The “Passive-Aggressive” Note Thing & Just How Problematic It Is

TRIGGER WARNING for conversations and content about rape culture and sexual violence and intimidation.

In the midst of the Thanksgiving gratitude Facebook posts, reminders that the holiday is an aggrandizement of genocide against Native Americans, and pictures of turkeys, a little story about airline travelers made the viralways on social media. It detailed the hostilities between a producer of The Bachelor and a private citizen in seat 7A as their flight, delayed, sat on the tarmac.

Elan Gale, the Hollywood producer, opened with a tweet that seemed humorous at first:

screen capture of Elan Gale tweet

It’s sarcastic and not particularly sensitive, but it goes to the frustrations and anxieties that many of us have when traveling in an airline system that hasn’t been passenger-focused in a long time. But thinking about it more carefully, there are only some people who can afford to travel by air. Some others of us either take the bus or the train, drive a shorter distance that doesn’t break our budget, or stay home. So already this is a conversation between relatively entitled people. 

Fifteen minutes later, Elan is still annoyed by her, and tweets:

more tweets from Elan Gale about the fellow passenger

So it sounds as if she was rude to the cabin staff, but what also seems clear to me is that she is having a lot of anxiety about not being present with her family on the holiday. Many of us can identify with that, but if this one person is voicing her anxiety this loudly and rudely, it makes me wonder what degree of anxiety she lives with on a daily basis. Even if most of  us get stressed trying to travel around/for the holidays, we still can silence ourselves or whisper with our traveling neighbors about our frustrations. Certainly Elan isn’t using his filter, either, he just thinks he’s the better person for tweeting about it to thousands of people instead of announcing his feelings to the other people on the plane.

He also shows a complete lack of empathy for her. And maybe a lack of headphones:

another two tweets from Elan Gale

Finally the captain announces they’ll be taking off in a few minutes, and Elan tweets that the woman muttered “Bout DAMN time” from five rows back. That puts him in the second row. And that puts him in first class seating. So part of the subtext here is that a white, male, first class passenger, is pissed off because a woman in economy is complaining too much and too loudly about being delayed and missing her connection on Thanksgiving. But ha ha, let’s just laugh at how he characterizes her and her emotions.

The Huffington Post article about Elan’s tweets uses “Annoying Airplane Passenger Got What She Deserved” as a tag for the article, which lends to the overly aggressive tenor of the successive interactions between Elan and the woman. It’s not as if the “deserved” concept doesn’t get attributed to stories about women who face hostility from men all the time. We know how to read such a tag because we’ve seen it so many times before. Now that we’ve seen the set up from Elan—this woman is rude, hates workers, and deserves the mockery of thousands of us—he progresses from communicating about her to communicating to her. And it’s not nice:

glass of wine sent with mean note from Elan

The note reads: Dear lady in 7A: It has come to my attention that today is your Thanksgiving!! It must be hard not to be with your family! Please accept this glass of wine. It is a gift from me to you. Hopefully if you drink it, you won’t be able to use your mouth to talk. Love Elan!

So to make sure I understand this: a man in first class is angry at a woman five rows behind him, can’t focus on anything else, starts complaining about her online, and then sends her a hostile note with a glass of wine. Did he really think she would drink it? Reflect on his pithy sentiment and change her evil ways? Be silenced by his mansplaining self and never make another peep? He’s presumed who she is, why she’s so upset, and how he alone can fix her, never anticipating that perhaps she’ll respond in some way. This isn’t an oversight, it’s a direct consequence of not asking for a moment what her perspective may look like.

But one note and a glass of crappy red wine isn’t enough for Elan. For whatever reason (he somehow didn’t feel the motivation to tweet about it), he then works with a flight attendant to leave two little bottles of vodka on her tray table, walking by “pretending” to go to the lavatory. And then he reports he’s “shaking” because he’s so terrified that he did that. Yes, buddy, you’re shaking because you’ve repeatedly invaded someone’s space.

Elan then tweets that the woman is staring at him in anger. I’m not sure that was her emotion, but for someone who so far has been driven by anger with his tweets and notes and provisions of alcohol, just maybe she could have been looking at him in fear. Certainly the note she sends back telegraphs some of her emotions:note from Diane to Elan

She’s not friendly, but why would she be? A big burly guy five rows in front of her is really angry at her and has now left her a hostile note and invaded her personal space. What her letter reads to me is frightened and defensive, and it’s drawing a boundary. In case he thinks he’s being hilarious, she wants him to know he isn’t. She calls him on his lack of empathy (which one could argue she was lacking too, in her conversation with a flight attendant). Maybe it was unwise to write back to him, but how was she to know when his harassment would end? After all, she hadn’t responded between the wine and vodka. What if her first response was to ignore him and her second to repel him with a note?

Of course the story doesn’t end here. He reads her note and tweets, “This means war.” He is not getting it at all—not his social position, his entitlement, her sense of humor, his sense of space—he understands no nuance here. He tells his Twitter audience a little bit more about her:

Diane is in her late 40s or early 50s. She is wearing mom jeans and a studded belt and she is wearing a medical mask over her idiot face

Whoa, he didn’t mention the medical mask this whole time? Maybe she has a compromised immune system, which makes me wonder why he thinks she’ll drink his wine or vodka. Or maybe she really has an anxiety disorder. To call her an “idiot” just furthers his defense of his hostility. Which he continues against his target. He walks by her again and smiles and takes a picture. And tells his audience that he’s considering balling up his next note in his mouth and spitting it at her. I’m wondering at this point, in reading the article, why the flight attendants are so willing to let one passenger harass another, if the woman isn’t very likable.

