“Mean Girls”, Online Feminism and Misogynistic Language

I have been debating writing this ever since I saw Sadie Smith’s piece “There’s no Point in Online Feminism if it’s an exclusive Mean Girls club” in the New Statesman. I didn’t like Smith’s piece because I think she went for cheap tabloid journalism. I find the use of “Mean Girls” a tired cliche which ignores the very real problem of male violence online. It ignores the death threats, the rape threats and the general threats of public outing that men make when they disagree with women online. Make no mistake, male violence is the real problem online. 

That said, Smith also has a point. There is a problem on twitter, as well as Facebook, where women are attacking other women using the same misogynistic language as MRAs but claim they are justified in doing so because they are “feminists”. It’s the same silencing patriarchal bullshit that MRAs use but, apparently, we’re supposed to pretend it doesn’t happen because feminists can’t ever be mean or bullies.

Well, I think that’s bullshit. In fact, the worst bullying I’ve experienced in my life, and I’ve experienced a lot, has come from women who self-define as radical feminists. They are in no way, shape or form representative of radical feminists. Personally, I think they need to revisit radical feminist theory and remind themselves that sisterhood does NOT involve trashing the academic work of another woman because you are jealous. I still feel guilty about not stepping up more and supporting my friend. I know she would say that I did but I don’t think I did enough to defend her.

Until now, I have not posted publicly about such incidents because I think it comes under the heading of “airing one’s dirty laundry in public.” As a consequence, I have found myself removed from Feminist FB groups and unfriended by other women. It hurts a lot. This is why I’m so incredibly strict about not calling other women abusive names or using misogynistic language when I disagree with them. I don’t always succeed in this but I do try and, hopefully, I’ve apologised every time I’ve failed at this.

I don’t like it when women resort to name-calling and misogynistic, disablist language to make a point. It’s childish.

And, yes, I get that this sounds remarkably like tone policing. But, you know what, we could do with some sodding tone policing. A little bit of kindness wouldn’t go amiss once in a while. Frankly, twitter could do with a whole lot of tone policing. 

I’ve actually been in two minds as to whether or not to write this because I’ve been afraid of the backlash. I’ve been afraid of the insults. I’ve been afraid of the abuse for expressing my opinions.

Frankly, I’m angry now. I’m angry at being silenced by women who claim to be feminists. I’m angry at women telling other women what to think and what to say. 

I’m also saddened by the number of women I know who have left Twitter because they find these mobs triggering. I’m saddened that women who self-define as feminists don’t recognise just how triggering other women find misogynistic language. 

I’m bored of feminists suggesting we ignore someone’s clearly abusive behaviour because they are women. That we shouldn’t ever call someone on abusive behaviour in case they were hurt themselves. Well, what about the people they are attacking? Maybe they are vulnerable too. Why is it we have to ignore the attacker because we can’t possibly hurt their feelings without any consideration whatsoever for the person being attacked.

As I said this morning on Twitter, I will be automatically blocking anyone who refers to another woman as “fucking scum”. Calling someone “fucking scum” isn’t a feminist act. It’s a silencing tactic. It’s exactly the kind of abusive language men use and any feminist who doesn’t recognise that needs to rethink their feminism. 

I never tell other women whether or not they can self-define as feminist as I think its inherently unkind. But, calling other women “fucking scum” is simply not feminism. It’s certainly not a feminism I want to be part of.

We do need to call one another out when we are saying something offensive or have clearly not seen our privilege but there are ways of doing this without resorting to the same old misogynistic language and silencing other women. 

And, calling another woman “fucking scum” is the wrong way to do feminism.

So, can we all stop attacking one another and go back to focusing on the real problem online: male violence.

Bit of a Clarification: I wrote this earlier in response to witnessing a queer feminist calling a RadFem blogger “fucking scum” on twitter. With the exception of the incident I personally experienced, I have never seen RadFems attack other women with such misogynistic language and in my case they did not use misogynistic language. It was, nonetheless, bullying behaviour. I do not want this piece to be seen as an attack on RadFems, nor will I name the two bloggers involved in the incident this morning (although I am sure many people know of the incident). My point is a general one: this type of language is harmful and damaging. 

We can not liberate women whilst using the very same language that oppresses us. 

