Friday, April 8, 2011

Narrating the Public Self: YouTube, Facebook, and Contemporary Feminism

Today, I chaired a panel at the 42nd Annual Northeast Modern Language Association Convention (NeMLA 2011) titled Narrating the Public Self: YouTube, Facebook, and Contemporary Feminism. I put this panel together to invite scholars to consider how, as twenty-first century modes of communication have altered, the ideological work of feminism has shifted to accommodate those changes, and how new iterations of feminist thinking and writing are affecting the discourse.

One of the other presentations, "Surfing Fourth Wave Feminism: Or, What Do You Get When You Mix an Attempted Rape, a Queen, and the Projects? A Star!", looked at the recent YouTube sensation Antoine Dodson, a black gay man who rescued his sister from a would-be rapist. This turned from a story about Dodson's bravery in thwarting the crime to an Internet phenomenon. Professor Lise Esdaile, who delivered this presentation, asked many questions about the disposable black female body--lost in the spectacle of Antoine's "performance" and the viral nature of its worldwide dissemination was the fact that a black girl from the projects was nearly raped, and the attacker is still at large.

The third presenter was Susana Galan, who is currently finishing a Master's Degree in Political Analysis from the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, and who will be starting in the Ph.D. Program in Women's and Gender Studies at Rutgers. Susana's presentation, "Pan-Arab Feminism 2.0? From Transnational Advocacy to Laila's Collecting Blogging," focused on how the Internet has served to empower Arab women in personal, as well as political, ways.  

Our discussion also asked for a reconsideration of the idea of the "public" and the "social." Have new social media configurations served to make the practice of feminist advocacy more democratic? How are feminists writing the texts of their lives through their personae as negotiated through social networking sites? What are the potentialities for future engagement by the next generations of feminist scholars? How are notions of audience and of familiarity altered by "friending?" Our panel investigated how feminism and feminist critical discourse can be more broadly democratized and globally advanced through widespread public engagement on social networking sites, as well as examining the difficulties in achieving it as related to issues of race and class and gender. Is Facebook a feminist issue? My talk, "Facebook 'Likes' Feminism: The Practice of Social Engagement," took up this question, among others.

A couple of years, as I was surfing and playing on Facebook (something that I realize a lot of scholars do), I noticed that one of my friends had just “liked” feminism on Facebook. I decided that I “liked” it, too, so I clicked on a button, and went on about my business—meaning, trying to tell all my other friends that I didn’t want to play Farmville, but I would consider Mafia Wars.  But then, I kinda got curious: Hmmm, what does Gloria Steinem ‘like’? Well, in terms of books, her choices are “officially” acceptable, in terms of feminist solidarity: her favorite books include, not surprisingly: Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust and At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance.

So, I began surfing all the feminists I could think of on Facebook to see what their interests were.  A couple of years ago, there wasn’t as much as there is now, since Facebook has taken over the world and altered our lexicon by creating new verbs—“to friend”—although I still say “to befriend.” So, as I considered how I could “like” everything I ever thought about in my entire life (Pepsi, The Borgias, Survivor, the New York Jets, and feminism), I started thinking more philosophically about feminism in the age of Facebook and about how we “like” things. “Liking” an ideology fascinates me—is it because it’s a facile, passive way of expressing our political views?

Malcolm Gladwell, in a New Yorker article published several months ago, titled “Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” suggested the limits of social engagement. He notes, “The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism. With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coordinate, and give voice to their concerns.” 

Gladwell critiques these overblown notions of cyber-activism, saying “Social media can’t provide what social change has always required.” He gives the example of the 1960 Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in by 4 North Carolina A & T college students to illustrate how the sit-ins spread throughout the south without Twitter, Facebook, or the Internet at all, thus highlighting dramatically the important distinction between true activism and  social networking. The violence directed at civil rights workers and others in the movement, both physical and psychic, he suggests, cannot be underscored enough: “Activism that challenges the status quo—that attacks deeply rooted problems—is not for the faint of heart.” Gladwell asks, “Are people who log on to their Facebook page really the best hope for us all?”                      

In reading Gladwell’s essay, I began my own investigation of the potentialities of Facebook as used by feminists. We see how progressive organizations such as MoveOn and TruthOut (organizations that I also “like”) successfully use social networking to advance specific agendas. How, though, do we properly or effectively advance an “ideology” such as feminism in and of itself? Can we? It seems it must be attached to specific outcomes so as to engender an active, rather than a passive, response. The White House uses Facebook, and certainly advertisers use it, which brings me back to the things I “like,” including feminism. What does it mean to like things? Is there a materialist proclivity being revealed that is antithetical to some of the aims of progressive feminism?

Okay, I “like” The Godfather, Pepsi, and feminism. What does it mean to like things that are diametrically and dialectically opposed to one’s most strongly held beliefs—such as The Godfather, with its misogyny and violence? How do we negotiate those contradictions? On my journey through Facebook feminism—as I perused through the open pages of some of these feminist scholars and celebrities—I saw the mundane (how’s your dog/are you still gardening, etc.) and the specific—feminist events, speaking engagements, etc. 
In looking at some of the status reports, I was thinking about how whether one can have a meaningful public discourse when only the first 5-6 lines of any comment are quickly visible without having to “see more.” How does this force one to methodically revise one’s keywords for maximum impact?

As I thought about it, I then wondered about the hierarchy of concerns of some feminists—part of the examination is to consider whether Facebook feminism’s issues of class are being addressed. Who has time to be on Facebook? The short answer is: those who have access to computers and the Internet. How do we address and negotiate these issues of class? Are we replicating the same marginalization? What is the responsibility of those who would call themselves feminist? These questions are part of a larger critical conversation that feminists should be asking with regard to access.

Finally, are there those who have “defriended” Feminism? Does it mean they no longer “Like” it?

All best,