There’s no point in online feminism if it’s an exclusive, Mean Girls club

Ever tried to engage with feminist discussion on the internet? Chances are, you won’t be welcome.


There’s a story that does the rounds in politics about a radicalised council in north London in the 1980s, when the Trotskyite entryists were worming their way inside the local Labour Parties with all the potency of dry rot. It goes like this: if an unsuspecting comrade, new to the area, wanted to join his or her local branch they would be informed that they couldn’t.

“Sorry,” they would be told as the door was slammed in their face. “No vacancies.”

Ever tried to engage with feminism on the internet?

I’ve had to start differentiating between feminism – good honest feminism in all its manifestations from Luce Irigaray, to Greenham Common, to Andrea Dworkin and even (although the Lord knows, she’s not to my taste) Camille Paglia  – and what I’ve started calling the Online Wimmin Mob. The latter is meant to sound insulting. Borderline misogynist if you like, and there’s a reason for that: the Online Wimmin Mob don’t seem to like feminism. There’s not much evidence that they like women very much. Perhaps this is the reason that they don’t want you to be a feminist either.

If you try to join the club that they seem to believe they have seized control of, you too will be told that there are no vacancies. No room for you, with your “privilege”. They will sneer at you and imply that you’re only into “lipgloss feminism” and that, with your inferior intellect and experience, you could never measure up to their sophisticated world view. “Run off and cry to mummy Caitlin [Moran]” is an insult I’ve seen levelled at more than one curious young woman, whose naive but genuine interest has fallen foul of The Committee.

"Shut up and push off you stupid bimbo" is the message that comes over loud and clear.

I, too, have not been allowed to join, which I think is highly unfair as I too can be just as pretentious and full of my own self-importance, while simultaneously adding nothing that makes my pontifications in any way relevant to anything that is going on in the real world. I’d like to present to the Court this as evidence: my dissertation title at university was “How far has a philosophical dichotomy affected changing attitudes towards women?”

Pick the intellectual peanuts out of that one, ladies.

The Online Wimmin Mob takes offence everywhere, but particularly at other women who are not in their little Mean Girls club, which has their own over-stylised and impenetrable language, rules and disciplinary proceedings.

“Check your privilege!” This has become the rallying cry of the Mob when faced with a woman with whom they disagree. “Privilege”, when out of the hands of Mob bullies, is actually not a bad concept. God knows, party conference fringes involving Harriet Harman chatting to her public school mates about the importance of getting more women into politics have been known to bring me out in a bad case of the hives on more than one occasion. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with thinking, “Woah, there! Is it possible that there are more things in heav’n and earth than were dreamt of in a South Kensington champagne bar over tapas with Jocasta?”

Where “privilege” goes wrong is that it is routinely used for, I’d argue, shutting up women who disagree with the Online Mob. The whole foundation of the argument is flawed anyway; about 35 per cent of the world’s population has access to the internet. Everyone on Twitter is privileged. Everyone. Claiming “unprivileged” underdog status when you are in the top 35 per cent of the entire world makes you sound like 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.

All women suffer from discrimination, internet connection or not, in one form or another. For some, it is mild. For some takes the form of sexist comments or harassment or female genital mutilation, rape, crap pay, rubbish pension, the glass ceiling, domestic violence, transphobia, botched abortions, slavery, death in childbirth or as a result of, or in combination with, of all of the above. Not to mention mental health issues such as eating disorders, bipolar, anxiety or depression. It’s not good times.

“Checking your privilege” is about playing an inverted game of Top Trumps where the real message is that it’s not who you are but how you were born that determines whether what you have to say is worth listening to. It’s not a dissimilar message to that of your average bar room sexist – or transphobe for that matter - but so much more depressing coming from our own side.

For myself, I reckon that until we identify the poor sod who’s officially recognised as the least privileged woman on the planet, women should welcome other women’s thoughts and experiences, not with the aim of identifying the “best” and most “relevant” one, but as a means of understanding that in spite of our diversity, we have more things in common than we don’t.

I also object to the requirement to deny the power of language. This state of affairs has arisen from the entirely admirable aim of making transgender females feel more at home within the movement, and better able to express the particular concerns they have as a result of the women that they are.

But, again, language has become a weapon to denigrate women’s experience.

In Sexual, Textual Politics by Toril Moi, she said that we, women, have had the power of naming taken from us. Language is not just communication, it is the prism through which we filter and understand the world around us. Words are weighted and have meaning beyond being the mere grunts by which we communicate, “Change the channel love, I’m saving Hollyoaks for the omnibus.”

Words that are used to describe sexual self-determination in women imply sexual incontinence (slut, whore); words used to describe the same behaviour in men imply virility and manliness (stud, lad).

