When do harsh comments on Twitter attacking women cross the line?

It was a little over four years ago that ABC’s late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel launched a segment called “Mean Tweets,” in which celebrities were asked to read nasty comments that had been tweeted at them while REM’S ultra-sad “Everybody Hurts” played in the background.

The bit was a huge hit—it’s been viewed 48 million times on YouTube—and new installments have since become Kimmel’s most popular segment by far.


What’s made the segment so appealing seems to be two things. First, the celebrities generally have fun with it. Chris Pratt responds to an insult addressed to him with an affectionate “Aww.” Will Ferrell reads his while sitting pants-less on the toilet.

In some of the best cases, celebrities respond to the insults by simply staring into the camera acting like they’re putting on a brave face when they’re actually quite hurt.

But second, and I think more importantly, while some of the tweets are pretty funny, many are incredibly mean. Women are regularly called whores (and far worse), and their looks described in the crassest of ways. Many tweets talk about wanting to hurt or kill people. Watching the celebrities such comments were addressed to actually reading them is inherently fascinating.

But the paradox and the problem of the Kimmelized “Mean Tweets” is that even as they reveal the rape-y, hate-filled tendencies of some on the Internet, they also hide just how messed up and traumatizing such comments can be. It’s a very different experience to have to sit in front of a camera and laugh off someone saying they want to kill you or that you’re a whore and receiving these comments in the privacy of your own home.

This week ESPN released its own take on Mean Tweets, dubbed #MoreThanMean, in which men are asked to sit next to female sports reporters Sarah Spain and Julie DiCaro and read to them some of the tweets that other people have made. The difference between that experience and the late-night comedy version could not be starker.

It’s strange: Kimmel asks victims of harassment to read horrible tweets and it reads hilarious; but ask stand-ins for the victimizers to read similar things, and the horror is so clear.

Far more strange: How are we still having this conversation about the online treatment of women? How is attacking people with violent, misogynistic language a thing that continues to be allowed or even to some extent embraced by platforms like Twitter, after years and years of stories of the damage that behavior has caused?

As #MoreThanMean makes clear, if someone were to say such things in public, they would be shunned (also probably prosecuted).

So how is it we’re okay with them saying the same things and worse on social media and treating it as if it’s just the victim’s problem?

Jim McDermott, S.J., a screenwriter, is America’s Los Angeles correspondent. Twitter: @PopCulturPriest.

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