Fear not the mythical Evil Twitter Feminist

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

In recent months people have been discussing the extent to which women who are new to feminism are potentially being "scared off" the movement by more seasoned feminists who are keen to tell them that they're doing it wrong and are, in fact, not feminists at all. The stereotype of the Evil Twitter Feminist has developed over the past year or so - you've probably heard of her. She's a better feminist than everyone else. She's a thought-policing bully who wants to dictate what words you use, is quick to jump to conclusions and quick to trample anyone who disagrees with her about the finer points of gender equality. She just loves declaring who is and who isn't a feminist, and she probably doesn't like you. Sounds a bit...exaggerated, right? That's because it is.

This stereotype has come about following a series of long, involved and drama-filled debates that have played out on blogs and on social media. In general, they've happened because well-known public figures who identify as feminists have said and done things that aren't so great. There have been arguments. There has been flouncing. And as a result, I've seen several people say they're feeling as if feminism's a secret society that they can't join.

All this is supposedly making women feel that they don't have a place in feminism and that if they don't say the right things and have the right knowledge, they'll never be part of some imaginary Special Feminist Club. This is really getting me down, and not for the reasons you'd think.

But as the myth of the Evil Twitter Feminist - henceforth to be known as ETFs - gets perpetuated, as articles are written saying "ETFs make me feel like I'm not part of their exclusive gang" or "ETFs are intimidating and they just seem to fight all the time", I think that people are beginning to believe it. They're beginning to see these feminist mean girls as exactly what's wrong with the movement and exactly why women don't want to get involved with gender equality activism.

I think a bit of perspective is needed here, so have put together some tips in an attempt to stop all these "ETFs don't want me in their crew" mutterings.

Try not to be put off by debate and disagreement

All philosophies and movements are the same. You'll find a range of opinions and from time to time there will be drama. People will argue. When I was a "baby feminist" and started reading feminist blogs, there was a lot of conflict surrounding the issues of porn and sex work - whether you were pro or anti. People were quitting and deleting their blogs; there was a lot of bad feeling. I thought I knew how I felt about the issue, but then I realised there was a lot I didn't know and a lot I didn't understand. I didn't try to wade into the arguments, but I didn't think "This feminism lark's not for me, thanks" either. I read the blog posts. I looked at sites that helped clear up my confusion and knowledge gaps. We are, after all, talking about the internet here - and the internet thrives on conflict. Different schools of thought within a movement are not just "infighting" or "a spat" - it's not a requirement that everyone comes to the same conclusions about every issue.

If you mess up, put things right

Unsurprisingly, a lot of people find this difficult. Particularly, it seems, high profile people. Everyone makes mistakes and often, we don't even realise what we've done. One of the main points to come out of the many feminist Twitterstorms of recent months is that a lot of people use words and phrases that are considered offensive by other groups of people. They get used because they're popular, they're slang, they're just what people say. And then someone calls you out on it and says "I'm not ok with that". When this happens, it's best to apologise, admit you messed up, and move on. Getting defensive and spending several days telling everyone that the racist/sexist/homophobic word you used was soooo not racist/sexist/homophobic and can't people just get off your case and stop trying to police your speech is not the best plan.

Be prepared to look at your heroes with a critical eye and accept that "big names" divide opinion

Let's say you're a big fan of a particular well-known woman. You think she's great and she's really influenced you. Maybe she's even helped ignite your passion for equality. Then you see some other women saying that they're not happy with something she's said or done. Actually, they think she's done something pretty bad. They think she's giving feminism a bad name. Fear not! This does not mean you are a bad feminist. You do not have to turn in your feminist card and slink off, shamed. It's possible to agree with some things a person has said, but realise that they've also said some pretty unfortunate things too. The key, again, is looking into what's going on and learning.

If you have a lot of privilege, listen to those who don't

Privilege. That old chestnut. If you're new to feminism you probably see it being discussed a lot. Where there is drama, there is usually an argument about privilege. This post has some great pointers for engaging with debates surrounding privilege - tips such as "learn to listen", "you aren't bad for having privilege", "it's ok to make mistakes" and "criticism is not hatred". Where a lot of people fall down is going on the defensive because someone has mentioned their opinion on something is coloured by privilege of some sort. It's easy for this to happen. You might think "This person appears to be hating on me for being white/middle-class/straight! I didn't CHOOSE to be this way! They obviously think I'm a bigot and I've done nothing wrong!"

