Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Long Road to #MeToo: The Historical Echo Chamber of Gender Training and Feminist Backlash

As 2017 drew to a close, multiple articles went to press declaring 2017 as the “Year of the Woman.” The year began with the largest in-person protest ever - the Women’s March, which drew three to four million people to over 500 marches occurring worldwide on January 21, the day after Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration. The year then ended with the rise of the #MeToo movement, which found women speaking out about dozens of male sexual predators, and the Time’s Up movement, which drew attention to the continued sexism plaguing the entertainment industry (among others). It’s not hard to argue that it was a historic year in the fight for gender equality, but how did we get here, and where will we go next? Thankfully, Humanities scholarship -- research focused on the study of human experience and the cultural texts that record and give insight into it -- can help us put this year into context. Studies focused on rape culture and media (mis)representation, and so much more, allow us to see where 2017 falls in the long trajectory of feminist progress and backlash.

For example, academic work stemming from Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality studies helps explain why not everyone views 2017 as an unproblematic year of forward progress for women. Despite being touted as one of the most successful moments of on-the-ground activism, the Women’s March did not escape criticism. Although the final march mission statement evolved to focus on intersectional feminist issues, critics felt that it “suffered from the same problems the women's movement has been plagued by for a century: centering cisgender, heteronormative, able-bodied white women in its execution.” These critiques echoed the writings of feminist scholars like bell hooks and Alice Walker who - decades ago - spoke out about the ways in which mainstream feminism silenced many women’s voices. Decades of debate within and surrounding feminism also help explain the controversy that grew up around the #MeToo movement.

At its onset, the #MeToo movement received great praise. On October 15, 2017, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted: “Me too. Suggested by a friend: ‘If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” Within the week, over a million social media posts included the hashtag #MeToo, which Tarana Burke had first used years prior, with a striking half million occurring within the first 24 hours. How influential was this online movement? Well, it prompted TIME magazine to name women: “The Silence Breakers: The Voices that Launched a Movement” as its 2017 Person of the Year. In an article for The Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert argued that #MeToo’s power “is that it takes something that women had long kept quiet about and transforms it into a movement… It isn’t a call to action or the beginning of a campaign”; rather, “it’s simply an attempt to get people to understand the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault in society.”

But those critical of hashtag activism, or slacktivism, were concerned that bringing attention to the problem wasn’t enough. Sandee LaMotte noted that “social media is littered with the digital bones of once-vibrant hashtags and memes, so getting the momentum behind #MeToo to translate into literal action could be an uphill battle.” Referencing other instances of digital feminist activism, such as #EverydaySexism, #WhyIStayed, and #YesAllWomen, which faded away from public attention, she argued that the movement needed to “move from identifying the problem to actively solving it.” LaMotte argued that the formation of Time’s Up, a movement attending to systemic harassment in the entertainment industry and other fields, was on the right track with its efforts to raise money to fund legal expenses for victims of sexual harassment.

So the #MeToo movement was leading to good things. End of the story, right? Wrong. As 2017 moved into 2018, articles began detailing the conflicting ways in which people -- oftentimes women -- were reacting to the increasing accusations of sexual abuse being featured in the media. In a New York Times article, “Publicly, We Say #MeToo. Privately, We Have Misgivings, Daphne Merkin critiqued the movement as inducing a return “to a victimology paradigm for young women,” in which they are portrayed “as frail as Victorian housewives.” She critiqued the movement as lacking clarity in terms of “the spectrum of objectionable behavior,” asking, “what is the difference between harassment and assault and ‘inappropriate conduct.’” (To which Samantha Bee, star of Comedy Central’s Full Frontal,responded:we know the difference between rape, workplace harassment, and sexual coercion - “that doesn’t mean we have to be happy about any of them.”) Merkin closed by arguing that we are awash in a society that is deeply ambivalent about how we want men and women to act in sexual encounters:

Expressing sexual interest is inherently messy and, frankly, nonconsensual — one person, typically the man, bites the bullet by expressing interest in the other, typically the woman — whether it happens at work or at a bar. Some are now suggesting that come-ons need to be constricted to a repressive degree. Asking for oral consent before proceeding with a sexual advance seems both innately clumsy and retrograde, like going back to the childhood game of “Mother, May I?” We are witnessing the re-moralization of sex, not via the Judeo-Christian ethos but via a legalistic, corporate consensus.

Critiques of the movement, like Merkin’s, proliferated after a January 13th article in Babe detailed a sexual encounter between popular comedian Aziz Ansari and an anonymous woman, given the pseudonym “Grace.”

Unlike many of the previous accusations against famous men that went viral over the latter months of 2017, this one differed in that the behavior being called into question came at the end of a date. The article sparked immediate controversy over the so-called “gray area” between acceptable and unacceptable sexual dating behavior.

The event prompted one of the most scathing critiques of the #MeToo movement, Caitlin Flanagan’s article, “The Humiliation of Aziz Ansari. She writes:

Twenty-four hours ago...Aziz Ansari was a man whom many people admired and whose work, although very well paid, also performed a social good. He was the first exposure many young Americans had to a Muslim man who was aspirational, funny, immersed in the same culture that they are. Now he has been—in a professional sense—assassinated, on the basis of one woman’s anonymous account. Many of the college-educated white women who so vocally support this movement are entirely on [Grace’s] side… I thought it would take a little longer for the hit squad of privileged young white women to open fire on brown-skinned men. I had assumed that on the basis of intersectionality and all that, they’d stay laser focused on college-educated white men for another few months. But we’re at warp speed now, and the revolution—in many ways so good and so important—is starting to sweep up all sorts of people into its conflagration: the monstrous, the cruel, and the simply unlucky. Apparently there is a whole country full of young women who don’t know how to call a cab, and who have spent a lot of time picking out pretty outfits for dates they hoped would be nights to remember. They’re angry and temporarily powerful, and last night they destroyed a man who didn’t deserve it.

Flanagan’s article prompted immediate response. Writers like Rivu Dasgupta criticized her for reducing sexual assault to “sexual regret” and for failing to raise the even larger questions, such as: “why do we instinctively focus on a woman’s fight, flight, or freeze response, when we should be questioning the man’s aggression instead?”

However, the vast majority of the articles critiquing the Ansari story focused on what it means about our current dating system. An article in Jezebel argues that the fact that Ansari did not cease his sexual advances when asked, “and that Grace says she felt pressured to go along with it, exposes cracks in the modern dating contract… [it] is a statement about the ways women are conditioned, even with decades of entrenched feminism, to concede to that perceived power.” The piece continues on to critique the way that Babe handled the story, arguing that it was a lost opportunity to “discuss the ways consent can feel blurring.”

Some maintain that publicizing stories such as Grace’s, without listening to the other side, is problematic: “Rushing to judgment without due process defies core values that Americans hold dear. Everybody should have the opportunity to state their case, whether a victim or an alleged perpetrator. The flip side - quietly sweeping a scandal under the rug - is equally offensive.”

Despite the controversial nature of Grace’s story, feminist cultural critic Jessica Valenti, who predicted the backlash from the #MeToo movement long before it came, stated that it was “going to end up being the most important story that’s come out.” This story opens the door for conversations about how we are conditioned to believe sexual encounters should unfold and how we can combat those messages. Valenti writes: “the people who are outraged -- or even just concerned -- about the direction of this movement should ask themselves whether they’re comfortable with sexual norms that say anything short of rape is OK. Or if they want a world where women’s pain and fear is treated as an expected part of romantic sexual interactions.”

