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Why are trending topic #hashtags so sexist? Part 1

2011 February 2

If you use Twitter, chances are you’ll have clicked on a hashtag listed under the ‘trending’ (i.e. most popular) topics sidebar at least once. And perhaps only once – I can see why you might never do it again, especially if you clicked on #rulesforgirls or #ihatefemaleswho.

Here are some examples of standard fare, from apparently male users. Apologies. They’re pretty grim.

#aGOODWOMAN knows how to shut the fuck up!!!!!!

#agoodwoman is always ready to give head!

#Agoodwoman cooks for u when u get in from work and gets up and cooks breakfast when u leavin to go to work

when y’all cheat, expect for it to be over… when us men cheat, you have to be forgiving and give us another chance… #rulesforgirls

#rulesforgirls When we say we wana watch football, that means no cleaning,no talking,NO FORM OF INTERACTION.We will Chris Brown you.

#ihatefemaleswho slap they boyfriend thinkin he wont hit you back

And my two favourites, from the same guy:

#IHateFemales Who want to be men. God gave you the best gift ever bitch, acknowledge it!

You tell her! Why on earth would she want to be a man? *scratches head*

#IHateFemales Who don’t see the beauty in them & still don’t take care of their bodies & looking decent.

Why can’t she see how beautiful she is? And maybe get a wax?

These make for depressing reading, and when you’re faced with a whole screenful and 60 more appear in a few minutes, it’s easy to feel hopeless.  But I don’t think what we’re watching is a misogynist Twitter takeover as some people have suggested. So what’s going on? I’ll start with some theories I have encountered and explain why I don’t think they’ll do as an answer.

A) “There are just more sexist idiots on Twitter / the internet than in Real Life”

I was at an event recently where Yasmin Alibhai-Brown spoke briefly about her recent run-in with Twitter, and was disappointed that the insight she chose to pass on to the room of feminists was to be careful of using Twitter because it’s filling up with horrible geeky misogynists.

Space invaders against sexism poster, photo by biphop http://www.flickr.com/photos/biphop/2406503712/in/photostream/

Not really relevant, but I love it.

This comment on a blog post about hashtags clarified it for me: “I wish I understood how and why stupid hashtags become trending topics.”

Um. Because they’re popular?

Sorry everyone, I know you don’t want to hear this, but Twitter is people with misogynist views, at least if the trending topics are anything to go by. I would hazard that Twitter might feel like a feminist space that has been invaded by these ‘orrible ‘ashtags because you follow feminists. But we’re in the minority, just like in Real Life.

It’s much easier to craft your own media bubble online than offline, but it’s basically the same thing. If you read the Guardian, and hang out with other people who read the Guardian, then Guardian-y sort of opinions are going to appear to be the norm. Whereas the norm, in circulation figures at least, is actually the Sun. And then the Daily Mail.

Like I said, sorry.

B) “Because black people are more sexist than white people”

Click on a sexist trending topic hashtag. Everyone in the hashtag stream is African American. Therefore…

Just, whoa there. Wait a second. Since when are ALL BLACK PEOPLE represented by a subsection of a social network? Following that logic you might think that every single white person owns an iPad. And besides, there’s plenty of misogyny to be found in ‘white’ hashtags streams too – some of the trolling on #mooreandme for example – and on Twitter in general. Sexism isn’t restricted to hashtags.

I’ve seen a number of people describe trending topics hashtag streams as the ‘dark undercurrent’ or ‘dark side’ of Twitter.  I don’t think for a second that they were referring to the ethnicity of the users but I think it’s illuminating nonetheless. There are some fascinating (and sometimes toe-curling) discussions going on at the moment about ‘blacktags’ or ‘black people twitter‘ which I recommend checking out, in particular this comment.

I think it’s safe to say that there is greater uptake of the attitudes and poses of hip hop and R&B – genres notorious for misogyny and heavily polarised gender stereotypes – in the young African American twitter demographic than there is in, say, the middle-aged white British demographic, and that’s probably part of it.

But before you try and tell me that black people invented sexism (that must be why wholesome family entertainers like Jim Davidson hate them so much!) I recommend reading this 1994 article on misogyny and gangsta rap by bell hooks.

