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Twitter is a hellscape for female scholars

If you’re a woman with a Ph.D., expect users to question your expertise, maybe even dox you.


Rebecca Bodenheimer


Last November, BuzzFeed News writer and media studies scholar Anne Helen Petersen did what she’s known for and what she’s paid to do: She profiled a celebrity, taking a critical deep dive into their fame. This one was about Armie Hammer, who was in the spotlight for his turn in Call Me by Your Name. However, Hammer’s fans saw it as a “hit piece,” and the actor himself reacted defensively, calling Petersen’s perspective “bitter AF.”

Following his lead, fans assailed Petersen, calling her profile “hot garbage” and suggesting she was jealous of Hammer’s success; they were apparently ignorant of the fact that Petersen herself is a renowned, admired writer. They questioned why she would “go after” a “good guy” like Hammer instead of an actor who enjoys the same white male privilege but has been dogged by accusations of harassment or assault, like Johnny Depp or Casey Affleck.


All the furor over defending Hammer missed the point of Petersen’s piece, which was not to attack him specifically, but rather to use him as an example of how many chances white men get to build a successful career in Hollywood compared to white women and people of color. This was a case of viral fan culture taking a sophisticated critique out of context and reducing it to a “hit piece” on a beloved celebrity. Incredibly, Hammer again undermined Petersen’s expertise when she tweeted a critical opinion of a Jennifer Lawrence profile earlier this year, clearly realizing that jumping into her mentions would result in his fans harassing her again.

“Hammer tweeting back is why it became so massive,” Petersen told the Daily Dot about the nasty reception to her profile, “but the fundamental interaction—fans believing that analysis is ‘hating’—is something I’ve experienced for years, ever since I first wrote about Kristen Stewart’s image on my old WordPress blog and received 8,000 comments on it.”

And so goes the life of a female scholar on Twitter. In recent years, academics have turned to Twitter to participate in public scholarship, or writing for and engaging with non-academics in more accessible language. There are many benefits to this, not the least of which is that scholars are able to get their ideas out to a broader audience. In return, non-academics get the benefit of learning from someone with in-depth knowledge, such as this piece that gets at what’s really behind the trend of rebooting TV shows from the 1980s and ’90s.  

However, as Petersen’s experience demonstrates, there are also drawbacks to this engagement. While Twitter is undoubtedly a democratizing force, the anonymity that’s possible emboldens people to say things—often misogynist or racist—they would never say in person or with their name attached. As sociologist and author of the acclaimed book Lower Ed Tressie McMillan Cottom observed regarding the push for scholars to engage online, “It was the best of times and the worst of times to ask professors to go public.”

Emily Contois, assistant professor of Media Studies at the University of Tulsa, was harassed after she published an article on the popular YouTube talk show Hot Ones earlier this year. She was consequently targeted by Breitbart, the National Review, and other “alt-right” news sites, where comments included misogynist insults, rape threats, and an undermining of her expertise.

Contois noted that Twitter can be a particularly frustrating place to engage in public scholarship because “there is nothing to protect you from the vitriol,” she told the Daily Dot. “On Instagram or on my blog, I can delete inappropriate comments. On Facebook, I’m generally protected by privacy settings. On Twitter, you’re so exposed…and when things are at their worst, all you can really do is step away and hide, which feels disempowering.” She also found the policies for reporting harassment on Twitter to be onerous, involving multiple steps, and rarely helpful.  

Harassment isn’t the only downside to Twitter, though. The statements of scholars, who spend between five and 10 years gaining expertise in a given subject, are often taken to be equal to all other opinions; the value of one’s ideas is often measured in quantifiable likes and retweets. Thus, scholars are regularly challenged by people with only a fraction of their knowledge about a particular subject. This is especially true for female scholars, who are often mansplained to and assumed not to be experts.

Then there are the added challenges scholars face when their research is in fields centered on the experience of marginalized people—like gender studies, ethnic studies, and Black studies. Furthermore, neo-conservative backlash against “identity politics” and the diversification of academia and power structures throughout society means that female scholars of color are targeted on multiple fronts, their marginalization as women compounded by their race.

This is the case particularly for Black female scholars like McMillan Cottom, who wrote about the downsides of becoming a “microcelebrity” in a 2015 article: “Put simply, all press is good press for academic microcelebrities if their social locations conform to racist and sexist norms of who should be expert. For black women…microcelebrity is potentially negative.”

