CW: This story discusses sexual assault and online harassment and hate. Take care when reading.
I got my first death threat online in 2011. I had written a personal essay about an experience of sexual assault and was immediately bombarded with hate messages. People called for me to be hanged, beaten in the town square and sterilized.
Online harassment has gotten exponentially worse in the last decade or so, especially for women. Donald Trump’s election in 2016 amped it up, as did Elon Musk’s recent acquisition of Twitter.
So it is terrific timing for the English release of Backlash: Misogyny in the Digital Age. The documentary was a smash hit in Quebec when the French version dropped last fall. In the film, Montreal-based filmmakers Lea Clermont-Dion and Guylaine Maroist look at the rise of misogyny in online spaces through case studies of women from around the world – from high-profile politicians in Italy and the U.S. to a Montreal elementary school teacher. It is an unflinching, at-times difficult-to-watch, dive into the reality of being a woman in a misogynist world.
A major strength of the film is that it shows the real-life consequences of online harassment. One of the women profiled is Kiah Morris, a Black community advocate from Chicago who was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives in 2014. Racist and misogynist constituents emboldened by the Trump campaign targeted Morris online when she sought re-election. The vitriol she received leapt off the screen — her home was defaced and even broken into. Despite repeated pleas for police to act, she was told that the harassing messages were unpleasant but ultimately, not criminal. In a moment of rich irony, a press conference Morris hosted to announce that police would not be prosecuting her harassers was forced to end abruptly when the alleged ringleader of her harassment showed up.
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Victims of online harassment are repeatedly told that what happens online is not real and to just log off if you don’t like it. Backlash shows, in painful detail, how it is both profoundly unfair to censor women and ultimately futile because the misogynists who want to harm us will do so by any means necessary.
Kiah Morris resigned from politics because of the harassment she experienced. Rehtaeh Parsons ended her life.
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The Nova Scotia teen was the subject of vicious harassment when a photo of her being assaulted at a party in 2011 was circulated through her small community. Parsons’s family contacted police, who did not lay any charges at the time. Backlash features powerful interviews with Glen Canning, Parsons’s father, who now gives presentations to youth in the hope of sparing other young women his daughter’s pain.
The documentary feels like an avalanche of despair, with story after story highlighting women being threatened, harassed and intimidated by men online. The filmmakers also chose not to censor any of the hateful messages.
And therein lies the central question I was left with after watching Backlash. Does repeating our threats and laying out our trauma change anything? Will telling our stories ever make a difference or are we simply retraumatizing ourselves?
Backlash does not answer this question, but in fairness, doing so was never their mission. Nevertheless, I hope that in reaching a wider audience with this English version, the film will spark a necessary discussion about solutions. As Morris says in one of the most poignant parts of the documentary, “The online world is a reflection of the conversations that used to happen behind closed doors.”
The internet is here to stay and misogyny will be too unless we commit to action.
Julie S. Lalonde is a women’s rights advocate, public educator and media commentator based in Ottawa.
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