Our campaign a success: thanks for speaking out against eroticised violence against women
Time for some good news. This week my colleague Sharon Haywood of Adios Barbie received news from MTV that it would not air Kanye West’s Monster video. Collective Shout and I had teamed up with Adios Barbie and other global women’s groups to try to stop release of the video and screening by MTV. I wrote a number of pieces against this ‘rape scenario set to a sound track’ (here, here and here), we launched a petition through Care2 and Change.org and momentum gathered, attracting international media coverage. Now MTV has responded. I’ll allow Sharon to take up the story, with a reprint of her blog post here.
A Monster Success
By Sharon Haywood, Co-Editor
It’s official folks, and you heard it here first: MTV and VH1 will not air Kanye West’s “Monster” video. Jeannie Kedas of MTV Networks, which also controls VH1, has recently confirmed that neither channel “has plans to air the video.” Kedas cited MTV’s voluntary standards department as a guiding force in their choice, but you can bet that our collective online movement against the official release of “Monster” also had something to do with MTV’s principled decision.
When I first watched the leaked clips of “Monster” I was so infuriated and disturbed that I couldn’t just say, “That’s an incredibly offensive and misogynistic music video. Wow, artists are really pushing the limits, aren’t they?” and get on with my day. In the past, there have been countless media messages that have riled me up, but never have I been so affected than after watching those unofficial clips for the first time. My stomach literally turned as I took in images of nearly naked dead women hanging from chains, a contorted dead woman splayed on a couch wearing nothing but red stilettos, and two dead woman propped up in bed being maneuvered like playthings by Kanye himself. Oh yeah, don’t forget Kanye gripping the hair of a woman’s severed head. I couldn’t just sit by and tweet how P O’ed I was. I’m so glad I didn’t.
“The video was submitted to MTV, but it wasn’t banned; rather, edits were requested based on the channel’s decency standards.
MTV has not banned Kanye West’s ‘Monster’ video,” the network said in a statement to MTV News. “We have been in constant communication with the label regarding this matter. However, we are still awaiting the edits we requested in order for the video to be suitable for broadcast.”
So, we waited and continued to speak out against the use of eroticized violence as mainstream viewing. On June 5th, the official release of the long-awaited version of “Monster” appeared online. The only thing that was strikingly different from the leaked clips was the disclaimer at the beginning of the video: “The following content is in no way to be interpreted as misogynistic or negative towards any groups of people. It is an art piece and shall be taken as such.” It might as well have read: “Warning: The following content may cause physical and emotional upset such as nausea and seething anger” because the final cut still contained the same sexually violent images that sparked our activism in the first place. It’s obvious that the inclusion of a disclaimer tells us that someone at Def Jam, UMG, or even West himself is paying attention to our protest. Note to artists and producers: A disclaimer does not erase nor excuse misogynistic content.
We want to publicly acknowledge and applaud MTV Networks for choosing not to air “Monster.” We congratulate MTV for reinforcing the fact that violence against women, even if couched in a horror-film format, should never be used as a way to engage and entertain viewers, many of who are under the age of 18. We need you to let others know that MTV is acting as a leader by recognizing that eroticized violence in no way, shape, or form, is entertainment. (Here’s their Facebook page. Like ‘em.)
And what about UMG, the other target of our petitions? Despite my many attempts to procure an official statement, UMG has nothing to say on the record. Some may argue that UMG shouldn’t be held accountable, as the company is not responsible for the creation of West’s content; the artist’s own record company Def Jam assumes that role. Instead, UMG focuses solely on distribution (as is indicated in the copyright at the end of “Monster”). Thanks to MTV, there aren’t many distribution options left for the video. (Here’s MTV’s Twitter handle. Thank them personally. I have.)
It’s high time that media big guns, like UMG follow MTV’s lead and recognize that profits can still be gained by taking a socially responsible stand—not in spite of doing so, but because of it. As your support has shown, there are a growing number of consumers who give more than a damn about what choices are offered to them as entertainment. Corporate bigwigs need to also realize that our work is not yet done. Far from it. Our petitions did not target the music industry as a whole but instead we focused on a single video as taking one step toward positive change. As Change.org says,
“We believe that building momentum for social change globally means empowering citizen activists locally — and that the influence of a local victory is always much larger than the change it immediately achieves.”
The sum of many small victories means notable social change. We know that the video’s lack of distribution will not eliminate the presence of misogyny in the music industry. But at least we know we’re moving in the right direction. We’ve been heard. And we’re fairly sure that the music industry will continue to listen.
Teaching little girls that make up rituals should start early
“Make-up is for everyone!” declares 5-year-old Madison, who has become a You Tube sensation for her video sessions on make-up application, recorded and uploaded by her mother.
A child doesn’t make this statement in a vacuum. As documented over and over on the MTR blog, little girls are imbibing a dominant, all-consuming message about physical appearance equating with worth. This has become much more than a child messing around with mum’s makeup, but is now more a reflection of cultural conditioning and the commercialisation of childhood (so perfectly captured in the book title This Little Kiddie Went to Market). What we are witnessing here is just part of continuum which includes child beauty parlours and toxic child beauty pageants. The beauty rituals which adult women are expected to engage in daily are now being transported to little girls.
