There are moments in simple conversations that change lives. There are also moments that come right after that change language. Because if there is an emotion or moment that has no name… the human animal is compelled to name it so it is no longer feared.
There are times when discussing ideas offline changed my perception of how ideas are spread online and off alike. I had this conversation with a fellow art student named Fiona (I name her because to not do that would dampen the credibility of my tale) in a week where much kerfuffle online about Tropes Vs. Video Games was first flaring up and I certainly didn’t feel qualified to discuss it at length because at times my online attempts at starting conversations on Twitter and Tumblr can end badly due to a lack of experience with the issue affecting a group that’s angry or concerned about it. So I did what I never thought I’d do willingly. I went off Twitter, and while waiting for my assessment review appointment with my art school professors, discussed with Fiona her recent work where she stitched and sewed decorated hoods which were placed on female models’ heads when they would otherwise be naked, and each hood had a message stitched onto it to reflect how ever present objectification of women was.
"It’s like our teacher doesn’t get why I did it," Fiona complained. "Why doesn’t he get that it’s about objectification instead of nudity for nudity’s sake?"
I turned to her with not ever looming dread as I often seem like I have online where I worry about being taken out of context due to Twitter’s 140 character limit making it hard to discuss real, complicated issues harder to solve than “What sandwich will I have for lunch?”.
My constant anxiety over using Tumblr or Twitter to talk about issues like this is that the internet is fast to react to posts about things in ways where people get angry at each other from misunderstandings, whether rage over it is justified against Internet trolls or harmless men who would have to leave their bedrooms to pose any threat to women, real or imagined as those threats may be.
A misunderstanding over Twitter can lose you a follower because of the toneless text discussion had. But a discussion over these weighty subjects between face to face, real people… am I the only one who finds it weird that I find it really intimidating to talk to people online who I don’t know well about controversies out of fear they’ll hate me five minutes in, while talking to strangers in real life is nowhere near as scary as it was for me as a teenager due to me being a battle hardened flame war veteran whose tendency to not use his anonymous usernames on forums for evil won him not only online respect but a gained wisdom in how to talk to real people offline with a confidence that I can possess strangely enough outside of Internet forums rather than posting on them?
With this in mind, the struggle for women to be able to freely discuss their issues privately online and how men fail to bring any progress when reaching out to them, good intentions or bad… became crystal clear to me as not an issue of women or men being universally the good guys or bad guys in a debate… but the uncomfortable realisation that a lot of these men trying to defend their gender from the so called Feminazis as I sometimes see in comments or angry women from the well meaning, trying to be polite and failing at it ones, are failing at real two way cross-gender debate because a lot of us guys haven’t left our bedrooms and talked to real women who aren’t on Twitter or Tumblr in some time.
See, I was so used to seeing angry women being deservedly angry about sexist bullshit online that at times it seemed like feminists online had adopted this as a default mood. At the same time, women who were grumbling about privileged white males hijacking their conversation probably hadn’t had a face to face conversation about this stuff offline from the message boards in some months too, and both genders were left blaming each other for misunderstandings that if the conversation happened with men and women in the same physical room together, would not go nearly as badly with the diplomacy because the Internet has this odd way of rewarding anonymous rage about things without taking physical living people’s emotions about it on board.
The failures of men and women implementing feminism online and in RL wasn’t the fault of Mars declaring war on Venus (in most cases), it was as tragically simple as men and women not talking to each other about this stuff face to face with friends because as sad as I am to admit this, a lot of men and women both feel that they have few friends to confide in, so they post their frustrations online because they have nowhere else to go. So they think.
People online have been separated from the realities of actual people being behind those fun avatars of anime characters or fan art of celebrities or Hello Kitty thumbnails that we forgot that those sometimes adorable little images is the personally chosen Internet face of an actual person whose personal situation, home life and up bringing is expressed nowhere in that little jpg file or their username.
It’s saddening that I have to remind people that we need to remember to talk to actual people about these issues so that we get a more accurate perception of what people are saying and what worldview brought them to this ideological minefield.
It’s sad not because I’m mocking people on the Internet as losers for spending lots of time there, but because as an admitted shut in/hikikomori sympathiser, I would be the FIRST to admit that NOBODY is universally cool in ANYONE’S eyes anymore. The Internet utterly destroyed everybody’s unified idea of whose role in life was to be beaten up for the extraction of lunch money, and in the alarmed power grab to fill that trauma providing void, cyber bullying trolls stepped up to the challenge and while successful at making people miserable suddenly had their master plan for world domination backfire on them because forum admins and user blocking options had them on the run like a Wild West Outlaw, chased down till no shanty town would take these wanted men dead or alive.
