Popular misogyny: a zeitgeist

Beyoncé performing at the VMAs

Beyoncé performing at the VMAs

Everyone is talking about feminism, so much so that Jessica Valenti, writing in The Guardian after Beyoncé performed at the 2014 VMAs with the word “feminist” lit up behind her, proclaimed “The zeitgeist is irrefutably feminist: its name literally in bright lights.”  Earlier, in February 2014, the popular blog Jezebel asked: “what does it mean for feminism if feminism becomes trendy?” Valenti also wondered: “If everyone is a feminist, is anyone?”  These questions have only grown more urgent, as feminist manifestos have crowded most media platforms, making a particular feminist subjectivity and its parent political commitments both hyper-visible and normative within popular media. Instagram and Twitter hashtags like #girlboss, #nomakeupselfie, #maletears, misandry-oriented ironic tumblrs and blogs, and fashion sites like The Man Repeller have exploded within digital media. Successful female entrepreneurs like Nasty Gal’s Sophia Amoruso and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg have each written a memoir and feminist ode, offering their own brand of motivational and aspirational corporate feminism.  There are scores of online lists that meticulously catalog celebrity feminist affiliations: those who have proclaimed themselves to be proud feminists – Beyoncé, Lena Dunham, Miley Cyrus, John Legend, Joseph Gordon-Levitt – and others who have floundered and hedged at the thought – Shailene Woodley, Pharell Williams, Kelly Clarkson, Taylor Swift.  Cosmopolitan magazine and the Ms. Foundation even announced a “top ten” list of celebrity feminists at the end of 2014, with actress Emma Watson awarded as the “celebrity feminist of the year.” Dressing in your feminist ideology is simple; there are feminist tank tops, buttons, and entire wardrobes courtesy of Etsy. This is an interesting moment, one that deserves our attention and to some extent, our celebration.

Misandry art from Etsy

Feminist art from Etsy

This mediated feminist landscape is difficult to comprehend fully, for certainly all feminisms are not the same, nor do they have the same goal.  A celebrity endorsing feminism in terms of whether they are one or are not one often ends up commodifying and reifying feminism, so that feminism becomes a sort of product, easy to either embrace or reject, rather than a historically complex series of movements and activism.  To that point, Glamour magazine recently claimed that “feminism is the new do,” clearly signifying it as a particular fashion choice (and placing it within the magazine’s archive of fashion “dos and don’ts” that it lists at the end of each issue).  We need to take these articulations of popular feminism for what they are-and what they are not.  They are, for example, broad recognitions that feminism is on the cultural radar, that we are moving beyond a wide cultural resistance to the “F” word, especially among younger women.

Popular feminism, however, isn’t sufficient to, say, structurally challenge patriarchy-nor does it claim to be. Popular feminisms rarely get at the complexities and contradictions within the long dureé of global feminist thought and practice-and indeed, the media platforms, such as social media and interviews with celebrities on which they are often expressed do not allow for that kind of depth.   So it is not surprising that popular feminist expressions rarely acknowledge intersectionality, or challenge the very structures of patriarchy.   Yet the fact that these feminisms are not the same thing also does not mean that we should approach all of them as a zero-sum game, as if one cancels out the other, or as if one has some cultural meaning and the other is merely marketing.  The marketing, or commodifying, of feminism does allow feminism to circulate in culture in some ways, to be then taken up in different ways, with different goals.  In this way, popular feminism can be thought of as one element in a historical series of feminist movements and activism. So these varied practices of feminism are deeply intertwined; to dismiss popular feminist expressions because they are, in Roxane Gay‘s words, “imperfect,” doesn’t help us continue the conversation productively. To trivialize feminism because of its popularity doesn’t help us figure out a way to have an intersectional feminism, one that refuses to separate gender from race or from class. Rather, it encourages judgment based on binary logic-it is either the right kind of feminism or the wrong kind-instead of encouraging a way of thinking that sees popular circulation as productive for a deeper probe into feminist issues and concerns.

But there are other implications of the recent wide circulation of popular feminism.

