Gratuitous: How Sexism Threatens to Undermine the Internet

October 11, 2010 | 12 14 min read


coverIn his book Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky explains why personal blogs and social networking sites can sometimes confound us.  He argues that before the internet, it was easy to tell what was a broadcast and what was a private message.  A television show was a broadcast — a message meant for a large audience of people, a public message.  A telephone call, on the other hand, was a private message, meant for one other person.  On the internet, though, the difference between the two kinds of media is much smaller.  Is a personal blog a public or a private communication?  Is it meant for mass consumption by thousands or millions of people?  Not typically, and yet it can be read, theoretically, by billions.

This blurring of the two types of media is so difficult to grasp that it’s produced its own near-ubiquitous straw man argument, which blogger Jason Kottke calls “the breakfast question.” It comes up whenever anyone writes about social media:  “Why would I care what you ate for breakfast that morning?” Shirky’s rebuttal to this is succinct:

“It’s simple.  They’re not talking to you.  We misread these seemingly inane posts because we’re so unused to seeing written material in public that isn’t intended for us.  The people posting messages to one another in small groups are doing a different kind of communicating than people posting messages for hundreds or thousands of people to read.

I’ve been thinking about this particular idea a lot lately as it applies to Tumblr. For those who are unfamiliar with Tumblr, it’s a blogging platform that categorizes posts into one form or another — text, photo, chat, audio, video.  It allows you to put out small bursts of content, which then goes into a feed.  People can follow you, just as they can on Twitter, and they can “like” your posts and re-blog them.  Tumblr offers a combination of Twitter’s viral capabilities with a more customizable experience that allows for a tremendous level of personal expression.

I’m something of a Tumblr addict.  It is the first thing I check in the morning — before my email, before my Facebook page, but after I have some coffee (Some addictions are more powerful than others).  What I love about it is the social interaction.  I follow a large number of personal blogs that post funnier, more creative versions of “Here’s what I had for breakfast.”  (I was following a blog that was, literally, about what people ate for breakfast, but I dropped it.  I guess they weren’t talking to me.)  I also follow a bunch of themed blogs –The New Yorker Tumblr, for instance.  They don’t interact much with me, and that’s fine.  They’re kind of like highly focused magazines, and I enjoy them accordingly.

But if that’s all Tumblr was, I don’t think it would be quite so important to me. It’s the community that makes it special.  Checking my Tumblr feed is like checking in with my friends, even if these “friends” are people I know very little about and will possibly never meet in real life. I met most of these people through friends of friends or via the social discovery that re-blogging affords. I somehow stumbled into their worlds, and they were interesting enough to make me want to come back. I interact with enough of them that I can pretty clearly say that when they post something, it is intended for me.  I’m part of their small group, and I have no qualms about that.

Lisa, on the other hand, is a different matter.  Lisa is a college student at a large university in the Midwest (and Lisa is not her name; I don’t know whether she would want a bunch of book nerds suddenly reading her posts or not, so I’m not going to link to her blog here, either).  She seems pretty smart, and she blogs about her love life, her schoolwork, her friends, and all of the other things that matter to her.  I find Lisa’s life very interesting, and her blog is great. But I haven’t completely settled the “is she talking to me” question.  While Lisa follows me back, we don’t interact with each other. She uses Tumblr in a very social way, she isn’t really part of the crowd of people whom I otherwise follow. And I find this somewhat troubling.

At this point, I need to lay a few things on the table. First, I don’t have a lot of close friends. My wife has several friends with whom she speaks on a regular basis. They talk about the things that are happening in their lives and how they feel about them. I don’t have that. I’m a social person, and there are certainly people I love to have dinner with, meet at a party, etc., but ever since college that kind of close friendship has eluded me. And I think I’m okay with that, for the most part. But you could certainly argue that I use Tumblr to fill some void in my life, as pathetic as that might sound.

Also, Lisa is very attractive.  And Tumblr has a way of encouraging people’s vanity. On Wednesdays, for example, there’s a tradition of posting a photo of yourself; this is known as Gratuitous Picture of Yourself Wednesday (GPOYW). This has the effect of sexualizing a lot of Tumblr blogs, to the point that my wife, Edan, hated it for months and months after I joined because she felt like every woman on it focused so much of her attention on her sexuality. I think she’s probably right, though that was largely about who I was following (I used to run with a bad crowd, man). So let me just clear this up for you: I’m not following Lisa because she’s hot or because I’m a perv.  Let’s be honest, if I wanted to look at 20 year-old girls, there are other places to do it; this is the internet we’re talking about. Also, Edan, now on Tumblr, follows Lisa, too.  We talk about her posts with each other.  “She needs to dump that guy; he’s bad news. He won’t even hold her hand!” Edan will say.  “He’s a college kid. What do you expect?” I’ll reply.