Madison’s DIY make-up tutorials have been seized upon by cosmetic companies who appear to be sending her products to spruik. The product placement is now overt and there are links back to cosmetic sites. Madison appears to be becoming a tool of the global beauty industry. Her You Tube videos have titles like ‘Sibu Review’and ‘MAC Lipglosses’. It would be good to see Madison’s bubbly personality and creativity directed in other ways.
Parenting blogger Yvette Vignando and I were asked our thoughts on Channel 7’s Morning Show Friday.
More on the pornification of female artists: MTR on Channel 10
Music industry producer Mike Stock recently came out against the increasingly pornified performances of female artists, an issue I blogged on a couple of weeks ago. In a piece titled Why this pop-porn will damage a generation of children, Stock wrote in the Daily Mail:
Now, however, an entire generation of young girls, some as young as eight or nine, is growing up transfixed by the writhings and thrustings of performers such as Lady Gaga and Rihanna, singing along to lines such as ‘Sex in the air, I don’t care, I love the smell of it’…
Just as worrying is the impact the same material must be having on young boys. What is happening now doesn’t just undo all the good work done by the feminists of the 70s, it drags us almost back to the Stone Age. Women, as seen through the eyes of the music industry, have become little more than sex objects again. Read full article here.
With Miley Cyrus having toured Australia, and attracting media interest for her clothing and performance in an audience dominated by very young girls, Channel 10 asked me to comment. Here’s what I said:
Universal Royal Pageant chief Annette Hill isn’t feeling the love from us here in Australia over her plans to export US-style child beauty pageant culture to our shores.
“Oprah Winfrey went, she had a great time, and that’s why I want to come too. But I’m not feeling the love like Oprah did,” she told News Limited.
Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that Oprah wasn’t accompanied by six-year-olds in feathers and sequins performing Las Vegas Show girl routines? (perhaps it also has something to do with the fact that she’s not Oprah, but I’ll leave that aside for now).
Blogger and author Kerri Sackville has perfectly and comically captured the essence of kids that most of us want to protect. With her permission, I’m reprinting her post here. Enjoy. (And the little boy with the bucket on this head? I can neither confirm nor deny that this is a child of mine).
Now THIS Is A Kiddie Beauty Pageant
Kiddie beauty pageants are coming to Australia and we Aussies aren’t pleased. We do not want our kids prematurely sexualised. We do not want them wearing makeup and beehive hairdos at the age of two (actually, we do not want them wearing beehive hairdos at all, because they look utterly ridiculous). We do not want them primping and preening and flirting with the judging panel when they should be making mud pies. And we certainly don’t want them to wear those expensive sparkly dresses because they’re just going to spill their Milo on them anyway.
However, I don’t think we should dismiss kiddie beauty pageants altogether. I think there is a place for them in our country; they just need to be modified a little to better suit the Australian culture.
So I have come up with guidelines for the Australian Toddler’s Beauty Pageant. All rules must be adhered to and the judge’s decision is final. See terms and conditions* for more details.
Children are to be judged on appearance, performance and demeanor.
•All choices of clothing are to be made by the child themselves. Bonus points are awarded for creativity, colour and uniqueness of ensemble. A pink tutu worn with yellow gumboots and a bright green hoodie is excellent. Likewise a long sleeve, purple winter top worn under a white summer frock with pink leggings and Dora The Explorer novelty shoes. A designer dress worn with matching party shoes entails immediate disqualification.
•Bonus points are awarded for vegemite smears on clothing and/or food remnants on face.
•Extra bonus points are awarded for food remnants in hair.
•Triple bonus points are awarded for stains of unknown origin anywhere on the competitor.
Children are to engage in a performance of their own creation. Sponteneity is preferable and props will be provided by event organisers. Suggestions are as follows:
•Spinning around in circles until they fall over.
•Spinning around in circles with a bin on their head until they fall over.
•Lying on the floor kicking their legs.
•Doing a toddler handstand (i.e. placing hands on the floor and looking at the world from between their legs).
•Pulling up their top to show the judges their belly button.
•Kicking down a Lego tower. (Bonus points if the Lego tower was built by another child).
Children are judged on their demeanor, with points awarded for appropriateness and dramatic effect. For example:
•Throwing a tantrum for absolutely no reason.
•Running offstage to use the potty.
•Actually using the potty onstage.
•Running offstage in protest.
•Embarrassing their parents (“Daddy does smelly poos!”).
•Embarrassing the judges (“Why does that lady have a beard?”).
•Standing there looking dazed and doing absolutely nothing at all.
If you are interested in enrolling your child, contact me via this blog. But I really wouldn’t bother if I was you. My three year old is going to win for SURE.
And what’s happened to the body image positive tick?
