Standing Against the Disturbing Culture of Internet Commenters

April 26, 2012 — 17 Comments

Today, Matt Singer kicked up a bit of a storm of commentary when he wrote a heartfelt post over at his Indiewire Criticwire blog about extremely sexist comments left on a negative review of The Avengers at Rotten Tomatoes.

If you asked me now, I would observe an interesting coincidence: that eighth grade was also the year when I received the harshest bullying of my entire life.

The abuse I endured wasn’t especially serious, but it was serious enough to understand how bad it hurts to be teased or called a name because of how you look or act.  I was less than five feet tall through most of my freshman and sophomore years of high school. I didn’t hit puberty until I was 16. I had big glasses. I wore white sneakers and tapered jeans. I may as well have walked around with a gigantic target on my backpack.

What did I do instead? I found comic books.

What Matt highlights is the message behind many of the very best and most popular comic book properties. These are stories about outcasts, often people who were bullied or suffered traumatic events in their youth, who overcome adversity. These stories are regularly a plea for tolerance and acceptance, of understanding different points of view and coming to terms with those who are different from us. Though they are regularly violent, they usually depict violence as a last resort to stop those who would rather destroy peace than be a part of it. I never really read comic books as a kid, but I was bullied, and I deeply sympathize with Matt’s concerns that these self-described comic book fans have completely missed the point of comic books.

The problems stretch further than a simple “missing the point,” though. In many instances these kinds of hate-filled comments feed on each other. One person is nasty and then the next person pushes it. I wouldn’t even care to say that the person who said of Amy Nicholson, “She asked her boyfriend what score she should give. Just stick to rom-coms, bitch,” on her Avengers review a misogynist. Such labels miss the sad reality that people often say things they don’t mean just because they can say them.

In normal face-to-face interactions, you might say mean things about someone behind their back, but even then you’d probably temper your language because the people around you might be offended. On the internet, where anonymity is easy, people feel they can say whatever they want without consequence. The id comes out to play.

On the one hand it’s easy to brush these commenters aside as idiots and goofs not to be taken seriously, but what I think does need to be taken seriously is the environment that allows such comments to appear normal or acceptable in any way. I don’t do much moderation on comments on my blog, but you can bet that if I ever got comments like the ones Amy Nicholson got I would either delete them or shame them.

Rotten Tomatoes is a cool site, and it’s useful even with its flaws, but that they do so little to curb the kinds of nasty comments left on negative reviews is shameful. To let them be is to accept that they are okay. They are not okay, and this needs to be repeated over and over and over again until everybody understands it. The truth is these kinds of comments will likely never go away. There will always be people online trying to ruin the party, but that doesn’t make it reasonable to give up and let them take over.

I think it’s safe to say that we all love the internet. It’s a gift. An amazing tool for education, interaction and communication. When the nastier elements of the internet bleed into the areas we all enjoy we need to stand up to them. We shouldn’t just laugh them off, we should confront these hurtful comments. Make it understood that they do not represent the kind of internet the rest of us would like to engage in. There’s no reason we as an internet culture should be allowing people to anonymously say things like, “Her boss/lover says it’s better than having her make the coffee and answering phones and besides what else was she going to do with that creative writing degree daddy paid for?” There’s no reason at all, and the more we moderate it and call it out the less it will happen. Hopefully. A boy can dream.

And please, read Matt Singer’s post on the subject, it’s fantastic.

While you’re at it, go listen to him talk about the piece with Erik Davis.

Also, go ahead and check out Amy Nicholson’s review and the comments that inspired all this.

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17 responses to Standing Against the Disturbing Culture of Internet Commenters

  1. 

    I can’t say that I’m surprised given that:
    (a) Superhero movies have done a terrible job at having interesting female characters in them.
    (b) The people who are posting such nasty comments are likely consuming the same media with shallow to negative depictions of women.
    (c)The fan culture built around superhero movies can be super passionate about defending what they love, sometimes extending the bounds of what is acceptable.

