In my world, the way I learned activism, if you see a gap you don’t stand around pointing at the gap and complaining that no one else has filled it for you yet. You FILL THE FUCKING GAP.
This month, I will have been at Feministe for six years. I was writing for a different feminist blog for about two years before that. I was writing about feminism and engaging in feminist activism for years before that. This post is my 4,234th on this website. When I started blogging, way back sometime in 2003, I had never read or even heard of a feminist blog. “Blogging” was a new, super-nerdy thing. (I am old). I started a blogspot blog, and wrote to no one but myself.
Then people showed up. And then a few more. And then I discovered Feministing, which had also just launched. Then, over the next year or two or three, Mouse Words and Feministe and Rox Populi and Amptoons and a handful of others. By 2005 I was here, and it was a Big Blog in the online feminist world, but still a blog — still outside of the mainstream, still nerdy, and still totally uncharted territory. Feministe was little in the then-small world of blogging — big in the feminist corner, tiny everywhere else (which, it’s worth noting, is still true). I wrote under my real name because I had only written for student newspapers and other publications, and hadn’t considered that writing on the internet could be a liability; I hadn’t considered that a pseudonym was even an option.
Blogs are no longer the fringe oddity that they were a decade ago, and the feminist blogosphere is no longer a tiny corner of the internet. There are hundreds of feminist blogs out there. There are major media companies that traffic only in websites; Gawker Media has a somewhat feminist-minded lady-blog; lefty blogs use the term “feminist” regularly and without derision. There have been blow-ups and call-outs and fuck-ups and flounces and come-backs. There have been threats and stalkers and various attempts to get folks (including me) fired from their day jobs. There have been opportunities to write for newspapers and magazines and other websites and anthologies; there have been book deals and op/ed columns and TV appearances.
The feminist blogosphere today doesn’t look at all like it did way back when.
In a lot of ways, that’s a good thing — there are more of us, and as Lindsay Beyerstein has pointed out, if you’re reading any left-leaning website on the internet you’re never more than two clicks away from feminism. As the blogosphere has grown, so necessarily has its diversity — feminists of all backgrounds have been online since the beginning, but with so many more blogs out there it’s easier to find a space that caters to a particular brand of feminism, or a particular identity, or a particular writing style.
But in other ways, online feminism is worse for wear. Part of that is what Florence is talking about above — blogs, and especially the “big blogs,” are perceived as institutions rather than collectives of people writing about something they’re interested in when they have time, in order to facilitate a conversation among like-minded people. With the perception of institutionalization comes expectations — that a blog will not only cover about what you think it should cover, but will also cover it in the way you think is most appropriate, using the words you think are the best. Which isn’t totally unfair, but which segues from potentially productive into poisonous when the method of conveying those expectations is Calling Out.
I’m as guilty as anyone else when it comes to partaking in feminist Call-Out Culture. Calling Out, I think, is part of any activist’s growing pains. We all want to do right. We all feel like we’re doing more right than some other people who we perceive as having more power (or influence or airtime) than we have. We all want to be a good _____: feminist, ally, woman, activist. Part of that, if you love an idea (and I think most of us do love the idea of feminism, even if we don’t always love how it plays out in real life), is saying something when you see someone else Doing It Wrong. There should be space for that. We should keep each other in check; we should all want to be better.
But in the feminist blogosphere, “calling out” has increasingly turned into cannibalism. It’s increasingly turned into a stand-in for actual activism. We have increasingly focused on shutting down voices rather than raising each other up. Pointing at the gap has replaced doing the hard, often thankless work of filling it.
I’m hesitant to point to where I see examples of this, because there are a million of them and because I do think that most of it comes from a good place. And this post has been swirling in my head for months now. But I’m finally writing it partially in response to this post over at Shameless Magazine — although these are ideas I’ve been talking about with a whole lot of people. The Shameless post is what made me pull the trigger here, but it’s not at all the sole inspiration; and I want to be clear that I think Shameless is a great publication and the author of the piece I’m pointing to is also great, and this isn’t meant as an attack or an invite to pile on. I just think it’s important when discussing issues to have concrete examples to point to, and I think it’s important to be honest about what finally kicked me into putting these long-mulled-upon thoughts to paper (or to keyboard).
