Most people applaud the growth of technology and the wonders it has done for our society, and frankly, who wouldn’t? Where would be today without technology? As Freeman Dyson, the famous physicist and mathematician, claims, “[t]echnology is a gift of God. After the gift of life it is perhaps the greatest of God's gifts. It is the mother of civilizations, of arts and of sciences.” However, the negative effects, which have resulted from the outburst of technology in the last century (and particularly the last ten years), are often overlooked. The “deadly” repercussions of our society’s obsession with technology are manifested in the recent suicide of Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University, who killed himself after a video of him kissing another boy was broadcasted on the internet by his roommate. Tyler is just one of four teenage boys, who committed suicide this September—within days of each other—as a result of excessive gay bullying and harassment. In this paper I hope to show how technology has intensified bullying. In addition, using Susan Douglas’s book, “Enlightened Sexism,” I hope to illuminate how the media, through shows such as Gossip Girl, fuels this “cyber bullying” and how, through the media, our society has come to think it acceptable to taunt and harass homosexuals (particularly gay men).
On September 19, eighteen-year-old Tyler Clementi was captured kissing another boy by a hidden webcam, which was set up in his dorm room by his roommate Dharun Ravi, and Ravi's friend, Molly Wei. The video was then posted on YouTube for the entire student body (and world) to see. Ravi “tweeted” that night, “Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly's room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.” Unfortunately that would not be the most disconcerting social media post of the week—three days later, Tyler Clementi set his Facebook status as “jumping off gw bridge sorry” (Bennett), and he did just that, ending his life by throwing himself off of the George Washington Bridge in New York City. Tyler’s story serves as an example of the dangerous power that technology has in intensifying bullying, and the consequences that could follow from such publicized and invasive harassment. The rapid growth of Internet and phone capabilities has provided more avenues for bullying. As Jason Fulford, Time writer, claims, “the technology of bullying has advanced much faster than efforts to stop it ever could. If you have a cell phone, you can post to your entire school that a girl is a slut or a boy is a fag— and you can attach an unflattering photo or video of them to try to prove it. At least bullies of previous decades had to hold you down before they could spit in your face” (Cloud). Rumors, insults, and gossip can now be spread instantly (with a click of a button!) to the entire world (in the case of YouTube) or at least to a very large group of people or your friends and peers. If you want to reveal someone’s secret, embarrass or make fun of someone, or start a rumor, you have many ways, in which you can do so: post it on Facebook or MySpace, email it to people, write about it in a blog, text it, “tweet” it. The avenues for bullying are now endless, and even more damaging and hurtful to the victims. Not only can insults, rumors, and secrets spread faster and to more people; they can now be accompanied (once again, with a simple click of a button) by pictures and videos, to “back up” the gossip. As a result, bullying has become much more personal, encroaching, and hurtful. Newsweek writer, Jessica Bennett, comments on the dangerous power, which technology has when it comes to bullying: “[c]yberbullying has indeed added a new and potent threat—it can be more invasive, further-reaching, and harder to wash away than hurtful comments scrawled on a bathroom. And the medium for some of these cases—like with Clementi, the young Rutgers student—is often video or images distributed far and wide, making the torment all the more detailed and excruciating” (Bennett).
Of course many people are bullied and taunted—but one of the most ridiculed and tormented groups of people are homosexuals. In 2008, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network released a study that found that about 9 out of 10 LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender) students experience some form of harassment at school, and according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, LGBT teens are four times more likely to commit suicide than non-LGBT teens (Bennett). I cannot help but believe that there is a strong correlation between these two statistics. How has gay bullying become so prevalent, and hence, acceptable in our society? Susan Douglas sheds some light on the issue through her idea of “enlightened sexism.” While in most of her book, Douglas uses this idea to talk about women in particular, enlightened sexism can also be broadened and redirected to talk about gay men. In terms of gay men, the idea of enlightened sexism might go something as follows: the media (primarily through television and film) creates the illusion that gay men are socially accepted and treated well in our society and face few impediments and struggles. In light of this “fact”, it is okay for us to “harmlessly” joke about and ridicule homosexual males because they are actually treated wonderfully.
