The Blog

Social Media and the Feminist Brand

I understand we can't all be perfect - I'm completely with Roxane Gay when she says it's better to be 'a bad feminist, than no feminist at all'. But I for one know that for all my blogging, I haven't contributed enough to concrete change, and I am determined to join a wave of feminism committed to tangible results.

When allied with activism, social media can be extremely powerful. Facebook waved their white flag after the week-long campaign led by Women, Action and the Media, the Everyday Sexism Project and the activist Soraya Chemaly, who demanded the removal of content promoting violence and rape, supposedly meant to entertain. What's more, platforms like Twitter and Facebook have an international reach, allowing voices affected by sexism, street harassment and domestic violence to emancipate others and gain support.

And yet social media also hinders the feminist movement; a single tweet can strip away every political and apposite spark, leaving superficial remnants which deny women the equal respect they deserve. If you've been following vital campaigns like the Everyday Sexism Project, you'll understand my indignation when I saw an inherently misogynistic brand championing International Women's Day.

This tweet seems to say: Guess what? Women can read! Isn't that amazing? I nearly punched my laptop screen. The line 'Oh isn't this amazing?' is sang by Belle from Beauty and the Beast, a peculiar exhibit to the rest of her town because she enjoys the company of a book. But of course, even though she likes to read stories filled with sword fights and magic spells, her favourite part is always the happy, heteronormative ending 'where she meets Prince Charming'. All people from across the gender spectrum have a right to be angry about phallogocentric representation - especially when its happening on an international day committed to instilling real change. It upsets me that we are still living in a world where the fight for equality is viewed as a joke: whenever I search feminist memes on Google, I inevitably find a ridiculing shrine where feminists thrive in opposition to men. They can get away with anything simply because they have breasts - they are brainless, angry, man-hating, predatory...

What unsettled me even more was the fact that Disney's tweet received more retweets and engagement (predominantly positive) on International Women's Day, than those from UN Women promoting Planet 50-50. This UN campaign calls for global action and government commitment to gender inequality and is scheduled for discussion at the Fourth World Conference on Women.

The facts tell us that women are still not paid equally compared to their male counterparts. Women face stereotypical effigies of their social identity on a daily basis in the media and online. On a global scale, women are not given equal access to education and health, and they are not represented equally in business or politics. What's more, women are much more likely to be victims of domestic violence and partner murder - not that we want this to be 50-50 - we don't want such crimes to be occurring at all.

The theme for this year's International Women's Day was Make It Happen. I acknowledge social media has been a vital force for feminism, but I also believe the Internet can be a place of harmful agendas and false triumphs. Only by taking real action, can equality 'happen'. It is not something bestowed upon humanity like Disney's portrayal of Belle on Twitter seems to suggest. When parody accounts made by men are raking in hundreds of dollars for tweets perpetuating female stereotypes, you know that activism cannot be confined to our screens - we must take to the streets and march boldly towards genuine progress.

We are seduced by celebratory lists of heroines and female celebrities: The Independent published an article on International Women's Day featuring 'the strongest women on screen so far this century'. I agree that feminism should be as much about celebration as criticism, but how can characters like Elsa from Frozen be lauded as role models for equality? In Frozen, Disney's civilising, white upper-class, exclusionary mission of proper sex roles pushes Elsa's active choice to 'Let it Go' into the icy background. There are many misogynistic parts to this film which undermine its central focus on female relationships: as Bitch Media rightly puts it: 'Frozen is based on a Hans Christian Anderson fairytale where a girl rescues her male friend, but the film writers changed the story to make main character Anna need a man's help.'

We all need to be critical about the messages we consume: a retweet or share won't change the world in the long term, especially if it's mock-empowering. I understand we can't all be perfect - I'm completely with Roxane Gay when she says it's better to be 'a bad feminist, than no feminist at all'. But I for one know that for all my blogging, I haven't contributed enough to concrete change, and I am determined to join a wave of feminism committed to tangible results.

There's no denying feminism has become a brand. In fact, social movements need to market themselves to influence our quick-click world. We regularly think in content and images; whether its celebs wearing 'This is what a feminist looks like' t-shirts, Ryan Gosling memes, or Salvation Army South Africa's anti-domestic violence campaign using viral phenomenon 'the dress'. By taking action, we can turn the feminist brand into measurable results which aren't simply Twitter followers. With the general election coming up, organisations like UK Feminista are helping us: as part of their VoteFeminist campaign they are offering election toolkit packages for organising your own hustings or staring your own campaign. There is also the option to email your local MP candidate through their site.

To put the icing on my rather circumlocutory cake, I'd like to reiterate Jessica Valenti's incisive point from The Guardian US: 'If you tweeted about feminism last year, this year consider sending an email to your elected representative in support of a policy about which you care. If you signed an online petition, think about searching the Internet for a local organization that needs volunteers.'