Tumblr is one of the many online networks I, and thousands of others, use in the course of a regular web browsing day. For those of you not familiar with the website, all you need to know is this: it’s basically a microblogging and social networking site which allows you to post many different kinds of content (links, quotes, images) to one “.tumblr.com” space. You can “follow” any number of individual tumblr blogs. When you browse on tumblr, you’re using your dashboard to look at all of those tumblr blogs you follow in one convenient spot. If you like a post, you can “heart” it, much like the Facebook “like” function. You can also “reblog” it to your own tumblr page, and add your thoughts and feedback. The more people that like and reblog your post, the more “notes” your post gets.
Every once in a while, there are those tumblr posts that spread like wildfire. More often than not, they’re usually photos of cute animals, film stills, or fancy fashion things. Those links are all examples of tumblr posts with over five thousand notes.
Recently, a political post was one that got such attention. It’s one of those posts I generally try to ignore, for a whole host of reasons. But it kept coming into my line of sight, time and time again, on my dashboard. Half the people who I’ve seen reblog it have been critical of it, while the other half have been loving it. Instead of simply ignoring it though, it gives us a great opportunity to map out how this kind of post this is pretty representative of what is wrong with a lot of third-wave feminism.
The post in question, which is currently counting over 40,000 notes, is a series of black and white portraits of people protesting a bill that would outlaw abortion by Grace Fallen Photography. While I totally support the cause these people are fighting for (legal, safe access to birth control), I am left wondering about the specific ways in which they are represented. These images circulated on tumblr without specific reference to what law or politician the people were protesting, with out very little detail at all other than the portraits themselves… it lead me to wonder why they were circulating so much.
I could easily understand why so many people were sharing these images; it’s a sad fact that in 2012, people around the world still have to fight for for their reproductive rights. What immediately struck me, cynic that I am, was that some of the posters the protestors were holding used quotes from first-wave feminists Margaret Sanger [who has been rightly criticized for having allied herself with the eugenics movement, which believed that only the “right” (read: white, non-disabled, with parents of a certain social standing) kind of babies should be born] and Susan B. Anthony. Not only that, the people featured in the posters all seemed to be white. In an era of feminism that prides itself on its intersectionality and inclusiveness, why are quotes of ableist, racist people being used, and who is being excluded from these protest spaces?
But it’s not so much the protest in question, nor the portraits themselves, that I want to challenge. Rather, I’m more critical of the fact that this is the kind of pervasive “feminist message” that gets out there - and that sticks. There is so much space for posts like these ones, of relatively little substance with cheerleading slogans, celebrating white, straight, cis-gendered women, and very little space for real conversations about the work that feminists need to do to be inclusive, and intersectional. I’m talking about bell hooks’ definition of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, because from what you see on tumblr, these posters really only seem to be challenging the “patriarchy” part of the formula. Which needs to be challenged, indisputably! But it’s not enough to JUST challenge the patriarchy, over and over and over.
I know I’m only kidding myself if I’m waiting for the days I’ll see Sherene Razack quotes challenging islamaphobic racist feminists getting thousands of notes on tumblr, but that’s not the point. The point is what resonates. What almost sanitized version of feminism makes the ‘rounds, and what earth-shaking, mind-blowing, absolutely essential and important feminism stays in books and the Ivory Tower.
A post like this one, however, gives me an opportunity to hold young feminists who are passionately sharing ideas via social media accountable, even if it’s just in some small way. Ask yourself, what parts of feminism do you share rampantly, and which ones don’t you? What links will you share on Facebook, and which ones don’t you?
Approach your own passions and loves with caution, too, especially your icons. Even though riot grrl may have been your entry point to the feminist movement, remember that it wasn’t, and isn’t, enough. That it still excluded tons of women of colour, even when it posited itself as “revolutionary.” Whether your scene be rock, or pop, or punk, it most likely isn’t perfect, and there is room for improvement.
Think about what your intended message is before you put pen to paper - was the person who made that statement you’re so ready to use as a slogan actually an oppressive person, fighting for the rights of a select few, but not all? Who are you excluding by writing that on your placard, on your list of favourite Facebook quotes, on your twitter feed?
I could go on, but I think the point is clear - sharing images we find inspirational and empowering online has an enormous potential for connecting with - or alienating - more people fighting for the same rights. Be conscious of this. We shouldn’t have to demand our fellow feminists work on this, but the sad truth is we do. I’m hardly alone in becoming increasingly frustrated with having to challenge people on this. Keep these things in mind when people challenge you on whose voices you share, and which ones you erase.
Until then, I leave you with a protest sign I think we can all get behind, and share rampantly on any and all the social media networks we use.
My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit by Flavia Dzodan at Tiger Beatdown (October 10, 2011)
Not every grrl is a riot grrl by Lindsay Zoladz (November 16th, 2011)
Trans 101 at Sylvia Rivera Law Project
EDITED TO ADD: After writing this original rant in response to the tumblr post in question, I did a bit more research on the portraits. I found the original set of photos on Facebook and was surprised to find that there are some women of colour, older people, and what I assume are queer folks protesting as well. It is important to note that the tumblr post with thousands of notes that I am critical of was not originally posted by the photographer, and was showing but a quarter of all of the 38 original portraits.