A documentary focusing on the harassment of women using the modern internet or technological means, NETIZENS is an arresting cry for solidarity. The film needs a stronger thesis or call to action to hang its ideas and the awareness it generates upon, but that awareness of the topic is crucial, and Cynthia Lowen delivers admirably on showing the impact and prevalence.
The film follows three woman who have been the victims of harassment and abuse, facilitated by the internet, and are pushing back against it: Anita Sarkeesian, abused for highlighting the various issues in the portrayal of women in video games; Carrie Goldberg, a lawyer aiding those who are being harassed with technology or are victims of revenge porn; and Tine Reine, a finance professional who was defamed online by an ex-partner, preventing her from gaining employment.
The film opens on Goldberg investigating the scene of a sexual assault which was then recorded and distributed amongst the peers of the young victim, beginning with a gut punch that continues as more of Goldberg’s work is highlighted (herself previously a victim of this sort of abuse). The scale of misogynistic vitriol thrown at Sarkeesian is beyond absurd, and this is made very clear with the precautions shown for her public appearances. Reine’s recounting of the ways, over many years, a character assassination of her posted online has destroyed her career is deeply affecting.
The film, therefore, in that respect, is an accomplished chronicle of the damage and havoc wrought upon their lives. What it needs is a stronger argument for what the response should be. There is an element, particularly in the discussions with Sarkeesian, that a fundamental rethink of how women are treated, judged or perceived in all spheres of life is required. This is true, but the film doesn’t really make that case. The closest it comes is when a clueless man at a meeting Reine is speaking at inquires after why she couldn’t simply ignore the abuse, thuddingly oblivious to his tone-deafness that echoes the blind eyes turned and the lack of understanding.
The exception to this, in inspiring fashion, is the work of Goldberg. She explains that after she suffered her own abusive incidents, she struggled to find a lawyer with the intersection of skills she required (harassment law, understanding of the modern web, legal acumen generally) so became that lawyer herself. Given the scale of the problem, it is unreasonable to expect a single documentary to provide solutions, or to expect a happy ending to this ongoing hell. However, the strand focusing on Goldberg at least offers the option of fighting back in a concrete manner.
Howls of outrage are needed and justified, and the catharsis sought may well not be forthcoming. To not just be stuck with feelings of indignation and fear, however, ways forward need to be found, even if it is just not being as deaf to the problem as the man who speaks to Reine. Scratch beneath the surface of the internet, and the problems with how women are treated are abundantly clear – figures like Goldberg are the sort of stories that offer optimism that there is a way out of this mess.