Long Read: Mary Beard, “The Troll Slayer”

Rebecca Mead, in the New Yorker:

In February, Mary Beard, a classics professor at the University of Cambridge, gave a lecture at the British Museum titled “Oh Do Shut Up Dear!” With amiable indignation, she explored the many ways that men have silenced outspoken women since the days of the ancients. Her speech, which was filmed by the BBC, was learned but accessible—a tone that she has regularly displayed on British television, as the host of popular documentaries about Pompeii and Rome. She began her talk with the first recorded instance of a man telling a woman that “her voice is not to be heard in public”: Telemachus informing his mother, Penelope, that “speech will be the business of men” and sending her upstairs to her weaving. Beard progressed to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which Tereus rapes Philomela & then cuts out her tongue so that she cannot denounce him. Beard alighted on Queen Elizabeth and Sojourner Truth before arriving at Jacqui Oatley, a BBC soccer commentator repeatedly mocked by men who were convinced that a woman couldn’t possibly understand the sport. A columnist for The Spectator, Beard noted, currently runs an annual competition to name the “most stupid woman” to appear on the current-affairs show “Question Time.”

Finally, Beard arrived at the contemporary chorus of Twitter trolls and online commenters. “The more I’ve looked at the details of the threats and the insults that women are on the receiving end of, the more some of them seem to fit into the old patterns of prejudice and assumption that I have been talking about,” she said. “It doesn’t much matter what line of argument you take as a woman. If you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It’s not what you say that prompts it—it’s the fact that you are saying it.” Such online interjections—“ ‘Shut up you bitch’ is a fairly common refrain”—often contain threats of violence, a “predictable menu of rape, bombing, murder, and so forth.” She mildly reported one tweet that had been directed at her: “I’m going to cut off your head and rape it.”…

There is an injunction among users of social media that one should not pay attention to online detractors. There is even a Twitter account, @AvoidComments, which issues monitory statements: “You wouldn’t listen to someone named Bonerman26 in real life. Don’t read the comments.” Beard argues, instead, that comments sections expose attitudes that have long remained concealed in places like locker rooms and bars. Bonerman26 exists; his vileness should be contended with. In this spirit, she posted the image of herself-as-genitalia on her blog—it was surely the first time that the T.L.S. site might have needed a Not Safe for Work warning—and suggested possible responses for her supporters to take, such as flooding the offending message board with Latin poetry. The story made international news, and the message board soon shut down…

I haven’t always lived up to it, but for many years I’ve held this as a touchstone:

“If a man can resist the influences of his townsfollk, if he can cut free from the tyranny of neighbourhood gossip, the world has no terrors for him; there is no second inquisition” — John Jay Chapman, by way of Joanna Russ

52 replies
  1. 1
    FourTen says:

    Apt to see this on the day of a new video from Anita Sarkeesian.

  2. 2

    OT: Really interesting read about DFW’s marginalia: http://www.thesmartset.com/art.....81401.aspx

  3. 3
    Trentrunner says:

    Bitches be crazy.

  4. 4
    Anne Laurie says:

    @Trentrunner: I’m considering banning you, for the lulz.

  5. 5
    Mike J says:

    and suggested possible responses for her supporters to take, such as flooding the offending message board with Latin poetry.

    Shouting down an entire forum because you think one user is a jerk? Classy.

  6. 6
    Keith P says:

    I really need one of JC’s misanthropic posts today. From 6:30am until a few minutes ago, I have been struggling not to slam my car into something or launching a chair at someone. And it all just came on at once, like everyone decided to piss off me specifically. I’ve now got my phone turned off, music on, and my front lights OFF because I will straight up hack into pieces anyone trying to sell me magazines or their religion tonight.

  7. 7

    @Mike J: Upper class British twits of any gender don’t like comments from commoners, I guess.

  8. 8

    Y’all should check out ancient Roman graffiti or 18th-century American op-eds… or Victorian graffiti… or…

    Comment sections are mostly graffiti, let’s be honest.

  9. 9
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    That was good, but I must say I didn’t expect the part about the second inquisition.

  10. 10
    Geeno says:

    @Bill E Pilgrim: Nobody expects the second inquisition!
    (nice set up btw)

  11. 11
    K488 says:

    Massively OT, but I just learned TODAY that you’d published Paul’s picture back on August 6 – I was traveling all that week and missed the installment! Many thanks, from me, and of course, from Paul. And many apologies (from me, but not especially from Paul) for not having thanked you sooner.

