I do not know if Emily Graslie is a nice person in real life, but on the internet she’s easily one of the most good-natured people in Chicago, if not anywhere else. It’s part of the job of being the Field Museum’s “Chief Curiosity Correspondent,” which is about what you’d guess from the title: being professionally interested in stuff and subsequently being enthusiastic about that stuff for the benefit of other people.
On the occasions when my job is like that, I can state for a fact that it’s enormously rewarding, and Graslie’s enthusiasm for talking about things like the innovative taxidermist (and Field Museum employee) Carl Akeley is transparent. As I benefit from the work of people like her, and as I’m often driven by similar motivations, I was crushed to see that the hostile misogyny of the Web, where she maintains a genial presence, was wearing her down:
The remarks are enough to make me want to throw my hands up and retreat to a tiny cabin in the middle of nowhere. If the compromise is that I need to become desensitized, I would probably just do something else instead.
This is a not-uncommon dilemma for people who make their lives online, majority or minority—the wearying ambient drive-by cruelty. Being a nice person is not a defense, especially if you’re a woman. No one’s really sure what the defense is, but it’s probably going to take a lot of what Graslie did in response.
But what really got to Graslie wasn’t the comments themselves as their effect on young women who want to do what she does. “One thing that’s kind of gotten misconstrued is that people have spun it as if I was fed up, and I decide to finally speak out, that there was a straw that broke the camel’s back. There wasn’t anything like that,” Graslie says. “It was more that I receive a lot of emails and messages from people, mostly young women, who are also interested in having a science or technology channel on YouTube, and they express a hesitation in starting because they want to know how I deal with the negative comments that they’re reading in the videos.
“I didn’t really have a good answer for them. So rather than me coming up with some kind of excuse to bury the comments, or ignore them, or block them entirely, then, well, maybe we need some kind of paradigm shift.”
Misogyny is a lazy tactic to shut people down, so I’m well aware of why it’s endlessly deployed against women writing (or vlogging) about contentious issues. But that’s what struck me about Graslie’s experience—why is a science-friendly medium so ripe to shut down someone who’s giving away free science?
And why is that medium so much harder for women? What is it exactly that needs to shift?
The clearest beginning of an answer I’ve come across is Cybersexism: Sex, Gender and Power on the Internet by the young British journalist Laurie Penny. She’s a digital native, six years younger than me, and came onto the internet when its promise that it would “liberate us from gender” (you kind of had to be there) had already been revealed, for better or worse, as a myth.
For better, because, as Penny writes, “it gave women, girls and queer people space to speak without limits,” instead of a place to not be those things. For worse, because there’s been a hell of a backlash against that space. Sometimes it fires up around uncomfortable or politically charged issues; sometimes it comes about just because someone is a certain gender or race or orientation on the internet.
One obvious explanation is that it gave dudes a space to speak without limits as well. “Germaine Greer wrote in the Female Eunuch that women had no idea how much men hate them,” writes Penny. “Now we do.”
Perhaps it’s easy for me to say, but there are ways in which this may not be altogether a bad thing. Some of the comments Graslie highlights in her video seemingly come from guys who just don’t know any better—"even though the clothes you’re wearing kind of hide it, you look like you could be hot under them.” (Yeah, I know, but in extreme cases profound ignorance and “negging” are indistinguishable.)
In that sense, calling out those comments from the perspective of the creator, like Graslie did, is invaluable, because it reinforces how wearying the male gaze is. “Sometimes these comments can leave work with you. they begin to make you wonder, ‘Is anybody really listening to what I’m saying? Is anybody really paying attention to the show for the content?’” says Graslie. “Like… did they actually watch the video, or did they just mute it and were just looking at it?”
After Graslie made her stand, she returned to regularly scheduled programming with the Akeley video. And it worked. “My intern remarked to me—I have her filter through them first and test the waters, some days it’s enough to put yourself out there the internet,” Graslie says. “But the comments on that video… my intern remarked that she was happy to read them. They made her smile.”
But taking a stand exposed her to a more persistent internet misogynist: the troll, for whom misogynist attacks are not a matter of simple misogyny, but the kind of bizarre hazing ritual that appears among self-selecting cultures. My friend Frusina Eördögh, a freelance writer who’s covered internet culture for Vice, Slate, and the Guardian, among other places, explains the culture of trolling (in the context of a deep web-led attack on feminists):
One does not make controversial or unpopular statements in a 4chan-like place without the power of their convictions, and the last thing one wants to do is to lose their cool, get mad and contact the moderators or Internet police. Saying you will do so is taken as a sign you want and or need more harassment. New users in these web communities are generally hazed with abuse to ensure they can handle the madness that is the community, and are expected to speak in this coded way if they want to stay a part of the community. This code includes racist, misogynistic, antisemitic, homophobic and over the top offensive language and jokes despite many in the community being black, homosexual, feminist and Jewish.
When these rules of etiquette bleed over into spaces like Twitter, the result is a cultural clash that looks like a barbarian raid: “Even if all users do know these crazy Internet society rules, they may not want want to play by them, and it is unfair to subject them to the game because outside of the 4chan context the game appears quite rude with players mostly bigots. The game only works if everyone knows they are playing, and since not everyone is playing, everyone loses.”
Trolling is a bizarro ethic with its roots in the identityless idealism of the early Internet. But even given the benefit of the doubt, it’s still problematic even within its own little circles. Because of the way language works, the bar is higher to clear, as Laurie Penny writes. “A long history of learned defensiveness leads nerds to come together to protect any member of their group, whatever they’ve done. It’s an understandable impulse—right up to the point where you realise that tolerance of bigotry automatically ostracises everyone who happens to be a woman, or queer, or frighens them away from social and professional groups in which ‘white, male, cis, and straight’ is the default player setting.
Put simply: there’s no good shorthand for insulting a straight white male. There’s a lot of it for everyone else. The hazing of trolling is, like so many other things, just that much easier for straight white dudes. Penny isn’t the first writer to describe it as a “default player setting”; in an internet-famous essay, the sci-fi writer (and University of Chicago alum) John Scalzi calls it “the lowest difficulty setting there is”:
the default behaviors for almost all the non-player characters in the game are easier on you than they would be otherwise. The default barriers for completions of quests are lower. Your leveling-up thresholds come more quickly. You automatically gain entry to some parts of the map that others have to work for. The game is easier to play, automatically, and when you need help, by default it’s easier to get.
Even if you spot trolls some credit for trying to take the piss out of slurs, it still doesn’t work; the power dynamics are still there, carried in by the language they’re (arguably) trying to divest of its power.
But Penny and Scalzi point towards a solution by reversing the import of trolling. It’s supposed to be a test, but it’s actually lazy as hell. It’s not independence; it’s target marketing:
Geek media long ago has decide to optimize towards a straight cis male mostly white audience. This means most content of geek media, the way geek media is advertised, and also geek media related merchandise are all catering to that target audience. Leading to very few properties with female protagonists or the idea that female models in multiplayer are too expensive.
It’s like, ‘We don’t want the girls because the girls won’t buy toys.’ We had a whole… we had a whole, a merchandise line for Tower Prep that they s***canned before it ever got off the launching pad, because it’s like, ‘Boys, boys, boys. Boys buy the little spinny tops, they but the action figures, girls buy princesses, we’re not selling princesses.
It’s an appealing way of reframing the problem for a culture of geeks. When “play nice” doesn’t work, I like Eördögh’s take: “Twitter doesn’t want you, and you just lost the game. No one likes a loser.”