Tennis ’14 and Newlon ’14: Don’t read the comments

By and
Thursday, April 17, 2014

If you’re a female writer, don’t read the comments.

We’ve both been opinions columnists for the majority of our college careers. Maggie currently counts herself as one of three female editors, leading a roster of columnists that is 42 percent female. Women are a strong presence in The Herald: writing, editing, arguing and asking tough questions. But if there’s one lesson we’ve learned, it’s this: Don’t read the comments. Especially if you’re a woman.

“Maybe if less (sic) women lied about rape and sexual assault, then serious cases would be taken more seriously,” wrote one commenter on a Newlon column. On another: “I’m not surprised they called you the Captain of Starship Neurotica.”

Ms. Tennis, clean your own house before tracking your muddy feet into mine.”

“I think you’re a disconnected rich girl, stuck in a rich girl bubble,” on an article by Herald columnist Elizabeth Fuerbacher ’13.5.

After advocating for a nationwide gun ban, Maggie received an email calling her a “liberal whore.” After writing about sexual assault, Cara received aggressive emails and a full spread in the Brown Spectator calling her a lying feminist. In general, The Herald’s female columnists have received comments and emails calling us the c-word, neurotic, bitch and whore.  People have discussed our appearance, speculated about our personal lives and questioned our intelligence. And to be quite frank, we’re sick of it.

Don’t get us wrong — our male counterparts receive their share of flack. See “Universal suffrage is immoral” by former Herald columnist Oliver Hudson ’14. But female columnists take the most heat for expressing our views in print. On the least offensive end of the spectrum are comments that adopt a patronizing tone, as if the commenter is speaking to a little girl instead of an Ivy League college student. On the most offensive? Sexualized threats.

Sexism doesn’t have to be conscious or explicit. Many negative comments on female columnists’ articles directly address the writer as “Ms.,” a seemingly innocuous reference to the author’s gender. Don’t get us wrong — we do appreciate when commenters attempt to be polite — but we rarely if ever see a male writer addressed as “Mr.”

And when it’s coupled with a house-cleaning request? Not so courteous. The use of any gendered address in online criticism seems to be an arbitrary reminder of our sex. The “Ms.” comments are frequently steeped in condescension — sexism on the sly. It almost seems as if the commenter is attempting to validate his criticism by emphasizing that the author is, after all, merely a woman.

More disturbing is the explicit sexism that appears in criticism of female writers. Misogynistic language, designed to degrade and humiliate us, diverts attention away from our words and onto our sexuality. It creates personal anxiety and fear that might ultimately preclude some female writers from speaking out again in the future. We’ve both personally felt scared and threatened. It’s unacceptable.

This sexism — implicit and explicit — is in no way limited to the The Herald. Amy Wallace, a prolific journalist and editor-at-large for Los Angeles Magazine, recently wrote an article in The New York Times about the abuse she and her female co-writers have suffered at the hands of commenters. The insults included, but were not limited to, “Evil Bitchweed,” the c-word and even threats of rape. After Wallace wrote a profile of a leading crusader for childhood vaccines, an anti-vaccine website photoshopped the author’s head onto the body of a scantily clad woman preparing to eat a baby.

“This kind of vitriol is not designed to hold reporters accountable for the fairness and accuracy of their work,” writes Wallace. “Instead, it seeks to intimidate and, ultimately, to silence female journalists who write about controversial topics. As often as not, even if they’ve won two Pulitzers … these women find their bodies — not their intellects — under attack .”

Critique is an important part of writing, editing and social discourse. A reader is allowed to disagree with a woman’s argument, just as they are with that of a male writer. But in our experience, readers judge women’s writing more frequently — and more harshly. Furthermore, articles written by men are critiqued rarely, if ever, on the basis of the author’s looks. Take issue with the content of our articles, instead of shaming our appearance, gender or sexuality.

Sexism doesn’t always have to be explicit — it can be as simple as being more prone to comment in a hurtful and offensive way on a female writer’s work. We believe that women take more flack for their columns than men — even if couched in terms of sincere criticism — simply because people feel more entitled to critique them. Indeed, this type of sexism — the type that might go unnoticed unless someone points it out — is just a part of life in a world that favors men. Even men who point out everyday instances of sexism are cast as saviors and liberators of the female sex, while women who dare complain are branded as bitter and hypersensitive.

We should note that women of color experience the same sexist comments, often containing additional elements of a racist nature. Such racism can take a blatant form, like prefacing a sexist insult with a slur, or it can be less obvious. Either way, it is intended to silence a writer on the basis of her race.

Many female writers at The Herald have considered quitting after suffering a bout of sexist vitriol. And many of us have ceased to write articles about sexism for fear of nasty comments, thereby sacrificing the opportunity to challenge the sexist culture that leads to them.

But we cannot let this culture go unmentioned. Columnists need to call out sexism, especially in its implicit, sneakiest forms. We should not be silenced by a misogynistic culture that continues to view women as sexual beings, valuable for their appearance and not their ability to think critically and write what they believe.

