GOP Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney is often criticized for being a bit bland, so when he mounted a Minnesota campaign stage on Wednesday sporting a jaunty dash of glitter in his usually plain hair, viewers might understandably have taken the glimmers as an attempt at a livelier image and not—as was intended—an act of protest. Indeed, Romney was the most recent target of the emergent protest form known as “glitter bombing,” in which activists disrupt proceedings by showering glitter on the object of their ire. I’ve written about the tactic here before with regard to the case of sex advice columnist Dan Savage, who has been repeatedly attacked for statements that critics consider to be transphobic or otherwise un-PC. But now I’d like to take on the glitter bomb phenomenon directly: it’s time that this childish and ineffective protest stunt be permanently defused.
Most glitter historians locate the start of the “bomb” repurposing in the ambush of Newt Gingrich back in May of 2010, when an a gay rights activist hollered “Feel the rainbow, Newt!” as he doused the man in sparkles. Since then, other outspoken conservatives (as well as the very not-conservative Savage) have received similar treatment, catching the attention of the news cycle for a day or two and then dispersing into the air. Observers have quibbled over whether the bombings amount to physical assault, but thus far no victim has pursued legal action. Meanwhile, supporters of causes the activists purport to represent (gay and trans rights; with Romney, reportedly immigration reform) acknowledge the attacks with little more than a chuckle. Everyone dusts off and goes home.
Back in the beginning, I was generally supportive of the anti-homophobic glitter bombings; they appeared to be a lighthearted, drag-inflected attempt at undermining the moral seriousness of their targets. But as the trend has continued and the operatives grown more self-important, I’ve come to view glitter bombing with increasing chagrin due to its tantrum-like tenor and inability to accomplish more than minor annoyance. In a culture reawakened to the power of civil disobedience by way of Occupy Wall Street, new forms of protest are bound to proliferate; but that doesn’t mean that all deserve to survive.
In the taxonomy of protest types, glitter bombing is an odd bird. Its closest cousin is a category of actions sometimes called “tactical frivolity,” which involves using humor, wit and surrealism to protest or disrupt a politically serious mark; but given the aggressive tenor and pat humourlessness of glitter bombing, that label doesn’t quite fit. And because activists can’t usually manage to get more than a few words out during the hurried delivery of the payload, the act doesn’t reach the level of civil discourse or direct action. In other words, glitter bombing does not speak the same language as a march, occupation or even a petition—it’s just an angry tweet in comparsion to those actions’ grand manifesto.
To be fair, not all protest gestures need aspire to the same level of impact (death by a thousand cuts is sometimes a great strategy). But this is where the actual form of glitter bombing becomes troublesome—what does glitter mean, exactly? When animal rights operatives throw fake blood on fur coats, the symbolism is clear: this life-giving fluid was spilled out of the desire for extravagant clothing. But when gay or trans people are injured by society, do they shed meaningless confetti? Glitter: a party accessory, Ke$ha’s drug of choice, the stuff children dump all over garbage-destined handicrafts; is this superfluous material really appropriate for the protest of such crucial issues?
Sure, glitter may be a chore to clean up, but the association of LGBT and other struggles with annoying specks doesn’t sound like a win to me. Glitter bombing may have been fierce for a minute, but like all protest movements (see: OWS), it must evolve and innovate or else risk irrelevance. When even fellow travelers are tiring of the antics, you know it’s time to put the shiny stuff away.