Skip to main content

When is the last time you were told to shut up? If you are a woman – or even a girl – who spends time online, chances are pretty good that you have been delivered this instruction. Or other taunts meant to silence you – to shut you up.

It is estimated that 85 per cent of women and girls globally have experienced online harassment. And it is not taken seriously enough.

A new Canadian film, Backlash: Misogyny in the Digital Age, argues – correctly – that the nasty comments are attempts to send women into retreat; to keep them out of professional, political and academic spaces, where men had enjoyed easy domination for ages.

Stay in your place: the kitchen, the bedroom. Stay in your lane. As the musical group the Chicks were told when they dared utter a political view: shut up and sing.

That was back in the George W. Bush days. Things have gotten much worse since Donald Trump entered the chat; his crude insults emboldened other misogynists to chime in.

Backlash, co-directed by Léa Clermont-Dion and Guylaine Maroist, has its English-language premiere in Toronto Friday. In its examples of harassment, the term “shut up” is employed repeatedly.

Kiah Morris, a Black Democratic politician in Vermont, endured online vitriol for years, culminating in a home invasion. It was all meant to scare her, to silence her. And it did. The harassment pushed her to leave her job.

In Quebec, Laurence Gratton was stalked with anonymous Facebook messages while studying to become a teacher. It became clear that the messages were from someone in her cohort at the Université de Montreal. The messages demeaned her, saying she was talking too much in class, asking dumb questions.

“I never raised my hand in that class again,” she says in the film.

When she and other harassed classmates approached the then-dean, they were told her job was to run the university, not Facebook. When the harassment escalated to death threats, the police said there wasn’t anything they could do.

The abuse can be soul-destroying, life-altering – even fatal, as we saw with Rehtaeh Parsons, the bullied Nova Scotia teen who died by suicide. But the harassment itself is violent, and for too long it has been dismissed as something that just happens on the internet. In 2023, our online lives are completely tied up with our IRL existence.

At the recent Golden Globe Awards, people cheered when Everything Everywhere All at Once star Michelle Yeoh told whoever was behind the piano music to “shut up please,” when the show tried to play her off the stage.

For me, the “shut up” grated, even with Ms. Yeoh’s “please” at the end. (“Please,” incidentally, is never the word that follows “shut up” in Backlash.) Yes, there is a powerful turning-of-the-tables narrative in Ms. Yeoh, a 60-year-old Asian-American actor who has experienced racism, ageism and misogyny, employing the term with a golden statue in her hand.

Then again, the pianist, Chloe Flower, is also a woman, an American of Asian descent. And that night, Ms. Flower took a lot of abuse online, even though the wrap-up music was pre-recorded and not her call. When she became aware of the growing backlash, she sent out an explanatory tweet and put her phone on Do Not Disturb mode.

I think I found the comment particularly triggering because I had watched Backlash earlier that day, with its real-life silencing horror stories. I also have a few of my own.

On the eve of the anniversary of the École Polytechnique massacre, the producers of Backlash, along with Ms. Gratton, presented a petition to the Quebec National Assembly calling for mandatory online violence training for police; and for the Quebec government to pressure Ottawa to adopt a law forcing social media companies to crack down on hate speech.

The federal Liberals promised protection from “online harms” during the last election campaign after a previous version of such legislation died when the last election was called. It has not yet introduced the new bill, but has established an expert advisory group and has been reviewing similar legislation in the EU, U.K. and elsewhere ahead of a bill expected this year. A Globe editorial noted that this work is “easier said than done” and that a previous approach was hit with “enormous blowback,” including fears about freedom of speech.

It’s complex, yes. But the issue must be taken seriously – by governments, police, universities, social media platforms and society in general. Women who dare to practise politics, journalism or medicine – or simply express an opinion – shouldn’t have to endure this. Do not disturb us! And if you do, there should be consequences.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe