Justin MacCormack examines the online harassment of women in prominent roles, recently brought back to the public eye following the announcement that the next Doctor Who will be played by a woman.
Complaints to the BBC caught public attention in the wake of Jodie Whittaker becoming the first woman to portray the eponymous Doctor in the long-running sci-fi series Doctor Who. Although fans of the show have generally been pleased, online communities (as is so often the case with perceived political correctness) have been divided.
This reaction to the representation of gender in pop culture is nothing new. The recent Ghostbusters remake received its own share of controversy; actor Leslie Jones shut down her Twitter account following a campaign of racist abuse and death threats. The latest Star Wars films, too, have experienced similar reactions online for casting female characters in prominent roles.
Labour shadow home secretary Diane Abbott has spoken about racial and misogynistic abuse that she has received online. And Abbott isn’t the only female MP to report vitriol from people online: last year, Labour MP Jess Phillips spoke about her harassment, stating in one case that she had received 600 odd notifications talking about her rape in one night. One such tweet was posted by a man named Carl Benjamin, who said: ‘I wouldn’t even rape you’.
Mr Benjamin is no stranger to online harassment. In early 2017, he tweeted an image of a female employee of a high street cosmetics store wearing a t-shirt bearing the word ‘feminism’. His caption disclosed the name and location of the store, prompting his 230,000-strong followers to issue a flood of harassment, abuse, death and rape threats. Carl Benjamin is symptomatic of an anti-feminist attitude that has developed over the course of the last several years. This position mainly stems from a young male demographic who appear to take umbrage with women who dare to possess a voice and/or share views that differ from their own.
The largest target of this movement is a woman by the name of Anita Sarkeesian, founder of digital platform Feminist Frequency. A vocal journalist and feminist for many years, it wasn’t until Sarkeesian produced a series of videos titled Tropes vs. Women in Video Games that she drew the ire of many in that online community. Since Sarkeesian’s videos went live, Carl Benjamin has made over thirty videos about her, and has referenced her countless more times. In a recent talk with Joe Rogan, Carl explained his attitude: ‘People generally react negatively to phenomenal bigots on the internet. They don’t like it, I mean, when you say ‘men are oppressing women’ – and everything [Sarkeesian] says is a variant of ‘men are oppressing women’.’
In June, Anita Sarkeesian attended a panel at VidCon, a convention covering digital media and the online space. While speaking at a panel on Women Online, Anita was asked the question: ‘Why do we still have to talk about the harassment of women?’ Carl Benjamin, sitting in the front row with numerous fans and friends, was photographed with arms folded, smirking. In response to this posturing, to the years of abusive tweets – ‘You should kill yourself’, ‘I hope you get raped’ – from the online community, Anita responded by stating that one of her biggest harassers was right there in the audience, and described him as a ‘garbage human’.
There is an extremely important conversation that is not being had. Cultural attitudes towards women – how they are perceived and represented – have been evolving for years. The domains of science fiction movies, comic books, and video games have historically been under the ownership of young white males, but there is an increasing realisation that these spaces need to be shared. In keeping feminist discussion in the margins, we have failed to engage with a growing number of young men who are using their digital voices to fight the perceived usurping of their pop culture objects. Sadly, that voice is often expressed in threats of rape and death.
I’m not sure if the choice to cast a female Doctor will bridge the gap in such fandoms or drive it further apart. The decision is certainly a brave one, and even though I am not a fan of the show myself I still recognise that, for many people, the character of the Doctor represents a ray of hope. Even so, I can’t shake the feeling that we’re going to need a very skilled doctor to stitch this particular wound together.
Photography by Sarah Cheverton.