On March 19, 2015, Ashley Judd published an article on the news website Mic about the threats of violence she received after tweeting about Kentucky basketball. Judd tweeted that Kentucky’s opponent was “playing dirty & can kiss my team’s free throw making a—.” In response, basketball fans called Judd a “whore,” “bitch,” and “cunt” and made threats of physical and sexual violence.
AP Photo/David Richard
These responses are deeply problematic—not just because of their extremely violent nature, but also because they are used to target women online. Judd asserts that even when people like her uncle make similar points about Kentucky’s gameplay, he does not face threats because of his position as a “male sports fan.” Judd rightfully points out that the tweets she received represent a “devastating social norm experienced by millions of girls and women on the Internet.”
Cultural studies scholar Emma Alice Jane calls this gendered e-bile, “a hostile misogynist rhetoric on the Internet” and “a type of discourse marked by graphic threats of sexual violence, explicit ad hominem invective and unapologetic misogyny.” Like Judd, Jane points out that gendered e-bile is not unique to people who are particularly famous or controversial. Rather, these kinds of threats are widespread and common—so much so that Jane calls them “a lingua franca in many sectors of the cybersphere.”
Wisconsin fans can help make sure that this kind of thing doesn’t happen for women like Ashley Judd. As we all watch Wisconsin play in the NCAA men’s basketball championship tonight, and as we discuss their play afterwards, we must welcome the voices of women fans. We need to make sure that Badgers don’t call Ashley Judd — or women like her — a bitch for daring to talk about basketball.
If anything, this year’s Wisconsin men’s basketball team has taught us that being a Badger means staying loose, having fun, and playing good, clean games. For Badgers, those three things aren’t contradictory—they are what makes Wisconsin a winning team. And they can be what makes Badger basketball fandom the fandom that everyone else wishes they had. We all know our team is better than Duke. Let’s show them that our fans are too.
Jane, Emma Alice. “‘Back to the Kitchen, Cunt’: Speaking the Unspeakable about Online Misogyny.” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 28, no. 4 (2014): 558–70.
The “nothing to hide” argument has been a common fixture of post-Snowden discussion about surveillance and privacy. Most likely, you’ve heard some iteration of it in conversation—“I have nothing to hide, so why would I care if the government knows who I call on my cell phone?” Widely considered a fallacious argument by cybersecurity and legal experts, the “nothing to hide” argument also contains implicit assumptions about the divide between public and private–themes that pervade our discussions of digital communication more broadly. Most notably, shades of the “nothing to hide” argument appeared in recent discussions surrounding the leak of nude celebrity photos stolen from iCloud.
In the “nothing to hide” argument, citizenship trumps privacy—the statement declares that one is willing to exchange the privacy of their information for increased national security. With this in mind, many have objected to the “nothing to hide” argument for its legal implications. For instance, danah boyd wrote that the argument fails to consider the ways that data can be manipulated and filtered to cast an individual as guilty, and in so doing, it comes dangerously close to bypassing the “innocent until proven guilty” standard on which U.S. justice allegedly rests.
Importantly, the “nothing to hide” argument also rests on a conception of privacy as a form of secrecy, as Daniel Solove wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Rather than seeing privacy as an essential right that contributes to a healthy life, the “nothing to hide” argument rests on a deep skepticism about why anyone would desire to keep certain information private. Additionally, as Solove notes, privacy is a particularly difficult concept to articulate. He writes that:
It is a plurality of different things that do not share any one element but nevertheless bear a resemblance to one another. For example, privacy can be invaded by the disclosure of your deepest secrets. It might also be invaded if you’re watched by a peeping Tom, even if no secrets are ever revealed.
The difficulty of articulating privacy means that, in instances where an individual claims their privacy has been invaded, they are often met with resistance. For instance, someone spied on by a peeping Tom may find their claim to privacy invalidated because of vague laws that fail to accurately define a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” In digital environments, this becomes all the more fraught.
After the September 2014 release of nude celebrity photos (crudely nicknamed “The Fappening”), a strain of commentary emerged that highlighted the public/private tension of the “nothing to hide” argument. In the aftermath of the leak, many took to Twitter with the hashtag #ifmyphonegothacked. These posts were often jokes about the fact that the users in question only had the most innocuous pictures phones—excessive animal photos, photos of food, and so on. The tweet generally included an example of the type of picture on the user’s phone, and sometimes included a comment that the user was “smart enough” not to take nude selfies. As Jill Scharr notes, this not only misses the point that the leak was an invasion of privacy due to lax security on iCloud’s part, but crosses over into victim-blaming and moralizing.
The #ifmyphonegothacked tweets point to the same misconception about privacy that pervades the “nothing to hide” argument—that privacy is a form of secrecy, and thus should be regarded with suspicion. In arguing that the most scandalous photo a hacker would be likely to find on one’s device is an awkward (clothed) selfie sent to a friend, and by posting this photo along with the #ifmyphonegothacked hashtag, the user is putting seemingly private or embarrassing content on a public forum. The subtext here is that while, yes, it may be embarrassing for a third party to see the photos, the user has nothing to hide—and that if you do have something to hide, you have done something wrong.
In this way, the #ifmyphonegothacked hashtag makes a much more chilling statement—that the women in question are in the wrong for maintaining private lives, for using their devices to express their sexuality (an increasingly common phenomenon). As Kelsey McKinney writes:
In reality, few people are above this. There is nothing wrong with libido, nothing wrong with sending a picture or a video or a snapchat to another consenting adult. What’s wrong about these photos isn’t that they exist or that they were shown on the internet. What’s wrong is that they were taken and distributed without consent from the parties involved.