When then Minister for Youth and Sport Kate Ellis launched the National Body Image Advisory Group, she said there had been too much talk, too much blame and “zero action”
“We decided we actually wanted results and took the pragmatic approach”, Ellis said. “Today I am calling on industry professionals to move beyond the ‘business as usual’ approach and take real action to promote positive body image.”
Now Mia Freedman, the woman Ellis appointed chair, has admitted she was “wrong” to think the voluntary code of conduct – the centrepiece of the Group’s endeavours and launched with much fanfare – would work. In a recent blog post titled “I was wrong”, she admits what many of us said at the time: a code with no teeth was doomed to fail. Freedman wrote:
The code was formally introduced by the government in June 2010….And then what happened? Nothing…NOTHING HAS CHANGED. The Body Image Code of Conduct has been given the fashionable middle finger by those it was aimed at.
So much for results. While it is commendable that Freedman has admitted her mea culpa, if the head of any other Government-appointed body had admitted to such a costly error, it would be big news. But Freedman’s admission seemed to have attracted little public attention.
The Report of the National Advisory Group on Body Image, released a year ago, announced new initiatives to address negative body image in young people. The aim was to bring the beauty, fashion and advertising industries to the table, to get them on board in a ‘partnership’ to address the growing problem of body image dissatisfaction.
The Code of Conduct provided a list of “best practice principles to guide professionals in the media, advertising and fashion industries about body image”.
The initiatives were described at the time as a “world first” (even though they weren’t really – and other countries, such as France and Spain, had taken a more radical legislative approach). Now they appear to be a world class failure in addressing increased rates of body shame and disordered eating.
Apart from a handful of token gestures, the industry has done very little. Once again, self-regulation has meant the industry has been able to do whatever it wants and get away with it.
So where does this leave the body image friendly ‘tick of approval?’ It was described in this press release:
In support of the Code, the Australian Government will be establishing a new Body Image Friendly awards scheme.
Awards will be given to industry organisations who can demonstrate meaningful and ongoing integration of the principles in the Code into their ongoing business.
Significantly, organisations who are recognised with these awards will earn the right to carry the ‘Body Image Friendly’ symbol. Winners will be able to utilise this symbol in their marketing and promotion.
“”This symbol builds on the momentum for changes that already exists in the fashion, media and beauty industries. It has great potential to become a point of differentiation for products being sold in the market,” Ms Ellis said.
“The symbol will be a marketing tool which acts as a signal to consumers that a particular product or brand stands for positive action on body image”.
An expert judging panel, headed again by Freedman, was to be set up to determine who would be deemed worthy of the body image friendly symbol.
It’s been a year now. So when does the judging start? Have any companies even applied? Have any shown any commitment at all to standing for “positive action on body image”?
One of the report’s recommendations states: “If, after a sustained period of continued developments… there is a broad failure of industry to adopt good body image practices, the Australian Government should look to review the voluntary nature of the code.”
It’s been a year and pretty much nothing has happened. So is the Government going to revisit the voluntary nature of the code? Or do we have to continue to ignore industry’s middle finger?
I should probably declare an interest before I post these two articles which I’ve wanted to share with you for awhile.
I love Adele.
I only discovered her recently. Her song ‘Someone like you’ did me in. Have a listen.
And her cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Make You Feel My Love’ is gorgeous beyond belief.
No Lady Gaga porno gimmicks. No Christina Aguilera crotch shots. No Rhianna bondage and banana clips.
Adele doesn’t need any of this. She’s only 23, but she knows she can sing. It is her voice, and her presence, which makes her a star. She doesn’t need to follow the sexualised scripts demanded of so many young artists and which I’ve written about before here.
So I was heartened to read these recently published pieces echoing my thoughts.
‘Faux porn’ music videos may be headed for a sex change, says label boss’
The Guardian – May 30, 2011
A top record executive has launched a damning attack on music industry attitudes, claiming the insistence on over-sexualising female artists has led to “boring, crass and unoriginal” music.
Richard Russell is founder of record label XL Recordings, home to the hugely successful UK singer-songwriter Adele, 23, who he said had the potential to change the way women were seen in the industry by focusing on her music rather than her sexuality.
“The whole message with [Adele] is that it’s just music, it’s just really good music,” said Russell. “There is nothing else. There are no gimmicks, no selling of sexuality. I think in the American market, particularly, they have come to the conclusion that is what you have to do.” Read article here
Pornography killed the video star – pop music’s latest little death
Warwick McFadyen, June 4 2011 – National Times
SOME commodities are dug from the ground. Some are grown from the soil. Some are reared on the land. The value of each, whether it be iron ore, wheat or cows is governed by supply and demand.
So it is with the pairing of sex and women – the raw materials in the manufacture of a musical product that has less to do with the ostensible first cause of said product, that is the song, and much more to do with the selling of a chattel.
The sexualisation of women in the pop business to achieve this aim credits no one. It is a disgrace. In this commodity market, the human becomes the object. A singing, dancing object that has been degraded of individuality so as to be amorphous, malleable and interchangeable. Puppets and puppetmasters. Read article here.
