Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

The writers of ‘The Columnist’ must have read my inbox | Helen Ubiñas

What becomes clear in the movie is something I quickly learned in my own interactions — hunting down or confronting trolls is a lot like playing an endless game of whack-a-mole.

Katja Herbers plays Femke Boot, the titular character in "The Columnist."
Katja Herbers plays Femke Boot, the titular character in "The Columnist."Read moreFilm Movement

“And now, Twitter: A curse or a blessing?”

So begins The Columnist, a dark, satirical Dutch film released this week that centers on a female journalist driven to the edge by relentless online harassment.

“You’re a stupid b—. " “Your [sic] an ugly whore.” “I hope you get run over by an enormous tractor trailer truck that literally savages and destroys every inch of your body.”

That’s actually a sampling from my inboxes, but the hate messages and death threats received by Femke Boot, the fed-up author, columnist, and single mom considering the question about Twitter on a local talk show, are bad, too.

Really bad — especially after Femke (played by Katja Herbers) criticizes Black Pete, a Christmas character who typically appears in blackface.

“Why can’t we just have different opinions and be nice about it?” Femke muses, naively and hypocritically, given the homicidal revenge she later unleashes on her worst trolls. (She ever-so-gently tips her neighbor off a roof after discovering he’s one of her tormentors. She also giddily and gruesomely slices off a middle finger of each of her victims as a keepsake.)

Friends and colleagues suggest she should steer clear of political or controversial issues. Don’t read the comments, they say.

One especially unhelpful friend surmises, “If it was so bad, you’d have gone to the police.”

(She does, and it does no good. It’s elementary-school bullying, one cop suggests. Just ignore it.)

And as any woman writer — especially of color — can attest, it really doesn’t matter what you write about, including the gift of a soft-boiled egg, which Femke offers to equally disgusting responses from men.

While no one should confuse this column for an official film review — there are already plenty of good ones out there — the campy Columnist is an entertaining way to pass an hour and a half, especially if you’ve had any experience with online trolls or harbored any fantasies — guilty! — of payback.

There was something reassuring about watching a film exploring the challenges of navigating social media as a woman who has the audacity to express her opinion publicly.

There was also something deliciously satisfying about watching Femke confronting the men — because they are almost always men — which I’ve done in a less homicidal way.

What becomes clear in the movie is something I quickly learned in my own interactions — hunting down trolls is a lot like playing an endless game of whack-a-mole. Pound one down on one platform only to see even more pop up on another.

It’s enough to drive anyone a little mad, or a lot, especially when those around you downplay or dismiss the toll as just part of the job.

It is — to an extent. But as I said in a January column, it’s also a disturbing commentary on whose safety is recognized and prioritized.

(The film is subtitled, but it does a masterful job of revealing the cumulative damaging effect of online harassment by filling the screen with missives translated into English.)

“Another ridiculous story.”

“I’ve cancelled my subscription!”

“I know where you live.”

In an art-imitates-life moment, those comments can be found both in the film and in my inbox.

While the film focuses on Femke’s bloody carnage, and mostly stays away from any heavy-handed lessons, there are plenty to be gleaned from some of the subplots: a boyfriend whose dark public persona belies a nice, normal guy at home (the internet isn’t real, people!), and a daughter who is waging her own fight against misogyny and patriarchy at her school.

While Femke is coming undone — and adding to her collection of middle fingers kept in a box of frozen peas — she still manages to help with a pointed, deliberately ironic column about free speech that helps her daughter send a clear message to school administrators.

“If people don’t agree with me, they are allowed to be angry. They are allowed to curse me, fight against me with every argument that they can come up with. But they aren’t allowed to silence me.”

It’s an imperfectly triumphant moment, and a reminder to keep fighting, and keep writing.