I am admittedly not the most comprehensive consumer of feminist media; there are only so many hours in the day, and since I have a very demanding job and also feel quite a bit of pressure to keep Feministe stocked with regular content, I tend to go to reporting-focused media outlets (like the New York Times) to look at mainstream content and then filter it here through a feminist lens. I do read other feminist websites, but not regularly — I assume if you’re reading Feministe, you’re probably reading other feminist websites and you don’t need to see the same stuff written about in the same way on site after site. So I didn’t see the Shameless Magazine piece until I ran a search for “feministe” on Twitter, and saw that someone had written “Hey @feministe, you’re being called out” with a link.
We — Feministe, the institution, which at this point is three people, of which I am the only one who has any inclination to write regularly because of a whole host of reasons (not least of which, I think, is our comment section) — are being “called out” for not promoting a book written by the very smart feminist activist Jessica Yee. It sounds like a really awesome book, and this post isn’t meant to cast it (or Jessica, or any of the other contributors) in a negative light. But the post on Shameless illustrates the activist problems with call-out culture — it’s too often not about actually making things better, or taking action that furthers your cause. It’s about making yourself look like The Best Feminist, or The Best Activist, or The Best Ally, or The Best _________. The post reads:
I know in my heart of hearts that I’m not the only white person dealing with knowing that current discourse around race as it intersects with patriarchal/hegemonic modes of theory and action (such as the above-mentioned Capital F Feminism) is just not happening. But when faced with calling out Feminism on not being able to DEAL with race like so many that have come before, I have felt kind of alone, and if only because most recently I’ve started to get it more and more.
Despite all the Feminist broohah surrounding International Women’s Day and the incredible launch for Feminism FOR REAL in Toronto, and the incessant tweeting going on, the big Feminist blogs have yet to comment on the text. Feministing. Bitch. Bust. The F Bomb. Feministe. Zip. Nadda. I’m not here to speculate about why they haven’t yet tackled Feminism FOR REAL, just wanted to say that I’m disappointed that there wasn’t any representation or recognition from the presumed-heavyweights on this text. These blogs should have been on it (new, feminist “theory” text in a sea of mainstream texts = GOLDMINE for nerdy Feminists) and maybe could have given FFR some room to exist as a book about Feminism (because that’s what it is) instead of being “just” a book about race and all the otherness in the shadow of Capital “F” Feminism (even though that is also what it’s about).
The post is by a woman named Diandra Jurkic-Walls, and I am 100% sure that her heart is in absolutely the right place here. I think she really does want feminism, as a movement, to be better. I think she believes in this book and wants it more widely publicized. I think she believes this book is important and good and an invaluable contribution.
But I don’t think “calling out” the “big feminist blogs,” or casting feminist blogs as Capital “F” Feminism, is a particularly effective way to convey those beliefs (and I honestly think it’s a little laughable that Feministe is somehow Capital-F Feminist Establishment when, really, it’s one person’s hobby. But we’ll put that aside for now). If the goal is to get more people to read Feminism FOR REAL, or to write about it, or to want to engage with feminism as an idea, then this is a remarkably ineffective way to do that.
The internet is a big place, and even those of us who run “Capital F Feminism” feminist blogs don’t actually have the ability to read the entire thing. Putting things on your blog and on Twitter is great, but that isn’t a guarantee that the folks you want to target will actually see it, if those folks are outside of your regular readership. When I read Diandra’s post, I searched my inbox for any emails or information about the book. I found one press release from the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives that I apparently received on Feb. 14th, of which I have no recollection. The email says that pre-orders for the book have started. As far as I can tell, I didn’t get any other information about it. I receive at minimum two emails every day urging me to buy a particular book that a publicist wants to hawk to Feministe readers; I receive somewhere in the universe of 100-200 emails every day urging me to write about something or cover this topic or promote a product or or or or. I have a heavily-used “delete” key.
Which isn’t to say that the proprietors of widely-read feminist websites don’t have a responsibility to seek out new information and educate ourselves — those of us with large platforms especially do have that responsibility. Ideally, I would have time to read a dozen feminist websites a day, and I would keep this space stocked with a diversity of information and coverage.
