Figure 9. ON SEXUAL HARASSMENT
Commenter 1: um who cares... its a joke. get real get a life.
Sarcasm was a common rhetorical strategy employed by women within the comments sections, across all three websites. Although sarcasm when delivered verbally is marked by vocal intonation, rolled eyes, or other visual and aural cues, written sarcasm can sometimes be challenging to identify. Juanita Whalen, Penny M. Pexman, Alastair J. Gill, and Scott Nowson (2013) described verbal sarcasm in blogs as "language that is used to convey an intent that is counterfactual to the actual utterance," which is a definition that translates well to the comments sections (p. 562). In their study of the language used in blogs, Whalen et al. found that sarcasm was not commonly used, perhaps due to its status as one of the "more critical forms of verbal irony," and one that is riskier to employ in the absence of physical or aural cues (p. 566). When looking at the comments sections, however, sarcasm occurred in nearly one-third of the total comments left by women in response to sexism. In spaces where verbal irony is used as a challenge to existing power structures, perhaps the rhetorical impact of sarcasm is viewed as outweighing the risk of misinterpretation. Further, women in the comments sections signaled sarcasm through using verbal cues like "Yes," "Yeah," or "Yah," typically followed by exaggerated parody of a sexist comment; occasionally mentioning of their use of sarcasm; and often concluding their thought with a more serious remark.
One commenter, for example, responded to a sexist comment with, "yah bra, who cares about sexual discrimination and rape culture? its so funny. why dont you get real on facts and statistics before entering a grown up conversation." As can be seen in examples like this one, sarcasm can serve multiple functions as a response to sexism: sarcasm allows women to express their frustration with sexism, provides an opportunity to highlight the absurdity of a sexist stereotype, and sometimes enables women to deliver a parting shot as they exit a conversation. Susan C. Herring (1999) observed increased aggression in women's conversational styles as a response to sexist aggression; sarcasm has a similar rhetorical function within the comments sections. Women who began a conversation more neutrally tended to use sarcasm after commenters continued using sexist language, while some commenters used sarcasm preemptively, seeming to assume the comments were always already a space where combative language would be more effective.
In one of the few examples of women challenging sexism on Fox News, for example, commenter Lightning6 used sarcasm to communicate irritation with a sexist joke left by another commenter. The commenter ZeroPolitics wrote, "Hey wait a second…Prof. Carey might be onto something... women have periods and glaciers have periods too!.... (Ok to stop laughing now?)" Lightning6 responded with, "Well, I would stop laughing, except, I have not started yet. Still trying to find something funny in what you wrote." The use of sarcasm assisted in Lightning6's rejection of sexist humor. As is common in comments where sexist rhetoric has been challenged, the original commenter doubled down on his sexism, writing, "You must be on your period. Prof. Carey and I totally understand." Although Lightning6 registered frustration with the initial sexist comment, they offered no reply to the second use of sexism as a direct attack. Women tended to fall silent after offering a challenge to a sexist remark. While sarcasm helped point out the sexism in another comment, it did not often lead to further conversation.
Sarcasm may not always lead to continued discussion, but many women used sarcastic remarks to point out double standards and underscorethe absurdity of sexist assumptions. On the BuzzFeed article "Maryland Just Made Birth Control, Plan B, and Vasectomies Free," commenter Kristy Williams wrote that women should be "embarrassed" to have contraception covered through government programs, concluding, "we're not even able to manage our own fertility without handouts from taxpayers via the ‘man.'" In response, Jen Strand wrote,
Yo girl, I'm really happy that you're able to will away pregnancies on your own without the help of a medical intervention, but those of us mortals over here who are tired of shelling out every month because our medical necessity is considered a luxury are gonna go ahead and be stoked that our needs are being taken seriously.
Here, Strand used sarcasm to challenge Williams' statement about fertility management. The humorous suggestion that Williams, in contrast to "those of us mortals over here," is able to control her fertility through force of will provides contrast to the real issue the article covered, which is that contraception will no longer be a luxury medical option. Sarcasm served a useful function in this conversation by both mocking a sexist stereotype and redirecting the discussion to a more relevant point.
