Creating While Female: How Women Artists Deal with Online Abuse

The Internet allows female artists to upend the male-dominated structure of the art world, giving them the power to be in charge of their own visibility. But it also serves as a breeding ground for misogynistic abuse.
February 5, 2016, 8:04pm
Image via Jo Jovanovic / Stocksy

Never before have female identified artists had a greater platform to showcase their work. With over 7 billion Internet users worldwide—400 million on Instagram alone—gallery owners and record label executives are no longer the gatekeepers of the female artists' visibility.

Women can now cultivate their own businesses, sell their own merchandise, network, advertise, and empower and inspire people independently online. Social media has given women something female artists throughout history never had: access. However, with that access comes a new sort of vulnerability: Women who use the Internet to promote their own work often have to put up with aggressive online harassment, especially if their art focuses on their sexuality or their identity.

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Trolling, "the act of making a deliberately offensive or provocative online posting with the aim of upsetting someone or eliciting an angry response," is not a new phenomenon. Everyone, it seems, has experienced it—from big time celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence, whose nude photos were leaked online by hackers, to artist Mia Matsumiya, who runs an Instagram account solely dedicated to exhibiting abusive messages she's received, to feminist commentators who face death and rape threats for simply critiquing media like video games. It's no coincidence that gender is a unifying thread in each of these cases: Studies show that women are disproportionately vulnerable to these attacks.

For the female creative who depends on social platforms to build her career, avoiding trolling is not as simple as setting your account to private or just blocking a person. And, of course, the larger a following you create, the more likely you are to be trolled. For instance, when Merrill Beth Nisker, who performs under the name Peaches, released a new, very NSFW, video for her song "Rub," she received a slew of abusive comments: "Fire up the gas chambers," read one, referring to Peaches' Jewish heritage. "Attention whore," said another.

It is unavoidable to come across these messages, but I need to keep perspective, and I do.

"It is unavoidable to come across these messages, but I need to keep perspective, and I do," Peaches told Broadly. Peaches is no stranger to ruffling feathers. She has been a symbol of unapologetic female sexual expression in music since her release of the album "The Teaches of Peaches" in early 2000's, which featured songs like "Fuck The Pain Away" and "AA XXX". Since she's been a popular female artist and gender-bending non-conformist for over 15 years now, I asked her if the growing amount of "public feedback" from Internet and social media platforms has affected her art practice.

"You have to be super careful and accountable for everything you say. You always should be, but with the rise of social media, you are under the microscope and open to all opinions," she said. "The immediacy of public feedback has made me intensely careful with my words. In that way, I have been generally influenced, but I can't say that specific comments to previous work has made me specifically change what I am doing".

The "Rub_"_ video is an explicit celebration of female-identified empowerment, featuring a diverse cast, full-frontal nudity, and graphic depictions of sexual acts. Peaches calls it her most sexually challenging video to date. "It's challenging because it is a celebration of female freedom without the male gaze," she said. "I was pleasantly surprise at the positivity surrounding this video, but I am under no illusion that there are many who find the work disturbing, degenerate or pornographic."

One of Carly Jean Andrews' illustrations. Image courtesy of the artist.

When it comes to female art online, nudity, unsurprisingly, plays a large role in the amount of trolling one receives. "I block about five to 15 people a day," said illustrator Carly Jean Andrews. Her popular Instagram features mostly drawings of women, many nude, often playful and psychedelic. When it comes to inappropriate comments, she has adapted a hands-on approach, attempting to control her audience's experience by editing the unwanted commentary.

"I delete comments on pieces that call out the body type or a specific body part in an erotic way, because the intent of my art is not to sexually arouse. I find, sometimes, that the comments below a piece are part of it for the viewer: It's basically a caption, and the wrong words can ruin the experience. I use my Instagram as an online portfolio for my drawings to network and get jobs/commissions. Leaving disgusting comments under my art would be like bringing a creepy stranger to an interview and letting them say whatever they wanted. They have the right to say what they want, but I have the right to not associate my art with it."

According to her, the people she blocks are mostly fake accounts, kids under 18, and people who are obviously just there for the nudity alone. Recently, after she posted a sexy drawing of Princess Leia, she had to switch her account to private for a few days, "just to block the perverts."

When asked her how important social media is to her art career, she responded, "There is no other way to get my art in that many people's faces. My best jobs and most helpful contacts have all been from networking through social media."

