Ekphrasis and Being Female on the Internet: Every Whisper a Roar

Girl portrait staring into camera

Photo by: orangeacid

Well! Friday’s quick update turned into quite the anthropological spectacle. What I meant as a basic heads-up—a warning that Keep It Lit will look different for a bit while I work out the kinks of self-hosting—became the center of a lively discussion of online security both here and (surprise!) on Hacker News. (I really wasn’t ready for that last one. What?) Regardless of the content of my post, what really surprised me on Friday was the way people were discussing both my decision to leave Squarespace and other commenters’ reactions to my decision. I never expected this to be so interesting.

The main things that I’m coming away with are:

  1. I was surprised at how relatively little sexism there was in the comments. It was there, but not all the negative or contrary opinions held them.
  2. I was surprised at my friends' surprise at the nasty comments. I was contacted by many male friends who were actually shocked at the sexism and misogyny.

When you’re female, the discussions about "being a woman on the internet/in a male-dominated field/in your life” almost always suggest that your voice is being or will be diminished. They suggest that you are being marginalized. That you are being made smaller. That you will be raged at and cursed and stalked and threatened. And they’re not wrong. Those things happen, and they happen all the time. While I want everyone to be aware of that, I can’t help but feel happy that pretty much any person who saw what happened in the comments on Friday—which is niggling, compared to the experiences of other women—was in disbelief that such behavior still exists. Some comments weren't blatantly offensive, but some were. If we dive into the actual language use and misuse in Friday's comments, you can start to see how making rational decisions and opinions as a female on the internet, and voicing them coherently, is often whipped into a sensationalism. A sound, calm statement is transformed into a fit of hysteria.

"Take a deep breath before you spew out some diatribe on your blog.”

To be clear, diatribe is defined as: "a prolonged discourse; a bitter and abusive speech or piece of writing; ironic or satirical criticism." Friday's post was simply an update about my moving Keep It Lit from Squarespace, and I took the opportunity to bring up a worthwhile and important issue: online security. And really, the post is pretty short. It comes in at 305 words. It's not abusive, nor does it contain any negative statements against Squarespace. It is not ironic or satirical. I serious.

"Wow, you are a hell customer… They were trying to help you and you have to be a mouthy egotistical bitch… Egotistical hipster bitch.”

And here, mouthy means "marked by bombast or back talk; excessively talkative." Again, Friday's was a short and sincere message. Let's also check out egotistical , which is characterized as "excessive use of the first person singular personal pronoun; the practice of talking about oneself too much; an exaggerated sense of self-importance." Maybe 15 times is too many to mention yourself when something directly affects your life and how others will interact with you? Or is it ok when you also mention others 20 times in the same post? What's the correct ratio to avoid being an egotist?

I do love fine-pointed diction. * cough * Those are the types of reactions that women get all the time for voicing sane, rational opinions in public. It's easy to get mad about these types of situations—especially when we know that they're indicators of other, much worse ones. I was livid when the nasty comments started showing up and when I realized that there were strangers online who were being so aggressive toward me for a post that was not intended for them. "I wasn't talking to you!" I kept thinking. "I didn't ask for you to come here and be rude." I thought about turning off comments, or at least deleting the bad ones. My friends and I talked about it, and one guy asked right away if I could turn them off, but by that time I'd decided to leave them on and see what happened. Because I realized something.

The Rhinoceros by Pietro Longhi

At the University of Montana, I took a course on ekphrasis called Poesía y Pintura with Eduardo Chirinos. One of my favorite paintings from our discussions was The Rhinoceros, by Pietro Longhi. The painting features Clara, an Indian rhinoceros, and several people attending a carnival who are there to see her. Clara is at the forefront of the painting, but she's missing her horn. It's held aloft by her handler, who stands behind the barricade wall holding a whip. We stared at this painting forever, and then Eduardo asked us a question that seemed to have a simple answer. "Who is in control in this painting?" he asked. "Who has the power? Is it the man with the whip or the rhinoceros?" It seemed clear: the man is in control.

Eduardo smiled. "Really! The man is in control. Is that right?" We nodded. Clara was locked up. Her horn had been cut off, and if she tried to escape, she'd probably get beaten by the man with the whip. "Why is the man standing behind the wall?" We made several guesses. He was talking to the people, showing them Clara's horn, staying out of her way. "Why has her horn been cut off?" So she couldn't hurt anyone, we answered. "And why is the man holding a whip?" So he could control the rhinoceros. Of that we were sure. "So if the man is in control, why does he need the whip?" I looked closer at the painting. The longer I looked, the more I could see that the man in the painting was tense. He was at a carnival, but he wasn't having a good time. He was on guard. For him and for the other spectators, Clara's every movement was a potential threat. She was strange to them, and they didn't understand how she behaved, what she might do, or when she might be dangerous. Instead of being a symbol of the man’s control, the whip transformed into a token of his acknowledgement of Clara’s power. The only reason the man needed to arm himself and disarm Clara was because he was not in control. She was in control. He was scared of her.

If you're making art, writing, speaking, or teaching, keep doing it. We need you to keep doing it. When you're a woman on the internet, or in a male-dominated field, or just in your life, you might hear that you're "being hysterical," that you're "overreacting," or that you're otherwise overstepping your bounds. This isn't true. Because when you're female and on the internet, every opinion can be taken as a threat. Every well-intentioned action an attack. Every whisper a roar.

So? Roar.


Not all online abuse is from men, directed at women, but if you’re being subjected to it—actually, even if you aren’t!—read Jen Dziura’s When Men Are Too Emotional to Have a Rational Argument. "My passion on this issue is actually me making a factual argument.” Good stuff!

comments powered by Disqus