13 thoughts on ““Mean Girls”, Online Feminism and Misogynistic Language”

  1. I was in two minds about that piece too and I also didn’t like some of the smart-alecy ways that Smith expressed herself. But I took her point about the hierarchy of feminism online (it’s something I’ve been bothered about ever since I became an “online feminist” myself). I blogged her piece, as you know and said that I’ve been on a number of sides of discussing feminism online. Genuine conversations and interactions are great but increasingly rare, I’ve found. The derailing is infuriating but I can see it at 20 paces now. But I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the silencing, mainly from those higher echelons of feminism, and that’s what I find most challenging nowadays. Well, no, I don’t have it so much nowadays but that’s because I, rather cynically, know how to play the game now. In that respect, then, I am often silenced without saying anything at all because I know from experience that that will happen. I never wanted to get that cynical.

    (Aside: the “fucking scum” thing. That’s been happening? Jesus.)

    1. I find myself increasingly blocking people on twitter which I find difficult because the whole point of twitter is that it is a platform for everyone’s voices. I follow people whose politics differ from mine dramatically because I think its important to listen to others and not to isolate ones self. But, its increasingly difficult to do that when people are frightened of talking to one another. This shouldn’t be what feminism is about.

  2. This is the post I’ve been waiting for on the internet. Thank you so much for this. I wish I had a blog so I could do a pingback.

    You are ace.

  3. I think this is a very good post. I also think that, even if I do not agree with someone about what they are saying, I can voice this disagreement in a polite and respectful way. Because that is how I want to be treated. Calling people names is plain rude no matter who you are or think you are. If there is a hierarchy of feminism, it is obviously being promoted by people who have not understood the core principles of feminism. I do not do Twitter or Facebook because I do not like their exploitative business model and the negative traits they manage to bring out in people. I do not think they provide any value or enhance anyone’s existence and are simply a waste of time that could be spend a lot more productive. Like reading or writing good, thoughtful blog posts

    1. Thank you 🙂 I find twitter an excellent source of news that never hits the mainstream press but I have to keep reminding myself that it isn’t a safe space. It becomes that balancing act of being exposed to new ideas but also protecting oneself from harm. I guess I’d like to know what that balance is. 🙂

  4. I think this is a very important post. Thank you for saying it.
    What I found so appalling about the ‘fucking scum’ tweet was not just that it is misogynistic, it is also dehumanising. I don’t believe we are going to get anywhere by dehumanising people who disagree with us. As such, it undermined the point the person who used the term was attempting to make.

    There are many wonderful feminists out there doing good work, and they’re not the ones who spend time swearing at people on Twitter. Being strict about not calling other women abusive names seems to me a basic rule of ethical interaction. If it is tone policing, let’s have more of it.


    1. The dehumanisation is an important point. This is how MRAs behave. We should not be imitating their behaviour. I know this moves into the territory of expecting feminists to better behaved than other people but, at a certain point, isn’t that the point of feminism? That we don’t resort to insults and violence to make our point.

  5. So many times, I’ve wanted to either post my thoughts on feminism, or comment on others and I have not. I’m not a coward but I also just can’t be bothered with the backlash and all the negative vibes I know it will bring, so well said you. I enjoyed reading this. It makes me sad that we have women hating on women, I strongly dislike the fact that they erode the point of feminism with such bile and outright viciousness.

    Thank you for writing this.

    1. No one should feel silenced in this manner by other feminists. It isn’t about cowardice either. We shouldn’t have to protect ourselves from a backlash from other feminists. It doesn’t matter how angry we are, we still need to ensure that our anger doesn’t hurt others.

  6. I don’t think anyone should accuse you of trying to police people’s language. You’re saying what you don’t like to see, rather than saying, “I forbid this!” Even blocking someone on Twitter for being hateful, doesn’t stop them from being hateful. But you’re drawing a line as regards what you personally will and won’t accept. I’m all for that. This was a very good piece.

    I understand that my sentiments as a man come with a degree of unfair privilege on my part, so I hope that this comment hasn’t been an abuse of that.

  7. I didn’t like Smith’s piece either. What really annoyed me about it was that she was assuming that *all* online feminists are like this. And they are not. I know precisely what you mean about the way some people behave, and it is horrible. But I also think online feminists are brilliant. They’ve given me help and support and expanded my ideas hugely. In fact, I’d say they were my most important education over the last three years. I’m so privileged (in the old-fashioned sense!) to have been able to get to know some of these people online, and I’d never have known them without the internet.

    Thanks for writing this, and thanks for showing the good side of online feminism.

    (It’s Lucy Allen here, I’m just a useless online feminist and a luddite.)

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