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Interview: Emily Writes and the toxic side of going viral

Emily Writes is a blogger whose incredibly frank and deeply funny writing on parenting has made her a hero to many mothers. Unfortunately, it’s also made her the target of thousands of unaccountably angry men – especially after a recent review of Tarzan went viral. Alex Casey called her up to talk about it.

New Zealand parenting writer Emily Writes recently penned a movie review that I, and many others, agreed to be the best movie review in human history. Hooning into Alexander Skarsgård’s ‘V’ after getting on the wines at Tarzan, it’s a perfectly silly, perfectly truthful insight into how women really speak and think when they aren’t kneading dough, darning socks or fainting into the arms of passing knights.

Screen Shot 2016-07-16 at 7.37.11 AM“Sweet mother Mary the V I am telling you. The v is worth $15,” Emily writes of Skarsgård’s lower abdomen, “The V is worth so much I wanted to see the movie again straight afterward… I am basically exhausted from being in a constant state of arousal for the rest of the 2/3 of the film.”

Safe to say the review went viral, amassing hundreds of retweets, thousands of positive comments, and eventually a film festival deal with Metro. But after the few initial hours passed, and Emily’s hangover cleared, the joyful Tarzan party was flushed down the internet toilet into a dripping sewer of misogyny and hate.

Emily has had her blog for over a year now, posting her first blog ‘Fuck Off, I’m Grateful’ at 3am one night because she thought it would make her friends laugh. It got over a million hits, launching her into the stratosphere of ‘mummy blogging’. Work from her blog emilywrites.co.nz is now syndicated by The New Zealand Herald once a week, and she is currently working on her own book with Penguin Random House.

Emily Writes, illustration by Hayley Heartbreak

Emily Writes as illustrated by Hayley Heartbreak

She still has no idea what makes things popular on the internet, but after multiple viral posts this is much more than just a fluke. Unfortunately, finding popularity online has brought with it a whole bunch of other toxic elements, including harassment, hate mail and threats. Watching how one harmless movie review awoke a deep, globe-spanning vein of furious internet men, it was clear that something bigger was happening here.

Why were so many men giving up so much of their time to try and silence one woman and her lady boner for Tarzan? I wanted to find out, so arranged to talk to her.

With the kids upstairs with her husband, and an image of Skarsgård’s V etched in our minds, we got settled into a chat about being a woman online in an arena full of anonymous demons.

Honestly, I thought I’d seen everything that was happening around the Tarzan post, but then the level of hate in the comments and on social media seemed to suddenly get real full on for you.  

It’s really weird, because it’s not even the most popular thing I’ve written. I think the level of shit I’m getting is to do with the difference in the subject matter. The other stuff I’ve written is really mum-centred and people are way less likely to attack me being a mum. I will get ‘you’re a shit mum’, but the misogyny is much more hardcore with this one.

I’m really surprised because I’m just like ‘if I ever saw something like this and didn’t like it, I would just ignore it’. People are setting up whole Gmail and Twitter accounts specifically to have a go at me.

So what was that experience of going viral with your first blog post like? Because that one went to a million, right?

I had a brand new baby at the time, so mostly I just tried to ignore it. I was pretty overwhelmed by how many journalists were contacting me, even though I had done it on the down-low with my pseudonym.

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What a viral blog post looks like

I managed to avoid a lot of it just because I had a tiny, brand new baby that was screaming at me. I mean, I did get a lot of hate mail. I actually got some friends to moderate comments for me because there was a lot of that ‘you’re a terrible mother’ and blah blah blah.

I still get that pretty regularly, but I don’t really give a shit. I think I’m an alright mother, I’m okay. That kind of stuff doesn’t bother me too much, but this Tarzan one has been really weird, it’s made so many people angry despite it being about the stupidest thing.

Yeah, the pushback has been pretty extraordinary. Can we talk about the actual writing of the review, did you really write it on the toilet?

I came home and my husband was asleep. I went into the bathroom to turn the light on because I’ve got to be really quiet to make sure the kids don’t wake up. My friend and I had just been in hysterics talking about Alexander Skarsgård in the car, so I just got my phone out and was like ‘people might think this is funny if I type it up’.

I was a bit pissed because I don’t got out very often. So yeah, I wrote it in the toilet – but not like on the toilet. I sat there with a glass of wine on the floor of the toilet typing it up on my phone just because I thought my friend would think it was really funny.

