A Brutal Backlash: The State of Feminism on the Web

by Emily Bellor

The internet can be an obscenely hostile place for women and it seems to be getting worse. I could list the names and slurs I’ve been called by strangers online in response to comments I have made on topics that range from gender and women, to gun control and violence. These experiences of online sexism, trolling, degradation and harassment are not limited to me, but are experienced by many women who speak their mind about many topics, especially feminism, on the internet. The reasons for this are complex. Postfeminism, contemporary feminism, and recent achievements in gender equality have converged to cause a backlash against women and feminism that has extended to the realm of social media.             

Postfeminism is a Western phenomenon unlike any other anti-feminist movements. As Angela McRobbie explains in her book The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change, it encompasses elements of feminism, “drawing on a vocabulary that includes words like ‘empowerment’ and ‘choice’ [which] are then converted into a much more individualistic discourse […] as a kind of substitute for feminism” (McRobbie 1).  McRobbie goes on to argues that through  popular culture there is also an undoing or dismantling of feminism, not in favor of re-traditionalism, women are not being pushed back into the home, but instead there is a process which says feminism is no longer needed, it is now common sense, and as such it is something young women can do without” (McRobbie, 8).  

Postfeminism is inextricably linked with capitalism, consumer culture, and neoliberalism; it emphasizes women’s individual pleasures, desires, and above all the choices available to women, particularly consumer and economic choices. McRobbie writes, “by means of the tropes of freedom and choice which are now inextricably connected with the category of young women, feminism is decisively aged and made to seem redundant” (McRobbie, 11).  This view of feminism as “redundant”,  as “common sense” because of the belief that women have already achieved full equality, is one major reason why support for the movement has suffered in recent years.

As McRobbie later discusses, the neoliberal, postfeminist focus on individualism and the power of choice also serve to make the responsibility of an individual’s successes or failures entirely their own (McRobbie). This focus on the individual disregards social processes and institutionalized oppressions. Those who attempt to call attention to continued oppressions and their effects—say, feminists—are frequently silenced and accused of not accepting responsibility for their own status in life. This frequently occurs through mainstream and social media. Those who seek to preserve patriarchal power and the gender hierarchy use these platforms to continue to vilify and negatively stereotype feminists, and they succeed in making contemporary feminism hated and “quite unpalatable to younger women” (McRobbie 1).

Consequently, a vast majority of young women are eschewing feminism, and this phenomenon can be clearly seen on the internet—in fact, there is an entire online countermovement dedicated to it: Women Against Feminism. The website is filled with selfies of young women holding pieces of paper bearing the words “I don’t need feminism because…”, followed by any number of reasons, many of which revolve around choice and personal responsibility, such as, “whatever I want to do or be in life, I will become through my own hard work,” or “I can take responsibility for my actions” (Women Against Feminism). Other statements fall in line with the belief that feminism is no longer necessary: “I don’t need feminism to perpetuate the myth that twenty-first century women are oppressed”. Many women featured on the site are holding up cards that read some variation of “I don’t need feminism because I love men!”, or as one woman elegantly puts it, “I heart the D,” harkening back to the age-old stereotype that feminists hate men (Women Against Feminism). These girls and women who refuse the notion that they could ever be “oppressed” or “victims” of anything, least of all sexism, quintessentially capture the postfeminist mentality.

More insidious, however, are the seemingly endless men against feminism who have found an outlet for their vicious misogyny online. Anti-feminist men can be found in high numbers on the websites Reddit and 4chan—which feminist blogger Anita Sarkeesian describes as “an incubator for misogyny” (Sarkeesian). Some of the content posted on these websites is nothing short of terrifying. There is a Subreddit called “The Red Pill”, a space dedicated to developing men’s “game” and “sexual strategy” to pick-up women (The Red Pill). The website in essence is a guide for men to re-establish control over women in a sexual way. The Red Pill asserts that “our culture has become a feminist culture”, and that everything men have been taught is a lie (The Red Pill). The website is home to vile and misogynistic discussion. One post advocates for treating women like children because they “[suck at] regulating their internal state.”  Another post titled “Operant conditioning: How to train your woman”, dehumanizes women completely and suggests that men “train” their girlfriends as they would a dog, since women “have innate submissive/obedient tendencies”. One of the posts is a self-described rant entitled “I don’t hate women, I just don’t respect them, and unless many changes within their gender come about, I never will,” in which he writes, “for all of men’s downfalls, nothing comes close to the manipulative, cold and psychopathic nature of women.” Interestingly, he suggests that women are so awful, and so powerful, that men should “not only disrespect them, but fear them” (The Red Pill).