And, sadly, research proves that women have long been trained to put their partner’s sexual pleasure above their own pain. In “The Female Price of Male Pleasure,” Lili Loofbourow discusses how the Ansari story may help us understand this long history and move away from it: “the next time we're inclined to wonder why a woman didn't immediately register and fix her own discomfort, we might wonder why we spent the preceding decades instructing her to override the signals we now blame her for not recognizing.”

Loofbourow’s attention to how society indoctrinates us all into gender roles echoes our discussions in How Pop Culture Shapes the Stages of a Woman’s Life: FromToddlers-in-Tiaras to Cougars-on-the-Prowl. We argue that contemporary popular culture has created a slew of stereotypical roles for girls and women to (willingly or not) play throughout their lives: the Princess, the Nymphette, the Diva, the Single Girl, the M.I.L.F, and more. All of these roles contribute to a culture wherein women and girls are portrayed (and trained to be) objects for the male gaze. Popular culture plays a major role in this gender socialization at specific moments in a woman’s life: as a young girl, an adolescent, a single/dating woman, a bride, a wife, a pregnant woman, a mother, a middle-aged woman, and a menopausal/maturing woman. Cultural texts continue to present women and girls as falling at either extreme of the “Madonna versus Whore” spectrum. On one hand, women are trained to be passive, coyly playing hard to get when courted by male suitors. On the other hand, they are vilified when they play the role of sexual aggressor. Throughout each stage of a woman’s life, these contradictory messages work to silence women and create an environment in which sexual harassment and abuse are normalized. They create the patriarchal foundation that the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements work to dismantle.

Modern day society has a love-hate relationship with feminism: we simply don’t know what to do about the controversial “F” word, and this is apparent in the cultural products aimed at girls and women at every juncture in their lives. The mixed messages – about feminism, gender, sexuality – are everywhere: in toy boxes, on bookshelves, in blog posts, on film screens, in songs, on television, in commercials, on Twitter, in magazines, on stage. You don’t have to look too closely into these ongoing dialogues to catch the array of conflicting lessons that are being delivered: girls and women are taught that femininity is expected, but devalued; that they should be sexy, but virginal; that they should be independent, but not too independent; that they should look younger, but act their age. If girls and women are constantly being bombarded with these conflicting messages, is it any wonder, then, that they are conflicted about what constitutes a “bad date” and what is sexual assault? That they often put the needs of their partners before their own because it’s expected? Or that it’s taken them this long to say: “Time’s Up”?

Originally published on Palgrave Macmillan's Spotline on Humanities Website. 

Monday, September 25, 2017

A Lesson on Patriotism for My Daughters

Every Fourth of July I dress my two young daughters in various ensembles of red, white, and blue. We attend parades, barbecues, and firework displays. I smile as they recite the Pledge of Allegiance, which they learned at school. I teach them to be respectful when people stand in silence for the National Anthem. Over the years I have done this all without much thought. I’ve only recently realized that I’m training my daughters to participate in the performance of patriotism even though I struggle with the concept and sentiment myself.

I didn’t always struggle with it. But I didn’t always really think about it much either. My Fourth of July memories from childhood consist of family vacations and playing with sparklers. The holiday was never one that found me contemplating or discussing U.S. history. Even still, I think I was – or felt – patriotic when I was young. After all, I was a choir girl from childhood adulthood and knew the words and harmonies to every patriotic American song out there. And I firmly recall feeling moved when I sang them. But then that changed.

For many the attacks of September 11th heightened or awakened their patriotic sentiment (as is not uncommon during times of war). It had the opposite effect on me. Two events forever changed my learned patriotic impulses. The first was my experience student teaching in a high school where 90% of the student population was Arab American. I vividly remember the day when many of my female students who wore hijabs came into my class in tears recounting the racist slurs that were cast at them as they walked to school. They were American citizens and they had cried on 9/11 for the attacks on their country but yet they faced immediate discrimination.  I will never forget how our school received multiple bomb threats and we had to herd hundreds of scared students through the process of evacuating the building. I was horrified at how people justified hateful behavior in the name of keeping their country safe. I still am.

The second experience that helped stomp out my patriotic sentiment happened on a random night at a local piano bar only weeks after 9/11. I was there with my best friend, my boyfriend, and his brother. Unsurprisingly, the dueling pianists played many patriot songs throughout the night. When they launched into “Proud to be an American,” my boyfriend and I stood and sang. It was one of my favorite American tribute songs and thanks to my choral training I knew each and every word. My boyfriend, a thespian happy to perform at any occasion, belted out every word with me. When the song ended we sat down at our table and a blonde haired, blue eyed college girl came over and began directing a slew of racist comments to my boyfriend. She ended with the directive: “go back to your country.”  When she left the four of us sat bewildered and uncomfortable. We had no idea why she crossed the room to yell at us. One explanation was that my boyfriend was Mexican-American and her comments implied she mistook him for being Middle Eastern. Still, we didn’t understand why she was yelling at him right after he had stood and sung a pro-America song. Had she meant to yell at his brother (who, not being the sing-with-the-crowd-type, did not stand)?  With all his theater flair had my boyfriend made a flamboyant hand gesture that she mistook as being disrespectful?  We couldn’t figure out what we had done to warrant such rage.

Moments later this same girl marched up to the piano players and paid them to play “America the Beautiful.”  The four of us exchanged apprehensive glances and this time we all rose as the chords began to play. On her way back through the crowd the girl again stopped at our table and said, “yeah, that’s right, you better stand.”  The next few minutes are a blur. Well, except for the emotions I had. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the anger I felt toward this girl. Despite normally being the non-confrontational type, I launched into a string of insults (punctuated with profanity) and ended my diatribe by throwing my drink in her face. I remember defiantly storming out of the bar (although my friends insist we were about to get kicked because of my reaction). I proudly tell this story of my first and only “bar fight,” but what I often leave out of the story is how it changed me. From that day onward I’ve had a visceral reaction every time I hear “Proud to be an American.”  I feel sick and angry. Those feelings attached themselves – to a lesser extent – to other patriotic songs as well. It’s taken years for that Pavlovian-like reaction to subside. And it hasn’t completely.

After these formative moments I went on to become a post-9/11 television scholar who studied the ways in which the media and popular culture endorsed a certain form of patriotism in the wake of the attack: blind patriotism. To be an American after the attacks meant to buy into the rhetoric of “us versus them” and to support the government and its leaders without question. It was a time of feeling not thinking. For example, Americans affixed flags to their gas-guzzling cars as a sign of patriotic loyalty, but didn’t question our dependence on fossil fuel that was again leading us to war.

Fifteen years after the attack, the 2016 Presidential Election highlighted how the struggle continues when it comes to defining what it means to be a “good” American with one candidate claiming we needed to “make American great again” and another claiming that American was already great “because we are good.” The year since that election has made me revisit what I think it means to be a “good” American and what I think it means to be patriotic. It’s a lot more than performance. It’s a lot more than knowing the words to a bunch of songs. It’s actually hard work… or it should be.

I stood with hundreds of thousands of people at the Women’s March in D.C. the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. The crowd was decorated with signs that argued “Dissent is Patriotic” and the chant “This is What Democracy Looks Like” recurred at regular intervals. It was at that my moment that I thought to myself:  “yes, this is what it means to be a patriot.”  That day while people debated on Twitter about whether the hashtag #NotMyPresident was anti-American or not, I worked to re-conceptualize my own thoughts about patriotism. It is these that I hope to relay to my daughters.

