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Producing “Sneaky Feminism” in Online Cultural Content (2017 Graduate Walden Award Winner)

Feminism—advocacy for the social, political, and economic equality of women and men—has risen in cultural prominence in the last decade, particularly in creative production in online spaces, such as blogging.1 Despite a renewed interest in feminism, ambiguous and even negative associations with the concept persist in broader culture; not everyone who, in principle, believes in equality is comfortable calling themselves a feminist. Feminists who want to pursue careers writing online need to take into consideration the complicated sentiments around feminism in society. Furthermore, feminists who write online work in a precarious digital economy, where self-branding and self-promotion are the keys to a successful freelance career. Self-promotion, a practice clearly beneficial to individual gain, is somewhat antithetical to the collectivist goals of feminist practice; thus, feminist writers working in digital spaces must navigate these ostensibly opposing goals simultaneously to be considered successful as writers and as feminists. This essay is part of a study that explores how feminist writers who work online balance the cultural ambivalence around the term feminism, their career advancement goals, and their commitment to the collectivist values of feminism.

Feminism, Post-feminism, and Anti-feminism

Sarah Banet-Weiser, writing for the academic blog Culture Digitally, surmises that “feminism is on the cultural radar … we are moving beyond a wide cultural resistance to the ‘F’ word, especially among younger women”.2 Indeed, a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation Poll found that 60% of women and 33% of men in the United States consider themselves either a feminist or a strong feminist in 2016.3 This resurgence of feminism is particularly visible online. Social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, and digital media platforms, such as blogs and vlogs, present new ways to advance the feminist cause. Popular feminist messages are disseminated through formal digital media outlets such as Jezebel, a website that reports on current events and offers commentary on pop culture from a feminist viewpoint. But the ideas of feminism are also spread more informally on the internet, for instance, by women blogging about their lived experiences and raising awareness of gender issues as they encounter them in their lives.

Despite—or perhaps even because of—the rise of popular feminism, there has also been a recent increase in expressions of anti-feminism and misogyny, particularly in digital environments.4 The “We don’t need feminism” Tumblr page, where women are pictured holding up signs explaining why they do not ascribe to feminism, is just one example of the latest “backlash” to the ideas of feminism.5 The sentiments expressed in anti-feminist rhetoric highlight the misconceptions about feminism as a concept, suggesting, for instance, that feminism is always “anti-men” or radical. In large segments of society, then, feminism is still considered a “dirty” word.

Part of the reluctance to accept feminism is due to its contested nature as an ideology; feminist media scholars and journalists have written extensively about the complicated and often contradictory feminisms of recent decades. The popular rise of feminism in the 2010s comes on the heels of post-feminism, a cultural and political moment identified by scholars as starting in the 1990s, when feminism was simultaneously being “taken into account” as feminist gains from previous decades were being unraveled.6 Post-feminism, according to feminist media scholar Rosalind Gill, can be understood as “empirical patterns in contemporary cultural life, which include the emphasis on individualism, choice, and agency as dominant modes of accounting,” limiting the conversation around the continued influence of structural factors in gender inequality.7 Though some scholars argue that the recent rise of feminism in popular culture, especially among a younger generation of women, signals the end of post-feminism, others argue that this “new feminism” is in fact still largely subsumed by post-feminist values.8

It is clear that feminism as a collective political movement has somewhat morphed in recent decades into a movement for individual empowerment and choice, at least in mediated cultural articulations, rendering it entangled with post-feminism.9 At the same time, however, there is indeed a renewed media-led interest in feminist activism with women across generations expressing more collective sentiments around feminism. On the other hand, there is also a renewed visibility in explicit denouncing of and distancing from the concept of feminism.10 The current moment with its tensions and contradictions is thus “characterized by a multiplicity of (new and old) feminisms that co-exist with revitalized forms of anti-feminism and popular misogyny.”11