The fear of women’s power, or of women gaining power, seems to be a common thread among anti-feminist men online. It should be predictable then, that when advances are made in the fight for gender equality they lash out. A perfect example of this is the GamerGate movement, which has a presence in multiple online spaces including Reddit, 4chan, Twitter, and YouTube. The movement was born out of a tirade Eron Gjoni posted online, in which he claims that his ex-girlfriend, the game developer and feminist, Zoe Quinn slept with a writer to secure a good review of her game (Doyle). It’s ostensibly about ethics in gaming journalism, but at best, it’s really just a thinly-veiled group of mostly white men revolting against equal gender representation in video games, who are intent on “pushing feminist voices […] out of the video game community” (Doyle). At worst, some have labelled it a terrorist movement. According to Anita Sarkeesian, “for several decades, the industry catered almost exclusively to a straight, white, male demographic. The new reality is that gaming is becoming a more diverse and inclusive environment for everyone” (Sarkeesian). GamerGate is seemingly unable to accept this and has reacted to the changing tide in a notoriously violent manner. Its supporters use various techniques to terrorize feminist women in the gaming community, some of which are illegal. They are known to “dox” their feminist critics, meaning they release a woman’s personal information (e.g. phone number or address) on the internet (Hern). Another tactic of theirs is “SWATing”: prank-calling the police and reporting an emergency, sending an armed SWAT team to the target’s home (Doyle). Not only is this a federal crime but the consequences are potentially lethal. One victim has already required surgery after being hit in the face with a rubber bullet (Doyle). GamerGate even had the feminist game developer, Caroline Sinders’s  mother SWATed. (Doyle)

GamerGate’s most frequent method of terrorization is online harassment and defamation. Many outspoken feminists have received graphic and disturbing tweets. Zoe Quinn received the message: “I’m not only a pedophile, i’ve raped countless teens, this zoe bitch is my next victim, i’m coming slut” (Doyle). Feminist YouTuber Anita Sarkeesian is also bombarded with rape and murder threats, one user tweeted at her: “I’m going to rape your cunt with a pole” (Sarkeesian). Bloggers have also had their faces superimposed onto pornographic images. Sady Doyle is not exaggerating when she says women in the gaming industry live in “fear of imminent rape and/or violent death” (Doyle). Anita Sarkeesian has been the victim of defamation as well, through GamerGate’s use of impersonation (widely circulating tweets they pass off as hers) and conspiracy theories that suggest she is embezzling money, brainwashing audiences, faking her harassment, and pretending to be white. Anita Sarkeesian describes the reason behind her harassment as the result of, “paranoia about feminists taking over [the field of] video games” (Sarkeesian).

    So much of the hatred and backlash against feminism and its supporters stems from the belief that feminism is no longer necessary—that sexism has been eradicated in the Western World. But as I’ve shown here—and as I’ve experienced myself—there is a whole new world of sexism and misogyny alive and well, just a few clicks away. Ironically enough, the violence and misogyny evident in reactions to advances in gender equality and the online backlash against feminism prove that feminism is very much needed. These internet users have lives off the web; they vote for policies and officials and they walk the same streets that I do at night. The state of feminism, postfeminism, and misogyny online are indicative of their respective states in the real world, and for that reason they matter—and they must change.



Works Cited

bitchdantkillmyvibe. “I don’t hate women, I just don’t respect them, and unless many changes within their gender come about, I never will.” The Red Pill. Reddit. Web. 29 Feb. 2016

Doyle, Sady. “Why SXSW’s ‘Harassment Summit’ Is a Terrible Solution to Harassment”. In These Times, 9 Nov. 2015. Web. 29 Feb. 2016.

GayLubeOil. “Treating Women Like Children.” The Red Pill. Reddit. Web. 29 Feb. 2016.

Hern, Alex. “Felicia Day’s public details put online after she described Gamergate fears.” The Guardian, 23 Oct. 2014. Web. 3 Dec. 2016.

McRobbie, Angela. The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change. London: SAGE, 2009. Print.

Sarkeesian, Anita. “Anita Sarkeesian: Feminist Frequency – XOXO Festival (2014)” YouTube, 7 Oct. 2014. Web. 29 Feb. 2016.

The Red Pill. Reddit. Web. 29 Feb. 2016.

TRPsubmitter. “Operant Conditioning: How to train your woman.” The Red Pill. Reddit. Web. 29 Feb. 2016.

Women Against Feminism. Web. 29 Feb. 2016.

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