Taken from the February 2014 issue of Dazed & Confused:
In 2014, digital feminism is at a crossroads. “Online feminism: is it really helping?” wonders the Huffington Post. “Nipples, banknotes and internet trolls,” rages the Telegraph. “Is this seriously the best feminism can do?” Meanwhile, columnists endlessly debate the feminist credentials of Miley, Rihanna and Beyoncé, as if discovering a lone feminist in music might somehow eradicate the wage gap. But beyond the vajazzle-n-twerk concerns of sensational media outlets, an underground of young feminists is thriving online. You just have to know where to look.
“The age of having a few feminist representatives is over,” argues Reni Eddo-Lodge, a full-time campaigner and writer who has been blogging about feminism and race for over four years. “When I started getting involved in feminism, all the texts recommended to me were by white women. The internet fundamentally changed that – it’s provided a platform for voices that you simply would not have read before.”
Feminism has always been inextricably linked to developments in technology. Thanks to mass printing, suffragettes at the start of the 20th century were able to cheaply produce newspapers like Votes for Women, which they sold or left on public transport in the hope of converting curious readers to their cause. During the glory years of 70s counterculture, underground periodicals like Spare Rib offered an unvarnished alternative to preening glossies like Cosmopolitan.
In the 90s, riot grrrls adopted the self-publish-and-be-damned spirit of punk fanzines like Maximum Rocknroll, penning intensely personal and political takes on eating disorders, sexism and body image, and the unfiltered and uncensored thoughts and dreams of thousands of young women were endlessly Xeroxed, posted and swapped at zine fairs.
In 1991, Australian art collective VNS Matrix published the utopian “A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century", a viral poster image warning “big daddy mainframe” that, in the digital world, “the clitoris is a direct line to the matrix.” As English author Sadie Plant said in 1993: “Cyberfeminism is simply the recognition that patriarchy is doomed.” Australia's Rosie X founded the world’s first cyberfeminist zine, Geekgirl, in 1993. Its motto? “Grrrls need modems!"
The new online wave of feminist and female-only collectives and zines channels Geekgirl's DIY ethos. Crucially, this generation of feminist writers and artists have grown up online; some are old enough to remember the crackle of a modem, while for others GeoCities is an archaic fossil from the early 00s. And they’re networking, @-ing, RT-ing and reblogging each other. Across geographical distances, they’re working out what unites them more than what divides them.
Julia Gray and Bryony Beynon are the founders of anti-harassment campaign Hollaback London. Beynon remembers the dial-up days well: “Growing up in isolated south Wales, I was part of the first generation of teenage girls to create social worlds for themselves on the internet. It exposed me to a dizzying array of ideas about politics, identity, sexuality and gender I would never have come across otherwise.”
Despite the popularity of high-profile feminist campaigns such as No More Page 3 and Everyday Sexism, there is still much to change. In 2013, women in the UK earned almost £5,000 less than their male counterparts, according to TUC analysis. An audit of over 100 galleries in London found that only five per cent exhibited an equal number of male and female artists. Since 2010, feminist literature organisation VIDA has kept track of how male writers are disproportionately represented – and reviewed – in major publications like TheNew York Times. It’s not looking too good.
“There are so many male-dominated places where women aren’t allowed to feel comfortable,” says photographer Arvida Byström, who runs Gal Space, a pink-floored, female-run gallery in east London. “It’s not spoken aloud, like, ‘This is a male-only place,’ even though it is. Females need their spaces to talk, to get together, to realise they’re not being fucking paranoid (about sexism).”
Increasingly, that space exists virtually. Women constitute the majority of users on social networks like Twitter and Facebook – Brian Solis, who has mapped online gender representation for Information is Beautiful, goes as far as calling these sites “matriarchies”. According to comScore, an internet analytics company, women in Europe and North America spend 30 per cent more time on these socially oriented sites than their male counterparts. On average, they also tweet more, follow more people and have more followers.
They include Nottingham-born Beth Siveyer, who founded the feminist zine Girls Get Busy. “I’m not particularly academic – I haven’t even been to university,” she says. “I actually first searched the ‘feminism’ and ‘feminist art’ tags on Tumblr and I think seeing the diverse volume of content is truly what gave me confidence to identify as a feminist and inspired me to start GGB.”
Her story isn’t too far off from that of Eddo-Lodge, who recalls “tapping in something like ‘UK feminism’ into Google” when she came across feminism during an English class at university. Say what you want about the #annoying ubiquity of hashtags and Google’s all-seeing eye, but both have indexed knowledge that is accessible in ways that were unthinkable a few decades ago.
Now on its 20th issue, Girls Get Busy has expanded into a 10,000-follower-strong online platform that distributes other zines and supports female-identified artists, musicians and writers. “The sort of feminism you see celebrated in the media is very one-way – it’s hetero, white, middle-class feminism,” she explains. “But now we can make our own media.”