In the morning I went on Twitter and it had blown up. It was Twitter that went first and then everything else kind of followed. Someone should take my phone off me when I drink.

tarzan

Nobody should ever take your phone off you ever. Honestly, as soon as I read it over breakfast I was screaming. I had to review Tarzan for the Herald on Sunday and I found it immensely difficult to be super serious when all I wanted to do is write about how hot he was.

It is legit really true that I don’t remember any of the plot. I’m a real stereotype of a mum who doesn’t go out, so when I have two glasses of wine I’m fucked. I went with my girlfriend who also has a kid and we were just drinking and being absolutely fucking disgusting in the cinema, so it was just kind of an extension of that.

It was nice though, because there was about 12 hours before I started to get all the shitty comments – before that everyone just thought it was funny. I think you need to get to a certain level of attention before it makes men angry. They’re alright with women laughing amongst themselves, but if we get too big for our britches they have to come out and be like ‘just so you know, this isn’t funny’.

Then I started getting the super long emails, with people saying ‘how dare you call yourself a feminist’ and I’m like ‘oh well, I won’t then, I don’t really care’.

So if it started happening a couple of hours later, where was all the man rage coming from? Was it a multi-platform experience?

There were some people who set up different accounts just to have a go at me. That’s something I’ve never seen before: where they have one follower and all their tweets are just about you. I’m actually really touched by that. That my writing has upset somebody so much that they set up a Gmail account and then two Twitter accounts just to have a go at me.

I got some on Facebook, but I moderate like fuck on Facebook. I delete and ban anybody who I think’s a dickhead. I have zero interest of having any men on my Facebook page. It’s predominantly a place for mums to talk about being mums, and anybody else who is genuinely interested. I also moderate my comments on the blog pretty hard as well, just because it’s my platform and I can’t be bothered with any crap.

emily6

I decided pretty early when I started writing that this was how it was going to be. I’m pretty thin-skinned, and I don’t want to have to be really thick-skinned, I don’t think that makes me a good person or a good Mum. I decided that if any comments started with ‘you’re a really shit mother’ or ‘just so you know, you’re an asshole’ I would delete the before I read any further. I know I’m not everybody’s cup of tea, and that’s fine, but I’m not going to provide you with a platform to abuse me on.

They’re just really horrible – heaps of them end with this little aside of ‘and you’re fat’, or ‘well yeah, and also you’re ugly’. Often they wouldn’t have even seen a picture of me, how have they decided that? It’s just very bizarre.

Yeah, that’s quite interesting, I’ve definitely noticed since I’ve started writing that commenting on the writer’s appearance largely only occurs to women, from my personal experience anyway.   

Totally, I’ve never ever seen it happen with a dude. Also it’s just like: so I’m fat, so what? I don’t need to be told. I really love that delivery method in negative comments of, ‘just so you know, you’re a real cunt’. I just think, well these people are the ones spending all the time reading and making up fake Gmail accounts, it sounds like you’re much more into me than I’m into you.

I had a real good one once. Someone read an interview that I did with Chrystal from The Bachelor and they did quite a nice comment, I read it like ‘oh yeah this is all going well, they enjoyed it’. But then at the end they were like ‘but you’re not half as attractive as she is Alex’. Like they just simply couldn’t resist.

That’s such a big thing eh! I always get ones ‘I love this review, but also you’re an asshole’, and it just doesn’t match up. It’s just really bizarre, I have honestly never felt the need to comment on somebody’s post and be like ‘I hate this’ or ‘I hate you’ – even on old Michael Laws or Rosemary McLeod columns.

I write about lame shit that I try and make funny, like a shared experience or something like that. I honestly get people – men, when I say people I mean men – disagreeing with me saying ‘you say you’re tired, but do you mean you’re exhausted?’ I’m just like ‘why are you so angry at me?’

I don’t know, I just delete all that toxic shit straight away. I weirdly feel like the blog isn’t mine. I feel like it belongs to all the Mums who read it and share it and are nice to me. I feel like all the opportunities that have come my way like my column and the book are all because of them.

I think that’s a really great way of operating it, kind of creating it as a space for everyone else rather than yourself and making it as communal and safe as possible – especially important for women.

You’d completely lose your grounding if you did things any other way. I set up emilywrites.co.nz because I thought eventually I might be able to get some part-time writing to supplement being at home with the kids. I didn’t actually realise that a year later I would have a following, so I feel really awkward that it’s still got my name on it. I try to have guest posts and make it less like ‘the me show’ because that does feel super awkward. Fuck, I’m just amazed people aren’t sick of me after a year.

I’m keen to know what the actual gist of the Tarzan hate was, can it be broken down into different streams?