The dynamic of popular feminism-where the popular provides a cultural context for political practice-is mirrored (if somewhat imprecisely) in popular misogyny.  This mirror, though, is the fun-house kind, where it mimics the operation of popular feminism but flips and distorts the politics. Of course, forms of misogyny existed before popular feminism’s recent rise.  We need to contend with how, and in what ways, misogyny has shifted its media tactics and tropes in response to popular feminism.  Popular misogyny, with its basic anti-female violent expression, helps contribute to a misogynistic political and economic culture, where rape culture is normative and reproductive rights and other rights of the body for women are either under threat or being formally retracted.  So, popular misogyny opens up spaces for misogynistic political practice, like agitating for reproductive rights to be taken away from women, or for bloggers and other citizen journalists to reveal the names of rape victims in the media.

In other words, the wide circulation of popular feminism also means that there is another popularity that we need to contend with.  While for many a broader acceptance of feminism as an identity, concept, and practice is exhilarating, this acceptance also stimulates fear, trepidation, and aggression for those who find feminism to be a threat.  That is, when feminism is in the air in the way it is in current culture, it is not surprising to find backlash from patriarchal culture.  It is not surprising because opposition to feminism is not new: every time feminism gains traction in culture outside of what are routinely dismissed as niched feminist enclaves, it is received and positioned as a peril, which then invites a reaction. The risk feminism apparently embodies is present in a variety of practices: Feminism threatens conventional definitions and performances of masculinity; it threatens work culture in a global recession, because when women have jobs this is somehow seen as taking away a man’s natural right to have a job; it threatens conventional performances of hetero-femininity, especially in the ways that hetero-femininity functions to reassure men of their dominant position.

Oppositional movements reacting to feminism have existed since feminism became a visible enough ideology and practice to circulate widely in culture.  There was a wide anti-suffrage movement in the early 20th century that resisted not only a woman’s right to vote but also more general calls for an expansion of women’s rights in public culture. Recall Susan Faludi’s work on the backlash of the 1980s, where she skillfully interrogated the “infertility myth” and the “man shortage” by showing how popular culture responded to more women entering the workforce by creating films and other media that pointed to the dire effects that occur when women express any form of independence.  Films like Fatal Attraction and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle spelled out how literally murderous it is if women happen to be successful in their careers.  In the 1990s, Katie Roiphe strategically used her position of privilege to make the rounds of popular media in order to declare that women need to take responsibility for date rape, and that men were being unfairly victimized (apparently because it is impossible to resist forcing oneself on a woman who is inebriated).  As these examples demonstrate, movements to oppose women are not only populated by men; indeed, women are often positioned in the media as the most vocal opponents of feminism (think Ann Coulter, Christina Hoff Summers, Sarah Palin, the “Princeton Mom” as examples).  The strategy here is clear: women are often positioned in the media as opponents of feminism in order to validate an anti-feminist argument and to simultaneously vilify the opposition-the “see? Even women are against it” logic.  We can even consider the way in which commodity culture appropriates feminist rhetoric as a backlash-perhaps not as misogynistic as some others, but commodifying feminism is clearly a neutralization tactic.

Anti-Suffragette poster

Anti-Suffragette poster

So, backlash is not new.  But it does feel different in this moment. The feminist zeitgeist is situated alongside a new misogynist zeitgeist. Yet, while these two contexts coexist, it is the former that garners most attention while the latter is hardly acknowledged as anything more than rare marginal outbursts.  After all, popular feminism has a title-a zeitgeist!-while popular misogyny registers more as a familiar “boys will be boys” practice.  But both popular feminism and popular misogyny need to be understood as zeitgeists-it is just as important to recognize how popular misogyny defines the spirit of the times as it is to position popular feminism in this way.   That is, there is no single spirit of the times; rather, popular feminism and popular misogyny battle it out, and we can’t just shrug popular misogyny off, as yet again a series of expressions by angry and threatened men.

Misogynistic expressions in contemporary popular culture are everywhere, but it does seem like we buy into the idea that things have gotten better from years past, when basic rights were denied women, or gendered stereotypes were generally accepted in popular culture.  We look at ads and other media from the 1950s and 60s, and laugh, thinking that while things might not be great, at least we don’t have ads that say that in order for heterosexual women to keep their man, they need to make good coffee, or have sweet-smelling breath. We look at cheesy movies from the 1980s and think how ridiculous they seem, with the over-the-top representations of hysterical women just trying to keep their man.