Stop. Don't make it about you. Don't get huffy if they use words you aren't familiar with. Google is your friend. Part of the reason the stereotype of the ETF reacts with such anger to issues like this is because in general, feminists get a bit tired of people refusing to admit that someone might be better placed to talk about something than they are.

Remember why you're doing this

The answer is, of course, because you're passionate about gender equality and want to see it become a reality for everyone. You don't have to have the same areas of interest as all the feminists you know. You don't have to agree with them all or even get on with them all. You can align yourself with other movements and belief systems. You don't have to be out protesting every weekend and signing every petition and blogging about every outrage. Somewhere, you will find community and friendship and the things you feel most moved to act upon. And when you do, it will be awesome.

This post originally appeared on BitchBuzz, which sadly closed last week after four and a half years of great content and three and a half years of providing me with some wonderful opportunities.


Alice said...

Thanks for the post, Hannah. Must admit I 'unfollowed' one or two ETFs, not because I disagreed with them but because shouting down and shaming (of other women!) created a vibe of exclusivity - the nasty high school kind. Have found much more supportive vibe among women who aren't necessarily loud about being feminists, but who practice the principles.

Marina S said...

This is such an important and valuable conversation to have; I'm not sure this post is as coherent as I'd like it to be however...

I'm all for people not being put off by debate - in any case I think no political movement is complete without vigorous internal conversations - but what I'm not so sure about is that the "ETF" you are describing truly is as mythical as all that. After all, you're pretty much supporitng one "side", if we can call it that, of the recent Twitter conflagrations - the "just Google intersectionality while checking your privilege and apologising for liking famous people who used the wrong word" side.

There is another kind of feminism, both on Twitter and in the real world, people who are less concerned with language and more concerned with action. We can debate whether it's OK for people like that to exist & call themselves feminists, but by effectively excluding them from your post you delegitimise their kind of feminism without even opening it up for evaluation.

Now again, we could have the debate and we may very well end up agreeing that you're right and this particular kind of Twitter feminism is the only "right" kind of feminism - but your post is not really about that debate, or about validating or at least empathising with the feelings of those who may not instinctively connect with what I like to think of as "fourth wave" orthodoxies.

I think if what we really want to make it less intimidating for people to engage with online feminism, we need something that can take the sting out of the internal divisions & disagreements that's often so intimidating to new feminists (and old feminists not used to the levels of snark and disdain, such as myself). But this piece, useful & intelligent as it is, just says "we wouldn't have all these nasty arguments if only everyone would agree with me". Which is true, but not very practical as a conflict resolution approach...

Hannah Mudge said...

Marina, thanks for the comment. I just wanted to point out first of all that this piece was written first and foremost as an article for another site so is not as indepth as it could be, nor does it deal with all this issues at stake.

It wasn't my intention to exclude women who feel that actions are more important than language. When all this was happening I got the impression that the people I was addressing this to were not particularly concerned with either in any major way. I think there is a difference between not connecting with "fourth wave orthodoxies" and some of the sentiments that were being expressed while this debate was taking place.

What are your thoughts on what we could do to take the sting out of internal divisions?

Marina S said...

Hey Hannah, so first of all I owe you an apology - I neither realised that you were the OP when I wrote this, nor did I twig it was an old post! Can only claim the BC (before coffee) defence I'm afraid...

So, what can we do? Well, to change people's online demeanour - nothing. For some, ideological purity and tribal association are more important than action. It's a feature of liberal politics, which concentrates so heavily on identity.

To help people engage with feminism without being put off by the infighting and drama? Stop playing the infighting and drama game ourselves, I suppose. It basically means a change in our model of engagement with Twitter: instead of using it to hash out ideology & influence collective thinking, use it for what it's best for, namely disseminating content and networking.

If we can seed at least a few "for anyone interested in this topic, here is an interesting post about it..." in each querulous hashtag, it might break through and give people something to connect with that the main, as it were, "content" of the hashtags really doesn't offer.

I realise it's not a 100% solution to people being assholes on Twitter, but then there *is* no solution to that, is there! ;)

Hannah Mudge said...

Haha don't worry! I think what you're saying about using Twitter for info and networking is why I have kind of stepped away from Twitter-based debate about this sort of stuff since certain things happened. I got cross with women writing off the movement purely because they didn't understand how something might be racist, but at the same time I couldn't be bothered getting into arguments with them about it. I got the impression that they weren't exactly up for reading things that might help them see a different perspective :( In the meantime, I'm just going to try to be helpful.


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