The Toxic Reality of Digital Sexism

Omar Zahran
Jan 21 · 13 min read
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Image Credit: Markus Spiske via Unsplash

It can be said that there are movies and TV shows that define an era or even are innovative in what they represent. We currently live in a world where streaming applications and web services dominate the living room. The company we associate with the rise of this method of consuming content is Netflix. And the show that I associate with the rise of Netflix is House of Cards. The political drama showed the world that the company was serious about producing its own content and becoming this generation’s version of HBO.

The arc of the series has always interested me. The first few seasons of the show were a smash hit, portraying the corruption of American politics and a protagonist with an insatiable thirst for power and questionable morals. However, the show was spinning its tale during the rise of Donald Trump and his MAGA movement, where the stories on the news seemed much more outlandish than anything that the writers of the show could dream up. Then the show’s future was called into jeopardy when its star, Kevin Spacey, was accused of sexual abuse. This thrust Robin Wright into being the leader of the show and this brought on mixed reactions by fans at best.

Because of the context of Spacey’s removal from the show, many fans of the show accused the show of being too politically correct and subsequently hated the final season with Wright as its lead. Professional critics, however, saw the final season differently, crediting Wright for excellent performance in a tough situation. The criticisms from fans of the show seemed to have a somewhat sexist undertone to them. Where they were not ready to accept the idea that their favorite show now had a female lead. This reaction is a reflection of the modern digital society to discredit a woman that is present in a space that is traditionally male-dominant. A reality that despite how far we have come in matters of gender equality, we have so much more progress to make.

The Landscape

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Image Credit: Chris J Davis via Unsplash

A little over 100 years ago, the women’s rights movement in the United States had its most monumental victory: the passing of the 19th Amendment of the US Constitution. It is something that many of us may take for granted today, but before 1920 women in this country had no say in the political process, which leads to a sense of helplessness. Being a part of a country’s laws in a republic is the bare minimum that any citizen should want and women were denied that right in this country’s first 144 years of existence.

This moment spurred the women’s liberation movement that has led to more quality of life improvements that we may take for granted today as well. Monumental steps forward such as African American women gaining the right to vote, full voting rights for women, more women in the workforce, Title VII protections to eliminate employment discrimination, and Roe v Wade to name a few (here is an expanded list of other accomplishments the women’s rights movement has made over the years). After all of these advancements, you might think that 100 years later we have achieved equality. That would be an incredibly inaccurate assumption.

What has happened over the course of the last century is that as soon as women inch closer to pure equality with men, there is a large contingent of men that push back. Whenever there is a revolution of any sort that changes the norm of life, there is an old guard of people that will push back to resist this change. In the case of almost every woman’s equality measure, there have been a group of men trying to keep things the way that they were. Like many things in the modern age, there is a nuance to the way that resistance to change is shown. Where before it was constant demonstrations and violence, it has now become more subtle narratives and movements. The advent of the internet has changed this and has resulted in a toxic digital environment that women have been forced to endure.

To learn more about this I spoke to multiple women between the ages of 21–40 and asked them about their online experiences. While we did touch on their workplace inequality, there was a different layer that I wanted to tackle with these women. If you are interested in that subject there are some excellent articles that you can read here and here. What interested me is how women are attacked for hobbies that have been deemed primarily male dominant. I spoke to women that are interested in technology, sports, and cars that have experienced blatant sexism and derogatory comments just for having an interest and an opinion on these topics. The experiences that I have heard from these women were worrying and frustrating to hear, and commentary that I think needs to be heard.

Crashing the Boys’ Club

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Image Credit: Roan Lavery via Unsplash

For years, there have been professions, colors, and interests that have just been assigned as female dominant or male dominant. The way we associate blue as a boy’s color and pink as a girl’s color for instance set the boundaries of what is acceptable for men and women as we grow older. This idea extends to professions, where the idea of male nurses and female firefighters seemed so foreign for so long. These accepted norms have started to become less prominent as color associations and gender-specific stigmas of professions have been mostly disregarded. What seems to have remained stuck in an archaic frame of mind, however, seems to be centered around hobbies.

