Misogyny, harassment, and the internet

As almost everything in life, even the way in which people interact with social media and internet is deeply influenced by their gender identity. A recent research from Carnegie Mellon University pointed out that masculine topics (i.e. those more often posted by men) receive more comments, especially when posted by women [1]. Now, let’s try to imagine a woman posting an analysis about a mostly male-dominated realm, such as video games. Then, to make things more complicated, let’s also imagine that the analysis focuses on questioning the gender structure within the realm – what would be to outcome of it? Well, the answer is easy and well documented: a huge mess. But let’s start with some background info!

Anita Sarkeesian, Tropes VS Women in Video Games, and a lot of people going bananas

In May 2012 Anita Sarkeesian, media critic and creator of the videoblog Feminist Frequency [2], launched a Kickstarter campaign for financing her new video series. The project, named Tropes VS Women in Video Games, aimed to analyze female character stereotypes in video games [3]. The Kickstarter campaign (please note: we’re not talking about the content of the video here!) triggered a huge wave of misogynist attacks against Anita Sarkeesian, which ranged from image harassment and Wikipedia vandalism, to the creation of a “beat the bitch up” video game and death threats [4, 5]. But rather than stepping back and giving up on her project, Anita Sarkeesian decided instead to make a point and publish samples of the harassment on her blog [4, 5, 6]. As a response to her bravery, people donated for her Kickstarter campaign, managing eventually to raise up almost 160.000$, i.e. more than 25 times the initially pledged amount. [3]

The person behind the screen and John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory

This post doesn’t aim to discuss whether Anita Sarkeesian has a point in her videos (she released the first three episodes in the meanwhile) or not. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have an opinion about her work and on sexism in the video game industry, but  that they won’t be the focus of this article.

What I want to do is to reflect upon the interplay between social media and the way in which people reacted to Anita Sarkeesian’s campaign. When I read about the story I was quite shocked and I couldn’t stop myself from wondering whether it the same things would have occurred in a real life scenario rather than behind a screen. Sexism and misogyny are, unfortunately, very much real. But I do believe that a consistent part of the perpetrators would have never acted in the same way in a real life context. The interesting part is to try to figure out why that is so.

John Gabriel’s “Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory” from the “Green Blackboards (And Other Anomalies)” strip on Penny Arcade provides a possible explanation for such a behaviour. According to it, an otherwise normal person provided with anonymity and an audience might turn him/herself into an antisocial and aggressive individual [7]. Let’s be honest with ourselves for a second, at least once when we were teenagers, we all did something stupid or something we didn’t feel proud of afterwards just to impress our peers. So having an audience mixed with the feeling of protection by anonymity can certainly increase the chance of people doing stupid things. Then, if we add the fact that we are talking about gamers, it doesn’t take long to figure out how the escalation of the attacks can be easily interpreted as a twisted sort of game [8].

Click on the picture to see a much better version of it (Penny Arcade’s one)

Although John Gabriel’s “Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory” and sexism certainly provide a partial explanation of the dynamics behind the attacks against Anita Sarkeesian, there’s another aspect that I think it’s worthy to take into consideration. My reflection takes its departure point from the story of another victim of cyber-harassment, Caitlin Seida. After a picture of her went viral attracting quite a lot of nasty statements, she decided to write a note to the most offensive commenters [9]. As she writes: “The most common response was not remorse or defensiveness but surprise. They were startled that I could hear what they’d been saying. […] And of course, they hadn’t really thought of me as a person.” [9]

The problem is now, however, that such a perspective brings me to another plethora of questions.  Would something have changed if people would have thought of Anita Sarkeesian as a real person? To a certain extent, I think so. But then this question throws me in the into a chicken-or-the-egg situation: would the thinking-about-the-person-behind-the-screen be really a solution? Or would it be just a façade form of solution (where I don’t display my misogyny publicly because I know that isn’t socially acceptable, but then deep down I believe that’s the way in which the world is supposed to be)? And if that’s the case, is it right to ask to all the Anita Sarkeesians in the world to bear the burden of being cyber-mob victims, in order to show the world the extent to which sexism and misogyny are deep-rooted in our society? Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t know what it is the right way to handle such a thing and I certainly need to further reflect upon this issue. Anyway, whether I will ever come up with clear answer to my questions or not, I am thankful to Anita Sarkeesian for having been brave and for having given me the chance to make this reflection.

Oh by the way, while thinking about it, take also a look to Milly’s post about the same topic!



  1. Wang, Y. C., Burke, M., & Kraut, R. E. (2013, April). Gender, topic, and audience response: an analysis of user-generated content on facebook. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 31-34). ACM.
  2. http://www.feministfrequency.com
  3. http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/566429325/tropes-vs-women-in-video-games
  4. http://www.feministfrequency.com/2012/06/harassment-and-misogyny-via-wikipedia/
  5. http://www.feministfrequency.com/2012/07/image-based-harassment-and-visual-misogyny/
  6. http://www.feministfrequency.com/2012/06/harassment-misogyny-and-silencing-on-youtube/
  7. Green Blackboards (And Other Anomalies) http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2004/03/19/
  8. http://tedxwomen.org/speakers/anita-sarkeesian-2/
  9. http://www.salon.com/2013/10/02/my_embarrassing_picture_went_viral/


Opening picture: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/566429325/tropes-vs-women-in-video-games

Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory from English Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Greater_Internet_Fuckwad_Theory.png

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