When I first started up my blog, it was going to be solely a fashion blog. Despite the over abundance of fashion blogs on the internet, I was going to make posts about my thoughts on the latest trends and collections, and I was going to post photos of my favourite outfits of mine and dream of someone, somehow, spotting my blog amongst the millions out there and inviting me to sit on the front row next London Fashion Week. We all have our little fantasies, right? And that might still happen! The posting outfits thing more than the being spotted by a big star thing, probably, but I can still daydream. The thing is, though, it takes a lot of guts to post anything on the internet and invite comment, and if you’re posting pictures of yourself and your clothes, you’re leaving yourself in the firing line for a lot of potential abuse.
I’ve been thinking about this because today I read Laurie Penny’s article A woman’s opinion is the mini-skirt of the internet, and then The Guardian’s take on the issue, Attempts to shut women up should fail. These articles, the first one in particular, highlight the genuinely shocking response many female writers and bloggers on the internet encounter. These women, in response to articles about their opinions on politics, for example, receive seemingly completely unrelated insults from judgements on their looks and weight to death threats and threats of rape, not because of what they’ve written, but because of the simple fact that they are a woman on the internet. Is there any wonder it’s an intimidating thing, then, the thought of making the topic of your blog at least in part yourself and your fashion tastes? If women are being insulted about their appearance because of political thoughts, what will these same people find to say about you if you’re giving them something to look at first?
Of course, everyone who posts anything on the internet is opening themselves up to comments. From praise to that elusive ‘spotting’ to genuine disagreement to trolls, the up and the down side of the internet is that you’re going to come across it all. That’s the way free speech works, and the internet is a key tool in keeping free speech alive and well and thriving. Pointing out the misogyny and inappropriateness of these comments isn’t, though, as Brendan O’Neill claims in his quite honestly insulting and suspiciously defensive article, a threat to free speech. Not even touching on the fact that calling anger or worry over things as serious as rape and death threats and people attempting to track down women in their homes “peculiarly sensitive” is completely out of order, given the near constant threat of abuse that women face in this society even without receiving explicit threats, to assume that women simply want protecting from “coarse language” is completely missing the point. The problem with any discussion like this is that inevitably, someone will throw around the phrase “political correctness gone mad”, or something along those lines at least, effectively trying to ridicule the offended party as overly (perhaps “peculiarly”, hey?) sensitive and making a fuss out of nothing. There’s real violence out there, these people will say. Why are you worried about words? And then they’ll shut down the discussion and refuse to listen.
And this is the problem. You can’t go raving about the sanctity of free speech and refuse to listen to what a whole group of often marginalised people has to say. I don’t think at any point in these discussions has any female writer brought up the idea of banning this “coarse language” altogether. The idea is absurd even in theory; in practice it would never work. You can’t ban words or censor people, but you can try to change attitudes. The point is to speak about it. The idea that women are too sensitive and easily offended and fragile is far too prevalent, even these days, and so a lot of the time women feel the need to keep up a tough exterior, the attitude that yes, these things happen, but they’re too strong to worry about it. There’s something to be said, of course, for not letting a bully know they’re having an effect on you, but it leads to a tradition of not talking about these things, sweeping them under the rug. If you don’t talk about something, maybe you’re doing something good in that you’re not giving the person threatening you the attention they probably crave, but if you never talk about it, the issues don’t get addressed. This is why I think it’s important that female writers - in fact, any female out there who has ever run up against these insults and attitudes simply for daring to express an opinion (or wear a pair of high heels, or a short skirt, or turning a man down - the so called “reasons” are endless) - talk about this.
I don’t think, on any level, that it’s complaining about nothing. Yes, these threats might be, for the most part, just words over the internet (until the issue of people trying to track these writers down comes into play). But is there such a thing as “just words”? These words, whether they’re people trolling or heartfelt threats, reflect an attitude that women run up against every single day of their lives. Sometimes it’s subtle - women get paid less, but women are less likely to push for a pay rise! But no one likes a pushy woman, right? That would be so off putting - and sometimes it’s explicit, and violent, and threatening. And this is why it’s such a big deal. It’s not just someone disagreeing with a viewpoint and calling the author an idiot, or a more insulting alternative. It’s not just insulting abuse; it’s insulting abuse with a very specific angle. It’s someone disagreeing not with the topic (or not just with the topic), but with the fact that a woman is writing, despite the fact that we’ve been doing this for a long time now, and some women can do it particularly well. This attitude is still extremely alive and well, despite people like Stephen Moffat thinking that tables have turned and it’s really mean who, “if you live in a civilised country and you’re sort of educated and middle-class” are “almost certainly junior.” Sorry, Stephen, but I think you’re missing the point, and I think this is a really obvious example of middle class, straight white men trying to turn the discussion, yet again, away from women and to themselves. Maybe women aren’t sensitive after all - but no one thinks of the men, apparently.
So I don’t think female writers are sensitive. I think that we’re tired. So yes, we’re talking back.