Charlize Theron: compared press intrusion to rape. Photo: Reuters
It is always tempting to roll your eyes skywards and laugh like a drain when a Hollywood A-lister living on cloud-cuckoo land puts her Christian Louboutins in it. To wit: Charlize Theron’s pronouncement that Googling oneself is akin to being sexually assaulted. ‘‘I don’t do that, so that’s my saving grace,’’ she said as she promoted herself and her latest movie during a TV interview last week. ‘‘When you start living in that world, and doing that, you start, I guess, feeling raped.’’
She guesses? How? From listening to other batty stars who have likened their exposure to sexual assault? In 2010 Kristen Stewart complained that seeing paparazzi pictures of herself was like ‘‘looking at someone being raped’’. A year later, Johnny Depp said that being papped made ‘‘you just feel like you’re being raped somehow’’. But wait, there is more. Gwyneth Paltrow - never one to shy away from saying what absolutely nobody else is thinking - has announced that being bullied online is like fighting in a war. ‘‘You come across [online comments] about yourself and about your friends, and it’s a very dehumanising thing,’a’ she told a technology conference in California last week. ‘‘It’s almost like how, in war, you go through this bloody, dehumanising thing, and then something is defined out of it. My hope is, as we get out of it, we’ll reach the next level of conscience.’’
Theron and Paltrow are obviously too busy gazing at themselves in the mirror - or searching for comments about themselves online - to watch the news. They can’t have seen the reports about the two teenagers gang-raped and hanged from a tree in northern India. They can’t know about Meriam Ibrahim, sentenced to death and forced to give birth in shackles on the floor of a squalid, Sudanese prison cell. Paltrow, who can consciously couple and uncouple to her heart’s content, with only the worry of what strangers might say about it online, mustn’t have the faintest clue about the pregnant Pakistani woman murdered by her own family because she had the gall to marry without their permission. Do either of them know of the abuse people face even in their own country, that an American is sexually assaulted on average every two minutes? Are Charlize and Gwyneth aware that less than 100 miles away from their palatial properties in Hollywood, a young man, Elliot Rodger, shot dead six people just the other weekend, because he had a pathological hatred of women?
Under (verbal) fire ... Gwyneth Paltrow was criticised by Cindy McCain for comparing the experience of reading disparaging remarks online with the dehumanising effects of war. Photo: AFP
And yet... the events at Isla Vista are exactly why we should not dismiss out of hand the comments of Theron and Paltrow. Their celebrity vernacular may be all wrong, but the point they are attempting to make is completely right: it is bloody awful to be a woman online at the moment.
I have always shied away from whingeing too much about internet abuse. I am of the mind that if you stick your opinion out there, then you can’t complain too much when someone else does, too. Plus, when I flick through a newspaper, the last thing I want to read is a journalist moaning about her art. I am not down a coal mine, as my dear, departed grandfather would say.
But the problem is that it isn’t just celebrities and journalists who face the wrath of trolls nowadays: it is almost any woman who dares to use the internet. In 2006, the University of Maryland found that chat room log-ins with feminine usernames ‘‘attracted’’ an average of 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day. Male ones got just 3.7. The Pew Research Centre found that, although an equal number of men and women use the internet, the most abusive messages are sent to women. The statistics are endless: Working to Halt Online Abuse, an organisation set up to help victims of online harassment, found that 72.5 per cent of victims are female; young girls are more likely to be cyberbullied than boys. And on it goes.
The first time I was threatened online with rape, I burst into tears, but it has become so depressingly normal since that I have learnt to shrug it off. ‘‘It’s not like they’re going to act on it,’’ people tell me. ‘‘They’re just nutters.’’ The ones who don’t want to rape me feel that they have to tell me they wouldn’t touch me with a barge pole. I get called fat by strangers every single day of my life, but I am fortunate in that I have a thick skin (a blubbery thick skin, as someone will no doubt comment below this article online).
But what about the women who aren’t able to take it in their stride? What about the young girls who grow up with the threat of online sexual grooming as if it was a minor hazard of teenage life, up there with smoking, booze, drugs and bad boys? What about the weird Incel (‘‘involuntary celibate‘‘) communities that are allowed to thrive unchecked, just as Rodger’s online persona did, until it spilled over into real-world bloodshed? Online abuse stopped being virtual a long time ago, and with every day we allow it to pass unchecked, all of our lives, Charlize Theron’s included, feel a little less safe.