I am no expert in the analysis of “art.” But I know racism, class-ism, and misogyny when I see them, even though sometimes any and all of these are “hard” to see clearly because they are more usually hidden and insidious than they are overt.
I know, understand, and support the notion that “art” must often be provocative to get across a point, to educate, illuminate, shine a light on, de-stigmatize or de-mystify an issue or person such that the provocation challenges conventional thinking.
Which is why, in my own inexpert opinion, what happened in Sweden this week was not “art.”
An event that quite literally makes fun of a tragic and devastating human rights violation affecting the health and lives of more than 140 million women and girls worldwide and de-humanizes those millions of individuals in the process is not “art.”
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It is most especially not “art” if it demeans the actual people subject to those violations (countless of whom may be undergoing such violations right now, as I write this article), is not connected in any way to the feelings, analysis, or portrayals of the people whose pain it purports to represent, and, perhaps even worse, becomes the butt of a party joke by people in power.
And this is what happened this week in Stockholm, Sweden when at a World Art Day celebration guests, including the Swedish Minister of Culture, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, took a slice out of a cake crudely (not even a sufficient word) depicting the genital mutilation of an African woman as the head (which was the artist, a man) screamed in pain. And as the attendees laughed.
It is reminiscent, for me, of those painful scenes of the humiliation of prisoners by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib, except for the fact that it took place in Stockholm and no “actual” woman was being mutilated.
I wouldn’t bother to give space to this disgusting and vulgar scene if it weren’t for the fact that I feel we are literally beseiged by the resurgence of so many things we naively thought were “gone” or getting better… misogyny, racism, class-ism, homophobia and fear.
In fact, racism, classism, and misogyny all are still rife within our culture and those of most countries, even the ones, like Sweden, which ironically, was once known for its funding and support internationally for advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights, including working against genital mutilation.
Blatant racism was evident in the killing of Trayvon Martin, and it is not isolated. Blatant misogyny and discrimination against women is evident in everything from the bald-faced, unapologetic displays of the kind we see daily in the United States from Wisconsin lawmakers; governors of Kansas, Nebraska, Texas and too many others; the United States House of Representatives; and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to the less overt but equally insidious acts embedded in paying women less pay for equal work or assuming adding one woman to the all-male board of a large company means “women are represented.” Blatant class-ism is now the official governing platform of the Republican party in the United States today and conveniently, can also now be justified as a biblical command. And blatant homophobia and fear continue to be perpetuated by “faith leaders” and government representatives alike throughout the world.
I have nothing inspired or eloquent to say, I have no words of wisdom here about this newest degradation of women. In fact, I am speechless.
I can only say that “artistic freedom” is not about the vulgar humiliation of the powerless, just as “religious freedom” is not about religious institutions robbing people of their rights and “economic freedom” is not found in the powerful robbing workers of their rights and ability to live decent lives.
We are going backward. I can only hope that the more we point out and hold to the light of day all of these trends, the nearer we can come to fighting against and erasing these cancers for once and for all.
“This is not who we are.” “This is not America.” These sentiments have become a common refrain in recent years in the response to everything from mass shootings to police abuse of power and police brutality toward protesters, to blatantly racist acts by members of a fraternity. In response to a CIA report describing the extent of torture and brutality used on prisoners in the “war on terror,” President Barack Obama asserted “this is not who we are,” because torture is “contrary to our values.” And in the wake of the mass shootings last year in San Bernardino, California, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch stated that: “Violence like this has no place in this country. This is not what we stand for, this is not what we do.”
But these statements are at best aspirational for a country in which the leaders of at least one major political party regularly exploit intolerance, fear, and “morality” to win campaigns, and in which the leaders of the other too often hide behind platitudes and half-measures intended to placate specific constituencies, but not fundamentally challenge those realities. They are at best aspirational for a country in which the beliefs of Islamic fundamentalists are condemned, but the same views when espoused by conservative Christian fundamentalists are given legal and social approval by both parties, because … religion. They are at best aspirational for a country in which women’s rights to their own bodies are a subject of ongoing debate, medical professionals are villainized and murdered, and rape and sexual assault are often blamed on the victim. These statements are also aspirational in a country in which we imprison people of color of every age, sex, and gender at rates far higher than whites; actively rip families apart by deporting millions of undocumented persons; and pass laws denying people access to basic human needs, like bathrooms, due to their gender identity.
