Week 8-9: Backlash & Online Communities


Week 8: Metaphors of feminism: “Waves” and “Backlash”

This week I have been looking at the concept of backlash and of a hostile environment for a social movement in order to understand how to recognise this. I have also been exploring the metaphors that are used in the description of contemporary feminism, in particular the concepts of the “third wave” and “backlash”. Some writers see these two developments in contemporary feminism as somehow linked.

Ednie Kaeh Garrison (2004), in particular, feels that third wave feminism has arisen at least partly because of the way feminism has been framed by the mainstream media over the last few decades. In her essay in Third Wave Feminism: A Critical Exploration, she discusses the way this happens: “Feminism […] gets constructed as the enemy, conveniently providing a figure (a ‘straw woman/feminist’) for traditional ideologues and ‘average’ women to target”. This happens because “backlash deterrence produces and commodifies the categories of ‘the feminist’ and ‘real women/femininity’ as opposing perspectives and competing factions”. In other words the suggestion is that third wave feminists identify as different from second wave feminism mainly because second wave feminism has been reframed by the media as something that it wasn’t, and/or because the notion of “real women” is simply problematic. As a result third wave feminism itself plays into the backlash rhetoric – young women are alienated from radical feminism because they don’t want to be associated with the non-feminine – they want to assert their “real woman”hood even though the opposition is itself illusory (Garrison 2004, 31).

However, Garrison (2004) sees the situation as more positive than it would seem at first, in that third wave feminists are, in reality, using the same ideas for the same causes and have far more in common with second wave feminists than they might admit. Even so, she concludes that;

One of the greatest challenges for third wave feminists engaging with the media, moving into media institutions and/or producing alternate media cultures that register outside the mainstream may be to reconstruct the ways the popular consciousness of feminism is conceived and articulated. Coming to feminist political consciousness today involves weeding through disjointed, conflicting, and apparently contradictory conversations.

Garrison and others are critical of the wave metaphor, even though it may be “comforting” (Garrison 2005, 238), it is a metaphor which to some extent encourages complacency and a “wait and see” approach. Ocean waves “infer a movement that carries us along, we get caught up in the action and movement, and come to see later that we have been part of some massive influx and reflux” (Garrison 2005, 243-244). In this way the metaphor removes agency and makes social movements seem like events that occur spontaneously and independently from people and the concerted efforts of activists.

As an aside, I would like to explore in social movement theory the various ideas and images that have been used to explain the patterns of protest to see how each is useful for explaining the ebbs and flows of activism. It is actually quite difficult to avoid metaphors! Even the word “backlash” is a metaphor (Cudd 2002). Backlash itself comes from a machinery metaphor, a reaction (back) of a machine to being pushed (forward) too quickly. I suppose this gives the person pushing the machine metaphorical agency, but the machine can’t help itself – it’s simply physics!

Some see the idea of waves as divisive or misleading, and there is controversy about what qualifies as a wave. Henry (2005) argues that feminists shouldn’t divide themselves by generation – that difference is possible within a united cause, and that a united cause is necessary for change:

Second wave feminists have taught us the difficulties in working with other women on shared political goals; these are the lessons inherited by the third wave, the feminism that we grow up with “in the water.” While a nostalgic longing may continue to exist for that clear and unifying agenda of the past – even if that vision of the past is itself a fiction – some third wave feminists have begun to insist that we need to work toward a communal vision of feminism in the present, one that acknowledges differences among women while simultaneously arguing for a shared political commitment.

Such a nostalgic vision of the past “reflects a falsely held belief that all of the meaningful struggles are over, that all of the battles have been won” (Springer 2005) and this idea needs to be rejected before people will be motivated to act and create change.

On the other hand, Elaine Showalter, in an interview with Gillis and Munford (2004) is sceptical of third wave feminism’s potential for actual social change: “Third wave feminism implies a movement, a wave suggests movement, whereas I am very dubious about the existence of a new feminist movement. I think of the wave as more temporal than revolutionary”.

The idea of discrete waves is also problematic for social movement theorists like Rupp and Taylor (2005) who have uncovered the phenomenon of “abeyance” between the waves. They “called into question the then prevailing orthodoxy that the U.S. women’s movement mobilized through two intense waves of protest and virtually died in the interim years” (Rupp and Taylor 2005).

