In the wild west of the internet, it can be easy to feel jaded. Don’t read the comments, don’t feed the trolls, spectators say—just watch your unlikely animal friend videos and move on with your life. Unfortunately, if you’re a woman, that’s easier said than done. The digital age has opened women up to a new world of misogyny, from revenge porn to digital stalking, and it doesn’t just affect the women of Gamergate. In her sobering new documentary Netizens, Cynthia Lowen breaks down this oft-ignored issue with grace and acumen.
The film centers on Feminist Frequency creator Anita Sarkeesian, victims’ rights lawyer Carrie Goldberg, and aerialist Tina Reine as they all cope with and fight against online abuse. Though Sarkeesian’s is the most high-profile case, as she was (and still is) one of the main targets of Gamergate, their stories are united by astounding trauma and resilience.
Goldberg, for instance, became the target of online stalking and constant abusive messages after ending a four-month relationship. Standing above a box marked “tainted” full of clothes and jewelry from the time of her harassment, she talks about her experience with a cocktail of rawness and oh-well acerbity perfected by centuries of compartmentalizing women. No lawyers wanted to take her case, she explains, so she became the kind of lawyer she needed. Today, Goldberg is that lawyer to all kinds of women facing abuse—including Harvey Weinstein accuser Paz de la Huerta. She continues to advocate for laws criminalizing digital abuse and revenge porn.
Rather than falling back on salacious, true crime TV–style rehashings, director Cynthia Lowen engages with her subjects intimately and empathetically, engendering the kind of trust that this subject matter demands. Sarkeesian, who generally keeps her private life out of the public eye (with good reason: detractors have threatened to kill her family), paws through old high school journals under Lowen’s lens. “That was fucking weird,” Sarkeesian observes after attempting a selfie video thanking fans of Feminist Frequency. Reine, whose ex-boyfriend’s internet libel kept her from pursuing a career for five years, starts out by talking about the facts of her harassment: the cop who told her her situation “sound[ed] like a really bad breakup,” the job that unduly fired her. By the film’s end, she’s unafraid to share the deeply personal story at the root of her abuse.
In a panel after Netizens’ Tribeca Film Festival premiere, Lowen said she took her responsibility as its director “very seriously.” That compassion lies behind every frame, from Netizens’ all-female crew to its informative, forceful story. Not only does this film explore a vital and oft-ignored social issue, it does so with the respect its victims deserve.