In Lauren Rosewarne’s book “Cyberbullies, Cyberactivists, Cyberpredators: Film, TV, and Internet Stereotypes”, she used more than 500 films and TV shows to describe several online archetypes on screen. Online archetypes such as the netgeek, nerd, gamer, hacker, bully, predator and pervert are presented, connecting them to the underlying themes of gender, race, politics, sexuality and our fear of new technology.
According to Rosewarne, online archetypes are predominantly white (with sizable Asian representation although a very inaccurate one), male and young. Some of the characteristics ascribed to them are anti-social, unlucky in love, unkempt, sedentary, deviant and misogynistic.
As Rosewarne pointed out in her book, stereotyping is a manifestation of our instinct to categorise, compartmentalise, and exert control over the unknown. The ever-changing nature of the Internet, a fairly new invention, heightens this instinct.
Our fear of new technology, in this case the Internet, is not something new. Not too long ago, TV used to be the bogeyman and now it has moved on to the Internet. To put a face to this fear, the aforementioned negative stereotypes of Internet users were created, reinforced by the media’s sensational reporting and popular culture’s inaccurate portrayals.
Rosewarne mentioned the three A’s of the Internet: affordability, accessibility and anonymity, all contributing to the connectivity of different communities, while at the same time creating new avenues for nefarious behaviour such as harassment, bullying and discrimination. Using hundreds of examples from films and TV shows such as Cyberbully, Hackers, The Net, Unfriended, The Big Bang Theory, Criminal Minds, CSI: Cyber, and many more, Rosewarne showed how the mass media has portrayed the Internet as a distinct entity from the “real world”, that it somehow possesses special powers that make its users become addicted and behave maliciously.
Those Internet users are portrayed as a different breed from “normal” human beings, deviating from socially acceptable human behaviour and appearance. Not only are those stereotypes used by the media to capitalise on our fear of new technology, they are not based on fact and evidence. More importantly, they are harmful in that they distract us from addressing the root-causes of bad online behaviour, using a bogeyman that everyone can blame.
Case in point, many people like to downplay the severity of online harassment by dismissing them as perpetrated by teenagers who have nothing better to do in their free time while being stuck in their messy, filthy bedroom, feeling sexually frustrated. This is counter-intuitive since the affordability, accessibility and anonymity of the Internet mean that anyone can behave badly on the Internet. So you can either be a bored teenager or Anthony Weiner, a former US congressman who resigned after being involved in a sexting scandal.
By showing some of the most common Internet stereotypes on screen, Rosewarne delved deeper and revealed the underlying issues and perceptions that shape those preconceived notions we have on Internet users. Interestingly enough, even though young, white, heterosexual male sits at the top of the hierarchy of Internet users, they are the beta males on the scale of masculinity because typing in front of a computer is seen as an emasculating and inferior activity compared to other work that requires brawn and physicality. The sedentary nature of Internet surfing is contrasted by the rugged manliness of the alpha male.
Gender is also examined by Rosewarne where she pointed out that the portrayal of female Internet user on screen usually comes in three types: the hypersexualised or hyperfeminine sex object, the eccentric and unconventional gothic/punk chick, or the androgynous female that is almost indistinguishable from men. With a few exceptions such as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, they are almost always the decorative sidekick that is used to complement the male protagonist.
When it comes to Asian Internet representation on screen, even though often portrayed as exceptionally skilled and studious, female Internet users are also portrayed as sexless sexual reject and extremely awkward socially, much worse than the stereotypical white netgeek/nerd, sometimes to the point of being a caricature instead of a real human being.
As for the LGBT community, they are either always craving for online sex or involved in some sordid, seedy sexual fetishes.
Stereotyping can be disparaging to humanity as they see human beings as labels instead of complex, multi-faceted identities and serve as an insurmountable obstacle for some to pursue their passions. Stereotypes, however, can sometimes be empowering when those who are marginalised decide to take back the narrative of their identity and own the stereotypes.
The Internet is a best example for this because of its democratisation effect. Different communities from around the world are now able to connect, where it was virtually impossible before. People of colour, women, LGBT community, the disabled and others who are marginalised are able to find a collective voice and visibility through the Internet. Instead of letting others speak for them, the Internet provided them a channel to share their stories, show the diversity of humanity and how different identities intersect with one another. One of the most noticeable examples is how women and LGBT people use the Internet as a way to present their sexuality and femininity on their own terms, taking pride of and celebrating them as strengths, in turn changing how we, as a society, view gender roles, sexuality and femininity.
For example, Lisbeth Salander is one of the few on-screen portrayals of female Internet users that embrace her stereotypes without stripping her humanity. She was unabashedly anti-social, prefers to go solo, presents herself with an eccentric look and refused to conform. She was strong yet vulnerable at times, brutal but with a sense of justice. She was the quintessential anti-hero that so many on-screen male characters are today. By not shying away from their stereotypes and taking ownership of them instead, those who are being stereotyped can take away the power from those who are stereotyping them. By being themselves unapologetically, they turn the tables on negative stereotyping and force society to rethink and redefine them as nuanced individuals with unique traits and characteristics.
Among the more than 500 examples of films and TV portrayal of online archetypes used by Rosewarne, vast majority of them are negative, demonising both the Internet and its users. Mass media has long been criticised for its portrayal of characters using lazy stereotypes, being sensationalist, exploiting the fear and misconception held by the public.
Some may argue that popular culture is simply reflecting the zeitgeist, showing the common beliefs held by society. However, popular culture also has the power to create zeitgeist, shaping and influencing how society sees different issues. And that is what different communities are demanding from the mass media through movements such as #OscarsSoWhite, #MeToo, and those demanding equal pay in the entertainment industry.
People are demanding not just diverse and nuanced representations of them on screen but also spotlighting the lack of diversity for the roles of directors, writers and producers. The demand is simple: humans are three-dimensional beings with complex emotions and diverse personalities. If the mass media is not capable to reflect that reality, then it’s time we create opportunities for those who can to take charge and create their own stories.
This book is highly recommended for anyone who is interested to understand how negative media stereotypes impact on Internet users. Rosewarne argued her case convincingly by presenting her research and documentation of films and TV shows in this book.
Note: This book is available for loan at the Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights (MCCHR)’s Resource Centre.