In the Blog
Guest Post: Stephanie Guthrie on challenging online misogyny
Trigger warning for discussions of violence.
As I saved my first copy of this blog, one of the folder options the menu offered was “Death Threats,” a folder of screenshots I made on Monday. Weird, right? Talk about things I never expected to be a normal feature in my daily grind. That was before I chose to respond fiercely and loudly to the sexist bullying of a brave young woman on the internet. I’m sad to say that this is a reality many women face for expressing feminist opinions on the internet, a mostly-public forum that a lot of us spend, oh, probably 30% of our lives on. And how can the internet be a normal and safe part of our everyday lives if we feel threatened, humiliated, or alienated by the people we spend time with there?
My story starts with Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist media researcher in San Francisco who hosts the video blog Feminist Frequency. The blog features a series called “Tropes vs. Women,” which looks at the characteristics (many of them sexualized or idealized stereotypes) that mark female characters in film, TV, and other media. In May 2012, she began a crowd-funding campaign via Kickstarter to raise money to produce a “Tropes vs. Women” series on video game characters. That’s when the trouble started.
It turns out that trying to critique the way women are represented in video games is not tolerated by sizeable internet communities of what would appear to be primarily young men. It’s hard to tell though, because most of them choose to hurl their abuse from behind pseudonyms and obviously fake avatars. Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter campaign, YouTube channel, and website were besieged with negative comments, most of them misogynistic, many of them truly horrific.
Death threats and rape threats (both of which I’ve since come to know). Obscene pictures. Viciously anti-Semitic insults. And most unthinkable of all, a game in which players click on a close-up picture of Sarkeesian’s face to watch graphic, lifelike bruises and contusions appear. The game’s name was self-explanatory: Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian. A fat lip or a black eye, or much worse, on a woman expressing a feminist opinion seem to be no big deal to the people who play this game. If you ask me, that’s a black eye on the internet, and by implication, a black eye on the human race.
Because what is the internet, really? Do we abandon who we are when we sign into Facebook? When we post a comment on a website? When we make a simple Flash game like the one of Anita Sarkeesian? Um, no, we don’t. There is always a person behind what’s being posted on the internet - even a Twitter spam account is basically a robot programmed by a person with thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. When someone chooses to spend their time on a computer creating and posting a game like Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian, we all need to remember that a person with real thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, decided that was the best way to get their point across.
So I reminded everyone. The game designer had the audacity to post the game (since removed, but its description and creator remain) under a username identical to his own name, Bendilin Spurr. When it comes to the internet I live on Twitter, so I looked up Bendilin Spurr there and, lo and behold, he was a cinch to find. Twitter’s a great megaphone for spreading the word about something quickly, and for holding someone accountable for what they say or do - the social media site is slowly changing the way politicians operate for this reason. But just because he was easy to find doesn’t mean it was easy to make public what I had discovered about Bendilin Spurr.
It’s a big decision to start a public discussion about misogyny on the internet (or, let’s face it, in real life), to call someone out for expressing hate or contempt for women. If I didn’t know this already from my own experiences, I certainly knew from Sarkeesian’s. What if Bendilin was able to mobilize the same kind of organized hate for me as Sarkeesian herself encountered? And what about Bendilin himself? My gut told me only a very sad, angry person could make that game, someone who may have had complicated and unfortunate experiences in life that I don’t know about. But you know what? At the end of the day, it didn’t (and doesn’t) matter. Lots of people have been through lots of things, and they don’t make games about punching a woman in the face as a way of saying “I don’t agree with you”. That’s something that should never, ever be an acceptable way of expressing yourself.
With that in mind, I tagged Bendilin in a tweet to my followers and told them he had created the Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian game. My initial tweet got re-tweeted to almost 70 other people’s followers. The following morning, I created a Storify of the tweets and blog posts that had ensued overnight, which was tweeted by the creator of a popular TV show and received tens of thousands of hits as a result. Bendilin, who readily and more than a little smugly admitted to making the game, drew many vocal supporters who continue to threaten and challenge me in the moments I write this. I have to admit, it was a shock to realize how many people think that someone can make a game like this and not have utter contempt for women (or even worse, think that it’s okay to have utter contempt for women).
What gives me hope is that the avalanche of criticism Bendilin’s received drowns out his supporters. It’s a mixed bag of mean-spirited comments and thoughtful, smart critiques from people trying to get at the heart of his motivations and hold him accountable for his actions. Notably, having this conversation in public on Twitter was a good decision - it has drawn off the sidelines and into the fray many feminists and allies who don’t usually speak up.
People have reported him to Twitter in large enough numbers that he’s been suspended multiple times (and is currently suspended from Twitter at time of writing). While I understand and share their anger, I don’t agree that he should be suspended from Twitter for the game he made, or for how he responded to the criticism. I’d rather he be online to respond to the criticism about his choice of expression. Bendilin also hasn’t definitively violated the Twitter terms of service (remember, the game wasn’t posted on Twitter); in fact, he’s been behind exactly zero of the several death and rape threats I’ve received. All those threats have come from anonymous accounts. And I think that says something.
Bendilin made the game under his own name. I don’t necessarily respect him because of it, but I do like the fact that we can make the choice to translate his online actions into real-life accountability. His local newspaper has covered the story; some of his supporters tell me he’s been fired from his job. I’m not sorry. His community and employer deserve to know the hatred that has driven him online, because the boundary between that person and who he is at home, at work, on a date, and on the streets of Sault Ste Marie, is blurry if it even exists at all.
I don’t want to advocate for the elimination of online anonymity - there are contexts where it’s important. For example, online anonymity may be very important if you live in China where the government places heavy restrictions on what you can and cannot read, post, and experience online. But people should never use anonymity as a way to harass and abuse without consequence the people they encounter on a message board, Facebook, Xbox Live, or anywhere else on the internet. A quick Google search of “Bendilin Spurr” shows that he may never escape the consequences of his game. His supporters who uttered unthinkable threats of violence, sexual violence, and murder at Anita Sarkeesian and me face no consequences, because we don’t know who they are.
Stephanie Guthrie is the founder of Women in Toronto Politics (@WiTOpoli) and the manager of community outreach for CareerMash (@Career_Mash). You can follow her on Twitter at @amirightfolks./em>