Cynthia Lowen’s Netizens is about three women whose lives have been profoundly affected by cyber sexual harassment. Making its U.S. premiere at Tribeca Film Festival this week, the documentary details the various forms these crimes take, including cyber-stalking, the posting of non-consensual pornography and character attacks. The latter led Tina, a successful businesswoman and one of Lowen’s subjects, to be rebuffed by potential employers, including J.P. Morgan. Through intimate and often moving testimony, as well as brief interviews with experts, Lowen crafts an absorbing documentary that is part biography and part discourse. She does so in a cinéma vérité style, with a minimal use of music, leaving viewers with the feeling that they are in the same room with her subjects.
In the opening scene of Netizens, Carrie Goldberg, a New York City lawyer and another of the three women profiled the documentary, is investigating a rape that was filmed and posted on the Internet. The 13-year-old victim was forced to leave school in the aftermath. The perpetrator, the same age as the girl, was not reprimanded for his crime. Goldberg, who was once the target of cyber harassment, says that she had to frame her own case against the perpetrator because of the lack of knowledge and experience on the part of law enforcement and legal authorities. She points out that New York state has no laws preventing cyber crimes like those suffered by her client. Her law firm now uses privacy statutes to try such cases.
Anita Sarkeesian, Lowen’s third subject, is the creator of the popular web series “Feminist Frequency” as well as the more recent “Ordinary Women,” a women’s history and biography project. Sarkeesian endures constant cyber harassment and death threats. The documentary depicts the security staff and bomb sniffing dogs that precede her to a speaking engagement. Sarkeesian observes that at times she becomes so habituated to the proliferation of misogynistic comments on her social media accounts that she feels no emotions at all. Her testimony in the documentary includes a moment when, in speaking about misogyny, her voice seems to rise an octave, and her incisive humor fails her. The persistence of misogyny before the Internet era, she says, is what inspired the stories of female iconoclasts and rebels in “Ordinary Women.”
One of Lowen’s experts on cyber harassment, Soraya Chemaly, director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project, points to research that underpins some of the documentary’s discourse. Recent findings confirm what women have long felt: that gender disparity, the sort that exists in Silicon Valley and in Tina’s milieu of finance and banking—in which the workplace is 80 percent male and 20 percent female—are hotbeds of sexual harassment of all kinds, including online harassment. Danielle Keats Citron, a scholar and the author of Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, explains that cyber crimes have forced women to shut down their social media accounts; she also echoes Chemaly’s concerns that attacks on women have the overall effect of silencing them and of confining them to their homes.
Shortly after a former boyfriend posted false stories of her past as a prostitute, Tina left her job and began sleeping 16 hours a day. She says she stopped attending social events for fear of meeting people who would then discover the stories that were the first to pop up in any Internet search of her name. For five years, Tina worked at low-wage jobs because no one in finance would hire her; finally, she secured a position in her field through the efforts of friends who testified to potential employers about the cyber harassment she endured. Her legal case against her attacker ended with an agreement that he relinquish control of the accounts he had hacked and provide the passwords he had used, allowing Tina to remove his incriminating tales. In a particularly bitter reflection of her plight, she twice points out that her attacker never suffered any repercussions.
One of the most poignant scenes in Netizens is when Goldberg allows Lowen into a storage unit that she has not opened in two years. Boxes are labeled “Tainted” and “Bad Year.” As the lawyer extracts the contents, she recalls her court case against her attacker, a boyfriend of four months. She comes across pairs of wedges that she says she bought for her court appearances on the advice of counsel. Throughout the film, even when she is in jeans investigating the child rape, notebook in hand, Goldberg wears spike heels or high-heeled boots. She will never wear the wedges again, she says; she feels uncomfortable in anything but heels. Near the end of the documentary, while gazing out the window of her new office, Goldberg points to the various courts below that trace the history of her transformation, from a fledgling lawyer and plaintiff in an harassment case, to a successful attorney with an expanding staff that prosecutes harassment cases—for a class of cyber crimes largely unrecognized in case law, or by state and federal legislators.