Is “Toxic" Online Culture Paralyzing Feminism?

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
Jan. 31 2014 1:28 PM

Is “Toxic" Online Culture Paralyzing Feminism?

When the Susan G. Komen Foundation announced its plan to pull funding from Planned Parenthood, online feminists spurred real action, and the decision was ultimately reversed.
When the Susan G. Komen Foundation announced its plan to pull funding from Planned Parenthood, online feminists spurred real action, and the decision was ultimately reversed.

Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars” landed on The Nation’s website on Wednesday like an earthquake, with tremors still rippling throughout all the Internet on Friday. In the piece, writer Michelle Goldberg argues that the online feminist revolution is “eating its own” because feminists are calling out other feminists, in particular on issues of race, class, and gender identity. She writes:

Yet even as online feminism has proved itself a real force for change, many of the most avid digital feminists will tell you that it’s become toxic. Indeed, there’s a nascent genre of essays by people who feel emotionally savaged by their involvement in it—not because of sexist trolls, but because of the slashing righteousness of other feminists. On January 3, for example, Katherine Cross, a Puerto Rican trans woman working on a PhD at the CUNY Graduate Center, wrote about how often she hesitates to publish articles or blog posts out of fear of inadvertently stepping on an ideological land mine and bringing down the wrath of the online enforcers. “I fear being cast suddenly as one of the ‘bad guys’ for being insufficiently radical, too nuanced or too forgiving, or for simply writing something whose offensive dimensions would be unknown to me at the time of publication,” she wrote.

Feminist infighting is nothing new, and feminism has never been a monolith. Goldberg points this out herself, referencing the 1976 Ms. article “Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood,” in which Jo Freeman chronicles how the second wave turned on itself. But this dynamic has been true for as long as there have been American feminists: See the late 19th-century disagreement between Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucy Stone over whether women should get the vote first, or if African-Americans should.

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Much of Goldberg’s article focuses on the infighting between black and white feminists, and many commentators have found her argument “problematic” because they believe she is trying to disempower women of color. If you want to read an account of both sides of this discussion, Wire has helpfully compiled an exhaustive guide.

But what I want to talk about is something my old boss at Jezebel, Anna Holmes, says in the piece. First, she says that when she founded Jezebel in 2007, she felt there was a real sense of fun and possibility in the women’s blogosphere that isn’t there anymore. Holmes left Jezebel in 2010 and says that now it “feels like a much more insular, protective, brittle environment than it did before. It’s really depressing.”

Part of the reason that the fun was sucked out of it, and something Goldberg doesn’t get into in her piece, is that there has been a blurring between writing and activism. When I started at Jezebel in 2007, I certainly considered myself a feminist, as did everyone else on staff to my knowledge. But we weren’t activists. We were journalists putting out a website.  A website with the tagline, “Celebrity, sex, fashion for women. Without airbrushing.”

I never had the sense that I was being held accountable to a larger feminist body that was judging my writing as sufficiently or insufficiently on message. We did genuinely bizarre shit! Like recording ourselves peeing off a Brooklyn, N.Y., roof with rubber contraptions that allowed us to urinate standing up and trying semen facials. We also wrote about politics and women’s magazines and Liz Phair. A lot of Liz Phair.

The Internet is different now. There was no Twitter back then—at least not the Twitter we know now. There were comments that we took to heart, but it rarely felt like being under assault. Of course, that’s because not as many people could express themselves as they can now. Social media has been an amazing tool for giving so many people a voice, and I would never want to go back to the days when only those who got jobs at Jezebel had the mic.

However, now that Jezebel and its peers are bigger brands, they are often treated as mouthpieces for the feminist movement, and I think that’s an awkward fit. In her piece, Goldberg makes no distinction between activism—the “movement”—and writing, and the two certainly run together on sites like Feministing. But it seems obvious to me that a place like Jezebel or here at DoubleX—both of which have many goals, several that have nothing to do with the goals of feminism—and women’s writing in general has been hurt by the “toxic” online culture, since, as Goldberg points out, a lot of women (not just white, middle-class women, but also women of color, including a Puerto Rican trans woman) are scared to write anything even remotely provocative for fear of getting yelled at or because they are not sure they know the rules. (One totally paralyzing rule: “intention doesn’t matter—indeed, if you offend someone and then try to explain that you were misunderstood, this is seen as compounding the original injury.”)

Goldberg’s thesis, however, is that all this infighting has hurt actual activism, and I’m not sure she makes that case. She opens her piece describing a 2012 meeting of online feminists called #femfuture. The mission of the meeting was to “leverage institutional and philanthropic support” for online feminism. Goldberg writes that there was a big online backlash against the organizers of #femfuture, which resulted in upset and hurt feelings, and uses this as a major example of so-called “toxic” feminist twitter culture. Goldberg doesn’t mention how the backlash hurt #femfuture’s stated goals, so I asked Vanessa Valenti, one of #femfuture’s organizers, if the backlash ultimately kept her project from getting institutional and philanthropic support. She said, via email:

We have been able to raise funds and get in-kind contributions for certain initiatives, like the self care retreat that we organized this past fall. On the other hand, there have been grant opportunities and fundraising ideas that we've abandoned because of the backlash. For example, we had originally planned to launch an IndieGoGo campaign to raise money so we could provide travel grants to the attendees of the retreat, but decided not to because we were concerned the online community may not back us. This was probably the right decision, considering that when we announced the retreat, folks on Twitter questioned our motives, calling it a "spa day" and inaccessible (despite a webpage and FAQ section outlining its accessibility).

But, Valenti added, they were still able to get travel grants through foundation funding. So, you know, they got what they wanted. In her piece, Goldberg cites some recent nationally important instances when online feminist organizing has really worked: pressuring the Susan G. Komen Foundation to reverse its decision to defund Planned Parenthood or pressuring Facebook to ban pro-rape content. When major pieces of online activism still seem to be succeeding, perhaps the threat to feminism is not as urgent as Goldberg’s piece presumes. Perhaps it's not really a threat at all but just the nature of the beast.

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.

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