Laurie Penny | Longreads | March 2018 | 23 minutes (5,933 words)
Another day at the Telegraph and another attack on Laurie Penny.
— Nick Cohen, The Spectator, 2011
Do you think that red hair and makeup is used for anything other than attention? Her writing? Same. That bitch is a whore who needs to die choking on cocks.
— 4chan, 2016
I think that nice Laurie Penny over at the New Statesman must actually be a conservative mole dedicated to undermining leftism from within.
— Alex Massie, also at The Spectator, 2013
Hang this clown. Hang Laurie Penny.
— Urban75 (British left-wing forum), 2011
Now I don’t want to make light of her depression, but she has probably brought this on herself.
— Desert Sun, “We Need to Talk about Laurie Penny,” September 2017
* * *
It’s a clammy summer night. You’re 24, and you call a suicide hotline.
The nice lady who answers is probably in her seventies. She is very understanding as you explain to her that hundreds of people, thousands of strangers, are saying awful things about you, that some of them seem to really want to hurt you. You don’t know why. You’re just a writer, and you didn’t expect this. But some of them tell you in detail their fantasies of your rape and murder.
The nice lady is very sweet as she asks you if these voices ever tell you to do things. Yes, they tell you to stop writing. You inform the nice lady about this in a creepy whisper because your family is sleeping nearby and you don’t want to wake or worry them. These strangers tell you you don’t deserve to live, let alone have a newspaper column. Do they tell you to hurt yourself? Yes, every day.
The nice lady tells you to hold the line, because if it’s alright, she’s going to transfer you to one of her colleagues with specialist training.
No, wait, you say. You’re not hearing voices. You’re not delusional. The nice lady can Google you. This is really happening.
* * *
The internet hates women. Everyone knows that by now, and nobody precisely approves, but we’ve reached a point of collective tolerance. It’s just the way of the world, and if you can’t handle it, honey, delete your account. Stop engaging online. Cut yourself off from friends, family, and professional contacts, shut down your business, blow up your social capital, stop learning, stop talking, just stop. Or else.
The U.N. Broadband Commission tells us that one in five young women has been sexually harassed online. Amnesty International’s latest report suggested that over three-quarters of women and girls expected violence and abuse if they expressed an opinion online. “Online” is the least significant word in those sentences. I have been asked enough times if “the internet is bad for women.” And yes, there is reason enough to warn your daughter, your partner, your friend to watch out for herself online, to think twice before “putting herself out there.” You’d warn her in much the same way that you might warn her not to walk through town alone at night, not to wear a short skirt, not to let her guard down, not to relax, ever. And the message is the same: The future, like the past, is not for you. You may visit, but only if you behave.
* * *
You’re 23. You’re an aspiring writer and the blog you write about gender, sex, and welfare from your roach-infested bedroom is nominated for a major prize. You get to go to a fancy ceremony. Your parents are proud. You put on your best shirt and try to look comfortable. All the other nominees are older, and most of them are men, and as you are stashing fancy food in your rucksack to take home and share, one of them comes over and whispers gleefully in your ear: How does it feel to be a hate figure?
You should have taken it as a warning. This is about the time when the death threats start.
* * *
The year 2010, according to a recent report from Manchester Metropolitan University, was when the snowball of new feminism got up enough momentum to become a threat to culture. That momentum came from the internet. “The ability to call out sexism and misogyny on social media has revolutionized the feminist movement,” writes Dr. Emma Turley, one of the authors of the paper.
When it comes to feminism, simply describing the world as so many of us actually experience it can be a radical act, and that’s what a lot of women started doing in 2010 in numbers too big to ignore. However, the report goes on to note that “Social media can expand the means to proliferate misogynistic and sexist narratives, and shame women and maintain power inequalities in the offline world.” The year 2010 was also when mob harassment started to be weaponized against women online in an organized way. That’s no coincidence. Just about exactly when women started to use the internet to organize in ways that kept patriarchy awake at night, it started to become a truism that the internet was a dangerous place for girls. This development is always described in the passive voice, as if there weren’t a lot of people out there determined to make sure it stays that way.