We are not what we say. We are what we do.
Consider the events of the last 24 hours. A U.S.-born citizen (born in New York, living in Florida) opens fire in a large gay nightclub, killing at least 50 people and injuring at least 53 more. The shooter’s father suggested that the rampage was not due to religion but “may” have been incited by his son’s anger at seeing two men kissing. His former wife described him as being violent and unstable. He allegedly made a call to 9-1-1 to declare himself a supporter of ISIS. He used a military-grade assault rifle to carry out what is being called one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history.
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Before any details were shared by the FBI or Florida law enforcement, Rep. Peter King (R-NY), known for scapegoating Muslim Americans and calling for racial and religious profiling, was on CNN claiming that the U.S.-born shooter was “from Afghanistan.”
“If in fact this terrorist attack is one inspired by radical Islamic ideology, it is quite frankly not surprising that they would target this community in this horrifying way, and I think it’s something we’ll have to talk about some more here, across the country,” he said.
Rubio [also] said it’s not yet clear what the shooter’s motivations were, but that if radical Islamic beliefs were behind the shooting, “common sense tells you he specifically targeted the gay community because of the views that exist in the radical Islamic community with regard to the gay community.”
Rubio would appear to share those views “with regard to the gay community.” He is against same-sex marriage and made that opposition a key issue during his recent run for the GOP presidential nomination. He opposes legislation to make employment discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation illegal, supports “conversion therapy,” and is against the rights of gay persons to adopt children.
What, exactly, is the difference between the hatred spewed by radical Islamists and that by conservative Christian fundamentalists in the United States? How can any less responsibility be laid at the feet of the U.S. politicians and their supporters for violence and terror when they espouse the same forms of hatred and marginalization as those they blame for that terror? Why are we so quick to connect the lone gunman in Orlando with Islam and so unwilling to connect the “lone wolves” like Robert Dear, Angel Dillard, and Scott Roeder with the Christian right, or to hold young white star athletes accountable for the violence they commit against women? Why are we so loath to talk about rational limits on an AK-47 assault rifle, a weapon of war, when mass murders have become routine?
It may not be pretty and it may be hard to acknowledge, but as a country we are more like those we rush to condemn than we are willing to admit. We are a country founded on and fed by a strong historical current of patriarchy, white supremacy, systemic racism, misogyny, discrimination, and scapegoating, all of which in turn feeds hatred, violence, and terror. That is part of who we are as a nation. Pretending that is not the case is like pretending that your severely dysfunctional family is just fine, and that the violence you experience daily within it is just an aberration and not a fact of life.
But it is not an aberration. Christian fundamentalist hatred is not “better” than Islamic fundamentalist hatred. White American misogyny is not “better” than Islamic fundamentalist misogyny. Discrimination and the abrogation of rights of undocumented persons, people of color, LGBTQ people, or any other group by U.S. politicians is not different morally or otherwise than that practiced by “other” fundamentalists against marginalized groups in their own country.
We are what we do.
We like to act the victim, but we are the perpetrators. Until we come to grips with our own realities as a country and take responsibility for the ways in which politicians, the media, and corporate backers of both help bring about, excuse, and otherwise foster discrimination and hatred, we can’t even begin to escape the violence, and we certainly can’t blame anyone else. We must aspire to do better, but that won’t happen unless we take responsibility for our own part in the hatred at the start.
Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to clarify the details around the Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick tweet.
Last week, the team at the “podcast and web community” Just Not Sports shared a new video project. The video, titled “#MoreThanMean: Women in Sports ‘Face’ Harassment,” featured two notable sportswriters, Julie DiCaro and Sarah Spain, who sat across from men who read “mean tweets” to them.
The tweets began in an almost comical yet rude manner—”I’d like to start a petition for a ban on all links to Julie DiCaro’s Twitter feed”; “Sarah Spain sounds like a nagging wife on TV today”—but they escalated quickly into violent misogyny, including messages of sexual assault. These messages had been sent directly to the women, and they had seen them. The tweet-readers had not. The video shows the men shifting uncomfortably in their seats as they are expected to vocalize these horrific remarks. Meanwhile, DiCaro and Spain remain very dignified and calm.
