On any given day, courtesy of the internet, I come across at least one thing that makes me angry, typically related to outdated or disrespectful ideas about women. I don’t try to shield myself from this content since it reminds me why we should never let our guard down and allow these ideas to take root and eat away at the progress we have made. But I do feel the need to balance the upsetting content with content that makes me happy. And for me, that is watching hairstyling channels on YouTube.
I love trying out new hairstyles, but that isn’t the only reason I enjoy these channels so much. I like knowing that if I scroll down through the comments, the overwhelming majority will be either genuine questions or praise (I realize this may not be true for vloggers who do not present as traditionally feminine). It is refreshing to see a space where women can express themselves without backlash and where we can express our admiration for one another. Sadly, spaces like this are rare, as was recently reiterated by Emily Graslie at thebrainscoop.
Graslie’s video expresses her frustration at the sexist comments she receives on her STEM channel. The comments mainly focus on her physical appearance, both to criticize her and to sexualize her. While comments like “[Her nose] kinda makes her look like a nerdy pig” are obviously meant to offend her, comments like “How can a woman be sexier than Emily?” are equally problematic. Just like catcalls are never a compliment, deviating the conversation from the knowledge a woman is sharing to her appearance is never a compliment, either. It is just another form of objectification.
While some of the comments Graslie receives may seem harmless, we cannot ignore the context in which she receives these comments. First, we still live in a world that places an overwhelming importance on women’s appearance. Commenters who feel compelled to give Graslie advice on how to appear more attractive to her audience – “She just needs some sexier glasses” – are reinforcing the idea that appearance should be at the foremost of a woman’s concerns. They perceive her functional wardrobe as an act of defiance, and they need Graslie to conform to their notions of how women should present themselves to return to their comfort zone. Whatever Graslie says in her videos becomes secondary.
Second, these comments are a reflection of the backlash women may receive in male-dominated fields. A clear example is Anita Sarkeesian and the response to her “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” series. The backlash against Sarkeesian came from a community that firmly believes video games are a male realm, and as such it only makes sense that women in video games are made to cater to the male fantasy. They perceived Sarkeesian as a threat and did everything they could to silence her. While the negatives comments Graslie receives are not on the same scale as the harassment Sarkeesian endured, both women’s efforts to stand against the backlash are equally important. They are communicating that they will not be silenced, and they inspire other women to fight the backlash as well.
The discomfort with women that eschew the convention of concern for their appearance and the backlash against women in male-dominated fields explain why women with STEM channels garner a very different reaction than beauty vloggers. Beauty channels are immensely popular on YouTube, and their subscribers are mainly women that leave comments of support. These channels conform to the idea that women spend time and energy on their appearance and stay within a female-dominated field, and as such they don’t make a blip on the radar of sexist commenters. There is nothing wrong with channels that focus on hair, makeup, and style – I actually find that these channels dismantle the perception that women are always catty with one another – but these should not be the only topics women can speak about without a negative reaction. Women are multi-faceted people, and we should be able to share our expertise without fearing backlash.
I am glad Graslie did not dismiss the comments she received as harmless noise. I am glad she unpackaged the reasons why these comments have a negative effect and held the commenters accountable for their sexism. Otherwise the harmless noise can grow to a deafening roar and erode away our progress.
How do you think we can hold commenters accountable for sexism? Let us know in the comments!
Written by Sully Moreno