Returning to the concept of backlash:

It has been suggested to me that “backlash” connotes a mean-spirited, punitive attitude on the part of the backlasher. Faludi suggests this when she introduces the term, defining backlash to feminism as “hostility to female independence,” and “fear and loathing of feminism.” While I think that backlash can certainly come about through such attitudes, it can also come about as a result of completely unorganized, unconscious, perhaps even institutionalized, resistance to change. (Cudd 2002, 10)

Backlash can serve to send a movement into abeyance, although these two terms are not synonymous. As Showalter (in Gillis and Munford 2004) puts it “Feminism can go on independently of a women’s movement”, and this is essentially the difference between the terms “feminism” and “the women’s movement”. Feminism is the ideology, the belief system that says women deserve better, and the women’s movement is the active community that enables social change to occur and social conditions to improve for women, and this can’t happen in a hostile social environment which is resistant to change.

Week 9: Feminism and backlash in cyberspace

A completely isolated, unique, anomalous event could not be an instance of backlash in my sense. This is because a single event could not be an event of oppression absent any social structures of constraint. But the existence of a mean-spirited attitude, an intention to deny social progress, means that the event is not really an isolated, anomalous event. For there must be other events, however diffuse and disorganized, that lead to the crystallization of the attitude toward the social group. (Cudd 2002, 11)

Above is Ann E. Cudd’s description of what backlash looks like. Immediately when I read this I thought about the sometimes very anti-feminist attitudes of people I have met online and IRL. I thought about the strange reactions people have had when I tell them I am writing my thesis on online feminist communities.

For example, I met this guy at a party a couple of weeks ago, and I was introduced as “Frances who is doing a PhD on online feminist communities”. Before I had even opened my mouth the guy had launched into a big spiel about “Oh God” and “Why on earth was I doing that?” and “Gender is irrelevant in online communities!” and “Feminists have got it wrong!” and proceeded to tell me why feminism had got it wrong. When he finally stopped speaking I pointed out that he had made a lot of assumptions about me purely from the word “feminist” in my research topic. The conversation actually reminded me of the shouting-down kind of debate that goes on in online discussion groups all the time, which is often highly gendered. I thought about what he had said about the irrelevance of gender online, and thought back to my IRC days, about all the ops being guys with few exceptions, and the fact that the first thing anyone was asked when they entered a chatroom was “asl?” (“Age, Sex, Location?”)

The internet was believed by some proponents to be something that would dissolve gender boundaries and create a new free social world (Gillis 2004). People were to become cyborgs, anonymous cyberbodies without fear of prejudice. According to Gillis (2004) there are three versions of this thesis:

(1) the consumer relationship has reduced the relevance of the demographic complication of sex; (2) we regard any form of technology as eliding sex; and (3) with the repudiation of the ‘body’ in cyberspace, the phenomenological equation of ‘body equals woman’ is erased. This thesis goes untested and masquerades as demonstrative ‘new’ sex by virtue of the kinds of thinking that feed into it.

But she asks: “Why are we so keen to believe that the Internet appears to provide a space in which feminist politics and praxis can take place outside the patriarchal hegemony? Empirical studies have demonstrated that although the potential for gender-fucking whilst online is tempting, it remains largely science fiction.” (Gillis 2004).

In the absence of bodies, in fact, “network users exaggerate societal notions of femininity and masculinity in an attempt to gender themselves” (Gillis 2004, 190). Thus we should not make the mistake that the internet is a safe place for feminism to be tested, as cyberfeminism has claimed. In fact, some people’s experiences and research into the realities of the internet show that the opposite can be true. Camp (1995) says that in her experiences online, “all the groups formed for women quickly become swamps of men’s bile”.

As Judy Anderson (1995, 124) explains:

Women need a place to discuss our issues. Many open forums whose focus is women’s issues suffer from a common problem. Discussions are frequently dominated by disagreements between men and women about what the issues are rather than how to deal with them. This is not a problem with all men, but is a problem with almost all such open forums.

Worse still, some online forums that deal with feminist ideas can become actively hostile to women participants. Brail (1996, 144) recounts her experience with online harassment as a result of her defence of feminist ideas in an online newsgroup:

In spite of having been online for years, I had never really participated in Usenet before and had no idea how much anti-female sentiment was running, seemingly unchecked, on many Usenet forums. When I saw the treatment this women was getting in response to her request to discuss Riot Grrls, I was not only appalled, but also incredibly angry.

