How Can Kids Learn Respect While Adults Throw Verbal Grenades on Social Media?

I know that people attack each other on social media every day, every minute. For many, it’s practically a pastime. As the Executive Director of a nonprofit that teaches girls and young women to use social media in healthy and empowering ways, I am steeped in this world. Yet, I was still shocked this month when I posted my thoughts on Facebook about the Super Bowl halftime show, and was told my attitude came from internalized misogyny and racism.  

Here is what I posted:

USA Today asked the right question: “Was it empowering to watch two women of color over 40 performing in a provocative way? Or had we reverted back to a pre-#MeToo moment of objectifying women?” Our POV: the latter. All these routines did was continue to encourage the idea that the only way to be a powerful woman in our society is through seduction and sexuality. ☹️ Enough! We can do better. Your thoughts?

I was trying to express my frustration that two strong Latina powerhouses, Shakira and Jennifer Lopez, were dressed so scantily and dancing so sexually. They each have so much raw talent and the power to dictate the direction of their performance. I am not talking about the brilliant Latina dance moves they showcased or the masterful belly dancing. I’m talking about Lopez sliding down a pole, and Shakira pausing while hands came from behind and around her to grab her midriff and hips. It concerns me that millions of girls (and boys) walked away from that performance still convinced that the way, the only way, for women to have power and use her voice is to first be “hot” and seductive. 

Shakira and Jennifer Lopez at the Super Bowl halftime show


Lessons Learned from My Post

There were many responses to my post, ranging from the same disappointment I felt about the hypersexuality to frustration that I’d missed how “much of the dancing was reflective of their culture,” and “media representation of Latina women is vital,” and women are attacked by the media for their choices no matter what they do.  

These are all good points.

I appreciated the back-and-forth exchange. The whole point of our nonprofit is to get people to think critically about the media they’re consuming and how it influences us. These exchanges exposed the nuances of the performance. While I still feel the performance was too sexual, some of the comments I received really opened my mind to several other perspectives I hadn’t considered as deeply. That’s the best of what social media can do – help us understand one another and empathize in new ways.

To do over again, I’d have verbalized how inspiring it was to see two Latina women owning the Superbowl stage, celebrating their culture, and making political commentary for millions of people to see. I did post the next day about this, but not out of the gate. I understand that it is important when posting commentary that might be inflammatory that I include more nuance. And to do over again, I also would have posted under my own name because my organization does not, thankfully, share one viewpoint. 

We Need To Slow Down

That said, when told in a comment that my attitude toward Shakira and Lopez stemmed from sexism, misogyny, and racism and that I “needed to stop being so judgemental, I felt hurt, misunderstood, and angry.”

I felt attacked, and my primal brain wanted to attack back.  It took tremendous restraint to not spew back nasty words. I stepped away from the computer, and did some deep breathing in another room. And, when I stopped fuming, I was able to ask if there was truth to the accusations. Would I feel differently if the women performing were white? No. Do I think women are more  harshly judged in the media than men are? Of course. Did I judge the female superstars a little too harshly? Possibly. 

I know that the experience would have been far more productive–and less painful–if the person commenting had asked a few questions or shared her viewpoint without insulting me.  There is room for sharing frustration, disappointment and hurt in our social-media comments. That said, difficult conversations are so much more constructive when we can find a way to share those feelings without going into full-on attack. 

Our kids are watching. They see how we adults treat each other on social media and they repeat it. We can not tell them that it’s important to be kind and respectful, and then launch into vitriol with strangers (or peers) on our platforms. We either treat each other respectfully, or we don’t. 

Social media is rapid fire. It is up to all of us to slow things down, be intentional, and model for one another – and the next generation – what exactly we wish to see. 

Michelle Cove is the Executive Director of MEDIAGIRLS®, a nonprofit organization that teaches girls how to critique the way girls and women are portrayed in pop culture with an emphasis on creating empowering content. She is also an award-winning filmmaker, journalist, and author whose projects have been featured on numerous national platforms including “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” Katie Couric’s talk show “Katie,” “The Today Show,” The Washington Post, and The New York Times.

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