Feminist Trolls, or the Importance of Toxic Disruption

I have been thinking and writing a lot about toxicity lately; about toxins, toxicity, and intoxication as useful lenses through which to view workings of power and around which to form new modes of identification. A comparison of the different motivations and modes of interaction in online spheres allows us to trouble simple divisions between feminist and troll, between healthy and toxic.

Thinking about online spheres of feminist engagement through a lens of toxicity is fruitful, as they have been hailed recently as both liberatory and toxic. Mel Chen writes that “the contemporary culture of the United States is witnessing both the notional release and proliferation of the metaphor of toxicity.” Indeed, we have seen such an explosion of the metaphor of toxicity within feminist social and new media spheres in particular. In early 2014, The Nation published a viral article entitled “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars,” in which Michelle Goldberg cites intersectional online feminism as the cause for a “toxic” social media environment. Goldberg writes that, “just a few years ago, the feminist blogosphere seemed an insouciant, freewheeling place, revivifying women’s liberation for a new generation” but now “there is a nascent genre of essays by people who feel emotionally savaged by their own involvement in it—not because of sexist trolls, but because of the slashing righteousness of other feminists.”

She goes on to discuss the trepidation that some feminists feel about speaking out online in fear of reprisal from those preaching intersectionality, a multi-tiered approach to feminism that takes into account race, sexuality, class, and other categories of difference. Thus, according to Goldberg the feminist blogosphere existed previously as an idyllic sphere of (white) feminist interaction before racialized others polluted it with divisive politics. The racialization of toxicity is not a new phenomenon and it continues a history of policing against a standard of white, normative emotional and social behavior. Toxicity has historically played an important part of feminist movements and holds significant similarities to what we have come to know as trolling.

Queer theorist Sara Ahmed discusses feminism’s relationship to happiness, writing that feminists must necessarily “kill joy” by exposing the bad feelings hidden or negated under public signs of happiness. She argues that by declaring themselves as feminists, individuals are read as destroying things thought by others to be signs of happiness, such as the reproduction of the family form.

The figure of the feminist or feminist killjoy is read as inherently toxic to the national or cultural body and further, feminism must be toxic and cause unhappiness in order to disrupt oppressive conventions. Thus, contemporary feminist denigration of the toxicity of online spheres deviates significantly from a fundamental feminist ethos.

The toxicity that is applied to the racialized bodies of intersectional feminists makes important ruptures in a feminism that has become normative and institutionalized as white. Toxicity has the potential to change the biology or constitution of a collective body as observed by those who would like to protect the “national body” from undocumented immigrants or racialized bodies from countries with Ebola outbreaks. But intoxication also has the potential for ecstasy that can provide a queer understanding of time that enables hope and survival. Claire Colebrook argues that the risk of intoxication, “of being captured by a body or figure that appears to offer hope, even if that hope is disappointed,” gives feminism a future. Thus feminism is predicated on a toxicity that creates rupture but also on the possibility of hope in a feminist projection of the future, even when it does not happen. Another online contingent, the “troll” community, does not usually inspire such promises of hope and progressive change but is not entirely dissimilar to the toxicity required of feminist movements.

In “The House That Fox Built: Anonymous, Spectacle, and Cycles of Amplification,” Whitney Phillips explores the intimate relationship between trolls and the mainstream media and argues that trolling is not diametrically opposed but homologous to mainstream media’s rhetorical strategies. It is hard to pin down a widely accepted definition of trolling but it first referred to disruptive or otherwise annoying speech or behavior online, and, importantly, a troll is something that one actively chooses to be. Phillips argues that both trolls and mainstream media are invested in spectacle and exploiting the sensationalist imperative common in news and entertainment today. Therefore the two entities feed off of one another and mainstream media tactics have produced trolling as it is known today. Similarly to feminist killjoys, trolls aim to disrupt normative conventions and understandings of online engagement and civility.

Unlike feminism, trolling does not have an overarching goal of progress or utopian ideals, rather it operates in the crevices of the appendages of power—acting both as an arm of structures of racism, sexism, and homophobia and as a hyper-representation of the way these discourses are often disseminated by the media. Trolls attempt (and often succeed) to scream louder than the noise we are presented as news or information and diverge from what have become normative conventions.

Feminist killjoys and trolls serve functionally similar purposes and are read in similar ways: as toxic pollutants to a once idyll or safe environment and as unnecessarily abrasive or combatant.

While taking into account the violence trolls have inflicted historically on minoritized groups, I wonder what alliances are possible between trolling and online intersectional feminism. By re-aligning based on affinities of mutual toxicity, intersectional feminists could further and more thoroughly “pollute” systems of online control and from the depths of this toxicity create a sphere that is more livable for them. How can often unexpected, queer modes of affinity—such as feminists embracing the label or practice of trolls/trolling—make more visible and assailable structures of control in the online sphere?

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