A Pox on the Patriarchy
As I completed my victory lap* around the internet this morning, I did something I have trained myself not to do, after too many disheartening and even disturbing experiences. Yes reader, I read the comments. Cue the gentle rustle of the internet’s collective head shaking.
Except of course, not the whole internet. Because some of the internet clearly likes the comments. I know this because they post in the comment area, have discussions with other commenters, and even hit that little ‘like’ or ‘recommend’ button. Ah, the like button, the holy grail of the professional commenter. That little notification of affirmation, of consensus, of community. Which is nice – or it would be if that community weren’t a cesspit of sexism, that consensus not of hatred, that affirmation not of male superiority.
But you all know this. This is why ‘don’t read the comments’ is practically a meme, an internet cliché, and why we have twitter accounts like “Avoid Comments“. The comments section has become the valley of the shadow of misogyny, where women – and many men – fear to tread. We’ve given up this supposed equalising space and handed over the magic markers to the playground bullies.
A well-functioning comments section could be a glorious thing. It could be a chance to speak truth to power, a chance for true and engaging debate, with alternate perspectives, or little snippets of knowledge being added to the article above. But instead, the comments section is the internet’s dirty little secret, the place where all the societal cracks we try desperately to paper over come out and play. Here be your racism, your homophobia, and above all, your rampant misogyny. Here, basically, be power relations we are desperately trying to leave behind writ large. Because it seems to me, judging by their overt prejudices, that practically the only people who comment on the internet are straight, white, men.
As I gorged myself on yet another comment glutted with hate, I wondered why. Why has the comments section become an enclave of male entitlement? A Radio 4 programme I heard about a year ago came to mind. The producer of Any Answers was being interviewed about achieving a gender balance in the show and she revealed the very different behaviours of male and female listeners: broadly, men called up immediately, never doubting the relevance and interest of their comments; women waited to see whose comments were aired, unsure of how they would measure up, of whether they deserved to be heard. It’s the age-old male entitlement versus female reticence played out again. Gendered social conditioning shutting women out from debate. Again.
I see the sense in “Avoid the Comments”, I really do. Who has the mental and emotional capacity to take on the bilious internet herd? The times I have ‘waded in’, I am routinely left with that dead feeling in my stomach that so many women will recognise, of having yet again taken on the world’s hatred of my sex. I feel hopeless and exhausted, and reluctant to ever go back. I long for the quiet life. And yet, another part of me, that rebellious small voice that never knows when to shut up – the feminist voice, if you will – screams, “Why?” Why this quiet, resigned acquiescence? Why this public acceptance that the comments section is for loud, entitled male bores?
The comments section is too much for any one person to take on. But it’s not too much for the internet as a whole to tackle. Studies of commenters repeatedly demonstrate that they represent a tiny minority of a publication’s readers. They are not the invincible force we, or they, with their inflated sense of self-worth, think they are. If we all made a little effort, we could surely wrest this section back as a tool for the public as a whole. And yes, I know, who cares, right? Populated as it is by the vicious underbelly of society, the comments section doesn’t matter. Let them have their little black hole.
Running The Women’s Room has given me an insight into the myriad reasons why the percentage of female experts in the UK media remains so stubbornly fixed at around 20%. Part of this is the media’s fault. But there can be no denying that part of it is because women are scared of speaking – and the daily dose of internet bile, and the daily reminder that there are big signs hung over large swathes of the internet saying “Women Keep Out” does nothing to help this. It’s all very well for men in the public eye to say ‘I get trolls too, I just ignore them’. No man has ever experienced anything to the degree that Mary Beard experienced. But perhaps more significantly, if more subtly, men are not on a daily diet of societal hatred, that feeds that other small voice in nearly every woman’s head, the creation of years of being told to sit down, shut up and keep out, that maybe the trolls are right. That maybe we are stupid, inconsequential, ugly, unworthy, boring and inept. This is why telling women to just ignore the hatred doesn’t work; after years of having loathing directed at us, it has turned inward, and it’s barely worse than anything we tell ourselves.
So this is why I’m not happy to leave it at ‘Don’t read the comments’. These comments are not hosted beyond the event horizon. They are smeared across the website of every one of our national publications and so given that establishment stamp of approval. And in this way, nearly every article online represents a stark, slap-in-the-face reminder that hatred for women is still tolerated. That women are still silenced. And that the male voice rules supreme.
*revision avoidance lap