Self-branding and Promotion in a Digital Economy

At the same time that feminist (and anti-feminist) discourse has become embedded in online culture, the digital world is also becoming inextricable from creative work in the neoliberal economy. Feminist writers who produce written pieces for online audiences must work strategically in a neoliberal digital environment, in order to succeed both as writers (financially) and as feminists (ideologically). Gregg, Humphreys and Wilken, and Van Dijck and Nieborg call attention to the changing work norms tied to developments in communication technology, specifically the rise of social media and the corresponding digital/participatory culture.12 McRobbie; Gill; Cohen; and Neff, Wissinger, and Zukin also highlight the rise of individualism embedded in neoliberalism as another contributor to changing working norms.13 Overall, there has been a shift, particularly in creative industries, from employers being responsible for workers’ job security, advancement, and benefits to the requirement for self-management (to find, maintain, and progress in jobs) by employees. Freelance creative workers must therefore rely on self-promotion and self-branding to advance their careers. For freelancers, then, every moment of the day is seen as a possible work opportunity that cannot be missed.

Gill suggests that for these workers “life is a pitch”—a never-ending cycle of social networking, self-management, and skills training to be done outside of working hours.14 The interactive features of Web 2.0 allow creative workers to conduct much of their “pitch” online, using social media to promote themselves and their self-brand to potential employers and clients. Such practices of self-branding and promotion in the pursuance of career advancement are part of the ethos of individualism and meritocracy emblematic of neoliberalism.

For feminist online writers, this digital environment coupled with ambiguous meanings attached to the concept of feminism in broader culture present unique challenges for success. First, engaging in feminist creative practices in a digital environment requires the negotiation of individual self-branding and promotional activities alongside the advancement of collective politics, requirements that are seemingly antithetical endeavors. What happens when the personal values of the worker, which are part of the content of their creative endeavors, do not fit ideologically within the practices required to succeed in a neoliberal digital economy? As a case in point, referring to the online labor of feminist academics, Banet-Weiser and Juhasz contend that the ideals of “‘self-branding’ and ‘self-promotion’ serve to shatter any sense of cohesive community and commitment,” which is central to the collectivist goals of feminism.15 In fact, Duffy and Hund (2015) propose that “the infectious rhetoric of personal branding has been linked to … the contemporary logic of post-feminism,” which is part of the neoliberal ideology that essentially renders feminism as over, as complete.16

Second, feminism is not a universally embraced concept (despite its apparent recent rise in popularity). In particular, the word itself is often met with apprehension.17 Feminist writers who want to advocate for equality through their creative endeavors must therefore be careful about how they use the concept of feminism in their self-branding and promotional pursuits. Ultimately, they do not want to alienate parts of their audiences who might not necessarily identify as feminist.

Two questions I want to answer through this project are as follows: What happens when the promotional practices required of online cultural producers to succeed in their careers stand in opposition to the producers’ values, their identity, and oftentimes, the content of their writing—as is arguably the case for feminists? How does one build and promote an authentic self-brand that incorporates feminism, but at the same time does not repel readers who may shy away from strong declarations of feminist identification? This study aims to answer these questions, exploring through in-depth interviews with feminist online writers how they navigates tensions between commercial career success, collective feminist politics, and audience expectations.

Method

I interviewed eleven online writers over Skype. All of them wrote for a predominantly female or feminist (sometime both) audience, and all identified the values of feminism—broadly defined—as important in their work. The interviews lasted between thirty minutes and ninety minutes each. I used Twitter and Facebook as recruitment tools for this study. After making some initial contacts, I then asked each interviewee to refer me to someone new who would be willing to talk with me, thus creating a snowball sample.

Ten of the participants were women, one was a man. They were primarily freelance writers and bloggers, although some also worked full time for established media companies. Seven of the women were freelance writers, working predominantly for various online publications with a feminist slant, such as Jezebel and Reductress. These women had a variety of other “content production” gigs, such as stand-up comedy, playwriting, and music that supplemented their writing income and played a part in their self-branding endeavors. One woman, who was also an academic, wrote for activist feminist publications, rather than pop culture and commentary sites. One woman was a beauty and make-up writer/blogger. The sole man in the sample wrote a commercially successful blog about his experiences with gendered marketing as a stay-at-home father. One woman wrote for a major celebrity gossip magazine full time, but also had extensive experience writing sex columns and personal blogs on the side. All names have been anonymized.

