Van Badham battles the Brosphere: On women, trolls and the Australian media in 2013

02 Dec 2013

Social media is the new democracy of Australian opinion. Not so long ago – like, you know, the dark ages of the 1990s – participation in the contemporary political discourse was a privilege of, well, privilege. If you didn't have the time and money yourself to create your own publication and distribute it (hello, The Chaser!), you had to wait for an established media brand to anoint you with a platform.

The selection process of the latter were, of course, drawn from the unacknowledged, systemic prejudice that talks about "merit" even as it seamlessly restocks its ranks of middle-class, white men. Minority, radical and/or contrarian voices struggled to travel beyond their originating communities – and it took readers hard work or blind luck to find them. Feminist media existed as something like a parallel whispering network to the main media game – essays nudging at the corners of other publications, radical positions confined to their own presses and internal communications.

Now, one no longer requires a broadsheet masthead above a headshot to claim a public media platform, and Twitter is the new distribution. Interesting and intrepid voices have used online space to establish personal media brands.

Perhaps due to the phenomenon of watching Australia's first female prime minister forced, position notwithstanding, to suffer the sexist indignity so familiar to Australia's working women, local feminist commentators have found a ripe readership for their opinions. Ripe enough, in fact, that many of the old mastheads are now commissioning from a pool of what used to be marginal activity. Discussions of rape culture, slut-shaming, abortion wars, the gender pay gap and sex discrimination are happening not in dingy ex-broom-closets in university union buildings or in photocopied newsletters mailed out irregularly from an underfunded women's centre, but across the mainstream media – and every day.

Participating in this discussion and its activism is exhilarating. Less pleasant are the slag-heap-style effluent byproducts of a gradually feminizing mainstream media; the internet's anonymous gender terrorists, the trolls. Any public feminist comment from any woman is likely to provoke a woman-hating vigilante to attack her weight or perceived lack/surplus of male sexual attention; they call it Lewis' Law – that is, the comments that appear under any article about feminism justify feminism.

Trolling is happening because there have never been so many women visibly engaged in public nation-making debate as there are online. In non-internet media, viewers and readers are presented a mainstream that's long-normalised the under-representation of women to men -- but no-one can actually administer women away from dominating discussions online. The shock to the established order is profound, a disruption to an expected pattern recognition that provokes intense disassociation, leading to hostility, insecurity and fear. What's more, liberated from the protocols of publishers and broadcasting authorities, flesh-and-blood women -- on Twitter in particular – enthusiastically share adventures in venery to their followers, engaging bawdy talk of eating, drinking, fighting in precisely the way most adult men never, ever heard their mothers do. Protected from an immediate physical threat of violence that often silences speaking up in external life, online women will call out spades as spades. And, to the horror of those with sugar and spice notions of pixie-dust, foot-bound, seen-and-not-heard inflatable-domestic-sexytimes-and-food-warmer slave girls, they will use swear words. For those who cling to propagandistic orthodoxies to make sense of their worlds, the confrontation with feminist reality must be shattering.

The hostility of trolls is sensational stuff and deservedly received social condemnation. Troll wars, however, are a distraction to a more insidious, gendered reaction to the feminist social media ascendancy. This is the phenomenon of the Brosphere.

The Brosphere isn't so much an ideological media faction so much as an unconscious collective "mansplaining" to feminists by some male media commentators who otherwise posit themselves as progressive allies. Brosphere behaviour is recognizable in the alacrity of men who know the lingo of the feminist struggle appointing themselves judges of what does and doesn't constitute sexism and feminism. It's an indication that even some progressive men are not immune from a fear of the other when the other suddenly presents with explicit feminist politics and a Twitter following.

Whether it's deliberate or non-self-aware, Brospherism is passive-aggressive sexism that foments social awkwardness and inflicts personal damage, because it masquerades as the instruction of colleagues whilst relying upon same old, same old sexist traditions of dismissing women's agency and enforcing gendered standards of behaviour. You know you're up against the Brosphere when you encounter subtly gendered language to dismiss the (unheard) sound of written women's voices as "yelling", "shrieking" or "shouting about nothing". Call out this or any other kind of discursive marginalization in an online forum and you risk invoking the wrath of Brospherus Maximus, a pack-attack of mutually reinforced conclusions that the feminist doesn't know what sexism is, that she is "over-reacting", "over-sensitive", "crazy". The gender-doom of denunciation as "hysterical" is only ever one connotation away, the words "calm down" or "settle" apparently inevitable, while substantive content of whatever comment made by a woman displeased the original Bro is ignored in favour of a defensive schooling in how feminists who criticize sexist behaviour just can't, um, engage criticism.

We know to call this behaviour "gaslighting" because enough adult women have experienced it in their personal relationships for its identification as an established social habit, rather than an individual psychopathology. For women thus confronted by gaslighting in social media, however, the experience can be personally destabilizing because the attacks are coming not from an obese man in a golf-buggy who "hates feminazis" in his Twitter bio, but from an urban coterie credentialed within progressive causes. Yet the Brosphere behave this way for all the same reasons that trolls do: for the first time in their lives, because there are so many women around, they fear that they're being left out of the conversation.

Here's what to do when they strike:

  1. Remain calm. You are a lot stranger to them than they are to you. It's frightening! Show the pity you would to a yapping puppy – they are effectively the same thing.
  2. Congratulate yourself. If the best another commentator can manage in critique of your opinions is to affirm the stereotype that "women are crazy", you have already proved why you are more intellectually rigorous in your opinions than they are. This vindicates everything for which the early feminists fought and suffered.
  3. Invoke Martyred Julia. Remember when she gave her misogyny speech, that we all knew was completely right and then a bunch of guys dismissed it as her playing "the gender card"? Don't let her memory be in vain: you are as right as you knew she was.
  4. Treat with ignore. As my flatmate Rosie used to say, if you want to control someone, take away what they value the most. Their greatest fear is of losing attention, so just laugh and stop listening.
  5. Face reality. A male commentator who tells you any variation on the theme that "you'd win a lot more people to your feminism is you weren't so angry" can never be "won" to feminism; he's trying to control your behaviour as insipidly as if he'd told you to grow your hair long if you want to find a boyfriend. It's not your problem that he finds you threatening: it's his.
  6. Stay true. When you're told that you "catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar", respond that you get more social change from throwing petrol bombs than holding hands. Form opinion, get keyboard – and write with your hands burning.
Van Badham

Van Badham is an Australian writer and commentator.

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