"The sort of feminism you see celebrated in the media is very one-way - it's hetero, white, middle-class feminism. But we can make our own media" - Beth Siveyer
Girls Get Busy is just one of the numerous feminist projects thriving online – there’s south London’s SALT., which blends critical theory with visual art, Brooklyn-based zine Illuminati Girl Gang, Petra Collins’ visual arts platform The Ardorous, the literary journal tender, New York music-meets-art zine The Le Sigh... Even a commercial undertaking like Tavi Gevinson’s Rookie runs on explicitly feminist ideals, publishing articles pondering “if only there were a 12-step programme for misogynists” alongside how-to instructionals for DIY ruffle socks.
“Blogs are free,” explains Gabby Bess, founder of Illuminati Girl Gang. “Websites are like, $10. Illuminati Girl Gang started out as a Tumblr blog, and if no one had followed it or cared about it, it would have been no loss to me. The internet just provides more in-roads for people that don’t have access to larger publications and outlets.”
For Bess, blogging is a way of subverting commercial publications and galleries, the traditional gatekeepers of culture, which tend to be dominated by white men. “Personally, I cannot control who owns the major publications and galleries,” she says. “I can only start my own magazine and my own gallery.”
As online connections multiply and overlap, feminist artists and writers are able to join the dots. Following people on Tumblr or Twitter can open up a new network of information, resources and support, as well as radically different modes of feminist thinking and campaigning.
This stuff about intersectionality, that was conceived 25 years ago by a black academic (Kimberlé Crenshaw), but it’s only when people are taking it and applying it to their lives that the theory turns into practice,” Eddo-Lodge enthuses. Intersectionality is about how the different sorts of oppression suffered by disenfranchised groups relate to each other. Are high heels feminist? Who cares? If you know where to look, deeper conversations about class, sexual identity, ethnicity and their effects on sexism are happening at warp speed, increasingly distinct from conventional media coverage of supposedly feminist concerns.
Some feminist artists on Tumblr have taken advantage of its visual possibilities to develop a distinctive aesthetic – a kind of sly, acid-laced pastel femininity drawn from riot grrrl, pop culture and early web iconography. Byström’s Tumblr is a classic case in point: webcam selfies, tampons rolled in glitter and one-eyed kittens nestle alongside thoughtful ask.fm meditations on Byström’s own identity as a queer feminist.
Of course, digital feminism hasn’t been without its critics. “I’ve rarely, if ever, heard ‘Tumblr feminism’ used in a positive sense,” says tender founder Sophie Collins. “The term seems equated with superficiality, inconsistency and a lack of practical action.”
Byström is familiar with attacks on the unashamed girliness that pervades Tumblr. “Just because it looks flirty and pink, society sees it as unserious. It’s a complicated thing,” she says. “I have loads of old self-portraits that you could probably argue are objectification, in a way. But at least I’m the one taking the photos, and I get something more from it than just being the muse.”
Social networks like Twitter and Facebook suffer from other problems. Last year, Feminist Times editor Charlotte Raven came under fire from Spare Rib founders for attempting to resurrect the name of their magazine for her new online venture. Raven wondered if feminists were “addicted to arguing,” writing: “These days it is Twitter I am terrified of... Why do so many high-profile feminists seem to relish Twitter spats?”
On Facebook, female artists congregate on invite-only groups to discuss gender representation in the industry. When members of one page criticised artist Daniel Keller (of Aids-3D) for not including females in his 11-man show Liquid Autist, he attacked the “filter bubble” and “echo chamber” effect of such groups.
“When I started getting involved in feminism, all the texts recommended to me were by white women. The internet fundamentally changed that" - Reni Eddo-Lodge
“I really think this female artist FB group is nasty and counterproductive...” he wrote on Facebook. “You can try to justify it as ‘yeah, we have a girls club just like you have a boys club’ but um, we don’t ACTUALLY have a private FB group where we gang up on female artists and curators.”
“Of course it can get to a point where comments become unnecessarily personal,” Collins says, “but it would be highly retrogressive to avoid them altogether through fear of appearing ‘overserious’, ‘mean’, or ‘hysterical’. More dangerous than any debate is the idea we are censored or denied a space in which to have it.”
Still, there’s something to be said for taking the action offline. Byström, Bess and Siveyer have all curated or contributed to female-identified exhibitions, and curators like Zoë Salditch have organised female-only group shows such as her gURLs, which took place in Brooklyn’s Transfer Gallery in August.
Beynon, who runs Hollaback London workshops IRL, takes care to distinguish between online chatter and offline action. “Twitter in itself is not activism,” she emphasises. “An e-petition is no substitute for talking, protesting, meeting and planning. Also, it has a fundamentally western bias, as the overall percentage of women in the world with access to the internet is small.”
In the grand scheme of things, the victories won by online feminism can seem minor: a (relatively) safe space for women to discuss sexism without feeling paranoid; a low-cost alternative to the male-dominated world of professional media and galleries – this isn’t reinventing the wheel or putting a bullet in the head of misogyny. What does a world run by women look like? What does art made by and for women look like? Even now, we struggle to answer these questions. But at least we’re asking.
The struggle for visibility and representation has been going on for hundreds of years, but the internet has allowed women of all backgrounds, ethnicities and sexual orientations to join that fight. These days, the so-called “feminist art ghetto” is a lot bigger. But as Bess wisely says: “I feel like that term should be replaced, more accurately, with ‘feminist cool girl club’. All girls are cool girls.”
Follow Zing Tsjeng on Twitter here @misszing