The media provides us with countless examples of gay men (as well as gay couples) who are treated with respect and fully integrated into and accepted by society. One of the most popular and prevalent images of gay men in the media is the lovable, fun-loving, silly, flamboyant, gay friend. A few examples include Will & Grace’s Jack, Sex and the City’s Stanford and Anthony (who actually get married at the beginning of Sex and the City 2 in elaborate showing), and She’s The Man’s Paul (BFF of Viola). Gay men are incessantly portrayed as the sensitive, fashion-expert, endearing friend of the female protagonist in films and television. They are “one of the girls” and they win our hearts over with their charm, colorful personalities (and outfits), and their “you go girl” talk. According to the thought process behind enlightened sexism, since gay men are portrayed positively in the media as fitting into society seamlessly, and therefore are also completely socially accepted and treated with the respect in real life, it is okay for us to make fun of and even “playfully” harass gays, right? However, the truth is that the lives of gay men are not as carefree as the media portrays them to be: they are constantly facing obstacles and discrimination in all arenas of life. The media simply sugarcoats and stereotypes what the life of a gay man entails. As Douglas claims, “[t]his is the mass media—exaggerating certain kinds of stories, certain kinds of people, certain kinds of values and attitudes, while minimizing others or rendering them invisible” (Douglas 19). The media, for the most part, renders the struggles of gays invisible. While, I am certainly not claiming that the media’s unrealistic representations of gays are the sole reason for why gays are made fun of, put down, and bullied, I do believe that they subconsciously play a role in how many people treat gay men and I think we need to be aware that these media representations are illusions.
The media has also helped bring on the cyber-bullying epidemic that has emerged in recent years, and which is epitomized in Tyler Clementi’s situation. The hit show Gossip Girl is probably the biggest and most obvious culprit. Gossip Girl, as Susan Douglas so aptly puts it, follows the “warrior Queen Bees’ attempts at Web- and text-based mutually assured destruction” (238). The show revolves around the newest and juiciest gossip and secrets of a group of privileged young adults from New York City’s Upper East Side, which are posted by the one and only, omniscient and anonymous “Gossip Girl”. Each episode opens with an image of the Gossip Girl blog page and the voice of “Gossip Girl” saying, “Gossip Girl here, your one and only source into the scandalous lives of Manhattan's elite." Each episode centers on a specific rumor or piece of gossip, which the entire Upper East Side will find out about immediately via text or the online blog. The gossip is almost always accompanied with an image or video as evidence, which is sent in by the petty and up-to-no-good Upper Eastsiders, always on the lookout for material to create drama or a scandal.
We, as viewers, get sucked into the show, but at the same time, we know that we are supposed to view many aspects of the show as somewhat of a joke. While the characters may be beautiful (or handsome) and have clothes, accessories, and penthouse suites, which we make us drool, we recognize that they are catty, superficial, and selfish. We consider ourselves morally above these characters and we get a certain pleasure from judging them and making fun of them (and the ridiculous plotlines). As Douglas claims, “the people on the screen may be rich, spoiled, or beautiful, but you, O superior viewer, get to judge and mock them, and thus are above them…you can look as if you are absolutely not seduced by the mass media, while then being seduced by the media while wearing a knowing smirk. Viewers are flattered that they are sophisticated, can see through the craven self-absorption, wouldn’t be so vacuous and featherbrained as to get so completely caught up in something so trivial” (14). We even see this mocking, self-righteous tone in the anonymous “Gossip Girl,” whose voice is “dripping with sarcasm, and seeming to look down on the mere mortals from her perch on Mount Olympus” (Douglas 239). While we may have convinced ourselves that we watch shows like Gossip Girl purely for fun and entertainment, and that we would never act as a Blair Waldorf or Chuck Bass might, at what point do these shows begin to actually seep in, shape our views, and govern our behavior? And as Douglas asks, “what creeps in through that shield of irony?” (15). Whether we choose to accept it or not, it is almost inevitable that these shows will make an impression on us in some way or another. Many viewers will certainly try to adapt qualities of the characters or behave as they do, whether consciously or subconsciously. The case of Tyler Clementi reveals the dangerous power that the media can potentially have in shaping impressions of viewers. Gossip Girl takes the cake when it comes to cyber-bullying, and its catty insults and incessant gossiping (and methods and means to do so) is bound to have sunk in to some degree with its viewers.
Bullying was bad enough when it was simply the “take your lunch money routine.” However, the growth of technology has led to a recent onslaught of cyber-bullying, which has the potential to be much more powerful, damaging, and invasive. The suicides of teens in the past few months have shown some of the people, who stand to suffer the most from this intensified bullying—homosexuals. While the rapid growth of technology has been a marvelous thing to witness over the last century, the case of Tyler Clementi reminds us that while technology may solve many problems, it creates just as many problems. In the words of Albert Einstein, “it has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”
Bennett, Jessica. "Is the 'Bullying Epidemic' a Media Myth?." Newsweek. 1 Oct. 2010.
Cloud, John. “When Bullying Turns Deadly: Can It Be Stopped?”. Time. 24 Oct. 2010.
Douglas, Susan J. Enlightened Sexism. New York: Times, 2010