The Intern

Here’s a quick rundown of a Twitter drama of sorts, which is still unfolding.

Tom Watson is a UK Labour politician and a popular twitter user, with 65,000+ followers. He uses twitter to talk business and to contact friends and acquaintances, and is by most accounts a thoroughly decent sort. Which is why it was very odd this morning when the following tweet appeared in his timeline:

Let us pause for a moment and imagine, if you were not there at the time, the sudden gust of wind as quite a large portion of twitter all inhaled sharply at the same time and then exhaled a muffled ‘eek’.

Reaction tweets quickly appeared. Feminists (and general fans of decency) made it clear that we don’t enjoy the word ‘rape’ being tossed around lightly; people speculated on whether or not it was in fact Mr. Watson who had sent the tweet; many people just seemed up for a bit of a show.

The (still anonymous) intern realised her mistake and tweeted the following:

While (obviously) I did not and do not approve of her behaviour up to here, one can only imagine the rapid descent through the circles of Hell that her day was turning into at this point.

In due course Mr. Watson returned from his meeting, sized up the situation, and tweeted this:

Drama over, right?

Maybe, anywhere else but Twitter. Within minutes the hashtag #SavetheIntern had sprung up, and was trending globally. People who had never heard of Mr. Watson were happily joining in the speculation as to whether he would fire an employee whose only identifying detail was that she was female. But! As ever, that was enough. It’s amazing that, although we constitute half the world’s population, the idea that a woman is involved in something is enough to bring a ton of prejudices crawling out of the woodwork. There is a remarkable tidal shift to be noticed in the tweets before and after Mr. Watson’s apology: until then, if spectators were gendering the intern at all, they were tending toward male. Afterward, they change straight away to using ‘she’ and a distinctly patronising tone sparks up (as seen here – ‘nice girl‘. Thanks, son.)

Before I talk about the Twitter reaction, I want to take a minute to talk about why I find the tweet itself offensive, and why, if I were Mr. Watson, I would be politely asking my intern to leave my office with a certain amount of haste. Obviously, the first thing to say is that it is never, never appropriate to use your boss’ social media account, especially to play a prank on them in front of sixty-five thousand people. Maybe we should start printing that on the ceilings of infant nurseries in hospital, so that all babies of this generation come out with the knowledge imprinted on their minds.

Secondly, and more controversially, this issue of ‘Twitter rape’ or the more common ‘Facebook rape’/’frape’. Look, if you’re reading this, you’re more than likely an adult, and more than likely a decent, open-minded person. So, keeping those attributes in mind, would it kill you to stop using the word ‘rape’ to mean ‘minorly infringe upon’? Yes, it is so utterly, utterly hilarious when your sister logs in to your Facebook and writes ‘haha I’m gay’ on your profile. My aching sides, believe me. But that’s not rape. Nor is changing your profile picture to you doing drunken karaoke in a bad wig. Nor is – going for the big one here – changing your password and locking you out of your account. Still not rape.

You may wonder – and people (by which I do mean ‘mostly men’) often do – why women, and indeed all feminists, get so very wound up about the word ‘rape’. It is for this reason: it disproportionately happens to us; it very rarely gets punished to the extent it should be; it’s a terrible crime and people consider it a joke. Victims become afraid to speak up because they’ve heard their friends joking about people getting raped in prison, people threatening to rape opposing football teammates, people describing a videogame loss as rape. Rape is not motivated by sex, in the most part, but it carries a sexual element, and for that, the humorously challenged among us find that it raises a puerile laugh in a conversational context. It’s the only crime that’s in this unique position of being so very devastating, happening mainly to a social minority, and not being taken as seriously as it should be.

So please excuse me while I scroll on past those particular japes, you know?

Moving on! Twitter has, while I’ve been writing, calmed down somewhat (as in, there are only 218 new updates in the #SavetheIntern hashtag since the last time I checked), so I think it’s safe to try to analyse the main reactions.

