She wore not a prosthesis, but four. Quadruple amputee athlete Bebe Vio, 19, who lost her limbs to meningitis at the age of 11 and last month won a Paralympic gold medal in women’s wheelchair fencing, walked on her own two lower limb prostheses when joining Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi at the State Dinner hosted by Barack and Michelle Obama two nights ago in Washington. And what did she get out of it? Glamour (she wore an evening dress donated by Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior), fun (at least judging from her selfie with Obama), some food prepared by celebrity chef Mario Batali, and a lot of vitriol poured onto her from all corners of the Web. In the last couple of days, online armchair critics have accused her of the most bizarre sins, such as flying to Washington to have fun at the expense of taxpayers, neglecting the plight of the unemployed, wearing an expensive dress by a French brand, being “politicized” in support of the embattled Renzi, and worse. Countless online trolls over the past two days have let out their own frustration against Bebe, as they have in the past against many women who have, for example, spoken out against misogyny in videogames, called for historic women leaders to be portrayed on banknotes, or written about contemporary feminism.
Bebe, who only recently won her Paralympic gold and is not a feminist campaigner by any stretch of the imagination, pays for two original sins. First, she never let herself become a victim. Life gave her a shitload of bitter lemons, and she built a factory of very sweet lemonade: the non-profit she started with her family, Art4Sport, has helped dozens of amputee children practice sports instead of languishing in their wheelchairs. Second, she is a young woman: and women who are proud of any achievement – technology, entrepreneurship, politics, sports – end up being attacked, insulted and threatened with the worst sexist and violent attacks if they so much as dare to share their pride online. The torrent of insults unleashed on Bebe is just the latest example of how the basic rules of civil discourse seem to be suspended when it comes to criticizing women. What is to be done if we are to neutralize poisonous threats against women? One might follow the example of journalist and podcaster Alanah Pearce, whose anti-troll technique became famous after this tweet: “Sometimes young boys on Facebook send me rape threats, so I’ve started telling their mothers.” If you are disgusted by the trolls who attacked Bebe, finding out who their moms are and sending them screenshots might not be a bad place to start.