I conducted the interviews over a period of two months, from March until May 2016. I then carefully coded and analyzed each interview using a grounded theory approach, allowing for patterns to arise from the data.18 Referencing the existing literature on feminism, digital labor, and self-branding, I focused on themes related to self-branding and promotion in the context of feminism.

Feminist Cultural Production Online

The writers interviewed repeatedly expressed the need to brand themselves to promote their careers; this was unsurprising especially as the majority of them were freelance writers. Having a clear brand was deemed necessary for self-promotion and to secure new work. As Cindy, a make-up and beauty writer, explained, “The world of freelance and blog writing is small—people make connections from previous assignments. Building a reputation is important.” Self-branding was seen as an integral aspect of building this reputation. Overall, the analysis revealed that feminist writers managed the tensions between self-branding and promotion and their feminist values in two distinct ways: embracing feminism or distancing from feminism. These strategies of embracing and distancing were essentially different branding practices, but ultimately produced the same results—the spread of feminist values and ideas to audiences.

Some of the writers interviewed explicitly branded themselves as feminist and overtly included the values of feminism in their content, for example, by writing about women’s issues or even feminism as a political ideology outright. Yet others co-opted the “brand” of feminism in an ironic way, using it both as a way to self-promote and to challenge some misconceptions around feminism permeating popular culture, e.g. calling their brand “Kill All Men.” (I have written elsewhere on the specifics of the complicated branding practices—and the motivations behind them—for writers who are navigating collective feminist values with individual promotion online.)

In contrast to this embracing of feminism as a self-brand, a number of the writers interviewed distanced themselves from feminism and deliberately did not use references to feminism or feminist language in their branding and promotional activities. These writers did not label themselves as feminists outright for a variety of reasons. Some wanted to distance themselves from the negative cultural connotations attached to the word “feminist.” Jade, for example, explained she did not call herself a feminist because “people are so judgmental about feminism.” Others thought that using feminism as part of self-branding practices seemed inauthentic to the goals of feminism. For instance, Cindy said that she has a problem with people shallowly branding themselves as feminist: “Feminism is really trendy and these people that are purporting to, like, ‘kill all men’ are not actively working to dismantle institutions or the patriarchy or what have you.”

Yet others found the label itself problematic. For example, Peter said that “[feminism] is a label. I don’t mind the word, but any kind of label doesn’t effectively describe what someone does.” Sara, a writer for popular culture and satirical publications online, “definitely” considered herself a feminist; however, she was “really wary of using feminist as a label. When we start categorizing people and weighing their contributions to feminism, it makes it easier to write off people.” Janet said that she identified as a feminist, but is not vocal about it “even though I’m not screaming ‘hey, I’m a feminist’ I deal with it in my sort of way.” Rosemary said, “I don’t know that I would brand myself that way [as a feminist]. But I identify that way.” Overall, these writers identified as feminist “on the inside” but wanted to avoid the label, because they found it deficient, inauthentic or harmful to their brand. This distancing of themselves from feminism allowed participants to reconcile their practical feminist values with some of the less-feminist actions required of their work, all the while maintaining their integrity and authenticity, and not alienating their audiences.

“Sneaky” Feminism Online

A distancing from explicit notions of feminism was also used as a strategy to, paradoxically, advance the goals of feminism: through making the goals and values of equality more “palatable” by distancing themselves from the contested concept of feminism, these writers “sneak” feminism into their audience’s lives. They sneak feminism into their writing by making it more relatable to the audience—for example, by linking the goals of feminism to consumer culture and to parenting, issues that affect people day-to-day—and therefore making feminism less theoretical and more practical.