While I can’t deny that gender plays a role here, that’s not all there is to it. I like following her because, for whatever reason, her narrative is compelling.  Following her blog is somewhat akin to watching a reality TV show (Not one of the ones where they try to out-dance each other or diet for money, but one that just follows someone’s daily life). She’s my Jersey Shore.

But of course, Lisa isn’t a reality TV character, she’s a real person. Yes, I know Snooki is real, too, but celebrities are different.  The fact that Lisa could walk the streets of every city in the world with complete anonymity makes her situation fundamentally different from, well, The Situation’s.  There are different laws governing pictures of celebrities and real people. Celebrities belong to us — the public — in ways that private citizens do not. And treating real people, regular people, the same way we treat celebrities, is problematic. And let’s not forget that Snooki and her ilk are paid to be in the public eye and to put up with all that entails.


A few weeks ago, I went to an performance exhibition by my friend, the artist Charlie White. It was called Casting Call, and according to its website it was meant to further explore “White’s ongoing interest in the complexities of the American teen as cultural icon, image, and national idea.” For the exhibition, an art gallery was converted into two rooms, each separated from the other by a pane of glass.  On one side of the room was a casting call for teen girls exemplifying “the All American California girl” — blonde hair, tan skin, etc. — between the ages of 13 and 16. White and his crew interviewed the models, took a mug shot-style photograph of them, and then brought in the next girl. On the other side of the glass, an audience — mostly art students and hipsters — watched. Our friend Stephanie, White’s partner, pointed out that everyone on our side of the glass was brunette (except, it must be pointed out, Edan) while all of the models were, of course, blonde. White and his crew discussed each girl, both amongst themselves and with the girl, as well, but we could hear none of it. We were left to interpret the scene for ourselves. “Oh, look, they’re letting that girl look at the photo. They must really like her,” I said. “Yeah, either that or they could tell she was upset, and wanted to reassure her she did a good job.”

A seemingly never-ending stream of girls came through the door. What fascinated me most about the entire exhibition is how quickly we could objectify the girls. I don’t mean objectify them in the way that it’s commonly used — to turn them into sex objects — though there was certainly a tinge of the erotic about the event; by objectify, I mean to make them into something not quite human, and in turn, to talk about them as though they were things rather than people. “She’s too old.” “I like that one, in the leopard-print shorts. She’s my favorite.” “Look at how weird her hair is. Why does she look like that?” It was how we talk about people when they’re on television, but these people were merely a few feet away. The pane of glass, and the contrast between the brightly lit casting room and the dim audience space, was enough distance to effectively dehumanize these girls. There were other factors at work, such as the blonde California girl’s status as marketing conceit and sexual totem, but I think a big reason we all felt free to dissect and dismiss these girls is because they couldn’t really see us. We were, more or less, anonymous. It was especially unsettling to turn around after watching for a few minutes and see one of the girls who had been in the call standing just behind us. How long had she been there, the girl in the leopard print shorts? And how did she suddenly become so real?

The internet is such a tricky place now that anonymity actually needs to be explained and defined. There are actually a couple of flavors of anonymity on the web, and each of them comes with different issues. The first kind of anonymity is the one most of us are familiar with online, the anonymous user or commenter. This user is indistinguishable from the other anonymous commenters, and they can occasionally make some useful contributions. Anonymity can allow people to be more playful than they would be normally, maybe a little bit sexier, a little bit funnier.  But they can also just be thugs. This type of anonymous user crops up on nearly every blog post, and while they occasionally voice a particularly controversial opinion, they are usually there only to spew bile and throw insults at the author of the post. In the comments of this site, I once joked that “anonymous” is always such a badass (To which Max replied, “I’d like a t-shirt that says “Anonymous: Internet Badass.””). There’s a reason why some sites disable anonymous commenting of this kind; having no identity carries no threat of consequences. Even if others ridicule your ideas and effectively send you back to your cave with your tail between your legs, nobody knows who “you” are, so you can return the next day to fight again.

