If you thought Amanda Todd's suicide was the biggest tragedy you'd be reading about this week, think again. News of her death has sparked a flood of online hate and created fertile ground for a new crop of bullies to bloom in the wake of her death, cross-breeding with those that drove her to the brink in life.
The result? A new strain of oppression that could not predate the digital age - a cyber-org bully, who does not die with its victim, who furthers the protagonist's suffering well into the epilogue. Amanda Todd's story is not one that could have been told thirty years ago. In the 1980s, the Todd family, mourning the loss of their daughter, would not have had to plea with the public to stop bullying their child in death.
They would have given to Amanda her burial rites. They would have, perhaps, made a statement about the value of her life lost. They would have taken some small solace in her torment's end. Instead, the CBC now reports that:
"Images and comments making light of Todd's death and suggesting she deserved to be bullied are flooding a Facebook memorial page dedicated to the teen -- so many that Facebook can't remove them fast enough."
Shock and disbelief cannot begin to describe my reaction when searching for Amanda's name on twitter, and uncovering the thousands of hateful messages people have left in memorial to her. For every message of sympathy and compassion for her and her family, there was one that insulted her legacy and blamed her for her suicide. She is being labeled a "whore", a "slut", deserving less than life, and devalued in death.
Many are saying that because "she had no respect for herself", she is undeserving of the world's compassion. Others are even proclaiming that the only reason she is getting attention is "because she was attractive". This was a twelve-year-old girl who was first pressured into exposing herself to a stranger in a chat room, and then became the focus of his obsession. He circulated pictures of her body to her friends and teachers. He tormented her. He stalked her.
Now pictures that were used by her stalker to abuse and extort her have been shared and retweeted by hundreds on social media. Pages entitled "Amanda Todd was a Slut" have sprung up on Facebook (I've reported them to Facebook and so should you). As one blogger points out, even the framing of the news stories seem to be focused on her "mistakes" rather than the pressure she was under.
Can we pause for a minute and consider this nauseating slut-shaming clusterfuck? First, she was TWELVE when she was pressured into this cyber-sexual experience. TWELVE. Remember what you did when you were twelve? I can guarantee that if you think about the stupid stuff you were up to around that age, you'd regret approximately 100% of it. That shoulder pad flower print onesie for your class picture? Bad decision. Eating that whole bag of doritos and puking it out on your crush's shoes? Bad decision. Putting a maxi pad in your bathing suit thinking that no one would notice once you were in the pool? Bad decision. If our lives were a book and twelve was a chapter, it would be entitled Bad Decisions.
More importantly, if we forgive middle-aged members of Congress with fully developed pre-frontal cortices for their indiscretions in the sexual realm (and we turn them into bestselling authors...ahem, Arnold Shwartzo-whatever-I will-not-ever-spell-it-right-ever), then why can't we do the same for Amanda? Why the heck would we hold a twelve year old girl to a higher standard than the people we elect to run our communities?
The answer is actually super simple: because we live in a world where any member of the female species is, by default, a slut. Amanda's story is tragic. Unfortunately, it is one told by thousands of girls growing up in a culture authored by misogyny in which the female is simultaneously valued and punished for having (and, god forbid!, expressing) a sexuality. As many have pointed out before, the best and worst thing a woman can be is a slut, and that's one depressing catch-22 to have to navigate.
Amanda Todd's horrific tale and the sickening backlash that followed her death reveal the harm that is woven into the fabric of our cultural tapestry. The severity of this harm is directly proportional to the extent that women (or young girls) go against the grain (or, paradoxically, follow it). The extent to which our society takes part in remorseless slut-bashing could not be more evident than in the case of a dead teen who was a victim of stalking, blackmail and defamation, and who is held responsible for it even in death. Why aren't we talking about the people who circulated and distributed her pictures (who, may I remind you were guilty of nothing less than distributing child pornography) or the other teens who physically and psychologically brutalized her to the point of committing suicide? Where's their cultural hall of shame?
Suicide attempts in young girls have reached a terrifying all time high. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the highest increase was for girls of Amanda's age (between 10-14), whose rate of suicide increased by 76%. A study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal reports that, while the rates have decreased for boys, the reverse trend is observable for girls. Health experts are perplexed, but some research is starting to uncover just how particularly challenging being a young girl can be. A report issued by the London School of Economics and Political Science showed that girls now fear sexting from their peers more than "stranger danger". That's right. Girls are more afraid of the boys in their classroom than of the weirdos in the street. The lead researcher Jessica Ringrose explains this worrying finding:
"Girls are being pressured [...] to send 'special photos' and perform sexual services for boys from an early age. In some cases they are as young as eleven. Even while we were interviewing them they were being bombarded with these messages [...] some of them found ingenious ways to fend off the demands but still the pressures are immense and the younger girls in particular wanted help."
The researchers also observed that there were 'significant numbers' of explicit pictures of young girls in circulation; one boy alone had a whopping 30 in his possession. Researchers note: "some of the boys have a disturbing approach to this. They have been encouraged by a wider culture to see girls' bodies as property which they can own."
And just in case you thought there was some small hope for mankind, the research goes on to say: "even if boys don't have this view it's difficult for them to directly challenge this for fear of being called 'gay.'
Hold the phone. What in the world taught boys to think like this? Women are like equal and stuff now, aren't they? Hillz is secretary of state, ladies now have their own line of bic pens, and the prime minister of Australia is, like, totally boss. I mean it's not like respected public figures have used the same line of rhetoric to speak about women than the one being used by cowardly cyber bullies to comment on Amanda's death, right? Oh wait, there this and this.
Until we stop blaming victims and holding them responsible for the crimes that are committed against them, tragedies like Amanda's will only recur. It's time we begin to recognize and condemn the cultural tolerance for the ways in which women and girls are systematically bullied in our society. What begins as "show us your boobs" yelled at the frazzled, freckled-faced girl on the playground sadly evolves into "show us your boobs" later when she walks by that construction project, or when she asks for a raise at work... and tragically, even she's pushed beyond the brink, leaving a digital corpse left to suffer the abuse.
Unfortunately, evolution's most poignant tales are always told by those who seek to destroy rather than build. Let's hope that Amanda's story will be different. Let it be told by the prezi she prepared entitled "Cyber Bullying" to help others avoid the perils she suffered. Let it be told by her video, in which she exclaimed that she could overcome the abuse she suffered. She did not fail in her efforts. Society failed her.
To all those blasphemous slut-shaming low-lifes who are so anti-woman they need to vilify a girl who is now dead, you do not get to write Amanda's legacy. She does. Let her story be one of strength, not of shame. Let her story be told, not by you, but by her:
"I'm struggling to stay in this world, because everything just touches me so deeply. I'm not doing this for attention. I'm doing this to be an inspiration and to show that I can be strong."
Follow Elizabeth Plank on Twitter: www.twitter.com/feministabulous