Patriotism is not blind. It is not about seeing our country’s history through rose colored glasses; it is about critically examining the past, acknowledging our darkest moments, and strategically working to never glorify or repeat them. (Those fighting to keep Confederate Monuments in place obviously do not share my definition of patriotism.)  It is not about supporting the government and its leaders without exception; it is about holding them accountable for the ways in which they represent and lead this country. It is not only about celebrating our country’s values and accomplishments, it is also about working hard (individually and collectively) to ensure that we continue to live up to those values and that our successes have a positive impact on the world. It is about accepting that one can have complex, contradictory feelings about our country and still be a “patriot.”

I felt the complexity of my own American pride this past summer when I attended the Naval Retirement of a friend. I sat through the ceremony and was, unquestionably, moved as they discussed the unknown sacrifices that those in service make for us on a daily basis. At one point I looked down at my side where my two daughters sat and I realized I was happy that they there taking in this message. Mentally I added another footnote to my complicated definition of patriotism: it is the ability to support our men and women in the military, even when I don’t support the wars they are sent off to fight or the administration that sends them there.

I’m not sure how any parent goes about teaching their child about patriotism, but know how I plan to teach them about this important concept. By taking them along with me to protests that fight for human and environmental rights. By explaining to them why I support the decision to peacefully sit, kneel, or lock arms during the National Anthem as a protest against the systematic racial inequality that still plagues this nation. By supplementing their in-school history lessons with knowledge about the parts of American history that are often erased. By teaching them to think critically about social issues and government actions. By encouraging them to vote for the leaders they want and to demand more from the ones they get. But all that said, I will also support their desire to recite the pledge of allegiance, stand for the national anthem, and to sing any patriotic song they want… as long as they understand that the First Amendment assures that no one is required to do so.  And, I’ll also probably continue to dress them in red, white, and blue every Fourth of July because I never pass up the opportunity to thematically coordinate their attire. 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Fictionalized Terrorism Abounds on TV, but Realistic Portrayals of ISIS Do Not: How the Post-9/11 Entertainment Trends May Explain the Discrepancy

Recent fictionalizations of terrorism on American television are part of programming trends that arose in the wake of 9/11.  One example is the prevalence of government-focused shows, such as Homeland (2011-present), Person of Interest (2011-2016), Scandal (2012-present), House of Cards (2013-present), The Blacklist (2013-present), Madame Secretary (2014-Present), Blindspot (2015-present), Quantico (2015-present), and Designated Survivor (2016-present).  Shows like these predominantly feature political leaders and intelligence officers continually rescuing the country from peril – often reinforcing the problematic us versus them binary (wherein the “us” is almost always synonymous with American/Western citizens, although the “them” changes in noteworthy ways during various historical moments).  More recently, such shows have also integrated serious political critique, often addressing ethical issues surrounding the ways in which the U.S. has waged its war on terror.  While these government-focused programs are often more explicit in their attempts to remediate 9/11, shows across genre lines (e.g. paranormal fantasy, science fiction, dystopia) have regularly integrated post-9/11 motifs throughout the last decade and a half (e.g. terrorism, government, salvation, justice, fear).

While the prevalence of the above mentioned themes in television may allow viewers to work through some of the cultural anxieties lingering from the September 11th attacks, this steady stream of fear-based programming actually helps to create and sustain those very same anxieties, creating a national climate of fear.  Interestingly, these fear-based narratives do not always align with the most contemporary global threats.  For example, there are relatively few representations, or references to, ISIS/ISIL in 21st century television shows even though plots about terrorism still abound in popular culture.  This suggests that throughout the last decade TV shows have often ignored the shifting geopolitical landscape (or have been slow to depict it).  For example, such narratives often fail to address the ways in which the threat posed by ISIS/ISIL today differs from those presented by Al-Qaeda in the years immediately following 9/11. The medium’s continued role in post-9/11 affect modulation may explain this phenomenon.  (I discuss the ways in which contemporary television works through lingering post-9/11 fears in various blog posts on XXXXX).

While various post-9/11 themes continue to be prevalent in contemporary shows, some things have shifted in TV programs that take on terrorism storylines specifically.  There has been some effort to stray away from the stereotype of Arabic/Muslim terrorists by developing plots that offer up another global threat (e.g. Madam Secretary included a storyline focused on Russian cyberattacks).  When the typical Arab/Muslim as terrorist plot is in place, it is typically accompanied with Arab/Muslim characters intended to counter such stereotypes. Unfortunately, as scholars are quick to point out, this well-intentioned move often simply results in crafting a new type of clichéd character.  Alsultany, director of Arab and Muslim American Studies at the University of Michigan, has documented the new TV trend wherein “if there is a terrorist theme with a Muslim or Arab as a terrorist, the writers and producers will typically throw in another Arab or Muslim character to try and defuse the stereotype.” These characters tend to be depicted as extremely patriotic American citizens or “an innocent Arab-American who’s been victimized by post-9/11 hate.”

The most notable shift in representations of fictional terrorism on television has been the increasing instance of plots that feature terrorist actions/threats that stem from within the United States. Recent seasons of Designated Survivor and Quantico, for example, have had storylines in which American citizens – often holding positions within government – have been responsible for (or complicit in) large scale terrorist attacks that occurred on U.S. soil.  This turn toward the terrorist-within storyline aligns to some extent with the political critique found in many contemporary shows.  This may reveal the continued distrust of government officials that amplified post-9/11.

The one change that did not occur on a large scale throughout the last decade and a half, as one might have expected, is reconfigured terrorist storylines that reference or allegorize the contemporary threat of ISIS/ISIL rather than al-Qaeda.  While ISIS/ISIL-related plots do occur within a few shows, their overall absence (despite the fact that terrorism storylines remain prevalent) seems telling.  Like many programs, Madam Secretary, a TV show focused on the behind-the-scenes work of the Secretary of State, Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni), focuses most of its terrorist storylines around a fictional group (in this case, Hizb al-Shahid).  The common practice of creating a fictional terrorist organization may be a tactic to protect a program’s shelf life, allowing it to have a universal appeal even years after its release.  When fictional terrorists are embedded into storylines, as opposed to fictionalizations of real terrorist groups, they can serve as stand-ins for any terrorist group that may be at large when a viewer is watching the episode.  It also serves to distance fictional narratives ever so slightly from the reality viewers may be trying to escape.  Although most of its terrorism-themed episodes focus on its fictional terrorist group, Madam Secretary has also included multiple references to ISIS/ISIL, including a recent storyline that suggests a link between Hizb al-Shahid and ISIS/ISIL.  It has aired one particular episode specifically centered on ISIS/ISIL.  Despite its overt focus on this real life terrorist group, this episode showcases how contemporary television seems reluctant to move away from the America-in-peril motif found in post-9/11 narratives. 

Season 2, episode 6, “Catch and Release,” opens with chilling footage that remediates the ISIS/ISIL-caused deaths of the first American civilians:  journalists James Foley and Steven Joel whose videotaped beheadings were broadcast globally in August and September of 2014 (Hall, 2015).  The first moments of this episode include a video of an American aid worker accused of being a spy kneeling beside an ISIS leader.  The American captive is forced to read a script about how the United States’ interference in Syria is responsible for his pending death by beheading.  The remainder of the episode focuses on the government’s investigation and response to this murder. Governmental officials determine that the terrorist leader shown in the video is American born (and importantly not of Arabic decent); this man also happens to be the son of a State Department worker.  The fact that Madam Secretary’s most comprehensive storyline tackling ISIS/ISIL results in a plot focused on an estranged American family is telling as it, again, places the United States at the center of a narrative that had the potential to delve into wider-reaching geopolitical concerns. Assuming current televisual texts are still being used to modulate lingering post-9/11 fears, this episode serves as an example of the how such programming seems to require a continued depiction of the United States as the center of attention (and likely target) of the war on terror. 

