(WOMENSENEWS)–Donald Trump’s efforts to get Megyn Kelly’s goat just keep going. When the Fox anchor returned to her show in late August after a brief vacation Trump retweeted a message from a supporter of his who called Kelly a “bimbo.”
He charged that Kelly attacked him unfairly in the first Republican debate when she questioned his history of sexist remarks. He later called CNN to say, “you could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her … wherever.”
Vox Politics noted, “Trump’s comments, and the overt hatred of women he conveyed, appear to have a real political constituency in America. Looking just at the immediate reaction, despite the backlash among the GOP establishment, his comments have inspired what appears to be an overwhelming wave of online hatred not against Trump but against Kelly.”
A chart from the website Topsy mapped the number of tweets across the Internet that mention both Kelly’s name and the words “cunt,” “whore,” “bitch” or “slut.” The site says “What you are seeing here is an explosion of sexist hatred against Kelly that begins precisely at the moment of the GOP debate when she dared to ask Trump about his record of sexism.”
Kelly may be the darling of conservatives for her appearances on Fox. But even that status didn’t protect her against the online tirades.
It’s part of a pattern that has surfaced on the Internet in recent years. When women make strong comments or venture into political waters they face threats. Harassment of female journalists online seems to be growing at an alarming rate; and it dovetails with new research about women and speech.
The Pew Research Center, which has been following online activity since 2000, found in 2014 that threats are directed far more at women than men. And in 2006, researchers from the University of Maryland created bogus online accounts and then sent them into chat rooms. Accounts with feminine usernames incurred an average of 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day. Masculine names received 3.7.
Moving onto male turf online can be dangerous. Two years ago, when gamer Anita Sarkeesian tried to crowdfund a series of videos calling out the hypersexualized female characters of video games, she received threats of murder and rape.
Software engineer Brianna Wu wrote in The Washington Post, in 2014, “They’ve taken down women I care about one by one. Now, the vicious mob of the Gamergate movement is coming after me. They’ve threatened to rape me. They’ve threatened to make me choke to death on my husband’s severed genitals. They’ve threatened to murder any children I might have…Gamergate is a group of gamers that are willing to destroy the women who have invaded their clubhouse.”
Why the outsized reaction when women offer their opinions?
More and more women are speaking up in public spaces. And research finds that when men concentrate on women’s success, they go into a defensive crouch. Psychologists Michael T. Schmitt and Jennifer Spoor at Queensland University in Australia found that when men focus on the gains women have made over the past 50 years, they report high levels of anxiety as well as a strong identification with their own gender. There’s a tendency to circle the wagons, to exaggerate how far women have come and how far men have fallen. This reaction can easily translate into Internet anger.
These fears feed into a national narrative that says women’s problems are over, and indeed they may have gone too far and left men in the dust. In this story, women are assuming increasing power and will soon take over most of the influential roles in society, while young men lack ambition and will soon drift into irrelevance. This isn’t true of course. Men still hold most of the top jobs in society and in the past few years women’s advances in the workplace have actually stalled in a major way.
Trump’s reaction to a powerful woman asking him tough question was off the wall. If a very rich, very powerful male acts this way, it’s no surprise that anonymous voices on the Internet who worry about women having too much power erupt into anger.
Wu wrote that when she made a joke on Twitter about male gamers who don’t like women, the death threats she received were “so severe I had to flee my home. They have targeted the financial assets of my company by hacking. They have tried to impersonate me on Twitter. Even as we speak, they are spreading lies to journalists via burner email accounts in an attempt to destroy me professionally.”
An article by journalist Amanda Hess went viral online in 2014, describing the horrendous messages she and other women who expressed opinions on the Web have received. Hess discovered that someone going by the username “headlessfemalepig” tweeted, “I am 36 years old, I did 12 years for ‘manslaughter’, I killed a woman . . . Happy to say we live in the same state. I’m looking you up, and when I find you, I’m going to rape you and remove your head.”
The tweet ended with “You are going to die and I am the one who is going to kill you. I promise you this.”
Many women are simply going quiet, after being told that these threats are just from stupid trolls who are harmless. But women fear that someday, one of these trolls will climb out from under his bridge and actually make good on his threats.
On Aug. 31, on her show “The Kelly File,” Kelly addressed the comments for the first and what she says will be the last time. “Trump, who is the frontrunner, will not apologize and I certainly will not apologize for doing good journalism,” she said at one point in a longer statement. “So, I’ll continue doing my job without fear or favor, And Mr. Trump I expect will continue with what has been a successful campaign thus far. This is a tough business and it’s time now to move forward. And now, let’s get back to the news.”
Kelly at least has the protection of a major news organization, Fox. But few other women have such powerful allies. They are out there in the trenches alone. The take-away message for them may be to shut up and stay safe.
It’s a message that has no place in a Democratic society.
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