A number of Facebook pages have attracted media attention recently for offering an opportunity to rank a partner’s sexual ‘performance’.
I have argued that the sites provide more opportunity for revenge and bullying through social networking pages (as if there isn’t enough of that already).
Porn-inspired descriptions of various body parts appear to make up much of the reviews, relaying an impression that this is all there is to sex. Sex becomes about performance, not intimacy or connection with another person, which gives many young people, including those not yet sexually active, a limited view of sexuality and relationships. This creates additional pressure and stress about one’s ability to provide the Porn Star Experience.
These are some of the points I made in a recent interview on Channel 7’s Sunrise.
Huzzah! More sexualised images of women served up by the fashion and beauty industry
Here’s some photos from the latest issue of Vogue Italia featuring Australian model Robyn Lawley, with two other plus-sized models, Tara Lynn and Candice Huffine.
The colloqial expression “Huzzah” was deployed recently to describe the inclusion of the size 14 Lawley on the cover and inside, as though this is some world-shaking victory.
The ‘plus size beauties’ lean over plates of spaghetti in their lingerie. Lawley sits with legs spread. In other images two models loll around topless on a chair in a boudoir-like setting. Another lays back over a couch in corsetry. The expressions are of high-class glamourous seduction.
I am not contesting that they are beautiful women, and the images are visually rich. The question I ask is, why is stripping off and sexualising larger-sized women a great victory? How is depicting them as semi-naked sexual adornments like their skinnier sisters, a reason to celebrate?
And given that size 14 is an average size why is it being called a ‘plus size’ anyway?
I also wonder if these models didn’t have classic model facial features and large breasts, whether their ‘larger’ bodies would ever have made it on any magazine.
Simply using curvier bodies doesn’t change the primary aim of presenting women in magazines like Vogue, as sexually alluring. The baring of female flesh – even when the flesh comes packaged as something other than an eight or ten – is still what counts. But the flesh has to be of an ‘acceptable’ kind in the first place. Size 14 isn’t that radical.
Regarding Lawley’s positioning on the Vogue cover, according to her mother (as reported by Frockwriter) the photographer asked Lawley to sit how she would sit if she were a really powerful person.
I’m not sure it’s power that comes across in the image. Sure, if she were a man in a pinstriped suit perhaps. I just don’t see that many men sitting that way in corsets and suspenders. Or perhaps I don’t get invited to meetings of business men sitting around in their jocks with their legs apart.
Sitting spread legged in sexy lingerie directs our gaze and suggests sexual availability not ‘I’m planning a company takeover’.
Vogue Italia’s editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani recently told Women’s Wear Daily, “We help [plus-size women] dress fashionably.
Which is kind of funny given the three curvy models aren’t wearing all that much in some of the shots. Perhaps she should have said, “we tell ‘plus-size women how to take their clothes off to make them more acceptable”.
And while I appreciate that Sozzani has launched a petition against pro-anorexia websites, I share Patti Huntington’s view that this is also somewhat ironic.
Last year I ran a thoughtful guest post by Ethel Tungohan titled ‘Plus size models a tokenistic attempt at inclusion’. Ethel wrote:
A quick look at plus-size fashion shoots show that plus-size models are usually shown as naked. Though fashion editors can easily justify the nudity of plus-size models by asserting that women’s bodies should be shown in all their glory, it is bizarre that a large number of plus-size fashion spreads hardly seem to have any fashion content, preferring instead to depict plus-size models in one of two ways: either they are overly sexualized or they are revered for being ‘real’….
Australia lagging behind while sexualisation gets worse
A six-month independent review into the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood, in the UK published Monday, called on retailers, media and regulatory bodies to take action in the best interest of children.
The inquiry report, Letting Children Be Children, is the product of surveys and interviews with hundreds of parents, along with input from children and young people, focus groups and submissions from interested parties.
Commissioned by PM David Cameron, the inquiry was headed by Reg Bailey, Chief Executive of Mothers’ Union, who found parents felt undermined by a sexualised culture in their efforts to raise healthy children. “Society has become increasingly full of sexualised imagery. This has created a wallpaper to children’s lives. Parents feel there is no escape and no clear space where children can be children,” he said.
The recommendations include:
• Providing parents with one single website to make it easier to complain about any program, ad, product or service.
• Putting age restrictions on music videos to prevent children buying sexually explicit videos and screening guides for broadcasters
• Making it easier for parents to block adult and age-restricted material from the internet
• Retailers offering age-appropriate clothes for children – the retail industry should sign up to the British Retail Consortium’s new guidelines which checks and challenges the design, buying, display and marketing of clothes, products and services for children.
• Restricting outdoor ads containing sexualised imagery where large numbers of children are likely to see them
• Banning the employment of children under 16 as brand ambassadors and in peer-to-peer marketing, and improving parents’ awareness of advertising and marketing techniques aimed at children.
• ‘Lads’ magazines to be moved to the top shelf in shops or sold in covers.