Some of it was just random angry men telling me that I needed was a good fucking. That was gross. The rest were all these claims of reverse sexism, and men telling me I was being a bad feminist. I swear about 20 comments have been about imagining if the review had been written about Scarlett Johansson… I really feel like they don’t even recognise that Tarzan’s Margot Robbie is a completely different woman to Scarlett Johansson.

Contrary to popular belief: not the same woman

Contrary to popular belief: not the same woman

There’s also a small contingent calling me out for being a mother and asking what the fuck is wrong with me. Do they know that mothers actually have sex? It’s weird to be like ‘you’re a mother, you need to sew up your vagina and never have an impure thought again’. That’s the three: angry, slightly aroused men; reverse sexism men; and the ‘I can’t handle a mother talking about sex’ men.

And they are all men, right? That seems to be the common thread here, it’s all men.

There have been one or two that have used like a woman’s name, but then their email addresses are like Glen@gmail or something. I mean, I’m convinced they’re all men.

emily7

What do you think of this trend of men scream-crying about reverse sexism? It’s very funny to me.

Yeah, it’s actually almost worth doing it just to get them upset to be honest. It’s so irritating how unoriginal that criticism is, so I feel kinda happy that I’ve made them this upset. I really relish the opportunity to make men angry, but also it’s been a bit annoying for me.

Haven’t they always been like this though, even before the internet?

Maybe, but they’ve probably never been exposed to a woman gushing about Tarzan and finding success with it in all of human history before the internet. You know, is the rage because you did it or is it because you did it and people liked it?

You know what, you’re actually right. I get this vibe on the rest of my blog as well, that they don’t like that there’s a place on the internet that’s just for women. It infuriates them. A huge portion of my shitty comments on the main blog are ‘what about dads?’ or ‘Oh my gosh this is so sexist that you wrote about being a mum when you didn’t write about being a dad’.

I’m not a dad and I’ve never been a dad, why would I write about being a dad? A lot of my mummy blogger friends have told me they’ve had the same thing. I had a friend actually who wrote a poem about being a mum, and some angry man re-wrote the whole thing to make it about dads. I think a big part of it is exactly that, that they just really don’t like all these women together talking about something that doesn’t interest them in a place that isn’t for them. That drives them mad.

I feel like the real world example would be when men get all in a tizz because there’s a women’s space at uni or when there are women-only swim nights. It’s like that, but on the internet. I guess the issue with it being online is that there are more ways to permeate it with their horrible writing.                                         

Exactly. If you don’t like what I’m saying, you don’t have to come to my site. The interesting thing is that there are also lots of women who go come to my site that will think I’m a bit full on or a bit weird, but none of them ever think, ‘oh, before I go I have to tell her she’s fat’.

I feel like the anger comes from the audacity of women to have these spaces that are just for them, to talk about things that only interest them. Like the Tarzan thing, every woman has had that conversation with her friends. Every woman. Like, god True Blood, that show’s fucking shit, but Alexander Skarsgård is why it was so popular. Every woman has had a conversation about Alexander Skarsgård or someone like him, that’s just stream-of-consciousness girl talk.

emily5

It totally was, like the first thing my friend said after the lights went up was ‘I want to shag Tarzan’. I even got a hall pass from my boyfriend in case the opportunity arises. It’s impossible though, it’s hard to accept that it probably won’t happen probably in our lifetime.

I mean, hold out hope. He might read this and just be like ‘I’m going to New Zealand’.

We need to get your review to Ellen level, I feel like Ellen would probably fly you to meet him?

I really hope that he would think it’s funny. I still have a lot of feelings about the movie. What fucks me off the most is that Alexander Skarsgård would’ve definitely got naked for that movie. He gets naked for everything and he’s fine about it. The fact that the director did not let him get naked was a conscious decision to infuriate women everywhere. It was very hurtful, he wouldn’t have even needed it to be part of the plot, he could’ve just had a jungle shower or something and it would’ve been fine.

[laughing] Jungle shower!!!

I have a lot of feelings about this. He could’ve just got set up next to a waterfall thing, his pants could’ve got caught on something and just… come off. I did like the pants, but you know the original Tarzan wore just a little cloth so I feel we were a bit ripped off.

Right, well it says on the internet here that Alexander Skarsgård was anticipating a loin cloth before they started shooting.

See? He would’ve, you know he would’ve! Even that terrible sex scene, I don’t know why we can’t have graphic, pornographic Alexander Skarsgård sex in a movie. He would’ve done it, he totally would’ve.

There’s a quote here from him: ‘I was trying to get a little sexy loin cloth to wear, I was trying to convince the director for weeks.’ He said that at a press conference!

