On June 23 of this year, Canadian writer and activist Rayne Fisher-Quann tweeted a warning that Ottessa Moshfegh, the writer who became famous around the world after the 2018 publication of her book My Year of Rest and Relaxation, was about to be “woman’d.”
Fisher-Quann defines woman’d, a term she coined herself, as a situation in which everyone stops liking a certain woman at the same time and starts to criticize her, especially on the internet. In a subsequent article for i-D magazine, the writer expanded on her concept. She explained that the online fame of high-profile women often has a very specific life cycle, in which they are elevated and then destroyed. Fisher-Quann observes that this process has been repeated time and again with different female celebrities.
Ottessa moshfegh is on the verge of getting woman’d I can feel it (woman’d is what I call it when everyone stops liking a woman at the same time)— rayne fisher-quann (@raynefq) June 22, 2022
It all starts with a woman’s rise to success. She could be a singer, an actress or any other public figure: a politician, writer, film director, etc. At first, the newcomer appears young and refreshing, and her image is profitable. Her face on a magazine cover increases the number of copies sold, a post about her on social media receives far more “likes” than any other, and she is compared to stars of the past: the new Audrey Hepburn, the heir to Amy Winehouse... Her fan base expands exponentially, spurred on by the media. Everything she does or says – from a funny video on TikTok to the book she has on her nightstand – is well received and helps cement her fame.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when that changes, but inevitably something happens at some point, usually at the height of the star’s popularity. Maybe she inadvertently makes a mistake, like not greeting a child waiting for her at the door of her concert (probably because she doesn’t even see him), or she posts an unfunny joke on Instagram. It could be that someone on social media points out that she walks funny, or that she’s experienced mental health problems, or simply that “she was way cooler when she wasn’t THAT famous.”
That’s when people start to turn their backs on the woman and criticize her for no clear reason. The media, which had previously praised her, reports that people on social media now hate her. To illustrate her drop in popularity, they publish a selection of the wittiest tweets directed at her, which further amplifies the criticism. The former star has just fallen from grace; put differently, she has just been woman’d.
If this does not permanently end her stardom, maybe after some time has gone by, a documentary about her career will rekindle her former fans’ love for her, or nostalgia will overpower everything else, and she will make a triumphant comeback.
By now, many readers will have identified several examples of women who have gone through this process. Britney Spears’s rise to fame and subsequent destruction (and later comeback) is perhaps one of the best examples of this phenomenon, but there are many more.
Thanks to films such as The Princess Diaries and The Devil Wears Prada, Anne Hathaway was one of Hollywood’s most adored actresses during the first decade of the 2000s. But one day, after receiving a slew of awards for her role as Fantine in Les Misérables (2012), people started to criticize the actress for things like sounding too fake in her Oscar acceptance speech and for saying that she cried when she saw herself on screen. The vitriol started as a whisper, then it exploded, went global and even led to a hashtag: #Hathahate. In 2013, The New York Times published an article titled “Do We Really Hate Anne Hathaway?” In the piece, the actress’s haters said that they loathed her for “being so perfect that she’s not a normal person” and called her “insufferable” for calculating her every move. Then, after being deprived of her erstwhile fans’ love for a time, Hathaway’s spectacular appearance at the Cannes Film Festival last May brought her back into the good graces of the media and fans alike.
Millie Bobby Brown, who became a precocious international star at the age of 12 with her role as Eleven in the series Stranger Things, is another example. As a child, she appeared on magazine covers and was hypersexualized in the media. Social media users began to hate her when she was only 14 years old. They attributed homophobic tweets to her that she had not written, while a growing number of YouTubers started uploading content that criticized her for no good reason. They said she posted too many videos of herself singing while driving, that she was “cringe,” and that she had made too much money too fast. Simply put, it seemed that hating Millie Bobby Brown had gone viral.
Fisher-Quann’s article includes an important caveat: being woman’d differs from being criticized. Any woman who is a public figure can receive well-reasoned negative criticism without it posing a problem from a feminist perspective. Indeed, women deserve to have their work evaluated by the same standards as any other artist, regardless of their gender. The problem is that rational critiques are often used to justify visceral and unwarranted criticism. An essential element of being woman’d is that one is never judged reasonably.
In Fisher-Quann’s initial tweet, bad reviews of Ottessa Moshfegh’s new work, Lapvona, seemed to give rise to the sense that “if this thoughtful article reviews it, the smart thing to do must be to hate it.” In Moshfegh’s case, a legitimate critique caused baseless contempt. Any writer can publish a bad book, but that should not arouse general hatred for the author as an individual.
Thus, being woman’d results from a trap that’s nearly impossible for women to avoid. In addition, the intensity and endurance of the hate on social media and the demands for high-profile women to achieve unattainable perfection makes it even more likely for that to happen.
Hatred directed toward women is an epidemic on social media
We are so accustomed to successful female performers and professionals being subjected to hate and harassment on social media that it seems inevitable. The Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) conducted a study titled Hidden Hate: How Instagram Fails to Act on 9 in 10 Reports of Misogyny in DMs in which it analyzed thousands of direct messages received by five well-known women on Instagram: actress Amber Heard, TV host Rachel Riley, activist Jamie Klingler, journalist Bryony Gordon and creator of the South Asian culture magazine Burnt Roti, Sharan Dhaliwal.
In total, 8,717 direct messages were examined. One in 15 violated Instagram’s rules prohibiting misogyny, homophobia, racism, nudity or sexual activity, graphic violence and threats of violence. Even worse, in 90% of the cases, Instagram did nothing to prevent or punish those posts.
An impossible standard to reach
In addition to the brutal hatred women face on social media, a special form of dehumanization prompts us to believe that female icons are perfect, almost divine women who can do no wrong, but at some point, they stop being faultless.
For that reason, many famous women have chosen to reveal their imperfections before they are knocked off their pedestals. Doing that is both shocking and unnecessary. After all, humans have never been known as perfect creatures. The fact that women feel like they have to admit that they will make mistakes in the future is as ridiculous: it’s like having to confess that they sometimes eat or go to the bathroom.
Women as objects of consumption
The main reason for such robust online vitriol toward famous women is unsurprising. Through “womanization,” they become objects of consumption to serve an industry that takes advantage of them: first of their success and then of the contempt directed at them.
In the past, such falls from grace sold millions of newspapers and magazines; they filled hours upon hours of television, which viewers around the world happily devoured. With the advent of the internet, such women now appear in gossip blogs and digital publications. Finally, they reach social media, where the ads mean big profits for massive multinational corporations such as Meta, Google and Twitter.
Until somebody acts, women who stand out in any field will always run the risk of being woman’d, locked in a horrible fantasy from which it is difficult to escape. Their real merits and flaws won’t matter much. They will have no choice but to wait for possible redemption to come one day.