August 1, 2013

The Cambridge Companion to Trolls: Mary Beard responds to offensive tweets


Mary Beard

Meet Mary Beard, Cambridge classicist and troll slayer. She first found herself battling sexist trolls in January, after appearing on the BBC program Question Time and briefly addressing issues of immigration. When another troll struck this week, Beard responded on Twitter—and her actions have set an encouraging example for the growing number of women who face vicious harassment online.

Last January anonymous users bombarded Beard with abusive comments on social media, calling her “an arrogant twat” and much worse—I have no desire to copy-and-paste the stuff here. “The misogyny here is truly gobsmacking…It would be quite enough to put many women off appearing in public, contributing to political debate, especially as all of this comes up on Google,” she wrote on her blog.

This Monday, when a troll subsequently identified as Oliver Rawlings called the scholar a “filthy old slut” on Twitter, Beard retweeted the comment for all of her 44,736 followers to see, calling him out publicly. “I will not be terrorised,” she said.

Supporters rallied to castigate the 20-year-old “public school boy”—as the Daily Mail characterized him—who then deleted his tweet and begged pardon. “I sincerely apologise for my trolling. I was wrong and very rude. Hope this can be forgotten and forgiven,” he wrote, and later, “I feel this had been a good lesson for me. Thanks 4 showing me the error of my ways.”

“It is a tough call. I have increasingly opted for name and shame. It has to be outed,” Beard said, defending her response. “I have a thick skin and, in the end, speculation on the size of my vagina doesn’t move me half as much as worrying about the next chapter of my book I’m supposed to write. But then I’m lucky,” she wrote in January.

Beard is lucky. Not every woman has a Wikipedia page dedicated to her renowned scholarship topping a Google search for her name—and certainly not every woman can rely on the Daily Mail to save her from the “slut” label. But this week Beard set a helpful precedent for scores of women dealing with the same species of online sexism. Until there’s an “abuse button” to click, “retweet” will do the trick.


Abigail Grace Murdy is a former Melville House intern.