In reality, I get up in the morning and schedule a quick post before I go to work for anywhere from 9 to 17 hours at a stretch. During the day, I take breaks to moderate comments (and inevitably get yelled at for not moderating comments fast enough or effectively enough) or put up another quick post (and inevitably get yelled at for doing that wrong, too). Twice a week, I go to the doctor for treatment of a stress injury to my back and neck, which involves getting injections of muscle relaxants and knocks me out for the rest of the evening. Two other nights a week I box, and two more I go to the gym or to yoga, in large part for necessary stress relief; then I either go home and work until I fall asleep, or drink wine until I fall asleep, or in not-busy-at-work times meet up with friends I’ve neglected or go on dates or do whatever else constitutes having a real life. I don’t write about my personal life in this space ever, really, beyond “here is a picture of my cat” — and I don’t write about my own life in large part because of the cannibalistic nature of the feminist blogosphere, which demands that you flay yourself open in order to establish your right to discuss any given topic, and if you aren’t damaged enough will eat you alive — but suffice it to say that I’ve also had a series of sad events happen over the past year or two which have left me a little bit battered and, today, particularly exhausted. Sometimes, all I have to give is a picture of a fucking hat.
And when I open my laptop, there are dozens of comments to approve, and folks angry that their words weren’t published immediately, and other folks angry that I’m not writing about exactly what they wanted in exactly the way they wanted it. And I am tired. And I know I’m not the only one who feels like this, and who recognizes that this model of “activism” is not good and is not sustainable.
Which all sounds very “oh poor me.” I don’t mean it like that, and this post isn’t a sympathy pull. What it is, though, is an attempt to recognize that we all have shit going on in our real lives, away from the internet, that we shouldn’t have to throw out there in order to be accorded a little bit of patience and kindness. Effective activism has to recognize that we’re all dealing with real-life stuff, and we are not all 100% engaged in these online communities at all times, and that we have different priorities and perspectives and real-time demands. So going back to the post at Shameless (which again is only one illustrative example that I’m using so I have something concrete to reference, and is hardly the first, last or only representation of this phenomenon): If the end goal is to promote Feminism For Real, then promote it. Email and offer to send a review copy. Offer to write a guest post. Send a link to a post you’ve written. Send an excerpt and see if the site will publish it.
At the very least, recognize the difference between affirmative bad acts on the part of people who should be on your side — Naomi Wolf-style victim-blaming, etc — and sins of omission from people who probably do support the same or similar goals as you, but for some reason aren’t covering the issues in the same way.
None of which, again, is to say that you should just turn your head if an important topic isn’t being addressed, or if something isn’t being addressed adequately, or if someone fucks up. It is to say that we should all keep the end goal in mind, and communicate accordingly. And none of this is about the Shameless post in particular — it’s about the entirety of this corner of the internet, and how we treat each other, and how there’s this weird sense that we’re all in competition for the Best Feminist prize and that we win by cutting each other down and calling each other out and denouncing anyone who gets more attention than we do.
It’s also to say that we need to grow, as a community and as individuals, beyond a feminist analysis that begins and ends with call-outs and Owning Privilege (or telling other people to Own Their Privilege). Privilege analysis is crucial to feminist activism, but it isn’t activism in and of itself. If the analysis is self-flagellation in order to prove that you’re A Good _____ rather than introspection in order to actually be a better ______, it’s not even really helpful. If privilege analysis is a weapon that you wield in order to either establish yourself as superior to those who aren’t as “open” about their privilege, or that you use to beat down the perspectives and comments of a person who you believe is either not oppressed enough to deserve to engage in the conversation or isn’t letting enough blood to prove themselves worthy of engagement, it’s actively harmful. Courtney Martin wrote a particularly compelling piece on this a few weeks ago for the Prospect, saying:
But part of why McIntosh’s article is still being taught so widely, I fear, is because we haven’t made much progress in this discussion in the last couple of decades. Today, white kids from Williamsburg to Berkeley are still trying to grasp the vast implications of being born white, wealthy, able-bodied, etc. This will always be a critical practice, but we have to also push beyond this stage. After we see through the fog of privilege, what do we do with that new vision?