In an encouraging sign, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) has acted by publishing good practice guidelines on children’s wear. Nine major companies had already signed up.
The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) also came out in support of the review’s recommendations. “The protection of children from harmful or inappropriate advertising is one of the Advertising Standards Authority’s top priorities and to do this we know we need to reflect the views of parents and young people in our work,” Chief Executive Guy Parker said. The Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England also welcomed the report.
Bailey has recommend Government monitoring of implementation of the recommendations and a stock-take in 18 months. The Prime Minister and Children’s Minister will invite businesses and regulators into Downing Street in October and ask them to report on steps they have taken to address the issues.
Wouldn’t that be nice.
Child development authorities, child psychologists, and children’s advocacy groups have been waiting since 2008 for action following the Senate committee inquiry into the sexualisation of children in the contemporary media environment.
The report made a number of recommendations which seem to have sunk without a trace and industry has shown almost no willingness to be pro-active. Profits before children seem to be the motto despite a growing body of evidence of harm to the physical and mental health of children. As Emma Rush, lead author of the Australia Institute’s Corporate Paedophilia report summarises:
There is substantial evidence that sexualisation harms children: it promotes body image concerns, eating disorders, and gender stereotyping. Premature sexualisation also erases the line between who is and is not sexually mature, and as such, may increase the risk of child sexual abuse by undermining the important social norm that children are sexually unavailable.
The Senate Inquiry recommended a review of the recommendations – supposed to take place in December 2009 – to assess the response of industry to the recommendations. A year and a half later, and we’re still waiting.
Meanwhile, ‘self-regulation’ continues to mean the industry gets to do what it wants and get away with it.
If Britain’s regulatory bodies, retailers and children’s commissioner can get behind the Bailey recommendations, why can’t the equivalent bodies in Australia get on board?
Here’s what I said about the issue on Channel 7’s Sunrise. Was good to see Kochie realise that we also had an inquiry and a report which was now wasting away on a shelf.
THIS much Nina Funnell knows about the man who held a box-cutter blade to her throat on an autumn’s evening in May 2007.
She knows he had an olive complexion. She knows he had bushy eyebrows and a five o’clock shadow. She knows – although she cringes at the stereotype it encourages – that he spoke with a thick, Middle Eastern accent. He attacked from behind, she remembers that, and dragged her into a park opposite a girls’ high school in an affluent Sydney suburb. She knows there was not just the threat of violence; this man was quite prepared to deliver it. He threw her to the ground, straddled her and punched her repeatedly in the face as he indecently assaulted her.
She knows the police have his DNA, captured in the shreds of skin she clawed from him as she fought him off in what she describes as “an adrenalin-fuelled fit”. And she knows they have not caught him yet. Maybe they never will. This frustrates and saddens her, but she holds on to those tiny nuggets of certainty about that otherwise nightmare-ish blur of events.
As for what has happened since, this much Nina Funnell doesn’t know. Why, after she wrote about the assault, would anonymous contributors to different websites attack her and threaten her? And why would that story, first told in a Sydney newspaper, prompt one website to run a public discussion, inviting guests to assess how “rape-able” she is? And why did one man read of her trauma and feel compelled to announce to the world: “what a conceited bitch for thinking she is even worthy of being raped. The guy just probably wanted to give her a good bashing in which case job well done.”
She does not know why there are some who, years later, still monitor her words and turn up in online forums to spread rumours that she lied about her experience, and to demand she provide intimate details or release police photos of the injuries she suffered.
She does not know when they might strike again, for they seem to work around the clock, and she cannot know whether they target her – “She’s so fugly, I wouldn’t even bother raping her from behind with a box cutter” – from the next continent or the next cubicle. She does not know what they look like and she does not know why they do it, whether it is for fun or boredom, or to humiliate her and encourage others to do the same – or worse. She doesn’t know how many people are doing this to her; trawling the web, looking for opportunities to strike. And she does not know when they will stop.
Which is precisely why Nina Funnell, who now works as an anti-violence campaigner and writes regularly about social issues and the media, believes passionately that there are some things we all need to know about communication in the modern age.
“The internet has absolutely changed the nature of public debate,” Funnell, 27, says. “The anonymity and the immediacy it gives people who want to indulge in abuse and hate… I don’t know if it actually makes it more or less dangerous [to have a public profile] but when you’re seeing a whole heap of hate speech written about you in separate forums, targeting you via email or in comments, I do know that it has a profound impact on your sense of safety…
“I had tried to come to terms with the fact that there was a psycho out there who had tried to rape and kill me. But then I realised that it wasn’t just one individual, that there was a whole subculture that found this amusing. It was sport for them.”
Snail-mail to cyber-bile
Nutters and obsessives; lonely hearts and angry pensioners. For as long as there have been commentators in public forums, there have been belligerent hecklers and aggrieved critics shouting from the fringes. Back when the mail would be distributed twice a day around our newsroom by a junior pushing a creaking trolley, the opinion writers of our newspaper ran a weekly competition to determine who had received the craziest correspondence.
