The Pleasure of Clapping Back

On engaging with trolls and having nemeses

Roxane Gay
Jun 26, 2019 · 14 min read
Illustration by Johnalynn Holland

InIn my essay, “Bad Feminist,” which I wrote much earlier in my career, I said I did not want to be put on a pedestal as a feminist or, really, as anything, because I understood, even then, that when you’re put on a pedestal, you’re frozen in place and time. You aren’t allowed to move, to grow, to fail. People see you as you were when they put you on the pedestal and are resistant to seeing you as who you become. I knew I would, in one way or another, disappoint anyone who once saw fit to elevate me, so I thought it would be good to bypass all that and just be myself, the best and worst of me, on solid ground. People put me on a pedestal anyway and, inevitably, I have disappointed a great many of those folks. I have disappointed myself.

NNemesis was the ancient Greek goddess of retribution. She punished evil deeds, undeserved good fortune, and hubris. Disgusted by his arrogance, Nemesis brought Narcissus to his unfortunate end, punishing him for his vanity by luring him to the water where he fell in love with his own reflection and died because he simply could not look away. The story of Nemesis is compelling because she was inescapable; her brand of justice was uncompromising. I, however, am not the goddess of retribution. I am just a writer and a woman. I am too sensitive. I have thin skin. I love having the last word. I am a control freak. I cannot let things go. I take criticism personally. And being on social media offers ample opportunity for me to reveal the worst of myself.

The nature of being a writer is that I must often contend with criticism. When it is constructive, I do, eventually, try to absorb the criticism and improve my craft. When the criticism is less than constructive, I get defensive. I feel attacked. I start to doubt everything I have ever written and everything I will ever write in the future. Social media has done a great many things for writers. It has allowed us to promote our work and that of writers we enjoy or admire. It has allowed us to interact with readers and fans. But it has also exposed us to people with bad intentions, people who take issue with what we write, how we write, who we are. And there is something about these people who want to tell you they hate you or that you are mediocre or terrible that cuts deep. You can read a hundred compliments but what stays with you is that one person confirming your worst fears about yourself.

I harbor a great many terrible fears about myself.

II have ten nemeses — people who have slighted me in ways both real and imagined who are now mortal adversaries I must defeat. They are nemeses because a loved one has a crush on them and goes on and on about it just to get under my skin or because they have a career trajectory I envy or they are vigorously mediocre or they have wronged someone I care about or they have wronged me. One of my nemeses is Crossfit and that feels fairly self-explanatory. Another nemesis is Rachel Maddow because my girlfriend loves to watch The Rachel Maddow Show and I don’t believe in cable news and she thinks Maddow is cute and at night, I sit in bed, arms crossed over my chest, as she pays keen attention to Maddow’s endless deconstruction of whatever the Trump administration is up to on any given day and I stew, plotting to get Maddow off the air.

There is also my primary nemesis, the woman I direct most of my nemesis-related energy toward. I cannot disclose the provenance of my disdain for her but she smiles too much, is thriving professionally, and exists to spite me. It is almost too much to bear.

TThere are many famous nemeses both real and imagined — Batman and the Joker, Superman and Lex Luthor, Professor X and Magneto, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, Eve and Villanelle.

The most important thing to remember is that the rivalry must be tended to, nurtured. It is an eternal flame, the heat of which can warm you during dark times.

An enemy is a nuisance but a nemesis is someone for whom you harbor an abiding, relentless dislike. A nemesis must be a worthy adversary. It is far too easy for someone completely odious to be a nemesis. People often ask if, for example, the President is my nemesis but that would absolutely be beneath me. Envy is certainly part of having a nemesis but it is not quite jealousy because generally you and your nemesis are equals in some way, even if you are the only person who believes that to be true. A nemesis can give you purpose, can hone your ambition. What I am saying is that having a nemesis is motivational.

II keep track of my nemeses with an app. I check in on them on various social media platforms to further stoke my petty feelings toward them. These people largely have no idea I exist. I would never actually do anything to them, but it brings me pleasure to nurture this enmity. I often discuss my nemeses on Twitter, and have been doing so since 2011. Back then, I was tweeting about my Scrabble nemesis, a man I beat during a Scrabble tournament who did not take the loss well. He stormed off, which is just poor sportsmanship, and in the wake of his fury, my first nemesis rose from the ashes of his defeat. At the following tournament, I began to tweet about our interactions and a vocation was born.