In this way, the #ifmyphonegothacked hashtag not only misses the point about the crime at hand, but combines one of the most problematic arguments about security and privacy with the cultural bias against female sexual expression.
While the difficulty of articulating a right to privacy in digital environments remains a problem, some of the responses taken after the hacking and theft do hint at potential solutions. For example, 4chan (the message board site where the photos were initially posted) instituted a DMCA policy that would allow victims of hacking to have their photos removed on copyright grounds. However, these solutions come no closer to preventing these leaks in the first place, and certainly do not make up for the violation suffered by those whose intimate images are posted—violations that occur as much through the revelation of the images as well as the shaming and victim-blaming that follows.
With November’s midterm congressional elections approaching, most states are currently in the midst of primary campaigns. While these local-level contests usually don’t attract much attention beyond state borders, the possibilities of viral video circulation occasionally introduce a particularly memorable candidate to the rest of the nation. While her five-way senatorial primary is still a close race, Iowa State Senator Joni Ernst recently caught the attention of the national media with a new video ad. The Republican candidate makes a lasting impression – one that could propel her to political meme fame akin to that of former Delaware senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell – by opening the TV spot with a sensational statement: “I’m Joni Ernst. I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm, so when I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork.”
Given the backlash amongst Iowa voters to Democratic candidate Bruce Braley’s recent statement that current Senator Charles Grassley is just “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school,” Ernst’s appeal to the state’s agricultural base could spell out success, at least in the short-term. The ad’s playful tone demonstrates that the campaign embraces Ernst’s experiences on a hog farm, projecting them as the quintessential characteristics of Iowan life that make the state’s voters and political climate unique. Indeed, it’s unlikely that candidates from other states would include their own blend of Pork Rub in their online campaign store.
Far from the Hawkeye state, however, national media outlets have picked up Ernst’s ad. Notably, it has received play on The Colbert Report and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Fallon reacts with visible disbelief and disgust, stammering that “I don’t know what she’s running for but let’s just give her the job” and parodying her with, “Hi I’m Joni Ernst, and I grew up throwing battery acid in people’s faces.” Colbert, never breaking character, gives Ernst the kind of treatment that his program spares no guest, topic, or controversy. Running with a theme of castration jokes, he imagines Ernst’s girlhood as uniquely shaped by her involvement with the family hog farm, suggesting that she never read Charlotte’s Web and only failed to operate on Ken dolls because of the toys’ pre-existing lack of genitalia. Further, he addresses male anxieties surrounding castration, noting that “Ernst already got Mitt Romney’s endorsement, and she can have mine too if she comes nowhere near me.”
While Fallon and Colbert are, of course, primarily concerned with landing a joke that will resonate with their audiences, I think that the responses of these male TV personalities offer a point of entry into an important discussion of gender and electoral politics. Ernst’s ad is undeniably quirky, and has successfully garnered attention for her campaign, but will likely be grouped alongside both ads and gaffes from other Republican women like O’Donnell, Sarah Palin, and Michele Bachmann. While these candidates cannot be called feminists, the prevailing expectation of their incompetency is indicative of masculinist views on political strength, capability, and subjectivity. What separates Ernst from some of her fellow Republican women is that she has not yet failed; in fact, a campaign that focuses its energy and resources on appealing to the agricultural base in Iowa could be successful. Thus, while the ad is undeniably sensationalist, it takes the work of male comedians to equate Ernst’s statements about castrating hogs with a sense that she threatens masculinity.
Fallon’s comparison of the common farm practice Ernst references to throwing acid at people not only signals the disconnect that has long existed between urban and rural or agricultural voters, but also betrays a sense that women who are willing to participate in such agricultural work do not fit within comfortable, safe gender boundaries. Likewise, the Des Moines Register reported that one political operative has joked that Ernst’s Secret Service codename would be “Lorena Bobbit,” further demonstrating the discomfort that Ernst has caused. And while it may be unlikely that a male candidate would make such a joke in campaign materials, Ernst’s womanhood and willingness to cross boundaries are proving threatening to some parts of established political authority.
While Colbert’s jokes hint at similar responses, they might also leave space for a critique of ‘proper’ girlhood activities even while parodying the ad’s shock-value. In satirically suggesting that Ernst’s childhood involvement in farm work was not a part of ‘normal’ girlhood, Colbert gestures to the need for a re-evaluation of traditional femininity in politics. For Ernst’s agricultural background to suggest that she is not fit for office exposes the thin line that female candidates must walk, maintaining a desirable feminine appearance and demeanor while demonstrating that she possesses the competence, rationality, and focus that are required to participate in what is still very much an old boys’ club.
Constraints on female politicians are frequently up for discussion in the contemporary United States, amongst voters, analysts, pundits, and policy makers alike. Many voters on both sides of the aisle can agree that female candidates as ideologically distinct as Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin have faced extra obstacles to elected office by virtue of their gender and expectations of femininity and skepticism of a woman’s qualifications, even before she has the chance to demonstrate them. Ernst’s platform is inconsistent with contemporary feminisms, but her ad offers an intervention into particular dominant, masculinist logics operating in Congress, providing a critique that might leave space for much more radical interpretation and citation than Ernst could have ever intended. While I won’t join Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin in giving my endorsement to Ernst, I do applaud her willingness to run this ad – she shows that women in politics don’t need to be ‘ballsy’ to be brave.
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