Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for April 1st, 2007

Does that noose come in a size 4?

Posted by metaphorical on 1 April 2007

By now almost everyone in the blogverse probably knows the Kathy Sierra story. It’s raised all kinds of important questions of misogyny and computer-based social interactions. The deeper questions, though, of male-dominated culture, feminism, and even what some people call “the rape culture” are largely still unexplored. It was hard for me not to think of them today when I saw a front-page story in the NY Times, “For Girls, It’s Be Yourself, and Be Perfect, Too.” The connection between them is a stretch, but I think it exists.

Kathy Sierra is prominent journalist and blogger who writes about marketing and how computer and network technologies are changing the relationship between products and users. It’s not normally the stuff that inspires talk of rape and death threats but in her case it seems to have, enough so that she canceled a conference appearance and blogged about why she did so.

The issue has jumped from the blogverse to the likes of Wired and Salon, and then even to CNN, which will feature it sometime Monday morning.

Before it jumped the shark the Sierra imbroglio had, for many people, raised important questions about misogyny in general and the extra umph it’s given by the anonymity or pseudonymity that is almost the default setting on the Internet. (For CNN, it has apparently raised little more than a personality showdown between Sierra and one of the site-owners of the hate-messages, Chris Locke, who, helpfully for CNN, goes by the nickname RageBoy and briefly maintained a blog at meankids.org. Locke’s response is here.)

The Salon analysis, by Joan Walsh, is an especially interesting contribution. As a journalist and a woman who blogs on tech matters herself, Walsh is of two minds, well respresenting the thoughtful middle ground of the debate.

Is there really any doubt that women writing on the Web are subject to more abuse than men, simply because they’re women? Really? I’ve been following the Kathy Sierra blog storm, thinking I had nothing new to say, but the continued insistence that Sierra, and those who defend her, are somehow overreacting, or charging sexism where none exists, makes it hard for a mouthy woman to stay silent.

I say this as a mouthy woman who has tried for a long time to pretend otherwise: that Web misogyny isn’t especially rampant — but even if it is, it has no effect on me, or any other strong, sane woman doing her job. But I wasn’t being honest. My own reactions and those of others to the Sierra mess served to wrestle the truth out of me, and it wasn’t what I hoped.

I avoided writing about the mess for a day or two because I had mixed feelings about it. Ever since Salon automated its letters, it’s been hard to ignore that the criticisms of women writers are much more brutal and vicious than those about men — sometimes nakedly sexist, sometimes less obviously so; sometimes sexually and/or personally degrading. But I’ve never admitted the toll our letters can sometimes take on women writers at Salon, myself included, because admitting it would be giving misogynist losers — and these are the posters I’m talking about — power. Still, I’ve come to think that denying it gives them another kind of power, and I’m trying to sort that out by thinking about the Kathy Sierra mess in all its complexity.

The NY Times article is about what it calls “amazing girls,” the high-school versions and, presumably, precursors of the supermom model so popular in recent decades.

Esther and Colby are two of the amazing girls at Newton North High School here in this affluent suburb just outside Boston. “Amazing girls” translation: Girls by the dozen who are high achieving, ambitious and confident (if not immune to the usual adolescent insecurities and meltdowns). Girls who do everything: Varsity sports. Student government. Theater. Community service. Girls who have grown up learning they can do anything a boy can do, which is anything they want to do.

But being an amazing girl often doesn’t feel like enough these days when you’re competing with all the other amazing girls around the country who are applying to the same elite colleges that you have been encouraged to aspire to practically all your life.

An athlete, after all, is one of the few things Esther isn’t. A few of the things she is: a standout in Advanced Placement Latin and honors philosophy/literature who can expound on the beauty of the subjunctive mood in Catullus and on Kierkegaard’s existential choices. A writer whose junior thesis for Advanced Placement history won Newton North’s top prize. An actress. President of her church youth group.

And, for all their accomplishments and ambitions, the amazing girls, as their teachers and classmates call them, are not immune to the third message: While it is now cool to be smart, it is not enough to be smart.

You still have to be pretty, thin and, as one of Esther’s classmates, Kat Jiang, a go-to stage manager for student theater who has a perfect 2400 score on her SATs, wrote in an e-mail message, “It’s out of style to admit it, but it is more important to be hot than smart.”

“Effortlessly hot,” Kat added.

Let me start with my own admission that more than once I’ve looked at a woman, say, speaking at a tech conference, and thought “Wow, she’s cute,” in a way that I’ve never thought about a male presenter. Now, women can have those thoughts about men, and certainly the distance between those thoughts and “fuck off you boring slut … i hope someone slits your throat and cums down your gob” is measured in lightyears, not meters. But they are endpoints of a single continuum.

Certainly not everyone is smart, and it’s important that high-schoolers feel good about themselves in lots of different ways. But being hot conflicts with being smart, for women, in an important way. Men are surprised, all to often, when an expert is an attractive woman. And for all too many, all too often, even when not fatally distracted by a bit of cleavage, the meaning and import of a woman’s words is diminished by the mere fact that she is an attractive woman. And that’s only where it starts.

Out at the other end of the continuum, there’s a picture of a noose and the blog comment, “the only thing Kathy has to offer me is that noose in her neck size.” Somewhere along the way to that point, being hot becomes more important than being smart; somewhere down frm that, distraction becomes, apparently, a feeling of being threatened. And eventually it becomes unacceptable that an attractive woman also be smart.

The death threat that crystallizes in a some man’s mind first formed itself around thoughts we think of as perfectly innocent, or nearly so. It starts with thoughts and words we call “juvenile” and “sophomoric.” It starts, all too often, in high school.

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