There’s a second, more nuanced type of anonymity that is possibly more prevalent than simple anonymous commenting, and that’s the disguise of the pseudonym.  Every message board has its trolls, those who enjoy causing trouble, dissenting from the norm, and generally putting others down. I’ve yet to encounter a community online that doesn’t have at least one of these people. They are rarely truly anonymous, since most message boards, social sites, and other internet communities typically require a user name. Instead, these users hide behind a moniker — sometimes employing the same user name on multiple sites. Having some sort of identity does create some consequences. Users can be banned from sites, ostracized, or otherwise punished for their behavior.

coverOften, though, this type of user can simply change his name.  This is another form of what Jaron Lanier, in his book You Are Not a Gadget, calls “transient anonymity:”

People who can spontaneously invent a pseudonym in order to post a comment on a blog or on YouTube are often remarkably mean. Buyers and sellers on eBay are a little more civil, despite occasional disappointments, such as encounters with flakiness and fraud. Based on those data,  you could conclude that it isn’t exactly anonymity, but transient anonymity, coupled with a lack of consequences, that brings out online idiocy.

On Tumblr, most people interact via their blogs which necessarily have a name attached to them. This insures that people will be generally civil. It is also an opt-in system, where you have to choose who to follow, which I think adds to the welcoming feel of the platform. It takes a while to build up a following and to create a blog you can be proud of; why throw that all away by being a creep or a jerk?  The value of the blogs themselves creates an added buffer against what Lanier calls “Drive-by anonymity.”

But there’s another element of Tumblr that I’ve seen cause some very disturbing encounters. Each Tumblr comes with the ability to enable a feature that allows others to ask you a question. It can also be used as a de facto messaging system. The user can then decide whether they want to post an answer to your question or delete it. The trouble starts when the user enables anonymous questions. Some people choose to leave anonymous questions enabled because it can lead to some very interesting content. For instance, if the user wrote a brave post about a disease they had, someone might leave an anonymous note about that, not wanting to reveal that they too have the disease. A more shallow but still amusing use is the frequent comment “I have a crush on you” or “I think you’re beautiful,” etc.

coverFor every one such comment, there are dozens of vile, offensive comments, meant to do little other than demean the author of the blog and make them feel worse about themselves and their lives. For instance, I follow a woman who posts lots of photos of art, gorgeous film stills, great music, and, yes, sometimes pictures of herself. One day she put up the poster for the film The Girlfriend Experience, about a prostitute who spends the night with her clients, going to dinner or a movie before having sex for money.  A day or two later, an anonymous person sent this message to her: “You look like you could give a pretty good “girlfriend experience.” How about it? Ever given any thought to doing something like that?”  My response to this post was, simply put, rage. I posted a response along the lines of “The rest of us are trying to have a civilization over here. Take that elsewhere.” I was enraged that this person had used this feature of the blog to suggest that the blogger would make a good prostitute. Keep in mind that the author of this blog didn’t have to make this public. I assume she did so (without comment) to shame the jerk who asked the question. But it’s worth noting that there was no guarantee of attention from anyone beyond this one particular blogger. He did this solely to mess with, belittle, and intimidate the author of the blog. And he did so with impunity.

He wasn’t alone. Every day, without fail, another person I follow posts a comment or question that an anonymous user asked them. These questions range from the classically juvenile (“I’m masturbating to you right now.” “Take ur shirt off!”) to more pointed personal assaults (“What’s it like coping with your obvious addiction to sleeping pills?” “You post a lot of photos of yourself because your looks are the only thing you have going for you.” “You’re an obnoxious bitch who probably has no friends.”). Not coincidentally, every one of these questions showed up on a blog written by a woman.  So far, three bloggers that I follow have had to abandon their old online identities when creepy people began harassing them online. All of them were women.

Why are women treated differently than men online? I suppose the greater question is why they are still treated differently everywhere — online or otherwise — but since this post is about the web, I will focus on that. Surely there’s the garden variety sexism that permeates most of our culture, where women’s opinions are discounted or denigrated, and where the female form is used to sell everything from liquor to football.  But I think there is something else at work online, and in many ways, it’s related to the strange feeling of watching all of those girls wait to have their pictures taken, as well as my conflicted feelings about enjoying college girl Lisa’s blog so much.

In her groundbreaking work “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” film theorist Laura Mulvey posits that Hollywood cinema always casts the audience in the role of the masculine spectator.  The camera, therefore, becomes the male gaze, and the women on screen the passive objects of its gaze:

“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to striptease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire. Mainstream film neatly combined spectacle and narrative.”

