Politics, Technology, and Language

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

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.

16 Responses to “Does that noose come in a size 4?”

  1. GenDerLess said

    The subtleties of the ego begin in primary school, where everything we need to know is learned.

    After reading limited portions of Kathy’s blog and RageBoy’s rebuttal (after reading this piece), concerns and questions come to mind.

    To start, there is no question that the ape cage comments have crossed the line from game to game hunting. The words, “disgusting and repugnant” are not harsh enough. The one(s) who penned those despicable posts deserve no space in this comment and will get no other acknowledgment.

    Here comes a couple of observations though. Freedom of speech vs. free speech is one of the layers of this sorry state, some of that free speech containing unspoken inferences. Kind of reminds me of the Danish cartoons and the mock innocence of “But what did we say that pissed them off so bad? We were just using our right to use freedom of speech.”

    No Buck Rogers decoder is needed to interpret “Is your App an Ass-Kisser”. On the surface, it’s innocent and funny enough, if you’re not a male that is. Is there a subtle dig buried here?

    Then there’s the quest for creating passion, the theme of this blog, along with innocent pictures of the two principals of the blog – Dan Russell’s cropped hair and eyes smiling above an institutional blue shirt, Kathy’s bed-style hair draping over apparel suitable for the boudoir. Are these two differing styles intended to illicit psychological responses in their readers?

    Next comes an article “Helping Users Feel the Fear and do it anyway”, still innocent, still not outwardly daunting.
    Do the authors realize the power of their words? Is it a coincidence that Kathy has been granted exactly this and tested to the max? Can her passion strengthen her to face her fears?

    RageBoy’s reactions are textbook – the wronged badboy who didn’t mean any harm and had no role in the outcome. Bullshit. He consciously knew what he was stirring up, and the “I don’t know anything” attitude is classic bully badboy who isn’t man enough to be a Man.

    There’s a lot of gender role playing and a lot of hiding behind stereotypes going on here. Now for the debates and side-taking. Girls will rise to feminine indignation at the nasty boys, boys will say girls shouldn’t play with big boys if they can’t play rough. Camps will form with teams lining up on both sides, armed with words to pierce and hurt, but will the subtle and not so subtle truths be brought to the table? Only if we all have a Buck Roger’s decoder, and those aren’t on this agenda. The agenda is all about how mean boys are and how prissy girls are. The school yard hasn’t changed a bit, just the location.

  2. tigtog said

    Top post, metaphorical.

    The group blog Larvatus Prodeo to which I contribute and co-moderate has had to develop a pretty comprehensive comments policy which we tightly enforce. This has earned us a lot of criticism from more libertarian forums in the Aussie blogosphere, accusing us of stifling them etc. Many literally don’t get the distinction between being happy to have commenters who disagree and being unhappy with some of the ways that disagreement might be expressed.

    It’s worth it though to have a forum largely populated by commentors who mostly rise above the playground stuff.

  3. Thanks, Tigtog.

    I’ve been very fortunate in my brief time blogging here, my visitors almost universally want to use this forum in the spirit in which it’s intended. But if it comes to it, I’ll probably post-moderate as aggressively as I think I’ll need to to maintain that spirit.

  4. Swanny said

    Ah yes, how quaint the idea. Those who advocate for freedom of speech are always the first to demand it be taken away or to do so themselves.

    Any criticism of a woman online is misogynistic just as any disagreement with a member of the glbt community is homophobic or the gall to point out flaws in the logic of some member of a minority race racist as it the temerity to question the overall dedication of a majority of the muslim faith to practices that don’t involve cutting off heads and shit.

    Welcome to 2007, Kathy. There are boors in the world and you’ve met some. Perhaps we should have a law that more severely punishes those who threaten women online. Or gays. Or Muslims. Or African-Americans. What would the deciding factor be? Oh yes, as long as the victim is neither white nor Christian nor male.

    [NOTE: This comment was edited by the moderator on 2 April 2007].

  5. Swanny said

    George Carlin would be proud so proud.

  6. Jeremy said

    Why does noticing that someone is cute have to be couched in an “admission”? Is there something wrong with that? Crikey!

  7. digglahhh said


    Your points are well taken. But in a practical sense, it is probably not an egregious violation of freedom of speech for a blogger to edit out comments that were intended primarily to instigate and insult as opposed to contribute to a healthy debate. I know there’s some gray area there, but t is all about tact and respect, isn’t it?

    I’m kind of surprised nobody made any mention of Arianna Huffington removing the posts lamenting that the assassination attempt on Cheney failed.