And, now, in the current climate, we tell each other “don’t read the comments,” or that the most vicious expressions are merely anomalous trolls, or as the Internet reminds us, “haters gonna hate.” But it is precisely technological access and a flourishing of a “public” culture of comments and feedback that makes this moment feel different-and feel differently worse than past moments.  The current climate is a substantively different mediascape: saying your wife’s coffee is bad, or watching a mainstream movie that not so subtly insists that the consequence of a woman choosing to have a career might be insanity, is qualitatively different from someone threatening game developer Brianna Wu, precisely because she dared enter into the realm of game development, with the comment,  “I’ve got a K-Bar and I’m coming to your house so I can shove it up your ugly feminist cunt.”

The transformation of a technologically enhanced public discourse that explicitly threatens sexual violence and other forms of violation is a different iteration of backlash, to be sure. To say that it is “different,” however, is not to place blame on technology, nor to argue that it is new that cultural circulation of feminist ideologies and practices garners a misogynist reaction.  What we need to think through in this moment are the ways in which popular misogyny manifests itself as a normative reaction.  Popular feminism is more and more proudly waving its flag as feminist, while popular misogyny disguises itself as “ethics” or “equality.”  Perhaps this is because of a long-standing normalization of violence against women that has now been exposed in public media, or because of the anonymity that is possible in social media, or simply a desperate preservation of male privilege and prerogative.  What is clear, though, is that in the contemporary mediascape, popular misogyny increases in size and scope at the same time as popular feminism circulates more widely then ever before.  We need to think of the call-and-response connection between them.  We need to think of popular misogyny is as much of a zeitgeist as popular feminism, and contend with it as such.   If popular feminism, no matter how commodified or banal, allows for an opening of space and mind to think about broader opposition to structural sexism and racism, popular misogyny performs a similar function, and opens up spaces and opportunities for a more systematic attack on women and women’s rights.

The catalog of contemporary popular misogynistic expressions is unfortunately vast.  Without attempting to index even a majority of these expressions, it is worth mentioning the sheer variety: we have, of course, #gamergate, a cultural response to women in the video game industry who pointed out sexism in that industry; we tragically have many examples (Steubenville, Nova Scotia, Virginia, California) of young girls whose rape or sexual assault was documented on social media; we have hacked photos of nude celebrities, almost exclusively women; we have comments sections and tweets that express sexual and racial violence to known feminists such as Mikki Kendall, Anita Sarkeesian, Roxane Gay, and Jessica Valenti (among many others), and related, we have the need for some of these feminists and others to require security at public talks (Anita Sarkeesian had to cancel a public talk at the University of Utah when there was a threat of mass violence);  we have frat culture and normative sexual assault; we have men’s rights organizations; we have general and pervasive rape culture that provides a hostile and dangerous context for girls and women in the US to construct their individual, public, and sexual identities.

Take, for one example, the relatively recent increase in what are called Men’s Rights Associations.  Organizations such as Men’sActivism.org, or the National Coalition for Men (NCFM), have been around since the 1970s, but it is more recently that they have become more widely known in popular and public culture.  The mission statements of these organizations focus on what they call “pro-male” activism. NCFM’s reads “Since 1977 NCFM has been dedicated to the removal of harmful gender based stereotypes especially as they impact boys, men, their families and the women who love them.”  MensActivism.org claims to have two purposes:To provide pro-male activists with news and information that will aid them in working toward establishing equal rights for men and the improvement of men’s lives;” and “to encourage participation in activism projects, and to promote membership in men’s rights organizations which coordinate activism efforts and serve as a supportive network for men.”

I read the webpages of these organizations and wonder out loud: Why have an organization that focuses on men’s rights, those same rights that have structured the legal system in the United States since its founding?  What is the need to gather together and become activists unless the participants of MRAs perceive themselves to be under threat?  What “equal rights” need to be established for men, since almost all equal rights that have been established in the United States have been explicitly available to men?

But once I get past the snark, I also wonder about the danger of such organizations, and how these are deeply connected with other expressions of popular misogyny.  It makes me wonder, for example, why #gamergate contained such a virulent strain of misogyny when it was ostensibly a campaign about ethics in games journalism. After all, women have always been involved in gaming and game development-surely uneasily, but not in a way that simply offering one’s opinion of the gender representations in a game results in horrific rape and death threats. As Kate Miltner recently said sardonically, “Because I think it is entirely appropriate to address toxic elements of a certain culture, inside or outside of an academic context, I should just accept death threats as an occupational hazard. Right?”