For instance, Janet, a writer, video producer, comic, and single mom, explained, “My brand is very much about my life and what’s going on. I don’t use the word [feminism], but in terms of being a woman and speaking from my perspective and doing empowering things and the growth that’s going on in my life, I would say definitely [feminism is a part of my brand].” She went on to say, “I talk about being a single mother raising a kid alone and how I operate in that sort of world. And, I think, [in] my opinion, any woman doing what she wants because she wants to and enjoys what she’s doing is living out that sort of feminist quality that we all kind of hope to have.” Thus Janet practices feminism through sharing a single mom’s authentic perspective and her lived, gendered experiences with her audience, but she does not explicitly acknowledge these practices as feminism to her audiences.

Peter is “very aware of [his] place as a man” and wary of calling himself a feminist. He believes that by simply discussing his experiences and observations as the parent of a young girl, and not outright declaring himself as a feminist to his audience, he will allow others to see gendered marketing as a problem, without alienating people who might not necessarily identify as feminists. He thinks that sharing his experiences is the best way of getting his [feminist] messages across: “The goal, broadly speaking, is to present ‘this is how we live,’ and sometimes I’ll get more into ‘this is probably how I think it should be.’”

Cindy reported feeling as if she is sneaking feminism into her audience’s lives by writing about beauty products she had tried that did not fulfill their promises.

I write a weekly beauty letter, like just for fun, but it’s about me spending all this money on products that say that they’ll make me beautiful and they never work, like, that’s the gist of it. And truly the only time that I felt fulfillment in writing is when girls write back to me after getting my letter and being like, “Oh my god, I tried this too, it didn’t work.” … I’m not trying to be like “Oh, to me that’s feminism,” but that to me is like a really beautiful way to community build or a feminist way to community build about something that’s essentially, like, face lotion.

By questioning the value of consumption of beauty products, Cindy raises awareness about consumer culture and beauty expectations that place women at a disadvantage. Thus, through writing about “face lotion,” Cindy challenges patriarchal norms—an arguably feminist act—without mentioning the word “feminism.”

As another example of “sneaky feminism,” Kate said that she specifically writes for comedy and popular culture websites as a way to get her feminist messages across, because it makes feminism easier to agree with.

I do think that it’s a huge help to use comedy in anything, but especially in things like this when people are so sensitive, and especially men are very sensitive to, you know, oftentimes, not wanting to hear women’s side of life. And I think that the easiest way to help people swallow these ideas is to use comedy… . I wouldn’t say that I have taken any huge stands [for feminism]. I don’t go to marches, I’m not involved in any organizations, but I think that my strength and my, I don’t want to say power, but the power I do have over anything, comes more from my work and my writing.

Rosemary agreed that comedy is a good way to get audiences to think about feminist values: “I think lightening people up to receive what can be really kind of harsh information makes sense to me.” She went on to say that popular culture in general can expose unlikely audiences to feminism, reasoning that “we have to meet people where they are. And that’s where they are. And that’s the kind of space where they are. If they come to feminism, or they come to a feminist perspective through Amy Schumer, great. Or Beyoncé, great.” Tina, a writer for a feminist activist publication, agreed that pop culture feminism is “palatable. It’s easy to digest.” Thus, distancing oneself from feminism as activism was seen by these writers to in fact work in favor of the goals of feminism.

Conclusion

Feminist writers online used two strategies for incorporating their feminist values into their work. Some explicitly embraced feminism as a self-brand, as a way to self-promote and to advance the feminist cause, while others strategically distanced themselves from feminism in their self-branding practices. However, this distancing was used strategically to “sneak” feminist conversations to audiences that may have otherwise been opposed to the ideology if presented with it directly. Thus “sneaky feminism” was evoked as one way of successfully balancing individualistic career prospects with the collective messaging of feminism and audience expectations. Overall, regardless of whether the writers explicitly identified as feminist to their audiences or not, they all worked in various ways on their goal of sharing feminist values with their audiences.