We can already see the comments: You’re overreacting. Feminists like you give a bad name to feminists everywhere. For god’s sake, calm down! Is it just me, or did their periods sync up? Ms. Newlon and Ms. Tennis, you are … sluts. Bimbos. Idiotic bitches.

Go ahead. You’re only proving our point.


Cara Newlon ’14 and Maggie Tennis ’14 will probably read the comments.

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  1. Didntthinkthisthroughdidyou says:

    Don’t read this article.

  2. TheRationale says:

    Looks like the Herald is crap outta ideas.

    • Edgy, dude.

    • '`*-.,_,-*'`*~-.,.~*'*~ (tldr) says:

      lol? with all the bizarrely non-sequitur and/or incoherent stuff that gets published here, im sure its just a coincidence (and has nothing to do with the authors) that you chose to call out THIS piece as frivolous

  3. As a parent of a Brown student, I have clearly a too idealistic perception of the Brown community. I am deeply saddened that young female journalists would be treated in this manner. Particularly on a liberal college campus. Particularly at Brown. Shame, shame…

    • I imagine this is impossible to ever really know, but I always wonder how many of the comments (both positive and negative) are actually from current Brown students.

    • Student '16 says:

      Agreed, although I think a large number of comments come from both alumni (I’ve seen some pretty terrible comments from adults more than old enough to know better) and other people I affiliated with brown who read the articles.

    • I think plenty of it comes from people not affiliated with the university at all. Maybe some of the attention comes from Brown’s liberal reputation, or maybe by people being linking in through the BDH’s coverage of external topics (local news, incidents at Brown that attract media, etc.)

  4. What was the point of this article? As journalists, when you write OPINION articles, obviously you are going to get responses from people who disagree. Unfortunately, some of those responses are going to be from the lowest common denominator of people that you end up antagonizing, especially when the responses can be anonymous. Did the writers not expect those sort of people on the internet?

    This article comes off as defensive, and honestly sounds like a lazy filler column for the Herald. Either that, or the writers have never used the internet before.

    • seniorspring says:

      It has nothing to do with having a disagreement with a columnist. Do you think people who threaten to rape female journalists are just ‘people who disagree’? The issues here that Cara and Maggie are addressing are blatant sexism and serious, sexist threats directed towards female journalists. That is NOT okay, and not up for debate. This article thus attempts to bring to light a manifestation of sexism in today’s world, at Brown and elsewhere.

      It sounds like you’re saying that sexists and men who want to intimidate women will just always exist, so we better accept their existence and just ignore them. That kind of thinking (particularly at Brown) is disturbing.

      • To you, and to Soph, I never said comments like those are okay, and I never said we should tolerate the existence of this sort of language. But as journalists – a profession where you need to be resilient and open to criticism, from all people – it’s incredibly nearsighted and idealistic to think comments of this nature won’t come to you.

        My argument was not about sexism. If I were to write an opinion article about, for instance, atheism, I would have to expect some attacks from anonymous internet commentators saying that I would go to hell, that I was blasphemous, etc.

        My point is, this article doesn’t serve a purpose but to needlessly defend from and angrily retort at the commentators. It makes the writers look immature as the attackers. By acknowledging and writing an entire article about them, it just validates their existence.

        If they wanted to write an article about sexism, then by all means they have the right to do so, and I would not disagree with such an article. But that was not my point. The title of this article was “don’t read the comments”, and I am arguing it is silly for them to write an article about that sort of environment – anonymous boards on the internet.

        • you know that there are probably people on campus who only read the print version and thus weren’t aware this happened on the BDH website

        • Cara Newlon says:

          Hello! I don’t normally respond to anonymous commentators, but because this article is all about journalistic critique, I thought now was as good a time as any. For the sake of argument, I’m going to assume these comments were written out of sincerity rather than spite. And I’ll try not to seem defensive, angry, or immature when I defend our argument.

          As to the “point”- here’s the CliffNotes of the piece. Yes, nasty people write anonymous comments. Yes, to some degree, we expect that. We also welcome genuine, constructive criticism and discussion- that’s why we write these columns in the first place. But the Internet becomes a dangerous place when anonymous people start making threats and ad hominem attacks to writers. We expect it, but we don’t accept it. And if, as you say, we shouldn’t “tolerate” it, how do you suggest we fight back against it, other than writing and speaking about it? Should we just ignore it and be quiet? That doesn’t seem very productive.

          As to your point about this article not being “about sexism”- did you read the article? I’m sorry to seem incredulous, but I have to assume you just saw the title of the piece and wrote an angry comment. The first line is: “If you’re a female writer, don’t read the comments.” While many journalists are on the receiving end of a consistent level of vitriol, female journalists tend to receive more than their male counterparts. Readers are quicker to critique female writers than male writers. And this feedback tends to be sexualized, threatening, and sometimes just plain mean- for both professional and student female journalists. Should we expect to be called liars after writing articles about sexual assault? Should we just “ignore it” when we receive threatening e-mails? Should we tolerate attacks on our appearance and sexuality? Maybe you could ignore it. I don’t think I can.

