The Hijacking of #YesAllWomen

Jun 5, 2014 · 8 min read

Can we take a moment to revel in the rich irony that the cultural figures benefiting most from the #YesAllWomen hashtag… are men?

#YesAllWomen was (still is) a powerful hashtag, by women, for women, to share their experiences of oppression. It was obliquely prompted by the energy of collective horror following a mass murder in Santa Barbara in which the gunman left a misogynist screed blaming women for not rewarding his magnificance with sex and love.

While multiple women went on to write blogposts and MSM essays detailing their personal experiences, or testifying to how powerful the experience of reading or participating in the hashtagged tweets had been for them, a cottage industry of Clarity Clarences also sprang up. Eyes suddenly opened, men wrote essays about their new awareness that they had partaken in the culture of oppression; they, too, had resented women or guilt-tripped them for sex or held views that feminsm was a strident, emasculating guilt trip and they were one of the good guys.

Arthur Chu, a man whose existence I had been unaware of, captured the castle with his former-downtrodden-nerd confessional “Your Princess Is in Another Castle.” People tweeted that thing out like it was spun gold, and then NPR had him on for a fairly long segment to hold forth about nice-guy resentment of women and its continuum with the murderer’s grotesque views. CNN later also had him on to talk about nerd entitlement.

Tuesday I went to a quite wonderful new reading series co-hosted by one of my favorite writers, the tongue-in-cheek journalist Jon Ronson. Special guest was acclaimed monologuist Mike Daisey, whose own shows tend to be out of my price range, so not only did I get Jon Ronson fabulousness, I also got a double shot of Mike Daisey raconteuring. Yesterday I looked up Daisey’s upcoming shows and saw the next one, at $30 a ticket, would be #YesAllWomen.

I tweeted to point out the irony of men gaining acclaim by leveraging a hashtag by, of, and for women, and Daisey engaged. I don’t believe in blindsiding people with their private at-tweets, but we went back and forth a bit. He said he’d be essentially riffing (his shows are extemporaneous) on his own behavior, and that he certainly wasn’t riding the hashtag, as his show would sell out no matter its title. Then he suggested I’d be happier if he just remained silent on the issue, which put *me* in the position of oppressive silencer of truths, which I thought even more ironic.

My question for him had been, “Question is, is there any realm of women’s experience men won’t colonize and own? Even our oppression!”

This all reminds me of the acclaim Louis CK is receiving for pointing out that men are dangerous predators to women. I love Louis CK, who doesn’t? It’s fantastic that he’s using his gigantic mainstream appeal to advance awareness of sexual power dynamics, with him as the clueless, entitled shlub.

But this all smacks a bit of how impressed people get by men who are parenting in public, while women who are going about being mothers are invisible and unremarkable.

Why is it so much more visible and worthy of note when men amplify or validate what women have been doing or saying? Are there any women who will be able to sell out a #YesAllWomen theater piece at $30 a pop, or, as I suspect, would that fill audiences with vague dread at a predictable polemic or endless sad tales of humorless scolding? Why did NPR give so much airtime to a man’s perspective? Were the women who tweeted and wrote just too drearily predictable, while he was fresh and new (and famous)? Why do even women have to quote Louis CK to validate their own lived experience?

NPR actually did a number of segments around #YesAllWomen, and, preceding the Arthur Chu interview, On The Media’s Brooke Gladstone interviewed Deanna Zandt, co-creator of the Tumblr “When Women Refuse.” Zandt did a terrific job of contextualizing the hashtag. In her interview, she also stated that its originator (I saw the original tweet, which was in response to #NotAllMen, and something like, “I think it’s time for a #YesAllWomen hashtag”) had deleted her twitter account.

Zandt spoke to the personal vitriol and threats that women who speak out about sexism online face, rape threats and death threats and generalized threatening-vibe bile, and suggested this sort of response had overwhelmed and silenced the hashtag’s creator even as the movement itself garnered over a million tweets.

And there’s the rub. It’s dangerous to be a woman. It’s dangerous *for a woman* to say that it’s dangerous to be a woman, even in font.

What men who write in support of the hashtag, men who pen essays about their complicity in rape culture, men who decline awards from organizations or conferences collusive in sexism, men who write about how they now “get it,” and men who perform topical extemporaneous monologues — what all these men miss is how what appears to them to be a neutral space — “public,” or “online” is in fact a gendered space.*

The very ideals of the egalitarianism of ideas in the attention economy, the meritocracy of open debate, these ideals (access to the tools and platforms for all!!) incorporate on a very deep level a presupposition that online is a *neutral space.* Yes, that means that reprehensible opinions will find fertile subculture support, but the platforms and means of self-expression, and the constellated agora, the being-in-public of tweeting or blogging or making a tumblr, are fundamentally open to all.

