Melinda Tankard Reist came out at the weekend to discuss the torrent of e.hate she has received online since instigating legal action against blogger Jennifer Wilson: “I receive, through Twitter, email and my blog, threats of violence and sexual abuse. Explicit descriptions of what a man (anonymous, though identifying as male) would like to do to me. And a couple of death threats. I am asked to send in pictures for ”arse” or ”boob” appreciation societies.”
Whether you support Melinda Tankard Reist or find her deeply problematic, surely we can all agree that threats and abuse are never justified? I felt compelled to reply to one Tweet calling her a “c*nt” : “Regardless of anyone’s views, misogynist name calling is NEVER OK.”
Not only is it not OK, but it is actually a distraction from the really valuable and valid conversations that we should be having.
Perhaps it’s timely to reflect on the particularly vicious way we treat any female commentator who dares to speak out…and what we may be really missing out on when we do resort to personal attacks.
Early last year I did a post sharing media I have been doing aimed at encouraging schools to be more proactive in dealing with sexual harassment. I received a comment from one of my blog readers that at first shocked me . . . and then got me thinking about another issue that affects all women and girls: the tendency in our culture to demean women based on their sexuality or for their looks rather than to engage with what they have to say. The comment was short, and cutting:
“We’ve seen your talks at schools. If you’re so keen to set a good example then don’t turn up to school looking like mutton dressed as lamb.” — Kim
I wondered exactly what it was about me that came across that way to her. When I do my self-esteem and skills-building workshops with girls, I wear an Enlighten Education uniform of sorts. We are often up and jumping around with the girls, so skirts and high heels are definitely out. It’s jeans or tights in winter, or mid-length shorts in summer, and then a black T-shirt embroidered with our butterfly logo.
Then I realised that the comment had drawn my attention away from the real issue: too often, when women raise their voices, they are criticised not for what they say but how they look.
Even now, in 2012, is that the currency of a woman or a girl — her looks? Is a female’s Achilles heel still her appearance? If you strike her there, do you take away her only power?
It isn’t the first time I’ve spoken out about sexual harassment or a women’s issue and been criticised not for my arguments but for the way I look. I have been helpfully informed that I seemed to have put on weight. I was sent an e-mail telling me that I couldn’t be a feminist because I have blonde hair. During the 2009 scandal involving Matthew Johns and teammates having sex with a 19-year-old girl, I wrote an article in defence of the young woman, who was being blamed and insulted in the media and on the internet. A reader commented that I was just jealous because I wasn’t desirable enough to get a football player of my own. In 2011 when I questioned the merits of allowing a young girl aged 7 to kick-box, members of that sporting community posted a picture of me which was made public on Facebook and declared I was a “slut”, “lesbian” and “fat cow”.