Large group of people marching in a protest holding signs, the largest reads: "Nasty woman."

I Was Trolled – Here’s Why I’m Turning It into a Teaching Opportunity

Screenshot of an online comment that reads: “This crazed feminist is trying to culturally appropriate our bar food.”

Here’s what happened. I wrote an essay critically analyzing a YouTube talk show I actually watch and enjoy — Hot Ones — on which celebrities answer questions while eating ten chicken wings doused in hot sauces of increasing spiciness. I argued that interrelated gender conventions about flavor, food, appetite, and consumption shape how celebrity is performed on the show by male and female guests. Feminist Media Studies published the short essay this June. The “Real Peer Review” — an anonymous group Twitter account that purportedly “provide[s] a lighthearted, satirical view of [the] most questionable specimens of modern academic peer review process” — tweeted screenshots of the entire essay in July.1

Then Brietbart wrote an article about it. So did The College Fix. And The Blaze. And The Daily Wire. And National Review. And a bunch of blogs, etc. etc. And I read them, all, and the comments.2

It’s both ironic and fitting that my essay happened to be published in Feminist Media Studies in a commentary section on feminism and food media within a special issue on online misogyny.3 In the issue’s introduction, editors Debbie Ging and Eugenia Siapera adopt a cultural rather than legal approach to online gender-based violence, writing:

…misogyny, which may not involve violence but almost always entails some form of harm; either directly in the form of psychological, professional, reputational, or, in some cases, physical harm; or indirectly, in the sense that it makes the internet a less equal, less safe, or less inclusive space for women and girls.

Especially as I’ve faced increasingly invasive tweets and emails, I’ve had great support from the editors of Feminist Media Studies and from friends and colleagues as this churlish ordeal happened. I’m very relieved I haven’t faced real threats, yet, but many folks attacked by online misogyny do. Amanda Hess’s 2014 essay, “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet” and Amnesty International’s 2018 report on Twitter both document such occurrences. A national UK study published in 2017 offers additional evidence and explores “online abuse of this kind as an extension of offline gender relations.”

Misogyny was unsurprisingly the dominant theme characterizing the comments I received.4 Like those sharing their #MenCallMeThings experiences, I was referred to as the general (and predictable) “unhinged feminazi,” “dyky feminazi professor,” “another offended lesbian,” “Professor Bimbo,” and a “dumb broad,” as well as the more specific: “Dr. Emily Cuntois,” “Prof. Clitoris,” “Cuntwat,” and “Dr. Bitchface.” One comment read, “Figures It’s a woman professor.”

There were also misogynistic threats like, “Hey you little libturd feminist bee-otch. I’ll eat the wings and you can suck on my bone. Sound good?” and “Stick it up your assses you dirty feminazi biiches! If you want some hot wings, I will make you some. You won’t be able to sit down for a week.” I was told that I “should vaporize” and perhaps what I needed was “a friendly pat on the caboose.” In truth it was shocking and painful but also bizarrely thrilling to see the central tenets of my own work on hegemonic, fragile, and toxic masculinities in the contemporary U.S. play out on my screen.

All that aside, food in particular tells us much about gender and power in U.S. society, and gendered online abuse is no exception. It’s not a coincidence that one of the most cited academic papers on the topic of online misogyny by Professor Emma A. Jane is titled “Back to the kitchen, cunt: speaking the unspeakable about online misogyny.”5

It’s also not a coincidence that a couple of Breitbart comments instructed me to “fix me a sammich” or “get me a beer,” and that I “should be deep-fried, coated with Frank’s hot sauce and dipped in bleu cheese.” And it’s not a coincidence that research on food or media (and heaven forbid, food and media) is construed, as my commenters called it, as “pseudo-academic drivel” and “self-validating madness masquerading as science.”

Such characterizations relate back to how my original essay was deemed “questionable.”6 Breitbart tagged their story on my essay with “feminism” and “social justice,” categories I might have chosen myself, but concepts that mean something wholly different within these circles of thinking and incite different reactions, namely furious disagreement, to put it lightly.

Breitbart also tagged the story as an example of “academic insanity,”7 as supposed evidence of liberal professors foolishly spending public funds on research in “studies” fields not worth pursuing and ripe for ridicule, all sentiments echoed in the comments. Along these lines, one of the commenters also quipped, “Feminism once again more focused on pop culture and meaningless entertainment.”

Screenshot of an online comment that reads: "Feminism once again more focused on pop culture and meaningless entertainment. Women's studies has become an area for dimwits to pretend to be intellectuals...sort of like John Oliver's audience."

While this was, fortunately, my first real experience with online misogyny (and I know it won’t be my last), I’m no stranger to defending why seemingly trivial topics are actually meaningful. As a younger discipline within the academy and one focused on a quotidian aspect of the human experience, food studies has been dismissed as trite and unserious in the past, even by fellow academics.

This dismissal has everything to do with gender. In Food: The Key Concepts, Warren Belasco proposes that such judgment rests in the tradition of classical dualism between the glorious (masculine) mind and the “gross” (feminine) body. He also argues food studies’ reputation has “been hindered by another Victorian relic,” the “separate spheres” that delineate a set of interrelated binary constructions: masculine/feminine, public/private, production/consumption.8

The question of why something as seemingly insignificant as “dude food” (and, yes, an online program about hot wings) matters invokes similar intellectual debates. As a scholar of contemporary popular culture, I accept the challenge to interpret, historicize, and theorize our current moment, as it transpires all around us.

Popular culture articulates identity negotiation (yes, that includes gender), the growing pains of social and cultural change (as well as backlash), and the dynamic tensions between low and high, resistance and containment. Popular culture affords rich evidence that is not only meaningful, but multifaceted and deeply political, that both shapes and reflects society, who we are, and who we might become.

These are the foundations for the Media and Popular Culture course that I’ll be teaching this fall. My future students are the main reason I made myself sit down and write something after all of this happened to me and my scholarship: to assure them that food studies and media studies are not frivolous, nor are they an easy “A.” Such courses of study are worthwhile, challenging, and engaging, even if we must live in a time when vitriolic chatter sometimes arises in our most intimate of media spaces.

Notes

  1. Twitter Account Mocking ‘Questionable’ Left-Wing Papers is Shrouded in Secrecy Amid Threats of Hacking,” Fox News, February 14, 2017. Return to text.
  2. I’m intentionally not hyperlinking to any of these articles so as to not participate in click-bait or to encourage engagement, post impressions, or site-visits for these sources. Return to text.
  3. With thanks to Dr. Laura Portwood-Stacer for this observation. Return to text.
  4. At first, I thought I would export all the comments into a spreadsheet and code them into categories, but many of the comments are so nonsensical that that proved too time-consuming, at least for this short essay. Return to text.
  5. Professor Emma Alice Jane also published an article in the Feminist Media Studies issue on online misogyny, a topic on which she has published widely. Return to text.
  6. I’m not going to discuss how folks outright missed the point of my argument, though there’s certainly a lot to be said. Return to text.
  7. The full list of Breitbart’s tags for the story on my essay: Education, Social Justice, Tech, Academic Insanity, Buffalo Wings, feminism, University of Tulsa, and Youtube. Return to text.
  8. Warren Belasco, Food: The Key Concepts (Oxford: Berg, 2008), 3. Return to text.

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