In analyzing comments and messages from her blog, she found that the overwhelming types of threats she received were not rape threats or mansplaining (commonly doled out to white female scholars), but challenges to her academic credibility: “specifically my location as a black woman in a university…Really angry commenters want to have me fired, sanctioned by the university, and my brains violently excised from my body.”

What bothered commenters, who often referenced affirmative action, is what seems to bother many who get angry when a woman of color puts to use the Ph.D. she has earned: That a Black woman is holding a position of legitimacy, that she is holding the title of “expert.”

Some neo-conservatives and white extremists are so inflamed by this notion, they go so far as to try to get women of color fired for having the audacity to wield their expertise publicly. In 2015, a white supremacist group—signal-boosted by Fox News—called for Boston University to revoke their offer of employment to Black sociologist Saida Grundy over her tweets calling attention to enduring white privilege and racism.

Non-white female scholars have even experienced pushback for daring to conduct research on European traditions and made to feel that their race disqualifies them from this kind of work. Imani Mosley, who is currently finishing a Ph.D. in musicology at Duke University, is a Black female scholar who works on the operas of English composer Benjamin Britten. She told the Daily Dot about being harassed by a famous female classical musician who said “that the only reason that I got into graduate school as a musicologist was because I was Black, [that I] knew nothing, and didn’t deserve to go to graduate school.” Several of Mosley’s tweets have drawn negative attention, including one that went viral when she accurately declared, “White European men aren’t the only people who composed classical music.”

But they’re the only ones who were any good,” someone replied, echoing similar replies.

Like Mosley, Medievalist scholar and Brandeis professor Dorothy Kim, who is Asian American, regularly faces a variety of harassment because, as she noted, scholars of color represent less than 1 percent of her field, and women of color even a smaller fraction. “I see an entire spectrum of structural and personal racism—micro to macro aggressions and obviously violent doxxing and physical threats,” she told the Daily Dot.

Last year she wrote a piece in the wake of the Unite the Right Charlottesville march calling for Medievalists, experts in the European literature and culture of the Middle Ages, to acknowledge the ways their field and its material culture and icons were being used in service of white supremacist ideas. She urged her colleagues to pick a side and address the issue within their classrooms. A fellow Medievalist, Rachel Fulton Brown, who has written for Breitbart, disagreed and argued that Kim was inciting fear; according to Kim, Fulton Brown even referred to her as a “fake scholar.” Fulton Brown even tagged “alt-right” poster child Milo Yiannopoulos in a Facebook post, guaranteeing that Kim would be subject to doxxing and violent threats.

Kim described the harassment she has faced as a “full-on character assassination, fake news, hit pieces, smear campaigns.” She also said that men challenge her authority differently than women. “With white men, the expectation is about me actually having authority. The mansplainers, harassers, doxxers…go on about why am I getting fellowships, grants, any kind of professional position or accolade.” 

On the other hand, when white women criticize her, “the attack on me is always about my behavior,” she said. “It’s a form of tone-policing and gaslighting, and it becomes about how I am not ‘nice,’ not acting appropriately…because I say there is racism, fascism, white supremacists etc., in academia…I am not acting appropriately to my intersectional stereotype [of the docile Asian woman].” 

In other words, it’s peak white female fragility: White women weaponizing the trope of “white female innocence” to insist that Black and Brown women are “attacking them” when they are called out for being racist or failing to consider the perspectives of non-white women.

Often, it is women of color’s attempts to create more inclusive academic disciplines and discourse—not only with their raced bodies, but also with their intersectional perspectives—that incite a backlash. This undermining and abuse female scholars face is ultimately part of the “leveling out” of status on Twitter and a related disdain for highly educated women, particularly women of color. It is a trend that also coincides with various phenomena in the Trump era, including the birth of the term “alternative facts,” the notion that truth is subjective, and the notable increase in anti-intellectualism.

While many feel that Twitter is shirking its duty to create a safer and more inclusive space (as the company has repeatedly refused to ban white supremacists like Alex Jones and Richard Spencer), it is encouraging that other women (and sometimes men) often jump into Twitter threads to support harassed female scholars and have their backs. For example, after Kim was doxxed and harassed following the Fulton Brown incident, fellow Medievalists publicly stood up for her, even writing letters of support to her institution, Vassar College.

For all the misogyny and racism on Twitter, it is some relief that intersectional feminist and anti-racist communities can at least coalesce in the face of harassment. Perhaps this is why—despite all the abuse and undermining—many female scholars choose to stay and engage on Twitter at all.

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