clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Who Gets Hit Extra Hard by Online Harassment? Girls. Who Enables It? The Media.

Here are some highlights from a panel discussion featuring ex-Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis.


The other day, Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls co-founder Meredith Walker spotted something interesting on the back of a car. There was a Christian fish, and right next to the fish was a Donald Trump sticker that displayed the “short-fingered vulgarian” yelling at Hillary Clinton. The bumper sticker read, “Trump that bitch!”

Without skipping a beat, Walker continued: “Which one do you want me to believe?”

In a nutshell, this captures what it’s like to be a woman visible online and in public life. It was a parable that Walker shared as a panelist for the “Women in the Media and Online Harassment” session, part of the SXSW Interactive Online Harassment Summit. And, as the panel’s conversation demonstrated, it was a story that maps perfectly onto women’s experiences in digital spheres.

The panel, moderated by Rookie Magazine staff writer and Women, Action and the Media founder Jamia Wilson, included Walker, former Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis and Women’s Media Center director Soraya Chemaly. Their wide-ranging discussion focused on the abuse women experience online, the nature of it and how it is enabled by ingrained misogynistic attitudes in mainstream media.

“Gendered harassment is the most severe, because women are the ones experiencing [the most intense harassment],” Wilson said. “Women of color experience racialized harassment that is often more severe … a lot of women of color and trans people even say that they experience later response times from platforms for their reports of violence.”

Davis, easily the most well-known Democratic politician (or as she put it, “recovering politician”) in Texas, rose to fame in 2013 after an epic, hours-long filibuster against an ultimately successfully Texas state law that imposed harsh restrictions on abortion. She directly linked the sexist ways in which media framed her career and work as part of an environment that encourages online harassment. For example, many political right-wingers have given Davis the moniker “Abortion Barbie.”

“It doesn’t fit as online harassment, but it’s giving permission to the online harassment. Which is to say that it’s okay to view women, critique women and talk about women differently,” Davis said. “I certainly saw, both immediately after the filibuster and more so during my gubernatorial campaign, an intense effort to paint me in a way that would be seen as not capable of leading, to dismiss me — it was all gender based.”

These attitudes and the noxious impact they have aren’t exactly novel concepts; cultural misogyny long preceded the rise of Internet media (see: the recent Marcia Clark-centered episode of FX’s show about the O.J. Simpson trial). But that doesn’t mean things haven’t changed.

“This isn’t new, but the landscape that we’re in makes it so much more nefarious, and fast, and swift and hard to manage,” Wilson said. “This is a long-term experience that so many of us have had.”

This article originally appeared on