MR Round Table: How to Navigate the Internet as a Woman
Teen Vogue’s Elaine Welteroth and writer Lindy West join us
Leslie Price: We’re very lucky that Man Repeller has such a supportive, positive community, but the reality is that the rest of the internet can be a scary place for women. We’ve witnessed racist rants on Twitter. We’ve seen sexist comments under female-authored stories and sexual advances on Instagram. We’ve read about those who’ve received threatening emails. So, today’s Round Table is about navigating the internet as a woman and the challenges that women face in this space. Elaine, what has your experience been like personally, and as the leader of a publication that influences young women?
Elaine Welteroth, Teen Vogue Editor in Chief: I was just talking to Rowan Blanchard about this. She’s a smart girl and has such a huge platform online, and she deals with a lot of online bullying. She said to me, “When it comes to being a girl online, I don’t know if it’s the best thing or the worst thing.” Because you have the opportunity to connect with so many types of people in such an intimate way and find your community and find your tribe, so to speak. You can be inspired by others and express yourself online. But with that also comes people who hide behind their screen to say just about anything.
At Teen Vogue, our responsibility is to create a safe space for girls. But in general, whether you’re the head of a magazine or a website or you’re just a girl who has a Instagram, it’s thinking about your platform as though you are the the leader of that space. Follower are called “followers” for a reason: they will follow your lead. So you have to be intentional about the environment or community you’re creating on your platform. I really do find that if you’re positive and you’re intentional about that, the comments and the community you cultivate very much follows suit.
Lindy: I started my career online before social media was such a dominant, ubiquitous force. I was a film critic; I wrote about movies for the first five to seven years of my career, and I have kind of a gender ambiguous name. So, I’d get the kind of comments that my male colleagues get. People hated me, but they critiqued my work and my ideas. They called me a “snark-y hipster” or whatever people call young men who have opinions.
And then a couple years after that, once people figured out what I looked like — I started doing some public events, started doing a bit of comedy — the comments changed immediately and drastically. They were all about my body. They became sexual, they were really, really aggressive they were personally insulting. The had nothing to do with my work at that point, which has continued to this day.
What I’ve learned as a woman, or the conclusion that I’ve come to about what “Internet Trolling” means, is that the purpose, the driving goal is not to hurt my feelings or even make a point. I mean, hurting my feelings is probably a great bonus, but what they’re actually trying to do is stop me from doing my work. They want me to vacate that space and let that space continue to be dominated by men the way that some men think it always has been, even though, obviously, there have always been women working in tech, working on the internet. But it tends to get coded as a male space. They want women out of there, especially women who write about less popular, less convenient topics. Like if you write about feminism and you write about being fat, if you write about racism or any progressive topic that challenges the status-quo, there’s just this immediate force trying to chase you away, trying to get you to stop doing your work. And that was the most important realization that I had. For the first couple of years when I was getting trolled it was jarring and so frightening, but once I realized that what they were trying to do was get me to quit, it just made it so much easier to not quit. Like, I will never leave.
Leandra: What was that moment of realization like? How did you come to determine that what they were doing was get you to quit? Because to me, trolling is without impetus; it just is. It’s as empty as it sounds, you know?
Lindy: Yeah, but when you look at who actually gets disproportionately targeted, it’s women and people of color and sex workers and fat people and people who are challenging to the status-quo. I sort of reverse-engineered what their motivation was based on who they were targeting.
As I’ve written about many times, I had a troll impersonate my dead dad. I’ve had trolls steal my wedding photos, talk about my family, my husband, my children. It could be because I’m in a particular bubble, but I don’t think people actually do things without any motivation. It’s defending the status-quo, it’s putting women back in their place, putting people of color back in their place.
There are obviously other forms of trolling. There are teenage girls who threaten to kill you for not liking Taylor Swift or whatever. But the kind of trolling that I deal with is inherently political.
Leandra: That’s an important point that you make, specifically about teenage girls. We adopted the internet, but today’s teens are internet natives; the bullying that occurs online is probably so much more profound than the bullying that we experienced in real time or in real life. How we protect the next generation of us?
Amelia: We never had anti-bullying ads or political platforms about anti-bullying when we were growing up, but today there’s a real reaction to it. Our kids will grow up in a totally different reality. That said, trolling or bullying is always going to exist in some form.