Envelopes flecked with grease spots or some other unidentifiable liquid – could it be spittle? – often disgorged one’s own article, indignantly clipped with ragged scissors or torn wholesale in one enraged swipe, bearing contemptuous comments scrawled in capitals.
Of course, there were more sinister threats, particularly during the fevered days of gun control and Hansonism. The police were called when I received a particularly nasty letter detailing very specific plans for harm and some knowledge of where my family lived. Security guards were assigned to accompany me to my car each night for a few weeks, and I was told to take care when I arrived home. “Still, we have evidence,” a young constable said as he tweezered the letter into a ziplock bag, “and in the majority of cases once they’ve sent a letter that’s the last they ever think about it.”
It was precious little comfort at the time. But after studying some of the cyber-bile sent to Nina Funnell, and after spending hours tracking the crazed logic and outright intimidation of her opponents down the shadowy rabbit holes of various internet forums, abuse that takes a day or two arrive, and then with a postcode neatly stamped upon it, seems almost quaint. Strange days, these, when it can appear almost polite to limit your slander to an audience of one – unless it is taken to the boss or the police – and your death threats to a flimsy page that can be sealed away in a plastic bag.
Cyber-bile takes many forms: from people posting pornography or sexually explicit comments on Facebook memorials to murdered children, to the person who set up a Facebook site which promised the return of abducted Queensland schoolboy Daniel Morcombe if the page attracted one million members. To most right-thinking people this sort of stuff is unbelievably cruel, surely the outpourings of a small number of sick minds. Hoaxers regularly hack into Facebook pages, defacing pictures or spreading rumours that can cause untold pain, panic and embarrassment. And then there’s the constant background chatter that eats away at people – mostly women – in the public domain. It seems everyone has an opinion now, and they want to be heard. But when did they become so mean and, in some cases, downright terrifying?
Sydney newsreader Jacinta Tynan calls them the faceless brave. “When people want to give me a compliment, they tend to email me directly,” says the journalist and author. “Those who want to say really horrible things will go online and do it anonymously. They’re suddenly very brave when they don’t have to attach their names or their faces to their comments.”
“Brave” is a generous description of some of those who regularly post vitriolic opinions on the Sky News website, assessing Tynan’s appearance and performance as a presenter:
News reader Jacinta tynon’s [sic] latest botox shots have reduced her face to a skull and make here [sic] sound like daffy duck lmao how stupid is the woman to think botox makes her look professional. Anything but sweetie, you look and sound terrible.
What on earth has Jacinta Tynan done to her lips? She looks like she’s been bitten by a swarm of wasps. The botox job is ok, but those lips!!!
“Public figures are easy targets,” Tynan says, adding she has never had Botox or collagen injections, but suffered a surge in abuse from viewers as her body changed with her pregnancies. “I think they forget you’re human… I do try to respond to all of them, and when I was pregnant I felt particularly protective, like I needed to point out that hey, there’s a baby in here! But most of the time my efforts are wasted because they’ve used a fake email address…
“What you have to keep remembering, as my mother always says, is ‘what they say says more about them than you’. If someone wants to take the time to get on a website and bitch about how you look, that’s their problem.”
All television presenters have to learn to live with brutal feedback about their looks, Tynan, 41, says. But the internet has made it much ¬easier for critics – and, occasionally, unhinged admirers – to torment celebrities and other public figures who catch their attention. In Tynan’s case, this includes a woman who assumed her Facebook identity, creating a page in her name complete with an array of work and family “snapshots” copied from existing publicity pictures already posted on the Web. Fake Jacinta managed to “friend” many of Tynan’s real friends, who were unaware of the ruse, and apparently even began a relationship online, before dying suddenly. The “tragedy” was announced on Facebook by her “sister”, who thoughtfully posted a picture of her coffin. As unnerving as it sounds, Tynan says she was unruffled by the incident, “although it does show just how easy it is to create a false identity on Facebook.”
Much closer to home – and therefore much more personally devastating – was the avalanche of hostility unleashed after she wrote a newspaper column revelling in the joys of caring for her first son, Jasper, in the months after he was born. “I honestly thought I was writing a positive story about motherhood that would uplift people on a Sunday,” she says of the column, which attracted a record amount of feedback when blogger Mia Freedman reposted it on her popular website Mamamia and prompted vehement talkback sessions on radio around the country. “It was the first time I had been exposed to the level of anger and vitriol that is allowed to breed online through blogs and websites. All the really nasty stuff was personal and so vitriolic. There were people wishing illness on my child and infertility on me.”
