On Feminism vs. Sexism, or “Us” vs. “Them”: A Twitter Snapshot

 

The world recently lost a bright literary star. Colleen McCullough was not only a brilliant author and neurophysiologist, but also a researcher and keen observer of human minds. Her portrayals of women in some of her immensely popular books, such as The Thorn Birds (1977), The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet (2008) and Bittersweet (2013), are often analysed from feminist or even anti-feminist perspectives. However, throughout her life she refused to be pigeon-holed. “I wanted to write a book in every genre. It has always been one of my ambitions,” McCullough said in an interview in 2007.

However McCullough presented her female characters, to categorize this great author as a feminist may be both narrow-minded and disrespectful. Precisely for this reason, as social media participants continue to buzz about the bizarre obituary produced by The Australian for McCullough, it is necessary to explore this phenomenon from other perspectives than merely that of feminism. For instance, only on rare occasions do users of social media spend time and efforts to convey their views in detail. When they indeed do so — instead of posting merely a tweet or pin — their opinions are even more rarely consumed in full. Readers only have so much time and patience to dip their toes into the tremendous torrents of information.

More importantly, social media encourage a “flock” mentality as users group together under the banners of those individuals who they perceive to be representing their sociopolitical and/or cultural positions. A sense of comradeship arises whenever the views of these banner bearers are challenged, resulting in a collective and often fierce condemnation of the perceived offenders, particularly at the heat of the moment. Such attack by members of the “flock” risks being more passionate than rational, deriving from a sense of injustice that their consensus is being disputed. The “flock” mentality also helps to establish an imagined boundary, within which its followers assign themselves as “us” and outside of which all the others are labeled as “them”.

A close examination of a series of tweets posted after the aforementioned obituary for McCullough was published illustrates the extent to which such imagined boundary may be established and enforced. Starting from a retweet by @MelbLitSalon:

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Despite the original tweet’s mistake in referring to McCullough as a “neurophysicist”, @MelbLitSalon’s retweet was warmly received by its 900 or so followers, who promptly started sending out their own retweets. One of them, however, sent a reply:

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@eBookDynasty was referring to McCullough’s words quoted in the obituary. These words were mostly neglected in the aforementioned social media buzz, whose focus appeared to be the obituary’s second opening sentence: “Plain of feature, and certainly overweight, [McCullough] was nevertheless a woman of wit and warmth.” Immediately following them are the late author’s own words in an interview: “I’ve never been into clothes or figure and the interesting thing is I never had any trouble attracting men.” (Source of the interview was not provided by the obituary.)

By commenting on McCullough’s words, @eBookDynasty appeared to have struck a nerve. The following tweets quickly followed:

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@eBookDynasty’s first tweet may be seen as a statement that even the most intelligent women have trouble attracting men. Clearly referring to McCullough’s words, it may have the intention of demonstrating the point that men tend to expect more than intelligence from women. McCullough’s words, as interpreted by @eBookDynasty in its second tweet, clearly indicate her ability to rise above such issues as clothing, figure and men, which are often tossed at female authors simply because of their gender. A brilliant writer, McCullough was fully capable of rebutting her interviewer’s interests on trivial “women” issues while focusing instead on her literary talents that attract not only female but also male readers. This observation by @eBookDynasty appeared to be further supported by its next tweet:

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Whether this is @eBookDynasty’s intention is unknown, and it is not the point, either. As demonstrated by @MelbLitSalon’s responding tweets, the point, or the focus of debate, clearly was feminism, in the form of an attack on the sexist obituary published by The Australian, instead of McCullough’s view of herself.

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@MelbLitSalon’s point was excellent and perfectly justified as direct feminist criticism against the wrongs done by the newspaper. However, the effect of this statement was considerably undermined by its next tweet, which appeared to be a direct attack on @eBookDynasty. Note the use of the word “sexist” above, which was the first time @MelbLitSalon assumed @eBookDynasty as being a defender of sexism. Also note the use of the word “ignorance” below:

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Also note the repeated use of the words “never” and “no one…ever” in the following tweets, which demonstrates an intention to generalize issues and neglect the possibility of any exception:

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In response, @eBookDynasty supported @MelbLitSalon’s criticism against the newspaper but cautioned the risk of generalizing issues in public debate:

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At this point, @MelbLitSalon appeared to have reached its own conclusion, despite @eBookDynasty’s efforts to clarify its previous statements:

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Then @MelbLitSalon again assumed @eBookDynasty as being in defense of the sexism demonstrated in the aforementioned obituary. This is despite the fact that the latter supported the former’s argument.

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With @eBookDynasty still trying to propose a rational solution:

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Which was quickly denied:

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And the conversation came to its end:

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Some readers may point out the conversation above does not seem to be entirely chronological, as there exist various discrepancies between the sequence of tweets and their time references. To this issue there are three contributing factors. Firstly, Twitter only shows the difference between the time a tweet is posted and the user’s present time, hence a tweet may have appeared “39 minutes ago” instead of a specific moment in time. Secondly, at any moment of search, Twitter only shows one Tweet and its various replies before and after, as well as responses from other users, as part of the conversation, which can be quite confusing. As the whole conversation is never fully shown, it is difficult to determine the correct sequence of all the tweets involved. Finally, as two Twitter users conduct a conversation, each party continues typing without knowing the posting time and content of the other party’s tweets. This results in the troublesome situation in which one could be still answering a certain question while the other has already moved on to the next.

Finally, it is important to point out that criticism against The Australian‘s wrongdoing cannot and should not be seen as a reason to criticize those who are perceived to be not sharing this view. Even among those who do share the critical view, different individuals may be considering the whole issue from considerably different perspectives, and therefore cannot and should not be categorized together as supporters of one single sentiment. In other words, it is neither appropriate nor necessary for feminists to refer to those who do not support feminism as being either ignorant or anti-feminism, or even siding with sexism. Such “us vs. them” mentality only leads to unwanted confusion and hostility.

One more note: It is evident that in this Twitter snapshot, both @MelbLitSalon and @eBookDynasty had expressed their views as individuals. While the genders of these two Twitter users are not known, it is interesting to imagine whether their being male or female has any impact on their views about feminism and sexism in general. Do women tend to be feminists? Do men tend to be sexists? Can there be male supporters of feminism? Can sexism be enforced by women? Would @MelbLitSalon still label @eBookDynasty as being ignorant and sexist if the latter is in fact female?

 

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