    That said, I’d like to ask Kathy Sierra what she thinks about what people who were revolutionary and controversial figures on a national or even global scale went through. Scared to leave your backyard? Well, as much as this opens me up to all kinds of criticism, I don’t think you are important enough (yet) to be afraid to leave your backyard.

    At the very least, Sierra is probably still less likely to have an attempt on her life made than just about any black male under the age of 25 in the United States. I don’t go to too many tech conferences, but I can confirm that young black men still makes appearances at supermarkets, restaurants and such with regularity.

  8. mambopalace said

    No, in a practical sense, any blogger can do as he or she sees fit. I’ve never had much tact or respect and knowing that about myself can’t muster any sense of outrage when my comments anywhere are deleted, edited or otherwise censored. When I come play in someone’s sandbox, they get to say what toys I can use.

    It’s always been my feeling that no matter how egregious the comments, that they do more good being seen than being talked about. Bring these views and those who hold them and feel the need to express them out into the open rather than erasing them and allowing their proponents to simply disappear.

    But this gets away from the subject of whether it’s right to hang hot chicks with whom you disagree.

  9. digglahhh said

    I thought about you when making my comments, Mambo. I know you admit that you are not particularly tactful (and I don’t consider myself to be either, necessarily) but I don’t think either one of us would amuse ourselves by posting about slitting a woman’s throat and busting a nut in the gash…

    In a sense, I agree that the comments do more good to be displayed, kind of like a reminder of the full scope of opinions out there. But, that presupposes people are making their posts seriously.

    If somebody is truly convinced that the world would be a better place without Dick Cheney, or Michael Moore, then I guess it is fine to lament an unsuccessful assassination attempt against them.

    However, if you are simply a troll who is just seeking a reaction by asking a feminist what type of dish soap she prefers when she’s barefoot in the kitchen, that comment can be dismissed.

  10. Swanny said

    It’s Palmolive, right?

  11. I can reproduce the deleted sentence, and will below. Of course, pulling it from the context in which it was written and putting it into another is as much censorship as simply deleting it. But if the discussion is to now turn to what moderators might and might do when an outrageous statement is made, it’s useful to look at it, so here it is.

    Suck it up and grow a set, you whiny cunts, queers, camel jockeys and
    cooons, or I’ll start twisting the necessary 13 turns.

    I happen to know the Mambo King and know the spirit in which it was written, with is a knowing irony that the words alone don’t make a threat. If he had said it after the second, beer, face-to-face, I would have laughed and bought the next round. The problem is, there are visitors here who don’t have the knowledge and context. As such, they don’t know how to take it, and the prudent thing is to take it at face value, even if it’s fairly unlikely it was meant to be in any way sincere.

    Of course it wasn’t, it was meant to reproduce the very situation that Mambo wants to criticize, and that’s the brilliant irony of it. But of course, it also puts me as moderator in the same bind, and I had to make the same calculation I advocated.

  12. digglahhh said

    You know, this circumstance is one of the lesser noted arguments in favor of the “post count” function (not that there is some some huge raging debate that I’m aware of though). Most people see post counts as encouraging of quantity over quality, or contriving a high school cafeteria atmosphere amongst the posters. And, I’m not saying that they don’t…

    But, if you were to see that Mambo is one of the regular and most senior posters here, it might mitigate the visceral vitriol that his statement might otherwise evoke- if you took a minute before you flamed right back. It also might not.

    You might see that Mambo is a regular poster who often plays a certain role in discussions. You might assume that he has some history and rapport with the moderator and you would, at the very least be curious why other senior posters, also with high post counts, and apparently in full ideological opposition to that statement, didn’t immediately flame him. Then again, you might not.

    Just a thought about the more abstract functions of some seemingly innocuous features that some forums have and others don’t.

  13. Blue Athena said

    I agree with Mambo on the Sandbox analogy. Anyone can create a blog and say whatever they want. You don’t have to let them pee in your sandbox when they are free to turn their own into an litter-box.

    Unless you’re writing on “How to insult people using the language of a 10 year old”, such comments are at best off topic. And they likely will both drive away new readers and make your blog show up in some weird searches–basically creating search engine litter.

  14. Jeremy said

    Why does noticing an attractive woman require an admission? To me it is one of the great pleasures of life and should be celebrated.

  15. Jeremy, the admission was about noticing things that make sense in a coffeehouse at a conference presentation, where they don’t. But I confess it was more of a rhetorical segue than a key point. (Whoops. There I go, confessing/admitting stuff again!)

  16. digglahhh said

    Well, there is nothing to feel bad about for recognizing a woman as attractive in any setting (or a man for that matter).

    What one should feel bad for is being surprised that the attractive woman knows what she is talking about or defining that woman on the basis of her looks.

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