But this is simply not true.

Being in public is different for women in real life, which is what most of the #YesAllWomen tweets are testifying to. But being in public is also different for women online, which is why the originator of the hashtag has deleted her account while Arthur Chu and Mike Daisey have leveraged their moments of insight into career-burnishing self-expression.

Over and over women spoke, usually in their longer, off-Twitter essays, about their *fear of participating in the hashtag.* This fear was not necessarily fear of rape or death threats; it doesn’t have to be that direct.

It’s fear of tarnishing their public persona or personal brand, especially if that brand is one of professional expertise or reportorial objectivity, fear of being seen as partisan or shrill, whining or opportunistic. Fear of alienating followers or being seen as too emotional or too quick to play the victim or too something.

Being a woman online is fraught with peril.

Women are more conscious of privacy issues, of compartmentalizing their online activities with anonymizing firewalls, more leery of the seemingly gender-agnostic exortation to “put yourself out there.”

I don’t think that Arthur Chu, regardless of his capacity for empathy, wondered, will writing this essay destroy my professional prospects? Will writing this essay define me to the point I am unable to be effective in other areas of my life, on other topics? Will there be a smear campaign or someone put my address on a message board that encourages people to actually physically attack me?

Over time, I have become a big fan of divisive online entity @shanley.

One of my favorite of Shanley’s uncompromising, unapologetic, and un-appeasing tweets is:

This is, roughly, Marxist. Controlling the means of production is power.

Shanley correctly understands that “tech incidents” (oh no, the Snapchat guy wanted his frat brothers to shove their thick dicks down women’s throats! oh no, there’s an app called Titstare! oh no, one of the Rap Genius guys said creepy sexualizing stuff while annotating creepy misogynistic stuff!) are not pieces of bad behavior floating in a neutral field.

Similarly, it’s no accident that the essays and insights most praised and shared around #YesAllWomen, the safest and most “objective” seeming ones, the most user-friendly, come from men.

I have no solution. But as I told Mike Daisey

*[6 hours later]

I’ve spoken subsequently with Mike Daisey, who told me he was aware that we live, on and offline, in thoroughly gendered spaces. I believe him. And I dislike, in other writers’ opinion pieces, straw-man arguments, and attributions of ignorance to the writer’s hypothetical opponents. I saw this in essays that asserted that people who saw the Santa Barbara murders through the lens of mental illness were unable to acknowledge the misogyny of the shooter. I see it in Heather MacDonald’s National Review piece which casts #YesAllWomen as whiney narcissism that reinforces women as wilting flowers, mischaracterizes street aggression as construction workers out of the ‘50's, and urges us to care more about the higher number of men who are killed by men.

On reflection, I see that Arthur Chu wrote an independent, parallel account of his personal response to events, rather than a secondary reaction to #YesAllWomen. And that response was valid on its own merits, and clearly struck a chord.

This series of reactions and responses functions, I now think, like a dialectic. And an effective dialectic requires people to stake out strong positions. I think of this in terms of the necessity that someone like Shanley exist. Without her willingness to be a lightning rod, there would be less space for the “reasoned” discussions that people feel more comfortable having.

As well, I myself have written of coming to understand more completely my you’re-soaking-in-it white privilege, and am in no position to deny men the importance of sharing their stories, nor to demand that women’s stories have more impact. If men can somehow “hear” better when ideas are coming from other men, if women feel heard and validated by men’s supportive writing, that seems part of some chaotic through-line toward some better understanding.

One of my favorite performers is Penny Arcade. Penny is pro-drag-queen, pro-faghag (as she puts it), pro iconoclasm, and indie to the core. But at a certain point, 20 or so years into an in-your-face consciousness-raising performance career, she began to declare, “Identity politics is stupid.”

Audiences, I think, felt a bit betrayed. But I kind of get it. Identity politics is only stupid *after* you’ve explored every angle, felt all the outrage, taken all the actions, had all the arguments, made all the breakthroughs; after you’ve earned it. And there are no shortcuts.

[6/18] Twitter blew up about Mike Daisey’s show title, the Verge did a clckbait piece of screenshots of the offended tweets, and Mike Daisey changed the title to Yes This Man and wrote about that change here.


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