Targeting and Shaming on Social Media: Witch-hunts on Steroids
A gendered analysis of The Crucible's Salem witch trials put in comparison with social media witch-hunts
July 4, 2022
It’s remarkable that The Crucible, written by Arthur Miller, is timely and relevant in 2022 as it was in 1953. Or 1692. Miller wrote the 1692 realist play in response to Senator McCarthy's Committee on Un-American Activities”, which terrorized hundreds of people in the early 1950s. The play, set during the Salem witch trials, depicts the terrifying swiftness with which power-hungry demagogues can employ ideological delusion to breed paranoia that reduces even the most thriving community to a hornet's nest of lies, hysteria, and persecution. Although it may appear that the play only targeted women who were suspected of witchcraft, really all women were condemned and were under speculation because of their gender. The condemning and targeting of women in the book is similar to the “public shaming” which routinely occurs today on social media; the internet has allowed for personal crucibles to become public. Social media may be new, but the punitive messages and appetites remain the same. Typically, the accusers are cowardly, ignorant, offensive, and openly misogynistic. The digital age allows people to be put on trial on a global scale and magnifies their humiliation. Accusations go viral, globally, within hours, and instead of having dozens of angry voices baying for your blood in Salem, you have thousands going after your reputation online. Three hundred ninety years may have passed since the fictional witch-hunt played out in one small town, but today we regularly witness the actual version of The Crucible, amplified by the digital media, destroying innocent lives. The tragedy of The Crucible continues in real life!
According to Puritan doctrine, women were of particular vulnerability to sin and witchcraft, as they possessed a feminine soul within a feminine body. Reis explains this: A woman’s feminine soul, jeopardized in a woman’s feminine body, was frail, submissive... Puritans believed that Satan attacked the soul by assaulting the body, and because women’s bodies were weaker, the devil could reach women’s souls more easily. Men had stronger and greater bodies to fend off the attacks and temptations of sin and the devil. Women were potentially dangerous vessels, vulnerable to the malicious intentions of Satan. This created substantial pressure on women to adhere to their places of pious obedience. Those who dared to assert themselves beyond the confines expected of Puritan womanhood were threats, abnormal, to be feared and ridiculed. Both literature and ministers regularly promoted the importance of women’s subordination. Women could not vote or own property and held little presence or recognition outside the home. The flawed protagonist John Proctor’s interactions with women truly showcased the Puritan doctrine.
John Proctor, the flawed protagonist’s lust for Abigail led to their affair and leaves him a tormented individual. Proctor admits his flaw when he says, “God help me, I lusted, and there is a promise in such sweat. But it is a whore’s vengeance, and you must see it; I set myself entirely in your hands. I know you must see it now” (Miller Act III). Although his submission seems to be authentic on the surface, through this quote, Miller highlights his hypocritical nature. Proctor calls Abigail a “whore” for a crime that he was equally (if not more) a part of the affair. Even though Abigail is not a very good woman, she still has to bear the losses of being a woman in the puritan society. “God help me” is another interesting phrase to look at: He uses his name next to God, while he uses the word “whore” to describe her. It is ironic to see how a man, who is married, and a woman who participates in the same crime of adultery must be treated drastically differently. From a gender inequality perspective, times have not changed. In the scandal involving President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, the public has always judged Lewinsky more harshly than Clinton, in a way that defies any sense of logic or fairness. Clinton was not only a partner in the affair, but the much more powerful, rich, older partner, who was committing infidelity. Ironically, Clinton called her a liar. When Monica joined Twitter, she was literally attacked with such tweets “We've been waiting for you! #Whore” and “Monica blames everyone but herself for being a slut, hussy and yes, a whore. #RedEye”. In a TED talk, Monica talked about being the object of the first great internet shaming: “Overnight, I went from being a completely private figure to a publicly humiliated one worldwide.”
We should not forget that over the course of time, justice has come to the rescue of those who have been deprived of their rights. The tragedy of The Crucible is not about a tragic hero but about women being treated as second-class citizens. The amount of social media targeting and shaming heaped on women today, is nothing short of an unspoken epidemic. The recent #MeToo movement is a collective expression of women’s anger against the feelings of guilt and fear, which has kept them down. Social media cannot be ‘The Unsafety Net’ for Women! Society’s intimidating norms should not act as a Crucible to break women's spirit, but instead provide them the support of wings to fly. We need to advance diversity, inclusion, and equality on social media, or else some form of witch-hunting will continue in 2022, as it is today. Or As it was in 1953. Or As it was in 1692.
About the Author
Hi! I am Mehar Bhasin, and I am currently a rising senior at The Hotchkiss School. I am someone who strongly believes that it’s imperative for women to be more involved in the creation of the technology that is impacting every one of us. Currently, the distinct lack of gender diversity in the digital tech space results in technology being biased for certain demographics, needs, and values—ultimately accruing benefits to the few instead of all. That is one of the reasons I founded STEAM BLOOM. I must also share that I am impressed with the F Word blog’s creator and my close friend Hughlyn's dedication and commitment for feminism, and her zeal is a good source of empowerment and encouragement among many female friends. I am very happy to be able to write for the F word blog and I am proud of its content & community.
(1) Elizabeth Reis, “The Devil, the Body, and the Feminine Soul in Puritan New England,” The Journal of American History 82, no. 1 (June 1995)
Paul J. Lindholt, “Crimes of Gender in Puritan America,” American Quarterly 40, no. 4 (December 1988)
(2) Jenée Desmond-Harrisjenee “We still judge Monica Lewinsky more harshly than Bill Clinton, and it’s not okay”. Voxmedia.com (Oct 24, 2014)
(3) Miller, Arthur. The Crucible: A Play in Four Acts. New York: Penguin Books, 1976.