However, the lack of (realistic) representations of ISIS/ISIL on television might simply align with the United States’ slow comprehension of this threat and/or the ways in which it differs from its predecessor.  Writing for The Atlantic, Wood (2015) explains how many Americans – and even, at least initially, government officials – misunderstand the nature of ISIS/ISIL because they “tend to see jihadism as monolithic” and, hence, “apply the logic of al-Qaeda to an organization that has decisively eclipsed it.”  Wood (2015) details the ideological differences between ISIS/ISIL and al-Qaeda and the ways in which these impact the focus of their terrorist actions:

The humanitarian cost of the Islamic State’s existence is high. But its threat to the United States is smaller than its all too frequent conflation with al-Qaeda would suggest. Al-Qaeda’s core is rare among jihadist groups for its focus on the ‘far enemy’ (the West); most jihadist groups’ main concerns lie closer to home. That’s especially true of the Islamic State, precisely because of its ideology. It sees enemies everywhere around it, and while its leadership wishes ill on the United States, the application of Sharia in the caliphate and the expansion to contiguous lands are paramount.

So regardless of whether television shows rely on the United States-in-peril motif as part of the continued post-9/11 trends, or whether these hyperbolic plots simply reflect Americentrism which is common in U.S. popular culture, it is clear that integrating realistic storylines related to ISIS/ISIL would result in an incongruity with the typical television mythology concerning terrorism.  More realistic fictional portrayals of ISIS/ISIL could actually help Americans better understand the threat this group poses and, as a result, move past some unnecessary lingering post-9/11 fears about the likelihood of another 9/11-like terrorist attack on U.S. soil.  To its credit, Madam Secretary’s recent storyline discussing ISIS/ISIL in relation to their fictional terrorist organization may actually provide this sort of cultural education.  In the scene that introduces this storyline, the Secretary of State’s husband, a religious scholar, Henry McCord (Tim Daly), questions the possibility of Hizb al-Shahid and ISIS/ISIL working together because of their ideological differences.  Should the television program decide to delve into this in greater detail it might help counter the misconception that there is some commonality between all jihadist terrorist groups.

The television program that has provided the most realistic ISIS/ISIL related storylines to date is Showtime’s Homeland.  In fact, sadly, its fifth season premediated the recent terrorist attacks in Europe. (The season was almost completely filmed prior to the coordinated terrorist attacks that occurred in Paris on November 13th, 2015, killing over one hundred people.)  Fans may have anticipated a departure from storylines focusing on Muslim terrorists during a season where the main characters relocated from the Middle East to Europe.  And while the season does delve into other threats (with attention paid to Russian cyber terrorism, for example), the focus on Muslim terrorism continues to be a major focus of the show (Hibberd, 2015). Critics have praised the show for pointing out real problems in the U.S. approach to combatting ISIS/ISIL, pointing to one speech in particular, which appeared in the season five opener, “Separation Anxiety” (Tapson, 2015).  During a CIA debriefing, a main character, Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend), an agent who spent two years in Syria, is asked whether the U.S.’s strategy is working, to which he replies:

What strategy? Tell me what the strategy is. I'll tell you if it's working. [Silence]
See, that right there is the problem. Because they, they have a strategy. They're gathering right now in Raqqa by the tens of thousands. Hidden in the civilian population. Cleaning their weapons. And they know exactly why they're there. Why is that? They call it the end times. What do you think the beheadings are about? The crucifixions in Deir Hafer? The revival of slavery? You think they make this shit up? It's all in the book. Their fucking book. The only book they ever read. They read it all the time. They never stop. They're there for one reason and one reason only. To die for the caliphate and usher in a world without infidels. That's their strategy. And it's been that way since the seventh century. So, do you really think that a few special forces teams are gonna put a dent in that? (Raff, Mann, Stoudt, Gansa & Gordon, 2015).

When asked for suggestions for how to proceed Quinn recommends “200,000 troops on the ground indefinitely to provide security and support for an equal number of doctors and elementary school teachers” (Raff, Mann, Stoudt, Gansa & Gordon, 2015).  He is, of course, told this is impossible.  This fictional CIA agent’s assessment of his government’s inability to effectively combat ISIS/ISIL realistically delves into the difficult predicament the U.S. finds itself in concerning the real world fight against them.

With thoughtfully crafted storylines, fictional television has the potential to critique U.S. military practices and to help inform citizens about geopolitical issues.  However, as seen in the discussion of post-9/11 fictional programming on the air, it also had the potential to maintain cultural anxieties that have dominated the United States for the past 15 years. Furthermore, when storylines fail to align realistically with real world conditions, television may actually end up manufacturing unfounded fears. The continued attention to 9/11 (or at the very least post-9/11 televisual themes evident in this study) neglects contemporary threats and perpetuates a fear cycle from which viewers have very little chance of breaking free. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

Trumped Up Sexism: What Live Tweets from the 2016 Presidential Debates Reveal about Cultural Anxieties Concerning Gender Equality

In an effort to close out a large project studying the ways in which cultural anxieties play out across televisual genres, I decided to study the coverage of the 2016 presidential election – specifically the live tweets from the first presidential debate.  (My friends have deemed me an academic masochist.)  With all of the attention on the ways in which gender stereotypes have plagued Clinton’s political career, I wanted to study the ways that sexism directed at Clinton would manifest itself in live tweets and the ways in which her supporters would take to the communication platform to try to combat it.  However, the presidential election being an unwieldy moving cultural micro-organism, the conversation quickly pivoted away from Clinton’s gender (and the discrimination she faced because of it) and began to focus to more on Trump’s misogynistic behavior. Toward the end of the first debate, Clinton sparked the conversation surrounding Trump’s long history of sexist behavior when she broached the subject of Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe contestant who Trump had fat shamed after she gained weight following her crowning.   The tweets analyzed in this study represent but the first moments of attention to Trump’s sexual abuse that would factor heavily into the media coverage preceding and following the election. 
Research Questions & Methodology for Twitter Analysis

To study live tweets from the first presidential debate, attending to the ways in which they reflect cultural anxieties surrounding the gender equality, I focused my analysis on tweets that reinforce or counter sexist views in order to answer the following research questions: 

RQ 1) How do cultural sentiments concerning gender (particularly sexism and animosity toward
feminism) appear within the live tweets from the Presidential Debate?
RQ 2) What strategies were used to combat sexist rhetoric (present in either the live broadcast or the Twitter feed) by live tweeting viewers?
Twitter data was collected on September 26th from 9:00pm-10:45pm EST during the first presidential debate between Clinton and Trump – the debate that broke records as the most watched in U.S. History with over 80 million viewers.  Live tweets associated with the hashtag #debatenight were scraped (i.e., collected) using NodeXL – a program that gathers all tweets associated with a specific hashtag. Because of the quantity of live tweets produced during the debate, and limits placed on the amount of tweets which can be collected, data was collected six times (every 10-15 minutes) during the debate.  The data pool includes original posts, retweets, and replies in order to include posts that were made throughout the debate and not just at these six intervals.  The results of this primary data pool consisted of 13,231 tweets. In order to gain a more comprehensive overview of the tweets associated with this debate, and to see the ways in which the conversation continued in the hours following it, additional tweets were gathered through keyword searches under this hashtag through Twitter’s Advanced Search option.  This secondary data pool consisted of 675 tweets.

