In many ways, being a woman has its appeal. Having soft skin is fun, as is a higher register speaking and singing voice. If I were ever to be in a shipwreck with practitioners of old-timey chivalry, I’d appreciate their letting me and children into lifeboats first. The clothes are nice, although the current state of sleeves is abysmal (bardot tops are designed to keep our arms firmly at our sides; trump sleeves are for people who never have to use their hands for anything besides Vanna White-style gestures).
Other aspects of modern womanhood are less enjoyable. For example, pervasive stereotypes that women are whiny, clingy, emotional, weak, and irrational occasionally lead less enlightened men to treat me as though I am these things, undermining my ability to do my job or make a point in a conversation. Sexist attitudes directed at women shut them out of many advances, and they deprive companies and countries the potential value women could add. Plus they’re responsible for almost every bad show currently on TV, and most bad stand up comedy. You ladies know what I’m talking about.
Those attitudes often manifest in the way that women are treated online. In the past, before the internet was in the palm of everybody’s hand, people who wanted to make a woman feel bad about herself had to do it the old fashioned way, by sending a handwritten letter in the mail, or sending a telegraph that was just text arranged in the shape of a penis, or yelling about how fat she looks out of the window of a stagecoach. Today, being a dick has never been easier, thanks to technology. Thousands of podcast hours and blog post words and YouTube rant-minutes have been spent on this topic. The way that many women are treated online is A Problem.
I’ve been receiving hate mail from strangers since before I was getting paid to write things for a web audience, back when I had a personal blog read by maybe a couple hundred people, tops. The situation, unsurprisingly, didn’t improve when I moved to Jezebel, a site staffed almost entirely by and written largely for women. It didn’t stop when I started regularly appearing on a comedy podcast with a mostly-male audience (some of them really don’t like how my voice sounds), nor did it go away when I began hosting my own podcast, or started appearing on cable news shows, or began work at my current post. I’ve made myself visible and easy to reach; this is what happens.
I’m not sharing these things to complain, or single myself out as special. This happens to every woman who works online and has a degree of visibility. And at this point, hate mail doesn’t bother me much because I’ve heard every possible iteration of it. Besides, its senders are all boring in a few predictable ways; their insults are uncreative and their own unhappiness bleeds through their words. Still, the deluge of hate that women face in spaces where people can easily anonymize themselves is rough, rough enough to deter some aspirant female voices. It shouldn’t go unchecked.
Common wisdom goes that a person shouldn’t “feed the trolls.” Trolls and hate mail authors just want attention, and the best possible way to treat a person like that is to refuse to acknowledge them. I get it; dogs are the same way. But ignoring trolls hasn’t stopped them. If one visible female creator won’t respond, another will.
Nor has responding to absurdity with sincerity. There’s no pleading for decency with a person who is deeply incapable of connecting to others in a human way, especially if that hateful “person” is actually a bot armed with the rudimentary AI necessary to spout gendered insults forever.
The trolls are winning. A troll is the president. His troll sons and wannabe sons and underlings and the generals of his troll-bot armies are not only dictating the news cycle, they’re shaping national policy. The trolls don’t care that they’re boring or cruel as long as they’re emboldened, like the weasels that took over Toad Hall. For every woman who has figured out a way to coexist with or ignore her tormentorstormenters, another has said fuck it and ceded her sliver of the internet to the anonymous dick pics that stain her inbox.
But I’ve found a way to deal with trolls that I’ve found to be more effective than ignoring them or responding with sincerity. Love them.
Don’t love them like how a mother or a friend would. Don’t find out about their interests and help them through tough times or compliment them on skills they’ve worked hard on. Love them like a beautiful skinny actress nags her fat boring fuck of an undeserving husband on a two-camera sitcom. Love them like an obsessed woman driven to madness by the good dick loves them in a frat bro-approved sex comedy. Love them like the woman from the stand up comedy joke, you know, the one who despite the comedian’s complete lack of good qualities wants desperately to move in together. The woman that definitely exists.
Here’s an example.
Let’s say you’re a woman who has written something critical of Ivanka Trump, and you have received a long ranting email from a dissatisfied man. Let’s say that email calls you a stupid cunt, or a woman who is somehow both too fat and disgusting for any man to touch and a sexually promiscuous girl-about-town at the same time (the proper term for this is “shroedinger’s harlot”). Instead of responding with nothing, which is what most people do, try responding with something along the lines of:
“I cannot believe that after that night of incredible lovemaking you’d abandon me for three days. Nothing! I hear nothing from you, Richard” (doesn’t matter if his name is Richard) “and now you write me these beautiful words like I’m supposed to pretend everything’s fine? Well guess what? Things are NOT fine! I’d like my plants back and I’m NOT coming over to your sister’s this weekend like you wanted. You need to grow up. I’m not going to sit around waiting for you.”
When he responds, do not read the response. Continue your side of the one-sided fight as though you are his girlfriend, and you’re extremely mad. Do this over and over until well after he has stopped responding. Get creative!
Here’s another example. Let’s say you’re a woman online and you have recently voiced an opinion about Jill Stein. It doesn’t matter what the opinion is; people will be mad either way because emotions are running high in this country right now. Let’s say you get an obviously thesaurus-aided letter from an upset gentleman where he talks down to you like he’s Henry Motherfucking Higgins and you’re some dipshit Eliza Doolittle-type. He’s only doing this for your own good.
Rather than engaging with his synonyms, try responding with something along these lines:
“Perry,” (doesn’t matter if his name is Perry)
“Perry, This has taken me forever to get the courage to send you, but I figured if I don’t share my feelings with you now I’ll swallow them and they’ll eat me from inside and I’ll eventually collapse in on myself like a car abandoned in the woods. Here goes: I think it’s time to move in together. I love you, Perry. I know it’s only been two weeks but I love you, and I know that you love me too, even though you haven’t said it. A love like this comes along once in a lifetime, and if I do not have you, all of you, now and forever starting at this very moment, I fear that we will lose each other forever. Our love will die out like the tan M&M that they discontinued back in the 90’s without even really telling us. I will be over in 15 minutes with a moving truck. I love you.”
Continue writing in this character for as long as it takes him to threaten to forward the email thread to your employer, and then tell him that you hope he does forward it so that your employer gives you days off work to grieve for the loss of a love this cosmic romance. Obviously do not threaten to harm yourself or others in any way; over the top drama for the sake of confusion is fun until it is worrisome.
One more quick example: let’s say some guy who saw you on television doesn’t like the look of your ugly fucking face. Try responding with something like this:
“Honey, I really need you to pay more attention to the boys when I have come down with a migraine. I know you think I’m faking it but it really makes it impossible to be an attentive mom to them. Last night when I went to the guest room to lie down and you were watching Hannity, Justin lit my great aunt’s Good News bible on fire and threw it in the fish tank, and now Paisley’s favorite fish Taylor Swift is dead. Paisley spent half an hour running up and down the hall yelling about how JUSTIN KILLED TAYLOR SWIFT and Aiden threw the damn thing down the laundry chute and then the dog got it, which was just a big nightmare. Today Mrs. Jennings asked me why we were carrying on about Justin Bieber, her being Canadian and all, and I didn’t have the heart to tell her the whole story. Please don’t forget to pick Braindley up from tee ball again. Love, Deb.”
At the very least, you’ll be entertained.