How public shaming on the Internet unfairly targets women

Amy Pascal’s beauty regimen is nobody’s business but her own.

The Sony email hack is making the rounds again—but not for the reason you might expect.

After WikiLeaks republished the embattled company’s emails in their entirety last weekend, certain aspects of Sony’s very public embarrassment have once again been making headlines. Perhaps one of the strangest revelations to have gained traction is ex-Sony chief Amy Pascal’s Amazon orders. In particular, a list of products used for her “beauty regimen,” published by Jezebel, has elicited strong reactions.

Unlike when Aaron Sorkin compared the Sony emails to leaked photos of nude celebrities back in December, there is an intimacy to Pascal’s Amazon purchases which makes the distribution of this list shocking and inappropriate. Jezebel clearly published its piece on Pascal’s habits in jest, but because of the piece’s intimate nature, a question lingers as to whether we should be taking the distribution of this information more seriously, and even as to whether it qualifies as an example of public shaming.

There is an intimacy to Pascal’s Amazon purchases which makes the distribution of this list shocking and inappropriate.

Now is an appropriate time to have this conversation, given that author Jon Ronson’s new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, has become a lightning rod in the conversation about public-shaming online. (Of course, Ronson himself was even shamed on Twitter for a passage of text he cut before the book’s release.) 

Discussing So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed for Flavorwire, Sarah Seltzer writes, “We’ve all seen Internet pile-ons that begin with a kernel of absolute rightness. Someone writes or shares something inconsiderate and someone else points it out, saying, ‘Hey, that post sucked.’ What happens next is the shaming: a thousand other people jump in and say, ‘I agree, that post sucks and so does its writer!’—even when and if the subject has already apologized.”

The catch is that Ronson’s book has received just as much criticism as it has praise. Many feel that his argument doesn’t reflect the wider culture of Internet shaming experienced by women, especially queer women, trans women, and women of color. While Ronson does cover the experiences of women like Justine Sacco and Lindsey Stone in his book, it does at first seem strange that he never touches on Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn, and the other women harassed by Gamergate

This could be because Ronson’s book was completed before he had time to add Gamergate to the equation, but the simpler answer is that unlike Sacco and Stone, Sarkeesian and Quinn never did anything wrong. Their shaming was part of an uglier campaign, aimed at targeting women who merely committed the crime of speaking their minds.

“What are the actual stakes of shaming?” writes the New York Times’ Choire Sicha. “Lurking and somewhat ­underdocumented in the tales gathered here is the fact that as agonizing as these experiences are, men often survive them just fine.” 

The best example of this is probably the case of Adria Richards. At a 2013 PyCon event, Richards took it upon herself to shame several men whom she believed to be making inappropriate jokes by taking a picture of them and posting it online. One of the men was subsequently fired, as the Internet’s anger at Richards’ actions grew. However, the man in question later got another job, while Richards, who was also fired, remained unemployed for months on end, while her own public shaming continued.

Their shaming was part of an uglier campaign, aimed at targeting women who merely committed the crime of speaking their minds.

What Richards did may not have been entirely the right decision at that moment, but the hatred and vitriol she experienced as a result of that decision was so, so much worse. Sicha puts it best, “There’s public mockery, and then there’s something worse. The experience of women online is the great link between speech and ­violence, between offense and abuse. For women—and for all gender ­offenders, from gays to trans people—insult and the threat of murder are issued simultaneously.”

This kind of overreaction happens constantly when the Internet decides to publicly shame women. Just last week, comedian Ricky Gervais caused a stir when he posted a picture of hunter Rebecca Francis smiling next to a dead giraffe. Unsurprisingly, the Internet quickly came out for blood, declaring Francis a monster, who deserved to meet the same fate as the animal she posed next to. Francis later contextualized the photo, clarifying that the giraffe was close to death and had been exiled from its herd. 

Whether you think this merits the animal’s demise at her hands might be up for debate, along with endless other questions about the ethics of hunting. What shouldn’t be up for debate is the way Francis was demonized before anyone knew the circumstances and how the Internet was so quick to reduce Francis as being no better than a beast herself. Even if what she did was monstrous, the outcry of the picture was just as vile.

Another great example occurred last winter, when a faction of the hacking collective Anonymous threatened to release a sex tape of Iggy Azalea as punishment for her careless appropriation of black culture and what they perceived as a disrespectful attitude towards fellow rapper Azealia Banks. It’s fair to argue that Iggy Azalea is exploiting the black and hip-hop communities. However, when Anonymous called her out on this, they weren’t helping to solve a problem, they were contributing to a different problem altogether. After all, no white, male rapper has ever received this kind of extreme treatment.  

And now we return to Amy Pascal. Pascal has come out looking pretty bad after the Sony leaks, in no small part because of racially insensitive remarks she made in several company emails (i.e., about 12 Years a Slave and President Obama). Pascal should feel ashamed for the comments she made in these exchanges, but focusing on her personal hygiene does no one any favors. This scrutiny not only unfairly harasses Pascal, but it also sends a message to other women that nothing is off limits when criticizing them on the Internet; even their personal habits are fair game for our amusement. 

No white, male rapper has ever received this kind of extreme treatment.  

Commenting on the Jezebel piece that started the whole debacle, New York Magazine’s Jessica Roy writes, “The problem with this genre of commentary is that it celebrates a gut-level delight in the same sort of invasion of privacy that drove Redditors to distribute those nude celebrity photos: Exposing people’s secrets—especially powerful people’s secrets—doesn’t just make us feel good, it makes us feel powerful.”

Everyone has felt the thrill of being a shark in the water before, waiting online for someone to slip up, not only so we can decree their bad behavior, but so we can feel superior about our own in doing so. But while this practice certainly feeds on our baser instincts, there’s no justice in it. It’s just cruel. Worse still, it’s unproductive. 

As Seltzer concludes in her Flavorwire essay:  

What Ronson is trying to say is that humiliation doesn’t work—even the threat of humiliation doesn’t really work. It might make people think twice about speaking candidly, but it also makes them angry, even vengeful, and perpetuates a bad cycle. Mild call-outs may create a teachable moment, but major humiliation just creates an embarrassing moment. This is useful in explaining the terror that many of us, irrationally or not, have about Twitter humiliation compared to, say, slipping on ice … humiliation breeds the impulse to humiliate. And many of the people who routinely humiliate others on Twitter have probably been humiliated by the world. That’s where we need to begin, not end, the discussion.

The Internet is not an easy place for women, and part of fixing that is recognizing that public shaming is largely a gender-specific issue. Men do it to women all the time, sometimes supposedly without even realizing that they are doing it. When someone screws up on the Internet, we have to take a minute to think about both the way it affects them and about the way it reinforces broader societal injustice, particularly as that injustice relates to women. We’re all on the same playground, but if we keep on knocking down bullies so we can look tall by comparison, then all we are doing is becoming bullies, too.

It doesn’t matter if Pascal is a good person or not. Her beauty regime, regardless of how funny you may find it, is nobody’s business but her own.

Chris Osterndorf is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared on websites such as the Daily Dot, Mic.com, Salon, xoJane, The Week, and more. When he’s not writing, Chris enjoys making movies with friends. He currently lives in Los Angeles.

Photo via Joe Gatling/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) 

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.