April 20th, 2011

“Bitches in heat” & other gendered insults

Women in the public eye regularly get flamed with sexually violent language by anonymous Internet commenters. It’s time to put a stop to this behaviour.

Disclaimer: This article contains strong language, quoted verbatim from Internet message boards.

By Lisa Li

Is the People’s Action Party (PAP) candidate Ms Tin Pei Ling bearing the brunt of criticism and prejudice because, and only because, she is a young woman?

Or, as a friend pointed out, is it sexist to assume that “Ms Tin wouldn’t be mocked as badly if she were a Mr Tin”? After all, if a hypothetical Mr Tin had behaved the same way or demonstrated similar weaknesses, wouldn’t he have been criticised as well?

It is heartening that these two views value gender equality, differing only on the nature of discrimination and how we should respond to perceived sexism. Still, it is this small difference that creates some tensions among those of us who desire gender equality.

Should we speak out against sexism, pointing out how it drives criticism of female public figures? Or is speaking out against perceived sexism itself a sexist act since it creates an unfair distinction based on gender, when the criticism may in fact be gender-blind?

I think both views are worth considering. A certain degree of gender-blindness is necessary, because to label the criticism as purely sexist (or ageist) ignores the valid concerns people have regarding Ms Tin’s capabilities and views on public policies in Singapore.

However, to be completely gender-blind would also mean ignoring the current reality. Simply put, female public figures still receive criticism based on sexist stereotypes, discrimination and gendered violence.

Take a quick look at online forums and you will find many sound, articulate opinions – and also many comments that are utterly sexist and offensive.

Apart from PAP’s Ms Tin, other female public figures in Singapore have also received similar treatment in recent months. In late 2010, The New Paper reporter Ms Ng Wan Ching was criticised for her alleged role in exposing the personal details of website Temasek Review’s founders. On a separate occasion, Ms Braema Mathi, chairperson of human rights NGO MARUAH , was criticised for supposedly being a “PAP plant”.

Regardless of one’s opinion on these different matters, surely nothing justifies such gendered insults:
“She is “a bitch on heat [which] knows no boundaries.”
“Let’s f her. But yuck! Can’t ‘stand’ her sight”
“BITCH, WE ARE COMING FOR YOU”
“Can somebody post the link for me to see what type of “f**K me pls” face of this prostitute?”
“Leave politics to the pigs and do something to help the dwindling birth rate”
[She is] “still wet in the panties”
“Her mouth is looks like a drive-thru for blowjobs”
[She] “is only fit for selling her cheebye”

These comments are quoted verbatim from forums such as Temasek Review, The Online Citizen and YouTube, which is not an indictment of these websites, but an indictment of the anonymous netizens who posted these comments.

The insults were directed at the aforementioned women for different reasons, yet the vitriol is remarkably uniform in nature. They clearly invoke the familiar insults of violence against women, reducing the female public figure to a body part or a vulnerable female who can be prostituted or raped – all of which is completely unwarranted and unrelated to the issues these women are supposedly being criticised for.

One could argue that this type of violent online language is the work of trolls who are, in all likelihood, immature cyber-flashers who delight in provoking shock or fear, and therefore not even worth acknowledging.

You might even argue that this language is colourful but common, and the sexual aggression is less an actual threat than a habit of speech. Perhaps people rely on such swearing to communicate the extent of their rage, and not to physically threaten anyone.

Do these possibilities excuse such behaviour? I think not. There have been countless cases of verbal harassment that cause an individual to live in a state of fear. Verbal harassment may be less of a crime compared to physical abuse, but it is no less serious.

Still, what’s the point of speaking out against it? After all, swearing is clearly universal behaviour, writes British journalist Peter Silverton in his 2009 book Filthy English. The same likely applies to these gendered and sexist insults as well.

This was also a point of discussion during Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker’s 2008 interview with The Guardian. Pinker explained that he developed his interest in language “because it reflects our obsessions and ways of conceptualising the world”. Swear words, in particular, were “a window on to the domains of life that arouse the strongest emotions: bodily secretions, powerful deities, death, disease, hated people or groups and depraved sexual acts”, he said.

The power of the violent swear word and the misogynistic insult makes it the dirtiest, cheapest, quickest way to attack someone and convey intense anger, and it seems here to stay.

Yet, inevitable or not, silence in the face of such sexist insults is a form of resigned consent. I believe censorship is not the solution – education and persuasion is. Whatever our differences when it comes to the discussion of issues, the common deminominator should be a discourse that avoids sexist criticism, be it in our homes, classrooms or offices. Such blatant sexism is offensive and hurtful to the individuals involved, and to all of us who wish for a better way for our children.

The author is a teacher, writer and AWARE member.

9 Comments ...

  1. SarahJayne

    I think compared to the online bitching and insults for the likes of Obama and the UK’s David Cameron, Ms Ten Pei Ling has received quite a tame public bashing.
    It’s not to say that it is wrong or right, but if you look further it does appear that thousands of netizens of all countries feel compelled to defile their government leaders abusively using a variety of subjects.
    I would say that it is a shame there are so FEW online abusive comments to our female leaders which only indicates how few of them there are on the worldwide stage!
    The world needs more female leaders in prominent roles, and although that will ensue more inane rantings so be it.
    I don’t think this is a feminist issue – infact look at the scathing attack on sportsmen when they make a mistake – calls for hangings, floggings, questioning of their sexuality, threats to their family etc.

    #2585
  2. EDMW

    zzzz. Want to pick fight also pick properly mah.

    While no doubt that the insults are sexist in nature, the base reason for the insults isn’t.

    She’s a candidate picked by an unpopular ruling party, and deemed not mature enough by the public to be one of their representatives in the government.