Here come another two notes from Elan, each venturing into threatening territory:

threatening note from Elan

It ends with:

I hate you very much. Eat my dick.

Why doesn’t he think he’s terribly, horribly scary? I’ll also note that this is four hours after the flight was initially delayed, a long time to commit to being this angry at a complete stranger. He’s been looking for support from his Twitter followers for every action of his, and at this point is getting pushback from some of them. Never does Elan see this woman as a person, telling followers hey don’t go all “Team Diane” on me. She’s not “Team Diane.” She’s a woman named Diane who in all likelihood wants to be as far from the plane he’s on as any of us would.

She writes back to him, telling him he is very inappropriate and she will be “speaking with the authorities” when they land. I can’t say I’d write any differently were I her. This is also another attempt to get him to stop. She’d pressed her call button several times but again, nobody seems to be telling him to curtail his behavior. He sends another note:

When you speak to the authorities please make sure they arrest you for cannibalism because you ate my dick!

Again, threatening, a reminder of his power as a man, and a dismissal of her promise to tell law enforcement about him. He’s in safe territory, after all, as women are so often deemed not credible in their own defense. In fact, Elan has a third note for her at the gate once they land in Phoenix, and he waits for her to get off the plane to hand it to her. She slaps him. Authorities ask him if he wants to press charges. Because he’s the wounded man, right? And she’s crazy and wearing a surgical mask, and isn’t a nice person. By the way, Elan looks like this:

Elan Gale

Sure, there’s nothing intimidating about him. He’s a barrel of laughs. She loves to eat dick, clearly, with her nervous persona and her anxieties and her jerkiness. We all just read about rape culture in an airplane on Thanksgiving, and we’re supposed to laugh about it.

This is not passive-aggressiveness, dear media outlets. This is sexual harassment and intimidation and threats of violence. And it’s extremely not funny.

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9 Comments on “The “Passive-Aggressive” Note Thing & Just How Problematic It Is”

  1. J.
    November 30, 2013 at 10:37 pm #

    How do you read sexism into this encounter at all? If Diane was a 40 year old male acting the same way, nothing indicates Elan wouldnt have acted exactly the same as well.

    The “eat my dick” comments were certainly over the line, but again nothing indicates they wouldnt have been said to a male. They likely are also not to be taken literally or sexually. Instead just a childish insult.

    It appears you are reading sexism into an encounter and headline (“deserved”) where its not there.

    • evmaroon
      November 30, 2013 at 11:36 pm #

      But Diane isn’t a 40-year-old male acting the same way, she’s a woman. Her snobbery to the flight attendants was not a masculine power play, it was all about them not “understanding” her needs and feelings and full of anxiety. Elan’s behavior, on the other hand, was about mocking her, calling her an idiot, using aggressive intimidation like breaking into her personal space and telling her to eat his penis. How can you not call that sexist? What would this engagement have had to include before you would agree there was some sexism going on here? And for the record, my interest isn’t in labeling it sexist or not. My interest is in saying his jokes weren’t funny and he went way over the line into harassment. But since you bring it up, yeah, it looks pretty damn sexist to me.

  2. November 30, 2013 at 11:31 pm #

    *insert applause here*

  3. Sharon
    December 1, 2013 at 1:25 am #

    There is no way he would have done that to somebody who was bigger and stronger than he was. This is clearly a case of bullying a person in a weaker, more fragile state. It is not “joking” and there is absolutely nothing funny about the way he treated this woman.

  4. Sharon
    December 1, 2013 at 1:44 am #

    One more thing… If I were this man’s employer, I would quickly fire him if he was associating his name (and, by default, his actions) with my company.

  5. Mary m
    December 1, 2013 at 9:55 am #

    The woman was dying of cancer. See link. http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels/2013/11/bullying-at-35-thousand-feet/

  6. December 9, 2013 at 8:28 am #

    Not sure if this changes the narrative at all, but this story was debunked–he made the whole thing up: http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/elan-gale-made-epic-note-war-thanksgiving-flight/story?id=21099585

    • evmaroon
      December 9, 2013 at 8:32 am #

      Yes, I saw that. I meant to post an update. FWIW, I’m happy that there isn’t a real Diane, dying of cancer or otherwise stressed out. However yes, Elan’s ruse still rallied thousands to defend rape culture, still gave loads of social media time to getting people to “witness” his stalking and intimidation, and still encouraged people to say very mean things against a woman they didn’t know. So he’s not really less of a jerk in my opinion. But I am grateful there’s not a real person behind the story.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Best and Worst Pop Culture Moments of 2013 | Trans/plant/portation - December 16, 2013

    […] television, faked a hostile note campaign during a flight to Phoenix, Arizona, this Thanksgiving. I wrote about it, myself, because I was concerned about what it meant for harassment, macho-coded violence, and what lengths […]

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