It’s easy to blame technology for this, and people do. I do. I have been known to tell concerned friends and family who are wondering why I suddenly seem so scared of my phone that “the internet is being a bastard today,” not because I really think that the internet is a sentient machine capable of specific and malicious bastardry, but because it’s sometimes too depressing to acknowledge that one is surrounded by moral illegitimacy on all sides.
Let’s be daring for a minute and consider an alternative theory: The internet does not hate women. The internet doesn’t hate anyone, because the internet, being an inanimate network, lacks the capacity to hold any opinion whatsoever. People hate women, and the internet allows them to do it faster, harder, and with impunity. It’s developed into a form of relaxation after a hard day of being ground on the wheel of late-stage capitalism. Melvin Kranzberg’s statement that “technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral” holds true here: The internet lets us be whoever we were before, more efficiently, with fewer consequences.
Misogyny is among many things millennials did not invent. Long before Twitter was a glint in Jack Dorsey’s eye, women who stepped out of line were being shamed by Left and Right alike regardless of which wave of feminism they rode.
The most damaging attacks, however, often came from inside the movement. Years after witnessing violent takedowns of other women in the late ’60s, Jo Freeman penned a desperate article in Ms. Magazine in 1975, “Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood,” which rings a note of ominous familiarity for anyone who has watched what happens to progressive women who dare to display self-respect in public:
It is not disagreement; it is not conflict; it is not opposition. These are perfectly ordinary phenomena which, when engaged in mutually, honestly, and not excessively, are necessary to keep an organism or organization healthy and active. Trashing is a particularly vicious form of character assassination… It is manipulative, dishonest, and excessive. It is occasionally disguised by the rhetoric of honest conflict, or covered up by denying that any disapproval exists at all. But it is not done to expose disagreements or resolve differences. It is done to disparage and destroy.
Forty years later, trashing is still progressives’ favorite tactic to deploy against uppity women. When it happens in the playground, it’s called bullying. When it happens in the workplace, the phenomenon is delicately known as mobbing. Again, researchers report high levels of post-traumatic stress among those who have been subject to it. Again, those singled out for mobbing are more likely to be high-achievers, more likely to be potential leaders, and especially likely to be women.
Trashing is not only destructive to the individuals involved, but serves as a very powerful tool of social control. The qualities and styles which are attacked become examples other women learn not to follow — lest the same fate befall them. […] This kind of woman has always been put down by our society with epithets ranging from “unladylike” to “castrating bitch.” The primary reason there have been so few “great women ______” is not merely that greatness has been undeveloped or unrecognized, but that women exhibiting potential for achievement are punished by both women and men. The “fear of success” is quite rational when one knows that the consequence of achievement is hostility and not praise.
Trashing is insidious. It can damage its subject for life, personally and professionally. Whether or not people sympathize, the damage has been done. It doesn’t matter if the attacks have any basis in truth: What matters is that she is difficult. This woman who doesn’t have the sense to protect herself from public shaming by piping down, by walking with her eyes lowered. She can be trashed intimately by people who don’t know her, people who are engaging, at best, with a flimsy caricature based on her worst qualities, and she might understand that it’s not really her they hate, but she’s the one getting those messages every day.
In the 1970s, trashing had to be done with analog tools. Today, it is faster, harder, more savagely intimate. It follows you to work. It follows you to bed. Freeman was talking about the feminist Left, but this happens everywhere. In fact, committed hatred of successful women and a destructive obsession with women who step outside their lane seem to be the sole point on which the entire political spectrum is in absolute agreement.
* * *
You’re 25, and an influential community hub for the Left in your country runs a giant thread all about how much and why you’re a waste of oxygen. People like to kick back on this thread for years, and it runs to 821 pages. Not posts. Pages. Everything you say or do in public is dissected. There are a few outright violent fantasies, but mostly it’s rumor, gossip, and shit-talking. Sometimes, here and elsewhere, people mention when they’ve seen you around, and what you were doing, as further evidence of your atrocity. You hear that you are too privileged to live, when straight white men with far greater social advantages in your field are not made to answer for them.