Discussion of Findings from Original Twitter Collection
Consistent with other research on social media for this campaign, Trump dominated the discussion on Twitter on this specific night.  Out of the 13,000 plus tweets, direct references to Trump appeared 8362 times (63.2%), whereas direct references to Clinton appeared only 6236 times (47.1%). This dominance extended into the subset of tweets focused on here:  tweets that reinforced or rejected sexism.  

In order to locate the types of sexist rhetoric that was commonly directed at Hillary Clinton, I first attended to two broad categories of tweets:  those that discussed her personality and those that commented on her physical appearance.  Concerning the former, the majority of the negative tweets associated with Clinton expectedly portrayed her as being overly poised (“fake,” “scripted”), emotionally distant (“robotic”), unlikable (“shrill”, “bore”), elitist (“smug,” “holier than tho”), and ambitious (having a “thirst for power”) (see Figure 1).  These descriptions align with the research concerning the adjectives often used to describe strong female women (real and fictional alike).  Surprisingly, even compliments directed at Clinton oftentimes had connections to this rhetoric.  While obviously meant as a compliment, noting that she is “chill as hell” inadvertently aligns with the ice queen persona assigned to powerful women.  Likewise, one tweet, assumedly intended as a joke, offered up a new conspiracy about Hillary Clinton, that “she’s not human because she is showing an inhuman amount of self-control and poise” (see Figure 1). Both critiques conform to the discourse surrounding her “robotic” nature, although the later may intend to critique such rhetoric.  Further, posts celebrating the fact that she “emasculated” Trump on stage, also are problematic in that they play into the script for the power-hungry female and the so-called crisis of masculinity plaguing American (see Figure 1).

Twitter User
9/26/2016 9:08pm
Hillary comes so off fake and scripted. #Debates2016 #DebateNight
9/26/2016 9:09pm
Hillary sounds aloof and robotic like a standard politician, Trump doesn't. Bad start. #debatenight #Debates2016
9/26/2016 9:12pm
#DebateNight Hillary can't help but sound shrill and smug.

9/26/2016 9:12pm
Now Clinton is bringing out the claws already. Bad move. #debatenight
9/26/2016 9:32pm
Hillary Clinton's plan is to bore and scold America into abject submission as POTUS. Just make it stop. #debatenight

9/26/2016 9:33pm
#debatenight Oh the eye rolling. She reminds me of my mother. Killer. #Debates2016
9/26/2016 9:36pm
Here comes the Hillary rehearsed response 😴#debatenight

9/26/2016 9:36pm
Damn. Hillary is chill as hell. I'll have what she's having, por favor. #Debates2016 #debatenight
9/26/2016 9:36pm
She just emasculated him on stage and it was beautiful #debatenight
9/26/2016 10:08pm
#debates "Holier than thou" there's been no truer line explaining Hillary  #debatenight
9/26/2016 10:37pm
Hillary will come back from the dead just to attain power. That is all she has in life is a thirst for power. #debatenight
9/26/2016 10:38pm
New conspiracy about Hillary Clinton: she's not human because she is showing an inhuman amount of self control and poise #debatenight
Figure 1 Sample Tweets Critiquing HRC’s Personality

Along with critiques of her personality were those focused on her appearance. The most frequent among these, 62 in total, commented on her attire, a pantsuit, a clothing item most often associated with professional, perhaps feminist, women.  While not all of these were negative (e.g. “Just ironed my Official DNC @HillaryClinton pantsuit to wear as I cheer her on during #debatenight,” gigglechick, 9/26/2016, 3:04pm); “Hilz in her power pant suit. #debatenight #ImWithHer #powerpose #iseered,” Olivia_says, 9/26/2016,9:12pm), many were.  The negative jibes ranged from catch phrases (e.g. “liar liar PANTSUIT on fire #NeverHillary #debatenight,” PannebakerFore4, 9/26/2016, 10:42pm; jokes (e.g. “Hillary's clearly a monster, she's wearing a pantsuit made out of Elmo's skin #debatenight,” MalcolmWHW, 9/26/2016, 9:13pm);  and references to her economic privilege (e.g. “I wonder how much @HillaryClinton's designer pantsuit costs, since she's talking about the 1% and all,” CamCastro14, 9/26/2016, 9:09pm).   The fact that people were musing about the color of Clinton’s pantsuit hours before the debate (e.g. Inquiring minds want to know: What color of pantsuit will @HillaryClinton be wearing tonight?!! #debatenight,” (HenryCoGOPer, 9/26/2016, 6:07pm) reveals just one of the many ways in which she faced gendered scrutiny that her opponent did not.  Along with these posts focusing on her clothing were tweets focusing on her makeup, her eyebrows, her smile, her accessories (or lack thereof), and her overall perceived energy level (see Figure 2). 

Twitter User
9/26/2016 9:06pm
I see Hillary went with a Mrs. Claus look instead of Chairman Mao tonight to seem more approachable. #debatenight #TheGreatDebateFox5
9/26/2016 9:07pm
Hillary Clinton is definitely wearing Kim Jong-un's Christmas suit #debatenight

9/26/2016 9:12pm
Where is your American flag pin @HillaryClinton ?!? Are you not a patriot?!?! #debatenight

9/26/2016 9:12pm
Hilary's makeup artist should have given her more contour & blush. She looks pale...really pale.#ghost #debatenight #contouring #fail
9/26/2016 9:12pm
Hilary's onesie is made of 3000 power ties! #debatenight
9/26/2016 9:12pm
Hillary's eyebrows are higher tonight #debatenight

9/26/2016 9:12pm
I wish Hillary would get some sort of eyebrow relaxant so her face is less like her face. #DebateNight

9/26/2016 9:36pm
Hillary looks tired. Maybe she needs to take a nap. #SickHillary  #debatenight

9/26/2016 9:36pm
Hillarys meds are wearing off. She looks and sounds terrible.  #debatenight
9/26/2016 10:03pm
Hillary wipe that smug smile off your murderer #debates #debatenight

9/26/2016 10:13pm
Is it just me, or does it seem Hillary's batteries are running down? #Debate #debatenight
9/26/2016 10:13pm
She's like a limp noodle! #debatenight
hey @HillaryClinton can I please have your pantsuit so I can go bullfighting #debatenight
Figure 2 Sample Tweets Critiquing HRC’s Appearance

Of course, televised debates lend themselves to observations of the candidate’s appearance, speech, and body language so such comments are not unexpected. However the ways in which they fold in gender stereotypes are noteworthy.  To be fair, Trump received his fair share of tweets critiquing his own appearance.  However, while these were often as mean spirited as those targeting Clinton, they did differ in that the quips about his appearance were not grounded in any stereotypes concerning how a man should present himself (see Figure 3). 

