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

by Bailey Poland

"Bravo, Girl": Engaging in Validation

A comment conversation; the transcript is in the caption

Linda Greene: I don't know what I'd do without free birth control from Planned Parenthood all these years.It helps with so much more than preventing babies. I'm glad others can now benefit.

Callie Moss: Right?! I've been on birth control since the 8th grade because I have very large cysts on both ovaries, and it was impossible to function for about half of each month. People need to understand that it's not because we want to "whore around""". It for protection AND health.

Linda Greene: I hope you were/are able to get the cysts taken care of. I just had one the size of my fist emoved in February so I know how awful they can be.

Callie Moss: Oh wow. Yea, I need to get mine checked.

Directly countering sexism in the comments sections subjects women to a number of risks. Many women on BuzzFeed, Fox News, and MSNBC alike were met with escalating aggression, sexual harassment, and direct or general threats of physical and sexual violence for challenging gendered hostility. The negative responses to women's presence makes it difficult for women to participate in the discussions, especially when women seek to challenge sexism as inappropriate or unacceptable. However, women found other ways of engaging in the conversation without engaging sexist commenters directly. Validating another woman's remarks was a noticeable rhetorical strategy women used within the comments sections.

In their study of a mothers' support group on Facebook and comments left on various posts, Wendy K. Z. Anderson and Kittie E. Grace (2015) found that commenters "offered validation to mothers in and outside of the workforce…. Instead of reinforcing existing divisions, group members encourage each other to believe in their lay-expertise even when they do not agreewith each other" (p. 952). Although the women in the comments of the Facebook group were in a community designed around a particular set of issues and for specific readers, Anderson and Grace observed validating remarks in the form of supportive remarks and more extended and polyvocal discussions, including those that involved disagreement. Similarly, validation took two main forms within the comments sections of various news articles and websites; both types, in the comments sections of news articles, served to amplify an original remark that in some way challenged sexism.

The first and simplest mode of validation was a short comment left in support of another woman's more focused challenge to sexism. In an article on birth control coverage, comments about women taking "handouts" and being irresponsible were common forms of sexist remarks, and rebuttals were often met with additional hostility. Validating another woman's comment became a way for women to participate in the discussion without directly engaging sexist comments or commenters. In response to a sarcastic reply to sexism, a commenter named Lisa wrote, "Bravo, girl. Kristy should be embarrassed for being so narrowminded and anti-woman." Replying to the second commenter rather than Kristy herself allowed Lisa to engage in the discussion, amplify the challenge to sexism, and register her own disapproval without wading into the fray herself. Similarly, Anderson and Grace found similarly brief remarks on various posts in the Facebook group, such as "'Love!' 'Love it!' or some variation of 'Thank you (I love this group)!'" (p. 950). In the Facebook discussion of birth control coverage, the presence of challenges to the initial sexist comment as well as validation of those challenges also made more room for polyvocality. A lengthy conversation ensued, in which the original commenter was rebutted from multiple angles and with varying levels of vehemence.

Short, supportive remarks act as a form of social amplification within the comments sections (on Facebook and within the news articles), by drawing positive attention to a particular comment or an original post. Visible markers of support, particularly in the often hostile and sexist space of the comments sections, can serve as encouragement for additional validation and further challenges to gender stereotypes, sexist attacks, and other hostility. A small but supportive comment can encourage not only the original commenter to reengage in the discussion, but also draw more voices in. Validation becomes a way of creating safety in numbers.

A second example of validation also created additional space for polyvocality. On the BuzzFeed article "This Teen Says She Experienced Rape Threats and Serious Injury While Playing Boys Hockey," commenter Sara McLean started a discussion by arguing, "There are an abundance of girl's hockey teams" the victim could have joined instead if she didn't want to put up with abuse. In response, Sally Temple wrote, "She shouldn't have to play female hockey if she doesn't want to. It is coed hockey and a lot of female programs are not as strong as u may think." Temple made it clear that suggesting the subject of the article should give up on her chosen arena of hockey is not sufficient, given that the team is coed and all-female teams may not have worked for particular player under consideration.

McLean escalated the aggression of her comment in reply, doubling down on the presence of a female player as the source of the problem. She asked why boys aren't "entitled to a space of their own," and writes that there's no way the teen girl was "so good that she can't find women's hockey competitive enough." At this point, a third woman entered the discussion to challenge the victim-blaming implicit in McLean's comment. Nicky Samson wrote,

if someone talks about facing violence and harassment on the ice, the solution isn't to tell them to just play somewhere else. Even if a girl is "good" enough, as you've put it, came to play on a men's team came, the violence and sexual harassment that this girl faced would still be there.