You’re being punished for not knowing your place. And the worst of it is that the stigma sticks. Even among those who disown it. You’re the girl who gets hassled. The one who attracts too much attention. You must have done something to deserve it.
You can’t stop checking this thread, although you know you shouldn’t. It makes you jumpy and paranoid. A dear friend drifts out of touch, and blanks you when you greet her in the pub. Later you find out that she’s a regular on the forum.
Eventually you reply to the thread, thinking that if you could just explain why they’re wrong about you, that you’re a decent, well-meaning person who is trying her best and is still pretty young, they’d lay off.
It doesn’t work out that way.
* * *
Unless you’re on the receiving end, it might seem strange, even offensive, to equate mainstream critique with the outright violence of anonymous far-right and anti-woman extremists. But for those of us who go through it every day, the context collapses into a flat field where people are firing at you from all sides and there’s no cover, not for you.
Whoever you ask, it’s always someone else doing the real harassment — it’s those men over there who are violent and sexist, whereas our way of dealing with difficult women is reasonable and fair. It’s legitimate critique. They have overstepped and they owe us an answer, an apology. We are definitely not attacking her — or her, or her — because she is a woman with power and that makes us uncomfortable. No. That’s something those guys over there do.
Just about exactly when women started to use the internet to organize in ways that kept patriarchy awake at night, it started to become a truism that the internet was a dangerous place for girls.
Yes, we all agree that death threats are bad. But the focus on the death threats, on the most egregious individual acts of violence, takes away collective responsibility for the way we tear down individuals, particularly women, who we’ve decided are just too much.
In February of this year, Mhairi Black MP — the youngest member of the British Parliament and a well-known campaigner for economic justice — stood up to give evidence about the volume of sexist and homophobic abuse she deals with on a daily basis. This may have earned Black the distinction of being the first person to say the word cunt on the record in the House of Commons. If she had stopped there, it might have been alright. But she went on to call out her male colleagues in Parliament for professional and sexual harassment of female politicians, and for creating a culture of contempt for women in the corridors of power.
She’s not wrong. In Britain and beyond, abuse is an accepted part of the working life of women in politics — both from anonymous extremists and from their own peers. And that’s before we begin to address what happened to Jo Cox. What happened to Gabrielle Giffords. What happened to Marielle Franco.
An international study of parliamentarians revealed in 2016 that intimidation and violence is undermining women’s efforts to achieve equality in governments worldwide. More than a fifth of the female MPs interviewed had experienced sexual violence. More than 40 percent had received threats of death, rape, beatings, or abduction while serving their terms, including threats to kidnap or kill their children.
* * *
You’re 26 and you get your first credible bomb threat. The police advise you to leave your flat, and you try and fail to explain to the sweet middle-aged gay couple upstairs why they should, too. You hide out in an ex-boyfriend’s front room. You’re scared, which people can deal with, and angry, which they can’t, but a tiny part of you is strangely relieved. Now perhaps people will understand that something real and terrible is happening to you. Now people might believe you.
* * *
I’ve spoken with countless women who have been attacked, mobbed, and shamed for doing their jobs and living their lives, and without exception, all of them prefer the outright violence. The sickos who create sock-puppet accounts just so they can describe how they’re going to rape you in the nose with a chainsaw. It doesn’t improve your day when you hear that sort of thing constantly, but you don’t worry that your nose might be looking particularly rapeable right now. It is less insidious, less traumatic, than being trashed by your colleagues and peers: by the people you expected to have your back before you knew to watch it. The most violent trolls can shake you up and make you feel physically unsafe for a moment, but dedicated trashing can undermine your work, hurt your financial security, destroy your relationships, damage your professional standing, and leave you broke and lonely and isolated, and still struggling to explain to yourself or your family what has happened. I’d choose the sickos every time.