Twitter User
9/26/2016 9:08pm
Someone told Trump to stay still and he's having a hard time with it #debatenight
9/26/2016 9:12pm
#Trump has his 'bring it biotch' game face on. #debatenight

9/26/2016 9:12pm
Is it me or does Trump looks less orange than usual tonight? #debatenight

9/26/2016 9:12pm
Donald Trump's hair is like a bootleg version of Hillary's hair. #debatenight
9/26/2016 9:36pm
YES the Trump faces have returned!! #DebateNight

9/26/2016 9:36pm
Kudos to Hillary Clinton for shaking Trump's hand even though he's got DOUBLE PINKEYE! #debatenight
9/26/2016 9:36pm
Orange is the new Hitler #DebateNight

9/26/2016 9:36pm
Trump's hair looks like the aftermath of a 7 yr old "brushing" through a tangled American Girl doll's hair #debatenight
Figure 3 Sample Tweets Critiquing Trump’s Appearance

Accompanying more implicit sexist comments concerning Clinton’s appearance and personality were more explicit sexist remarks.  For example, one recurrent theme throughout the night was her husband’s infidelity (see Figure 4).  While the tweets did not always mention Hillary Clinton specifically, they join the broader rhetoric that she herself was (at least partially) to blame for Bill Clinton’s past sexual indiscretions.  Her opponent amplified this discourse in the early months of the election when he retweeted the post “If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband, what makes her think she can satisfy America?” (Ames and Burcon 217).  Comments like these that allude to Clinton’s supposed lack of sexual appeal underscore the ways in which ageism and sexism combine to undermine women.  And while we might at least take some comfort in the fact that Clinton not often sexualized in Twitter posts – another strategy used to undercut a woman’s power – there was the rouge comment here or there that reveal that any woman is subject to random sexual commentary (e.g. “I wonder if Hillary sexts #debatenight,”” (barstoolnate, 9/26/2016, 10:13pm).

Twitter User
9/26/2016 9:03pm
The Clintons were just introduced - the only family with more drama than the Kardashians.#debate2016 #debatenight

9/26/2016 9:36pm
The words "Monica Lewinski" are bouncing around his larynx right now just dying to get out. #debatenight
9/26/2016 10:36pm
"Trump loves hanging around beauty pageants." So does YOUR husband Hillary. #debatenight
9/26/2016 10:38pm
Is Bill still getting that Lewinsky??#debatenight
9/26/2016 10:38pm
Was Trump about to pull the Lewinsky card? #debatenight

9/26/2016 10:38pm
#debatenight Ur a liar @HillaryClinton u stood against women ur husband raped #WarOnWomen

9/26/2016 10:38pm
Bill Clinton *also* likes hanging around women. Ijs. #SerialSexualAssaulter #debatenight
9/26/2016 10:38pm
Hillary Clinton called Bill's many women bimbos and trailer trash. #debatenight
Figure 4 Sample Tweets Discussing Bill Clinton’s Infidelity

In terms of blatant gendered slurs, there were fewer than expected present within the debate’s live tweeting stream.  More mild instances characterized her as a witch (e.g. “Hillary is just missing her witch's broom tonight. She's a wolf in sheep's clothing. Watch out. Make America great again! #debatenight,” hannysan_xo, 9/26/2016, 10:38pm), but others involved more vulgar language (e.g. “Release your emails, bitch. #debatenight,” (@mikemikedc777, 9/26/2016, 9:36pm; “#debatenight Bitch!! You armed ISIL! Is she insane?” teslintobe, 9/26/2016, 10:13pm; “The Whore of The Wall Street is mocking the Wall Street? #debatenight #debates #Debates2016,” America_1st_, 9/26/2106, 9:18pm). Of course, instances of such slurs are not surprising as it has been well documented that Internet communication makes such inflammatory sexist language more prevalent.

While many user’s stances on feminism might be deduced from their language concerning Clinton, some pointedly critiqued the movement (or Clinton’s role as its current figurehead).  As such, tweets specifically mentioning feminism, misogyny, and sexism were not always doing so in a pro-Clinton fashion.  A subset of these were critical of the ways in which her campaign used the so-called “woman card.”  Some parroted the oft-made argument that voting for a woman simply because she was a woman wasn’t feminism.  And others brought up the fact that Trump was the first presidential candidate to hire a woman to be his campaign manager as evidence of progress in the women’s movement (and perhaps as an implied argument that this choice should then prevent him from being labeled as sexist) (see Figure 5).  Others outrageously suggested that Trump’s treatment of Clinton was evidence of feminism’s success: “Surely it's a win for feminism that Trump feels able to attack his opponent, without chivalry, as if her gender was irrelevant? #debatenight,” (timothy_stanley            9/26/2016 10:34pm). The reframing of Trump’s misogynistic behavior as a positive move away from an outdated model of “chivalry” is representative of post-feminism sentiments that work to solidify the problematic notion that feminism itself is antiquated.  And, of course, there were posts that flat out expressed their disregard for the women’s movement in less tactful ways (see the hashtag #feminismiscancer in Figure 5).

Twitter User
9/26/2016 7:35pm
A woman president would be amazing. But to vote 4 her becuz she's a woman isn't #feminism... know the facts and get educated. #debatenight
9/26/2016 9:01pm
Wow the 1st rigged primary elected female candidate for president #debatenight about to begin yay! for feminism?
9/26/2016 10:35pm
Oh Hillary don't you even go there with the woman card. Don't even crack that can of worms. #debatenight
9/26/2016 10:36pm
Clinton playing that #Vagina2016 card. #debatenight
9/26/2016 10:36pm
Oops, Hillary pulling the "Sexist, misogynist" card, time to take another shot.
9/26/2016 10:36pm
Trump is the first presidential candidate to have a woman as his campaign manager. #Feminism #debatenight
9/26/2016 10:36pm
Hillary thinks women should get equal pay, but not have to do equal work? #debates #debatenight #feminismiscancer

9/26/2016 10:38pm
Of course they would bring up the sexism card... #debatenight #Debates2016
Figure 5 Sample Tweets Critiquing (Attention to/Portrayal of/Concept of) Feminism

Despite this subset of tweets that rejected any positive association with Hillary as a champion or representative for feminism, the vast majority of the tweets including the words feminism, sexism, misogyny, patriarchy, or double standards seemed to be using this labeling strategy as a means to engage in a form of feminist digital activism or feminist social education.  These posts (see Figure 6) discussed feminism more broadly, or in relation the election, and tagged specific moments within the debate as instances of misogyny. In terms of frequency of such posts, 54 tweets specifically mentioning sexism, 47 used the term sexist, 41 posts included the term feminism, 54 tweets included the word misogyny, and 28 referenced patriarchy.  Some of these took the form of direct addresses.  For example, many posts specifically integrated Hillary Clinton’s Twitter handle to comment on the ways in which she personally was experiencing and/or combatting sexism (e.g.“As a woman who's endured 50 years of sexism and misogyny, I want to thank @HillaryClinton for standing up for all of us. #DebateNight (bluebelletrist, 9/27/2016, 12:13am).  But more common were relational posts wherein viewers of the debate referenced the ways in which the sexism directed at Clinton mirrored their own experiences (see Figure 6). Arguably, the popularity of feminist cultural critic, Jessica Valenti’s, post encapsulating this issue – the post received 4533 likes and 2917 retweets – proves how much Clinton’s experiences on the stage resonated with female viewers watching at home:  “A lot of women watching are going to recognize the way that he's interrupting her & yelling #debatenight” (9/26/2016, 9:26pm).

