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How gen Z women are tackling gaslighting and abuse one TikTok at a time

By Eve Hebron

Sep 17, 2021

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“My boyfriend consistently tells me I’m crazy and paranoid for insisting he’s cheating,” said Emely Zambrano in a TikTok video. Despite her boyfriend’s comments, Zambrano had discovered inappropriate messages between him and three other people and decided to print these conversations. After doing so, users could see Zambrano flicking through a wad of paper as thick as a novel, documenting every text, photo and “naughty part” sent to another woman by her supposedly loyal boyfriend. She then proceeds to plaster the “evidence,” page-by-page, on his bedroom wall until it’s completely doused in them.

Some may argue this is an extreme overreaction, or even ‘staged’ for views and likes. Regardless of whether it’s fake or real, the action itself portrays a deeper message about gaslighting and the measures some people have to put themselves through to tackle it.

Used to describe abusive behaviour, the term ‘gaslighting’ originates from the 1938 British play, Gas Light. A thriller, the play was later turned into a film in 1944, starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, and follows the manipulative ways in which a man convinces his wife that she is mentally unstable. Some may say it’s the true definition of a scary film. According to Clinical Psychologist, Doctor Anita Sanz, gaslighting can “strip a person of their core sense of themselves, leaving them feeling dependent upon the gaslighter to define reality and provide approval and confirmation of what is real.”

With the concept having an influence on the art world since the 1930s, it’s shocking that this behaviour is only beginning to be analysed within society. Long ago, it was decided (likely by men) that women were biologically weaker—both physically and mentally. That idea became so deep-rooted within our culture and media, that even today, women have to literally fight it. From Sylvia Plath to pop star sensation (among other fabulous things) Taylor Swift, throughout history, the media has deemed these women as ‘difficult’.

Despite winning the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and being a leading figure in advancing the genre of confessional poetry, more often than not Plath is remembered, pretty negatively, as the woman who put her head in an oven due to her husband’s infidelity issues.

Meanwhile, Swift has been described as evoking a “cloying irritation” by media outlets and is constantly analysed by pop-culture websites creepily obsessed with her love life, despite being currently one of the most successful musicians in the world. Naturally, in her defence, Swift released the song ‘mad woman’ on her album folklore, where she sings “Every time you call me crazy, I get more crazy. What about that?” As Swift points out, continuously convincing an individual that they’re losing their mind could—surprise, surprise—potentially lead them into thinking they’re actually going mad. In 2019, she told The Guardian that she was “literally about to break,” given the way that she has been treated. Swift is solid proof that the media’s gaslighting of women is still very real in 2021.

In a survey conducted by the Council of Europe (COE), it was found that 66 per cent of the British 16 to 18-year-old girls questioned had witnessed the use of sexist language at school. The prevalence of such adverse attitudes towards women in the spotlight—often fuelled by the internet—leaves no room to analyse why this behaviour is continuing to seep into our society.

Another staple of today’s society littering the internet is misogyny. There are, of course, examples of women attacking men online, and instances of men bullying each other, but the immense development of anonymous online abuse targeted towards women is worrying. From communities such as A Voice for Men to the creation of Facebook pages made in an attempt to seek “revenge” against ex-girlfriends, it could be argued that the internet is a catalyst for inequality.

A study conducted by Diane Felmlee, a professor of sociology at Penn State University, revealed that in just one week, 2.9 million tweets were located containing instances of gendered insults (such as ‘bitch’, ‘slut’ or ‘whore’). Our language subconsciously shapes our thoughts; gender-blind and discriminatory language reinforces sexist attitudes and behaviour. Felmlee argued that online aggression towards women aims to reinforce traditional feminine norms and stereotypes. Keeping that in mind, it’s only logical to wonder if gaslighting will ever become a thing of the past if these keyboard warriors continue to promote toxicity towards women.

Another survey conducted in the UK revealed that half of the gen Z men questioned believe feminism has gone too far, and there is growing concern that the early 2020s—with internet culture, widespread post-pandemic youth unemployment and isolation—could result in more people leaning to the far right.

But while the internet may be a breeding ground for hate, some people have been using it differently. In 2012, Laura Bates, a relatively unknown actor at the time, decided to set up a website to catalogue experiences of gender inequality. After experiencing several accounts of sexism on a day-to-day basis, Bates was curious to see how many other people had been through similar negative situations. She decided to set up a website to catalogue experiences of gender inequality, and the Everyday Sexism Project was born. After two years, the website had received 50,000 accounts of sexual harassment and discrimination—and it’s still growing.

Perhaps the pioneer of modern-day misogyny analysis, Bates was one of the first people to use the internet to spread the word with regards to how women are still being treated all over the world.  She was of course still deemed as “crazy,” “manipulative,” “a man-hater” and told to “shut up” by those online who disagreed with her. She was threatened with physical violence, rape and even death. Despite this, Bates has managed to shape current conversations surrounding such issues in the most unexpected way.