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Of course, most of us don’t get that choice. And that’s what does the real damage. Most people experiencing the spittle-flecked, dedicated kill-you-cunt wank-mobbery of the comments section are also subject to the self-satisfied concern-trolling of the top half of the internet. The “mainstream” trashers, particularly those who consider themselves progressive, see nothing wrong with trashing successful women who get above themselves. On the contrary, they usually believe themselves justified, even morally obliged, to take them down a peg.
But so do the trolls.
As above the line, so below the line. Didn’t you hear she sent her kids to a private school? Didn’t you hear who she hung out with? What about her husband? What about her emails? Whenever a woman takes up too much space in the world, reasons will be found to cut her down to size. And reasons will be found to deflect responsibility. You only threw a rock, not a boulder. You threw a boulder, not a grenade. You threw a grenade, but so did a lot of other people. As Bailey Poland observes in Haters:
Everyone involved, from the figurehead to each individual harasser, is able to diffuse responsibility for the abuse among the group, claiming abuse was always committed by ‘someone else’ and thus was not the concern of any one member, regardless of their own actions.
It’s everyone’s fault, in other words, so it’s nobody’s. We can punish the odd psycho who goes too far and doesn’t cover his tracks, but we have no legal response to bullying in a society predicated upon it. The internet is an inverse Hydra with a hundred assholes: Put down one and two more pop up in his place to tell you your dead dad would be ashamed of you.
This type of trashing and trolling was the playbook of misogynists and racists online for years, and nobody took it seriously, because it wasn’t happening to people who mattered. Gamergate. Google it, please, because I don’t want to talk about Gamergate any more than I have to because, as we all know, if you say the word three times into a laptop screen a hollow-eyed horde of trolls bursts out and tries to engage you in an urgent debate about ethics in videogame journalism.
Suffice it to say that by the time the very same tactics were weaponized by the authoritarian Right around the world — from Steve Bannon’s Breitbart News to Putin’s troll army — it was too late.
* * *
You’re 28, you’re a Harvard Fellow, you’ve written six books and given countless well-regarded talks, but the top hit for you on YouTube is still a clip of the time you were tired and scared and let a drunk old racist bully you on stage. This clip is sent to you every day. You have at this point been trashed and shamed by 4chan, 8chan, and reddit, by European fascists and British Tories, German Liberals and Californian Marxists, by the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, the Daily Stormer, and Wikileaks. It doesn’t stop.
Everyone knows that you get a lot of “grief,” and quite a few people seem to want to hear about it. They want to know how and when and with what implements you were told you would be raped to death. They want you to cry on television. They truly seem to enjoy hearing about it, although of course nobody they know would send this sort of abuse. The all-male documentary team gets huffy when you refuse to read out some of the “juiciest” sexist and anti-Semitic harassment that you have received lately. You are told that it needs to be dramatic to “change minds.” You are not being paid for your time. You stand up for yourself. The more excited they seem to be by the idea of these threats, the less you want to make a spectacle of your own victimhood. They like the idea of you being frightened on their segment. They don’t want you to be angry. You are asked to calm down. They exchange significant looks. You’re a problem now. You were always a problem. Maybe these online weirdos had a point.
* * *
“Women who have succeeded too well at becoming visible,” writes Sady Doyle in her barnstorming book Trainwreck, “have always been penalized vigilantly and forcefully, and turned into spectacles.” After almost a decade of “awareness-raising” about online misogyny — just like your granddad’s home-grown misogyny, but on the intertubes — it hasn’t got any better. It’s got worse. And the most common response, by far, is still victim-blaming. Of course, nobody deserves death threats. But come on, princess. Didn’t you ask for this, even a little bit? You shouldn’t have been so ambitious. So forthright. So talented. So unapologetic. Careful, or they’ll make an example of you.
The internet is an inverse Hydra with a hundred assholes: Put down one and two more pop up in his place to tell you your dead dad would be ashamed of you.