In the ensuing years, I have peppered my online conversation with musings about one or more of my nemeses, mostly because it is fun, a way to relax, but it is also deadly serious. On May 18, 2018, I remarked that, “My nemesis is having a good year professionally and has clear skin. It’s a lot to take.” In November, I said, “Just checked in on my nemesis. She’s still trash,” just so I could assure any interested parties that the fire of my dislike for my nemesis continued to burn bright. On January 12, 2019, I was really feeling some kind of way, noting, “My nemesis is busy being beautiful and successful. That’s ok. I am busy plotting and implementing her downfall. It’s a multi-year plan but I am putting in the time. It’s fine.”

SSometimes I put a harmless but effective curse on my nemesis like, “I hope the sun is very bright and my nemesis can’t find her sunglasses.” I experience a frisson of excitement when I add a new nemesis to the rotation. I also believe that the nemesis of my friend is my enemy so when my assistant Kaitlyn shared with me that she had a nemesis I felt a great deal of solidarity, prompting me to tweet, “My assistant has a nemesis and now when I see her nemesis tweet I narrow my eyes and feel a bit of anger.” This remains true. Her nemesis loves to prattle on and on about inconsequential things and sure, most of us do this, but when a nemesis does it, the behavior is somehow worse.

Much to my surprise, many of my online followers have become invested in my nemesis chronicles. My agent has emailed me asking me to reveal the identity of my primary nemesis. Interviewers ask if I will reveal the identities of my nemeses. Journalists have written articles about this absurd little pastime of mine. They have requested interviews I have mostly declined because it just isn’t that deep but also, it is. One publication referred to me as “the queen of nemesis Twitter,” which was… a lot.

The argument could certainly be made that there is nothing healthy or productive about having nemeses. People have told me it is silly, petty, and unnecessary, but lots of hobbies could be termed as such. Oftentimes when I discuss my nemeses online, people ask me why I am dwelling on negativity. It doesn’t feel negative to have nemeses. It’s quietly thrilling. It makes my little life feel bigger than it is. It makes me feel like I have a little more control than I do. And it is a form of release. No one is harmed by my tweeting petty, inconsiderable things about my anonymous nemeses. This nurturing of nemeses is not something that dominates any part of my life. I have met at least one of my nemeses and I was perfectly pleasant during the encounter, charming even. There is photographic evidence.

AsAs someone who has been on the internet since 1992, I believe what happens online is as real as things that happen in the physical world. The friendships I have developed with people I met online are real. The amity we share is real. Though I have never really used any of the dating apps or websites, I have met several romantic partners via the internet. When I argue with someone online, I am actually frustrated or irritated or angry. Those feelings don’t magically dissipate when I step away from the computer or look away from my phone though they are put in the proper perspective when I am offline.

Young writers ask me if they need to be on social media to have a successful career and the answer is of course not but that social media, when used well, can be greatly beneficial to a career. But there is a price to pay for that beneficence. The further you are from being a heterosexual white, middle-class able-bodied man, the higher the price you pay. You have to decide if you are willing to pay that price, if you are able to pay that price.

When I first started using Twitter, I was in graduate school in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I was living in a town of about 4,000 people. I was studying rhetoric and technical communication and teaching for the first time and adjusting to going from the middle of the country to the edge of nowhere. I wanted to feel connected to the world in some small way. I wanted to talk to other writers. I wanted to feel like a part of something without having to actually be, physically, a part of something. I could be shy and awkward but no one would ever know because I had a facility with language and the distance or, perhaps, anonymity of keyboard and screen.

I could hide in plain sight, which is something I have been doing since I first started using the internet. Back in the early 90s, most of us who were online were pretending in some form or fashion. We were fabulists. This was before people freely exchanged pictures and the whole truth of themselves. We were just names and words. Most of the time we were talking dirty to one another, pretending to be more attractive, more interesting, and more adventurous than we really were. I don’t know that any of us knew what the internet would eventually become, how it would become such a fundamental part of a privileged life. And because we didn’t know what it would become, we spent every day online like it might be our only day online. We developed passionate connections with strangers from all around the world. We shared highly curated versions of ourselves but not in the Instagram way.

Some people grew out of that way of being online, started being more honest, started being more authentic versions of themselves. The artifice fell away. We began using our real pictures, our real names. But some people never grew out of that way of being online. The internet was a virtual playground where they could be anyone they wanted, say anything they wanted, without consequence. A lot of the tensions that arise from online interactions exist because people with different ethics around how to be online are forced to share this virtual space even though we don’t all play by the same rules.

I understand that way of being online where you can say terrible things to strangers, racist, sexist, homophobic things you wouldn’t dare say to someone’s face. I understand the rush these people must feel when they revel in cruelty, in embracing the taboo and unacceptable. It makes me consider how I would behave if there were no consequences for my actions. I won’t pretend I would be perfect but I do know I would not be mindlessly cruel.