Twitter User
9/26/2016, 7:49pm
My #DebateNight prediction: Man will speak nonsense. We will excuse him. Woman will slip up slightly. We will skewer her. (See: sexism)
9/26/2016, 8:34pm
no matter what happens tonight, it looks like the real winner will (of course) be sexism and patriarchy. #debatenight
9/26/2016 9:04pm
"First time there's been a woman on this debate stage..." Let that sink in. #debatenight
9/26/2016 9:07pm
That Hillary's legitimacy has to be juxtaposed to Trump is a real freaking tragedy for feminism #debatenight
9/26/2016 9:08pm
Equal pay and family paid leave mentioned in the first few moments of the debate. #debatenight #feminism

9/26/2016 9:12pm
She's calling him "Donald" to un-sexist her getting called "Hillary", right? #Debates2016 #debatenight
9/26/2016 9:27pm
I love watching a strong woman smile and stay calm while a man screams nonsense over her. #debatenight
9/26/2016 9:28pm
Donald yelling over Hillary is a metaphor for the patriarchy and how men have treated women for decades #debatenight
9/26/2016 9:29pm
Girl: I have a feeling I'll be blamed for everything by the end of the night. Guy: WHY NOT 😩😤😭#debatenight #feminism
9/26/2016  9:29pm
All women recognize Hilary's please-stop-talking-over-me-asshole smile. #debatenight
9/26/2016 9:30pm
Donald Trump is literally the patriarchy personified into one horrible person #debatenight
9/26/2016 9:35pm
In case u don't live in the oppressive structures of sexism and misogyny now u get to watch it live on tv #debatenight
9/26/2016 9:36pm
a rude white man not letting a women speak, what's new #debatenight

9/26/2016 9:36pm
New drinking game: every time Trump interrupts Clinton everyone takes a shot #debatenight
9/26/2016 9:59pm
A white female in a position of power standing up for male poc is feminism. #debatenight
9/26/2016 10:01pm
As a woman, this feels so personal b/c I've felt this sort condescension from men before.
9/26/2016 10:11pm
This debate should go down in history as the moment everyone realized that we need more women in leadership #debatenight
9/26/2016 10:11pm
Trump has never been forced to listen to or allow a woman to speak this long in his entire life. #debatenight

9/26/2016 10:13pm
Lull right now. Guess I got used to Trump shouting over Hillary. #debatenight #normalizingsexism

9/26/2016 10:13pm
Secretary Clinton made women’s rights an international issue: fighting sex trafficking, child marriage, and sexual violence. #DebateNight
9/26/2016 10:25pm
Pouring one out for every woman who has been criticized for her "temperament" by a screaming man.
9/26/2016 10:35pm
"Until he [LISTS RESUME], he can talk to me about stamina." EVERY FUCKING WOMAN JUST FELT HER HEART GROW.#debatenight
9/26/2016 10:35pm
When a woman is more qualified, it's deemed "bad experience." I see you, Donald. I see you. #debatenight #sheslays
9/26/2016 10:36pm
His misogyny. This is where she correctly kills him. #debatenight
9/26/2016 10:36pm
Trump: "I never said all these demeaning things about dumb ugly bitches that Hillary claims I did."

9/26/2016 10:36pm
"It's okay that I said rude and sexist things against Rosie O'Donnell because she was mean to me." #temperament #debate2016 #debatenight
9/26/2016 10:36pm
YES @HillaryClinton calling out @realDonaldTrump's BLATANT SEXISM. #debatenight
9/26/2016 10:36pm
Secretary Clinton brings up Trump's sexism while Trump tries to mansplain her. Thanks for proving the point! #debatenight
9/26/2016 10:36pm
@HillaryClinton tearing down the patriarchy, y'all #debatenight
9/26/2016 10:37pm
Every woman is relating to this debate in a painful and emotional way right now.

9/26/2016 10:38pm
So he is doubling down on his sexism...this is unreal #debatenight
9/26/2016 10:38pm
trump is such a sexist pig its disgusting #debatenight

9/26/2016 10:38pm
Agreed. We've come too far as a nation to elect a #racist #misogynist. #americaisalreadygreat #debatenight

9/26/2016 10:38pm
Trump: I was going to say something VERY AWFUL about Hillary but I didn't. HALLELUJAH SEXISM IS OVER!! #DebateNight

9/26/2016 10:38pm
Donald Trump said Hillary Clinton doesn't have the penis, i mean look, to be president. Which is apparently orange. #debatenight #Debates2016

9/26/2016 10:38pm
Would Hillary be expected to be nice if she were a man? #debates #debatenight #sexism #unconsciousbias #consciousbias
9/26/2016 10:57pm
Hillary calmly explains Trump's misogyny. Trump interrupts 2x&then randomly attacks Rosie O'Donnell. #debatenight #TrumpHatesWomen
Figure 6 Sample Tweets Discussing Feminism, Patriarchy, Misogyny, and Double Standards
RQ 2) What strategies were used to combat sexist rhetoric (present in either the live broadcast or the Twitter feed) by live tweeting viewers?
Labeling was simply one strategy used by Twitter users to draw attention to and resist sexist rhetoric.  Since Twitter privileges humorous tweets (in that they circulate more frequently), many of the successful strategies – in terms of bringing visibility to the critique at hand – used by users to address sexism took on the form of jokes.  One popular strategy was subversive tweets that coopted common sexist commentary in order to amplify and counter the stereotypes contained within them.  The most prevalent collection of these tweets reframed or redirected the misogynistic advice that women should be outwardly friendly.  As can be seen in Figure 7, many users sarcastically posted direct addresses to Donald Trump, encouraging him to “smile more.”  Many of these posts critiqued multiple instances of sexism at the same time by also addressing expectations that women should be serve in domestic roles (e.g. “make us some sandwiches”), avoid “shrieking” or nagging, not be “emotional,” and be, of course, and be pretty (See Figure 7).
Twitter User
9/26/2016 8:38pm
Hillary should smile more and not raise her voice. Maybe bring us coffee. Also would it kill her to make us some sandwiches? #debatenight
9/26/2016 9:09pm
@realDonaldTrump You should smile more. You'd be prettier if you smiled. #yesallwomen #ImWithHer #debatenight
9/26/2016 9:09pm
Donald, why do you look so tired? Why don't you smile? #debatenight
9/26/2016 9:10pm
What's up with @realDonaldTrump's outfit and naggy voice? He should smile more. #debatenight
9/26/2016 9:12pm
He would be friendlier if he smiled. #debatenight
9/26/2016 9:27pm
Why are you so angry, @realDonaldTrump? You should stop shrieking. Smile more. #debatenight
9/26/2016 9:29pm
Men get so EMOTIONAL. Possibly, @realdonaldtrump should smile more. #debatenight

9/26/2016 10:03pm
My brother: "Listen, #Hillary. Next time, don't smile so big when he's making an ass out of himself." #debatenight
9/26/2016 10:07pm
How come no one told HIM to "smile more"? #knowyoursexism #debatenight
9/26/2016 10:25pm
Donald really should smile more. #debatenight
9/26/2016 10:27pm
Don, smile more. Don’t shout so much. Show us that “winning” temperament. #debatenight And maybe don’t grip the podium so hard.
9/26/2016 10:37pm
Wow @realDonaldTrump, you're sounding pretty shrill there. Maybe you should smile more. #Debates2016 #debatenight
Figure 7 Sample Tweets Subversive Tweets Commenting on the Gendered Directive to Smile

In total, 75 tweets focused on the smiles of the candidates or the moderators in order to carry out their social critique.

Another instance of repurposing sexist rhetoric took on the form of tweets wherein Clinton’s status as a grandmother was highlighted.  As alluded to earlier, Clinton faced ageist critiques concerning whether an older woman could serve as commander in chief with people posing questions about whether her status as a grandmother or post-menopausal woman would impede her abilities to lead (Ames and Burcon 152, 218).  Concerning the latter, TIME magazine “dealt Clinton the supreme backhanded compliment of declaring her ‘The Perfect Age to be President’, before going into great detail about the ‘hormonal ebbing’ she might be experiencing” at this stage in her life (Bates).  With rhetoric such as this circulating in the media, I expected to find tweets that negatively attended to Clinton’s age or labeled her as a grandmother as a form of insult.  Surprisingly, there were relatively few of these (e.g. “Grandma looks portly in red #debatenight,” JammieWF, 9/26/2016, 9:06pm; Can't wait to watch Americas most annoying grandma face off against a giant angry orange,” _GreenEggnSam, 9/26/2016, 7:35pm).  The majority of the tweets that contained variations of the term grandmother did so as a means of praise, or as the form of a benign joke (see Figure 8). By reframing Clinton as a “sassy grandma” and enthusiastically tagging her as a “grandma-in-chief” on Twitter, the power of this ageist rhetoric is diffused ever so slightly.