Not everyone is harassed equally. If we were, solidarity might be slightly easier to summon. There are still individuals who are singled out for special monstering, whose every move is scrutinized, with a range of flavors of self-righteousness, as a warning to others. Anita Sarkeesian. Diane Abbott. Zoë Quinn. Lena Dunham. Lindy West. Leslie Jones. Chelsea Manning. Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC political editor who has been subjected to such savage threats that she has to work with bodyguards. But didn’t she ask for it, by daring to be a competent reporter?
What makes victim-blaming so insidious is that it isn’t just about shifting the blame — it’s about sending a message to anyone else who might be dumb enough to think they can do whatever that victim was doing and get away with it.
In response to Amnesty’s report, Twitter released a statement whining that harassment isn’t its responsibility, that it can’t “delete prejudice and hatred” from society. Maybe not, but it doesn’t take much to build spaces where those behaviors are unacceptable. We get to decide what kind of public sphere we want — and Twitter, which might be a roiling cauldron of human calumny in which dank memes and daring ideas occasionally bob to the surface, is also the de-facto message board for the public sphere. What is tolerated on Twitter is tolerated offline, and vice versa. This is why a handful of intemperate white supremacists have been banned but Donald J. Trump has not.
This is why recreational racism and mob misogyny are given space online: Because they are still seen as acceptable offline.
We have come a long way from The Scarlet Letter: Today, when women are harassed and shamed out of public life the shame and harassment is slightly less likely to involve a rhetoric of sexual policing, at least among progressives. At least, most progressives. At least most of the time. Granted, any woman in the remotest corner of the public eye who wants to be treated with a sugar-pill of respect must find a way to dress which is neither too conservative nor too revealing, not too frumpy nor too frivolous, a way of speaking which is neither “aggressive” nor simpering, and a way of behaving which at no point discomforts any man in her vicinity. It’s almost as if the problem weren’t the behavior or the voice or the clothes but the woman wearing them.
But we’re not as overtly judgemental as our grandparents. Simply slut-shaming an ambitious or exceptional woman into retreat doesn’t always work, but the moral outrage remains, diffuse and desperate. It is precisely “moral outrage,” according to a 2010 report by researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School, that members of the public displayed when faced by women in politics and public life who appear to be seeking power.
The equivalent power-seeking behavior in men was not considered outrageous. When women come across as ambitious, as self-serving, or simply as successful, whatever their cause or cohort, they are considered wrongdoers by default.
* * *
You’re 29, and you’ve managed to write a couple of books, and when people talk about your work you repeatedly hear that you are “provocative.” You’re not sure what that’s supposed to mean. Your personal style is a series of variations on the drapey-black-sack-and-big-boots look, and you never set out to make men angry, or violent, or horny — in fact, you rarely set out in your work with a great deal of regard for what men think either way. Maybe that’s the problem. When people meet you and realize that in the flesh you are soft-spoken, socially awkward, and, most importantly, physically petite enough to be unthreatening, they express a sort of spiteful shock. “I thought I really hated you,” they say, smiling, “but you’re so nice.” You are supposed to say thank you to this. You try to force a smile, but it makes your face ache.
* * *
Sometimes I like to play a little game called What Would a Man Have to Do to Be Targeted Like This? Usually it’s “rape or kill someone, and be convicted in court.” It’s not that women in the public eye never make mistakes. It’s that the punishments are out of all proportion. Winona Ryder’s career took 20 years to recover after she was caught shoplifting. Meanwhile, Woody Allen was accused of sexually assaulting his daughter and never stopped winning awards.
How do you survive as an artist, a writer, a politician, an academic, through sustained harassment, relentless intrusion into your personal life, and intimate dissection of your every public and semi-public action? This used to be a question only the legitimately famous had to answer, and often the answer involved money. What about people who sometimes get recognized and yelled at on the bus but still have to take the damn bus?
Well, part of the answer is that you get very tired. You question yourself. Trashing and trolling makes it hard to work, in the same way that the sucking lake of treacle in your nightmares makes it hard to run. It makes you afraid of putting a foot wrong, ever. It makes you afraid to take risks. That fear is the death of creativity, the death of decent politics, the death of art. Here’s why.
