Backlash: Misogyny in the Digital Age
(Canada, 78 min.)
Dir. Lea Clermont-Dion, Guylaine Maroist
“Social media is the toilet of the Internet,” Lady Gaga told Jimmy Kimmel after Twitter users speculated about her relationship with A Star Is Born co-star Bradley Cooper following their performance at the Academy Awards. Truer words have rarely been spoken by a celebrity on late night TV, but Gaga’s spot-on observation was in 2019. Social media remains a breeding ground for unfiltered vitriol. Sadly, this information isn’t anything new and Backlash: Misogyny in the Digital Age is late to the party.
Directors Lea Clermont-Dion and Guylaine Maroist tackle the horrors of cyberbulling in Backlash: Misogyny in the Digital Age. The film, already a mega-hit in Quebec where it screened under the far more sensational title Je vous salue, salope (I Salute You, Slut), gives voice to four women who’ve endured brutal misogyny and threats of violence. The documentary doesn’t necessarily say anything fresh, but the collection of voices should reassure others that they’re not alone.
Backlash follows the story of Montreal teacher Laurence Gratton as she recalls a traumatic experience during school. She shares messages that she received via Facebook that mocked her participation in class. Gratton explains how the messages escalated quickly and turned violent. Moreover, the details prompted her to suspect a classmate. Eventually, she tells how the problem was widespread as a group of women on campus endured similar targeted harassment. She reveals how they traced threats of violence and rape back to a classmate. Laurence goes to the police for protection, but ultimately encounters the familiar system that fails to protect women.
In France, social media influencer Marion Séclin remembers a similar experience. After injecting her YouTube videos with unabashedly feminist rhetoric, she notes how the online mob came for her. In a Ted Talk, Séclin reveals that she is a world record holder for online harassment. She holds over 40,000 utterances of hateful misogyny and threats towards her. Admittedly, one expects the number to be higher given the flurry of toxic rhetoric in Backlash’s montage of hate speech.
Backlash in the Corridors of Power
Stories of cyberbullying, misogyny, and online harassment appear in testimonies from two women in politics. Laura Boldrini, who served as Italy’s President of the Chamber of Deputies from 2013-2018, shares her experience of being targeted by the Right after kicking off her tenure with a rallying cry for change. She recounts awful acts of the machismo mob coming after her. Most notable among the vile acts are a lewd performance with a sex doll in her likeness and fellow elected officials who fuelled the mob, including an online post that encouraged angry Italian men to rape Boldrini “to put a smile back on her face.” This stuff is sickening.
Then there’s the story of Vermont State Representative Kiah Morris. She tells the filmmakers how her idea of Vermont’s idyll friendliness was shattered during her second term. Amid the rise of Trump, her neighbours took offense to having a powerful Black woman in their midst. Backlash offers videos and online posts that outline clearly the escalating levels of harassment that Morris endured. The film also follows her story as these threats move from online bullying to violence and intimidation in real life. As with Gratton’s story, however, Morris encounters a wall of indifference while pursuing safety and justice.
Other talking heads come and go through Backlash. Glen Canning appears briefly to recall the case of his daughter, Rehtaeh Parsons. The 2013 story of a young woman who died by suicide while her online attackers returned to school remains a chilling reminder of the fatal consequences of cyber bullying. Moreover, the mention of Parsons’ case in Backlash notes the longevity of this problem. This story, tragically, is nothing new and little is being done.
What Comes After Outrage?
Backlash somewhat struggles to address this element of the problem. A brief appearance by Donna Zuckerberg, sister of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, offers a rare interview in which she stresses how social media enables new levels of violence against women. Academic Sarah T. Roberts cautions that the normalization of online misogyny risks breeding people desensitized to violence and hate. These talking heads, like Canning, appear quickly in one-and-done soundbites. Backlash admittedly loses focus as it tries to take the stories beyond repetition of hateful rhetoric. In Boldrini’s story, though, it comes closest to finding a hopeful solution. The politician assumes the enormous responsibility to create legislation to address online harassment and hate speech.
However, the film ultimately recycles a great deal of triggering and maddening material. Clermont-Dion and Maroist do open Backlash with a title card that cautions viewers about uncensored content. But in repeating the sensationally toxic rhetoric and doing so with such a sheer volume of messaging edited in a frenetic pace that matches the pulse of heavy metal music videos, Backlash risks instilling viewers with the same anger that makes social media such a rage-filled toilet. Aspects of the film wonder how to take the problem beyond outrage, even though the outcomes of these stories are likely to leave viewers riled up.
Screened in the right context and with the proper afterthought, though, Backlash has the potential to take the conversation beyond knee-jerk Twitter rants. It’s a call to make the Internet a safer place. It’s one thing to encounter such overwhelming vitriol in a 78-minute documentary and another to endure it in real life.