Temple returned with another comment, validating Samson's addition and extending the argument she made, writing,

that's right they don't. Also who cares if she isn't on any of those rosters it's about the sexual harassment she faced not whether she is "so good" to have to play with the boys to be competitive enough. Why fault the girl for playing on a coed team.

Samson and Temple, by validating and building on each other's examples, created a space for arguments against victim-blaming in the comments section—a space where hostility towards the victim of gendered violence tends to be common.

Validation within the comments sections of news articles seems to be an important part of women's resistance to sexist remarks. Supportive feedback on another woman's challenge serves as visible backup for a woman who might otherwise stand alone in the face of sexism (as many women still do in such spaces), and also contributes to additional opportunities for polyvocality, as women build on each other's responses in nuanced and even contradictory ways.

Reading the Comments: Validation

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.


Kristy Williams: Women all across America should be embarassed. Apparently we're not even able to manage our own fertility without handouts from taxpayers via the "man."

Jen Strand replying to Kristy Williams: Yo girl, I'm really happy that you're able to will away pregnancies on your own without the help of medical intervention, but those of us mortals over here who are tired of shelling out every month because our medical necessity is considered a luxury are gonna go ahead and be stoked that our needs are being taken seriously.

Lisa Sanderson replying to Jen Strand: Bravo, girl. Kristy should be embarrassed for being so narrowminded and anti-woman.

Nikki Andrews replying to Kristy Williams: you just invalidated yourself. People will never stop having sex, it's completely natural and healthy. This bill also made it easier to get non horomonal birth control. Pretty awesome right? Here's a harsh approach but, people with colds, sickle cell and other potentially fatal illnesses Can and will die. Birth control prevents more people from being created! Less people to pay for with your hard earned taxes. No one is going to stop having sex. No one. Ever. It's just not realistic. Easier more affordable access to birth control is realistic. Those premiums you pay every month should be used for something. Have a great day!!

Kat Pierce replying to Kristy Williams: and those of us who used to pay triple digits for our only birth control that actually worked well for our severe hormonal imbalances and menstrhal irregularities? How do you suppose I take charge of protecting my body from potential infertility and hemmorhaging? Also, don't have sex if you don't wanna get pregnant? I've been on BC since years before I was sexually active ...guess I was just irresponsible for having a medical condition right? And what of my spouse? We are not ready for kids yet. Should I just tell my hubbs that we will not be having sex anymore until we do want kids? Your logic on this matter is disgustingly flawed and judgemental. Some of is have legitimate medical.reasons for needing BC and cannot afford it ... But nah, we're just irresponsible lazy people looking for handouts. Go fuck yourself.


Sara McLean: There are an abundance of girl's hockey teams in Alberta, why not play on one of those? 20 years ago it might have made sense to play with the guys because the level of play was shit in the female leagues, but you have full scholarship athletes and Olympians regularity coming out of women's hockey programs across Canada

Sally Temple: replying to Sara McLean: She shouldn't have to play female hockey if she doesn't want to. It is coed hockey and a lot of female programs are not as strong as u may think. Yes a large number of girls that are Olympians played girls hockey but the majority played boys up to and including midget plus the female Canadian teams often play boys teams because the female teams are not strong enough to compete against other than on the world scale.

Sara McLean replying to Sally Temple: So boys shouldn't have to play mens hockey if they don't want to? Why aren't the boys entitled to a space of their own? This girl isn't on any team Canada or even team Alberta rosters, so there is no way she is so good that she can't find women's hockey competitive enough

Nicky Samson replying to Sara McLean: if someone talks about facing violence and harrassment on the ice, the solution isn't to tell them to just play somewhere else. Even if a girl "good" enough, as you've put it, came to play on a men's team came, the violence and sexual harrassment that this girl faced would still be there. These things shouldn't go unaddressed when boys are in their own spaces, because it never deals with the underlying issue. Do you think boys who get away with assaulting and threatening women on the ice are suddenly different in their home lives?

Sally Temple replying to Sara McLean: that's right they don't. Also who cares if she isn't on any of those rosters it's about the sexual harassment she faced not whether she is " so good" to have to play with the boys to be competitive enough. Why fault the girl for playing on a coed team. My daughter has played on both female and coed teams and it is a completely different game. Maybe this girl just likes the style of game that the coed game is opposed to the female game. Her choice.