Cybersexism in Three Acts

By Richard GrusinJune 2, 2017

Cybersexism in Three Acts
AMONG THE MANY different senses of “risk” implicit in the title of Laura Poitras’s new documentary about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is the risk entailed in making a film about events that are still unfolding. After screening the film in May at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Poitras was impelled to reedit her film in light of ongoing developments involving the film’s protagonists. She then pulled the revised film from its April 24, 2017 US premiere to make minor changes in light of recent remarks by US Attorney General Jeff Sessions about Assange. Even after the (for now) final cut, her story continues to unfold. On May 17, 12 days after the film’s limited theatrical opening in the United States, Chelsea Manning (who was responsible for a large release of classified data to WikiLeaks in 2010) was released from prison; on May 19, the Swedish government announced that it had discontinued its seven-year rape investigation into Assange, an investigation that figures prominently in Risk. Despite its concern with events of the present and immediate past, however, Risk makes an important argument about the relationship between cyberlibertarianism and Western liberalism, which should outlast the vicissitudes of current events.

Put most directly, in Risk Laura Poitras offers us a powerful, immanent feminist critique of the sexism of the cyberlibertarian and infosec (information security) communities, one which implicitly makes the case that cyberlibertarianism does not escape the patriarchal structures of power that inform Western liberalism, but reproduces them. As such, Risk marks something of a shift in Poitras’s attitude toward the infosec community and its cyberlibertarian ideology from her Oscar-winning 2014 film Citizenfour. Indeed, as she says in one of the several “production note” voiceovers that punctuate the film, while she had initially thought she could avoid the “contradictions” within the community, she had come to realize that these contradictions were in fact what her film was about. The contradictions she refers to inform her own conflicting attitudes — her belief in the tremendous political good being accomplished in the fight against state surveillance, censorship, and control of digital information, and her discomfort with the patriarchy, sexism, and abuse that permeate the infosec community. But there is another, implicit contradiction that the film lays bare: between the claims of cyberlibertarianism to resist and oppose the structure of power that dominates Western civilization, particularly the governmental institutions of the State, and the perpetuation of this structure of power within infosec communities.

Another subtext of the film’s title, then, might be that risk, as defined by patriarchy, is something that inheres in the agency and actions of men, and that women can only be the cause of risk, or its objects. Despite Poitras’s contradictory feelings toward the infosec community, the thesis of the film is clear: cyberlibertarianism is not, as it portrays itself, an ideology of freedom opposed to the constraints and control of patriarchal, white, Western civilization, one which resists or challenges that structure, but rather it is of a piece with that structure, both in its understanding of (male) human agency, and in its sexist understanding of and actions toward women. Cyberlibertarian rhetoric proclaims freedom for all individuals, but the story Risk tells suggests otherwise. Poitras makes this case implicitly, or rather she makes it by showing rather than telling, by letting the images, actions, and words of Assange, and to a lesser, but crucial, degree Tor developer Jacob Appelbaum, make the case for her. Assange says at one point in the film that “every person has the right to read and to speak freely with no exceptions,” but the film’s depiction both of his own contempt for “radical feminists,” and the allegations brought against him and Appelbaum for serial sexual abuse, implies that this right belongs mainly or more centrally to men, that freedom of agency belongs to men, not women, and is aided by male control over technology.

Although Appelbaum’s role in the film is less prominent than Assange’s, he is crucial in catalyzing Poitras’s change of heart. Each of the first two acts of the film presents us with instances in which Appelbaum is articulating the ideology of information security, but in which he is seen acting insensitively or disrespectfully. In the film’s first act, we see Appelbaum in Cairo at a conference called “A Future in the Making,” on the role of IT companies in supporting the Egyptian “revolution” in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. The only panelist without a jacket and tie (and the only white, Western speaker), Appelbaum comes across as brash and populist in his loudly repeated challenge to the IT executives on the panel: “Will you all agree to stand against censorship on the internet?” Although his rhetoric, equating internet freedom with democracy, prompts applause from many in the audience, Appelbaum’s hyperbolic, almost aggressive affect is problematic for others, especially the IT executives and members of the Egyptian government. Appelbaum’s idiosyncratic Western persona can seem almost heroic, but later, in the film’s middle section, Poitras presents a more troubling portrait.

Speaking to a majority-female group in Tunis about cybersecurity, Appelbaum tries to underscore the importance of anonymous browsing software like Tor by likening “safe internet use” to “safe sex.” Poitras trains her camera on a couple of the women wearing hijabs who have been made truly uncomfortable by Appelbaum’s explicit comparison between using condoms and using cyber-protection. When he likens the loss of privacy in internet use to condoms breaking and women getting pregnant, not only does the graphic metaphor perpetuate the discomfort of his Tunisian audience, but it also serves to remind the viewer that the consequences of unsafe sex (or unsafe technology) fall primarily on women.

In the film’s third act, this asymmetry is underscored in a conference addressing the Tor sexual harassment and assault charges against Appelbaum, as well as in a crucially personal moment when Poitras herself reports on her brief involvement with Appelbaum in 2014 and his abusive behavior toward a friend of hers after she broke off the relationship. In some sense, Appelbaum provides the affective key or motivator for her film. Near the end of the film, she notes in a voiceover that Appelbaum declined to be interviewed for the film, saying he wanted it to have a different ending. Poitras concedes that she wanted a different ending, too.

