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Violent Misogyny Was Normal Long Before Trump

flickr /Evan Guest

It doesn’t take much to paint Trump as a monster — he does that work for you. What’s harder is for men to actually admit how utterly recognizable his attitudes are.

When Donald Trump recently retweeted a meme depicting himself hitting Hillary Clinton in the back with a golf ball, the outrage from men on the left was swift and direct. Writer Stephen King said it was evidence of a “a severely fucked-up mind.” Former Vice President Joe Biden warned of its impact on children. And many across Twitter asserted that our collective lack of response to the president’s attacks on Clinton was contributing to the normalization of his misogyny.

This is, of course, a familiar cycle, sparked by a man who has repeatedly shown a particularly potent disregard for women.

Clearly, the intended idea behind the short video clip he shared is that he defeated Clinton in the November election, and effectively embarrassed her. But the original tweeter also included the hashtag #CrookedHillary with the meme; the not so subtle subtext of his post was that Clinton is somehow a deceptive person, perhaps even evil, and that Trump is a hero for knocking her down. What a sophomoric GIF becomes then really is a celebration of aggression — metaphysical and otherwise — towards women who have the gall to challenge men. (Which is, in-turn, part of the ideology at the core of Trump’s popularity, which is also why he was more than happy to share it.)

That being said, the response from men on the left who fear the “normalization” of Trump’s attitude towards women, as a result of his tweets, has an odd tone to it — mostly because hostility towards women online isn’t anything new, as anyone paying attention to the world wide web already knows.

A Pew study way back in 2005 found that women’s participation in online chat rooms had already fallen dramatically as a result of harassment and “worrisome behavior.” In 2014 things were still really terrible for women online, and Pew found that 26% of young women had “been stalked online” while “25% were the target of online sexual harassment.”

It’s not just that Trump often participated in this culture before he was a politician, but that memes showing violence against women have in many ways been synonymous with social media since its inception. Directing hate towards women is one of the primary ways in which a lot of men use social networks everyday. This anti-women culture online is by no means the result of Trump’s tweets; rather, his election directly reflects the fact that misogyny was and is the status quo in this country — online and off.

So while there should be outrage about the president encouraging the dehumanization of women online, something he has done consistently throughout his short political career, it’s worth wondering why many men insist on viewing Trump’s need for dominance as an outlier, as something special, rather than asking why these memes are so prominent on Twitter in the first place. Years after #GamerGate made national headlines, after countless women have told their stories of social media abuse, why do so many men still struggle to admit this is a ubiquitous problem?

The truth is Trump is not normalizing misogyny online —we already did that for him.

When Aaron Sorkin’s script for The Social Network was accused of promoting misogyny in 2010, the famous screenwriter responded that he was simply reflecting the reality of the culture being built in Silicon Valley:

“I was writing about a very angry and deeply misogynistic group of people. These aren’t the cuddly nerds we made movies about in the 80’s. They’re very angry that the cheerleader still wants to go out with the quarterback instead of the men (boys) who are running the universe right now. The women they surround themselves with aren’t women who challenge them (and frankly, no woman who could challenge them would be interested in being anywhere near them.)”

Sorkin’s dismissive last line is indicative of the kind of benevolent sexism which is basically his calling card, but his first point — seven years later and nine months into Donald Trump’s presidency — does feel somewhat prescient. Though he’s mistaken in thinking that the movie “nerds” of the ’80s weren’t also “deeply misogynistic,” or that his Hollywood boys club is any different, he was onto something about the ambitions of the men at the forefront of tech.

There’s one scene in The Social Network which actually conveys this particularly well, and it centers on Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake). The Napster founder is doing lines of cocaine at a Facebook party, high out of his mind and basking in a hypermasculine dreamscape, when he starts talking about the potential of Mark Zuckerberg’s creation to change the world.

Trump’s election directly reflects the fact that misogyny was and is the status quo in this country — online and off. Click To Tweet

He excitedly proclaims: “first we lived on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we’re going to live on the internet!” The framing, music, and lighting add a sinister undercurrent to Parker’s gleeful obliviousness (there are cops breaking up the party at that very moment). He’s certainly correct in predicting an increasingly virtual world, but the fact that this straight white man thinks it’s a given that such a development is a universally great thing is what’s so off-putting.

At each of the “revolutionary” crossroads in American history that Parker mentions — as the way people spent their days was fundamentally changed by technology — what the white men in power apparently didn’t question was how the previous systems, which they sought to improve upon, were built precisely to keep people like them in power.

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And thus, when “reinventing” life, they mostly just replicated those old systems. In Sorkin’s script, Facebook is just Mark Zuckerberg’s slightly updated version of the “finals clubs” which once excluded him. All along the way, what men have largely failed to consider is that a central societal problem is that men don’t listen to women.

Thus it’s no surprise that a decade later we are indeed living on the internet, but are still mired in the same white supremacist patriarchal abyss which has defined life in the United States since day one. So-called “disruptive” companies like Uber have cultures which perpetuate abuse, and dating “innovations” like Tinder are used by men to further harass women. If our most popular social networks were designed by white men who desperately wanted the power which they thought they inherently deserved, it’s no coincidence that these very networks were utilized to spread the racism and misogyny that helped Donald Trump get elected in 2016.