Within one day, the video had reached upwards of one million views; it now it stands at over three million. The #MoreThanMean project filled social media timelines and headlines, including international outlets. It has ignited discussions on the radio, news shows, and feminist websites. Fellow women sportswriters wrote about their own experiences and how we were affected by this video. I did. Spain wrote about what the experience meant to her, as did DiCaro.
Much of the response, however, has also been around how shocked the men in the video seem to be, and how shocked its male viewers have been. Men have said they were horrified to read and hear these tweets, effectively centering their own reactions in the conversation. This, too, is problematic: This video may have highlighted the abuse DiCaro and Spain receive through the internet, but women in sports media have faced this kind of harassment for decades. Disbelief and horror are not enough; it will take real, systemic change from the industry, social media companies, and these “shocked” fans to work against this kind of incessant abuse.
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In 1990, Lisa Olson, a former journalist at the Boston Herald, endured what she called “premeditated mind rape” when she attempted to interview the New England Patriots football team after a game. She settled with the team owner and the players were fined. More than 25 years later, prominent sports journalist Erin Andrews was awarded $55 million in a lawsuit against a hotel that failed to protect her privacy from a man who videotaped her while she was naked in her room. He leaked the video to the internet. Both journalists were unmistakably targeted because they are women.
In the case of online trolls, however, the problem is more complicated: Comments, emails, or tweets can be issued by people who do not use their real names and might not be identified. The waters become murky. One of the only ways to fight them is to block them, mute them, or as often suggested, disengage, phrased as “not feeding the trolls.”
Some women, DiCaro among them, argue against not engaging because they feel it is tantamount to being silenced. Each woman might have different ways of processing and handling the situation; it’s unfair to expect that all women should simply not reply or defend their work. People who attack women constantly are trying to derail our work and conversations—and the voices of women are important for adding nuance and perspective in a field that is already predominantly male.
For that matter, it may not work. As DiCaro explained for Chicago Magazine, “There are these guys who feel you’re a fake, a phony, a fraud, and you’re in a position you don’t deserve to be in, and you’re receiving attention you don’t deserve. Their mission is to take you down. Those are the trolls you can’t ignore. They don’t go away.”
And logging off—leaving Twitter and other forms of social media—is not a plausible course of action. As a sportswriter, I feel it is essential to be on Twitter. Social media is a tool to collect information quickly, and connect with readers and fans about events in the world of sports. In other words, being on social media is an essential part of our jobs.
This is where it becomes crucial for social media companies to step up and enact policies that can prevent this type of abuse from happening. DiCaro thinks social media—Twitter specifically—should wield greater responsibility in order to create a safer space for women online. “I blocked guys, but they would just create new accounts or find other ways to get around being blocked,” she said to me over email. “And Twitter didn’t really do anything about reported tweets unless they were rape or death threats. Anything else seemed to be tolerable to them, and that was really shocking to me.”
Twitter updated its Abuse Policy in December 2015 to crack down on “hateful conduct.” But DiCaro was so frustrated about constant harassment that she created a new handle at the end of March, @ZeroSafety, where she shares screencaps of harassment in order to urge Twitter to take these tweets seriously and further amend their policies to suspend abusive accounts. At one point, ironically, the account itself was suspended for using an avatar that was considered branded.
Female sportswriters will tell you that their work and their social media profiles are real life. It is not always possible to divorce one’s personal life from what they put out on their Twitter feed. A constant deluge of horrific comments can’t be ignored or simply waded through—particularly when the comments might wish for death or sexualized violence on the sportswriter. It is unfair to expect that women will have the mental or emotional bandwidth to fight trolls all the time.
This was especially evident in #MoreThanMean, when the male participants had to use their own emotional strength to get through reading the tweets. The experience was harrowing: One of the tweets directed to DiCaro, who bravely wrote in 2013 of her rape, read, “I hope you get raped again.” On more than one occasion, DiCaro has described the abuse as “soul-sucking.”