  12. 12
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @Bill E Pilgrim: Haven’t we already had at least three Inquisitions?

  13. 13
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @Mike J:

    Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
    nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

  14. 14
    Jim, Foolish Literalist says:

    Death, taxes, and donuts with sprinkles on Sunday morning…

    Chuck Todd is gearing up to host “Meet the Press,” and, while there have been lots of changes promised, it seems that the show’s propensity for DC-themed clubbiness will remain firmly intact.
    For evidence, we can turn to Todd’s MSNBC show, “The Daily Rundown,” which is soon ending. The show’s producers surprised Todd on Wednesday with none other than John McCain, who has been a guest on “MTP” more than any other person in history and whose Sunday show ubiquity is unrivaled in the land.
    The two proceeded to have an extremely friendly chat. Todd asked McCain for advice, McCain made some wisecracks, and both men bonded over their shared affection for Bob Dole. It was a far cry from the new “edge” that NBC News president Deborah Turness recently said would be injected into “MTP

    What an adorable little skit it must have been

  15. 15
    lou says:

    My niece introduced me to this awesomeness.

  16. 16
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    @Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name): I think three just in the Medieval period alone.

    Okay, amongst the inquisitions that you don’t have to expect after cutting free from the tyranny of neighbourhood gossip are the second, fourth, and….

  17. 17

    @Jim, Foolish Literalist: MSM hacks are unoriginal, be it ChuckieT or MoDo. MoDo basically has written the same column three times in a row, changing minor details.

  18. 18
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @Bill E Pilgrim: “… an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope*

  19. 19
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    @Jim, Foolish Literalist: NBC flops with David Gregory as the Meet the Press host, completely misunderstands why, doubles down with Chuck Todd…

    It reminds me* of what’s going on in France; someone finally said out loud that Hollande was destroying any chance of recovery by adhering to austerity policies, so Hollande gets rid of him and hires an ex-banker.

    The best part was this though:

    The French Government Has Collapsed, And It’s Partly Paul Krugman’s Fault

    More today.

    * Just reminds me in the doubling-down sense.

  20. 20
    Pogonip says:

    @Keith P: “Local Man Murders Mormon Missionaries.”. The Mormons always, always show up at the worst possible time, bless their hearts.

  21. 21
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @Bill E Pilgrim: Hollande has been a bit of a disappointment, hasn’t he?

  22. 22
    HilltownGrrl says:


    I left you a comment waaaay back in the Vegas shooting thread about the Three Investigators. It’s in moderation at the moment (older thread plus a link) but I’m guessing it will appear at some point.

  23. 23
    Anoniminous says:

    @Keith P:

    Just for you …

    I was sitting outside the Marina Del Rey grocery store in 1981-82 having lunch with some friends. At the time parking was very limited and people often had to wait a long time until a space opened up. We were sitting there eating our sandwiches, po chips, and downing sodas at one of the picnic tables watching a woman waiting for a space. We noticed because she was driving a red 1980 Mercedes convertible 450SL and we all wanted one. While we were finishing a spot across the way opened just right for her to slip into. As the guy with the spot backed out he, naturally, blocked her and just at that moment some dude in a new Mustang roared around the corner and slipped into the space.

    The woman gave a resigned sigh and things wouldn’t have gone further except asshole, as he locked his car door turned to her – her top was done – and said, “see what happens when you have speed?” At THAT her face turned red, she shoved her car into low, floored it, and smashed the ever-believing Jesus out of the back of the Mustang. She put it in reverse, backed off about 10 feet, put it into drive, and smashed it again.

    Asshole was standing there, keys in hand, mouth agape, as she pulled up next to him and told him sweetly, “see what happens when you have money?” And rolled out of the parking lot.

    We gave her a standing ovation as she drove by.

  24. 24
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    @Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name): Understatement of the siecle. Though I suppose only if you expected any different. I sort of did, sort of didn’t.

    Didn’t expect anything like this, though, I have to admit. He out-trickle-downed the trickledowners at one point, going right past supply-side and all the way back to “Say’s Law”, claiming that supply creates demand.

