Don’t like the Mean Girls’ table? Check out the rest of the room
Chances are you won’t be welcome in the world of online feminism? It depends on which part of the world you’re visiting – and what kind of attitude you bring with you.
The world of internet feminism is, according to yesterday’s NS blog by Sadie Smith, patrolled and policed by the "Online Wimmin Mob". A sneering, intimidating (one might be tempted to say "bitchy") group of self-appointed experts, "The Committee" can be counted upon to insult, threaten and drive away any well-meaning newcomer, and likes nothing better than to attack other women over Twitter in an attempt to "win" at being the most oppressed feminists ever. Most likely in the small hours of the morning.
As a longtime feminist and LGBTI activist and blogger, who makes use of online feminist networks on a daily basis for their work, I was somewhat amused by Smith’s diatribe – but mostly tired at hearing, yet again, a hyperbolic generalisation of what constitutes online feminist activism, ignoring the vital, diverse efforts of national and international feminist and womanist movements to concentrate on the bad behaviour of a few unpleasant know-it-alls.
Internet feminism certainly has its share of unsavoury characters. The righteous gatekeepers – as they see themselves - throwing their metaphorical weight around, pedants who care more about appearing right than being right. People who thrive on infighting, using concepts such as understanding different forms of oppression and privilege as a way of humiliating and denigrating those they dislike. I’ve been on the wrong end of it and it’s horrible. But how, in this respect, is feminism different from any other identity, cause or interest? Online and offline, we see the same behaviour in academia, in the arts, in fandom, sport, in the most innocuous of hobbies – and some of the very worst of it in newspaper op-ed pieces and the comments they attract. And yet Sadie Smith wrote an op-ed piece – and here I am, writing a comment – the inevitable actions of a small minority don’t negate the importance of a form, of a movement, of a way of communicating. And their use of certain words and phrases as a cover for their meanness doesn’t erase the value and necessity of those words and phrases.
This is hardly new ground for internal debate within online feminism. Offbeat Empire covered it last year, in a widely disseminated article "Liberal Bullying: Privilege-checking and semantics-scolding as internet sport". I’ve blogged about it, as have many of the writers I know – this area of debate is alive and well. And most people have no trouble understanding the difference between bullies using "politically correct" language to hound others, and the astonishingly simple concept of intersectional oppressions and privileges. The world we live in is riddled with bigotry and discrimination, of many and varied kinds. Some people are discriminated against in more than one way. Some people experience discrimination and yet discriminate against others in turn. Some people are ignorant of the sufferings of others precisely because society has given them a leg up in an area where it gave other people a kicking. And to try to change society, to dismantle oppression, we have to turn around and examine these different forms of discrimination, to understand how they affect the world we live in and our own conception of self – to know our enemy, and to try to learn better ways of being in community with each other. Forgive me if that sound patronising, but that’s all that "understanding/dismantling/checking privilege" means – hardly a difficult concept, and radical only if you find the idea of universal equality radical. Having access to a Twitter account doesn’t protect a person from myriad forms of abuse and oppression – it can’t prevent rape, shield someone from racism, ensure the continuance of DLA payments – to claim that everyone online who talks about the ways in which they’re suffering in an unequal world is “…the sort of annoying princess who screams that it’s just not fair and she hates you because she only got an iPhone and a pony for Christmas…” is facetious at best.
As to Smith’s problems with the word "cis", and her claim that "through its misuse, it is laden with pejorative connotations" – I must admit to being somewhat confused. A neutral term simply meaning "not-trans", "cis" is to "trans" as "straight" is to "gay" – a blunt instrument, not perfect, but a way of acknowledging divergent experiences of the world without implying that some people are normal (the "women women", or the "real men") and some people are…not (the trans contingent, of many and varied sexes and genders). It’s a word I’ve used on a regular basis for about five years in my work as a trans activist – educational outreach, public speaking, consultation services, conferences, intercommunity events – and have yet to have a cis person tell me that it upsets them. To describe the use of the word "cis" as offensive because it was supposedly given to cis people without their consent – does Smith imagine the situation is any different for trans people? That we chose the words that have been used to mark us out as abnormal? I, like many of my colleagues, would like a world so equal, so open, that we no longer have to use the words "cis" and "trans" (certainly not in the way we use them now) – but we’re not there yet. Have some trans people on the internet used the word "cis" in anger? Of course. Dealing with constant harassment, abuse and hatred from cis people, a not uncommon experience for out trans people, would make even the saintliest of us lose their tempers and rant. Reacting with condemnation, rather than empathy, just compounds the problem. Finally, Smith’s assertion that the word "cis" is "an insult to the very essence" of who she is? To quote another feminist, Cel West: "saying that the term cis is an insult to 'the very essence' of cis women directly implies that trans women aren’t real women." Now that I find offensive.
To make a broader point – this, to me, is the wonder of online feminism – that the women (and men, and everyone else) who have traditionally been misrepresented, spoken for, spoken over, ignored, vilified by the (usually) white, (usually) cis feminist mainstream have a chance to make their voices heard, on their own terms. Sex workers and trans women, who frequently found themselves demonized and threatened by some prominent second wavers, are now carving out their own feminist spaces, creating discourse that includes and respects their experiences and ideas. It’s not about creating an homogenous space where debate is stifled – but about learning about the limits of our own knowledge, and combining our resources, our strengths, to create a feminism that finds our common purpose through our diversity, instead of by denying it. Turn to the broadsheet coverage of feminist issues and what do you usually find? A rehash of the "can she really have it all?" article, or a variant on the "is it feminist to shave my pubic hair whilst reading Fifty Shades?" puff piece. I checked my social media feeds this morning and read about feminists connecting their queerness with their faith to create the perfect Seder, writing new collections of fairy tales to deconstruct patriarchal myths, organising protests to fight the cuts, plotting ethical porn experiments that would celebrate trans bodies – it’s a wonder that I get any work done, when there are so many fascinating things happening. And there are online feminists making specific use of different social networking functions to get their point across. I can’t be the only person who started following Laurie Penny’s Twitter feed because of her on-the-ground, real-time coverage of protests throughout the world. The enormous success of the Everyday Sexism project is due partly to the ease of connecting with it via Twitter, of sharing story after story of harassment and prejudice via a short tweet. Even something as irreverent as The Hawkeye Initiative has a serious point to make about the misogynistic depiction of women in mass-market entertainment – and connected with its audience via Tumblr’s picture-heavy format. It’s the old concepts of consciousness-raising groups, telephone trees, independent zines and presses – on an enormous scale.
Smith rounds up her arguments with the statement: “Feminism is not bullying and beating up other women. It’s not denouncing diversity instead of celebrating it. It is not stigmatising women instead of listening to them. It is not telling them that their opinions and experiences don’t count.” I couldn’t agree more – which is why I find online feminist spaces so valuable – and why her depiction of those spaces is not one that I recognise. There are just too many of them, too many voices, ideas, philosophies, to be contained in the image of the sour-faced "Wimmin Mob".
Maybe that’s why, in the end, I prefer to talk about online feminisms – the connectivity forged between different groups, different communities, different experts – a shifting, evolving set of alliances, not a closed party with a limited guestlist. We’re no monolith – but that doesn’t mean that we’re not changing the world.