The internet’s ability to amplify rumours and thus cement them into facts is what most shocked and, for a while, threatened to overwhelm Tynan. “I tried to keep my head above it, but when it was still going after a few months, it got a bit tough,” she recalls. “It became a bit like a witch hunt. There were people getting whipped up into a frenzy and I realise many of them hadn’t even read what I’d written. But they’d dedicate their own blog to [discussing] it and then people would read that…”
What continues to disturb her is how those malicious “facts” linger long after the debate has died. Google “Jacinta Tynan” and “nanny”, for example, and the search engine takes 0.20 seconds to deliver links to several sites where readers are informed authoritatively that Tynan is unqualified to talk about motherhood because she has a full-time nanny. Tynan, now the mother of two, has never employed a nanny, but that may not be enough to sate anonymous critics.
The question remains: what drives this level of anger? Dr Stephen Harrington, who lectures in media and communication at QUT’s Creative Industries Faculty, says much of the aggression comes from people’s disappointment that the online world still appears to favour professionals and experts, rather than levelling the playing field of public opinion as anticipated.
“That gap between the promise [of the internet] and the reality has generated anger and resentment among some people, and they really let that anger fly when they are given even the most tiny chance to have their voice heard,” Harrington says. “The comments section of a news article is a good example. I think some people use those forums to attack everyone who disagrees with them because they have been told that their opinion is equally valid to everyone else’s, and they feel they have the right to say whatever they want to, no matter how tangential it is to the actual item under discussion.”
But if the internet has been likened to the Wild West, a new frontier where law and order is regularly tested in the rush to stake a claim in the new world, then Harrington urges users to embrace the opportunities rather than freeze for fear of outlaws. “Whenever there is a debate about new communication technology, we tend to blame any downsides or negative uses on the technology itself, rather than the people using it,” he observes. “When someone dies in a car accident, we generally don’t blame the vehicle itself, or car companies. Fatal accidents only serve as a reminder that people should be careful on the roads. I think we should approach new media technologies in the same rational way.”
Driven to despair
But what if a responsible commuter on the information superhighway is forced off the road by other reckless or aggressive drivers whose licence plates are obscured? Paul Tilley, 40, may have been one such fatality. On a bitterly cold night in February 2008, the father-of-two stepped out onto the roof of a swank hotel in downtown Chicago and jumped to his death. That a successful advertising executive for DDB Chicago would take his own life at the apparent peak of his career might pass as strange to industry outsiders. But within days of the news breaking – even before Chicago police had ruled the death a suicide – an online flame war had erupted about whether vicious industry gossip spread by anonymous bloggers had driven Tilley to this final act of despair. Regardless of the reasons it is testament to the power of the internet that much of the mud-slinging can still be tracked online by a stranger in Australia, three years later.
“Anyone who thinks this sort of stuff doesn’t need to be taken seriously, that it doesn’t have a serious impact, doesn’t understand the nature of depression,” says Sean Cummins, 49, a successful Australian ad exec, whose experiences at the hands of vindictive industry bloggers mirror Tilley’s in chilling ways.
Now the head of Cummins Ross in Melbourne, his former agency Cummins Nitro was responsible for the internationally recognised “Best Job In The World” campaign for Tourism Queensland. “That was when the vitriol started pouring in, all anonymous, on industry blogs,” Cummins says. “Everything from ‘he’s a bastard to work for’ to suggestions that I hadn’t done the work I’d claimed credit for, to jibes about my personal life and even my profile photo…
“It’s a form of social terrorism. My kids were being taught at school not to cyber-bully and yet here were these professionals out trying to really hurt people by doing exactly that.
“It was such a personal and outrageous character assassination and the collateral damage was enormous. There was a knock-on effect: when you’re not confident, your creative work suffers because you second-guess yourself. Then I dulled the pain by drinking. I was erratic and my mood swings were inexplicable to my wife and family. Then my wife went on the website and she was shattered.
“Unfortunately, I got to the point where I contemplated topping myself and the ways I might do it. What stopped me was knowing I would leave a lot of people I loved very lost.”
Instead, Cummins has decided to fight back. This week, he will take aim at the “cowards” in his industry – many of whom he claims work for major agencies – in a presentation titled Cummins vs. Anonymous at the Mumbrella360 marketing and media conference in Sydney.
“There is this civil libertarians’ view of the internet that says it promotes a wonderful, open exchange of ideas,” he says. “But it’s not open and it’s not an exchange when someone is deriding someone else’s work or reputation and you can’t respond because you don’t know where it’s come from or who you’re responding to.”
Cummins will argue that all comments on industry blogs should be attributed by name – and that websites should be held accountable if they allow anonymous posters to defame or attack other people. He says ultimately, he is prepared to sue if he has to – and, given he reckons he could mount a case for lost business, when prospective clients are scared off by what they read on the internet, the damages could be enormous. “This is about shutting people down and I’m not going to be shut down,” he declares. “And if I have to stand up before my peers and become the poster boy for good manners, then so be it.”
Ping! One morning, as I am researching this story, an email lobs into my inbox shortly after I’ve logged on to my work computer. I open it to read: Shut the f*ck up you f*cking ugly OLD wowser c*nt. You need a good stiff c*ck shoved down your throat if you ask me. What’s the matter? Were you the ugly fat flat chested girl at school? Why don’t you shut you f*cking c*nt mouth? Live your own f*cking life, raise your own f*cking kids, nobody elected you the arbiter of morality… you’re a do-gooder, a meddling c*nt, who needs to shut the f*ck up. I’m going to a brothel tonight, and I’ll be selecting the whore who most looks your age. Remember c*nt, you’re a wowser c*nt, who needs to shut the f*ck up.