          This is not just a “filler piece” for the Herald. For reference, here are some articles that other female journalists wrote about the problem:

          “8 Stories of Everyday Sexism, as Told By Female Journalists.”
          “Life as a Female Journalist: Hot or Not?”
          “Sexism in Sport: Why do internet trolls target women?”

          Anyway, I hope that clears the point of the piece up! If you want to talk more, my name’s above. Feel free to find me.

        • '`*-.,_,-*'`*~-.,.~*'*~ (tldr) says:

          cara’s reply is perfect, but ill just add this just to clarify: “don’t read the comments” is an existing internet catchphrase, and it refers to exactly what youre talking about: the fact that people on the internet are vicious, like, as a rule. the authors used that meme(?) as a title for a piece about a specific, directed type of viciousness: sexist comments on women’s opinions pieces.

    • Yes, journalists who write OPINION articles expect criticism and nasty comments, but that is not what this article is referring to. This article is referring to the use of sexist language in the comments on articles written by female journalists. Are you suggesting that because journalists often receive criticism, that female writers have no right to speak up about sexism?

  5. Any progression on the dialogue of this issue should be applauded. The fact that maybe the “lowest common denominator” – to quote a previous comment – of readers decides to comment offensively doesn’t make it okay, and doesn’t mean we should tolerate the existence of this sort of language. From anybody. The first step is awareness, and I think this article does a great job of achieving that.

  6. Hear hear!

  7. Kenna 2013 says:

    Excellent, important points. Thank you.

  8. '`*-.,_,-*'`*~-.,.~*'*~ (tldr) says:

    people suck. keep doing what youre doing, maggie & cara!

  9. Way to go Cara and Maggie!

  10. I’d be interested to see some kind of data comparing the comments for articles on controversial topics written by male and female writers. My experience with the internet tells me that there’s a special kind of hatred reserved for women who are outspoken on such topics. You can of course write a controversial article and get hate mail (“Universal suffrage is immoral”), but what’s the minimum content needed to attract personal harassment, and what’s the severity of the harassment? I think I’d agree with the authors in hypothesizing women have an easier time attracting personal attacks, and that the attacks are more severe: more personally offensive, more aggressive, and containing disproportionate animus. (Not to even mention the condescending, but moreover personally belittling criticism, which has some sexist quality in it, which I doubtless witness regularly on the internet – I find it hard to think of similar kinds of offenses directly toward men).

  11. SayItAintSo says:

    Oh my God, someone said something mean on the Internet? Quick, call Obama, alert the UN, and put up the Bat sign, this is an international crisis!

  12. techniquesDrippinOutMyBUTTCHEE says:

    You can’t read the comments and just ignore the sexist ones, or like, ignore them and delete them? That sucks. My internal monologue when being attacked by sexist people is “Well this person is attacking me with sexist vitriol so I guess they’re sexist or wasting my time and their own time pretending to be. That’s pretty pathetic.” Of course sexist people can have very valid, very important, and simultaneously very sexist comments. It’s best to ignore their sexism while still addressing their comment.

    If you can’t have that mindset then you can still read a fraction of the comments. Just have a friend parse out and show you the non-sexist ones.

    But yeah if it really comes down to choosing between reading comments and continuing to write articles, go with the latter I guess. From where I’m sitting those two choices being mutually exclusive seems crazy but I’m neither an article-writer nor a woman. Thanks for opening my eyes to this problem faced by at least some female writers. If I notice any of my friends being sexist IRL or on the internet I’ll mention this article to them, but if they don’t change their ways I probably won’t let it ruin our friendship.

  13. As a man I am sorry for the anonymous ugliness directed at you.
    As a member of the Brown community its a reminder that misogyny exists in every class and income level of our society. Even a whiff of it in an interpersonal relationship should be taken seriously. Get away from that person.

  14. Scott Sherman says:

    Well said. This seems accurate to me, especially in a world where Anna Gunn, who played Walter White’s fictional wife on Breaking Bad, received hate mail:

    • Science, Biatch! says:

      Not this again. Her character was poorly written within the framework of the show. People watched BB to see Walter’s shenanigans and any time devoted to further Mrs. White’s plot without furthering the chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin plot was counterproductive and a source of frustration. People LOVE strong female characters. One only need to point to the success of Game of Thrones.

  15. there’s a difference between how men and women writers are attacked online, and it’s a fact that the vitriol towards women tends to be a lot more personally attacking. if you still need convincing, please read amanda hess’s excellent article on this topic:

  16. A pretty normal guy, I think says:

    A female US president is not going to help fix sexism anymore than having a black president fixed racism.

    If you’re going to walk the walk for equality, female police officers should have to meet the same physical standards as men (they currently don’t, at least not in Rhode Island). Women in the military want front-line combat positions, but again, they don’t have to meet the same physical standards as men. Nor are women registered for the draft. If you want equality, pregnant women can stand on the subway or bus with everybody else who doesn’t have a seat (actually was raised to offer my seat to a woman regardless of uterine status, but that’s just me and apparently it makes me a horrible misogynist).

    That being said, a man doing something nice for you (picking up the check, holding the door, paying for the movie tickets, whatever) is not the patriarchy holding you down. Believe it or not, we like you and a smile is all the thanks we need.

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