Feminism has been having problems online for a while. Which makes perfect sense, because feminism has been having problems offline for a couple centuries. Race, class, ability, gender essentialism, the debates on who counts, who gets heard, and whose issues get attention started the moment the movement named itself. From “borrowing” from the rights of the Seneca Nation, to the battles of Ida B. Wells, and onward, there has been a discussion happening about feminism’s problems.
This summer that discussion go boom.
There were hashtags and meltdowns and at times it was shadier than an apple orchard at high noon. When the politics of the internet and feminism met this time, the discourse shifted. #Solidarityisforwhitewomen, the Trayvon Martin case, and One Billion Rising were just some of the flashpoints. If the feminist summer of 2013 taught us anything, it’s that women are expecting a lot more. Whether feminism can rise to meet that challenge remains to be seen, but one thing that’s for sure is that women are no longer waiting quietly and hoping that they get it right.
The Internet is the greatest communication innovation of our age. The impolite question of every communication innovation is “What do we do when the peasants get access?” Facebook started at Harvard, trickled down through the Ivy League and into the general populace; Tumblr was a micro-blogging platform for a cultural elite and now is a billion-dollar Yahoo property. The part that doesn’t inspire the rapturous wonder and hyperbolic copy, is the simple geeky love of it. Social media is mostly business-friendly copy on top of the good old-fashioned desire for human connection. Folks want to talk, and often, to each other. From the early days of usenet to, yes, the blogs and tweets of today, we send ideas, feelings, brain droppings out into the world and hope they meet up with other folks. If we are very lucky, those who interact with us make sending them worthwhile.
For the most part, branding and the banality of our day-to-day lives can co-exist peacefully, except when the brand is movement-making. Online branding demands an almost robotic adherence to a message, whatever that message is. Exclusiveness attracts interest that allows for popularity that can translate into stellar careers and influential places in society. Movement-making, at its best, is a roiling, argumentative, communal beast that’s based in an exchange across all sorts of channels. It doesn’t look pretty and it’s terribly hard to sell.
Mainstream feminism had found its branded sites, where “smart, snarky” commentary, given by mostly white, mostly young, mostly middle-class (with an appropriate sprinkling of diversity) women cast a very press- and brand-ready picture. Meanwhile, other women online had started organizing around immigration, motherhood and reproductive justice in ways that were not being supported by the focus of “feminism” being presented. I may or may not have told a major feminist press exactly where to go. It settled into a comfortable equilibrium. The brand would be over there, the movement and quotidian concerns over here, and never the twain shall meet without warfare.
Then Mikki Kendall made a joke and lit the internet on fire.
No discussion around digital feminism this past summer is going anywhere without talking about #SolidarityisForWhiteWomen. It’s special to me because it was a public display of the support Mikki Kendall (@Karnythia) had been giving me privately, an open indicator of the marginalization we had joked about for years. We don’t get the support that white women write about being so integral to feminism. That part of the deal is not for us. Hugo Schwyzer came out publicly and admitted that he abused and targeted me, but for years his falling apart was more important than my mental health. When Kendall asked Jill Filipovic when anybody would be as concerned about the women he hurt as they were about how things “looked,” she was mocking the brand.
Except a whole bunch of us seem to have felt that way. Women of color, queer women, trans* women, women with disabilities had long been crafting our own spaces and used the hashtag to find each other.
Major feminist and brand outlets, on writing about the tag, have focused on Hugo Schwyzer, how he fell from grace, how he conned them. Or the roles of white feminists from now on: how to be appropriately sorry , how to better address matters of privilege.
The actual story is what the hashtag brought to light. Women are online. Women are intelligent, strategic and incisive. The women who exemplify this story are not the women we are “supposed” to be looking at, according to what mainstream feminism tells us. They aren’t career feminists, and some would hesitate to call themselves feminists at all. But when it comes to addressing the concerns and issues of our lives; they may not be branded, but they are pretty effective. Women focusing on supporting each other could move media in ways that had not yet been seen.
The aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict was an amazing example. It was decried and mourned as “tragic, but what could we DO” online. Jessie-Lane Metz’ analysis of the responses highlighted the “failure of good intentions.” The ultimate issue was about affirming that a certain kind of white women would have done better or needed to be understood for their failures, thus securing their right to continue on as feminist leaders. On the other hand, Twitter user Cocky McSWagsalot (@Moreandagain) launched and carried a one woman mission to end the book deal of a Zimmerman juror.
Too often the language of learning, growing or good intent has been used to ignore the real-life implications the branding model has on the daily lives of women. It also becomes a perverse exercise in trying to use a bigger brand to force out established activism. In the case of One Billion Rising, the hard work of indigenous women was almost subsumed by the stronger arm of V-Day. Women with similar concerns can see and be seen halfway across the world through the use of social media, often around or in spite of the brands that claim to link them.
I am excited about this. I really am, because it’s an opportunity. It’s a painful, demanding opportunity but an opportunity nonetheless. Right now, the accepted language is that we need to “listen” and “check our privilege.” I am gonna advocate for something a little more proactive. For too long in TED Talks, in articles, the story has been that the feminism of a certain generation is “finding its way.” When #femfuture was published in March, it promised “a report on the new taxonomy of the feminist movement,” focusing on women it could advertise as “dynamic feminist” leaders.
We can’t have leaders till we have a movement that is intentional about its commitment to its people.
We have got to stop looking for a good packaging and a good brand. Women’s rights and women’s issues are important, not because they sound good in copy but because they affect women. Not as a slick package but as living, breathing humans who shape our world.
We have to embrace the chaos and the dissent. We aren’t trashing each other. It’s not a simplistic meanness, but a very real and deep disagreement on how we go forward and the affect that has on our lives.
We aren’t finding our way. We aren’t working towards the same things; we may not even be on the same team. The gallery and diversity of women’s opinions can no longer be stock photos of whatever we think “looks good.” That is empty and ultimately hinders our ability to be effective.
The silencing and condescending language around “circular firing squads,” “in-fighting,” and “special interests.” It casts women of color as divisive spoilsports and mythical monstrosities rather than women fighting to create a movement that actually serves them, rather than uses them for window dressing. We can no longer and will no longer accept treatment that denies our right to decide our voice, and technology has allowed this movement to be global.
The timing of the transformation of the field of engagement is bittersweet. It comes with the acknowledgement that women now more than ever are under constant siege. Reproductive health, economic independence, violence and immigration policies are disproportionately and detrimentally affecting women. While #standwithwendy was a beautiful, galvanizing moment, it must be tempered with the reality that for the women of Texas getting healthcare and abortions got so much harder. More than ever the ability to listen and research and value women’s opinions and strategic brilliance must be treasured and contextualized.
Women are living lives where activism is quickly becoming their only choice in order to have their basic needs met, for respecting their dead, for remembering the fallen. The social media aspects are not for building the next great brand of feminism but for realizing the true potential of supporting women. It needs to be honored for the undertaking it is, and not the brand message we hope works.
When Fast Company listed the #25smartestwomen on Twitter, blogger Feminista Jones pointed out the unbearable whiteness of its being. In minutes #smartblackwomenoftwitter, #smartLatintasoftwitter, and #smartaapiawomenoftwitter trended. Fast Company published an apology and an augmented list in hours. If non-feminist business and industry entities can recognize the necessity and power of the variety of women in social media, feminism shouldn’t have such an issue with it.
We can make the internet go boom. Can we make it go boom for us, and by us, all? Feminism has been having these problems for a long time now: whether it continues to have them is something social media can help solve, or help show.
Sydette Harry is a writer/performer/theorist/nerd woman. She tweets and blogs as Blackamazon, performs with The Body Ecology Performance Ensemble. Her interests are nerdery, communication theory, and womanist critical analysis. Also pudding.