C) “Because the web encourages people to be shitheads”

There is definitely some truth in this one, and I can’t put it more eloquently than this.

I think it’s also about the hashtag format. It’s a joke, and there’s an age-old link between cheap gags and crude gender stereotypes. See also: your mum jokes, mother-in-law jokes, women driver jokes, blonde jokes, Essex girl jokes, nun jokes… Comedy, to some extent, encourages (or allows?)  people to voice more controversial opinions than they might in another context.

But I can’t help feeling that there’s more to it than a web 2.0 Bernard Manning routine. In Part 2 I’ll throw in my two cents about why sexist hashtags are so overwhelmingly popular.

Part 2 is now online here.

28 Responses leave one →
  1. Miranda permalink*
    February 2, 2011

    I’m actually quite “wtf?” about B being a theory that people are actually voicing in a widespread way at all.

    Which may be proof of my own twitter feed being, as you say a sort of walled garden of people who (as far as I can remember) don’t tend to voice that kind of bizarrely racist generalisation.

    I’ve definitely encountered A and C, but wasn’t aware of the racial twitter debate *educates self*. That link from What Tami Said is really interesting.

    • Sarah J permalink*
      February 2, 2011

      Happily I’ve not encountered it that much around Twitter specifically – it just came up in a conversation and I was pretty surprised so thought I’d tackle it here!

      But I think the opinion that ‘black culture’ is more sexist than ‘white culture’ is more widespread. To me those categories seem so broad as to be nearly meaningless – we’re talking about how many people across how many different countries here? And like I said above, in the UK at least I reckon a lot of it’s down to a conflation of ‘black culture’ with rap / hip-hop culture. Which is kind of like using emo as a stand in for ‘white culture’.

      I’m not an expert, but I have a strong suspicion it’s just NOT THAT SIMPLE. I really really recommend the bell hooks essay I linked to.

  2. Rob permalink
    February 2, 2011

    This reminds me of some of the results that can be found on Openbook (a site for searching all public Facebook status updates). There’s a remarkable number of racist, sexist, homophobic updates from people.
    At first it seems bizarre in a “Who are these people, and why would they say these things publically?” until realising they’re the same people who say them to their similarly minded social circles offline, who are the main audience for their Facebook updates. Then it becomes apparent that they’re not really any more numerous than they are in real life, they just seem it because they’re largely unexpected, for the reasons you mentioned of crating your own media bubble.

    I would expect the internet and its feeling of anonymity to make people say things they otherwise wouldn’t, but I guess that doesn’t apply so much to Twitter and Facebook accounts which tend to have real names and identitities linked to them.

    • Sarah J permalink*
      February 2, 2011

      That’s interesting about Openbook, I guess people might be even more unguarded / opinionated on Facebook because of the erroneous idea that it’s ‘private’ (hah!) I know I am much more strident with my opinions on Facebook than Twitter because my friends on there are people I know IRL so they are less likely to take things the wrong way. But then people might be less inclined to be controversial just to show-off without the hashtag joke format… Be interesting to compare!

  3. February 2, 2011

    “and I can’t put it more eloquently than this”

    I find this version equally amusing, albeit perhaps less eloquent:
    http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2004/3/19/

    • Stephen B permalink
      February 2, 2011

      I can’t tell you how many times I use that link to explain the internet to people. Seriously.

  4. February 2, 2011

    I’m a big Twitter user for my work/freelance writing stuff, but, again, as already noted, I rarely come across these hashtags because I specifically choose and edit who (and what) I listen to.

    RE the shock of people expressing these views/thoughts publicly: I agree with Rob, that people who do this are also likely to do this IRL within their particular social circle. What might be interesting to look at would be those who construct an ‘alternative identity’ through their social media use which allows them to say things that, in their real lives and social context, would be completely horrific and badly received. The levels of ‘privacy’ that we choose to open up/close down in social media – especially our thoughts that may, in some circumstances, be considered completely inappropriate – is a huge topic for discussion!

    Maybe it’s a question of condensation – that IRL, negative elements (like people who disagree with you, or are sexist – ‘negative elements’ is putting it mildly) are spread across a huge area (geographically and temporally), whereas online, with access to all of that area at one time, it appears to be more dominant. Effectively it condenses all the shit into one, horrible hour stint reading blogs and going on Twitter. And Twitter itself also condenses information into 140 characters, meaning nuances and contextualisation is lost.