    Interesting to note BTW that if you search for that (Hollande and Say’s Law) the vast majority of citations of it are from right-wing blogs, Town Hall and so on.. They lurved that, “even the socialist President of France sez that…”

  25. 25
    Tara the Antisocial Social Worker says:

    Years ago in college, a woman of color wrote an article on racism for the campus paper, and received a racist, misogynist anonymous letter with threats of violence. Some guys on campus actually jumped up to defend the threatener’s “free speech,’ as if the whole point wasn’t to terrorize the woman into silence. Nowadays, of course, email and twitter have made it possible to harass much more efficiently. The attitudes have always been there, but the sheer volume of garbage that trolls can throw around is just depressing, especially since trolls don’t seem to have anything else to take up their time, like having friends or moving out of their parents’ basement.

    Re the Latin poetry thing, the custom at the GOS is to respond to trolls with recipes, which has the curious effect getting people to click on troll and spam diaries just to see if there are any interesting meal suggestions.

  26. 26
    Warren Terra says:

    You might enjoy Mary Beard being a good sport on Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theater Podcast (RHLSTP). The tone of the podcast is affectedly juvenile, and I don’t really remember how the conversation works out, but Herring invited her because he’s a fan, including that he’s a fan of how she deals with misogyny.

  27. 27
    Mike in NC says:

    Todd’s MSNBC show, “The Daily Rundown,” which is soon ending.

    Thank God for that mercy.

  28. 28
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    @Tara the Antisocial Social Worker: Oh god I remember that. I have a really low UID there but haven’t commented in years, nor even read it much actually, except This Modern World, weekly.

    It makes me wonder though what people do in food blogs, where you’re supposed to be posting recipes. If those place have trolls, do the locals post political comments??

  29. 29
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @Bill E Pilgrim:

    If those place have trolls, do the locals post political comments??

    If this place is any example, I would suspect they post pet pics.

  30. 30
    Violet says:

    @Anoniminous: Awesome. Reminds me of that scene from “Fried Green Tomatoes.”

  31. 31
    Violet says:

    Thanks for linking this story. I really enjoyed reading it. I like how she engages the people who say such awful things about her. Like:

    In another highly publicized incident, Beard retweeted a message that she had received from a twenty-year-old university student: “You filthy old slut. I bet your vagina is disgusting.” One of Beard’s followers offered to inform the student’s mother of his online behavior; meanwhile, he apologized. Beard’s object is not simply to embarrass offenders; it is to educate women. Before social media, she argues, it was possible for young women like those she teaches at Cambridge to enjoy the benefits of feminist advances without even being aware of the battles fought on their behalf, and to imagine that such attitudes are a thing of the past. Beard says, “Most of my students would have denied, I think, that there was still a major current of misogyny in Western culture.”


    There is, she acknowledges, an irony in the imbalance of power: as a prominent scholar, she does have a voice, however unpleasant the threats to silence her may be. Most of her Twitter detractors are grumbling to only a handful of followers, at least until she amplifies their audience. She has discovered that, quite often, she receives not only an apology from them but also a poignant explanation. After she published the genitalia photograph on her blog, the man who ran the site where the image had originally appeared wrote her a long letter. “He explained his personal circumstances—he was married with kids—and he said how he should never have done it, in a way that was very eloquent,” she told me. After a “Question Time” viewer wrote to her that she was “evil,” further correspondence revealed that he was mostly upset because he wanted to move to Spain and didn’t understand the bureaucracy. “It took two minutes on Google to discover the reciprocal health-care agreement, so I sent it to him,” she says. “Now when I have a bit of Internet trouble, I get an e-mail from him saying, ‘Mary, are you all right? I was worried about you.’ ”

    I also like the part about how she educates her students on the misogyny in Western culture and how it’s present not past.

  32. 32
    Betty Cracker says:

    You’ll all be shocked to learn that Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has had to put up with sexist jackwagons in Congress. [WARNING: Politico link.]

  33. 33
    Roy G. says:

    This. It tracks with what i’ve always thought about the right-wing counter revolution we’ve been living through; they are trying to take complete control before things like this become popular knowledge.

    Also, too among other things in the news, Ferguson and Gaza are other aspects of the same age-old control of the narrative.

  34. 34
    Peter says:

    Professor Beard is on the money in terms of principles, but the practicalities of it are more elusive. One determined troll can keep up a campaign of harassment indefinitely, with few possibilities for consequences. A less determined troll with money can pay a Russian botnet to do it for them. The among of sludge that can be spewed per minute in complete anonymity defies our ability to contain it.

  35. 35
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @Betty Cracker: Jesus Fucking Christ in high heels and a push-up bra, that is appalling.

