Why does it always come back to rape?

As the threats on Twitter to the likes of Caroline Criado-Perez, Stella Creasy, Mary Beard and others has proved, rape is the popular choice when women become more visible than they apparently should be.

What do Jane Austen, a ten pound note, and sexual assault have in common? Apparently, more than you ever imagined. In case you’ve been hiding away in some sort of feminist utopia in the last few days, you’ll know that the powerhouse behind putting a female face back on a banknote, Caroline Criado-Perez, has been inundated with rape threats - to put a number on it, "50 abusive tweets an hour for 12 hours". For the crime of defending her against this onslaught, Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy has also been subject to her own deluge of Twitter-based sexual threats. Both have, quite rightly, involved the police.

Now, online trolls have existed since we all leapt on the dial-up connection bandwagon and started abusing each other in anonymous chatrooms. Considering the amount of sheer idiocy a person can routinely witness every day - perversions of wartime poster "Keep Calm and Carry On" that manifest themselves in coffee mugs saying "Keep Calm and Eat a Bourbon", for instance, or people who have Linkin Park lyric tattoos - it should be no wonder that real, bonafide idiots exist on the internet. Idiots who, like @SamuelLBS, tweeted Creasy, Criado-Perez, and the Everyday Sexism project saying "Nice cleavage" for a bit of "light-hearted trolling before bed" last night (his words). Idiots who continue to tweet female politicians and campaigners begging them to, amongst other things, commit suicide, even while the police are monitoring such social media behaviour. Idiots who thought that one woman on one piece of currency was such an affront that it warranted the rape of those who supported it.

Yes, internet idiots come in many myriad, often very dark forms. But when women are concerned, those idiots suddenly start to come out with very similar jargon. Their ways of silencing their female peers are different to the ways in which they engage with men: for some sad reason, it always seems to come back to rape. Speaking out about feminist issues? She needs a good raping. Walking around in a skirt that’s above the ankle and sipping an alcohol beverage? She’s asking to be raped. Reviewing the latest product or movie or album that the passing troll quite happens to like? A violent rape will knock that opinion out of her.

Rape is the popular choice when women become more visible than they apparently should be, and that’s because it’s easy. As Tanya Gold has mentioned in the past, engaging with the vagina is much less bother than engaging with the brain: your argument is invalid because - oh fuck it, I can penetrate you. It’s a way of reminding people who thought they were campaigners or commentators or journalists or activists that actually, they’re just women. Their genitals mean that they’re actually receptacles getting ideas above their station. Whatever their opinion, however they conducted their arguments, however well-researched and nuanced their replies to criticism are, they’re women and male trolls could rape them and that’s what really matters. It’s the sinister sexual way of sticking your fingers in your ears while a woman is speaking and going: "La la la, I’m not listening!", perhaps with a crude gesture thrown in for comedic measure.

Unfortunately, it’s fairly standard for female public figures to be told by male trolls that they will be controlled or attacked sexually for their views; it basically comes with the job description. Mary Beard got called a "dirty old slut" with a "disgusting vagina" just as Stella Creasy was being tweeted "YOU BETTER WATCH YOUR BACK... I’M GONNA RAPE YOU AT 8PM AND PUT THE VIDEO ALL OVER THE INTERNET". Ten hours earlier, Creasy had received a the threat "I will rape you tomorrow at 9pm" by someone whose Twitter handle was @rapey1. The name is either a massive (and staggeringly weird) coincidence, or somebody actually took the time to set up an account specifically for rape threats. In a classic "eye for an eye" moment, someone else replied that "@rapey1 needs electrocuting and throwing on a bonfire. After being raped". But do we really need more of the rape-as-punishment trope? Really?

The message is that women’s vaginas are, literally, always up for grabs. If they’re young, the rape threats will come thick and fast; if they’re older, maybe the trolls will settle for insulting their vaginas and telling them that they were "sluts" in the past. And maybe the rape-threat-makers are sexually frustrated teens, sitting in a dank room somewhere and getting really wound up about other people being famous - especially women, who history has taught them shouldn’t ever get to be above them at all, except perhaps in the reverse cowgirl position. Maybe their violent sex chat is all about their real life romantic rejections and sexual inadequacies. But when they dedicate so much time to rooting out women who work in such un-sexual spheres as campaigning for a more feminist currency, it seems a bit more complicated than that. If it were only about sex, after all, the internet is a veritable goldmine of masturbatory aids on demand. 

