Thank You, Anonymous Internet Trolls

We've seen an unprecedented resurgence in feminism lo these past five years. I run in some overlapping circles that have historically been very unfriendly to women -- tech and startup culture, games and gamer culture, SF/F fandom. And the conversation in every one of them has reached a roaring and broad consensus in the last two years: the way we've been treating women up until now is really not OK, and it has to stop.

Kotaku, the popular games site once best known for breathlessly covering things Japanese schoolgirls might do with their underwear, now talks about sexism as a problem. There was a time when that would've been unthinkable. In SF/F, a movement begun by John Scalzi for every convention to adopt a meaningful harrassment policy has resulted in... well... a ton of new harrassment policies going into place. Women like Sheryl Sandberg and Melissa Mayer are taking on senior roles at tech companies -- and while venture capital has a long, loooonnng way to go, the lack of equal access to funding is now widely considered a problem for VC funds to aggressively address. Companies like Undercurrent are publicly trying to remove the quiet hand of sexism from their processes and culture.

It's happening in the realm of comics. It's happening in Hollywood. It's happening in thoughtful online communities like MetaFilter. You guys, a new age of feminism is upon us. We're making real and meaningful progress. 

I think it's because of the trolls.

Invisible Sexism

Once upon a time, sexism was thought to be a genteel frame of mind; even a protective one. Society wasn't trying to limit what women could do, or so the thinking went; the structures in place were to make sure women had lesser troubles, to offset their natural greater burdens in the realms of child-rearing and the home.

You and I know that's bullshit. All that not having to worry your pretty little head about things like money came with enormous problems. Women who couldn't leave an abusive marriage because they'd starve, for example. Women who were uncredited for their work in the realms of literature, engineering, science, math, politics. (This stuff still happens, by the way.)

Gradually we weeded out some of the more overt signs of sexism in economic spaces. We could get hired. After another generation, we mostly got rid of all that ass-pinching in the office. And while pay equity hasn't happened, it's at the very least become a serious gaffe to suggest a woman doesn't need to make as much money as a man because she doesn't need to support a family -- at least in polite company.

Progress. It hurt while it was happening and it took a lot of time, but there's been a real result. Women are now in the labor force in roughly equal numbers to men. And with that, a lot of people thought sexism was over.

But a fundamentally dismissive and derogatory attitude toward women persisted. In language, "like a girl" is a dead insult. It was a consensus opinion that women weren't good at or simply didn't do things like math, or computers, or video games. Evidence to the contrary was always marked as the rare outlier. And anything marked as the domain of women -- shopping, housekeeping, anything cute or pink or nurturing or romantic -- was widely considered to be fluffy and less important than all that SRS BZNS man stuff.

All the while, our culture continued to assume that the neutral state was always a heterosexual white man. Women in our entertainment were mostly love interests or sex objects... when they were there at all.

Representation in media matters -- both how much of it there is, and what it looks like. Don't take my word for it, there's a lot of research on the matter. The images we see in media shape how we think we should behave back in meatspace, and media was (is!) still flogging that old-fashioned idea that men are for doing things and women are for looking hot and swooning when appropriate. This has real and serious consequences for how women are treated. Not so much in business spaces -- we've legislated the hell out of that by now. But in all of the other domains of life; recreational spaces like Xbox Live, or sports, or dating. Even our own relationships with one another and how we share household chores, for example.

You can't legislate how people treat each other in social spaces, nor should you. This is a problem that requires a cultural fix, in the same way that it's easier to stamp out smoking, it turns out, by making it socially unacceptable, than by putting health warnings on the package. We really, really care what the other monkeys think.

But the media is busy telling us that the way things are is the way things should be -- and you can't blame any one piece of media, mind you, it's the cumulative effect of all of those drip-drip-drips of reinforcement about what role women should have in society. It's really super intensive hard to change a behavior when everything around you says that behavior is right.

