Professional Cyber-Bullying, Or Why We Can't Call Cheerleaders "Chunky" On The Internet

A blogger in Oklahoma City recently lost her job for calling a cheerleader "chunky" in a post. Meanwhile, an ESPN reporter declares newly out NBA player Jason Collins to be an "open rebellion to God" as a gay man.

May 1, 2013 at 10:00am | Leave a comment

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Hatin'. (Also, my belly.)

Predictably, I lost my shit on Monday when NBA athlete Jason Collins officially came out of the closet in a soon-to-be-published Sports Illustrated article. I spent basically the entire morning sniffling in stereo with everyone else in my office, frantically reposting links on Twitter and participating in good-natured, rollicking debates with acquaintances on Facebook as to whether his come-out was touching or too pre-packaged to be convincing.

(I also boned up on every single female athlete who's come out of the closet since the 1970s, just in case I needed to kick people in the shins for declaring Collins to be the "first professional athlete" to come out as LGBT.)

"Look!" my co-workers and I kept cooing at each other every time Bill Clinton expressed his support or Ellen Degeneres made a joke about Wizards vs. wizards. "Oh my God, this is so awesome!

I knew, of course, that not everyone would accept Collins's coming-out as the clearly awesome action that it was. I mean, it's the NBA, not a "Dead Poets Society" Appreciation Club at an all-girls' high school. So after the initial flush of pride and keyboard-crying, I started to tense up, waiting for the dipshit comments to start streaming in.

And sure enough, they did. You know the drill: Gay people are a sin against God, gay guys will look at my business in the locker room, the gays would have us marry ducks despite the fact that ducks are clearly terrible, blah blah blah. Some of these statements were run-of-the-mill horrible comment-field fodder, but a few of them were said on official channels, including ESPN.  

"Man, that sucks," my boss told me over the phone after I linked her to one of the particularly annoying gay-vs.-God comments, this one made by ESPN reporter Chris Broussard. "Are you pissed?" 

"Uh," I said, then shrugged. "Nah, I mean. I am, but it could've been worse. This isn't even that bad. Could've called him a fag, you know?" 

There was a silence over the line. Then she said, "Wow."

"Yeah," I said, playing back what I'd said in my head. "Guess I'm getting cynical in my old age." 

Let's be clear here: Sure, Broussard was using his religion to justify his comments, and some people are framing that in the ol' "It's just his belief system, he can't help it" dialogue. 

But taking a public, media-hyped stand against huge groups of people for their sexualities is a bigoted action, no matter the motivation, and I think it's incredibly weird that I wasn't filled with fire-mouthed outrage at it. 

Maybe the worst part, though, is that I don't seem to be the only one. Though of course people are pissed, they appear almost half-heartedly so, the same way everyone gets briefly riled up whenever Ann Coulter opens her mouth to do anything but breathe. 

Even as Broussard and his employers at ESPN refused to walk back their statements or issue an apology, people seemed to think it was better to just ignore them than give them the satisfaction of yelling at them for being fuckwits. Two days later, though some of Broussard's peers on other sites are taking him to task, the situation seems to have more or less blown over. I certainly haven't heard anyone calling for him to lose his job.

This is especially interesting, to me, when you consider what happened with Anna-Megan Raley, a CBS blogger who was recently fired for calling an Oklahoma City Thunder cheerleader "pudgy around her waistline" before adding "she's beautiful." 

The whole thing was kind of a nebulous situation -- Raley, also a digital content manager for CBS, originally claimed that the author of her pseudonymous post was actually a different, relatively inexperienced freelancer -- but eventually, CBS higher-ups heeded the call of enraged OKC readers and fired the author of the post. 

Now, don't get me wrong. I don't think it's ever appropriate to mock an athlete for her physical appearance, and I'm glad that readers in Oklahoma City reacted to Raley's gross, frankly bizarre post with offense and rage. 

But it did make me wonder: Where's the line we draw with writers, reporters, and social commentators when it comes to shallow criticism of public figures? Why did Raley get dumped on her ass, while Broussard is still being allowed to natter on in a public setting, when they both made comments that were hurtful, immature, and unprofessional?

