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Rape threats against female reviewer prompt overhaul of comics site

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After a two-decade run as one of the Internet's most reliable comics websites, one popular reviews site is killing off its community forums after users made rape threats against a female contributor.

If you've been paying any attention at all over the last few years, you've noticed that the issue of women who participate in geek culture has grown so polarizing that it seems rare for a woman to even interact with men in publicly defined geeky spaces without getting harassed, bullied, or worse. And when that woman calls out the ways in which she feels marginalized by comics, games, or other geeky media that erases her, she's likely to be attacked by what feels like an increasingly large contingent of angry fanboys who work together to harass her en masse.

The lead standard for this kind of behavior is, of course, Anita Sarkeesian, whose critique of sexist elements in gaming has made her a consistent target for rape and death threats. But comics culture is no less dangerous than gaming culture for women who participate and then speak out about their treatment.

Last week, a respected comics reviewer named Janelle Asselin took to popular comics review blog Comic Book Resources (CBR) to tackle the blatantly sexist cover of a Teen Titans issue. In response, she was harassed, deluged with rape threats, and even targeted in a campaign where some of the website's male users attempted to hack into her bank account.

Asselin's credibility within the world of comics is considerable. Here's how she described her own resumé in her response to the incident:

I was qualified to write about this cover based not just on decades of reading comics, but a nearly decade-long career in the industry.

Among other jobs I’ve held in comics, I worked for years in the Batman office at DC and worked with a lot of top-tier comics talent. In addition to years of experience actually editing comics, I also have a Masters of Science in Publishing. My entire career, particularly the last five years, has been based around the study of broadening comics readership to wider, more diverse demographics and I am damn well qualified to critique the cover of a comic book.

But naturally, when fanboys got angry at Asselin for pointing out that the teenage girl on the Teen Titans cover is being sexually objectified in a way that the male superheroes on the cover aren't, they decided she had a feminist agenda and needed to be put in her place.

The saddest part about all of this isn't that a woman with two degrees and a decade-long career can't actually do her job without getting dismissed, or  that talking about how women and girls are represented in geek media has come to be seen as a "feminist agenda" instead of an issue of fairness, representation, and respect.

No, it's the fact that this kind of interaction happens constantly: A woman does a thing in geek culture, even if it's just talking about ways geek culture portrays women like her in ways that make her feel uncomfortable. Result? She gets rape threats. Maybe, as in the case of Bioware's Jennifer Hepler, she has her personal details dredged up so that male fanboys can call her and harass her family. Maybe she eventually quits her job because of it, not unlike the 52 percent of women who abandon tech-related careers, most of whom cite "hostile macho culture" as the top reason. 

Fortunately, more and more, the rest of the geek world is fighting back against this kind of polarization. Now, in response to Asselin's harassment, Comic Book Resources has taken a firm, zero-tolerance policy on misogynistic and intolerant comments on its website. It's also completely deleting the longstanding CBR forums because they've bred "negativity and nastiness," according to CBR's Executive Producer Jonah Weiland:

While I'm proud of what CBR has become, and I believe CBR has some of the best fans in the world, with some of the biggest hearts and most open minds in all of fandom, unfortunately, we have had an increasingly loud contingent take root on our forums who refuse to behave in a manner respectful to others.
 
This changes now.

There has been a negativity and nastiness that has existed on the CBR forums for too long. 

....

Effective immediately, in place of the forums will live the new CBR Community, a discussion area that will still facilitate conversation and debate, however passionate -- but will show zero tolerance for intimidation or abuse of all members of the community, regardless of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation and gender identification. CBR and all areas of its website and operations will be a safe space for all people, of all levels of involvement. We're starting from scratch, providing everyone with the opportunity to build a new community, together. Rules will be explicit, and once again -- we will not tolerate anyone who doesn't want to abide by them.

Weiland's message is clear to anyone who doesn't respect the other people they share geek spaces with:

If you’re one of the people who participated in any of these reprehensible acts, my message is simple: You are not welcome anywhere on CBR, and in our opinion, you have no place in the comics industry.

Will this be the kind of solution that will help cure geek culture of the rampant misogyny that has plagued it for far too long? We're hopeful. Seeing misogynists ostracized from geek communities instead of women is a refreshing change for the better. 

And at the very least, it will hopefully make it easier for women like Asselin to do their jobs and participate in much-needed discussion about issues in the community without worrying that someone will come along and try to hack her bank account as a result.   

Photo via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-S.A.-3.0)