Alexandra Batzdorf just completed a summer internship at the National Council of Jewish Women/LA. Alexandra is a current Bard College sophomore majoring in Sociology with a concentration in Social Policy.
The first time I went to my high school’s “Womyn in Today’s Society” club, or WITS, I was terrified. Although I was intrigued by posters around school advertising WITS, it was not something I ever anticipated exploring. But my boisterous, self-assured friend was going that day and she insisted that I come along. I glanced nervously over my shoulders to make sure no one I knew was around to see me and label me a feminist.
Then I opened the door and walked into what would turn out to be the warmest, most positively influential space of my high school career.
Looking back, I’m not really sure exactly why 14-year-old me was so afraid. I come from a liberal family with a mother who is both a major financial contributor to my family and a feminist. My parents lived through and supported the women’s liberation movement and often had conversations with me about women’s rights. As I quickly learned through WITS, I was already a feminist. But to my peers and me, feminism was a dirty word.
I’m sure there’s a multitude of reasons why being dismissed as a feminist is enough to stop many an arguer dead in her tracks and replace her confident passion with shame, but I think one of the most influential culprits is the Internet. My parents’ generation is the first to have to worry about the information their kids are exposed to on the web. Many people find themselves opposed to censorship, but afraid of what might sculpt the young minds of their children. Before I go on, I want to make it clear that I’m not saying the Internet has single-handedly caused sexism. Sexism has been alive and well since way before the Internet. But the attitudes on the Internet reflect those in mainstream society, often with fewer filters and through an intensified lens due to the anonymity that the Internet provides.
While an obvious culprit may be access to porn that more often than not dehumanizes women, in my opinion, the more insidious problem is social networking. Today’s youth is absorbed by it. We’ve seen it used time and time again as a tool for cyber bullying. People are expected to present two images to the world: the real live person who physically interacts with people and the more symbolic social network profile that must somehow appeal to peers, future employers, family members, and the approximately 1.15 billion other members of Facebook all at once. This is a daunting task. Gone are the days of trying to keep work life and personal life separate.
With all this pressure to please everyone, people are bound to get picked on by someone. And with the ability to send messages to anywhere in the world, people are not afraid to voice their opinions. It’s easy to forget there’s a real, live person behind the computer screen. The combination of guaranteed anonymity and the higher threshold for shock value resulting from the exposure the Internet provides is a recipe for young people to gain the bravery to be meaner and to lose awareness of consequences on peers. In this way, social networking is an extremely effective method of perpetuating shame.
I’ve read articles about people who have had photographs of themselves breastfeeding removed from Facebook for indecency, while pages devoted to dehumanizing women remain untouched, despite countless reports. On reddit, a collection of interactive communities separated by topic, there is a subreddit (page within reddit discussing a certain topic) called “/r/TheRedPill,” (1) which describes itself as a “discussion of sexual strategy in a culture increasingly lacking a positive identity for men.” Its title alludes to the red pill from The Matrix films that represents the painful and difficult objective truth of the world. It has 13,588 members. The subreddit “r/MensRights” (2) has 77,090 members. That is roughly the size of Camden, New Jersey. And what’s worse, the subreddit “/r/RedPillWomen” (3) has 1,160 members.
Men and women are affected by sexism and it shows. Just last year, I was at a museum with my then 8th grade cousin when he pointed to a painting depicting a naked woman with pubic hair and told me, “she needs to shave.” He is one of the sweetest kids I know. His mother works at a nonprofit devoted to social justice. I’ve had fantastic conversations with her about sexism and she often gives me books about influential women. Yet he already had a definite, restrictive notion of what it means to be valued as a woman in today’s society. He said it with a giggle, not anger or disgust. I can’t blame him any more than I can blame myself for fearing WITS at his age. He honestly didn’t know better.
Deeply engrained sexism can be seen everywhere. An activist from Australia was recently attacked via Twitter for “challeng[ing] [Tyler “The Creator”] Okonma’s lyrics, which encourage rape and violence against women by vocally supporting a petition on change.org that suggested he shouldn’t be playing all-age shows.” (4) The Twitter community responded by flooding her with tweets threatening to rape and murder her. (The tweets got pretty graphic, but if you want to see the whole story and some examples, see the link under “SOURCES” on the bottom of this page.) An attorney in West Virginia is trying to prevent future cases like the Steubenville, Ohio rape case by creating “Project Future,” (5) a program that teaches teenagers not to share evidence of rape via social media so they don’t get in trouble. This is disturbing not only because the response is to teach teens not to get caught, rather than not to rape, but also because the rapists were confident enough that the social media community would be accepting of their actions that they posted blatant proof.
Recently, The Hillary Project, a group devoted to keeping Hillary Clinton out of the White House, released “Slap Hillary,” (6) an interactive game that allows users to virtually slap a cartoon rendering of Clinton with a picture of her face. Disagreement with a political leader is remedied by violence against women. The only reason sites like this, as well as Twitter attacks, viral evidence of rape, and anything else on the web promoting sexism exist is that people who post them feel comfortable doing so. They have the expectation that others share these views and the safety of being physically separated from those who don’t.
I’m not saying the Internet has destroyed our youth. Times change. Trends swing back and forth like a pendulum. The Internet has simply exacerbated the seemingly inevitable fate of progress. But I do not want my generation to be known as the content people who went backward in the fight for freedom. Oppression shouldn’t make a comeback like Doc Martens and the high-waisted jeans that I remember being so popular in the ‘90s.
The Internet can be a fantastic tool for educating youth about systems of oppression among an almost infinite number of other things. And there are definitely sites out there that provide people with a lot of empowerment and self-positive education. The web has allowed for connections that simply weren’t possible before. I’ve been part of a Facebook page that allows young women in the U.S. and the Middle East to have open discussions about gender. And I still frequent subreddits with articles and dialogues pertaining to systems of oppression. But not everyone stumbles upon blogs like this one. We cannot expect people growing up with the World Wide Web to emerge unscathed by the hatred that still exists.
Kids have no way of knowing how much fighting has happened throughout history for women, people of color, the LGBT community, or any other group of oppressed people, which is quite an extensive list. It is our responsibility to teach them. Not everyone is lucky enough to go to WITS or experience the 11th grade social justice curriculum that was taught to me in the amazing Humanities Magnet in my high school. For those of you who have/know pre-teens who don’t feel comfortable talking about sexism (or that you want to provide with more information), I HIGHLY recommend Jessica Valenti’s Full Frontal Feminism (7). It is sassy, fun, informative, and an overall enjoyable read created to empower young women afraid of the feminist label. I wish I had read it sooner. If you don’t think your kid will want to read it, fine, but then have conversations!
Do something! We are facing a time when the government is stomping on our reproductive rights. Planned Parenthoods are closing all over the country. Abortion is becoming more and more difficult to access legally. Female politicians are criticized for their looks, advocates of birth control are shamelessly called sluts (which remains a scathing insult, for reasons beyond me), and our youth are too desensitized by the Internet’s high threshold of acceptable critique to see the problem with this. If we want to maintain the work that has been done so far, let alone further progress, WE NEED TO TALK TO OUR KIDS ABOUT THE INTERNET.