What happens when women accept compliments online

Date

Clementine Ford

Gweneth Bateman, 18, who conducted the social experiment of responding to compliments online

Gweneth Bateman, 18, who conducted the social experiment of responding to compliments online Photo: @spiritualvodka

You don't know you're beautiful/ If only you saw what I can see/ You'd understand why I want you so desperately/ Right now I'm looking at you and I can't believe/ You don't know, Oh, oh/ You don't know you're beautiful/ Oh, oh/ That's what makes you beautiful

So go the lyrics of One Direction's global megahit, 'What Makes You Beautiful'. The song opens with the line, 'You're insecure' and goes on to describe a girl who wears make-up even though she doesn't have to, who flips her hair self-consciously and who shyly smiles at the ground. The girl (who is clearly written as a kind of Mary Sue cut-out for One Direction's fans to fit themselves into) is made beautiful because of her insecurities, not in spite of them. It is her lack of confidence that inspires tenderness in the boys looking on, and her sexual naivete that makes her desirable to them. She's beautiful, and she doesn't even know it. That's what makes her beautiful.

Man, confidence can be such a boner killer.

Nowhere is this casual dismissal of the value of women's sense of self becoming more immediately apparent (and more aggressively responded to) than in the world of online dating and hook-ups. Back in my day, we used to get drunk at the pub and awkwardly mash our faces against one another. Now there's Tinder and Tumblr, Twitter DMs, OkCupid!, kik and probably a whole lot of other sites that I've never heard of because I'm old and gnarled and also a feminist, so my nethers are covered by a canopy of thorns and an impenetrable forcefield powered by male tears. But leaving the state of my dark place aside for a moment, the fact is that it's a very confusing jungle out there. And the only message that women can consistently be assured of is that we're not allowed to have any power in it.

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Gweneth Bateman is just one of many women who, when confronting this problem online, quickly realised that you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't. The 18-year-old British student encountered a predictable pattern of abuse whenever she ignored the supposedly complimentary messages sent to her by strange men. Believing they were owed a response, the men berated her for failing to acknowledge them. She told Buzzfeed News, "When they don't get a reply out of me it usually ends up with them calling me 'rude' or a 'bitch'."

Bateman decided to try an experiment she'd read about from other women on the blog sharing platform Tumblr. Instead of ignoring these 'compliments', she began to accept them in a matter-of-fact way.

The result?

"As predicted, the response is still the same," she said. "Hateful."

Bateman was still being labelled a bitch in response, but this time she was also being called vain. When she sent out a simple tweet with some screencaps, the abuse escalated to her being called an 'ugly feminist cunt' who sounds like she has no friends. Like the aforementioned One Direction anthem, not knowing you're beautiful is precisely what makes you beautiful. Anything else is vanity, an unappealing and frankly repulsive state in which women behave as if they have the right to not despise themselves. And if women don't despise themselves, how can men be expected to gallantly save them from insecurity?

The contradiction is perfectly summed up by 22-year-old student Katie Smith, who writes on Tumblr, "For many men, beauty, coolness [and] desirability are gifts they alone can bestow upon women. They get baffled, even aggressive when you show you've known you possess those things all along."

You may remember how Nice Guys of OkCupid exposed the fallacy of the Nice Guy – the man who just wants women to talk to him, to respond to his compliments and to see that he would treat the right woman like a princess if she would just stop acting like a fucking bitch who thinks she's better than everyone else. Whore.

Now there's Bye Felipe, an Instagram account which documents the reactions and responses sent to women by men whose egos haven't been appropriately massaged. The results are hilarious in a sort of gobsmacked, look-at-the-petulant-man-baby kind of way. But they're also terrifying, because these men do not exist on the fringes of society but within its very folds – the same society in which a recent study found that 1 in 3 surveyed college aged American males would rape a woman if they could be assured there would be no consequences.

It doesn't really matter that this is the kind of simmering misogyny that expresses itself casually and almost without thought, through the relative distance of a computer screen and a fourth wall. In the end, all misogyny looks the same because it's fuelled by the fervent and unrelenting belief that women exist as pretty, malleable decorations in the world of men.

The irony is that there's literally no way for women to interact online that won't garner them abuse other than capitulating to every whim and demand foisted upon them by the boys and men who believe they are owed women's time, attention and deference. When women don't respond, they're abused. When they politely decline, they're abused.

When they take too long to reply to messages, they're abused. And all of this indicates that there's a growing number of men out there – many of them under the age of 30 – who not only believe that they have the right to demand women's attention, but who also think it's their right to violently punish them for withholding it from them.