I grew up in the 1990s. In the time that I was growing up, girls being involved in sports started to gain popularity. This was the beginning of the breaking of the stereotype that sports were only for men. Girls that grew up playing basketball, baseball, and soccer with me were normalized and encouraged to play the game. I often attribute playing basketball as a kid to helping instill my passion in the game that has lasted throughout my adult life (and probably has led to my obsessive fandom of the New York Knicks for better or worse). It is only natural that girls that grew up playing these sports would also develop a passion for these sports beyond playing them competitively. Yet despite all of this, men have taken to oozing toxicity to women that talk about sports on Twitter.

Women that I have spoken to about this have told me that men will default to gender stereotypes instead of engaging in debate that they would have with other men. Responses such as “I bet you couldn’t name 5 football players on that team” or “did you borrow your brother’s jersey”. At times, men will throw out old societal norms about women being housewives as a retort to a woman having a sports opinion with responses such as “go in the kitchen and make me a sandwich” or “why don’t you go back to the kitchen”. These are comments that are meant to discredit women from having an opinion on something that is held as sacred to men.

But why is this? The women that I have spoken to have told me that they think it is male insecurity. Comments that I have seen from some men that engage with women sports fans seem to validate this idea. I would also add that there is an element of jealousy at play as well. It is no secret that society sexualizes the female body for profitability. So when a woman shares a selfie on Twitter and also can adequately comment on sports, some men become uncomfortable with the engagement that can come from that. This is because they want the endorphin high that comes from likes and retweets for themselves, and they are not receiving it (here is a great article explaining how our brains crave those social media likes).

The response by many men in this instance is to degrade in an effort to make a woman’s opinion on sports invalid. A very elementary and archaic tactic, but is it effective? In my conversations, this seems to be mixed. Some women lean into this blatant sexism and expose the men that engage in it. Other women take it as a message of hostility and stop engaging in sports content as often as they would like to. The fact that these are the two reactions is wrong and something that needs to be changed. Women’s sports opinions are valid, and men that belittle them deserve to be shamed for it.

The Need For New Voices

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Image Credit: Matt Botsford via Unsplash

Ever since the rise of the smartphone and the mobile internet, commentary on technology has become incredibly present in our minds. People making videos and writing articles about the technology that we use and reviewing products that we are thinking about buying. Much like the world of consumer electronics that it covers, the commentary space has been traditionally dominated by men. In recent years we have seen more women in roles of leadership at the highest level such as Whitney Wolfe (CEO of Bumble) and Yvonne Bettkober (GM of Amazon Web Services in Switzerland). But there remains a thought that women don’t understand tech and should not be commenting on it, which has been disproved and has elicited toxicity from men.

As someone that is tech-obsessed, I follow more than a few tech blogs and independent journalists who talk tech. I have noticed that over the last couple of years more female content creators have emerged in the written word, but particularly in the YouTube space. The thing to understand about tech commentary is that a few years ago, it was in desperate need of different types of voices for some variety. For a while, it felt that every smartphone review featured a man in his 30s speaking to a camera in a relatively monotone voice. Not exactly the most entertaining way to spend your time.

But recently, more female creators have entered the space and changed the type of commentary that can be expected from a technology analyst. For example, Shannon Morse provides excellent commentary on cybersecurity in an approachable way that won’t go over your head. Isa Rodriguez takes a more fashion-focused look at the tech that isn’t found on your average YouTube channel. These women need to be celebrated for their unique takes on talking about gadgets that we use. Instead, commenters on YouTube and Twitter try to discredit their knowledge and opinions by suggesting that a woman shouldn’t be analyzing tech.

We are a very diverse society, and it makes no sense to have the same sort of commentary when it comes to technology. While some may prefer the overly analytical style of a YouTube channel such as Linus Tech Tips that may dig into the processing specifications and screen resolution of the newest Samsung phone, others may not care about that when researching the phone. Those people might care more about the different camera modes that a channel like that may ignore, whereas a channel like iJustine might dig into that more as opposed to the strictly technical portion.

Men that insist on making these comments on videos from female creators display a level of sexism by feeling the need to voice their disapproval. Because of the variety of videos on a topic, it is very easy to just simply realize that this commentary style is not for you and to just move on. But by taking the time to make a comment about a video having too much pink, or that no one cares about the points made, indicates a need to be heard and anger that a woman is speaking eloquently about tech. The behavior speaks to a need to feel superior that these men feel is being taken away from them by women. It is a fear that is built on a foundation of lies and is only holding us back from a fascinating array of voices that can give us a vast perspective on the topics that we care so much about.