    I haven’t read her original review yet because I want to go into the film dark. I haven’t even seen a single trailer yet. Once I do, I’ll check it out. I wonder if she wrote anything that might elicit such a reaction. I have run across some female critics who are very inflammatory in their reviews purely based upon the fact that women don’t factor in as much as they think they should. Reading female critics take down films like Lord of the Rings and There Will Be Blood for this strikes me as petty and ignoring what the film is going for.

    Is it still a terrible thing that a female critic is receiving sexist comments? Yes. But I think it’s endemic of a sexist media, especially if we’re talking about comic book culture.

    • 

      You raise an interesting point about the fairly sexist depiction of women in comics. I was thinking of bringing that into it, but it probably deserves it’s own article.

      Have you seen this tumblr that collects anatomically impossible drawings of women in comics? It’s pretty crazy. http://eschergirls.tumblr.com/

      • 

        It would open up a whole can of worms that would require a lot to be written.

        Interesting tumblr. My sister and I have had fun making such critiques in the graphic novel section of the bookstore before. My favorite comment of her’s was, “they’re bigger than her head.”

        • 

          The most interesting part of that tumblr isn’t even the breast size. I had never really noticed before how the artists put the women in these weird positions where both their asses and breasts are facing forward. It’s bizarre.

  2. 

    I think the “outcasts” aspect of superhero stories can be a bit watered down by the fact that they all seem to look like sexy movie stars once they get to the big screen. Sure, you can do a bit of movie thematics about how the super-powered person isn’t accepted by society and how hard/lonely the life is, but at the end of the day they are physically people who are the opposite of outcasts. There are of course some exceptions, but this might be part of why the fans miss the point.

  3. 

    We live in a world obsessed with “context” yet believing it is interested in “content” context can be emulated, but you have to create content;i.e. it’s easier to criticise than create. At the rate we are going, there will be no excuse by a critic, to not also be a producer 😉

  4. 

    It’s the feeling of victimization that allows the once persecuted to grow up feeling vindicated in persecuting others… Especially comic book fans. To use an internet cliche, Hitler was once a geeky, dweeby boy interested in art and alienated from his peers.

  5. 

    Abused children grow up to be abusive adults. It shouldn’t surprise us that this tendency is extended to abuse outside the home. Some people find empathy for victims through abuse*, others get vindictive.

    * By which I mean, people who are abused may better understand that abuse hurts and seek to avid inflicting it upon others.

    Though I think the greater problem is one of failure to recognize the change in venue and the change in communication which should follow. What is a silly joke among friends with a shared understanding can come across as cruel to others, which is why we shouldn’t act like we’re among friends at all times. Text is even worse since all facial and voice modifiers are missing.

    • 

      I’m not sure people are saying these things because they think it’s okay to say around friends and are just forgetting the venue. This is all very pointed vitriol. It’s actually difficult to read in some cases. Hard to take.

  6. 

    Call me a pessimist, but I don’t think there’s any way to stop the the vitriol in comments sections. I think it’s only bound to get worse. Lacking the social cues that would ordinarily make people hold back before letting loose their most fucked up thoughts, people just don’t care anymore.

    • 

      I don’t think we can ever get rid of it completely, but I think through proper comment moderation and making it properly known that it’s unacceptable it can at least be reduced. For example, a while back the comments on /Film had gotten way out of hand, to the point where it was becoming almost impossible to moderate without hiring more staff just for that job. They wrote a very serious post, with a plea for people to stop. They changed the parameters under which people can comment by forcing commenters to have an account. Between the added security and the public plea they actually curbed almost all of the most egregious examples of vitriolic commenting.

  7. 

    I feel like a great deal of internet commenters and comic book fanboys care about the films getting the LORE to the E when the rest of the world doesn’t care. They just want a fascinating action adventure that allows for great escapism. These kind of nerds are so dumb and they continue to increase in numbers.

    Anyway, just me rambling.

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