The problem becomes effectively invisible. Why complain about the women in chain-mail bikinis when Conan isn't even wearing that much? Oh, come on, why are you whining about not enough women in movies? They aren't making films like Thelma and Louise for dudes, you know! Why, women have their own media, like Oprah's TV show and channel and magazine! See? There's stuff out there for women. Stop being so hysterical. You're too sensitive. This is ridiculous.  

It's easy for a man -- even a well-meaning, intelligent, fantastic man -- to roll their eyes at the argument for equal and diverse representation, when that doesn't intuitively matter the way that equal pay does. When they literally can't see the problem.

Fat, Ugly or Slutty

Which brings us to the dawn of our new age of feminism. Women have known all along that when we're alone in a public space, without the covering presence of a man, bad things can happen. Catcalls and wolf whistles, yeah, and a sort of baseline dismissiveness that you maybe don't even notice because that's just the way it's always been.

The time I asked my 8th-grade English teacher if I could be placed in a more advanced class and he told me I had pretty eyes. The MUD I stopped playing because the wizards found out I was a real girl and wouldn't stop giving me stuff. The guys on IRC trying to get me to sex them up because I had a femme-looking name. The skeevy dude who sat next to me on the subway trying to persuade me, for the entirety of my twenty-minute ride, to leave my fiancé and go out with him. The one who helpfully told me my ass was too fat while driving past me at an ATM, and the one who told me to "get a tan, you fucking albino" for daring to have pale skin at the beach. The salesman at the car dealership who gave my husband the answers to the questions I'd just asked. Everyone at any of several conferences who just assumed I was a booth babe when I was there as technical staff, and wouldn't look me in the eye. The dude who insinuated that I must be having an affair with a colleague and friend because we sat together at a conference. 

Reader, that's getting off easy.

I've literally never talked about most of this in a public venue because it's just, you know, what being a woman in the world is like. Who goes around talking about how angry they are that everything gets wet when it rains?

An invisible problem. And if you talked about it, well, it's easy to write off any one story as a bad experience. An outlier. Outside the norm. Hey, it happens, nobody's life is all sunshine and alicorns.

A funny thing happened, though. Women started talking about it on the internet anyway. Sharing experiences; describing what the world was like for them. The first notable example, for me, was Fat, Ugly or Slutty. This site takes a problem that every woman in gamer culture already knew about, named it as a problem and not just the weather, and proved it existed to men. Not just as an outlier. Not one bad seed, not a handful of immature tween boys. Mountains upon mountains of vitriol that most men had never even dreamed was out there.

There was the outrageous backlash against Anita Sarkeesian for simply wanting to talk about how women are represented in games. Or more recently, the one against Janelle Asselin for disapproving of a comic book cover. There's a nowhere-near-complete timeline of various appalling incidents in the Geek Feminism Wiki.

We're talking death and rape threats, here, too, not just gentlemanly disagreement. And this, I think, has been an epic and long-needed awakening for many, many men who don't want to be sexist but simply never saw the problem before, and for many, many women who never spoke up because they didn't realize that maybe we could make it stop.

It's easy to say nothing is such a big deal for men and women alike if it's just the one side saying "less cleavage please." But when the response is an avalanche of abuse -- and all the women are nodding their heads and saying yeah, that's about what you'd expect -- suddenly those trolls have thrown a bucket of paint on the previously undetectable situation. The well-meaning, intelligent majority can see the shape of what we're up against. And now everyone is starting to get on the same page about exactly what's going on and precisely how really, really not OK it all is.

It's easy to despair and think that the problem of misogyny is worse because we're seeing so much more about it now than we ever used to. But we're seeing more of it because we're talking about it. And we're talking about it because finally, finally, we have hard evidence of what it's like out there for women. And things are changing for the better.

So thank you, internet trolls. With every threat, every piece of casual abuse you put into writing, every one-off not-so-funny drive-by comment, you are minting new allies. You're proving that sexism is not, in fact, over. We have our necessary precondition for change -- anyone can see the problem, and consensus grows greater with every passing day that it's time to take care of it. Seriously, thank you. We could never have come this far without you.

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