  36. 36
    pseudonymous in nc says:

    @schrodinger’s cat:

    Upper class British twits of any gender don’t like comments from commoners, I guess.

    Er, worth remembering that Oxford and Cambridge professors are the ones who didn’t take City jobs as investment bankers or become politicians. They’re also not getting big money — that’s why a dickwad like Niall Ferguson fucked off to the US. They’re teachers.

  37. 37
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Betty Cracker: The comments to that article are a wasteland of wingtard male assholery that you’d probably expect at a site such as Tiger Beat on the Potomac (h/t Charles Pierce)

  38. 38
    g says:

    What a coincidence. I just got Rebecca Solnit’s “Men Explain Things to Me.” out of the library.

  39. 39
    g says:

    @Betty Cracker: Damn. The comments there are just as bad.

  40. 40
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @g: I ignore the Politico comments the same way I ignore those on local newspaper’s website.

  41. 41
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name): The thing is, the jackholes probably think they’re being complimentary toward her..the older ones in particular.

    Some of them need slaps upside the head. Repeatedly.

  42. 42
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @Villago Delenda Est: I just cannot understand it. One doesn’t talk to people that way. One just doesn’t.

  43. 43
    Enhanced Voting Techniques says:

    Just speaking as a man, and yes, this sound a bit sexists; but why would someone freak out over what someone smaller than them is saying? View it from a patriarchal view point – the wife says crap, like the children you just tolerate it as part of being a good father figure and all that – grunt the “yes dear” every now and then. This sounds like these guys think these “uppity” women are taking dady’s attention away from them.

  44. 44
    Omnes Omnibus (the first of his name) says:

    @Enhanced Voting Techniques: At the risk of mansplaining, it is because guys don’t get attacked in this way. Make a comment as Robert Smith and you may get flamed for what you said. Make a comment as Roberta Smith and you are likely to be flamed for who you are. N’est-ce pas?

  45. 45
    Anne Laurie says:

    @Betty Cracker: Truth to tell, that was the article reminded me I wanted to post a link to Mary Beard!

  46. 46
  47. 47
    aimai says:

    @pseudonymous in nc: Also: what makes SC think these comments are from commoners? They are just as likely to be from the British equivalent of frat boys, bankers, budding politicians and the like as they are from actual commoners. And they are by no means directed at “upper class twits” but simply at women, any and all women, who come to public attention.

  48. 48
    chopper says:

    @Enhanced Voting Techniques:

    why would someone freak out over what someone smaller than them is saying?

    well first, there’s an additive effect. one schmuck saying crap may be meaningless, but tons of them doing so every day can be hard to just up and ignore.

    second, many of these comments have an implied or even explicit threat of violence to them. now dudes tend to shrug their shoulders over that sort of thing, knowing full well that mr. schmuck is never going to make good on his stupid bullshit threat, but that’s because of a form of male privilege; women have much more to worry about when it comes to being violently assaulted by asshole dudes in america.

  49. 49

    @pseudonymous in nc: That was more a barb about a certain pretentious blogger, who does not allow comments, not all those who teach at those fine institutions of higher learning.

  50. 50
  51. 51
    Cervantes says:

    @Mike J:

    Shouting down an entire forum because you think one user is a jerk? Classy.

    It’s not that simple. It was hardly one user, it was dozens; and not only were they being jerks, their comments were obscene, some threatening rape, bombing, and so on. Bear in mind that like too many girls and women, Mary has actually been raped; it’s not a theoretical possibility, it’s part of her life.

    And here’s what she actually said:

    So how to stop it? I am sure that there is some clever way if we put our heads together. Could we flood the site with comments, or Latin poetry…so they went behind a wall (if they want to chat like this on their own, well fine.. or at least better). Or does anyone reading this post know anyone involved in this and can just say ‘no’?

    She was not trying to “shout down an entire forum because one user was a jerk.” She was trying to stop abusers from abusing.

    And why try to stop it? Why fight back? Because this kind of misogynistic garbage …

    … would be quite enough to put many women off appearing in public, contributing to political debate, especially as all of this comes up on [google]

    Does it make more sense now?

    @schrodinger’s cat:

    @Mike J: Upper class British twits of any gender don’t like comments from commoners, I guess.

    You’re completely wrong. Guess again.

  52. 52
    girlfriendmd says:

    @Anoniminous: Yeah, that joke’s been told a number of times in varying ways. Most recently was with Kathy Bates in Fried Green Tomatoes.

Comments are closed.