Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the Let’s Play Gaming Expo in Dallas, TX with my husband. I was pleasantly surprised to find that almost none of the men present belittled me for being there or questioned my geek bona fides, even when I displayed my tremendous ineptitude with a Sega Saturn controller. In fact, everyone I spoke to was friendly, courteous and made me feel very welcome.
It was a refreshing break from the reception I get online when I talk about my nerdy pastimes, which ranges from stunned disbelief to overt scorn. It should go without saying by now that to be a woman or female-presenting person online, particularly one who enjoys traditionally male-dominated things, is an all-expenses-included ticket to a life of harassment, threats and constant gaslighting from men who feel threatened by one’s very existence. I’m not the only person to have written extensively about it, nor am I even one of the most badly harmed by this culture of toxic masculinity, for which I am extremely grateful. The anti-female movement, which now has many names – GamerGate, The Honey Badger Brigade, Men Going Their Own Way, Nice Guys, Meninists, Complete and Utter Fuckfaces – is incredibly and scarily insistent upon their goal of eradicating women from the spaces they see as theirs. And while they’re facing opposition from the entire decent and humane population of the known universe, each day seems to bring another person harassed out of their home, job or online presence by these sick, twisted little monsters.
If perhaps I sound a little biased, it’s because I know too many people who’ve run the gauntlets of death threats, dick pics and doxxing efforts in their time online, all because they dared to be themselves. This problem isn’t going away; if anything, it’s getting worse. And our popular culture is starting to reflect it, with online harassers showing up in plots on shows like Law and Order, and in segments on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight and Stephen Colbert’s now defunct Colbert Report. Geek conventions are holding panels and seminars to combat the problem, and even the kinds of news publications read only by your 87-year-old grandfather who hasn’t yet learned how not to reply-all to emails have run stories about the phenomenon.
I think it’s a powerful thing that so many media creators are taking on this topic. The stories we tell can change the conversations we have about our society, leading to real and lasting social change. By writing and talking about the harassment of female-presenting people online and in real life, we can shed light on the issue and refuse to allow those who perpetrate these crimes to commit them under cover of obscurity. While the conversation can be ugly, dark and sometimes uncomfortable, it’s important that people are exposed to the realities of life for the victims of this kind of hatefulness.
I don’t often read comics, but Kieron Gillen’s The Wicked + The Divine comes excellently recommended, so I checked out the most recent issue, which deals with some of the unsettling reality of living under the gaze of online harassers. (Warning: if you’re planning to read it or Logan’s review of it, you should know that it contains graphic rape and death threats, as well as depictions of sexual harassment, assault and suicide. Proceed at your own risk.) It certainly struck a chord with me; many of the messages Tara receives could be word-for-word from my own inbox or those of my friends. The feeling of being seen but unseen under the gaze of people who both laud and attack a persona that masks one’s authentic self also hit particularly close to home. I think there’s not a female-presenting person online who is famous to some extent that hasn’t felt that odd combination of unseen and hypervisible both to their fans and their detractors.
Tara’s ultimate fate in The Wicked + The Divine is one many of us have seen looming in our own lives or those of our loved ones. Driven to desperation by the harassment she deals with at the hands of the adoring and not-so-adoring public, she decides to put a very final end to her torment. Before she does so, she reflects upon a lifetime of dehumanisation, threats and demands on her life and humanity by people who see her without seeing her, people who build her up in their minds into a persona that doesn’t at all represent the person she is underneath. In real life, it is tragically common for people to do as Tara does and seek to end online harassment and bullying through self-harm or suicide. What made this story particularly hard for me to read is that many of Tara’s reflections mirrored not only my own, but those of people I’ve known, respected and loved. I could very easily imagine any of them writing a note just like Tara’s.
TW + TD #13 explores one more theme I want to touch upon, and that’s the idea that people who face online harassment should be grateful for their dubious “celebrity”. One of the comments addressed to Tara by a fan reads, “Don’t worry about the rape threats. It’s because they think you’re beautiful, honey.” That anyone should be expected to brush off life-threatening harassment as a compliment is absurd enough, but that it should be disregarded as a natural consequence of physical attractiveness is ridiculous. This attitude of all attention being good attention is a widespread one, however. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told that either I should be glad so many people are talking about me, or that I must love all the attention, even when it is so negative and harmful. Tara’s one desire – to share her art with the world – becomes an excuse for her to be bullied, attacked and pilloried by people who think any female-presenting person in the public eye must deserve what they get.
It’s sobering to think that this summer marks a year since the vile trolls behind GamerGate started their onslaught against Zoe Quinn and other outspoken women and femme people in gaming. All this time later, and while their numbers have shrunk and their support has dwindled, the trolls seem as determined to ruin the lives of their victims as ever. The Wicked + The Divine is just the latest work of art to imitate this particularly ugly aspect of life. Perhaps if more creators follow its example and show this phenomenon for the life-ruining scourge that it is, we will one day see it become solely the province of horror stories.
jaythenerdkid is the nom de net of Aaminah Khan, a queer Muslim writer, activist, tutor, former medical student and terroriser-of-bigots for hire. When she’s not tweeting, tumblr-ing, blogging, arguing with conservatives on Facebook or being blocked by Richard Dawkins, Aaminah reads fantasy novels, plays video games, argues with her husband about Game of Thrones and gets angry that there aren’t more characters like Abed Nadir on television.