Figure 4. ON RESPONSIBILITY
Commenter 1: Pro-lifers don't deny women's rights, enough with the victim card. It's not a woman's right to take life away from others just cause they are a woman. Wrap it up ladies, then you don't have to abort, simple.
Commenter 2 replying to Commenter 1: "Pro-lifers don't deny women's rights, enough with the victim card." WRONG. That is EXACTLY what they do. Enough with the stupidity. Approximately 70% of anti-choice morons are men—100% of whom will never be pregnant. If you can't keep it in your pants, women should not have to deal with the consequences.
Commenter 3 replying to Commenter 1: "It's not a woman's right to take life away from others just cause they are a woman." It's not a person just because it is alive...abortion isn't murder. "Wrap it up ladies, then you don't have to abort, simple." Wrap what up? Are you insisting that women are responsible for men wearing a condom too? Do men have any responsibility for themselves? BTFW, do you have any concept of the failure rate of condoms? Sheesh...
As an extension of noting the opportune moment for responding to sexism, women develop spaces within the comments where polyvocality plays a role. Polyvocality, and particularly the presence of multiple voices without the demand for consensus, is one of the hallmarks of feminist rhetorical practices, even when not explicitly named feminist. As Cristy Beemer (2016) observed, internet spaces where women produce "counter-discourse to the dominant narratives" can become sites of feminist work, even when those places also have "disagreements, personality clashes, and typical 'flaming' episodes" (p. 97). In the comments sections of news articles about feminism and women's issues, the presence of multiple women's voices raised to challenge sexism is particularly noticeable, given the frequency with which women are silenced and how oftena single woman stands alone in countering sexism.
Especially noteworthy in the examples of polyvocality produced in the comments sections of the articles was the presence of contradictory viewpoints among women, which took place without a turn towards vying for the dominance of one particular position. Comments sections tend to be spaces primed to produce arguments that leave no room for alternative views, and discursive practices are often aimed at being or becoming the sole dominant voice. Where women's voices appear as a challenge to sexism but also create room for multiple interpretations and even disagreement, women's rhetorical strategies subvert and stand in sharp contrast to other discussions, where disagreement is intractable and discussion becomes more about shouting down anyone and everyone else.
A striking example of this kind of polyvocality appears in a group of women's responses to a sexist, Islamophobic comment left on the BuzzFeed article "17 Badass Women You Probably Didn't Hear about in 2016," where Hans Dirschberger left a comment reliant on sexist and anti-Muslim stereotypes. Dirschberger wrote that it would be "BAD ASS" for Muslim women to "stand up against being forced to wear a hijab or niqab." In his comment, Dirschberger might initially appear to champion women's right to choose their own garments and reject patriarchal control of women's behavior. However, in arguing that "Muslim men force [Muslim women] to think it is" a requirement to dress a certain way, Dirschberger himself told Muslim women what they should wear, how they should think, and what they should protest.
Dirschberger's comment about Muslim women was met with not one but seven comments from women who challenged the stereotypes and assumptions in his original statement. The commenters challenging sexism tended to repeat and reaffirm one another's arguments while also adding new angles to the discussion. Dirschberger was challenged by Muslim women who mentioned the inaccuracy of his belief that they are forced to wear a hijab, for example. One commenter wrote,
Muslim men don't and cant "force" muslim woman to think in a certain manner.. ur whole argument has been negated by the fact u say we cannot "think" for ourselves.. ur comment is very insulting to say the least.
Other women responded by noting the history of head coverings within Islam and other major religions, including the "habits and wimples" of Catholic nuns, and telling Dirschberger, "You don't get to tell people what to protest." Women expressed multiple views (even comments questioning whether hijabs are or are not oppressive), and responded to each other with examples and alternating perspectives, even when they disagreed.
The comments in this exchange took a polyvocal approach to challenging sexism and anti-Muslim stereotypes, much as the discussion board Beemer (2016) observed provided a space for women to talk back to and challenge medical paternalism: "the knowledge in this space is created by the whole community in an inquiry-based approach, one that reflects feminist values of questioning, complicating, and sharing viewpoints rather than a paternalistic narrative of… top-down authority" (p. 111). The polyvocal responses emerged as a direct challenge to the kind of top-down construction Beemer described, in which the original comment attempted to direct how women behave. Identifying the paternalism, sexism, and Islamophobia in the original comment, women responded by "questioning, complicating, and sharing viewpoints" that generate multiple alternative views, without pushing for the dominance of any one response.
In one wide-ranging conversation on MSNBC, multiple voices both employing and resisting sexism appeared. An initial comment left by a woman criticized GOP legislative strategies, and was met by two commenters: one comment purported to point out hypocrisy, and another two comments employed anti-choice language and anti-feminist stereotypes. Two additional women entered the discussion. The second woman offered a somewhat sarcastic challenge to the anti-choice language of one of the men, suggesting that he "take a biology class and get a little knowledge." She concludes by observing that information on biology, pregnancy, and abortion "worked wonders for [her] daughter," thus challenging the man's ignorance compared to that of an apparent child's knowledge on the subject. The third woman repeated and expanded on the first woman's comment in a typical example of polyvocality, amplification, and validation (discussed further in the next section). By repeating some of the original remark, the second woman was able to reaffirm and build on an earlier perspective.
Polyvocality offers women entrance to conversations in the comments sections that may not otherwise be possible, and that extends beyond the idea of mere safety in numbers, as can be seen by the presence of disagreement within some of those polyvocal conversations. Instead, the presence of one woman's challenge to sexism sometimes serves as a catalyst for further challenges and discussion, disagreement, and validation of women's various contributions.
The following quotations and figures contain conversations pulled from the comments sections included in this study. Some of the comments are those analyzed in the preceding paragraphs; I chose the others to additionally demonstrate the rhetorical principle discussed in this section. All comments have been transcribed as they originally appeared including typos or idiosyncratic spellings, although some have been shortened for the sake of brevity.
Commenter names and avatars or profile images have been removed; pseudonyms have occasionally been added for clarity.