This director guy is a fucking asshole, how could he stop that from happening. It’s very misguided, why didn’t they do a focus group with women? They would definitely say ‘we need less clothing and we need more sex’ I mean, my review was actually tame compared to how I talk with my girlfriends – it was definitely PG compared to what we were yelling out in the cinema.

hwc2TGf5

Wait, you were actually yelling in the cinema as well?

We totally were. This guy next to me was on a date and he was disgusted with me. He waited until the lights came up to scowl at me. I was like ‘excuse me, you are gonna probably get lucky tonight even though you don’t look anything like Alexander Skarsgård, so you should just be happy that you managed to go on a date with an actual real woman’.

He had that same thing you nailed in your comment before, the rage that comes from women enjoying themselves and having a conversation that doesn’t include men. So many dudes thought it was funny and cool, but I wrote it for women. It was for all of us to laugh at, but how dare we have a conversation without men, there’s a real sense entitlement.

Luckily I don’t give a shit about what some random guy on the internet thinks of me. I’m never going to take time out of my day from raising two children and writing to care about what some guy thinks. I’m never going to respond point by point to his long boring emails.

If you’re not responding point by point, which I don’t think for a second that you should be, how are you choosing to cope with bad comments?

Usually I will reply with a ‘lol’ or just like something like that. I try and do it with as much millennial speak as I can, because that infuriates them even more. Or I’ll just reply with an emoji or something like that, the laughing emoji gets used quite a lot. My husband’s always telling me that I shouldn’t be enraging people on the internet, but I just feel like it’s satisfying to respond to a massive email – that basically boils down to ‘I don’t agree with you’ –  with a ‘lol’.

Emily's email the day after a viral blog

Emily’s inbox the day after a viral blog

I’m always just struck with why on earth do people feel the need to do this? I understand the long responses for controversial columnists like Polly Gillespie, but if I write a post about how my child finally slept through the night, I get 10 emails saying that I’m pathetic and I can’t write.

It’s almost like reverse trolling, like if they send you this really long and considered thing and you reply with just a little ‘lol’. It’s the perfect response.

Yeah basically, a lot of commenters think they are this really important, intellectual powerhouse, and think the whole purpose of mummy blogging is stupid. I’m just writing dumb stuff hoping that some of it might make mums feel better about themselves, or make people laugh when everything else is shitty in the world. That’s all I’m trying to do.

People think a lot more about my writing than I do. It’s amazing to me that they have so many feelings about something that was written in about eight minutes while I tried not to fall off the toilet because I drank too much. Who has the time?

Exactly, it’s like who are these people? I’ve been going through some The Spinoff – we’re actually turning our comments off really soon because it’s getting a bit out of control. But what struck me is that they are so long! Like some are actual theses…

The way different comments sections work is really fascinating to me. Stuff is just unashamedly horrible people. Someone will write about how a little baby died, and somebody will write ‘well those parents are bad, at least now they don’t have another child’. People at Stuff seem totally comfortable with their comment section being a toxic cesspit of despair and hopelessness.

I was looking before actually, The Spinoff comments are really, really long and the people think they’re very clever. Don’t you think? They’re almost poetic in their hatefulness, it’s so annoying. They’re like those people you get stuck next to at a party who drink red wine and talk about how much they hate reality TV. I think it’s great you’re turning off your comments.

Yeah, I think it’s the right thing to do for us. I don’t fully understand the benefits of letting everyone weigh in all the time, especially when you start to see the same demons pop up again and again.

There’s also a duty of care to the writer. I was really nervous about my writing being on The New Zealand Herald, there was one commenter who used to write ‘every time I read your stuff it makes me want to vomit’ on every piece. The ‘you’re a bad mother’ stuff was relentless. It’s one thing to read a couple of comments, but when you read heaps in a row and you’re tired and your kids are upset with you – as kids always are – it’s those moments where you’ll read them and go ‘fuck, I am a terrible parent’. That was actually really hard.

I contacted The Herald and asked them to stop letting people abuse me. Bless them, they turn off comments on all of my stuff now. Of course that means I still get emails, but that’s better for me because I can just choose whether or not to read them. I don’t want to write for anybody who’s going to allow a comments section that’s going to rip me apart because it’s just not fair. That shit is there forever, it’s just not a nice way to treat anybody.

There was something I noticed that you did on Twitter, where you published part of an angry email that you’d received. It reminded me of how Clementine Ford republishes her hate mail, or even finds the people on Facebook and sends the comments to their employer and gets them fired.