The Protection of the Screen

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Image Credit: Age Barros via Unsplash

We have all heard of the term cyberbullying before, and it is a very real threat to the mental well-being of the younger generations. Roughly 10–20 percent of teenagers will experience cyberbullying on a regular basis. This is important to remember because there is a level of security that comes from typing behind a piece of glass. A feeling reminiscent of invincibility that there are no repercussions for anything said on the internet. This confidence is what empowers men that are sexist, people that are racist, to unleash their ignorance for all to see.

The easy accessibility of commenting on virtually anything in addition to deep-rooted ideals of male superiority in some men is a toxic cocktail that leads to the reality that we see online today. The term toxic masculinity is one that has been in our vernacular for a number of years, and has always felt like a defense mechanism used by men as a last-ditch effort to “protect what is theirs”. As foolish as this sounds, the spaces that have dominated male interest over the years such as video games, sports, and consumer tech are being guarded by men as if they are defending their territory in an episode of Game of Thrones.

The irony here is of course that on the opposite end of the spectrum there have been men breaking through in industries that were considered woman dominant without any complaints from women. An example of this that comes to mind immediately is the world of makeup. A business that was almost exclusive to women has now had many men come into the space to showcase their talents. This has not drawn any sort of criticism from women, and these men have been embraced for their talents. This is something that men can learn when it comes to spaces that have been traditionally male dominant, as opposed to resorting to stereotype bullying just because it is easy to do so from the comfort of an iPhone screen.

Fixing the Problem

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Image Credit: Bernard Hermant via Unsplash

We have established that this is an issue that women continue to face on a day by day basis. A commentary that reinforces old gender norms, belittling women for having an interest in a topic, and devaluing their opinions based solely on their gender. But the question becomes, how do we fix this problem? I asked some women about this and the answers that I received made it clear that there needs to be a fundamental societal change to make this a reality.

While some women that I spoke to acknowledged that the situation has gotten marginally better in some areas, that there are foundational issues left to be addressed. The issues of enforced gender roles during the upbringing process was of course mentioned. But the overarching theme seemed to be that not only does the next generation of parents need to raise their girls to pursue whatever they are passionate about, but we also need to focus on raising our young boys not to be emotionally isolated that leads to this sort of hostile sexist behavior to manifest.

And this is the point that I found to be very important, where we put young children into a box of what is and isn’t possible, that leads to these issues. The way that we raise the next generation of children can build these tendencies that we may not think about. Assuming that every girl wants to be a princess or cheerleader and that every boy wants to be a football player sets the stage for these gender-based stereotypes to take form. This only intensifies with age and leads to the internal normalization that gender-based assumptions are normal and to be embraced.

What this normalization leads to is women and men criticizing their own gender counterparts for crossing the invisible line of gender division. Women are critical of other women for being interested in hobbies that are traditionally male-dominant such as car repairs, sports, and tech. Men are critical of other men for being interested in makeup or music that is associated with having a large female fan base. This behavior can be traced back to the way that we were raised and while it can be unlearned, not many are willing to embrace a different worldview.

There is an element of “good old days” syndrome with all of this. Where men think of playing with male friends as children and translating that into adulthood where the common interests of something like watching a game should be a male bonding event above all else. With the proliferation of something like social media, this watching event extends to the internet, where they become gatekeepers denying entry to women that just want to enjoy the hobby. The reality of the situation is that these men have no place to regulate who can or cannot enjoy these hobbies and interests. Yet they continue to do so because this sort of behavior has been normalized.

Where does this leave us? The current state of the world will still amplify the ignorant voices that are present on the internet. As an Arab-American, I have had to answer for the sins of the hated minority in my adult life. This is somewhat reflective of the online situation for women. The majority of men may not be this blatantly sexist, but the minority of ignorant men amplify the voice. We as the men that are not sexist need to use our voices to condemn the men that are spewing venom towards women, discouraging them from engaging in meaningful conversations about the topics that we all enjoy. Women add a perspective to these discussions and debates that is incredibly invaluable, and by resorting to elementary school tactics we are worsening the overall conversation. To put it simply, we need to be more open and embracing of diversity in our hobbies, not clamor for the good old days. Evolution over regression, always.

Thank you very much for reading this article, I hope you enjoyed it! If you did please consider following me on Medium and Twitter.

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