By Caitlin Panarella
Media has often been a primary tool through which women and girls discover and create a feminist consciousness. For some it was the Bible, for others it was books and newspapers, for more still it was television and radio. Social media is now the order of the day, with hashtags and public accounts providing forums for democratic debate.
No matter what else I think about social media, I will always be thankful for it. Instagram was indispensable in my discovery of, and identification with, feminism. Though I do not remember the specifics of how I found the account, I do remember the first account I followed- @Feminist_101.
With every post I read, more emotions came to the fore: excitement, anger, astonishment. I was shocked I had not recognized it before- the way girls and women are judged, the little and big things we can’t do, the little and big things we must do. I also learned that feminism was not solely about gender; it included the rights of people of color, the LGBTQ community and people with disabilities.
I now follow more accounts that promote feminism, and I have thus been privy to a troubling trend on some of these accounts. I have seen multiple posts that read, “If your feminism doesn’t include X, your feminism SUCKS.” “If you don’t support X, how dare you call yourself a feminist.” “If you aren’t rallying behind X, shut up and get out.”
These posts are a far cry from what welcomed me into the feminist community. Had I seen these posts first, instead of ones that educated me on feminist issues, I wonder if I would have sought out a higher feminist consciousness.
I recall scrolling through my Instagram feed last year and seeing a post reading, “If your feminism doesn’t recognize sex work as real work, it’s not feminism.” I immediately felt a horrible sense of guilt- I had not yet learned about this facet of feminism, so I felt like a “bad feminist.”
Over the summer, I read Roxane’s Gay Bad Feminist, a collection of essays about popular culture, events, and her own experiences. I felt a sense of relief when I read what I had been thinking reflected in her last two essays. She cites gender theorist Judith Butler, who claimed that there is constant pressure to be the “essential woman,” that there is “a right way to be a woman.” Gay then applies this thesis to feminism, saying that there is a “notion that there are right and wrong ways to be a feminist and that there are consequences for doing feminism wrong.”
This notion that they will be scrutinized from the moment they join, may be inhibiting more women and girls from embracing feminism. It also may be making feminists afraid that as they are still learning what feminism means, they will be judged for not having all of the answers yet.
I understand that many times, the posts I see on social media reflect an outrage that some feminists are not intersectional enough. I agree that that is an enormous problem, and that feminism that excludes anyone, or ignores the issues specific to marginalized groups, is not feminism. However, I disagree with the way these accounts go about addressing the problem.
As Roxane Gay said in her TED Talk, “We have this tendency to put visible feminists on a pedestal. We expect them to pose perfectly. When they disappoint us, we gleefully knock them from the very pedestal we put them on.”
Feminism as I understand it has two branches- one of which focuses on uplifting all women, and the other which promotes feminist ideology. With these vicious-sounding posts, we risk exiling and repulsing those who still are learning the ideology. We post and repost the idea that once you identify as a feminist, you are watched until someone can expose the cracks in your facade of “fake feminism.”
Whoever the intended audience may be, the recipients of these posts will include passersby, perhaps tween and young teenage girls happening upon the accounts as I once did. Will we welcome them and educate them? Or impress upon them that this community hurls accusations and ruthlessly roots out “bad” or ”fake” members?
Social media is a tool. It can be used to educate, agitate, and organize, or it can serve to scare and intimidate would-be feminists. I hope that we can continue to promote the former, and find more positive avenues to promote better intersectionality. Our own feminist awakenings should benefit others, not be a means by which we shame them.
A feminist consciousness is not an inborn quality; in fact such awareness requires the breakdown of internalized lessons of a sexist society. If we fail to guide the uninitiated into such a vital consciousness, we risk losing a generation that may agree with feminist ideals but resist their unifying label; we fertilize the ground for a new “I’m-not-a-feminist-but” cohort.
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay