What Does The Columnist Have to Say about What It Means to Be Online as a Female Journalist?

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What Does <i>The Columnist</i> Have to Say about What It Means to Be Online as a Female Journalist?

Note: Beware of spoilers for The Columnist. Be sure to check out Paste’s full review by Natalia Keogan here.

I watched The Columnist with the benefit of five years of journalism experience during which my job turned me into a minor local public figure with all the responsibilities and pressures that come with that, all for the sky-high salary of $32,000 a year in 2008 money (and 2009, and 2010, and 2011 money, because I did not get a raise). The Dutch film, which made its U.S. debut earlier this month, follows Amsterdam newspaper columnist Femke Boot (Katja Herbers) as she begins to respond to the relentless online harassment she faces for her progressive feminism with murder.

As a local reporter, my desk phone number and my work email address ran under my stories every single day for five years, in an age before the widespread adoption of Twitter and before many reporters had grown more comfortable with the medium. Occasionally my visibility would lead to some truly unpleasant and uncalled-for interactions with folks—the random guy who came in to yell at me about some construction site, the anonymous letters from a crank who didn’t like how he imagined I’d interpreted the news stories that I’d barely even registered writing.

What was entirely absent from my career was anything approaching the kind of obsessive stalking and harassment that women online or in public journalism report regularly. Interested in what women in journalism might think about the movie, I invited two friends and former colleagues to join me in speaking about it. Ariel Van Cleave is a senior editor for Chicago’s NPR affiliate, WBEZ, and Andrea Zelinski reports on the Texas state legislature for Texas Monthly.

I spoke with them about their impressions of the film and their experiences as women working in journalism in a time when reporters are expected to make themselves more and more visible online. We talked about Femke’s utter impunity while carrying out her middle-finger-collecting murder spree, her poor work ethic, and the movie’s recurring arachnid imagery. The rest of our conversation is edited for length and clarity.

Kenneth Lowe: I want to start with both of your experiences as female journalists, since this is the viewpoint I can’t personally bring to the topic here. The film deals very much with stalking and harassment specifically. Have either of you experienced stuff that rises to this level in your careers?

Andrea Zelinski: Not as much, but I stopped reading the comments several years ago. I still occasionally look, but only after the story has sat for a while and I can distance myself from it.

One thing about the hate mail and harassment in The Columnist is that it is very purposefully characterized as sexualized. Have either of you experienced things that rise to that level?

Zelinski: I still at times have uncomfortable interactions with people, whether sources or noticing a comment on stories, but it’s been tame. I have other colleagues who deal with this more than I do. I’m no expert on why people are hateful, but I think one of the reasons is they’re doing bold reporting or covering topics that more lend themselves to attracting people itching to cross that line.

Ariel Van Cleave: I have heard a lot from female journalists I work with. None of it was stalking or harassment similar to this film, but things like male sources calling late at night for non-work-related matters. There would be somebody sliding into DMs, putting the reporter into an uncomfortable position. Overall, I’ve not had to experience that, very luckily.

So a lot of unwanted advances?

Van Cleave: Yes.

Zelinski: At one point, I had to have a frank conversation about boundaries with a source who kept hitting on me.

The film opens with Femke speaking on the news in a sort of point-counterpoint format about the abuse she gets online as a progressive feminist columnist for a major Amsterdam newspaper. At one point, a slack-jawed cop tells Femke to just not look, which is something her boyfriend later tells her as well. I very much believe that we generally should not be on social media, and I’m only on it personally for self-promotion or mandatory work stuff. This “just don’t look” attitude is framed as not an option, though. (I definitely don’t agree that “it’s the internet, it’s not real,” as this same cop says.) But how do you both view it?

Zelinski: Not reading the comments right away is a trade-off, because I do have better mental health, but I am also more distant from my communities. Because I have cut that off and I just say “Publish,” and move on to the next story, what I miss out on is an immediate understanding of how people feel.

Van Cleave: I really have a complicated relationship with social media—everybody does, and especially if you feel you’re forced to use it because of work. I don’t know if I would be on Twitter, especially, if other people weren’t on it. There are good things about it, but the bad things about it feel like they come at a high cost sometimes.

One thing I took away from the ending is that Femke is set up as the bad guy because her violence does roll onto people who are uninvolved—while hunting her white whale shitposter, Tarik, she kills his father mistakenly before killing him, and then kills her boyfriend when he confronts her about it. And of course, there’s the scene near the end where she should be at her daughter’s rally delivering a speech, but is instead murdering another bad commenter while her daughter’s delivery of the speech is juxtaposed for maximum hypocrisy. How did that strike you specifically?

