Three remarkable women fight back against gendered cyber abuse in 'Netizens,' part of the Milwaukee Film Festival's 2018 Documentary Festival Favorites program.

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“Don’t feed the trolls.” In 2018, this would make a better petting zoo placard than social media management policy, though trolls have yet to be put in captivity (and most don’t seem to require sustenance anyway). If you ask a woman who has published opinions on the Internet if she’s ever received threats of violence as a result, you might be surprised at the incidence of yes. It comes with the territory. But this territory, as described during Netizens’ opening credits by archival news footage from the Internet’s nascence, is a complex superhighway connecting the entire world. This territory — often called “digital” or “cyber” space — which most of us now carry in our pockets, has ways of leaking into the “real world,” blurring the lines between virtual and reality.

Directed by Cynthia Lowen (of 2011’s Bully fame), Netizens follows victims’ rights attorney Carrie Goldberg, cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian and businesswoman Tina Reine, three women who share a common experience: they have all endured gendered cyber-harassment. Each woman’s story represents a different side of the same coin of abuse. Goldberg’s ex “sextorted” her with “revenge porn.” Sarkeesian receives tweeted and emailed death and rape threats on a daily basis, in response to her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games web series, the backlash to which factored into the now-infamous Gamergate controversy. And Reine suffered long-term social and career setbacks after an ex published libelous websites about her, flooding the Google results page for her name with false accusations of fraudulent and untoward activities.

Another thing these three women have in common is their embodiment of feminine resilience. When the circumstances demanded it, each shifted her life’s work toward the fight for freedom. Reine works her way from Toastmasters to TED Talk; Sarkeesian continues to speak at conventions about misogynist tropes, even amid bomb threats; and Goldberg opens her own boutique law firm specializing in sexual privacy violations, becoming the kind of attorney she wasn’t able to find herself.

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The film’s narrative is one of cautious optimism. Viewers will leave the theater in a mood of outrage-fueled empowerment, rather than either resignation or tranquility. All three featured women get an optimistic, if realistic ending, though Sarkeesian reroutes the trajectory from happily-ever-after with a stark reminder: No, it hasn’t gotten better yet. She still receives threats of violence, though she now has a routine in place for handling them (screenshot, forward to the FBI, block). Sarkeesian’s stoicism might look like the auspicious development of a thick skin, but she points out that it really betrays a loss of humanity, a desensitization that restrains her from the full range of human emotions.

It is this loss of humanity that seems both cause and effect of the Internet’s epidemic of abuse — trolls likely wouldn’t say the same things in person as they do on Twitter. Netizens does what it can to restore humanity to these three victims/survivors, giving audiences access to both their triumphs and vulnerabilities. In a particularly moving scene, Goldberg reopens a storage unit she hasn’t touched in two years, rifling through boxes of clothing and receipts labeled “tainted” and “bad year.” Sarkeesian shows us her high school journals and a zine she distributed during her punk phase, complete with Archie comic critiques. Reine fights tears as she imagines telling her father about her ordeal.

Where the film falls short is its failure to situate its subject on a continuum of gendered violence. In one scene, a Toastmasters mansplainer approaches Reine and suggests she just turn the other cheek — what could be so hurtful about fallacious online statements? While it’s clear the film fundamentally disagrees with this outlook, its rebuttal seems capable of reaching mainly the choir’s ears. I could envision a potential audience member nodding along with the man’s rhetorical question, secure in the cleanliness of his hands because he’s never personally threatened a woman on Twitter. But while the extreme experiences of the three women profiled in the film are largely atypical (if increasingly common), we’re all part of the culture this violence steeps in — we’re all netizens. Misogyny existed before keyloggers and GPS trackers. Gossip and shame silenced women before the borders of its purview were obliterated.

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We get hints of a grander thesis throughout the documentary — Sarkeesian is adamant that the digital age has only provided new tools for an old trade; Goldberg pages through a 2016 New York Post with a cover story on Hillary Clinton’s historic nomination; Reine placates the mansplainer and then later changes her stance on the benefit of the doubt. But ultimately, the film does not manage to balance its character-driven narrative with its political one.

However, in humanizing these subjects, Lowen’s camera lens is particularly successful in highlighting each woman’s femininity — lingering on Goldberg’s fidgeting high-heeled feet beneath her desk, Sarkeesian in the makeup chair, Reine executing an ethereal aerialist routine. And there’s something radically legitimizing in the juxtaposition of these women’s unrelenting work ethic and unapologetic femaleness.

Go See It: Netizens

  • Thursday, Oct. 25 | 12:30 p.m. | Jan Serr Studio Cinema
  • Monday, Oct. 29 | 6:30 p.m. | Avalon Theater