Don't Read the Comments: Women's Rhetorical Strategies in the Comments Sections of News Articles

by Bailey Poland

Speaking Up, Talking Back: Women's Responses to Sexist Rhetoric

Although it is helpful to acknowledge the forms online sexism takes within the comments sections of news articles, I have taken into consideration that the existence of sexism and bigotry online is not, itself, news. Scholars like Emma Jane (2014) have laid out many reasons for unflinchingly examining the misogyny sent to women in digital spaces—as she wrote, "a less explicit and more polite way of discussing e-bile may have the unintended consequence of both hiding from view its distinct characteristics and social, political and ethical upshots, and even blinding us to its existence and proliferation" (p. 558). However, the explicit, impolite sexism that appears in more than one in ten comments in the studied comments sections is not my focus at the present time, and devoting time to reviewing sexism will serve only to distract from analysis of women's worthwhile contributions in the form of responses to hostile environments. As a result, while specific instances of sexism will be included to contextualize women's responses, a brief overview of the main kinds of sexism observed in the comments will suffice for the purposes of this article.

Sexist comments took on a variety of forms in the comments sections, often responding in contextual ways to the topic of the article (take, for example, that 25% of sexist comments on an article about glacier research and gender employed stereotypes and jokes about frigidity). The most common types of sexist comments included gendered stereotypes; objectification of women and girls and remarks about appearance; sexism combined with other forms of bigotry (most commonly racism, homophobia, and transphobia); threats of violence; and apparently female commenters aligning themselves with a sexist status quo. Many of the sexist comments align with what Kirsti K. Cole (2015) and other scholars referred to as disciplinary rhetoric: verbal moves that, often and most obviously through threats of gendered violence, attempt to keep women in (or return women to) "their perceived place" (p. 357). Whether violent threats or gendered stereotypes, aimed directly at a particular woman or at women in general, the frequent sexist remarks in the comments sections share disciplinary undertones.

In stark contrast to the volume of comments containing sexism, women's responses to sexist rhetoric make up only 2.4% of the comments in the data set (136 total comments). Both despite and because of the small number of comments responding to sexism, paying close attention to the ways women employ rhetorical strategies to challenge and subvert gendered hostility in the comments sections is important. Women are disadvantaged in the comments by the frequent presence of sexist hostility, and yet they use a variety of strategies to carve out spaces where they can still attempt to be heard. The most common strategies observed included what I describe as seizing the kairotic moment (which, because it can apply to all comments, is not included in the table below), creating opportunities for polyvocality, engaging in validation, being sarcastic, making standpoint claims, and choosing silence (which, like kairos, is impossible to quantify and thus excluded from the table).

Table 2. Breadown of Women's Rhetorical Strategies
Rhetorical Strategy Number of Appearances Percentage of Appearances
Polyvocality 46 33.8%
Validation 16 11.7%
Sarcasm 44 32.3%
Standpoint Claims 39 28.6%

Many women used multiple rhetorical strategies in a single comment; appearances and percentages do not add up to 136. All comments can be seen as occurring within a kairotic moment, and so kairos was not coded as a distinct numerical category. Similarly, silence was not given a numerical figure within the coding, as non-participation by a silent reader cannot be determined. Some of the reasons for and causes of silence and silencing are discussed in the relevant section.