It’s not that women in the public eye never make mistakes. It’s that the punishments are out of all proportion.
If you want to be a decent artist, entrepreneur, or activist — actually, if you want to be a decent human being, full stop — you have to stay open. Living with a constant barrage of harassment makes you want to shut down entirely, makes you long for exactly the thick skin that is the last thing a writer, an activist, or anyone politically active needs. We need to be porous, to be vulnerable, to be able to change, if we are to survive this fast-moving and frightening time together.
It’s hard to stay in the room and listen to legitimate critique when you’re being hammered on all sides by bullshit. They tell you to shrug off criticism, but I’m doing my best to be an activist and an ally, and that means staying open to critique. If a lot of vaguely reasonable people are telling you you’ve fucked up, and you’re not actually a monster, you want to at least consider that you might have engaged in a spot of up-fuckery, something that you might need to apologize for and learn from.
I’ve defended call-out culture in the past, and I’ll do it again. For all its problems, the way we hold people responsible for their actions in this weird new public crypto-space we share is a step in the direction of a truly accountable culture. It is also understandable, if less honorable, that when injustice is so structurally impregnable and enemies are so amorphous, it feels good to go for the easy wins that come from hunting down minor wrongdoing in your own front yard. What makes the difference is whether shame is the chief weapon of the people doing the calling out.
There’s one more thing that the Left, the Right, and every spoke on the broken compass of directionless human politics has in common. Apart from disliking women who are too successful, too happy, too much, the other thing they have in common is how much they seem to enjoy taking them down.
It took me many years to learn the most important distinguishing factor when trying to decide what criticism to take on board, once you’ve filtered and blocked for bots and fascists. It’s not about tone, and it’s not, for fuck’s sake, about Twitter. It’s about pleasure. Is somebody actively enjoying making you feel like shit? Is driving conscientious people to mental breakdown a really good time for them? Are they getting off on your pain? There’s a word for that, and it’s not “ally.” I understand that bullying can feel pretty damn good, especially if you don’t call it that. I understand that playing the game of trashing feels comfortable and comprehensible, even righteous, when so little else does. But I’ve read all the theory and staggered through all the flame wars and I’ve come to the conclusion that when you get down to it, people who enjoy hurting other people are not worth your time or mine. They can take that kink to a club where it belongs.
* * *
You’re 30. People continually ask you how you handle all the “grief” you get. You don’t know whether to give them the reassuring answer or the real one, which is that half the time it’s as much as you can do to keep going, that there’s no one weird trick to get back the time you waste on the emotional and practical overheads of continuous abuse. You struggle to maintain relationships. Acquaintances whisper about you, and close friends are worried. You stop going out for weeks on end. You suspect that, ultimately, you deserved this. You consider giving up. You keep going. You are punished again. You fucking persist.
* * *
I’m not writing about this now out of any hope that it will stop. Many of us were once that naive — naive enough to think that if people only knew how much they were hurting you, if they could only understand that you were a human being, they’d stop. That childlike belief in a natural limit to human malice is perhaps the most tenuous thread of privilege, because I can’t help noticing how many of those who have lived through years of abuse and still hold it are middle-class white girls, like me.
It’s not that working-class women, or women of color of any class, are trashed and abused any less — quite the opposite. There is, however, less of an expectation that the world at large will care. Black women in particular are required to perform strength in the face of treatment nobody should have to be strong enough to endure. When the actress Leslie Jones received outrageous harassment at the resentful, racist fingertips of armies of trolls who considered her appearance in a gender-flipped remake of Ghostbusters a crime worth punishing, she spoke out. Before any action was taken by social media platforms, Jones was praised for being “strong” — when what she was actually asking was not to be praised, but for people to stop sending her racist death threats. Any woman who does something extraordinary or unusual in the public eye can now expect harassment, and women of color can expect a double helping — but the demand to perform strength in the face of cowardly recreational hate-mobs is the final insult. It’s also the final fee that any woman who achieves anything of note is now expected to pay to male pride. She must not only suffer, she must smile through it.