I will go out on a limb here and say some of the cultural circulation of popular misogyny is due to technology; we need to interrogate technology for its architecture and those who build it.  In recent months, diversity reports from tech companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter have been released, confirming the not-surprising but still appalling overwhelming presence of white men at the helm.  As reporter Samantha Allen has said, “The technologies that we use to communicate with each other online, it seems, were built and continue to be operated by the people who can feel safest on those technologies.”  This again gets us to the problem of structure-we tinker at surface changes, such as blocking mechanisms on Twitter, but those don’t change the technological infrastructure that enables popular misogyny to circulate in the way it does. Superficial technological adjustments also don’t change the social infrastructure of online spaces, where women simply do not feel safe on the Internet (much like many public spaces before the Internet).

But popular misogyny is not only about technological platforms.  It is also about popularity.  In a sort of reversal of Stuart Hall’s famous “what is the black in black popular culture?” I want to ask: What is the “popular” in popular misogyny (and popular feminism, for that matter)? In some ways, it is about the clichéd impulse that is expressed so well by mean girl culture: it is craving attention, wanting to be liked by particular groups, by like individuals, wanting to be visible in particular ways. Of course, as the mean girl trope reflects, these are also the gendered sensibilities that are made normative for women.  In this context, the popular is about popularity.

For popular feminism, becoming popular has also often meant something that feels familiar: commodifying and branding a movement.  In fact, Time Magazine in 2014 listed “Feminism” (alongside basic, literally, and kale, among others) as a “word to be banned in 2015,” forgetting that feminism is a complex movement, not a buzzword (though they did retract this once they were, well, reminded). There have been efforts to reboot feminism as a kind of brand that find expression in retail and celebrity culture, but also in literal rebranding efforts.  For example, in 2013 the fashion magazine Elle UK hired three advertising agencies, Brave, Mother and W&K, to rebrand feminism. According to the magazine, they invited “three feminist groups to work with three award-winning advertising agencies to re-brand a term that many feel has become burdened with complications and negativity.” Elle UK attempts to do what most successful branders do, take out the “negativity” and complexities associated with feminism, smooth out those inconsistencies, and produce a seamless, coherent, and recognizable, narrative that defines feminism for all.  Yet, as Lucy Mangan from the Guardian critiques the Elle UK rebranding effort, “Feminism doesn’t need rebranding. It just needs to overcome the people-pleasing instincts of its majority members and focus on a few core issues, and then beat the shit out of everything and everyone in its way until those issues are satisfactorily resolved.”


Elle UK’s “rebranding feminism” campaign

But, as I’ve said, there is a mirroring of the cultural circulation of popular feminism and popular misogyny-and there is a similar mirroring of the rebranding of these two zeitgeists.  That is, there has also been a more subtle rebooting and rebranding of popular misogyny.  This has taken a different route from the rebranding feminism efforts, but yet still remains dedicated to a definition of “popular” that seems lodged in high school psychosocial behavior, where it is about craving attention and forming community around like individuals.  The rebranding of popular misogyny rejects a subtle form and expression from years past, where misogyny was a normative framework but phrased in careful ways.

Now, the “popular” in popular misogyny means a more overt strategy, a no-filter “I can say anything I want” kind of rhetoric, regardless how violent and immoral. Branding often is facilitated by media platforms (think of how many corporations use social media nowadays), so it makes sense that misogyny would also take advantage of these platforms to rebrand itself as “ethics” or “men’s rights.”

Some of the cultural processes that give us the chills–excited, exhilarating chills that allow us to repeat “finally, finally,” when Beyoncé performs at the VMAs with the word “feminism” behind her in spectacular lights-allow us to think of a culture where feminism, in every form, doesn’t have to be defended.

But expressions of popular misogyny gives us a different kind of chill-a terrified, what-the-fuck-is-happening kind of chill that we get when we read about horrifically violent rape threats against female game developers-and confronts us with the slippery slope between these alarming threats on individual women and broader policy and legal changes that threatens women’s reproductive rights and women’s rights to their bodies.

We need to make sense of the zeitgeist of popular misogyny, while we celebrate the zeitgeist of popular feminism.  This means challenging the normalization, and the sheer popularity, of popular misogyny, and not shrugging it off as an inevitable expression of boys being boys.

This emerged through and within productive intellectual conversations with Inna Arzumanova, Jack Bratich, Brittany Farr, Laura Portwood-Stacer, Tisha Dejmanee and Kate Miltner.  I thank them for indulging me and offering such helpful feedback. 

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