When I was 16, I was the editor of my high school paper, The Scarlett Fever. (Sorry to start this off with a lame brag.) I also wrote for the paper regularly, usually about low-frequency feminism—the right to wear tank tops to class; don’t tell me how to feel about The Hills—my minimal understanding of local politics or my (unasked-for) opinions about the cabbage soup diet. It became clear that if I spoke about “women’s issues” or my own body, or about the general injustice of being a human female, the reaction would be worse, swifter, meaner. (Twitter didn’t exist yet, so shitty comments were relegated to Facebook or passive-aggressive emails or whatever I picked up second-hand in the hallways.) After a few issues, I was accustomed to being referred to as shrill or dramatic or cruel by people (mostly guys) who read my work and hated it or by the boys who were obligated to work under me for an extracurricular credit. The previous EICs, all women, all scrappy and argumentative and smart, were labelled with the same terms. I figured this came with the territory, that to be a woman in places traditionally run by men, you had to eat a little bit of Male Shit and just keep working.
But, like so many things, the older I get and the more public my work becomes, the less willing I am to pay what initially felt like an inevitable price: living day to day with my mental health dependent on just how awful the denizens of the Internet are being at that moment. The tenor of the conversation hasn’t really changed since my Scarlett Fever days, especially when it comes to sexist rhetoric. It just means that now, thanks to the explosion of social media, readers have greater access to writers. And lord, can access ever suck.
At what point does it become too heavy to bear? I think about this often, depending on what kind of day I’m having. Sometimes writing is a joy, having an audience is a tremendous privilege and getting paid for it seems like I’ve tricked someone into giving me my best life. Other days, when my Twitter mentions, Facebook “other” inbox and email spam folder are all filled with hate, I feel a lot less lucky. Five days ago, a Twitter user tweeted to me, “You sexist f-cking c-nt,” followed by, “You f-cking c-nt seriously,” a mere two hours later. It’s as if he returned to his account, noticed I had neglected to reply and thought, Perhaps she thinks I’m joking?
I’m not the only one dealing with these high-tech male temper tantrums. In late July, feminist writer and author Jessica Valenti took a six-week break from Twitter after waking up to a rape and death threat against her five-year-old daughter. “That this is part of my work life is unacceptable,” she tweeted before peacing out. So one price of writing while female is receiving threats against family and friends, the parts of your life that have nothing to do with your job. (And while plenty of male writers receive their own Twitter bile, it rarely dominates their day-to-day lives as much as it does for women.)
In August, journalist Tara Bradbury wrote an article for the St. John’s Telegram about FemFest, a conference that addresses topics like domestic violence and indigenous feminism. Naturally, once the piece went online, Bradbury was subjected to plenty of vitriol, including lots of men calling her a bitch, which is so routine for women online at this point, it might as well be classified as a greeting. So another price, then, is your dignity; your work forever being measured by your gender.
Then, in September, Maclean’s writer Shannon Proudfoot received her first death threat—and incurred the wrath of an actual former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard—after tweeting about her dislike for gendered toys. And that’s another price: your physical safety; your ability to move in your job and your personal life without corporal threat.
So here we have three examples of what female writers have to deal with when they work. And these women, it’s worth mentioning, are all white. If you’re a woman of colour, it’s even worse. Just ask the alarming number of men who call me a “curry-scented bitch” or ask me if I defecate in the streets “like [my] uncles in the desert.”
This kind of harassment tells us how remarkably uncomfortable men are with women not only in positions of relative power but also in positions to have some ownership over public narratives. Historically, men have been in control in newsrooms, have been the ones who tell us what’s important and worth considering. Now, more women are working in more public positions in North American media. But the same men who are at ease with men giving them their news are angry, almost offended, by women doing it instead. And they’re even angrier if the topic at hand is, alas, women themselves.
Though, if you ask, they’ll never present it that way. No, they’ll say they just don’t like that writer, that she’s biased, bitchy and has a condescending tone. Or, at least, when I’ve asked my own Angry Male Readers why they’re so upset with me—why they want me to know I’m a bitch and deserve to be followed home after work or attacked in the dark—they’re sure it’s my fault. I was asking for this wrath, see, merely by having an opinion, by daring to throw it into the ether.
Yet female journalists like Tara and Jessica and Shannon and myself are just trying to work. Somehow, working in this environment is worth it, because retreating is futile. In reality, there are no true safe spaces for women, for women of colour, for marginalized voices. There will always be people—men!—fighting against a new kind of equality. We need to keep fighting back, in whatever ways we can.
Scaachi Koul is a senior writer at BuzzFeed Canada and author of the forthcoming One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter (Doubleday Canada).
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