I am too sensitive online and sometimes, even when people approach me innocuously, I overreact. I attack before I am attacked. And then I feel terrible about myself because that’s not who I am, not really. Sometimes I apologize for my behavior and sometimes I don’t. When I don’t, I tell myself it’s fine. I tell myself that given all the harassment I tolerate, of course I am defensive. And then a troll says something cruel and I feel justified in being too sensitive and overly prickly. It’s a vicious cycle.

Trolls are generally so banal. I engage with trolls the way a predator toys with its prey. They tell me things I already know or they unwittingly reveal what they hate most in themselves. A common entreaty of theirs is that I am fat, which is not new information. I wrote a whole book about being fat. They tell me I’m ugly or unhealthy or that I am going to die alone. They call me a snowflake or a “libtard.” They simply write #MAGA. They spew racial epithets at me. They call me a dyke. They make fun of my last name which is so hilariously immature and dull. Children have been making fun of my last name since around 1982. They search through my old tweets, some of which, certainly are lousy takes, and offer them up as evidence of… what I’m not entirely sure. They try to get me to debate them as if I am on social media simply to sit around talking about the news of the day with random, lonely men. I deserve a better class of interlocutor. It’s all so absurd. I recognize this but still, I cannot always resist engaging. And then followers will tell me to not feed the trolls. Or they will say, “bot.” And that is even more grating because I have been online for nearly thirty years. I am clear on who or what I am dealing with. I am clear on the why of it.

I often liken responding to trolls and the lesser of my critics, clapping back as the current parlance goes, to playing T-Ball, that tempered version of youth baseball where children swing their bats at a ball nestled gently on a stand instead of having to try and hit a pitch. It doesn’t require much aim or coordination but it teaches children the fundamentals of baseball. The trolls with all their absurd banality are the ball, waiting for me. They are an easy target, low hanging fruit, and I am the child with a very big bat and very good aim. The trolls often make it even easier because they cannot spell or use punctuation properly. They tend to be wrong and loudly so. I can simply point out their weaknesses or I can say something clever or I can say something mean generally attacking their intelligence, masculinity, or dim prospects. I enjoy throwing in a phrase like “your mom’s Cheeto crusted basement,” or using some of my favorite vocabulary words in an especially cutting manner.

If someone steps to me disrespectfully, I serve that disrespect right back. If they get out of pocket, I let them know. It is as cathartic as talking about my nemeses but with more immediacy. I know how futile it is. I know that these people who argue with me don’t care how artfully I respond. I know I am probably giving them what they want — attention and the confirmation that they have drawn my blood. I know they aren’t going to recognize how poorly they are behaving. They aren’t going to apologize. No good is going to come from tangling with trolls.

The truth is, it just feels good to be mean in this neatly contained way. It feels good to stand up for myself because that largely only happens in online spaces where I have the time and space to think clearly and say exactly what I want to say, when I want to say it, and how. It feels necessary to highlight the intensity, constancy and breadth of harassment black queer women deal with online. It feels good and righteous to feel supported and seen, to be applauded for giving as good as I get.

Like most people, I was bullied as a child. I was a loner and quiet and shy. I wore bifocals and, eventually, braces. I had wild hair I could not tame. We moved around a lot so it was difficult to find my people or my place in the world. I was a very easy target. There was nothing particularly tragic or traumatic about this bullying or, I suppose, I ran into a far more brutal kind of trouble and the bullying became more of a nuisance than anything else. Once, in junior high, I was reading on the school bus. I always had my head in a book, and some of my classmates took my book and began throwing it from one end of the bus to the other, laughing as I jumped up, trying to catch the book along the arc of its frenetic trajectory. What I remember about that day was how desperate I was to get my book back so I could lose myself again in the world of the story. I remember how desperate I was for someone, anyone, to take my side. I wondered if my life would always be like that — me yearning and grasping and helpless. When I am clapping back at trolls, it’s like I am grabbing that book and returning to the haven, the privacy of words.

A better person would have thicker skin. She would be able to ignore the taunting and petty torments of trolls. She would not have nemeses. She would turn the other cheek. She would rise above. I am not that better person. I am acting in the spirit of Nemesis, exacting the smallest, most inconsequential of retributions. I know I am indulging my worst impulses. I know I could be better. I choose not to. The distinction between me and my trolls is that I know I am no different than them.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

Roxane Gay

Written by

I write. I want a tiny baby elephant. If you clap, I clap back. Books.: Ayiti, Untamed State, Bad Feminist. Difficult Women, World of Wakanda 1–5, Hunger.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Roxane Gay

Written by

I write. I want a tiny baby elephant. If you clap, I clap back. Books.: Ayiti, Untamed State, Bad Feminist. Difficult Women, World of Wakanda 1–5, Hunger.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store