As emotionally exhausting as it is, DiCaro and Spain have very courageously pushed this conversation forward. I can’t fathom sitting in a chair and hearing all those awful comments spoken to me in front of the whole world. DiCaro and Spain used this opportunity to educate and share lived experiences.
But I wondered: Why did this particular video affect so many people? Was it the way we were able to see Spain and DiCaro as people, not just as faceless personalities on social media? Or were the men so sincere in their discomfort that the public was mortified?
DiCaro thinks it is the latter. “Honestly, I think it’s because society in general believes men more than they believe women. Sarah and I could scream from the rafters about being harassed, but if it was just us in the video, I wonder if it would have had the same impact,” she said.
DiCaro believes #MoreThanMean is a great start toward addressing this pervasive reluctance to acknowledge women speaking about abuse. In addition to urging social media companies to take action, she also tasked those horrified individuals to make change themselves, by including women in conversations, helping to promote them in industries where women are outnumbered, and by recommending women for panels and conferences. “Don’t speak for us; scoot over and give us a place at the table where we can speak for ourselves,” she wrote.
To men, DiCaro emphasized, “And if you see a buddy or family member beating up on women online, SAY SOMETHING. It’s not okay for people to treat others this way, and it’s not okay to stand by silently, either.”
It is my experience as a visible woman of color that there are no limits to the abuses that can be showered upon a woman for speaking up about a game, a team, or advocating for a victim of sexual assault by a player. I write about misogyny and race in sports; I also write about Muslim women. So, the abuse I receive is not only sexist, but coupled with Islamophobic and racist opinions. Charming, I know. This occurs only because I am doing what I am supposed to. Essentially, women sportswriters are abused for doing their jobs. For thousands of women in this industry and others, we don’t accept it but are are forced to tolerate it.
This is probably another reason #MoreThanMean struck a chord with so many. DiCaro said she was approached by women who admitted they never felt like they could talk about it before they saw the video. She suspects a lot of women keep it quiet or constantly self-edit to make sure they say nothing anyone could possibly object to. Both approaches silence women and suggest complacency is a way to combat abuse.
One way to also move away from a toxic, and in my opinion dangerous, acceptance of abuse is to support women’s work in the industry. In a column about #MoreThanMean project, DiCaro wrote, “Support women’s sports. Read and share women sportswriters. Question why more women, and especially women of color, aren’t actively promoted by their employers. Call out panels at events that don’t include women. Teach your sons and daughters that women have a place in sports equal to men.”
I feel this is essential if we want to move forward at all.
As far as handling the abuse, DiCaro told me about her self-care routines and how she should make them more of a priority. “We’re all working so hard to get ahead in this industry, [self-care] tends to fall by the wayside. But lately I’ve been giving myself permission to not charge so hard after everything. To set longer deadlines for myself, to have nights where I do nothing but watch a River Monsters marathon. And I’m a huge proponent of having pets. No matter how bad your day is, they always make you smile,” she said.
Her comments resonate with me too. As much as I rely on Twitter to stay connected and be “in the know,” I also love my time away from social media. It might involve watching Bend It like Beckham and eating popcorn. Or it might mean working out and just enjoying my family.
But self-care also means that when I log back on, I know I need help from other individuals to get through the day. After a few years on Twitter, I also became part of an informal support group of women who write about sports and its intersections with misogyny, sexual assault, politics, and various important social issues. We encourage and help each other every day, offering advice about projects, sharing contacts, and venting about our mentions. In response, we send each other photos of baby sloths or elephants and positive notes. This type of safe space is critical, particularly when we are trying to work while simultaneously swatting away trolls and defending ourselves against unfathomable rudeness.
Women are moving forward in sports writing and presenting, as game correspondents and as match analysts. As this happens, it is important to highlight toxicity in sports media and make sure that male colleagues, readers, and fans are aware of the abuse that happens and how they can eradicate it. It will not go away on its own. Consistently promoting the voices of women, and not excluding them from discussions of violence, is crucial. Equally important is addressing the layers of misogyny, racism, and homophobia present in all facets of the industry, including online.
Women need to lead discussions on what are the best strategies to combat online harassment and abuse. But it cannot be done without support.