on 23 August 2013
This is a subject desperately overdue some serious discussion, and Laurie Penny has long been a pioneer in bringing it to public attention. We need a lot of books like this.
This isn't so much a book as a pamphlet; in length, it's short, and in the research and examples it covers, it's more a basic introduction than an in-depth study. If you've been following the discussion, her examples will be familiar, such as the Sarkeesian case and Ally Fogg's soapbox analogy. In its cases, it works mostly as a compendium of some of the most egregious recent examples and astute recent observerations; useful, but not exhaustive.
Its best feature is probably Penny's epigrammatic style. 'Germaine Greer wrote in "The Female Eunuch" that women had no idea how much men hate them,' she writes. 'Well, now we do.' Penny is a readable and snappy stylist with a knack for putting her finger on the nub of a subject, and this book is no exception.
It does have some limits which I regret, though, and they're mostly to do with the fact that she seems unable or unwilling to separate the issue of cybersexism from the issue of geek identity. Two related issues stand out to me:
1. She begins by stating, importantly, that much of the harassment comes from 'perfectly ordinary men holding down perfectly ordinary jobs' - that cybersexism isn't confined to any 'fringe' but is a problem coming from all walks of life. Later, though, she dedicates a big chunk of time to analysing the nature of 'geek misogyny', going into detail about its origins with a degree of compassion, and insists that 'Geeks aren't just the problem. Geeks are also the solution.' This seems to be rather contradicting her earlier important point that it *isn't* just geeks who are the problem, but sexist men in general. It feels as if she got distracted into the issue of her own subculture, which is not the main point when it comes to sexism. When misogyny is a society-wide problem, not just a subcultural problem, we need the focus on the whole of society. The title of the book implies as much, but by the end, it's narrowed down.
2. She doesn't acknowledge the degree to which non-geeks are using the Internet, and have the right to. Everyone is online now; geeks may have started it, but they don't own it, and it's an issue that concerns everyone. It's even a feminist issue, as women are more likely to be non-geeks than men. Frankly, my experience is that geekiness can be something of a protection for women: despite all the 'fake geek girl' hate, a woman who actually is a geek can generally rely on a large body of people, male and female, to defend her on the grounds that she's 'one of us'. A woman who isn't a geek is out there on her own; she very often gets trapped between straight misogyny on the one hand and geek resentment of non-geeks (both from male and female geeks) on the other. You don't get much defence against the 'uppity b****' contingent from people who've decided you're a boring mundane or some kind of mean-girls cheerleader simply because you don't share their hobbies. Geek flag-waving obscures this problem, and it's a serious one. If a woman has to love the right media or tech to have defenders online, that's not okay.
She also doesn't address a problem that I've experienced as major. Straight misogynist slurs and threats are a very bad business, but there's also a more insidious kind of sexism that drives women offline: the men who furiously argue with women and discuss respectfully with men. Such men don't openly use misogynist language, they just treat women more aggressively - and as such, it's very difficult to prove that they're being sexist, and often women find that raising the issue involves so much work trying to convince the 'neutral' bystanders weighing in saying 'Hey, he's just disagreeing with you,' that it just isn't worth it. While those men aren't as frightening as the threateners and hackers, they're a lot more numerous, and they get challenged and condemned a lot less.
I'd also like to see more discussion of the problems of internalised misogyny online; women can create a hostile environment for each other by pressuring each other to conform to sexist stereotypes of women as nurturing and polite. Women online who speak civilly but confidently, in a style that would be respected from men, don't just get attacked by men. They also often get complaints and criticisms from women for not being 'nice' or 'safe' enough, complaints they often wouldn't think to direct at men, or at least not for simply having a confident tone. There's a 'tyranny of niceness' from women online that pushes a severe double standard. Women online who aren't expected to be silent are often expected to be nurturers - and when you can't say anything that could be taken as non-nurturing, that's its own kind of silencing. We need to talk about that.
So while this book is well-written, addresses a very serious issue and makes good points, reading it as a woman who's been harassed online I regretted that it only addressed the more egregious kinds of hate speech and didn't take in the more insidious kinds of misogyny. (Which, short of credible threats and hacking, can actually be more exhausting than direct hate speech. After a while, getting called a c*** starts to resemble a toddler shouting 'POO BUM!'; it's unimaginative and sameish. Knowing that whatever you say about anything will get jumped on and argued with, in a way that you're expected to engage with, by men who would be shocked, shocked if you accused them of double standards, in the a culture where many women still expect you to be 'nice' and look after them no matter what harassment you're going through, and will start their own campaigns of calling you a terrible person if you don't - that burns you out.) And as a non-geek online - insofar as anyone, since the Internet, can be called a non-geek any more; the word's losing meaning - it ultimately felt more pro-geek than pro-women.
I'm glad this book exists, but we need more books and a broader focus.