“His manipulation and gaslighting got so bad that I was questioning my reality,” Bea Dux said in a TikTok video. Dux confronted her boyfriend about cheating and told him that if he was lying about it, then she needed professional help for her apparent paranoia. “He was so kind,” she explained in a sarcastic tone, “He took me to the doctors, and I was put on medication for paranoia.” A year later, he casually told her he had been lying all along.

@itsbeadux

#stitch with @megan_boykoff and that’s that on ‘the nice guy’

♬ original sound - Bea Dux

Dux is one of the many young people using the video-sharing platform to raise awareness of gaslighting signs and traits of abusive behaviour. “Had I known the red flags or warning signs to be vigilant of, I probably never would have experienced half of the emotional abuse and general arseholery from previous partners,” Dux told Screen Shot when speaking about her life before discovering this online community. “Young women, non-binary babes, and male allies absolutely have the potential to change societal standards via such platforms, we’re already seeing it happening.”

In September 2018, TikTok was the most downloaded app on the US App Store and now has one of the tightest demographics of any social network. Its use by gen Zers and younger millennials illustrates how much of a tool the platform can be to educate and inform young people, and when used properly, to discuss and debate social issues.

“With TikTok, you’re able to present stories with warning signs in a comical way—which is far more relatable and memorable,” shared Dux. “Like all sectors of the internet, it has the potential to do great good and great evil… Stumble onto the wrong side of TikTok and you can find yourself lost in a world of negativity.  “But in general, I think it brings people together, giving those of all ages and backgrounds an opportunity to create and engage.”

Our Streets Now, the creation of two sisters, 21-year-old student Maya Tutton, and 15-year-old self-described intersectional feminist Gemma Tutton, is a campaign that works towards ending public sexual harassment. Based in the UK, it aims to do this via cultural and legislative change. The siblings used the internet to spread the word about their experiences in the world as young womenand how their lives are restricted by the fear of harassment.

The campaign’s Instagram page currently has over 52,000 followers, while its TikTok accountfeaturing witty, reactionary videos in response to issues such as catcalling and underage harassmentis growing rapidly with followers positively reacting and relating to such content.

@ourstreetsnow1

We are students not objects #fyp #foryou #studentsnotobjects #womenpower #violenceagainstwomen #notallmenbutallwomen #makeitmakesense

♬ original sound - itsjohnwalsh

“With the internet and social media, gen Z women have access to an unequalled amount of information and have the opportunity to learn about and connect with other women from all over the world,” said Hannah Kenney-Hodgson, Head of TikTok Content for Our Streets Now, when speaking to Screen Shot. “From this, a generation of women have been created who have enough empathy, knowledge and influence to create proper change,” she continued.

Kenney-Hodgson, who’s also a recent philosophy graduate from Cardiff University about to embark on a graduate diploma in law, thinks root causes of abuse can be flagged up via social media platforms before it’s too late, “TikTok has proven such an excellent platform for educating people about public sexual harassment (PSH) and increasing awareness of PSH as a form of gender-based violence.”

“We hope that by teaching young people about the root causes and impacts of PSH, we’ll be able to raise a generation of young people that are equipped to challenge harassment, empathise with those who experience it, and never become perpetrators. Given that 10 to 19-year-olds hold the largest age demographic on TikTok, the app has provided us with an excellent platform for working towards this aim.”

Like Bates, these young people aren’t “anti-men”—they want equality, respect and for social media to be used in a way that provides young women and people of marginalised genders a safe online space. “The reactions and campaigning from gen Z in response to the devastating cases of George Floyd and Sarah Everard, for instance, demonstrate how this generation have been using this tool to make the world better, showing older generations that silence is compliance, and speaking out in the face of injustice.”

In many ways, society has developed its opinion of women, to some extent at least. Thankfully, in today’s Western civilisation, there are no longer ‘insane asylums’ for ‘difficult women’ like there were in the 1800s, but the internet still poses a terrifying threat to anyone who doesn’t identify as a white, biological male. Incelism or ‘involuntary celibacy’ culture is on the rise, with online radicalisation being the main cause of this, and attacks of terror from such groups are becoming more common. But using online platforms and tools in a positive way could help combat this. Dux also noted how the number of people doing so is also growing. “There are teenagers and octogenarians alike with millions of followers [on TikTok],” she added. “It’s kind of brilliant to see!”

“The last ten years have demonstrated just how much influence social media has allowed women to have over important societal issues,” Kenney-Hodgson said. “Young female activists like Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai, for instance, have more Instagram followers than many political leaders (including our own Prime Minister). You no longer have to have a private education, middle-class background or a seat in parliament to have your say on issues such as racial or gender equality. What you need is a passion to help others and the determination to speak out when things aren’t right.”

@thetherapygal

The opposite of sensitive is insensitive so byeeee 👋🏼 #therapy #mentalhealth #gaslighting

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