Twitter User
9/26/2016 9:12pm
"I call it Trump-ed up trickle down."Hillary, you're a grandma. No telling dad jokes. #debatenight
9/26/2016 9:26pm
Things this #debatenight is like: watching your sassy grandma argue with Comcast
9/26/2016 9:31pm
We know Hillary is a good grandma bc she's unfazed by non sequiturs and tantrums #debatenight

9/26/2016 9:36pm
That was a KO from a granny in a pant suit @realDonaldTrump & damn we all loved it! #DebateNight
9/26/2016 10:04pm
I'm in awe of cool grandma #debatenight
Hillary Clinton kinda looks like a grandma who tries to be hip so she buys you cigarettes when you're 15 #debatenight
9/26/2016 10:23pm
Love when Hillary goes nerdy grandma. "Woo! Ok!" *shimmy shimmy* #debatenight
9/26/2016 10:36pm
"…he can come talk to me about stamina." YASSSSS GRANDMA-IN-CHEIF #debatenight
Figure 8 Sample Subversive Grandma Tweets

These strategies, as well as many others, were highlighted well at particular moments within the presidential debate.  One of these was when the debate moderator, Lester Holt, gave Trump the opportunity to explain (and potentially retract) his previous comment that Clinton did not have a “presidential look.”  Instead of apologizing for the statement, Trump attempted to explain that he simply meant she did not have the “stamina” to be president – a comment that was likely intended to draw attention to Clinton’s recent bout of pneumonia (which she worked through against medical advice).  Twitter erupted at this moment as users countered with their own critiques of Trump’s perceived levels of energy and/or health, commenting on how much he sniffled, how many glasses he drank, and how pale he was (see Figure 9).  Others posted jokes to show how invalid they found Trump’s claims were (e.g. imagining Clinton completing backflips across the stage while Trump disintegrated).  Still others simply pointed out the long misogynistic history of implying that women were weaker than men (e.g. “Accusing women of ill health has long, anti-feminist history. #debatenight,” womeninhighered, 9/26/2016, 10:38pm). And others turned to information sharing to defend Clinton’s stamina (e.g. “Hillary Clinton went to 112 countries, more than any other Secretary of State before her. That's stamina. #debatenight,”FemMajority, 9/26/2016, 10:34pm; “Hillary Clinton traveled 956,733 miles as Secretary of State. Trump repeatedly dodged Vietnam for "bone spurs." STAMINA, lol. #debatenight,” goldengateblond, 9/26/2016, 10:36pm).

One of the most common strategies used was the use of quoting.  In this instance the retweeting of Clinton’s own response tweeted from her account almost immediately as she said it on stage:  “When Donald Trump spends 11 hours testifying in front of a congressional committee, he can talk to me about stamina.” This comment received 44,907 likes and was retweeted 20,393 times.  Although the use of quoting as a form of social commentary can lead to ambiguity as one can only assume the user is quoting because she agrees with the statement, in this case it seems relatively straightforward.

Twitter User

9/26/2016 9:12pm
@realDonaldTrump is lookin pale. Are you ok? Sick? Unwell? #debatenight

9/26/2016 10:03pm
Hey guys, Donnie is sniffling quite a bit. IS HE DYING?  #debatenight

9/26/2016 10:03pm
@HillaryClinton is that sniffle from @realDonaldTrump bothering you? Is he feeling okay? It's bothering me  #debatenight
9/26/2016 10:33pm
Glad that @LesterHoltNBC is calling Trump out on his sexist comments about Hillary's Presidential "look" #ImWithHer #debatenight
9/26/2016 10:33pm
She doesn't have the presidential look. But you've needed six glasses of water to get through this. #debatenight
9/26/2016 10:34pm
"She doesn't have the look" says the talking hairy pumpkin man #debatenight
9/26/2016 10:34pm
Breathless man leans on podium, says woman doesn't have stamina #debatenight
9/26/2016 10:34pm
this wild gendered use of "stamina" tho #debatenight
9/26/2016 10:34pm
I physically flinch whenever I hear the "she doesn't have a presidential look" quote. It's 2016. She's a woman. Get over it. #debatenight
9/26/2016 10:35pm
Trump just lectured the moderator about the first woman nominated for pres from a major party lacking "stamina" #debatenight
9/26/2016 10:35pm
Hillary has a whole career's worth of stamina standing up to men like Trump #debatenight
9/26/2016 10:35pm
"I just don't think she has a Presidential look" says a spray-tanned cheese-puff with a poodle on his head #debatenight
9/26/2016 10:36pm
Trump: "She doesn't have the stamina."
*Hillary walks center stage and backflips*
*Trump disintegrates*
9/26/2016 10:36pm
She's showing stamina in this debate. She looks damn presidential to me. Smart. Calm. Classy. #debatenight
Figure 9 Sample Tweets Critiquing Trump’s Comment on Clinton’s Stamina/Presidential Look

Another key moment in the debate that led to a large amount of quotes, commentary, and fact checking was toward the close when Clinton highlighted Trump’s history of misogynistic behavior by discussing how he publically shamed a former Miss Universe for weight gain.  Two of her comments “This is a man that has called women pigs, slobs, and dogs” and “The woman Trump called ‘Miss Piggy’ has a name:  Alicia Machado” became two of the most tweeted lines of the debate (the latter receiving 38,241 likes and 23,817 retweets from Clinton’s Twitter account in addition to quotes and paraphrases).  Trump’s response included a reference to a former Twitter war he had engaged in with celebrity Rosie O’Donnell, who he had also criticized for her appearance.  Rather than apologizing for his past comments, Trump doubled down, arguing that they were justified.  Immediately tweets began responding to his answer (e.g. “I'm sorry, she DESERVED it?! Our girls deserve so much better than this clown. #ImWithHer #debatenight,” amytondreau, 9/26/2016, 10:38pm; “The way you fucking treat females isn't nice, my mf dude. #debatenight” (babocheoreoms, 9/26/2016, 10:38pm) and pointing out the victim blaming within this type of rhetoric (e.g. “Trump just literally victim blamed people he's verbally harassed on national television. #DebateNight,” rj4gui4r, 9/26/2016, 10:38pm).  Information sharing/fact checking posts also started appearing that provided links to articles that documented Trump’s previous instances of misogynistic remarks.  For example, the publication WIRED posted “Fact Check:  True.  Donald Trump did say all those terrible things about women” (9/26/2016, 10:36pm) and posted a link where readers could learn more about them.

What this study reveals is that while online communication platforms like Twitter continue to provide users with ample opportunity to circulate sexist messages, these are being resisted through various strategies.  Further, users are turning to Twitter to as a means to discuss instances of misogyny occurring offline as well.  While the impact of this means of digital activism is often debated, the efforts to combat sexism made by those live tweeting the presidential debate is still worthy of note.

Melissa Ames is the author of From Toddlers-in-Tiaras to Cougars-on-the-Prowl:  How Pop Culture Shapes the Stages of aWoman’s Life (2016).  This essay is an excerpt from her forthcoming book, Television and Cultural Anxiety: Emotion’s Role in 21st Century Programming & Viewing Practices.