She argues that simply looking is a pleasurable experience, and the cinema affords this pleasure by providing an atmosphere in which men are free to look at women, for as long as they please and with clear intent. She says, “At the extreme, it can become fixated into a perversion, producing obsessive voyeurs and Peeping Toms, whose only sexual satisfaction can come from watching, in an active controlling sense, an objectified other.” On the internet, this seems to be compounded. We’re free to look with impunity, and in some cases, we are free to anonymously harass, as well.  Of course, it is sometimes pleasurable to be looked at, as well. While the internet indulges both of these impulses — to look at and to be looked at — it seems clear to me that we have once again forced the women more often into the latter role. Despite the great leveling effect that the web has had on the media — it’s given a voice to millions of people who would otherwise largely be silent — we are still creating a system of “sexual imbalance,” in Mulvey’s terms.  This is most acute where the female image actually appears — on fashion blogs, personal blogging platforms like Tumblr, and of course pornography — but it is present, more or less, throughout the net. In fact, I’ve often found that what provokes the anonymous assaults, more often than not, are not pictures of women but arguments made by them. This suggests that the harassment is a form of maintaining the male dominance; that it possibly (and maybe often does) come from other women is irrelevant.

The key difference between the films that Mulvey dissects in her essay and the personal blogs I’m talking about is agency. The films were made by men — men called the shots (literally) and wrote the stories that cast women in the passive roles. Obviously a personal blogger decides what to post on her blog. But while this difference is worth noting, it doesn’t seem to matter much in terms of the audience’s reaction. In fact, the blogger’s agency frequently becomes a weapon for the blogger’s critics. “Well, if she doesn’t want to be called a slut, maybe she shouldn’t post such provocative photos.” Doesn’t this sound a bit like the “She was asking for it” argument?

Which brings me back to the problem of Lisa. Feeling as I do about the internet, and the role gender is fast coming to play in it, I feel implicated by her blog (through no fault of her own). Part of this comes from the hazy status of intent. Does she want me read her blog? Strangely, not long after I began this essay, someone asked her if she was comfortable with so many strangers following her daily life. She responded that she didn’t care; if they wanted to read about her and look at pictures of her, that was fine. This should have absolved me of my guilt, but it didn’t. I keep coming back to Mulvey’s argument: Am I deriving pleasure from looking at Lisa? I am. But I also post photos of myself, thereby enjoying the pleasure of being looked at. Still, no one has ever responded to an image of me with an anonymous note saying, “You look fat” or “Nice beard, asshole.” Only women have to put up with that. And that is shameful. (It’s worth noting that the hot film of the moment, The Social Network, would have us believe that social networking, at its base, is about checking out girls and stalking ex-girlfriends. It’s why the stuff was invented, to let men objectify women from a safe distance.)

And that’s what weighs on me as I follow Lisa’s blog. I’m aware of the voyeuristic aspect of following the blog of a much younger woman, but at the same time, I feel a sort of odd friendship with Lisa. If she weren’t following me back and I were merely reading her posts, as many no doubt do, in total anonymity, I think that would be different. Perhaps following back is all the recognition I need to feel like Lisa is talking to me. And it’s pretty clear from reading my blog who I am: I’m Patrick, I’m in my 30s, I live in LA, and I’m married. On the internet, being yourself is no small thing.

A year ago, I read one of those rare profound utterances that Twitter produces from time to time. It came from comedian Lindsay Katai: “The Internet: Where Ladies Promote Their Boyfriends’ Endeavors. Conversely, the Internet: Where Men Make Every Pretense of Appearing Single.” This rang true to me then, and I’ve thought of it frequently while reading Tumblr, where identities are formed one post at a time over weeks and months. The posts I most look forward to reading are the posts about people’s lives — the petty failures at work, the little strange thing they observed on the bus, a photo of themselves having fun.

I suspect I’m not alone in this. This is the pleasure of online life, it seems to me. It’s the reason, more than any fancy coding or user interface, that Facebook is so successful. We want to know each other, to see what’s happening in other people’s lives. We want, in short, to read each other’s stories. But that kind of world — one that values openness and honesty — can’t exist if half of its participants have to be constantly vigilant lest they be verbally assaulted, harassed, or worse. If we, as a culture, don’t do something to combat this, then we stand to lose more than just updates about meals and photos of pets. Like it or not, we are all going to have to live more and more of our lives online. I would hope that we could make that place better than the one we now call “real life” — a place where people are free to be themselves, yes, but also where they are free to decide what that means for themselves, without fear of humiliation or intimidation. That’s a place I’d like to call home.

(Image 1: Crazy staircase at the KPMG Building in Munich, image from 72213316@N00’s photostream

Images 2 & 3: courtesy Charlie White)

is a staff writer for The Millions. Patrick has worked in the book business for over seven years, including a two-year stint as the webmaster and blogger for Vroman's Bookstore. He is currently the Community Manager for He's written book reviews for Publishers Weekly, and he's spoken about books and the internet at the LA Times Festival of Books, the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association spring meetings, and the 140 Characters Conference. He writes the sporadically entertaining Tumblr blog The Feeling.