Lindy: It seems more likely that they [the next generation] are going to save us.
Leslie: They’re so much more activated than we are.
At Man Repeller and probably somewhat at Teen Vogue, we exist in these spaces that feel safe because we’re writing to women, writing about topics that matter to women. I wrote something about fashion and technology at my last job and the head of Fox tweeted it out. Then the Verge tweeted it and then all of these tech people were talking about it. I had a very small taste of what you must have experienced, Lindy. It wasn’t terrible and it wasn’t at all on the same scale, but the feedback all boiled down to: “You don’t know what you’re talking about, shut up.” That I was stupid, I shouldn’t talk about it, don’t talk. They didn’t want to hear it. All of these men were talking about my story to each other and “@-ing” me and talking to me like I wasn’t even there.
Elaine: What was that like for you?
Leslie: It was scary, and it was honestly such a tiny taste of what others experience. It was not even trolling, it was not even people being abusive. The women who are doing this and persevering through this and being like, “No I’m not gonna shut up” — that’s really hard. I can’t even imagine because we are safe. Our commentators are nice!
Lindy: I think it’s important to remember that we instinctively exceptionalize the internet and talk about this phenomenon as though it’s new. But what we see on the internet are the same systems that we see in our physical lives just being played out via this other medium. It’s th same phenomenon of de-valuing women’s contributions, talking over women, intimidating women in public spaces. It’s just found a convenient home in this platform that is now integrated with our lives.
Amelia: How do you know when online trolling is “just online trolling, ignore them” or when it’s something to address? Everyone says the best thing to do with the bully on the playground is to ignore him, but I don’t always agree. When do you make an active decision about what you ignore versus what you have to stand up for?
Eliane: We have a no-tolerance rule at Teen Vogue. If we see someone attacking anyone based on appearance or personality or political stances, delete. We’re all about freedom of speech, but when you take that turn and decide to make it personal, for us, there’s zero tolerance. We will delete the comment, sometimes we will talk directly back to people, and we will report people. We have a responsibility to ensure the community feels safe.
On a personal level, any time you feel violated you have to speak up for yourself.
About a year and a half ago, I wrote a story about getting Senegalese twists when I went to Africa for the first time. I went to Rwanda. The story was about how important it was as a biracial woman going to Africa for the first time to explore that part of my heritage through beauty. It was about how you can wear Afro-centric hairstyles as a way to connect with the culture and as a form of activism. Like a quiet, beautiful form of activism. So it wasn’t just like, “Hey! A new hair trend!” It was the first time I had actually used beauty as a platform to explore cultural identity and to talk about racism and activism through beauty. It was an exiting moment.
We shot a girl in Senegalese twists for story. She was also bi-racial. Someone took a picture of the editorial, put it on Twitter, and because of the flash, people though she was white. That image is what started cycling throughout the internet and Black Twitter. And I remember vividly people saying that it was cultural appropriation at it’s finest. It got picked up by the UK Daily Mail who then published this story with a headline that said, “Teen Vogue Publishes Anti-Black Story.” And here I am, a black beauty director writing about my personal experience, exploring my African heritage through this hairstyle that has such a cultural significance and I’m trying to celebrate it, and literally this image is the only thing that got picked up and misconstrued. It was so frustrating.
Leslie: Did you get an opportunity to counter?
Elaine: I was told to not say anything, but I was like, “I cannot actually NOT say anything.” People found me on Instagram and started commenting on my Instagram about how I don’t understand colorism.
The model actually jumped into the conversation and said, “For anyone who cares, I’m black and French. So am I not black enough to wear braids?” That was like my invitation to jump in. And I started having very real conversation with people about this topic. We turned it around where people started apologizing. “I’m so sorry. I did not take the time to read this story. We are in the wrong for saying that this black woman is committing cultural appropriation for wearing braids.” There’s no such thing as being ‘not black enough’ to wear braids. You know?
It turned into this really important conversation. I wrote an open letter letter on TeenVogue.com addressing the controversy and laying out very clearly where we were coming from. We had to take that hit to then repair that relationship and establish a sense of trust and make sure that people know who is at the table at TeenVogue, speaking up for them, and where they are coming from. It took that to pivot. But I think back to that time and think, “Man, I could have very easily just shut down.”
