On January 21, 2017 my Instagram feed was flooded with pictures from various Women’s Marches. These pictures showed thousands of people grasping sassy signs, often donning pink pussy hats on their heads. The various marches that took place on this day were wildly successful and had incredible turnouts. However, seeing all these pictures on social media from people who have otherwise participated in zero feminist organizations made me wonder, why are they posting rather than being activists in real life?
If you’re attending a women’s march, aren’t your intentions clear enough that it isn’t necessary to need pussy hats and other paraphernalia to show why you’re there? It seemed to me that it was teenagers and young adults who latched onto the idea of pussy hats the most. However, their ubiquitousness on social media felt more as if they were just for the photos and acknowledgement from peers than the meaning. Amy Alexander notes that “Today’s purveyors of hashtag feminism [are] exemplified by pink ‘pussy hats,’ safety pins and cheeky-ballsy slogans on T-shirts,” rather than using one’s voice and really taking action. Scrolling through the results from searching #pussyhat on Instagram, I noticed that every single photo with people in them showed white people with big smiles wearing pussy hats. Having one’s voice heard is far easier for white women than women of color, which seems to be why they are able to utilize a more light-hearted approach to feminism. White people can put on a pussy hat and a pink t-shirt and be seen as a feminist role model, but women of color have a better concept of how work doesn’t get done by posting a cute picture of yourself, it takes physical and emotional effort. Social media shouldn’t be seen as an alternative means of activism, but a complement to taking one’s voice out into the world physically.
I personally learned what intersectional feminism is from girls from my school: white, straight, cisgender girls. Even in communities in which intersectional feminism is the priority, too often white women are the ones explaining it. Mariana Ortega discusses a meeting regarding feminism that she attended at which white women kept commenting on how they all needed to “‘give space to their voices,’” regarding people of color. Finally a woman of color raises her hand to point out: “‘You keep talking about women of color as if we were not here.’” There is no reason why a woman of color couldn’t have recited the poem “Nasty Woman” instead of Ashley Judd, especially because Judd isn’t even the author. If you are a white woman who is in the majority in many other aspects of your identity as well, you are able to be an intersectional feminist. However, this requires stepping back so that others get the opportunity to speak, rather than stepping forward yourself to try and help.
Cherilyn Lau is one of the coheads of my school’s Women’s Org, our feminist club. She is in the minority racially and due to her gender, but if you look at her social media pages, you’ll notice that she has no posts declaring or defending her status as an activist for these movements. Lau shared that, “generally, a post’s only purpose is to ‘prove’ to others that you aren’t racist or misogynistic. If there are no genuine conversations with real people and more concrete actions taken to tackle these issues, posting becomes kind of selfish; it no longer benefits anyone, but one’s self-image.” She occasionally shares articles on Facebook, and has made one post regarding the Black Lives Matter movement, displaying herself as an ally rather. Although she has utilized social media for social justice issues a few time, it is by no means her primary means of being an activist, and she explains, “posting stuff online to declare your beliefs isn’t bad, there just has to be actual conversations had and actions taken beyond a post.” Mehreen Kasana also expressed this idea when she explained, “Social media alone cannot carry and implement the entire political process of change. It requires the help of those offline and those with access to academia and other venues where individuals are informed and educated about these issues.”
Another issue with engaging in feminism through social media is that it’s easy to create a bubble for yourself, in which everyone shares the same political opinions as you. When you follow accounts or like pages that support your opinions, you end up creating a world for yourself in which there is no opposition, which inaccurately simulates the real world. Lau discusses falling into this trap: “I, myself, struggle with escaping my own liberal Facebook bubble. I try to read more conservative pieces and try to come up with counter-arguments and questions.”
These bubbles are only a real issue for majority groups. As Mehreen Kasana said, “For marginalized voices in social media spaces, solidarity becomes essential.” For minorities, social media is beneficial, and empowers groups. However, it’s the bubble of white women who are already large in numbers and whose voices are more easily projected that problematic. Even at events that are meant to represent all women, groups often feeling left out. Jamilah Lemieux opted out of attending any women’s marches because after the election “There was lots of weeping and wailing from women who could get the answers to those questions by simply asking their relatives, friends and partners who put Trump in power.” She disapproved of how so many of the women leading the women’s march were “new-to-it White women who just decided that they care about social issues,” now that it involves them.
2016 Presidential Election Exit Poll from CNN
These bubbles are easy to fall into, but a goal revolving around differences cannot be reached if people surround themselves exclusively with others who are similar to them. Building a community with solidarity is a necessary first step, as it helps boost those with little social power to the next level, and allows for them to project their voices more. Deborah Martin, Susan Hanson, and Danielle Fontaine explain the next step, saying, “activism entails an individual making particular kinds of new connections between people that alter power relations within existing social networks.” When the webs are interwoven, they carry the most strength and potential. This involves making an effort to interact with new communities of people both online and in person.
It takes an understanding from you: and understanding that work doesn’t get done on social media alone. A post about you being a feminist is just another post if only your friends will be seeing it. Similarly, you can only be an effective feminist if you understand the opinions that differ from yours. Lastly, if you are a white feminist, don’t be a “white feminist.”
- Physically attend meetings or marches for feminist groups committed to not posting or talking to friends about the fact that you went: you are a feminist for the benefit of all women, not just yours.
- Follow accounts of news outlets with different beliefs than you on social media; the comment section is a great place to expand your knowledge of the world. Avoiding opposition is avoiding the problem.
- Attend rallies for and support social justice movements that you aren’t directly affected by. Feminism is intersectional and has the goal of equality for all in mind, so fight for your sisters, too.
Lemieux, Jamilah. “Why I’m Skipping The Women’s March on Washington [OPINION].”Colorlines. N.p., 17 Jan. 2017. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.
Alexander, Amy. “Today’s Feminism: Too Much Marketing, Not Enough Reality.” NPR. NPR, 21 Feb. 2017. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.
Kasana, Mehreen. “Feminisms and the Social Media Sphere.” Women’s Studies Quarterly42.3/4 (n.d.): 236-49. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.
Ortega, Mariana. “Being Lovingly, Knowingly Ignorant: White Feminism and Women of Color.” Hypatia 21.3 (n.d.): 56-74. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.
Martin, Deborah G., Susan Hanson, and Danielle Fontaine. “What Counts as Activism?: The Role of Individuals in Creating Change.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 35.3/4 (n.d.): 78-94.JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.