Unfortunately, too many people whom I encounter — particularly on college campuses — get sort of stuck in a muck of guilt. They become invested in testifying to their own lack of ignorance in public spaces (read: “I’m one of the good ones”) but then don’t constructively reimagine what those spaces might look like in a more just world, and enact the necessary changes. As I traveled from Seattle to Richmond speaking on panels for Women’s History Month, I heard many a well-intentioned student stand up at a Q&A session, requesting more inclusion without offering systemic analysis, real stories, or actionable recommendations. The impulse to do some of the intellectual and emotional labor of calling out unchecked privilege, as a person benefiting from some version of it, is a valuable one, but it can’t end there.
As educators Dena Simmons and Chrissy Etienne wrote in a presentation they prepared for schoolteachers: “To acknowledge one’s privilege is not a moral condemnation. Rather, it is a call to action that requires collective work in order to evenly distribute access to power and to resources so that human agency can be reclaimed and claimed by all. Our intention is not to inspire guilt but to inspire action.”
In feminist blog comments from here to Jezebel, “own your privilege!” is a regular refrain, and “How I am privileged” is a pretty common post topic (particularly among white people who want to be one of the good ones). Which isn’t a bad starting place, but is definitely a bad end point. And it’s part of a really poisonous online feminist culture that focuses on denouncing anyone who doesn’t write about exactly what we want them to, exactly the way we want them to — especially when, for all of the privilege-owning and calling out, there are still assumptions that the writers on the “big” blogs are white and American and heterosexual and etc etc etc, and writers are routinely disrespected and treated poorly if they’re not.
There isn’t a singular Feminist Blog Community. We don’t have a list of goals that we all share. Our individual goals, as feminist thinkers and writers, overlap in some places and diverge in others. I understand the particular frustration with seeing someone who ostensibly shares your ideology doing something that you feel isn’t representing the ideology the way you would like it represented — and again, I think there’s a big difference between doing something affirmatively wrong and harmful, and doing something that you think just isn’t quite right. I think there has to be a place to express that frustration. But if the goal is to actually make things better, then let’s act in ways that are calculated to achieve that goal.
We’d be a whole lot better off if we remembered that none of us are winning the Best Feminist award any time soon, and that we have different priorities and experiences, and that’s part of what makes this movement rich and interesting and dynamic. Most of these websites are hobbies, not paid enterprises; they’re blogs, not institutions. As Natalia has said many times in the comments here and elsewhere, you have a right to be respected in feminist spaces, but you do not have the right to constant and full validation. It is not the job of any blogger to cater fully and comprehensively to your particular interests and perspectives. It is not their job to represent Feminism exactly as you want it represented; it is not their job to do Feminism exactly as you want it done.
That, actually, is your job, and you should do it the best you can — which will inevitably mean you do it imperfectly, because we are people and imperfect is how we do.
It’s certainly how I do. And after almost a decade of doing this online feminist stuff, I’m learning how to cut myself some slack. I’m learning how to cut other folks slack, too — especially when our goals are more or less in line and I know they are not the enemy. That part is always harder — criticizing is easier than doing. But the emphasis on what we’re all doing wrong is killing important feminist voices; it’s driving bright women and men away from engaging in these communities. It is a simplistic and often immature way of interacting; it offers a sense of superiority without the risk of actually doing something. It means that online feminism is dominated by the people who can afford to be regularly derided (people like me who don’t depend on writing to pay my bills and who could easily walk away if I wanted to and who cope largely by not taking intellectual or professional risks and who eventually develop a nearly-impenetrable skin that necessarily leads to a large degree of arrogance and assholishness); people who traffic only in Outrage; and people who eventually find their way to the kinder lands of book deals and speaking engagements and out of sheer necessity and self-preservation simply stop interacting in any real way with the internet machine. The folks in the vast middle, who do want to engage but don’t want to sign up for a very public flogging if they make a misstep, seem to hang out on smaller sites or in blog comments for some period of time before finally getting sick of it all, if they bother engaging at all (it’s worth noting here that the vast majority of feminist blog readers just read the posts and not the comments, and likely have no clue what I’m even talking about right now).
This is not particularly effective activism. I’m not suggesting that we don’t hold each other accountable, or that we never critique other feminists. But I do think it’s high past time we stopped thinking of call-outs and privilege-owning as the best way to do activism online. That enables lots of individual back-patting, which is fine, but it’s also a recipe for a totally useless and ultimately self-defeating movement.
Instead, commit to doing the hard stuff. If there’s a gap, don’t stand there pointing at it. Fill it.