Leandra: That’s such a clear and obvious indication that the way that content is consumed on the internet and the way that it’s disseminated. Like, the problem with one sector of the outrage machine is that there is no education behind it. They see a headline and they run with the headline and don’t care to look at the story. And that I think amounts for a lot of the trolling that we see, right?
Lindy: I think it’s important to distinguish between these different kinds of things that we call trolling. I almost feel like the word “trolling” is so inadequate that it creates a lot of problems in both directions. There’s failure of information gathering that can result in this almost recreational outrage — not always unjustified; it’s not like Black Twitter’s motivation was unjustified in that situation, there was just a failure of communication on their part. I wouldn’t necessarily call that trolling. I also don’t want to call stalking and harassment behaviors trolling either, because it [the word “trolling”] kind of diminishes the seriousness of stalking and harassment.
There are “trolls” who are worth engaging with — you can kind of tell when someone is coming at you in good faith, even if they’re wrong. And you can tell when they’re not. What I get are mostly angry men in bad faith who want me to pretend to debate with them, which means: let them yell at me more and call me a “fat cunt.”
So, how do we decide what to engage with and what not to engage with? I certainly don’t think it’s anyone’s responsibility to swallow any of it. I am so tired of being told by male editors especially that this is just part of the job, because it’s not a part of the job. It shouldn’t be part of any job. It’s certainly not a part of my job if it was happening in real life to my face, if there were strange men coming into my office and screaming abuse at me in my cubicle every day. Where I’ve come down after years of dealing with this is to prioritize my own mental health and do whatever feels best. Sometimes it feels great if I’m being followed around by some shitty troll to zap back and block them. I don’t want to feel powerless and just eat shit and say “thank you” and accept this as part of my job. I want there to be a consequence.
And then also, once in a while, you do get the feeling that you can get through to some of these people. Sometimes I have people come at me on Twitter who are clearly in high school.
Lindy: Yeah! Once in awhile! You can just tell when someone is really young. There have been a handful of times where, if you just sit and are patient and you keep saying, “Okay, but what’s really wrong? Why are you mad at me? What’s going on? Are you okay?” Every once in awhile, they’ll crack and tell you what’s going on.
I trust my instincts. If I have the time and energy, every once in a while I will try to get through to someone, and sometimes it works. And that is just so satisfying to feel like you reminded this person that you are a human being and they’re a human being and there really isn’t a justification for talking to each other this way.
Amelia: When Leslie Jones was getting attacked on Twitter, I felt like you could watch her go through that mental process. At first she was coming for them like, “Really? Who are you?” She’d give it right back. You forget, especially on Twitter, that the person who you “@” has a high probability not just of seeing it, but responding to it. Even celebrities. So she was like, “Hey, I’m here. I can hear you, which I think is an important reminder for most people.
Leslie: Yes — there’s a human here.
Amelia: There’s a human. Then it got to a place where it scared her or she was fed up with it or she realized that her tweets weren’t working… People were Photoshopping her tweets put all these words in her mouth! So then got off of Twitter, which felt like defeat. And of course she did that. At a certain point you’re like, “Do I just delete myself from this world? Why am I subjecting myself to this?” Then she got back on. She’s back.
It was interesting to watch the cycle and how every individual has to approach it, just as you were saying, Lindy: in a way that feels right and safe and important to you as an individual at the time.
Leslie: How amazing is it though that Twitter didn’t step in?
Amelia: It’s wild.
Elaine: So disheartening.
Leslie: Talk about lack of trust. In a lot of ways, we can create our own safe spaces as women and we can create places where we can have conversations with amazing commenters. But it is a little bit disheartening to think about the infrastructure of the worlds we are inhabiting online and how they were built for, perhaps, users who are not us, by users who were not us, who were not thinking about these issues ahead of time.
Leandra: Well, I think it’s okay if they couldn’t anticipate what would happen. It is not okay when…
Leslie: They don’t react.
Elaine: To Leslie’s point, we put stories out there. We open up dialogues. In Leslie’s case, she was just existing. She couldn’t just exist in her skin without being taunted and tormented. And that was really hard for me to see. It was outright racism.