Which leaves the law abiding people online in constant fear of both making satirical jokes on the Internet in an unironically mean way AND being labeled as a troll under false pretenses at the same time.
The flame wars in the past months at that time I spoke to Fiona left me so PTSD ridden that I now have flame war thread flashbacks like old men in retirement homes have repressed memories of much more horrifying conflicts like Vietnam. I was left not knowing whether it was safe to discuss feminism issues with women as a man at all anymore. I was the Internet age’s answer to the poor soul sent out to kill Colonel Kurtz, only in troll form so there were millions of ‘em.
So, I confided in Fiona my concerns, sincere, honest, and real, about discussing objectification of women while being a man at all. I braced myself for the real life slap in the face to come, but I was world weary from so many forum threads that burned down in flames, many good men and women blocked or banned in the line of duty, I couldn’t take it anymore, if death was to come at the hands of a woman after I survived being humiliated by Germaine Greer herself, I was prepared to die in battle, not as a coward, but a soldier praying for the flames to end…
"You know Fiona, your artwork isn’t feminist because of the nudity - it’s empowering to women because it subverts traditional… um… women’s arts and crafts like sewing to make hoods with embroidered messages hiding women’s faces over naked bodies to make a point about how women are objectified. Please don’t hurt me! I just want to help!".
I braced for the yelling, the argument that sewing was not just “women’s craft”… but it never came. Because I was there face to face, Fiona clearly understood I wasn’t trolling her or sucking up. She knew I wanted to help, because earlier I’d told her about the forum battlefields raging over the Tropes Vs Video Games issue happening even as we spoke. She knew why I found it so hard to communicate clearly when I had high functioning autism since she knew me from two full years of Uni already, and had a good idea that my brain was dodging political minefields in conversations every day. She never knew about my secret life as a PTSD ridden internet soldier on a tour of duty that seemed endless though. She thought it was hilarious. And for the first time in my life I really thought about it, and considered that maybe it was.
"So you’re saying that all these… Internet flame war crimes…" she laughed, "…are over a simple discussion about how women are depicted in video games?".
"Yeah, I know, right?" I laughed. In retrospect when talking about this stuff in real life with real people all these Internet tales of valour and glory sounded bloody stupid but jolly exciting. "These feminists aren’t even dealing with all trolls, all the time. Sometimes they’re dealing with men who’d have to leave the house to be any threat to women’s rights at all. It’s like, I’m a guy, but I don’t wake up in the morning and think: "God it’s tough being a man, so many women to oppress, how will I find the time to subjugate them all? They’re half the population, woe is me!". I mean, these feminists online are dealing with people like me who can’t even put a cat in real danger."
She laughed and laughed. “Jake, you crack me up, how do these people find the time to post these comments at each other, you have lives, right?”
“Sometimes we do, but when we don’t - stuff like this happens.” I replied.
"I still dunno how to make this artwork mean something. I feel dumb sometimes, Jake."
“You’re not dumb, you haven’t dropped out yet. You got this far, and your idea is going places. I mean, yeah, you have photos of naked people, but surely the naked people have hobbies, and lives? Like if you took photos of naked people doing their taxes, washing the dishes, brushing their teeth… like you could say with that, “Being naked is not my only identity…”. It could work.”
We looked at each other, and suddenly our brains aligned. We have a platonic friendship, me and Fiona, but we help each other out. And by a twist of fate, both of us realised we just solved each other’s problems with our artistic, creative practice.
"Omigod, Jake." she said. "You’re a genius. You figured it out!"
“How did I do it, how could I have had a penis this whole time, and yet understand a core element of the objectification of women without even trying?” I gasped.
“It all makes sense… It shouldn’t, but it does!” she laughed.
Little moments like this, it had no name on that day. It was like gaining enlightenment by complete accident, without even trying like a bloody idiot. Like I finally understood not feminism itself, but a core element of why a lot of attempts at implementing it went horribly wrong. Feminism had come to me, like a glimpse of nirvana. It was like… FEMINIRVANA.
Speaking face to face helps us understand each other, even when it seems the people online are the only ones that care. But you make new friends even if they seem old, and new words even if they seem silly.
I didn’t have all the answers to an issue… for the first time I wasn’t afraid of admitting that and reaching out to somebody without being worried of offending them by accident. And it’s a relief to admit you don’t have all the answers. Because if you find one of them you can see it right there in front of you.