Trolls latched on to Boumans achievement of the first black hole image with a vitriol that, in a saner world, would be shocking but is par for the course for women
The researcher Dr Katie Bouman played a leading role in taking the first photograph of a black hole. A photo of the 29-year-old Bouman taken the moment the photo was processed shows her with her hands clasped in front of her mouth, looking at the camera with a mix of shock and excitement. It went viral both a testament to the groundbreaking work itself and a moment of victory for women in the sciences, whose contributions have long been ignored, downplayed and erased.
The giddiness didnt last long.
Anti-feminist trolls latched on to the story and attacked Bouman with a vitriol that, in a saner world, would be shocking, but in this one looked a lot like the reaction to a Ghostbusters movie remake with a female cast that is, sad, angry men yelling at women on the internet. Trolls created fake social media accounts impersonating Bouman. They questioned her contribution to the project. When she said that she was part of a team who all worked hard to make the photo happen, they dug in deeper, suggesting she was only getting public attention because she was a woman, when men did all the real work.
Unfortunately, this is par for the course for women on the internet. Or women in politics. Or women on television. Or women who become prominent in any way, even if they are, like Katie Bouman, private citizens who did something truly amazing.
Its easy to point to misogynist trolls as a problem; its also easy to write them off as just pathetic losers tweeting from their mothers basements. But in reality, they are the tip of the trashpile. Trolls say out loud what others think; trolls also embody the ugliest and most blatant versions of the more subtle sexisms that animate everyday life. While hundreds of petulant man-children rail against a female scientist on Twitter, there are undoubtedly a great many more men in the real world who wouldnt call a woman the C-word (at least not in public, or at least not with their own names attached), but do think maybe there is something to the theory that men are just more mathematically and scientifically adept than women.
For each of the hundreds of whiners who proclaimed their childhoods ruined by female Ghostbusters, there are a hundred more men who may not care about the Ghostbusters saga, but would also have to be dragged to see a movie with an all-female cast and simply dont consume many cultural products books, movies, television shows, music in which women dominate and men are either marginal or absent. For every guy still, in 2019, yelling expletives about Hillary Clinton, there are thousands and thousands more who would say they would love to support a woman for president just not any of the actual women who are running or have ever run.
Highlighting these attacks is crucial, if only to show the depth and degree of virulent misogyny. Too many women who have come into the public eye for any reason or even women who are not in the public eye but spend time in online social spaces know the feeling of being harassed, belittled, threatened and demeaned. Too many women have, as a result, piped down, shut up or bowed out. Untold numbers more never jump into the ring in the first place, keeping their voices down, their work quiet and their successes private.
I am sometimes invited to speak to journalism classes or to groups of college or high school students, and over and over again, I hear the same question: How do you deal with the harassment? I only hear this question from girls and women. Women see how other women are treated when we shine or succeed how quickly we are cut down, how insults snowball into threats and are intimidated. I never have a good answer, except to say that the internet can be a rough place for women, and to the extent you can ignore it or even work to change misogynist online culture, the better. But ignore the bullies is deeply unsatisfying and profoundly unhelpful advice.
Katie Bouman probably knows that. I dont know how much time she spent online before this incident (shes a computer scientist, so maybe quite a bit), but no doubt it has been jarring. But it goes beyond Bouman herself. Just as Boumans success was an inspiration to young women and girls in the sciences, the very public attacks on her work as a corollary warning. And thats how we should understand this: not just as one of the ugliest forms of misogyny rearing its head, but as a pervasive, systematic part of a broader system that undermines womens success and recognition at every level.
Attacks from sexist trolls are overwhelming and destabilizing. But far worse is the slow drip of sexism that keeps women from achieving their full potential for power, success and achievement every single day.