How the feminist movement has changed in the social media age

How the feminist movement has changed in the social media age

The feminist movement is arguably in the midst of a profound revolution - one that has empowered millions more women than ever before and has ideologically liberated them from oppressive and misogynistic cultures. But the seismic shift towards the promotion of women's rights and intersectionality has not come about by chance or circumstance. The fourth wave of feminism, which many feminist scholars and academics argue is well under way, is a huge social advance; one that has been motivated by great strides in digital technology: social media.

That's right - who would have thought a decade ago that tweeting could be an overtly political act, or that Facebook statuses could be used to promote gender equality? Social media, once dismissed as a mere fad by moral guardians and naysayers, has now become a profound vehicle for civil rights. But how does the so-called Fourth Wave feminism differ from the Third?

The term was first coined by the prominent writer, activist and lecturer Jennifer Baumgardner, who argued her case in her book "F'em: Goo Goo, Gaga and Some Thoughts on Balls." In a chapter entitled, "Is There a Fourth Wave? Does It Matter?" Baumgardener argued that Generation Y has taken the prime tenets of Third Wave Feminism (intersectionality, greater focus on the role of trans people and people of colour, solidarity with the LGBT+ movement and a focus on abortion and body positivity) and co-opted them using more modern forms of media for the spread and proliferation of revolutionary ideas.

"In place of zines and songs, young feminists created blogs, Twitter campaigns, and online media," Baumgardner wrote. "They commented on the news, posted their most stylish plus-size fashion photos with info about where to shop, and tweeted that they, too, had had an abortion. 'Reproductive justice,' coined by women of colour in the 1990s, became the term of choice for young feminists. Transgenderism, male feminists, sex work, and complex relationships within the media characterised their feminism."

We can plainly see that the way we talk about social justice has changed, and that there are vastly more feminist resources online now than were ever available in the 1990s and early 2000s. A lot of this is down to social perception. Feminism, more than it is a political instrument, has become more fashionable and cool than ever.

Blogging has made feminism less a formal academic topic, less the purview of lecturers and published authors alone, and more quotidian. Before it was far harder to find feminist media - it was something available mostly to a privileged, educated few. Now it's only a Google search away, and in fact, the minute you log on Facebook, it's actually likely that someone you know will have shared it themselves.

Just look at sites like Jezebel, or Feminist Frequency, or Everyday Feminism. Not only do these sites discuss mundane issues as much as global news, but they also have active social media presences and build engagement among viewers and readers. Social media has also empowered users to blog and discuss on an equal footing with more mainstream publications. Suddenly, bloggers like Anita Sarkeesian and Jessica Valenti are bigger celebrities than scholars in peer reviewed journals. The fact that the alt-right movement, by far the biggest and loudest opponent of Fourth Wave feminism, has also arisen out of conservative social media, is very telling.

Social media has also made it easier for the feminist movement to change the way we think and to challenge sexism. If someone abuses a woman in public, or subjects a Tumblr-user to a microaggression, then a video or blog post of the offence will soon be uploaded and be viewed by potentially millions of people and shared by those with a stake in the incident. Just look at how well hashtags have taken off in the last eight years, and how they've projected feminist ideas into mainstream consciousness.

In an article for TIME magazine entitled "Behold The Power of #Hashtag Feminism" journalist Jessica Bennett wrote: "It's no huge surprise that, according to data from Twitter, conversation about 'feminism' has increased by 300 percent on the platform over the past three years. Women's issues are everywhere, relentlessly spread by the women they impact. For the mainstream media, tracking the feminist hashtag of the moment has become a virtual sport."

Some of the more famous feminist hashtags we've seen recently include "#AskHerMore", "#WhyIStayed",  "#NotBuyingIt", "#YesAllWomen", "#ChangeTheRatio"  - and of course, who can forget the #FreeTheNipple campaign, which saw thousands of women baring their bodies in a protest against the shaming and sexualisation of female breasts.

But is this entirely positive? Or has the feminism's obsession with virality and social media trends come at the expense of a proper political discourse? Just think of all the furore around feminism's obsession with males "manspreading" on public transport. This is an example of a feminist hashtag that went viral on Twitter very quickly, but was quickly denounced as trivial by most prominent feminist scholars, who argued that it distracted from more important issues.

Libertarian feminist writer Cathy Young, a contributing editor to Reason magazine, criticised the hashtag and stated, "The anti-spread campaign has little to do with etiquette. It's part of a recent surge in a noxious form of feminism -- or pseudo feminism -- preoccupied with male misbehaviour, no matter how trivial. The activists believe that 'manspreading' as it has also been dubbed, is a matter of male entitlement, display of power or even sexual harassment. That says far more about feminist paranoia than it does about male conduct."

There's also a concern that feminist-based social media will water down the impact and revolutionary power feminism holds; turning what should be a social justice movement into a commodity for news, magazines and bloggers to make money from ad revenue. Is the sudden surge in media really an expression of changing awareness, of a societal commitment to tackling sexism and combating gender disparity? Or is it the result of opportunists chasing profit by addressing issues that are in vogue - here today and gone tomorrow when the next political fad becomes popular.

That's not to say that the people who seek this media are insincere in their beliefs. But it could be that these outlets are taking advantage of the very people they claim to be fighting for. Yet, there's also a concern that social media will lead to complacency, and that those who claim to be feminist activist are actually just ineffectual virtue signallers, who consider signing an online petition just as empowering as taking to the streets with placards.

But this is hardly surprising when one considers the sheer number of people who have become feminists thanks to social media. Of course there'll be difficulties unifying so many millions into a cohesive whole. Maybe social media hasn't managed to dismantle the patriarchy, or unseat everyone who oppresses women, and all the other things bloggers and activists so passionately claim it can do.

But social media is here to stay: it can't be uninvented now, and although there are some problems with the way the feminist movement mobilises on social media, ultimately the technology has given a voice to the voiceless and provided the dispossessed with genuine political agency, and that is something worth striving to keep. However, is there an uncomfortable truth about women's equality that we're all choosing to ignore?

Featured illustration by Egarcigu