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

by Bailey Poland

What is There to Say? Choosing Silence

Silence is perhaps the most challenging rhetorical strategy or outcome to conceptualize or empirically demonstrate: part of the problem with the comments sections is that women's absence is so pervasive that women's silence has become normalized and expected, and understood as always already a negative force for women. Women's presence, and particularly the presence of women who are speaking and challenging a sexist status quo, is regarded in many ways as deviant—something abnormal, and something to be silenced. As Cheryl Glenn (2004) put it in Unspoken: A Rhetoric of Silence, though, choosing silence and being silenced are complex rhetorical acts deeply bound up with gender, power, and privilege in social spaces (p. 30). Silence makes an appearance in multiple ways within the comments sections, as women are almost entirely absent from conversations about women, cease to participate in particular discussions, and choose to enact and break silence in various ways.

One notable comments section within the group studied for this project had almost total silence from women, of a kind that demonstrates the silencing power of sexism online. On an article on Fox News titled "What Teen Girls Really Want from Relationships (Hint: It's Not Just Sex)," a number of presumably adult male commenters fantasized about sex with underage girls or described the kinds of sex they imagine teen and pre-teen girls having. No comments on this article were left by self-identified teenage girls, making this comments section a space where rampant objectification of the group in question was made permissible, but feedback from that group was nonexistent. As Glenn (2004) wrote, "Regardless of position, profession, or race, silence is the most common response to sexual harassment—despite the stress of remaining silent" (p. 60). Although frank conversations about sexual activity are important for teenagers, it's hard to imagine a teen girl comfortably participating in a comments section where adult men are writing about the kinds of sex they like to have with teens.

Silence, in such an environment, can be understood as both a strategic choice (teen girls and adult women choosing silence as preemptive self-defense from more direct sexual harassment or threats) and as an imposition by preexisting and gendered social structures and power (men engaging in objectification and expecting not to be challenged on that behavior). The comments section of this particular article reinforced a gendered power hierarchy, but women's silence is also communicative, provided we pay attention long enough to notice it. Silence can be perceived as a response to hostility: a mute protest, an acquiescence, or some combination of both.

The drastic differences between the total number of comments (5,532), the total number of sexist comments (676), and the total number of women's responses to sexism (136) brings women's silences into sharp relief. Overall, women's voices in the comments sections are muted—and they are particularly rare as challenges to sexism. Silence can easily become overwhelming; what voices are there are easy to overlook, buried as they are in the mass of other arguments and shouting matches, and as insignificant as they seem against the backdrop of women's overall lack of participation in the comments.

Examining the comments that are present, and paying attention to how and where silence is broken (how and where silencing is used intentionally as a tool of oppression; how and where silence is resistance), reveals not mere absence, but many layers of silence and silencing, and many layers of speaking as well. Many women challenged sexism and chose to participate no further after they had said their piece, moving to (retreating or advancing to) silence, allowing a remark to stand on its own. Yet the effect of a single voice raised in response to sexism frequently meant that other voices chimed in as well-more than a third of the 136 comments contributed to instances of polyvocality, creating a chorus where at first there had been a single voice.

Silence can also be read as a strategic choice, as a method of signaling that a particular comment or line of argumentation is not worth pursuing. Women might leave a conversation in the comments sections for a multitude of reasons unknowable to other readers (or researchers): boredom, other and more pressing tasks, fear of additional sexist vituperation, giving up on a fight with an intractable opponent. Such readings are available and many of them are likely to be accurate. Less often, however, do we discuss silence as an intentional act on the part of women: choosing where to focus their attention, knowing where their voices will do the most good, leaving a particularly foolish remark to swing idly, worthy only of women's indifference. Such readings are also available, and worth bringing to the fore.

Too often, discussions of women's experiences of sexism online occur in terms of how women are victimized, how silence is imposed, and how silence is only a negative force. Although silencing can be many negative things, there are numerous opportunities to think about and to listen to women's strategic use of silence within the comments sections as well. My readings of women's silences in this project represent only one perspective on silence, but open the possibility of hearing and thinking about silence in more capacious ways.