Rape threats just have to be more political than a teenager’s blue balls; there is no freedom of speech when they get thrown into the arena. A rape threat says "shut up, because you’re a woman" to women who have spoken, and "don’t speak, because you’re a woman" to women who might want to speak in the future. It says that, by virtue of having a vagina, you should be less visible and less vocal. Which is why it’s so brilliant that Criado-Perez and Creasy have fought back, filed police reports, and refused to be shouted off Twitter: the only way to de-rape the internet is to show the trolls that their threats can’t produce the desired silencing effect any longer.

Mary Macleod MP, Govenor of the Bank of England Mark Carney, Stella Creasy MP and Caroline Criado Perez present the new ten pound note. Photo: Getty

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

All photos available for public use: Wikimedia Commons, Getty, Flickr
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Death tribute cartoons are the embarrassing face of kneejerk social media mourning

Whether it’s Stephen Hawking leaving a wheelchair or the Buddhist Steve Jobs meeting God, these grief gags show the decline of cartooning as an art.

Recently, following the death of Stephen Hawking, social media users were treated to the usual display of sad words and images. Among these were the by-now-standard death tribute cartoons, most of which focused on Hawking’s wheelchair: sitting empty as he flies out of it; sitting empty as he walks away; sitting empty as he turns into cosmic energy.

These images proved offensive to some people, implying as they did that Hawking had been constrained by his illness and was not a whole, functioning person with a brilliant intellect.

But death tribute cartoons are nearly always problematic, and their rise is connected with the decline of cartooning as an art form.

In the mid-twentieth century, magazines and newspapers were omnipresent, and so were single-panel cartoons. There were gag cartoonists and there were editorial cartoonists, who provided a visual take on the news.

Back then cartoons felt dynamic and alive – but as the twentieth century dragged on, the single panel became a dead format. All the good simple cartoon ideas had been used and re-used and used again, and not everyone can create an original single-panel image that’s funny or makes an interesting point; in fact, almost nobody can.

As publishing began to decline, the art was the first thing to go. Today very few newspapers have full-time editorial cartoonists, preferring the freedom of choosing from a roster of syndicated artists. But one of the most popular and durable editorial cartoon formats has expanded into internet culture, and that is the death tribute cartoon.

The death tribute cartoon is different from simple tribute art, in that it uses a visual format designed to amuse, but to be maudlin instead. As near a perfect description for the death tribute cartoon as I can find is German writer Winfried Menninghaus summary of the concept of kitsch: “A simple invitation to wallow in sentiment.”

Every celebrity’s death is treated as an occasion for cloying fantasy or impossibly awkward visual metaphor.

The most common death tribute cartoon trope shows the celebrity arriving in heaven, most often encountering St Peter. It doesn’t matter what religion the celebrity actually practised (as with Steve Jobs, a Buddhist, who was placed in this context at least ten times, including on the cover of The New Yorker).

St Peter only tenuously represents religion in this context anyway; he represents popular emotion and the love of the crowd. He behaves like the maître d’ of a celebrity restaurant, trading quips with stars and sometimes even grabbing a selfie.

Sometimes there are other famous dead people eager to hang out with the recently deceased. It’s a ludicrous reflection of our obsession with celebrity status.

Other popular death tribute cartoon tropes include: a prop associated with the deceased, abandoned and weeping; fictional characters associated with the star sharing a drink, or weeping; the world itself, weeping.

The Hawking cartoons weren’t the first to show a star escaping a wheelchair; this also happened with Christopher Reeve and Muhammed Ali. Ali was also pictured in one strange cartoon lying on the floor of the boxing ring, having apparently lost to a skull-headed figure labeled “29,000+ HEAD BLOWS INDUCED PARKINSONS”.

The democratisation of social media means that it is nearly impossible to tell the cartoons created by an artist in the employ of a media outlet from those made by a complete outsider.

With the Hawking cartoons, the one deemed most offensive by the Huffington Post was in fact by an amateur, but a much more bizarre one (showing Hawking pumping his fists in the passenger seat of Elon Musk’s space Tesla) was from a publication.

The competition is serious: the right tribute cartoon at the right moment, going viral, can alter the trajectory of an independent artist’s career.

Our culture demands the instant tribute, the quick crystallising of emotion, and death tribute cartoons are made for that. We are instantly ready to be nostalgic about anything and anybody. Death tribute cartoons are a feature of a society constantly being made aware of what it has lost.

They’re never funny, they rarely make much sense, and they pander in a way that’s embarrassing. I’m sure we’ll see many more of them.

Michael Kupperman is a graphic novelist. Find his work here. He tweets @MKupperman.