I did a couple of those the other day and the people who had sent the mail got really angry about it. I’m really interested that people can see a comment that calls a woman a ‘dirty whore’ or like ‘a fucking disgusting slut bitch’, but only get outraged when she shares it outing their IP or email address. Just don’t fucking do it! Don’t abuse people, don’t call people whores when they’re just writing a fun review that you’re not the target audience for.

To me, I find it satisfying to publish those things it’s just a reminder to not treat people like shit. If you stand by your words, you shouldn’t give a shit that I published it with your name or whatever on it. You should look up Heather Armstrong, she basically set up a website that published all her hate mail and put ads all around them. She made thousands of dollars off people’s hateful comments.

That’s really amazing.

Yeah she donated all the money to charity, she’s awesome. I really like and respect Clementine Ford as well, but the level of hate she’s getting is completely different to mine. People only say they want to rape me like three or four times a year, but she gets it every single day. If I was on the level that she is, I would probably change my approach. Most of the time it’s not a revenge thing but a joke thing, like when someone told me ‘read a dictionary, grow a vocabulary’, I just thought that was a really funny comment so I shared it.

I also think there’s merit in just making that sort of stuff visible, I’m sure a lot of people wouldn’t normally know how much shit you have to wade through online every day.

Exactly, it’s one of the realities. I think there’s also something about younger women writers that really infuriates people. Because people in comments treat me like a teen mum or something, even though I’ve just turned 31. People also think I get paid heaps, like I’m Carrie from Sex and the City or something. I’m just writing on the couch and my pyjamas while my children scream at me – it’s not glamourous.

Writing: it's nothing like this

Writing: it’s nothing like this

I really love writing and I’m so grateful to have an audience. I’ve heaps of amazing, awesome, supportive women. I really love all of that but it’s not glamorous. People support me through donations and stuff like that, which I’m really grateful for, but it’s mostly about visibility. Parts of writing are really rough, and no one is immune from it. I’ve never met a woman writer who is immune to it.

The whole Internet etiquette thing boils down to men needing to know when to shut the fuck up. They just don’t know, because nobody’s ever told them!

My favourite comment I’ve ever got was from a man spitting with rage, who said ‘YOU KNOW THE ONLY REASON THIS IS A FEMINIST ISSUE IS BECAUSE THERE’S A WOMAN INVOLVED?’ Honestly, I think about it once a day, it’s like the deepest and most confused mansplain I’ve ever seen.

That’s so amazing, I love that.

He was just like ‘everyone listen to me! I’ve finally cracked this mysterious code!’

I love that, that’s so good. I got this exceptionally long email after I wrote about Thomas the Tank Engine. It was dictated by a grandfather to the grandson or daughter who emailed me, and was all about the ratio of girl characters to boy characters to carriages, and why I was wrong about everything. All I could think about was this guy or this girl trying to spend some time with their grandfather, but all he wanted to do was write an essay about how angry he is about a Thomas the Tank Engine parody.

Screen Shot 2016-07-16 at 9.23.52 am

Don’t make jokes about the serious train

I can just imagine them having to sit there for like an hour and a half while he paced the lounge, talking out loud going ‘there are not any unions on Sodor because…’ That made me really happy that one. I actually personally thanked the person who wrote it. I got asked today if the comments on this beat the Thomas the Tank Engine one and they don’t, I still really appreciate the train obsessives who are still really angry at me for calling Thomas the Tank Engine an ‘entitled little shit’.

I haven’t read that one but my god that sounds incredible… I thought we could end with this: do you have any other advice for women who are writing online?

If you have a spike in traffic that’s bringing in more people than usual, I would get other people to moderate comments. Even if you’re just starting out, you might get by laughing at the first 20, 30 or even 40, but it crosses the line at some point. I think there’s only so much that somebody can handle. I went back a little while ago and looked at the WordPress trash to see some of my comments that had been removed. They were horrible, like ‘I wish you’d aborted your kids instead of having them.’ At the time when I read that, I had a three week-old baby and wasn’t used to that level of abuse.

There’s heaps of people who will tell you to get a thick skin or just get used to it. I’ve decided that I’m never going to accept that, I’m never going to accept people being horrible to me for no reason. I don’t want to get to the point where I just accept people calling me a whore because I said my baby finally slept through the night once, or saying that I need to get fucked to death because I wrote a blog post for my friends at midnight about Tarzan. I don’t want to get used to that, so I’m not going to.

So I guess that’s it: just don’t accept it, don’t get used to it, and just delete it. Don’t ever give them a platform, they don’t deserve it.


Click here for more from Emily Writes

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Feature illustration by Hayley Heartbreak

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