With the death of 15-year-old Amanda Todd, BC schools have some reckoning on their hands. Will they take the opportunity to look at the systemic causes of Todd’s experience of harassment and violence, or let the lessons that can be learned from this tragedy get lost in a swamp of ambiguities?
While articles rolled in on mainstream news websites, conversation erupted on Facebook and in personal correspondence over email with women who are engaged in anti-violence and anti-oppression work across the country. In the spirit of our immediate reactions, I am quoting their comments in full.
“I wasn't sure if I should read the [Toronto Sun] article, but I started and I'm disgusted by the framing, at least in what I've read so far. I didn't like how the first part hints that the moral of the story is ‘girls, don't flash your breasts on a webcam,’ like it was her fault,” says Zoe Mallet, a human rights advocate and scholar in Ottawa.
“It made me want to take a topless photo and post it online with a statement of protest. Of course, I won't do this because I know most people wouldn't understand or get it, but the urge was there.”
Jarrah Hodge, member of the City of Vancouver’s Women’s Advisory Committee and founder of feminist blog Gender Focus says, “I found it odd how there seemed to be no specific attempt to address the gender aspects including the factors that led to ‘the mistakes’ she made and the way she was manipulated and slut-shamed. At one point yesterday after they took the video down from YouTube, it was still up at some other sites like ebaumsworld,[...]and it was horrible to see how a lot of folks who didn't know she'd committed suicide were on about how ‘emo’ the video was and how it was ‘whining’ from someone who ‘doesn't know how to give a good BJ.’”
Feminist scholar and writer, and former BC high school teacher Fazeela Jiwa posted: “Why isn't anyone talking about the sexism and misogyny involved in Amanda Todd's life and death? 'Bullying' is important, yes, but it is a vague term that glosses over the structural reasons for why it happens, like race/gender/class/ability. If we don't start talking about the specifics of power structures in high schools, every ‘bullying’ campaign will be a waste of time.”
Jiwa specified that the language of bullying “means little to students, and less to teachers. I can tell you that from both perspectives. The bullies laugh and text during every presentation against bullying, and then those who are bullied get bullied more. THIS case is one of many episodes of sexist coercion by men; what is also interesting is that the women in her life turned against her too even though they deal with the same pressures of capitulating to [...] internalized patriarchy. It makes me so mad how much money the public education system spends on campaigns [...] without actually talking about anything. The most effective presentation I have seen is one by a group called LOVE because it is real, artistic, and cool, and they actually talk about racism, poverty, and sexism. [Bullying] is not childish; not a thing that happens solely to teenagers; those same learned behaviours are the ones that circulate in the workplace, in clubs, on the street, and any other adult-inhabited place.”
She adds, “The video is heart-wrenching. And, no one is talking about the misogyny that young men inflicted on her—only ‘bullying’. her story is clearly gendered.”
I asked Jarrah Hodge, who writes and educates on gender representations in media, politics and pop-culture, to summarize what she saw as the factors leading to Todd’s so called “mistakes.” Her response:
“There was no discussion of the pressure girls like Amanda experience to measure their worth through their sexual desirability. From her story it sounds like this man had the hallmarks of a predator—he tried to use her photos to blackmail her and yet she's the one who got blamed. This comes from the idea that it's up to girls and women to protect their purity at the same time as all their role models in the media say that you need to ‘get a man’ to be a complete person, that you need to be sexually attractive to be liked, appreciated, and valued. She said the guy she showed off to was telling her how beautiful she was. Given our culture that can be really tempting for a girl.”
Ah yes, context. In a context in which women are told in manifold ways that everything about them is wrong— their emotions, their bodies, their fat, their lack of fat, their developing, their aging—when someone comes along and tells you that you are perfect and beautiful, that’s some powerful stuff.
This man’s intention, when he threatened Todd with exposure of the coercive images, was to make Todd feel like a whore. The weapon that this man was able to rely on was the judgment of our society. Under our unequal social and economic conditions, the stakes are higher when a woman falls out of favour with her community. For a girl or woman, falling out of favour with her community can mean a sentence to a nightmarish cycle of distress.
If we diffuse the judgment, and look at the behaviour of the attacker, we can weaken the attack. We need less focus on “the mistake” and more on the sexism in our society that this man wielded—successfully—to rid the planet of another young woman.
I believe that if we don’t connect the dots between what happened to Amanda Todd and systemic sexism, Amanda Todd will have died in vain. We can learn something from this and we can improve our attitudes and behaviours. Let’s honour Amanda Todd by doing just that.
Imagine a different reaction, after all the factors have led to this moment: the girl shows her chest. Man threatens to post the pictures. Man posts the pictures.
We rally around her, publicly decry the man’s behaviour as coercive, criminal. We come together in the public domain to talk about sexism and how it is wielded to remove a woman’s power, convince her that there is nowhere that is safe for her, and shun her in the eyes of the communities on which she depends.
We can do this next time. A different ending is possible.