Although Appelbaum may have been a catalyst for Poitras’s feminist critique of the infosec community, Assange is clearly at the film’s center. The case against Assange, the portrayal of him as dependent on and exploitative of women, begins right away, although its significance only becomes truly apparent later in the film. In the film’s opening scene, his close advisor Sarah Harrison, whose intimacy with Assange throughout the film is evident, acts as his “secretary,” calling the US State Department to try to arrange a call for him to tell them about some major leaks that were about to come out. “I’m calling from the office of Julian Assange,” she says on the phone to the State Department’s emergency hotline. “It’s very important. Julian Assange is the founder of WikiLeaks.” This asymmetrical relationship between the two mirrors the traditional workplace roles of men and women throughout the history of the West, as does the fact that women perform most of the affective labor in Assange’s organization. All of his lawyers in the film are women, and Harrison serves as his caretaker throughout, playing the role of his “helpmeet,” even though the film does its best to remain silent on the question of whether they are a couple. Poitras says early on in the film that she was surprised at the access Assange was giving her; even here one might see Assange as offering a kind of sexualized intimacy, or one that at least keeps him surrounded by an all-female “staff.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, the technical work in the film is done by men (Assange, Appelbaum, and Joseph Farrell).

But Poitras reveals Assange’s explicit sexism most unflatteringly in a scene when he is discussing with another female attorney how he should publicly address the sexual assault charges made against him by two Swedish women. Even when his attorney urges him not to talk about his belief that the charges resulted from a conspiracy between government officials and radical feminists, he continues to do so with her in private. She is clearly worried that he will do so in public as well, that his dismissive or vindictive attitude toward these women who accused him will come out or show through his attempts at contrition. One of the women, he notes, co-owns a lesbian sex club in Gothenburg, which is proof to him that she travels in “those circles.”

Poitras portrays Assange very differently from how she portrays Snowden in Citizenfour. Where Snowden comes across as an almost naïve, sympathetic figure, Assange is arrogant, standoffish, sexist. He sees human actions through the lens of computing or algorithms — public answers are prescripted, possibilities are statistically weighed, choices are calculated. In one of his most disgusting moments, he characterizes sex charges as a “platform” for fame, explaining that while he was well known in media circles before he was charged with sexual assault, he only became a household name after the charges — leading him to suggest, albeit in jest, that one might take the “risk” of committing sexual assault every six months or so for the “gain” in renown that it could provide.

The film ends with a completely new third act, which takes up, among other issues, the role of WikiLeaks in the 2016 US election. Very near the film’s end, after a segment from an interview between Assange and NBC’s Chuck Todd in which Assange makes a principled defense of his commitment to total information freedom, Poitras cuts to a video of Trump basking in the applause of the crowd at the announcement of his unexpected election as president. Without saying anything, this juxtaposition says everything that the film has been after. Here the implicit connections between Trump and Assange come to the fore. Like Trump, Assange is a narcissist (we see him repeatedly concerned with his grooming, how he will look to the public). Like Trump, Assange is paranoid (the media hates WikiLeaks; feminists and the deep state are out to get him). And like Trump, Assange is sexist.

But despite these implied parallels, the most powerful message in the film is not about individuals like Assange or Appelbaum or Trump, but about the contradictions in the cyberlibertarian ideology of the infosec community. In foregrounding the role of WikiLeaks in the DNC email hacks and their role in getting Trump elected president, Poitras lets her viewers see the continuity between cyberlibertarianism and the traditional structures of white, Western, male power — autonomy and agency belong to the individual white male in both cases, and women are seen to be objects for men to use for their own advancement or benefit. Although Poitras was by no means a supporter of Hillary Clinton (indeed, quite the contrary) the film implicitly makes the case that the attacks on Clinton were motivated by sexism, by a patriarchal Western civilization feeling threatened about its historical holds on the reins of power.

In a conversation with Assange at the end of the film, the last time we hear him speak, Poitras asks if his obsession with the political struggle for total freedom of information isn’t really about power, linking cyberlibertarianism to traditional liberalism. In response to this, Assange tries to explain his position through an extended metaphor: if you can only see your own garden, you are limited to weeding and watering and keeping it growing, but if like him you are able to see the global situation then the world is your garden and you have a responsibility to act globally. Assange immediately recognizes that “perhaps I have a God complex,” as he performs what Donna Haraway has called the “God trick” of white male power.

After this discussion, the film’s last words from Assange (in a text read by Poitras) are about his reaction to the near-final cut of the film. He tells her that perhaps they will find a way to work together again some time in the future, but “presently the film is a severe threat to my freedom, and I am forced to treat it accordingly.” At the end as at the beginning, it is the Western, liberal notion of freedom as white male autonomy that Assange is committed to — a notion of freedom that has been used in the service of the domination and oppression of women, people of color, and the nonhuman world. By running the risk of exposing the fundamental sexism both of Assange and of the broader hacker community, Poitras makes visible in Risk the structural alliance between cyberlibertarianism and Western patriarchy, in which the aesthetic and political agency of women can only be seen as a threat to masculine autonomy, power, and freedom.


Richard Grusin is professor of English at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he formerly directed the Center for 21st Century Studies.

LARB Contributor

Richard Grusin is professor of English at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he formerly directed the Center for 21st Century Studies. He has authored numerous chapters and articles on film and media, including “Radical Mediation” (Critical Inquiry, Autumn 2015). He has published four books, including, with Jay David Bolter, Remediation: Understanding New Media (MIT, 1999); Culture, Technology, and the Creation of America’s National Parks (Cambridge, 2004); and Premediation: Affect and Mediality After 9/11 (Palgrave, 2010). He is editor of three books: The Nonhuman Turn (Minnesota, 2015), Anthropocene Feminism (Minnesota, 2017), and After Extinction (forthcoming Minnesota, 2018).


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!