Amelia: I read an article online called “The Unbelievable Harassment Black Women Face Daily on Twitter.” It’s from 2014, but the author reported that 70 percent of the more than 4,000 people who have filed online harassment cases are women. The organization that tracked these numbers started in 2000, and as of the article’s run date, there wasn’t data available as to how many women out of that 70 percent were black. Still, the author quoted women who vocalized the extra layer that comes with online harassment when you’re a woman, and you’re black. Their personal accounts were just…you can’t believe people think these things let alone write them to someone, essentially for the world to see.
Elaine: It’s hard to watch Twitter essentially serves as a stage and microphone for hate.
Leandra: Do you think the trolling starts online?
Elaine: I think it all stems from this innate human desire to “other” someone. I think as strong as our desire is to connect, we have an equally strong desire to “other.”
Lindy: I have two teenage daughters, and this is a thing that I have said to them before when we talk about mean girls at school: it feels really safe when you’re lashing out at someone else. When you’re hurting someone else, you know that you’re not the one being hurt in that moment. I think there’s a sense of control there that people find really comforting.
Amelia: Right. It’s like a sick Darwinism or herd mentality. It’s like, if you’re the attacker, you’re safe. You’ll survive. Or if you can pinpoint what’s wrong with all of these other demographics, then you’re like, “Well, I’m good.”
Leandra: For the most part, I am lucky. I put myself in communities that are supportive. This community I’ve developed with Man Repeller is supposed to be a place for women to not come to feel like they need to become better versions of themselves, but just a place where they can come and unbutton their pants and sigh. But I have been the subject of criticism, of trolling before, and my reaction, my response has always been: all of the instances when I have been mean or when I have felt compelled to be mean, I was in a really shitty place. I was in a dark, sad place. So for you to be doing this so publicly and for you to be doing this so regularly, something is going on with you. Instead of responding to that, I want to give you a hug and be like, “Let’s fucking talk about this. What happened?” You know?
Lindy: Yeah. When I’ve confronted trolls and actually gotten through to them and had some sort of connection, that’s been the case 100 percent of the time. Happy people don’t do this. It’s just not a behavior that normal, happy people with fulfilling lives engage in. And trolls have told me that explicitly.
Leandra: Yeah, you want to believe that ultimately, humanity is good.
Amelia: We could talk for days about the shitty place that the internet can be and the great place that it can be. Sometimes it’s a great place because of the bad stuff, the catalysts that prompt these intelligent, thoughtful conversations, movements toward change and encourage people to take action. But the sad reality is that at least right now, it’s not better, so how do we snake through that and find comfort among the…crap? I just keep of these metaphorical legs wearing fly fishing waders, marching through a swamp.
Have you read that comedian Sara Benincasa’s essay “Why Am I So Fat?” A man emailed her and asked why she gained weight, so she wrote this response documenting all the reasons why for her inquirer. It’s hilarious and smart. It made me really sad that people feel compelled to send emails (or tweets or write comments) like that. But it made me feel proud that this women had the guts and a platform to say all of these things. Imagine every girl that gets to read this who feels validated by her words that were born from something negative.
Leandra: The internet is a prison or a fortress, just like everything else.
Elaine: To be able to come back to something that has really hurt you and say something intelligent really has the power to change the energy around the whole conversation. Let’s look at the example of Zendaya. I honestly think her dealing with controversy in such a profound, graceful way is really what catapulted her to success on a much larger scale. It’s not to say that you should always come back to everything someone says to you, but it’s definitely empowering to see that as an example, and to say, “You don’t have to just take it. You don’t have to just be silent or get off the platform.” There are ways to rebound from feeling disempowered.
Lindy: Sometimes vulnerability can be just as powerful as a great insult, you know? If you make yourself human and vulnerable, sometimes people realize that they’re hurting another human being on purpose for no reason. It’s satisfying to cross a person with your words, but sometimes it’s really, really effective to just say, “Wow, that was shitty. That hurt my feelings and ruined by day.”
Leslie: Right. If you want to fight the good fight, then you should go off and fight the good fight. If you don’t want to fight the good fight, you shouldn’t have to. But the fact that women keep putting their voices out there is important.
Collage by Emily Zirimis.