The email has been forwarded to me from Julie Gale, founder of children’s advocacy group Kids Free 2B Kids, who received it after she appeared on The 7pm Project to speak about the sexualisation of children, and particularly reports that increasing numbers of young teenagers were seeking Brazilian waxes.
Ping! Another email arrives. This one is from Melinda Tankard Reist, a Canberra-based author who campaigns on social issues and policy affecting women, most recently the expanding porn industry and “pornification” of pop culture. Bolz says: Melinda quite clearly doesn’t have hot bangable ass…, like Pippa. Jealous much?
Tankard Reist, 48, recently wrote an article, posted on the News Limited website The Punch, decrying the appearance of the Pippa Middleton Arse Appreciation Society page on Facebook as little more than online sexual harassment of the sister of Prince William’s bride, Catherine Middleton. In her article, she quoted comments from the freely accessible Facebook page – “She would need a wheel chair and straw when I’d be finished with it xxbig Matty chambers xxx” – as evidence of the sort of violent and misogynist commentary that flourishes as “fun” on the internet, only to attract the same sort of abuse herself.
Ping! Another one from Tankard Reist, this time a tweet she copied in March targeting News Limited columnist Miranda Devine. @Mighty-Chewbacca: Today screwed Miranda Devine, then penned blog on her soiled panties on bus home.
Ping! And then one from Nina Funnell, recalling the time she wrote about cervical cancer vaccine Gardasil, only to have the online discussion quickly devolve into a slanging match in which she was told she was probably “riddled with STDs” and “just needed a good d*ck up you”.
Ping! Ping! Ping! The messages arrive by email, by text message and via Facebook, after hours and at home, a veritable 24/7 outpouring of sub-intellectual sludge that begins to feel overwhelming in its toxicity, even though I have specifically asked for it. How must it feel when you can’t turn off the tap?
“As a comedy writer and performer, my default mechanism is to see the humour,” says Gale, 48, who somehow juggles a career as a Melbourne-based comedian with her deadly serious Kids Free 2B Kids campaigns to tighten advertising codes for children and restrict their exposure to pornography. “The vitriol is always unexpected, and for a few beats I do have to process the information. But then I take a deep breath and send it straight to my “comedy” file. I know there’s some fabulous material sitting there, and trust me, I intend to use it!”
But she also concedes: “Every now and then, I wonder whether I should be watching my back, but I just shake those thoughts off and get on with it. I’ve never discussed this issue publicly before, because I’m out there encouraging people to speak out – which is paramount to creating change. So I don’t want to put anyone off.”
And therein lies the Catch-22 for women in the cyber-firing line. On the one hand, they believe it is essential to expose the level of abuse and misogyny that has flourished on the largely unregulated new media. On the other, they fear the only effect that would have is to discourage women from participating in public debates.
Says Tankard Reist, who occasionally re-Tweets or posts particularly vile comments: “I want to expose these people so my followers [on Twitter or her website] can see the battle we have, the ingrained hatred and contempt these people have for women… But I already know of young women who say they won’t write their own pieces or contribute to comments pages anymore because of the feedback they get.”
Although she condemns the sort of abuse thrown at men like Cummins and controversial male commentators like News Limited journalist Andrew Bolt, Tankard Reist says it is hard to imagine any man being subjected to the levels of personal intimidation – particularly, threats of sexual violence – that are part of life in the new media age for outspoken women.
Of course, there are still a few things the old and new media have in common, including the truisms that sex sells and so does controversy. So if you build a site where there is heated, colourful debate, the hits will come. And in an era where the media and newsmakers are still grappling with how to build stable, profitable audiences online, few moderators or hosts are willing to shut that down.
“Sure, it drives more traffic to a site,” Tankard Reist says of the sort of no-holds-barred slanging matches that often replace serious debate online. “But editors and moderators need to be more vigilant about not allowing their forums to become platforms for haters and trolls.”
Funnell agrees: “There’s a ‘lighten up squad’ out there where everyone says ‘if it’s too hot, get out of the kitchen’. But perhaps the kitchen shouldn’t be so hot in the first place. This is not just about women. It’s about any sort of hate speech that is systematically directed against any particular group, designed to intimidate them or shut them down. It’s about freedom of speech versus speech that defames, threatens or intimidates.”
Tankard Reist, who has an ear for popular culture, chimes in: “When you ask for moderation or regulation, the people who oppose it claim it’s because they believe in free speech. But they want to shut my speech down. It reminds me of the chorus of that song Ode to Women [by Your Best Friend’s Ex]. They all demand their right to freedom of speech, and yet guys like that are using it to sing: ‘Bitch, shut your mouth’.”
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