Fazeela Jiwa: “Bullying” is too vague when we’re dealing with sexism and misogyny

Since 15-year-old Amanda Todd died by suicide, weeks after posting a heart-wrenching video explaining her three-year struggle with sexist harassment, the media has erupted with moral statements about “bullying” in schools and online. While awareness-raising campaigns and actions about teenage bullying are important, this term is too vague to adequately address why it happens. “Bullying” glosses over structural reasons for violence—reasons like race, gender, ability, and sexuality, among a myriad of insidious social hierarchies. Fighting and self-harm are reactions to material power imbalances that become obscured, then disregarded, when we talk about specific social violence in generic terms like “bullying”.

As a high-school student in Surrey years ago, I witnessed brawling wars between Vietnamese, Polish, and Punjabi groups. When teachers lectured us about bullying, their words did not confront what was really going on—these battles resulted from racism, not generic, childish violence. Now as an educator, I see similar student indifference in the face of ambiguous terms and the irrelevance of their presentation. It is unfortunately rare to see groups like B.C.’s youth-based Leave Out Violence artistically and creatively address the specific issues of racism, poverty, sexism, and sexuality—sans jargon.

Why is hardly anyone talking about the sexism and misogyny involved in Amanda Todd’s life and death? Her silent YouTube video clearly suggests that hers is one of many cases of harassment and coercion of young women by young men: the first one encouraged her for a year to show her breasts to him on webcam, threatened to shame her with evidence of her “impropriety” if she did not perform more sexual acts for him, and knew names and locations of her family, friends, home, and school. The second one used her low self-esteem to convince Todd to have sex with him, then pitted his girlfriend against her in a brutal confrontation that lead to Todd’s initial suicide attempt.

Internalized misogyny is an important aspect of the structural violence associated with patriarchy: the young women in Todd’s life turned against her rather than supporting her through harassment, despite surely facing similar pressures to capitulate to male definitions of, and demands on, female sexuality. Thanks in part to the media frenzy surrounding the controversial SlutWalk, the conversation about woman-blaming is active; women around the world have rallied with the message that we are not to be held responsible for sexist violence against us. This analysis should continue in the commentary about Amanda Todd’s experience—it is hypocritical to shun a young girl for engaging with her sexuality or falling prey to a coercive man’s attentions online, while media and other cultural influences reiterate the message that a woman’s worth is tied to her sexual appeal.

Violent behavior stems from a tolerance of, or a reluctance to acknowledge, the power imbalances mired in the fabric of our social structures at all age levels. “Bullying” is not only a child’s issue, but the vague term allows us to treat it like a teenage anomaly. The same oppressive learned behaviours occur in the workplace, in bars and clubs, on the street, and in other adult-inhabited places.

October has been named a National “Anti-Bullying” month. If institutions like schools and government-funded media outlets do not begin addressing the specifics of social violence as their own issues, in ways that are relevant to students and adults, generic anti-bullying campaigns will continue be a waste of time. We must name sexism and other power imbalances for what they are before we can consciously diminish their influence on our social interactions.

Fazeela Jiwa is a feminist scholar, writer, and educator based in Vancouver.

If you need help, the Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention Centre of B.C. has phone lines that are open 24 hours a day.

Comments (28) Add New Comment
Amy Chan Vancouver
Very well written and thought provoking. Thank you.
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EM604
This is right on. I was fortunate to receive fairly progressive information about sex from both my parents and school and still remember tons of slut-shaming while I was in high school. It's so important to keep an open dialogue - not just episodic sex-ed talks - with young people about gender dynamics when they are in this extremely critical phase of development.
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Jesse Winchester Schmidt
Great article on a terrible situation. This is indeed beyond just bullying, as uncomfortable as it is to consider.

The audaciously negative chatter Ive been hearing from "cool guys" online regarding this situation is what kept me from sleeping last night, and compelled me to paint the accompanying illustration.

Condolences...
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Survivor
Congratulations on getting more specific! Must feel good! Now what?
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Dianne
Thank you for this much needed commentary. It's a helpful beginning if we are to truly analyze what is going on. And we must.
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branvan3000
wow, interesting logic - when boys harass a girl it's their fault, but when girls harass a girl, it's the boys fault
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Nick L
I've noticed that the outpouring of grief in the media has been centered around how beautiful she is. Which begs the question, if she was seen as fat or ugly would her suicide have been any less tragic? It seems that even in death people are perceiving her worth as a woman on her looks and her sexuality, which tells me that people have completely missed the point. Thank you for this article and for trying to address the root issues that are at play.
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Muskie
Too many big words, the people that need to read this, don't have the vocabulary. The person who calls himself "Haunter" and has a Facebook Page called something like Baugler9000 and was interviewed by the Vancouver Sun seems to have craved Internet fame so badly that he's made himself a target, of online rage and possibly an RCMP investigation. I'm not sure what you can charge someone like Haunter with especially if they are in fact not Canadian.

This seems like a problem that can not be fixed just by changing a few laws, but I'm all for 'outing' Internet cowards such as Haunter and Violentacrez.
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prenup
Its my opinion that Amanda was more bullied by females then males. The physical abuse documented in the media was nearly 100% caused by females. While i am not saying that males had a role and it was terrible it was certainly not one sided enough to call Amanda a victim of sexism. I get that we can be more specific by defining bullying as racism, or sexism, but in this case trying it to label it as sexist or misogynistic is ironically to simplistic.