She believes that online harassment and overtly gendered behaviour is, contrary to expectations, making it more difficult for women to feel comfortable in these online environments (Brail 1996). Perhaps it is the relatively anonymous environment which makes some men feel more comfortable expressing sexist ideas and suppressing feminist debate, as in the case of the disorganised invasion of the alt.feminism newsgroup by a group of mostly male participants.

In spite of the ability for women’s communities to become corrupted in this way online, the Internet has a lot of potential for women’s groups. In Wired Women (Cherny & Weise [eds] 1996) online women’s groups can be very important for the writers of the chapters, but these groups often have more tightly controlled participation, such as telephone screening before admission, and a women-only membership policy. In the mid-90s when this book was written, blogging communities had not yet developed, and blogs themselves had not become the phenomenon they are today.

I feel that there may also be something about the structure of blogging communities which allows them to work effectively as online communities for feminist ideas without the possibilities for invasion that newsgroups and chatrooms have had in the past. Firstly, each blog is owned or co-owned by one single author or several co-authors whose ideology is aligned. Secondly, the blog is open to debate and discussion, but the nature of blogs and the control that blog owners have over this debate and discussion (e.g. by screening comments, keeping tabs on IP addresses, and so on) discourages harassing comments, or flames designed to shut down the debate that is going on with an abusive line of argument. Harassment can still, of course, occur, but the owner of the blog has a lot more control over whether the blog is a safe and useful place for other feminist bloggers and other site visitors to participate in.

Anderson, J.
Not for the Faint of Heart: Contemplations on Usenet
Cherny, L. & Weise, E. R. (ed.)
Wired Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace
Seattle: Seal Press, 1996, pp. 126-138
Brail, S.
The Price of Admission: Harassment and Free Speech in the Wild, Wild West
Cherny, L. & Weise, E. R. (ed.)
Chapter Wired Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace
Seattle: Seal Press, 1996, pp. 141-167
Camp, L.J.
We Are Geeks, and We Are Not Guys: The Systers Mailing List
Cherny, L. & Weise, E. R. (ed.)
Wired Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace
Seattle: Seal Press, 1996, pp. 114-125
Cudd, A.E.
Analyzing Backlash to Progressive Social Movements
Superson, A. M. & Cudd, A. E. (ed.)
Theorizing Backlash: Philosophical Reflections on the Resistance to Feminism
Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002, pp. 3-16
Garrison, E.K.
Are We on a Wavelength Yet? On Feminist Oceanography, Radios, and Third Wave Feminism
Reger, J. (ed.)
Chapter Different Wavelengths: Studies of the Contemporary Women’s Movement
New York: Routledge, 2005, pp. 237-256
Garrison, E.K.
Contests for the Meaning of Third Wave Feminism: Feminism and Popular Consciousness
Gillis, S., Howie, G. & Munford, R. (ed.)
Third Wave Feminism: A Critical Exploration
Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, pp. 24-36
Gillis, S.
Neither Cyborg Nor Goddess: The (Im)Possibilities of Cyberfeminism
Gillis, S., Howie, G. & Munford, R. (ed.)
Third Wave Feminism: A Critical Exploration
Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, pp. 185-196
Gillis, S. & Munford, R.
Interview With Elaine Showalter
Gillis, S., Howie, G. & Munford, R. (ed.)
Third Wave Feminism: A Critical Exploration
Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, pp. 60-71
Henry, A.
Solitary Sisterhood: Individualism Meets Collectivity in Feminism’s Third Wave
Reger, J. (ed.)
Different Wavelengths: Studies of the Contemporary Women’s Movement
New York: Routledge, 2005, pp. 81-96
Rupp, L.J. & Taylor, V.
Reger, J. (ed.)
Different Wavelengths: Studies of the Contemporary Women’s Movement
New York: Routledge, 2005, pp. xi-xiv
Springer, K.
Strongblackwomen and black feminism: a next generation?
Reger, J. (ed.)
Different Wavelengths: Studies of the Contemporary Women’s Movement
New York: Routledge, 2005, pp. 3-21

One Response to “Week 8-9: Backlash & Online Communities”

  1. 1 Ednie Garrison

    HI. I can’t tell who you are, but just want to leave a note to say I was looking for something online and happened upon your blog. Couldn’t resist reading your thoughts after reading my “wavelengths” essay. Nice thinking! Language is all metaphorical. Thanks for the information on the source for the word “backlash.” I never even thought about that metaphor.

    btw–the wave metaphor in relation to social movements was proposed way back by early sociologists trying to understand mass organizing and mass rioting, as I recall. 🙂

    Ednie Garrison

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