The Curious Case of Chelsea Cain, Part 2: Narrative Trumps Facts

Who needs facts? We’ve got a narrative to push!

On Wednesday I published a post about the circumstances surrounding writer Chelsea Cain’s departure from Twitter. The prevailing narrative at that time was that Cain had been chased off Twitter by harassment from an army of misogynistic trolls. I dug into the matter a bit and found no evidence of any sort of harassment or abuse. Since then, there have been a few developments.

First, someone finally managed to produce a screen shot of some of the tweets in question. And yes, they’re pretty gross:



I’ll let the reader decide whether these tweets amount to harassment, but I can certainly understand why you wouldn’t want this stuff showing up in your feed.

A more important development, in my mind, is Chelsea Cain’s post explaining exactly what happened. It’s well worth a read. Some key quotes (I’ve bolded some text for emphasis):

The first person I blocked, several months ago, had this to say:

“Thanks, @chelseacain for ruining my favorite character with your feminist crap.”

I got used to a certain level of take-down tweets after that.  Every time an issue came out.  I’d get lots of love and support.  And a handful of people who seem to thrive off making sure strangers feel hated. I guess it’s a way of being seen.  It’s not different than what most comic book writers deal with, especially female ones.  The tweets that bothered me were never the ones concerned with content; they were the ones that questioned my right to write comics at all, and were disgusted by the idea of a female hero having her own series.

The next morning, yesterday, I woke up to find that my Twitter feed had exploded….  I saw a few of them – a lot of support, a lot of people yelling at one another – a lot of people mad at me for being too quick on the block button or too critical of comic book readers or being too feminist.  A lot of them just seemed mad at women in general.

But know that I did not leave Twitter because of rape threats or because someone had posted my address, or any of the truly vile tactics you hear about.  I left Twitter because of the ordinary daily abuse that I decided I didn’t want to live with anymore. The base level of casual crassness and sexism.

Sure, by the time I deactivated my account on Thursday morning, the whole thing had imploded.  And I bet that some of the thousands of posts on my feed were really really vicious.  But I don’t know.  Because you know what?  I didn’t read them.  That’s the power we have, right?  If a stranger yells at you on the street?  You walk away.

Let me be clear: I did not leave Twitter because I was trolled; I was trolled because I said I was going to leave Twitter.  

I left Twitter because, in the end, all the good stuff about Twitter didn’t make up for all the bad stuff.

Chelsea Cain left Twitter not because an army of misogynist trolls chased her away; she left because the positive didn’t outweigh the negative. Contrast that with the line her self-appointed white knights were pushing:









ComicsBeat declared:

Bestselling author Chelsea Cain driven off Twitter by harassment from comics “fans” approvingly quotes Jennifer de Guzman saying:

[Chelsea Cain] has been driven off Twitter by misogynists in comics. There are women who have been driven out of comics entirely. Comics, you’re a problem.

The Daily Dot states:

Marvel writer driven off Twitter by sexist harassment

adding that

Comics fans and creators are saying that the industry has become a toxic environment.
Geekiary declares:
Chelsea Cain Hounded Off Twitter After Feminist Mockingbird Cover

Buzzfeed dramatically relates:

Woman Writer Was Trolled So Badly, She Left Twitter


The problem with all these stories? If we take Chelsea Cain at her word, these are completely incorrect characterizations of what happened.

Again, Cain herself states:

Let me be clear: I did not leave Twitter because I was trolled.

I’m not sure how she could be any clearer. Trolls did not chase her off Twitter.

Are there misogynist trolls on Twitter? Absolutely. Did some of these trolls direct nasty tweets toward Chelsea Cain? Undoubtedly. Did Cain receive an overwhelming number of abusive tweets? No, she states herself that the majority of the tweets she saw were positive and that the problem was “a handful” of hateful people. Most importantly: did these trolls chase Cain off Twitter? No, they did not.