I think an unsolicited dick pic should warrant a $1k fine, minimum.

Female artists in the digital age have to master the delicate balance between visibility and vulnerability. These women have to choose when to be public, when to be private, and to what degree. This very personal decision is made by the artist and by her alone.

Grace Miceli, a.k.a Art Baby Girl, artist and founder of the online exhibition space Art Baby Gallery, which curates artists born of the digital age, is cautious about exhibiting work online. "I think I've protected myself by not making work that is outwardly personal," she said. "I'm pretty guarded with being vulnerable online. I have admiration for female identified artists who put themselves out there by using their body in their work. It's brave, regardless if you are deemed conventionally attractive or not."

Although her art doesn't exhibit a lot of nudity or sexual provocation, that doesn't mean she's not subjected to every-day sexism. This is simply the reality of being a female artist and having a large following. "I can't count the number of times a male has reached out to me about 'working together' only to quickly turn the conversation into a personal/romantic/sexual discussion," she said. "There isn't enough protection. I think an unsolicited dick pic should warrant a $1k fine, minimum."

None of these women are under the delusion that everyone is going to like their art. While many acknowledge that criticism and commentary on social media can be a very helpful tool to learn about yourself and how your art is affecting people, all affirm that violent threats and cruelty are a different thing altogether.

Fannie Sosa is a nomadic artist and activist. As a women of color (of Yoruba, Guaraní, and Basque descent), she uses her body as a medium, and says that the point of her work is to challenge patriarchy and build a new paradigm of gender and racial equality. She travels around the world teaching "Twerkshops"—traveling workshops for women to learn twerking, which she believes channels self-empowerment. Her online videos, which are unabashedly sexual, attempt to deliberately confront the male gaze borne from both the sexual shaming by religious institutions and oppression of indigenous heritage by colonialism.

Lat year she created a web show, called "Baby, Love Your Body!!!" in collaboration with artist Poussy Draama. It's a sex education video for kids, specifically with children of color in mind. "The reason why we did this video is because we were feeling useless as artists," Sosa explained. "We wondered who we talked to and who heard us. We had been doing a performance residency and the public that came out to see us was mainly white, adult (25-45) and cisgender, and we felt that is not our primary mission and vision. We both have extensively worked with kids and thought about our childhood and our sexuality as children and how its repression still hinders our power today."

Predictably, her work has been targeted by a literal army of trolls. "I have experienced a lot of abuse online," she said. "When our sex-positive clip for kids went online, it went hate viral. It is still going: People are, to this day, wishing us AIDS and cancer, rape, death, deportation threats. I responded by closing up my privacy settings on Facebook and just generally not reading the comments. The experience did give me more fuel to keep doing work, especially with children and teens of color in terms of sexuality, pleasure, and consent. "

People are, to this day, wishing us AIDS and cancer, rape, death, deportation threats.

For Fannie Sosa, social media is not only a platform for exposure—it's also a useful tool for activism. Still, she struggles with the more unfortunate consequences of increased exposure. "Social media is crucial for my work in ways that intersect," she said. "Some have offered me greater freedom, whereas some keep me enslaved. It is a paradoxical relationship I'm always trying to figure out."

For many female artists, it's necessary to form a healthy detachment from social media, to see it as a tool or a platform rather than something that that defines you or your art. "Giving this negativity any of your attention is a huge waste of time," says Carly Jean. "The people who choose to be hateful in that way are just bored or unhappy. You can sometimes imagine someone going through all the effort to log in, find you, and look through your pictures, think of a comment and then comment something hateful or disgusting; it gives me second-hand embarrassment!"

According to Carly Jean, interacting IRL is a good way to combat the vicissitudes of the virtual world. "Don't solely depend on social media," she advised. "Showing work at spaces, handing out zines, or trading work is a reminder that most of the time people only troll and threaten when they can be anonymous. Something that cowardly can't crush your spirit."

"My advice is to just continue doing what you do," said Peaches. "Opinions are like assholes—everyone has one. You can't stop them. You can just try to keep it real and remain true to yourself."

What the female-identified artist stands for, what she has overcome, and her courage to be herself challenges the pedagogy of a patriarchal dominated culture—a culture that continues to breed misogynistic and egotistical trolls who freely exercise their hatred toward women under the Internet's a veil of anonymity. Online, the female artist is both the target and the heroine, navigating the murky waters of our new digital reality.