Contours

voices of women in law // voix des femmes en droit

Bill C-13, (Cyber)bullying, and Socialization of Female Gender Stereotypes

 

BY A.D.
STUDENT AT MCGILL FACULTY OF LAW

Recent updates made to the Criminal Code of Canada (“Criminal Code”)[1] in Bill C-13 (Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act)[2] have been championed by the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) as an important step in addressing cyberbullying’s disproportionate effects on women and girls.[3]  The bill added, among other adjustments, “telecommunication” as a criminalized means of transmitting “false information” under s. 372 of the Code.[4] However, the Criminal Code contains various sections which are broad enough to encompass conduct that can be considered bullying in both on- and off-line interactions; the legislature has seen harassment, defamation, and spreading falsehoods (such as rumours) about another as conduct which merits punishment and denunciation. [5] Rightly so, as bullying can cause tremendous harm for youth of any gender with effects lasting a lifetime.[6] While I agree that the adjustments were a step in the right direction, I argue that criminal law is not the right tool to address the underlying issues disproportionately faced by female-identifying youth in their experience of bullying, whether cyber or otherwise.

Watching TV and movies, I have noticed that boys are often socialized to fit a stereotype of physical aggression or confrontation, while girls and female-identifying individuals from a young age are socialized to behave in catty, gossipy ways. This stereotype permeates our culture through media such as the Mean Girls movie, which is undoubtedly a classic of our generation. Quotes like “She doesn’t even go here!”, “Get in, loser, we’re going shopping!” and “Boo, you whore!” celebrate bullying behaviour which has been immortalized in meme culture.[7] After this film, the Gossip Girl TV series took center-stage, based entirely on cyberbullying of elite students in the Upper East Side of Manhattan.[8] Because of the presence of such media in their formative years, many girls have only these stereotypes as models for gaining popularity in school and making friends. The behaviour is normalized and even glamourized by systemic gender stereotypes saturating the media which young female-identifying individuals are disproportionately invited to follow in our culture.

Using criminal law to resolve bullying issues could unfairly punish young female-identifying individuals for behaviours in which they have been socialized to engage. By pressing criminal charges, both the complainant and the accused step into the realm of the criminal justice system which is tiring, costly, and associated with great stigma in the community, regardless of whether a conviction is obtained. This alone is a burden on the parties involved and their families who support them. Additionally, if a conviction were to be obtained, the result would be a criminal record which could take years to be cleared, depending on the sentence given. Though judges recognize the sensitive nature of these issues in youth courts and a variety of sentencing options are available, comments such as those made by Chief Justice Rounthwaite in the case of R. v. D.W. and K.P.D. show that the subtler underlying gender-based issues appear to be almost entirely ignored. Rounthwaite, CJ states in comments annexed to her judgement, “I was particularly dismayed that none of the bystanders had the moral strength or the courage to stand in front of [the victim], to tell the bullies to stop, go away, leave her alone. Only two friends said no.”[9] In this case, the victim was bullied relentlessly by her “frenemies”,[10] experienced depression and ultimately committed suicide. Yet, the judge’s comments show few solutions to the struggles that young female-identifying individuals face when fitting-in, making friends, and ultimately breaking ranks to reach out for help when the behaviour which they are socialized to expect is harming them. This attitude shows how the criminal justice system can bluntly punish behaviour, while not offering solutions to the subtler influences of gender stereotypes and norms which contribute to the perpetuation of this behaviour among female-identifying youths.

As shown in R. v. D.W. and K.P.D., bullying behaviour most often occurs in tightknit groups of "frenemies". This context can reduce the likelihood of reporting.[11] In a bid for popularity among peers that they believe to be their friends, youth may endure or engage in bullying behaviour themselves. Once such reciprocal conduct is established, youth may fear coming forward as they too could be punished by adults while losing their friends along the way.[12] The fear of reporting could be intensified by involving governmental authorities, as the prospects of criminal sanctions are more apparent when speaking to police officers, and the presence of adults with firearms can be intimidating. For these reasons, it appears that criminal law would be neither an effective mechanism to empower young women to come forward proactively, nor a sensitive tool to resolve issues once identified.

Since young female-identifying individuals are socialized by systemic gender stereotypes in the media to behave in catty, gossipy ways and the criminal justice system appears ill-suited to address the issues regarding bullying or its novel cyber-iterations, solutions outside the court may be a better option. Gender stereotypes can be addressed holistically by the elevation of the status of women in society and educating youths on the dangers of media stereotyping and bullying. This could be done, as often stated by LEAF, by engaging the federal Ministry on the Status of Women, to conduct research, facilitate dialogue, and make recommendations to government about appropriate legal responses to the challenges of protecting and promoting the equality of women, girls, and other vulnerable communities.[13] Another solution could be to focus on cyber-bullying specifically by investing more funds toward in-school bullying prevention programs that could educate students and teachers as to how to proactively identify, report and resolve problems among peers. Such programs could more effectively empower young female-identifying individuals to report such behaviours. Finally, education about these issues can ultimately empower youths to challenge stereotypes present in the media.

 


[1] Criminal Code, RSC 1985, c C-46.

[2] Bill C-13, Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act, 2nd Sess, 41st Parl, 2014 (as passed by the House of Commons 9 December 2014).

[3] West Coast LEAF, “Using and Strengthening Canadian Legal Responses to Gendered Hate and Harassment Online” (2014), online (pdf): West Coast LEAF <http://www.westcoastleaf.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/2014-REPORT-CyberMisogyny.pdf> [perma.cc/H5H2-U2YH].

[4] Ibid.

[5] See Criminal Harassment at s 264, Defamatory Libel at s 298 and False Information at s 372 of the Criminal Code, supra note 1.

[6] Willam E Copeland, “Adult Psychiatric Outcomes of Bullying and Being Bullied by Peers in Childhood and Adolescence” (2013) 70:4 JAMA Psychiatry at 419-426.

[7] Mean Girls, 2004, DVD (Hollywood, Cal: Paramount Home Entertainment, 2005).

[8] Gossip Girl, 2007 – 2012, TV Series (The CW: Warner Bros. Television Distribution).

[9] R v W(D), 2002 BCPC 96 in comments annexed to the judgement.

[10] The term “frenemy” is commonly used to refer to a person who is a friend, but also engages in back-stabbing behaviour or is secretly an enemy.

[11] Patricia I Coburn et al, “Cyberbullying: Is Federal Criminal Legislation the Solution?” (2015) 57: 4 Can J Crim Justice.

[12] Ibid.

[13] See LEAF, supra note 1.

 

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