So how do we explain this almost immediate, lockstep reaction from those covering the comic book industry? Well, the obvious answer is that this story was essentially written before Mockingbird was even cancelled. It’s the same story that entertainment journalists (and I use the term loosely) have been telling about Gamergate, the Sad Puppies/Hugo Awards, the Ghostbusters reboot, and a hundred other lesser-known incidents. Anytime the dominant progressive/social justice/feminist agenda in the entertainment industry is attacked, the media responds with these predictable, fill-in-the-blanks stories about right-wingers, misogynist trolls, shitlords, and the “toxic culture” that is threatening the moral and intellectual purity of whatever niche of the industry we happen to be talking about. It’s vapid nonsense, but every nontroversy they can make up becomes more “evidence” for the narrative.

Let me be clear about one thing: Chelsea Cain does not owe me or anyone an explanation for her decision to leave Twitter. She can do whatever she wants, and it’s a perfectly reasonable decision to leave Twitter because of all the negativity one encounters there. Hell, I’ve thought about calling it quits more than once myself and I generally don’t have to deal with any overt sexual harassment (unless being called “bald” by unimaginative trolls counts as sexual). That said, I think the explanation she gave was classy and informative. Kudos to her for not giving into the temptation to lash out or capitalize on the controversy.

The problem I have is not with Cain, but with her overly aggressive–and frankly mean-spirited and dishonest–defenders. These people made up a lie and used Chelsea Cain to promulgate it.

Now you might say, “So what? Whatever happened with Chelsea Cain, the fact is that this stuff happens all the time. At least we’re talking about the issue of harassment now.”

I have several responses to this (in addition to the obvious answer that generally speaking, it’s preferable for media outlets and influential people to tell the truth rather than lie):

  1. It invalidates Chelsea Cain as a person. Most feminists would presumably agree that if Cain claims to have been harassed and I deny that claim, I am invalidating her as a person. But then doesn’t it follow that if Cain claims not to have been harassed and I claim that she has been, I am also invalidating her? How does it help the feminist cause to essentially claim that Cain is lying about what happened to her?
  2. It exacerbates conflict rather than promotes solutions. Every fandom has misogynists and trolls. In comics as well as probably just about everywhere else, they are a small minority. Pretending that there are armies of hateful trolls ready to pounce on any woman who dares speak up on social media doesn’t help anyone. Nor does making absurd statements like “industry has become a toxic environment” or “Comics, you’re a problem”. There’s zero evidence for these claims, and even if they were true, such generalizations don’t lend themselves do any solutions other than burning the whole industry down. That works out well for the perpetually aggrieved, but not for anybody who is actually interested in reading comics.
  3. It stifles valid criticism. It amazes me that I have to say this, but someone tweeting “The overt feminist message in your comic book ruined the experience for me” is not harassment or abuse. It’s perfectly valid criticism from a reader. You’re within your rights as a creator to ignore, ridicule or argue against that viewpoint. Claiming that such criticism is “harassment”, however, is silly. If you publish a comic in which the title character wears a t-shirt reading “Ask me about my feminist agenda,” well, brace yourself for this: you may get some comments about your feminist agenda.
  4. It causes people to greet other tales of harassment and abuse with skepticism. You don’t help real victims of abuse by spreading bullshit stories.
  5. It hands a victory to the trolls. If there’s one winner in this scenario, it’s that asshole who sent that gross picture of Mockingbird dead in an alley. For the rest of his life, that guy is going to be bragging that he chased that feminist bitch who ruined Mockingbird off Twitter. And that story is going to embolden more trolls to try to do the same. Again, let me be clear: this is not Chelsea Cain’s fault. I don’t know if she ever even saw that tweet. The people I blame are the ones pushing the narrative that Cain was scared off Twitter by trolls. Congratulations, folks: you made it look like any woman can be chased off Twitter by a few nasty tweets. You may want to think about that the next time you’re tempted to white knight in the service of your feminist agenda.

Facts matter. Truth matters. Individuals matter. Before you use someone’s experience to push an agenda, make sure you understand what really happened and that you’re being honest and fair to everyone involved. Otherwise, you’re the one creating the “toxic culture” you’re so worried about.


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5 Comments on The Curious Case of Chelsea Cain, Part 2: Narrative Trumps Facts

  1. If you look at this many articles from media covering comics was about how there is a trade being published next week. This makes me feel Marvel helped push this out for free advertising.

  2. Main takeaway for me from this well-researched and well-written series (thanks!) is that an author/creator cannot determine fans’ reactions. Also that the Internet has big pockets of crazy.

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