Firstly, the #SavetheIntern hashtag has spawned an offshoot, #PaytheIntern. Twitter is annoyed that politicians are using interns as free labour in their offices, and has apparently used the appearance of the word ‘intern’ in its timelines to vent that grievance. It’s somewhat legitimate, I think; perhaps this is because of my (low) position in the career ladder, currently, but I think internships are not worth the paid time they take from young career-builders. Whether or not Mr. Watson is a good mentor to his interns is unknown – with luck, interning for him would do what it is meant to, and give a graduate an opportunity to network, gather experience, and take the next step. What is clear is that now UK politicians – especially those who use twitter – are now under the spotlight as to how they treat their staff.

The next biggest reaction is from people who believe that either the intern did nothing wrong, or that Mr. Watson should forgive and forget. For me, this is an overly simplistic viewpoint. Mr. Watson enjoys a public platform, and that platform – and the people it addresses – should be treated with respect. A public profile takes a social media game and elevates it beyond the sight of a small group of friends: a social media profile can help or hinder the image of its owner to a huge extent, especially in politics. Whichever way you look at it, the intern’s conduct was decidedly unprofessional (and I will note that I use that word in the sense of ‘inappropriate’ rather than anything to do with being paid or otherwise).

It is almost too tiresome to deal with the men wondering if the intern, now we know she is a woman, is ‘fit’ – because obviously, that is all that’s important here. Save the good-looking women from unemployment and CV ruin! Let the rest of us languish.

What does it matter? What on earth does it matter what this lady looks like? Why wonder that, as opposed to her name or her field of study or any of the things that make up her character, as opposed to whether or not she will fulfil your visual aesthetic needs?

Honestly, men. I really do believe you’re better than this. You are better than the ‘is she hot?’ comments, and you are better than the ‘stupid woman‘ comments* *, and you are better than jumping on every little excuse to whip out the sexist humour… and I’m going to keep saying as much until you start believing it.

[* * those are just the first two I picked off the Top Tweets feed]

My original subtitle for this blog was ‘What A Tangled Web We Tweet’. Aside from being a terrible pun, I deleted it because I thought it overdramatic. As the last hour has gone by and the story has unfolded, I’m beginning to wonder if it was dramatic enough.

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5 thoughts on “The Intern

  1. I don’t know who you are or what you do, but after only reading a couple of paragraphs of this drivel I can only assume you are unemployed. You’ve just written well over 1000 words on the subject of a single word uttered on twitter where the meaning you have inferred was in no way the one intended.

    Jesus Christ calm down, it’s just a word, language evolves, get over it or move to France. Should I be punished for blasphemously using the name of “our lord” just then? Of course you would say not, go back a few hundred years and blasphemy carried the death penalty (I would cite sources, but you clearly have enough time on your hands that you can look up that fact yourself, I myself am simply on my lunch break).

    People like you are the reason the BBC can’t show boundary pushing comedy anymore.

  2. Case in point, the person who thinks “rape” is “just a word” appears, going by the avatar and name, to be a man. While men can be raped, 90% of victims are women (or female-presenting). Ergo, this person probably has no grasp on what it’s like to be a woman in a rape culture. No idea what it’s like to live in a woman in a society that regularly treats women as second class, that violates us physically and emotionally, that forces fear upon us and still blames us when we become victims of crimes.

    Yes language evolves, but until cultures evolve away from being violent toward women, “rape” should not be thrown around casually.

    • Lovely piece, and yes, of course it is ‘just a word.’ As a linguist I can truly say that not only does language evolve but it is within the power of its users to change its usage. I hope then that we can stop backpedaling and have the guts and wherewithal to stop taking such words lightly. I hope this occurs within my lifetime. Or, you know, I could just move to France.

  3. Just on a minor point – could the swings in opinion you trace have something to do with the fact that Twitter is very good at opposition, but less so at developing argument or expressing modified agreement? (Or rather, the way many people use it makes it good at this?) Do you think this story demonstrates how quickly Twitter moves from “scrag the arrogant intern who has the power” to “save the endangered intern from the people with the power” (as well as “intern? I have a point about interns, I’ll just get it…”) because those are the modes its most effective in?

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