Not everyone, though, has the capacity to continue when the world really seems to want you to go away. Plenty fall by the wayside, or quietly withdraw, or simply never dare get started in the first place. I would never fault anyone for making that choice. One of the only reasons I’ve not made it myself is that I’ve hung on long enough to make myself completely unsuitable for any other work. That, with a side order of sheer bloody-minded refusal to let the bastards win.
Any woman who does something extraordinary or unusual in the public eye can now expect harassment, and women of color can expect a double helping — but the demand to perform strength in the face of cowardly recreational hate-mobs is the final insult.
Spite can keep you going when strength and self-confidence wear thin. For every person you see struggling on through years of trashing and trolling, though, there are more who have given up — and that’s the point. The point is to scare women and girls out of social and cultural spaces, because when women and girls occupy those places, well, some people get scared.
And not without reason.
Without wishing to hyperbolize, have you noticed how women and girls are completely killing it right now? How despite every threat, every warning, every practical hurdle thrown in their way, women are producing most of the best writing, making the most exciting television, creating the freshest and most unique music and art, and running the most urgent political campaigns? Particularly queer women. Particularly women of color. Oh, and they’re running for office, too, even though they’ve been told — and have seen — what might happen if they do.
Peek through your clammy hands at what women have done and at what they have created despite spending their entire careers fending off trash-mobs and negotiating outright abuse and still getting paid less than they deserve for doing twice the work. Take a look, if you dare, at how many of us are surviving and thriving despite being punished for being a little bit too ambitious, and then ask yourself what we might do if we didn’t have to waste our time on bullshit. Ask yourself how culture might change if the women in it weren’t living under constant, critical surveillance, if we were allowed to be vulnerable, to be difficult, to be strange, to take risks, and to make mistakes.
* * *
You’re 31 and it didn’t get better. But you did. You’re working harder than ever. You can now pick the rare jewels of reasonable critique out of the steaming bullshit of bad-faith trashing. You know now that yes, the problem was you, all along, and the problem was that you were reasonably talented and moderately successful, and that was all.
You have not grown a thick skin, but you have learned how to respect yourself, how to care for yourself, because if you hadn’t learned, you could not have continued. You still find it hard to trust other humans, to have real relationships. You’re working on it. Someone gently suggests that you might have post-traumatic stress disorder, and you think, well, maybe, but the trauma looks like it’s going to continue until you quit writing, which is the one thing you swore you wouldn’t do. You have found ways to carry on. As you’ve got older, you can’t tolerate a lot of the toxins you used to swallow a decade ago — including entitled male bullshit. You are tired, but no longer afraid. Instead, you are angrier than you could possibly have imagined. And not just on your own behalf.
* * *
If society at large wants to keep women and queers in their place then society at large should continue doing exactly what it’s doing. If it has indeed been collectively decided, from the variously organized Left to the worlds of art, film, music, journalism, politics, and academia, that women must not reach too high, get too comfortable, or dare to stand out in any way, society should continue to layer trashing, shame, and social isolation on top of the toxic trench of outright abuse, and tell us that if we’re really strong, we’ll just deal with it.
It’ll never keep all of us down.
I know enough artists, writers, activists, and musicians who have been scared away from putting their work into the world, and more who have failed to thrive, who have plodded their way through years of backlash and bullshit and come out the other side, but bruised, ill, and without having done all of the work they could have achieved. And I am angry about that. Not frightened. Angry.
There are times when survival itself is a political statement. When you have the choice to give up or to move sideways, sometimes the only thing that stops you from doing so is knowing that there are those who would consider that a victory — and yes, that can look like strength. My greatest hope is that future generations will not have to waste their time, their energy, and their youth being as strong as some of us have had to be.
* * *
Laurie Penny is an award-winning journalist, essayist, public speaker, writer, activist, internet nanocelebrity and author of six books. Her most recent book, Bitch Doctrine, was published by Bloomsbury in 2017. Her Longreads essays have been nominated for a National Magazine Award in Columns and Commentary.
Editor: Ben Huberman