    Pure and simple. Nothing to do with her gender.

    If the Kate Spade photo was turned into some bespectacled, pimply buibui guy otaku posing with a Pokemon plush toy, the insults and brickbats, though different in phrasing, would have still come.

    Stuff like this only brings down the general perception of feminists as a whole.

    And to Lisa Li, you apparently never witness what other netizens say about other male MP….Thus, you are myopic and seriously out-of-touch with the community..

    #2595
  3. VoteWisely

    Nicole Seah, Sylvia Lim and Glenda Han have received praises from everyone, while Vivian Bala, Mah Bow Tan and Wong Kan Sing have received lots of criticisms too. Tin Pei Ling got the attention just because she’s the poorest of the new candidates and have nothing to do with her gender.
    This article is so biased its not funny, and attack just for the sake of attacking with selective reporting. I feel sad by the fact that this article is written by a teacher.

    #2596
  4. Snorlax

    If you’re talking about bashing, how about try looking at the bashing netizens are giving to the male MPs? the contents of this article is rather myopic and it’s disappointing to know that this is the kind of teacher that is grooming our future generation.

    #2597
  5. Lisa Li

    I am the letter writer and would like to clarify my article.

    1. I am not defending TPL. I personally do not support her at all & I am not happy that she is in Parliament. (My views – I am not speaking for AWARE.)

    2. Of course “Mr Tin” (with the same actions & apparent lack of views on policies) would be criticized too. I know there is much criticism of male MPs as well.

    3. You are absolutely right to point out that there are many other women in politics who are not criticized, because they happen to be GOOD & admired. Agreed.

    So I am NOT saying that it is sexist to criticize TPL. There are many good reasons to criticize her. I am merely saying that the language used for SOME criticism is sexist because it refers to physical violence/ body parts etc.

    You are criticizing my competence as a teacher. Well, if my students were to engage in a debate in class and they start criticizing each other referring to physical violence/ body parts instead of rebutting each other’s argument, I would certainly think it is not the right way to criticize someone. Is that incompetence as a teacher?

    #2598
  6. Rolls Eyes

    Oh for crying out loud. Miss Li is NOT saying that TPL got negative attention because she is female; she is making reference to the nature and language of the comments on forums … a large portion of which are gender-specific and allude to both physical and sexual violence.

    TPL’s inadequacy as an MP is not in doubt. The article is not about her. It is about a specific brand of comments observed over the course of election period.

    Would you ever call a man ”a dog on heat who knows no boundaries”?
    Would you ever say, “Let’s f him. But yuck! Can’t ‘stand’ the sight of him”? Would anyone ever post a comment about a male politician saying “Can somebody post the link for me to see what type of “f**K me pls” face this prostitute has?” or that “his mouth looks like a drive-thru for blowjobs” or that he is “only fit for selling his dick”?

    Find me as many comments alluding to sexual violence against any male politician who ran for this election as there were against TPL, and then we can start questioning Miss Li’s opinion. If you can’t, perhaps you should start reading articles for what they are instead of seeing in them your own ignorant assumptions.

    #2599
  7. VoteWisely

    A school debate shouldn’t even be used as an analogy for some youtube comments when both are in an entirely different environment. Perhaps the school debate should be more appropriate if you’re talking about facebook discussion, where everyone is posting without any anonymous identity and where everyone is to practice an amount of self discipline in an moderated environment.

    I’ve seen some gendered insults toward some of the male politicians as well on, though not as much and as much due to the reason being that most females are political apathetic in the first place. I’ve seen an enormous portions of gendered insults toward non-political names such as Justin Bieber or for someone closer to home, Steven Lim, which are also completely unwarranted and unrelated to the issues they is supposedly being criticised for. No offense, but you are very naive if you think it is possible to put an end to this behaviour, when this is a something that’s not unique to Singapore.

    #2601
  8. VoteWisely

    A school debate shouldn’t even be used as an analogy for some youtube comments when both are in an entirely different environment. Perhaps the school debate should be more appropriate if you’re talking about facebook discussion, where everyone is posting without any anonymous identity and where everyone is to practice an amount of self discipline in an moderated environment.

    I’ve seen some gendered insults toward some of the male politicians as well on, though not as much and as much due to the reason being that most females are political apathetic in the first place. @Rolls Eyes: Instead of just limiting it to only the politicians, why not even the playing field and include the non-politicians? I’ve seen an equal amount portions of gendered insults toward names such as Justin Bieber or for someone closer to home, Steven Lim, which are also completely unwarranted and unrelated to the issues they are supposedly being criticised for. No offense, but you are very naive if you think it is possible to put an end to this behaviour, when this is a something that’s not unique to Singapore. I also don’t see why such concern is only brought this up only after TPL becomes a main target for such insults when there have been other male victims as well all the while, and yet only female names are brought up to paint a picture that only ladies are the victims.

    #2602
  9. Rolls Eyes

    @VoteWisely

    1. As a woman, why would I even choose to engage with someone who proposes a point-of-view based on the gross generalisation that women are politically apathetic?

    2. If you think the efforts of anyone who makes an attempt to curb sexually violent language are naive, then you are the one who is apathetic.

    3. No offense, but you are naive to think that issues of gendered language and the links between verbal and physical violence, are issues that have only been brought up post-TPL. Just because this may be the first time -you- are reading about them, I assure you that they have been discussed for years by individuals who understand the role of language in the construction of gender by and within society.

    4. I cannot speak for Miss Li… but I suspect that one reason she would rather not throw Justin Bieber or Steven Lim into this particular argument is the fact that the article is a response to the recent general election as a Case Study. If she was writing an article about Britney Spears, perhaps your suggestion would be slightly more relevant.

    #2603