're living in a system that subordinates women by objectifying them - sets up the goal of being viewed rather actually doing or being. That's why, even when we call a girl beautiful with the intention of meaning inner or spiritual beauty, or beauty of character, we're tapping into a lifetime of experiences tying all those other notions of beauty to the successful embodiment of the superficial standard.

We can apply this to the response of the guy who "told an anorexic girl she was beautiful just the way she is." I'm sure she felt good about it in the moment, and maybe he's defensive because he felt good about it, too.  Once that moment passes, though, those same standards of beauty so imperative but so unattainable that this young woman literally made herself sick trying to achieve them are still out there, still operating, still affecting hundreds of other young women who are driven to desperation by the constant pressure to be "beautiful."

We don't need a day to tell girls they are beautiful because, statistically speaking, girls and young women will go their whole lives receiving compliments based on their appearances, while boys and young men mostly receive compliments on their abilities and talents. It happens everyday. What we need is a day to interrupt that cycle, to get a chance to practice validating girls in more complex terms than complimenting their appearances.

We don't need a day to tell girls they're beautiful, because statistically speaking, some stranger on the street will tell them this, incessantly and intimidatingly, probably over and over again, every time she dares to walk alone outside. Again, some of the responses to my tweet reflect the same thinking behind garden-variety street harassment - but I just wanted to give her a compliment! She should be flattered and/or grateful! Whether on the street or at a Twitter hashtag, the beauty conversation still relegates girls and women to an arena governed by constructed standards espoused as though they're normal and natural. Either way our actions are reinforcing the systemic inequality that's the root of the problem. While we're debating whether or not to tell our daughters they're beautiful, we're missing the point: to begin actively valuing them for what they do and who they are, not just how they look.

The format of Twitter, unfortunately, frames the conversation in terms of addressing/attacking specific individuals. This is more about the institution than the individual. We're all part of the problem, as we all live inside this system, but the good news, as Allan G. Johnson says, is that we can also be part of the solution. If we want to attack systemic sexism at its foundational base, we can start by ceasing to compliment girls solely in terms of their appearance and begin complimenting their talents, smarts and abilities as well, the way we do with boys and young men. We can follow Swinson's advice and make sure we're building girls' and women's confidence in all areas, not just appearance. This mini-trolling experience has me convinced it's as important as ever to do so.

And, I'm happy to say, unpleasant as it was to experience yesterday, this also showed me that I'm not as alone as the troll comments would have me believe. My tweet has, at time of posting, been retweeted 136 times, a personal record. Maybe that means there were 136 conversations started at home about beauty ideals and everyday sexism, all around the world. This is one of Twitter's most powerful functions: to help otherwise unconnected people come together to support an idea.

One final word -- I want to recognize the privilege at work in the fact that this trolling session was dozens rather than thousands of tweets, and that it didn't last very long. There's also definite privilege at work in the fact that I'd never been trolled before, that I'd been sheltered enough for such a mild trolling as this to take me by surprise. There are other people on Twitter who get trolled more ruthlessly for longer periods of time than my little encounter here, people for whom dealing with trolls is a constant burden rather than an occasional opportunity for reflection and theorizing. I'm thinking in particular of people of color in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict these past few days. What I experienced is child's play compared to what gets thrown at them. I had no idea the toll that being trolled takes on a Tweeter. Everyone who receives far worse trolling far more often, well.... you're freakin' SUPERHEROES. It's an extra job on top of everything else and you're stronger than I could ever be to keep going. Please keep going.