Words are not just words, otherwise the terms “tranny” or “slag” wouldn’t be so offensive, but part of the wider narrative of language. Language is a system of belief – like the Force – it binds us and holds our universe together, shapes us in terms of how we perceive ourselves and others. And it was designed by men and for the benefit of men.

So we come to the word “cis”. I invite anyone who wants a more detailed definition of cis to Google this one, because one step wrong on my part and I’ll be up to my eyebrows in a flame war for the next fortnight and I have plans for Friday night. In summary, however, cis means “not trans”.

A lot of cis women have a problem with the term in a way they can’t quite fathom. Well, I’ve fathomed it and I’ll tell you: because it’s a name that has, once again, been conferred upon a certain group of women without their consent. It would still matter, although infinitely not as much, if a Twitter search of “cis” demonstrated that the term is mostly used in a sisterly and affectionate manner. Nah, more like “cissexist” or “cisfascist”.

And that’s the stuff I didn’t search for, I just happened to see it on my feed one Tuesday evening.

So forgive me if I hear “cis” as an insult to the very essence of who I am and then, when I complain, feel aggrieved that I’m not entitled to experience my discomfort because my “privilege” means that my point of view doesn’t matter and my opinions don’t count.

The good news is that cis is a term that can be reclaimed. After all, it is just a word and meanings of words can be rehabilitated. But in its current manifestation, through its misuse, it is laden with pejorative connotations.

If you are a member of the Mob, you spend your evenings in noble pursuits. Namely, picking up on ill-considered comments on the internet (which are often, although admittedly not always, well-meant but made in ignorance) and encouraging all your mates to weigh in to beat up on the woman.

Is this beginning to sound like an evening out with the patriarchy to anyone else?

There is nothing wrong with arguing with other women, disagreeing with them, or suggesting that they might be wrong about certain issues. I’m all for standing up to sexism and transphobia too, although often I think that a lot the statements deemed capital crimes by the Mob come down to lack of experience and understanding on the part of the perpetrator. But this is not what we see online.

For the most minor infraction, women are flamed in the most hideous, unsisterly way. A living offence, she is told, to the sisterhood and the ideals of feminism she is the worst kind of disgusting privileged bitch, the sort of woman who revolts all right-thinking women, who deserves to “f**k off and die”. She will slink off with her guilt and upset, not quite clear what she has done, but clear that she should feel dirty and ashamed of herself.

This is definitely sounding like an evening out with the patriarchy.

I’ve considered myself a feminist for as long as I can remember, even before I knew exactly what a feminist was and this state of affairs sickens me. 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. It is not about thinking that sitting behind your computer at 2am, looking for offence (on the internet, you will always find things to be offended by) and using the excuse that you are “calling out” someone on something that you disagree with as a front for making yourself feel superior at another woman’s expense.

Come to think of it, anyone who thinks that anything can be achieved on Twitter at 2am has no business feeling superior to anybody.

There’s a big, wide, world out there and a lot of the time it’s bloody awful to people in general and women in particular. It has become clear since the India bus horror that there are some subsections of that society who reckon that there’s nothing wrong with a bit of cheeky rape if they’re in the mood. Malala was shot in the head by the Taliban for the crime of wanting the same education as her male counterparts. Trans women often exist in fear of their lives, and for good reason: transmisogyny is, disgracefully, still seen by some as the kind of sexism it’s socially acceptable to indulge in. And in Steubenville, the community has given the impression that they think that the real victims are the rapists, and their comatose victim a “slut” as a result of what was done to her.

And how are the Online Wimmin Mob responding to this tiny tip of the iceberg? By whipping up huge Twitter storms and inviting feminists to flame other feminists. Yeah, keep it up, ladies, the patriarchy’s quaking.

If modern feminism is simply about exclusivity, abusively picking nits out of each other’s differences, and organising bullying mobs against women, then count me out.

This feminist, for one, really hopes that it isn’t.  

Not everyone is allowed to sit at the Mean Girls' table for lunch.
Italy's populist Five Star Movement (M5S) party leader Luigi Di Maio. CREDIT: GETTY
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Five Star’s “just fix it!” politics and the new age of digital populism

 In the Italian election, Five Star made radical and exciting promises – like a monthly universal basic income of around €780.

One evening in 2004, after finishing a performance of his comedy show Black Out, Beppe Grillo was approached by a tall, austere-looking man called Gianroberto Casaleggio, an IT specialist who ran a web consulting firm. He told Grillo that he could create a blog for him that would transform Italian politics. The internet, Casaleggio explained, would change everything. Political parties and newspaper editors were no longer needed. They could be “disintermediated”.