    • Sarah J permalink*
      February 2, 2011

      Oh yes, I think the digital / physical self divide is *fascinating*. Would love to blog it re: gender but I need to do much more reading first :-) If you haven’t encountered her before you might be interested in reading some of Danah Boyd’s research in the area http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/

      • Miranda permalink*
        February 2, 2011

        danah boyd is a really good read. My partner recommended her and she’s got an excellent blog. She did a piece last year on user demographics for Facebook and Myspace by race and class which is worth a read.

        • February 2, 2011

          Great link, some fantastic stuff on there. Man, I need more a) hours in the day to read and b) more hours in the day to write. Maybe just extend the entire day twice over? Kthx.

  5. Russell permalink
    February 2, 2011

    Do you think it’s possible that people start hashtags that aren’t prejudiced in any way, and then they get hijacked by people being prejudiced? I know something like this happened with one about coming up with daft film sequel titles, people started “doing it wrong”. #rulesforgirls, for instance, could have had a perfectly acceptable side to it before being taken over by idiots (someone is now going to tell me that was a bad example but you get what I mean).

    I also think some people like using the anonymity of the internet to communicate views that they don’t really have which are “shocking”. This is known as being an idiot, or in some parts of the world, using the internet. :-P

    • Sarah J permalink*
      February 2, 2011

      Yes kind of. I wouldn’t describe it as hijacking exactly, but as an example right now I see we’ve got #icantdateyou, which has predictable examples which apply to everyone such as poor personal hygiene, infidelity etc… But you can also see the sexism and gender stereotypes in evidence too e.g (from apparently male users)

      #IcantDateyou if you dont like wearing short sKirtz . . :P
      #icantdateyou if you have Jezabel tendencies
      #ICantDateYou if u went wit 5 of my niggas lol
      #icantdateyou coz i would have to expain errthing to you..

  6. Jenni permalink
    February 2, 2011

    Following the discussion about Bitch Magazine today about their ’100 feminist Young Adult Novels’.

    There’s a debate about them taking off some books for being triggering, some people are very annoyed. With great lack of foresight, the annoyed parties picked the hashtag #bitchplease to air the debate.

    NO. GUYS. SERIOUSLY. DON’T DO THIS TO YOURSELVES.

  7. Stephen B permalink
    February 2, 2011

    I used to think exactly what you say – that it was some consequence of having just enough space for a witty (?) one-liner, and that the number of sexist hashtags weren’t representative of people in the real world.

    Then I clicked on any other hashtag, such as the name of a celebrity or event.

    The bigotry, violence, lolspeak and apparent complete brain-death of every tweeter doesn’t change one bit. This is a large part of the online population, and they’re not even ready to *start* talking about the *idea* of feminism.

    I’m hoping the discussion on this post will cheer me up and convince me I just got unlucky with the tags I clicked!

    • Sarah J permalink*
      February 2, 2011

      Don’t lose heart! It’s an uphill struggle but we’ve made huge progress over the decades and it’s all been won because of the brave people who never gave up :-)

  8. February 2, 2011

    Before I launch on this one, I’d appreciate it if people could privilege-check me if I’m being a dick. I’m trying to be balanced but replies like this one are always a bit of a risk.

    Anyway, the ‘insight’ from Alibhai-Brown that “it’s filling up with horrible geeky misogynists” vastly concerns me. Not just for the reason that it separates Twitter Misogynists from Rest Of The World Misogynists, which is absurd, but for the suggestion that geeks, a subculture that I consider myself part of and in recent years has started to make a name for itself as not quite as socially awful as it used to be, are inherently misogynists.

    Sure, social difficulties for guys leads to misogyny quite easily, which is then reinforced by sexist stereotypes – “some women aren’t interested in me, so all women are heartless bitches out to hurt us poor men” – but for someone to hit out at another subculture entirely just because wankers who happened to be members of that subculture were shitheads to them seems prejudicial in itself.