Notes

Part of these findings are published in a revised version of this article: Urszula M. Pruchniewska, “Branding the Self as an ‘Authentic Feminist’: Negotiating Feminist Values in Post-Feminist Digital Cultural Production,” Feminist Media Studies (July 2017), available at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/....


  1. Sarah Banet-Weiser, “Popular Misogyny: A Zeitgeist,” Culture Digitally (January 21, 2015), available at http://culturedigitally.org/2015/01/...↩︎

  2. Ibid. ↩︎

  3. Weiyi Cai and Scott Clement, What Americans Think about Feminism Today, The Washington Post, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/graph...↩︎

  4. Banet-Weiser, “Popular Misogyny.” ↩︎

  5. Susan Faludi, Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women (New York: Crown, 1991). ↩︎

  6. Rosalind Gill, “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility,” European Journal of Cultural Studies 10, no. 2 (2007):147–166; Angela McRobbie, The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change (Los Angeles: Sage, 2009). ↩︎

  7. Rosalind Gill, “Post-postfeminism?: New Feminist Visibilities in Postfeminist Times,” Feminist Media Studies 16, no. 4 (2016): 610–630. ↩︎

  8. Hanna Retallack, Jessica Ringrose, and Emilie Lawrence, “‘Fuck Your Body Image’: Teen Girls’ Twitter and Instagram Feminism in and around School,” in Learning Bodies: The Body in Youth and Childhood Studies, ed. Julia Coffey, Shelley Budgeon, and Helen Cahill (Singapore: Springer, 2016), 85–103; Gill, “Post-postfeminism?” ↩︎

  9. Andi, Zeisler, We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement (New York: Public Affairs, 2016). ↩︎

  10. Banet-Weiser, “Popular Misogyny: A Zeitgeist.” ↩︎

  11. Gill, “Post-postfeminism?” ↩︎

  12. Melissa Gregg, Work’s Intimacy (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons, 2013); Lee Humphreys and Rowan Wilken, “Social Media, Small Businesses, and the Control of Information,” Information, Communication & Society 18 no. 3: 295–309; and Jose Van Dijck and David Nieborg, “Wikinomics and Its Discontents: A Critical Analysis of Web 2.0 Business Manifestos, New Media & Society 11 no. 5: 855–874. ↩︎

  13. Angela McRobbie, “Clubs to Companies: Notes on the Decline of Political Culture in Speeded Up Creative Worlds,” Cultural Studies 16, no. 4 (2002): 516–531; Rosalind Gill, “Life is a Pitch: Managing the Self in New Media Work,” in Managing Media Work, ed. Mark Deuze (London: Sage. 2002), 249–62; Nicole Cohen, “Cultural Work as a Site of Struggle: Freelancers and Exploitation, Triple C 102 no. 2 (2012): 141–155; and Gina Neff, Elizabeth Wissinger, and Sharon Zukin, “Entrepreneurial Labor among Cultural Producers: ‘Cool’ Jobs in ‘Hot’ Industries, Social Semiotics 15, no. 3 (2005): 307–334. ↩︎

  14. Gill, “Life Is a Pitch.” ↩︎

  15. Sarah Banet-Weiser and Alexandra Juhasz, “Feminist Labor in Media Studies/Communication: Is Self-Branding Feminist Practice?” International Journal of Communication 5 (2011): 1768–1775. ↩︎

  16. Brooke Erin Duffy and Emily Hund, “‘Having It All’ on Social Media: Entrepreneurial Femininity and Self-Branding among Fashion Bloggers, Social Media + Society 1, no. 2 (2015): 1–11. ↩︎

  17. Banet-Weiser, “Popular Misogyny.” ↩︎

  18. Anselm Strauss and Juliette Corbin, Basics of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008). ↩︎

About the Author: 

Urszula Pruchniewska is a doctoral candidate at Temple University in Philadelphia. Her research interests include digital media and technologies, gender and feminist media studies, and audience studies. She has published work on these topics in Feminist Media Studies, Social Media + Society, and Information, Communication and Society.

Volume 3, Issue 1

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