Women — especially those women of color most vulnerable to the hate online — have been pointing out this truth since Facebook first launched. They’ve launched campaigns and organizations dedicated to combatting Internet harassment and threats of violence. They’ve made films, gone on speaking tours, and written about it constantly. And yet, so many men have remained silent, or ignored their warnings, only seeming to care when Donald Trump participated, there was a profitable movie to be made about it, or their stocks started to plummet.

It’s no coincidence that social networks were utilized to spread the racism and misogyny that helped Donald Trump get elected in 2016. Click To Tweet

Misogyny online is often only a problem for men when it’s coming from the other ideological side. Otherwise, it doesn’t seem to exist — and certainly not in their own backyards. But at the root of this dismissive attitude is that same-old belief that once our side takes power — the “good” men — things will be somehow different. Society will be “reinvented” once more. And we will be able to justify ignoring women once again.

Most of the outrage at Trump’s misogyny has been directed at the man himself, and often these critiques from white men — much like those of his support for white supremacy — morph into broader criticisms of Trump’s un-presidential qualities. For instance, Rex Huppke, writing at the Chicago Tribune in response to the anti-Clinton meme, reflects on why Trump’s position is what’s most significant about his action:

“If someone on the internet wants to express opinions that I view as anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, sexist, racist and transphobic, that’s that person’s right. If that person wants to share a video that shows Trump whacking Clinton with a golf ball, I would think it’s unfunny and makes light of violence against women, but it would still be that individual’s right.”

Huppke’s point is that Trump’s retweet isn’t abnormal for a man online, but it is abnormal for a president — and thus should be treated differently. This is of course true, but it’s also true that Trump is well within his “rights” when disparaging women online. Misogyny is far from illegal. But the idea that other men are just expressing their “rights” when being hateful, while Trump’s tweets are worthy of a real response, leads to some disturbing questions. Namely, would men still be writing these op-eds about online misogyny if the president wasn’t involved?

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Jared Yates Sexton, whose tweet about Trump’s meme has over 35,000 retweets, describes the president’s action as part of his “abnormal and dangerous behavior that is quickly eroding the American system of government.” Sexton is afraid that Trump laughing along with misogynistic tweets contributes to a loss of “democratic customs,” and he joins the chorus of those who warn that we’re edging closer and closer to fascism as a result.

But is the Clinton meme just dangerous because of how it dishonors the office of the president? Is misogyny only scary if it leads to dictatorial rule? Aren’t rape culture and patriarchy already terrifying enough? Sexton also writes that “an alarm needs sounding and outrage is prudent in the face of outrageousness” — but it’s significant that so many didn’t think that threats of violence directed at women on Twitter were outrageous before Trump started cosigning them on a national stage.

Is misogyny only scary if it leads to dictatorial rule? Click To Tweet

This isn’t to suggest that Trump, as president, doesn’t wield enormously more power and influence. He is certainly further enabling the actions of violent, racist white men by approving of their beliefs from the White House. But it doesn’t take much to paint Trump as a monster — he does that work for you. What’s harder is for men to actually admit how utterly normal and recognizable his attitudes are; that Trump isn’t the first misogynist-in-chief, and that his behaviors are institutionally supported by the very democracy we’re worried he might torpedo. What’s difficult is teaching boys to reject the everyday culture of masculinity which all straight cisgender men grew up in and continue to participate in.

Hating Trump alone doesn’t teach boys to respect people of other genders, embrace femininity, or reject white supremacy. Most of the women killed each year in the United States are murdered by men who are their intimate partners, and a majority of these killings involve prior domestic violence. This happens without the president’s input, and was the case before he took power. Misogyny is deeply embedded in American society and supported by actual policies which demean, dismiss, and degrade women — especially Black and brown women.

Social media reflects this reality, but so does the entire landscape of visual entertainment. The meme which Trump retweeted wouldn’t stand out on TV, at our local movie theater, or in mainstream porn. And media which calls out this view of women, which shows men being non-violent role models or even just discussing the truth about the epidemic of violence against women in this country, is basically nonexistent. Shows like Westworld — which exploit images of women being abused and raped — are critical and commercial hits, while stories about a DV-related mass murder in Texas barely make a blip on our news timelines.

Biden worries that “our kids are watching,” but the kids have always been watching. Most teenage boys in this country have already seen far worse done to a woman onscreen than they’ll ever see on Trump’s Twitter feed — but they may never hear their parents, coaches, and teachers who are men say a word about patriarchy. And even though many young boys growing up in the households of Democrats might very well understand that Trump is decidedly gross and not a role model, our end goal can’t just be convincing boys to reject Trump. Because Trump is not a “lone wolf”— he’s a product of the same pervasive system those boys are growing up in right now.

In other words, it shouldn’t take Trump or Clinton to get us to respond to the institutional hatred of women. Or about the way social media has been weaponized to attack all those who aren’t straight white cisgender men. It should be widely acknowledged that misogynoir is a “normal” part of life in this country, or that bragging about hurting women has always been a foundational element of American masculinity.

These are not questions we need answering, but truths we should have already faced. The real question now is how committed men are, as the president moves on to other targets, to actually dismantling patriarchy. Are we really willing to change how we use social media? To call out misogyny in all its forms? Long after Trump is out of office, will we support those challenging these corporations to change their harassment policies? Are we willing to give up our own power? And will we finally begin to listen to, believe in, and be led by women?