In addition to redirecting discussion, commenters frequently employed sarcasm as a method of ending a discussion or signaling their exit from it. On the Fox News article "Why Women Fake Orgasms," commenter Degirljones observed some women might fake orgasms "because we're bored and it helps men finish faster." Commenter Jack54 replied, "Is that why you turned to women to satisfy you?" Degirljones shut down the discussion with her deadpan reply, "Only part time." Her reply acknowledged the homophobic nature of Jack54's comment by playing it up, leaving him with little room to continue the discussion. In this instance, sarcasm simultaneously ended the discussion and presents a challenge to the homophobic sexism Jack54 employed against Degirljones. A sarcastic remark again indicated there is no need for further discussion, and succeeded in stopping the conversation.
Some women also entered discussions sarcastically, positioning the comments sections as a place where sexist responses are inevitable. On BuzzFeed, one woman bookended her explanation of a problem with sarcasm, starting off with, "I'll be the dope who draws fire" and concluding with, "I'm out. Flame on." Sarcasm became anticipatory self-defense, since the commenter suspected she would be targeted solely for raising an objection to sexism. Opening and closing her comment with sarcasm allowed her to build a buffer around the text while still making her point, both acknowledging and preparing for the perceived hostility of the comments sections. Women's sarcastic comments thus represented an accommodation to the more confrontational style of conversation typically accompanying sexist rhetoric. Entering a discussion already anticipating that challenging sexist language will be an act that "draws fire" indicated that the perception of the comments sections as sexist is pervasive, and that some women responded to sexism by accommodating that environmental hazard while finding ways to make themselves heard.
Sarcasm was often a useful rhetorical tool for women in the comments sections of the news articles, appearing in nearly one out of three responses to sexist remarks. As Marvin K. L. Ching (1999) wrote, sarcasm as a form of verbal irony can be a strategy for "confronting the antagonist if on an equal plane or if truth is necessary for correction" (p. 139). The comments sections served—in some ways—as an equalizing plane where the possibility of making a contribution is open to nearly anyone. The presence of sexism, however, is a force that reinforced preexisting social inequalities, and the use of sarcasm may function as a form of correction to what women in the comments see as what Ching called "an unbearable wrong" (p. 139). Although sarcasm carried the risk of being misunderstood, especially without the presence of tone or body language to support the communication of irony, women's frequent use of sarcasm in the comments sections pointed to its importance as a strategy.
The following quotations and figures contain conversations pulled from the comments sections included in this study. Some of the comments are those analyzed in the preceding paragraphs; I chose the others to additionally demonstrate the rhetorical principle discussed in this section. All comments have been transcribed as they originally appeared including typos or idiosyncratic spellings, although some have been shortened for the sake of brevity.
Commenter names and avatars or profile images have been removed; pseudonyms have occasionally been added for clarity.
Figure 12. ON BIRTH CONTROL
Commenter 1: Women all across America should be embarassed. Apparently we're not even able to manage our own fertility without handouts from taxpayers via the "man."
Commenter 2 replying to Commenter 1: Yo girl, I'm really happy that you're able to will away pregnancies on your own without the help of medical intervention, but those of us mortals over here who are tired of shelling out every month because our medical necessity is considered a luxury are gonna go ahead and be stoked that our needs are being taken seriously.
Figure 13. ON FAKING IT
Commenter 1: [Women might fake orgasms] Because we're bored and it helps men finish faster.
Commenter 2 replying to Commenter 1: Is that why you turned to women to satisfy you?
Commenter 2 replying to Commenter 1: Only part time
Figure 14. ON ABORTION
Science Matters: GOP JUST AREN'T HAPPY UNLESS THEY DESTROY EVERYTHING THEY TOUCH WITH INCESSANT LIES & VIOLATING IGNORANCE
punishabortionmoms replying to Science Matters: Man you are the reason abortion is legal. BWAHAHAHAHAHA Your mother must have been Republican ... she let you live. If your mother was a Democrat you would be in some garbage dumb in bits and pieces ... basically land fill.
Cindy9402 replying to punishabortionmoms: Right, dude you have it right. (sarc) Republican women never take birth control, Republican women never use the morning after pill and Republican women/couples never have abortions. Keep repeating that over and over and over. Someday you will believe it.