    See why I asked for the privilege check now? ;)

    • Sarah J permalink*
      February 2, 2011

      Well yes I was annoyed too – and the implication that feminists and geeks are totally distinct groups of people bugged me too.

  9. February 2, 2011

    Really good article, and a lot of points well made. Also some great links – the bell hooks one in particular just made me feel like a complete idiot for not realising all that sooner, it seems so obvious.

    As for the ‘black culture’ issue, the idea of attaching it to race is patently ridiculous. However, clearly there is a culture that is more likely to voice these ideas – i’d be tempted to term it ‘urban youth culture’ or similar. And I would certainly guess that this culture contains a disproportionate number of black people compared to other sub-cultures. It seems to me that the mistake is in the identification, not in the attempt to identify in the first place.

    • Sarah J permalink*
      February 2, 2011

      Thank you! :-) bell hooks is so kickass, I haven’t read nearly enough of her work.

      And yes, you’re right – part of the reason I included theory B was because there have been some quite coy posts about hashtags that fail to mention the dominance of young African American twitter users in the hashtag streams and it is very striking. I don’t think it’s sheer coincidence, but it’s clearly not as simple as “black people are more sexist” either. Sigh.

      • Metal-eating arachnid permalink
        February 2, 2011

        Sigh, I wrote a lengthy comment and then read the links from this post, which said what I was going to say, but much better. This seems to happen a lot on the internet… it’s hardly worth saying anything at all.

        But I’ve already written it, damn it, so, er, I’m posting it anyway (you should all stop reading now and go and read the links):

        And also, that there are various cultures which are more likely to voice these ideas, and that some of those cultures are active in particular online spaces and some are less so. There was a link about a few weeks ago – probably Sarah tweeted it? – about Twitter demographics, and in the US (not sure about elsewhere) there are big differences between ethnic groups, with black and Latino users much more active (proportionally speaking). I think I’ve also heard (this may be me talking out of my arse, but it may be that danah boyd has done something on it) that among (some, obviously) black communities it’s used as a social network in a much more personal way (more akin to Facebook), as opposed to the more semi-professional, news-and-links-aggregating, interest-driven usage that I personally tend to see it as more. So people in those communities are maybe more likely to use sexist hashtags in a down-the-pub kind of way. Whereas an equivalent sort of vaguely sexist majority-white community is just down the pub making blonde jokes which don’t show up on the radar because they’re not having those conversations on the internet.

        Facebook ‘likes’ are often pretty sexist too… and I would imagine the demographics are very different.

        I think this was the link: http://thenextweb.com/twitter/2010/12/30/twitters-user-demographics-visualised-infographic/

  10. Graham permalink
    February 2, 2011

    Lots of people are insufferably horrible beings, and when given an anonymous or supportive environment (not just online, a nasty little boozer for locals can be a similar place for their grimness) they just let it all out, and then feel the need to outdo themselves and the other people because of some ‘manly’ thing. It seems to strip some people of any veneer of civilised behaviour that they should have.

    Twitter allows them a platform on which to spew their thoughts and publish them to streams that other people are viewing, or create their own streams which get noticed when they trend.

    The sad thing is that this exposes just how many people are actually shitheads, and that is what is depressing. Why is this? Presumably a mixture of upbringing, culture, education and media influences.

  11. Pet Jeffery permalink
    February 3, 2011

    I stumbled on this part of Bad Rep by accident this morning. (I’m not sure how I did so.) I find all of this surprising, and a little bewildering. I’m on Twitter (as Petodalisque) and have used it only to communicate with the small number of people who follow me or whom I follow. I hadn’t even thought about what those hashtags in the sidebar meant (and, until today, my vocabulary was innocent of the word “hashtag”). Looking at Twitter now, I see four of these hashtags. They are #Progressis, #ifyouonlyknew, #famouslies and #toliminado. Now that I have some (albeit vague) idea of what these are, I hesitate to click on any of them. (Although I’m a bit intrigued by the last one, which I’m unable to construe into English words.)

    • Miranda permalink*
      February 3, 2011

      For anyone reading who’s not spotted us on Twitter, we’re @BadRepUK.

      • Pet Jeffery permalink
        February 3, 2011

        Thank you, Miranda. I’m now following you on Twitter.

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