On a side note, it was my experience in school that when a girl was being bullied it was almost always done by other girls, and in most cases was much harsher then when a boy bullied another boy. I remember that whenever a new girl came to school she was automatically bullied by the other girls who viewed her as a threat. Idle thoughts, but true.

Amanda's death was nothing short of tragic. Hopefully her death was not in vein and this sparks some serious change.
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Mackenna
The hacker group Anonymous has tracked her primary harasser, a 32 year old man in Vancouver who frequents child pornography and 'jailbait' sites. They have also outed another man who allegedly circulated photos of Todd's autopsy, which is beyond disgusting. These men aren't high school bullies, they are adult males harassing women in cyberspace. They frequent creepshot sites and post photos of their ex-girlfriends, whom they ridicule. Anomymous has passed its findings to the RCMP. Let's hope the police get to the bottom of it and charge these criminals. I very much doubt they only harassed Amanda. There are likely dozens of victims of these scumbags.
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heisenberg
Just for clarification to some posts made above, the terms misogyny and sexism are not limited to any one gender, and the writer does make reference to the girls in Amada's as being misogynistic. She clearly states they turned against her as noted in the quote below while making reference to the latter term.

"Internalized misogyny is an important aspect of the structural violence associated with patriarchy: the young women in Todd’s life turned against her rather than supporting her through harassment"

Several people in her life (male and female) are culpable in this young girl's soul wrenching demise. May she now rest in peace.

I echo other sentiments and hope her death serves to promote much needed dialogue and societal change.

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LearnedTooLate
Well said. Many of us 'feel' this truth, but have difficulty describing. It helps to understand the big picture.

branvan3000,
You've skimmed over the article. Read it carefully. All ages, genders, and cultures need to understand the concept, to see these dynamics (everywhere) clearly.
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1234
Society needs to change. We have become complacent enablers by sitting quiet. If power takes numbers, then more people need to speak up and against poor behaviour on every level and in every age group. I was bullied as a child and it changed me for life-in ways that I am only now beginning to understand. I see the same childish behaviour carried over into the workplace among grown adults and I shake my head. Society as a whole has to come together and re-establish respect and dignity between each other. We need to acknowledge one another as valid and worthy beings. We may not be the same in sex, race, appearance or intellect but there is one thing that we all have to give and that is mutual respect and to show each other what the concept of class and integrity is......we need to learn manners, we need to learn to smile at each other again and we need to learn to accept people great and small. This story broke my heart. It is something I would have imagined in decades past when there was the attitude of "kids will be kids" but when do people say enough is enough - when does the next up and coming generation say enough is enough and who is teaching them to be so very cruel? These are our future adults and I do not feel so very good about that thought. Something needs to change and it has to come from all of us as a human race.
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Deno
There is certainly a gender angle to the story since we wouldn't really care if this were not a young, pretty, white, female. The fact is that men in all ages and in all cultures have higher suicide rates.

If they do create some new bullying laws or rules, boys will surely take the brunt of the penalties.

Oh, and girls love bullies. Just sayin.
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Becci
I'm so glad to see people discussing the fact that misogyny is the cause of the young girl's death. This is a valuable article and I want to thank the author for writing it. It's a shame that a couple of people couldn't even read enough to get the part where she discusses internalized misogyny and the fact that a systemic hatred and devaluing of women is the problem here--that it is not at all a matter of blaming men exclusively.
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Mackenna
heisenberg wrote " the terms misogyny and sexism are not limited to any one gender..."

Misogyny is strictly defined as the hatred, dislike, or distrust of women or girls.

Sexism is defined as "discrimination or devaluation based on a person's sex, as in restricted job opportunities; especially, such discrimination directed against women."

Just thought I'd clear up your misinformation and apparent ignorance on the subject.
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Coconut
Society pauses for reflection if the victim is a cute white girl.
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Jeewhiz
I really hope that whoever originally took the photo causing all this bullying should be charged with come kind of accessory to murder. Setting an example to society that this bullying is NOT OKAY.

This poor child made one silly mistake and was tormented for three years of ongoing Bullying.

It's time for all facets of government passed a law that bullying is a crime. None of this BS of turning a blind.

My condolences to the family.
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Pinkman
Leave it to the Straight to take a teen suicide and make it a feminist issue. Of course, we all know that Feminists are not responsible for anything bad that happens to them, ever; nor are they expected to have any reason or accountability. It's all the fault of men and misogyny.
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Alex in Ontario
Can't believe we (the canadian people) dropped the ball so bad on this one. After all the teen bully suicide cases of recent years, we had a video from a month prior describing someones downward spiral from a series of sexual assaults for which she never received justice. This is the kind of thing the media "wishes we had" in advance of other suicides to intervene. Over a million people watched it. It was reported to anti bullying groups and child welfare agencies in Canada. SO WHAT HAPPENED?????? FFS? Also, facebook got off easy on this. Its time this multi-billion dollar corporation, which would have GENERATED REVENUE from web hits to the page with her illegal assault photos (blood boiling yet?) bore responsibility for the pictures on its walls, which if you'll check the terms and conditions, they own (possession of child pornography anyone?). If they can automatically detect your face, they can automatically detect nudity to bar uploading before moderator approval, but they won't spend the cash unless legally mandated.
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