I realize it's kind of comparing apples to oranges here: Broussard is a reporter formerly with the New York Times who has a history of using his Christianity as an excuse for all sorts of anti-gay prejudice, while Raley was a heretofore unknown digital media manager likely trying to polish up her writing chops with a clearly shoddily supervised pseudonymous side blog. 

Firing Broussard would have inevitably aligned ESPN with the "pro-gay agenda" in the eyes of its largely conservative fanbase; by contrast, it's not exactly controversial for a corporation like CBS to tell its employees that shitting on a woman's personal appearance isn't cool (even though their own programming, naturally, does that kind of thing constantly).

It's still useful, though, to use these as examples of the kinds of statements we allow certain commentators to get away with, and why. As a writer, I know how tempting it can be to rely on rage-clickbait. We don't do it here at xoJane, thank Christ, but I've written for a few sites in the past where it was easy enough to snark on competitors or semi-public figures and let their enraged fans do all the sharing for us. Most Internet writers I know loooove attention (myself 100% included), and there's nothing that gets people's attention like behaving badly. 

I'm sure Anna-Megan Raley had a few extra clicks in mind when she decided to include "Is this cheerleader too chunky?" as a poll sidebar on her blog post; similarly, it's not as if ESPN has exactly been trying to hush up Broussard's comments.  

Sharing is money on the Internet these days, and it seems like a lot of major media companies are spending valuable time trying to walk the line between "controversial" and "bigoted" in search of getting the highest click-rates possible. At a certain point, individual writers and commentators become so offensive that they become invaluable -- by drawing attention to their bad behavior by sharing their work and discussing it, we as readers are essentially reinforcing it, thereby making their position all the more secure in whatever media empire is willing to shelter them.

We're essentially Peter Pan clapping for Tinkerbell, if Tinkerbell frequently spouted off boring shit about how female comedians can't be funny or women belong in the kitchen. 

This isn't a matter of First Amendment rights. I'm not saying that you shouldn't be able to write all manner of protected bullshit hate speech on your Tumblr without fear of legal persecution. Go right ahead, I won't (and can't) stop you. But the First Amendment doesn't and shouldn't protect anyone from being challenged for their speech in long-lasting ways, and that just doesn't seem to be happening in today's media environment.

Remember when Don Imus called the Rutgers University women's basketball team "nappy-headed hoes?" Remember how he was fired for a minute?  Guess who's still on the air now? Oh, yeah. 

We teach writers that if they become monetizable enough, they can pretty much say whatever they want without fear of consequence. Way more significantly, we also teach the companies paying their checks that we'll put up with all manner of bullshit they publish -- and bring in advertising money, to boot. 

And our standards of decency are lowering as a result. I don't mean "decency'" in the Grandma-style stop-swearing-at-the-table sense of the word; I mean actual kindness, like what we perceive to be acceptable to say on behalf of fellow humans. It seriously concerns me that I've gotten to a point where someone referring to a person as "walking in open rebellion to God" because of their sexuality is barely even grounds for more than a barely interested shrug of resignation. Commentators are getting downright meaner, not to mention lazier and shallower, and readers' tolerance for it all just seems to be building. 

I don't really have a solution for this, honestly, except that we as consumers of media should always remember how much power we hold just by the act of choosing what to consume. I can't decide whether it would be better to treat writers-and-companies behaving poorly like toddlers throwing a tantrum -- ignore them, and they'll eventually wither and die -- or actively take them to task across the board.  

I think the former would be more effective in the short-term, but the hippie-dippy part of my soul likes the potential of Generating Productive Dialogue that the latter option entails.

Regardless, our responses should be consistent, lest we reinforce the notion that again, if you're famous enough, you can pretty much get away with all sorts of shenanigans.  

Haters gonna hate. Writers gonna write. And the cycle of nastiness will continue to get worse, unless we decide to actively put a stop to it.

Kate is trying to be nice on Twitter: @katchatters.