October 18, 2012

Amanda Todd and the Degendered Language of Bullying

Posted in Child Sexual Abuse, Current Events, hate crimes, Myths, New Release, Popular Culture, privilege and oppression, Rape Culture, Victim Blaming at 11:01 pm by sacetalks

Ok, we need to talk about Amanda Todd. We need to talk about Amanda Todd and the misogyny and sexism that led to her death and we need to talk about the deficient language of degendered, deraced and depoliticized “bullying”. I know that I am not the first person to make these connections, but I think the incredibly tragic circumstances that led to Todd’s death need to be widely examined and recognized.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the specifics of this story here is a brief overview: Amanda Todd was a 15 year old girl from BC who recently committed suicide. The factors that led her to make the decision to take her own life are as follows: When Todd was in Grade 7, she was convinced by a man (who she believed to be a boy her own age) in a chat room to flash her breasts on webcam.  He persuaded her to do this by telling her that she was beautiful, perfect and stunning.

A year later, she received a Facebook message from this man in which he threatened to send the screen shot he took of her flashing to everyone she knew if she did not give him “a show”. This man knew personal information about her. He knew the names of her friends and family and what school she attended. Todd did not comply with this demand. This man followed through with his threat and circulated the photo. As a result of the circulation of this picture, Todd was ostracized at her school. She was severely slut-shamed and humiliated on a daily basis. She tried switching schools but the picture and slut-shaming followed her.

 At one point, she met a boy who convinced her that he liked her. Under this pretense, they had sex. The boy later revealed he was lying, he did not have romantic feelings towards Todd, and he made a joke out of Todd for believing him and having sex with him. A veritable lynch mob, including the boy, came together to further slut-shame Todd and even physically assaulted her. Following this event, Todd made her first attempt at suicide. The harassment continued unabated even after this. Last month, after two years of sexual harassment, abuse and isolation, she made a YouTube video telling her story and asked for understanding. Last Wednesday, she took her own life.

Since this story broke, there has been an international outcry against “bullying”. Widespread condolences have been sent to her family and renewed commitments to taking “bullying” seriously have been made by many school and government officials. However, there is very little mention of the sexism and misogyny that defines Todd’s story, and there is even less recognition of the systemic and structural causes of Todd’s torment. Her story is different from the everyday experience of girls and women by degree, not by kind. Saying Todd’s life was claimed by “bullying” obscures the real, concrete ways people experience oppression because of gender, race, sexual orientation and able-bodiedness. It also denies the many ways that these characteristics constrain and shape a person’s behavior, actions and life.

For instance, much of the news coverage focuses on the fact that once a girl has a nude picture on the web, that picture can never be taken back. Framing the issue like this suggests that the moral of the story is “girls, don’t put pictures of yourself on the internet because look what can happen”. This understanding of Todd’s story misses two key points: First of all, we cannot fairly hold girls accountable for behaving in ways that suggest their self worth is based on their desirability and sexuality without also taking responsibility for the fact that we as a society force this message down their throats. We do this with media, with advertising, with lingerie football, with cheerleaders, with Halloween costumes, with jokes, with off-hand comments, with fairy tales, with coloring books, and with Barbie dolls, to name just a few examples. Secondly, where is mention of the perpetrators in this “moral”? Why isn’t the moral of the story “don’t spread pornographic images of people around without their consent, and if you receive a pornographic image of someone without their consent, know that this person is being victimized by an abuser, delete the picture(s) immediately, and support the victim/survivor by letting them know that what has been done to them is wrong and is not their fault”. Isn’t that a clearer, more supportive and responsive message than vaguely telling people not to bully while still suggesting the situation was the victim’s fault?

The generic language of bullying cannot capture the structural and highly gendered reality of Todd’s story. Todd was not simply “bullied”. These were not acts of childish immaturity; there were behaviors and attitudes that were learned from the adult world.  Allow me to contextualize.  Todd’s story actually begins with 13 years of gendered conditioning and sexist cultural messages. She is then victimized by an online predator who uses this conditioning to his advantage. She is slut-shamed, victim-blamed and ostracized by her peers (who have also been raised in a culture steeped in systemic sexism) for being victimized. We know that this piece of Todd’s story is not unique because we know the challenges survivors face in a society that only focuses on the actions and behaviors of the victim without questioning those of the perpetrator. At some point during the next two years of torment, she is assaulted by a boy who lies to her and manipulates her with malicious intent. The fact that this episode is called sex rather than assault (because consent obtained through lying, manipulation or coercion is not valid consent!) in all of the news reports I have come across further demonstrates the systemic, culture-wide sexist attitudes that prevail. As a result of two years of sexual harassment, slut-shaming, victim-blaming, sexual assault and isolation, Amanda Todd chooses to take her own life.

Framing this story in terms of “bullying” glosses over the lived realities of gender-based violence. It makes it sound like this “bullying” could happen to anyone, but that’s not true. This particular story could not have happened to a boy or man. It also could not have happened if we lived in a culture that did not accept discrimination based on gender and that supported and believed survivors of sexual abuse and blamed only the perpetrators. We have to recognize the specific oppressions that people face because of their gender, race, sexual orientation and able-bodiedness and work hard to rid our individual attitudes and our cultural systems of these prejudices. We owe this to Amanda Todd.

– Stephanie