Van Cleave: I feel like the moment the daughter was giving the speech as she was literally gunning someone down because of free speech reasons, is where it became more clear to me that she’s out of her damn mind and has lost touch with reality. I felt she understood something, when she shot the father. She could go one way or the other, she was hesitating, she thought she was maybe going to learn her lesson. And then she doubled down and got the boyfriend. Her freedom of speech is okay, but theirs is not.

Zelinski: This doesn’t seem to be out of self-defense. These guys harassing her are doing it for fun, and they don’t feel the consequences of it, but—

Van Cleave: They’re just having fun with it, and she’s taking it so much to heart, and not talking to anybody about it.

Zelinski: This raises the question: what do you do when people say outlandish shit online? I tend to ignore it.

Van Cleave: If it comes from some obnoxious person, I’ll just ignore you, but if it continues to escalate I would bring in somebody else and start looking into things like violation of terms of service, the angle of the law, and going that way. I wouldn’t want to interact with them directly, though.

Zelinski: I like that she is forcing interactions with people so they are having to face who they’re saying these things about, but she’s going too far, clearly. I’m not saying she’s entirely wrong to want to confront them: Nobody wants to read stuff like that. It goes with the idea that when people are doing this and they feel there aren’t consequences, people can be malicious on the internet and they just keep getting away with it. There’s no enforcement, hardly any, and this is obviously her playing out what gets said to her. And this includes people who don’t have anything to do with anything getting maligned. She thinks freedom of speech only applies to her and to journalists or columnists.

It’s interesting you brought that up, because one thought I’ve had, which this movie resurfaced for me, is the backlash against the #MeToo movement. It’s been accused of being a mob, but the thing is, a mob is what you get when you don’t have remedy. And right now, study after study shows that sexual assault and harassment just aren’t meaningfully prosecuted. It makes it hard for me, personally, to fault women for collectively rising up and demanding repercussions for these shitty men. Did you feel this was speaking to that at all, with how Femke is responding?

Van Cleave: I kept thinking of Promising Young Woman. The thing that struck me, the difference between these two movies, is the type of revenge. In The Columnist, she was full-bore, you have wronged me, I’m going to get your ass. PYW was a lot creepier and more unsettling in a way because she wasn’t violent, but she was teaching them a lesson in a way that would ruin them. Right now, it’s kind of still vacillating back and forth between what’s the proper response between what society should be doing and what we should be doing per individual [to address things like harassment and assault]. For Promising Young Woman, her response was, “I’m going to teach you a lesson,” but in The Columnist, it was, “You will never do this again.”

Zelinski: In Promising Young Woman, you could make the argument that you’ve at least taught someone a lesson.

Van Cleave: There was one moment, watching The Columnist, I was thinking that although I enjoy that there are these female revenge movies, I hate the fact they feel so needed, personally. I would love it if, as she was saying at the beginning of the movie, we could just be people and not have to be upset with each other.

Zelinski: Even buying into her logic, you’re never going to get them all! There are always going to be more voices.

The thought that comes to my mind is less other revenge films, but: Just the other day I stopped at a stoplight, and there was a guy I glanced over at and he glanced at me and it felt weird and creepy. I thought, “This sucks that as a woman I constantly feel like I’m prey.”

Any other impressions?

Zelinski: It’s clear that she’s writing columns that people care about. So it’s clear that she’s a woman with a voice.

Van Cleave: Right, and she can’t have a voice!

Zelinski: I can speak to the fact that people will say some awful things and the idea of why can’t people be nice and disagree is a constant question I have had the last several years. There’s often been this betrayal, and I regularly wonder, why can’t people disagree and be diplomatic about it, as opposed to feeling like it’s a series of personal jabs and digs.

Van Cleave: I feel like it’s only getting worse. We’re not getting to a point where we’re collectively saying, we recognize there’s a problem but we’re not doing anything about that. We all know Twitter is a cesspool, but what are we doing to fix it? Nothing really, from what I can tell.

Do you feel like it’s sort of taking the idea of “Why can’t we disagree less violently?” as Femke says but then also giving you the sort of over-the-top killings that paint her as the bad guy?

Van Cleave: Yeah, she’s definitely not the role model I want. (laughs)

Zelinski: Whereas in Kill Bill, she’s killing people but has a moral compass you can relate to. I can understand why the main character here is upset, but it’s an outsized reaction.

Van Cleave: As in Promising Young Woman, you can say, “I understand why she’s doing what she’s doing, go get ’em!” With this, I was like “... damn it. Your reaction is not what it should be based on what we’re seeing.” I would have liked to see more of what was going on with her mental state. I feel the revenge flick works best when you’re with that person on their journey. You were with [the Bride] in Kill Bill.

Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Movies. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.