Grillo, a household name in Italy, was not particularly interested in technology but he was interested in politics. The following year the pair created the promised blog and Grillo began writing about cronyism, green issues and the power of the web to smash what he considered a corrupt, elitist and closed political system. Thousands, then millions, of frustrated Italians flocked to his site. They began using another website,, to gather offline to discuss Grillo’s latest post, and co-ordinate campaigns and rallies. It was heady stuff.

In 2007, this fledgling movement held Vaffanculo Day (which roughly translates to “fuck off day”), an event directed at the suits in charge. Grillo crowd-surfed the thousands who’d turned out in Bologna’s main square in a red dingy. Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the respected centre-left newspaper La Repubblica, wrote an editorial titled “The barbaric invasion of Beppe Grillo”.

In the age of Russian trolls and algorithmic ads, it’s easy to forget how optimistic the mood around digital politics was in the late Noughties. Occupy, the Pirate Party and Barack Obama all seemed to presage the end of tired old hierarchies. They were getting a digital upgrade: open, inclusive and more democratic. Grillo led the charge: in 2009 he declared that his band of online followers would stand in elections as the Five Star Movement. The group refused state funding, capped its MPs’ salaries at the average national wage, and pledged to publish all proposed bills online three months before approval to allow for public comment. All major policy decisions would be taken by votes on the blog, including candidate selections.

Seasoned political analysts dismissed Five Star as a bunch of bloggers and kids, led by a clown. But the movement started achieving local successes, especially in Italy’s poorer south. By 2012 there were 500 local groups and in the following year’s general election, Five Star won 25 per cent of the vote. Analysts repeatedly predicted that normal service would be resumed – but it never was.

In the Italian general election earlier this month, Five Star won 32 per cent of the vote, and 227 seats, easily making it the largest single party. (Grillo, who is 69, distanced himself from Five Star before this triumph. He remains the “guarantor”, but the new leader is 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio.) In a hung parliament, Five Star is currently in a stalemate with Italy’s right-wing alliance (the Northern League, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the Brothers of Italy), which collectively secured more seats.

While Five Star has declared its commitment to direct democracy, many major decisions are taken by a small cadre, which has alienated some early supporters. Its occasional dalliances with power – the current mayor of Rome is Five Star’s Virginia Raggi – have been largely unsuccessful. Yet more than any other movement in Europe, Five Star demonstrates how digital upstarts can demolish years of cosy centrist consensus. Meet-ups are full of sparky, motivated activists – rather like the Corbynite Momentum – who combine online and offline techniques to deliver their message.

Five Star’s political ideas appear radical and exciting, especially to places blighted by economic stagnation. In the Italian election, Five Star promised a monthly universal basic income of around €780 for every adult.

Yet the movement’s rise also reveals the darker side of digital politics. Five Star is unashamedly populist and divisive, pitting the good, honest, ordinary citizen against the out-of-touch professional political class. Ever noticed how all populists, whether left or right, seem to love social media? Nigel Farage, Bernie Sanders, Marine Le Pen, Syriza and, of course, Donald Trump are all avid adopters. It’s partly because short, emotional messages, the populist stock-in-trade, spread so well online. Grillo frequently insults his opponents – he used to call the former Italian prime minister Mario Monti “Rigor Montis” – and new Five Star leader Di Maio recently called for the immediate halt of the “sea taxi service” that rescues migrants in the Mediterranean. There’s a receptive online audience for such content. And the blog is central to Five Star, just as Twitter is to Trump, because, it says, it allows it to circumnavigate the self-interested establishment, and deliver “the truth” straight to the people.

But the love affair runs deeper than clickable posts. The internet is inculcating all of us with new, unrealistic expectations. I call it “just fix it!” politics. Everything online is fast and personalised, answers are simple and immediate. The unhappy compromise and frustrating plod of politics looks increasingly inadequate by comparison, which fuels impatience and even rage.

Populists promise to cut through the tedium with swift and obvious answers, and in that sense they are tuned in to how we live as consumers. By contrast, centrist parties have struggled in the digital age because their watery, dull promises are weighed down by practical know-how and association with power. (“Boring! Traitors!”)

The rage of the jilted lover knows few bounds. This is the problem with all populist movements: what happens when things aren’t as easy as promised? A few days after Five Star’s stunning election result, dozens of young Italians turned up at job centres in Puglia, demanding their €780 monthly basic income. Should Five Star form a government, millions of Italians will turn up with them – and demand a lot more than a few hundred euros. 

Jamie Bartlett is the author of “Radicals: Outsiders Changing the World” (Windmill Books)

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game