Monday morning I was still in my day pajamas – you know the look: yoga pants, tank top, sports bra – when there was a knock at my front door, and I opened it up to find a man with a necktie and thoroughly gelled hair. “Are you Abi?” he asked me through the screen door. “Did you write the tweet about Target?”
I wrote the tweet about Target a week before, while my 7-year-old son and I were browsing the toy section. Actually, that’s not entirely true: I snapped the picture of the aisle sign while we were browsing the toy section, sometime between Pokèmon cards and Minecraft action figures. I wrote the tweet later, while I was waiting for him outside the restroom so we could check out.
“Don’t do this, @Target,” I wrote, and attached the photo of the sign that said, “Building Sets / Girls’ Building Sets” just as my son emerged from the bathroom. “Did you wash your hands?” I asked him as I tapped tweet.
And now my tweet had brought this smiling, be-gelled man to my front porch: a reporter from a Cleveland news affiliate, here to interview me.
“I was actually down here to do a story about LeBron,” he said, “but the office called and diverted me to this instead.” Before the Target tweet, the closest I had come to social media stardom was the time Roxane Gay RT’ed a selfie I took with her at a book signing. Now I had bumped a LeBron story.
I threw on a dress and some makeup, thanked God for dry shampoo, and within 15 minutes was miked and on camera. I was brilliant and articulate, I hoped, as I explained why I thought the sign was a problem – because making girls’ building sets a distinct category from building sets made it sound like girls are a separate category from kids; because the notion that girls would only be interested in special “girly” sets for building pink and purple hair salons and dollhouses and malls is the same nonsense that pigeonholes girls and women into certain roles – as my cat watched us from the front window.
That afternoon when the segment aired, I watched it from the waiting room at my dentist’s office with the receptionist and a hygienist on her break. “SIGN OFFENDS LOCAL MOTHER,” the title bar said, as if the aisle sign had stuck its foot out to trip me while I was shopping and then called me four-eyes.
We watched in silence for two and a half minutes as my onscreen self stammered and gestured through my interview, and when it was over, the receptionist changed the channel to Cartoon Network. “Huh,” she remarked conversationally. “If I’d seen that sign I would never have read anything into it.”
By that evening, Local Mom was being offended in every local news broadcast. The next day the story jumped to national news shows and websites, where I became the Ohio Mom who was “angry,” “upset,” “outraged,” even “furious.”
Strangers tweeted at me that I was just looking for attention and should be spending my time worrying about more important things, oblivious to the irony that they were spending their time seeking me out to give me attention. Libertarians lectured me about how consumers drive the free market, as if I weren’t a consumer who was now doing exactly that.
Men’s Rights forums picked up the story, and my twitter mentions became about what you’d expect from MRAs. I had written a four-word tweet, and now I was being called an ISIS supporter who hates homeless, starving children.
As the conversation unfolded, I found myself being made into a gender stereotype, too. I wasn’t a writer, a grad student, a university instructor; I was Ohio Mom. My critique of Target was angry and offended; they stopped just short of calling me shrill.
In my Twitter mentions, I became fat, ugly, and unlovable. The more loudly people complained that this was a giant overreaction, the more they proved the need for feminism.
And yet, I began to agree with some of the trolls. Maybe I was making a big deal out of nothing. Shouldn’t I be worrying about more important feminist issues, like violence against trans women of color? Didn’t this attention rightfully belong to the activists who had earned it, instead of just some mom from Ohio?
I told my therapist that I felt very aware of the white- and class-privilege that had put me at the center of this story; that I wasn’t sure if I had anything important to say, or if I should even try.
“Women have fought for decades to have a voice,” she said, “and yet so often we minimize the voice we have. Your words are powerful, and you can give yourself permission to use that power. You don’t have to feel guilty for speaking up.”
Together we made a plan for how I could own my power. I started asking interviewers not to label me “angry” or “offended,” and some of them obliged – it didn’t change the narrative that was already out there, but it was a step toward reclaiming my identity.
I gave a friend my Twitter password and asked her to filter my mentions for me for a few days, weeding out the worst of the trolls. I stopped letting the increased attention and scrutiny affect the way I was interacting with my social media communities.
And my community stepped up, too. Online friends made fun of the trolls in my mentions and sent me cat GIFs. Local friends stopped by with wine and moral support.
When a producer from a national talk show scheduled a camera crew to come to my house for an interview, friends offered to watch my kids and help clean my living room.
There is something absurd in a single tweet gaining this kind of national attention. This is how the 24-hour news cycle sausage is made – by taking these small, nuanced conversations and turning them into overblown, oversimplified issues.
But the beauty of social media is that we can use our voices and take our power, support each other, call for change on a whole spectrum of issues. And we don’t need a man to show up uninvited on our doorsteps for that to happen.
Abi Bechtel wrote this article for xoJane.
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