Anita Sarkeesian, Stephanie Guthrie, And The Strategic Failures of Trolls

I know I’ve been writing a lot about Anita Sarkeesian, the Feminist Frequency video blogger whose attempts to raise money to fund a series examining the portrayal of women in video games resulted in vicious, sexist attacks on her—and much higher levels of contributions to her project than she initially anticipated. But I really am struck by these unfolding events as representatives of larger trends and ideas. Most recently, as the attacks have expanded from Sarkeesian herself to Stephanie Guthrie, an organizer who decided to shame the creator of a game that allowed players to beat up a picture of Sarkeesian, I’ve been left wondering what the people who are trolling Sarkeesian and Guthrie are hoping to accomplish here if it’s something other than shutting both women up.

First, I should acknowledge that Guthrie’s language in calling out Bendilin Spurr—the initial tweet was “So I found the Twitter account of that fuck listed as creator of the ‘punch a woman in the face’ game. Should I sic the internet on him?”—was harsher than I would have used, though I’m not really opposed to publicly shaming people who do gross things or threaten people online, particularly if they do so under their real names or Facebook accounts, or leave a clear trail back to such things. People aren’t entitled to greater deference than they give other people. But I think if you’re going to shame someone, it’s probably better to take the moral high ground. That is not always an easy thing to define. Personally, I’m comfortable calling people by name and explaining why what they did was dangerous, offensive, or uncool, though I would never tell folks to respond with retaliatory harassment, or affirmatively contact employers or universities to suggest that they not hire or admit someone (not, for the record, things Guthrie did). If we want to keep the institutions of the internet and the real world troll-free spaces, we have to avoid adopting certain tactics ourselves.

That said, the response to Guthrie was of an entirely different proportion. On Twitter, a user told her that he’d be “The storm that wipes out the pathetic little thing you call your life. You’re fucking dead, bitch,” promising “I will wip you the fuck out with precision the likes of which has never been seen before, mark my fucking works.” Guthrie, justifiably, called the cops.

The thing is, given that trolls have failed to scare Sarkeesian into silence, and they now appear to be failing to shut Guthrie up, what do they think they’re achieving? Screaming violent, sexist trash at women doesn’t dispel the idea that gamers are sexist, or insensitive to women’s concerns, or afraid of people who challenge their ideas. It’s not as if this is an example of classical trolling, which is meant to reveal something about the target’s naivete or hypocrisy. Calling a woman a cunt reveals vastly more about what the speaker thinks is acceptable than it does about the woman who’s on the receiving end of his name-calling. Everything about this kind of trolling is oriented towards short-term efforts to get individual women to stop saying things that make the trolls uncomfortable. And if those efforts fail, the trolls have left behind huge amounts of evidence that reinforce the perceptions of people who think they’re a bunch of troglodytes, making it more likely that feminists of all genders will say more things in the future that make the trolls uncomfortable. In addition to being ugly harassment, it’s bad, stupid strategy. At some point, you’d think that dudes who don’t want to be called out as sexists would try something else.