Online trolls abuse high-profile women in a bid to dissuade them from speaking out in public, but a wave of new stars like footballer Megan Rapinoe and politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is fighting back, writes Laura Waddell.
Sometimes I look at photographs of women in the public eye who are on their way up, or newly coming to prominence, and among the range of feelings it can provoke is a little anxiety – both for them, and with them. I anticipate resistance that they inevitably face, not only politically, but the spite and anger aimed at women’s general visbility, played out in online readers’ comments, social media posts, and antagonistic media framings that differ remarkably little in their intent to shame and belittle. Headlines and captions can be subtly hostile from the off, drawing on words with gendered, demeaning stereotypes: cat fight, slapped down.
Recently though a few particular stars have shown up their critics by pressing on regardless, refusing to linger at stumbling blocks of self-justification demanded of them. They know they won’t win over those holding retrograde views of women and so don’t even bother, instead publicly laughing them off and continuing. It’s a defiance that makes their detractors appear all the more irrelevant, and relies on media savvy and knowing their true audience is looking on.
For all social media can focus the lens of hatred, it’s also where contemporary stars across sport, politics, and entertainment communicate with audiences directly, and the audience with one another. When the USA national women’s football team get a hard time from many quarters, their strategy in dealing with it is knowing others are taking inspiration. Like our team in Scotland rising to new prominence, these footballers have won many new fans nationwide. A strong contingent among that are the women and LGBT communities who see them winning and being defiant in the face of familiar attack on the world stage, and, crucially, having a good time while they’re at it. You can join the party or stay under the bridge shouting at women moving on by.
Times may be slow to change in many quarters, but a palpable new buoyancy comes from the groundswell of support and celebration social media has made visible, cheering on successes but also that defiance itself. We share everything online, sometimes ill-advisedly, but small pockets also share experiences and feelings, building community. Seeing, for example, Megan Rapinoe celebrate after a goal collectively feels good not only for football fans but for the queer people and feminists among them who have grouped together in mutual admiration and recognition. Rapinoe celebrating with theatrical flair in her now trademark arms-wide pose, a visual ta-da, a bow without the bend, is also a win for self-expression and cultural acceptance, all the more so for doing it in spite of detractors and during Pride Month’s spirit of celebration and protest. The momentum of the Women’s World Cup has gathered speed like a cork popping, the potency of representation mixed in with the adrenaline of high-level sports.
For decades, sports audiences and commentators have taken men who smash tennis racquets and scream at referees in their stride. Only during the Women’s World Cup can I remember public discussion, facilitated by media phone-ins, about whether the winners have expressed their delight too confidently, their arms spread too widely. If they can’t stop them, they’ll police their tone. Think pieces have sprung up like mushroom spores about whether celebrating visibly is arrogant. Career controversialists have lined up to stick the boot in. In short, the resistance is ancient: to women taking up too much space, expressing their bodies too freely, moving without shame, and being confident in themselves in public. If John Knox were alive today, he’d be on a sofa, gesticulating about Megan Rapinoe.
It was inevitable the thin-skinned Trump would bristle at these women, representing many things his Administration opposes, and particularly Rapinoe, with her history of ‘taking the knee’ in protest during the American national anthem. After the President tweeted “Megan should WIN before she TALKS,” the team responded by criticising Trump’s exclusionary policies, racism, and homophobia. When a Fox team covering the World Cup final from a bar went live, patrons began chanting “F*** Trump”.
As much as it has felt radical to see women’s sports celebrated in the mainstream worldwide, and for those sports stars to harness the moment as a protest, it has also felt radical to see women’s happiness on the big screens.
Visual symbols matter, and few politicians have made use of them as well as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, known by her initials and Twitter handle AOC, with her innate understanding of digital media and intent to turn celebrity into action. She’s shown up, with remarkable ease, attempted smears on her character that however weak, might have caused a less digitally reactive politician to flounder. When a video of her dancing in college was dragged into the public eye, its youthful frivolity used in an attempt to damage serious credibility, she put it in its place with a short clip released on Twitter dancing outside her office. She’s also taken viewers on storytelling journeys while questioning in Congress. A five-minute video of her talking about corruption went viral, despite being full of official ins and outs, because she framed it as a “lightning round” game, playing the role of dodgy dealer trying to game the system in order to show up those who have.
AOC’s ease on camera helps. But while there’s a long road ahead of her, and recent polling has shown she might need to invest more time in her constituency to retain support, Ocasio-Cortez’s savvy should serve her well. She’s used media attention to shine a light on political causes, knowing press who’ve sniffed her out as a rising star will follow where she goes, whether laudatory or critical. Her recent trip to migrant camps on the US-Mexico border forces others to bear witness.
Although we know from the meagre information released by human rights associations and charities that conditions are horrific in these camps, now openly being referred to as concentration camps by AOC and others, the tide of public opinion has typically relied on visual prompts when it comes to human rights.
Several years ago Amnesty International published a report into digital abuse and its impact on freedom of expression, marking it as a factor in dissuading women from speaking publicly. Hostility takes its toll and not everyone is equipped to rise above it. But the new wave of women stars who very visibly press on in spite of their critics is a strong and impactful message about ignoring, not placating, those stuck in the past, and doing it for each other.