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The Strange Decade In Online Feminism

Young women on the internet transformed feminism beyond recognition in the 2010s. Not all the changes felt beneficial, either.

by Hannah Ewens
18 December 2019, 9:00am

Day-to-day real life as a teenage girl in the 00s was enough to convince me I was a feminist. The background noise of sexism was always present: boys watched porn with the sound off in lessons, girls who were barely teenagers had their nudes shared and posted around school, sexual assault from older adults felt too commonplace to remark on. A few blogs I found spoke about feminism but in 2010, it felt like online feminism took off and would continue to be embraced, contorted and ultimately transformed beyond recognition.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter started their feminist blog Vagenda that year. Cosslett was suffering with the mental ramifications of being strangled by a man in a park at night, and Baxter was temping at a literary agency she found particularly snobby. Both were “a bit lost” when they found each other and decided to move into a north London attic. “We didn’t have much money so part of what we used to do for fun was buy Cosmo, and drink wine and take the piss out of it,” Cosslett tells me in the penultimate month of the decade. “And we’d be crying with laughter, just the two of us.”

The “post-feminist” era of the 00s lingered and to all intents and purposes feminism was considered fringe activism, no longer necessary. Women’s magazines published pieces about diets and pleasing your man, while advertising suggested that nothing got a woman hornier than a rigorous shampooing or low-fat yoghurt. “We weren’t particularly sophisticated at the time in our feminist thinking but we knew that it didn’t represent us at all," Cosslett adds. "We realised that it was more powerful to ridicule something than to shout at it." Among pieces about rape, lad culture and abortion, the site’s faux-inflammatory readings of women’s mags swiftly became a reader favourite.

In the very first week of launching, Cosslett was invited on BBC Radio 4's Women’s Hour to go head-to-head with Louise Court, the Cosmopolitan UK editor. “I’d been slagging all those magazines off. I thought, ‘You’ve got to put your money where your mouth is, tell her on the radio, then.’” Obscurity, she says, and being pre-Twitter and cancel culture gave them the confidence to be so ballsy. Through the site, that began using reader-submitted blogs, the pair had created a platform for pissed-off young women and girls to vent and turn a decent joke. By the end of feminism’s strange decade, this would seem inconceivable.

The backlash fired up, quickly. Vitriol from men and random trolls online often matched the fury from fellow feminists. “The narrative quickly became that we were these privileged bitches out for ourselves,” says Cosslett. This was not helped by an opinion piece the pair wrote for the New Statesman in 2012, questioning whether the term “intersectional feminism” would catch on with working class women and girls.

Feminism and advertising were not compatible, but sparky new media with socialist politics could only provide a short, sharp intervention and burn out.

Buoyed by the success of the Vagenda, a small group of women tried to relaunch the radical feminist magazine Spare Rib in 2013. Instead the short-lived Feminist Times (the original Spare Rib founders refused to collaborate) covered everything from trans rights to women in poverty. The fiery proposition wanted to bring together, as editor Deborah Coughlin says, “groups of women that hated each other”.

Vagenda functioned with a strict anti-consumerist message, so refused ad offers, and Feminist Times was both ad-free and paid its diverse base of writers a market-rate. Neither could survive. “After a year, we killed it,” Coughlin tells me coolly. “Our business model just wasn’t sustainable without taking advertisers. At the time it was all about Weight Watchers points and Special K wasn’t for health and fitness, it was a diet food. All these brands now have changed the way they advertise their products and services, but they weren’t peddling anything that was fourth wave.” In short, feminism and advertising were not compatible, and sparky new media with socialist politics could only provide a short, sharp intervention and burn out.

Within eleven months of each other, both Vagenda and the Feminist Times closed. Women’s magazines like Grazia and ELLE were then going some way to change their content – adopting a style undoubtedly influenced by Vagenda and online feminist voices of the time – by interviewing MPs and activists about 'issues' in addition to selling products. As feminism became a cultural trend, women’s sites that used advertising appeared, from The Debrief in the UK to VICE’s Broadly in the US. “People were telling us to monetise our feminist content but even the new women’s websites which were an attempt to do that ultimately have failed,” says Cosslett, today.

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By the midpoint of the decade, mainstream feminism was starting to become a reality. Journalists interviewing public figures checked every woman’s feminist credentials – it was considered more newsworthy if she didn’t identify as a feminist. Time announced 2014 as the Year of Pop Feminism stating that “feminism is to 2014 pop stars what sex was to 1964 rockers: it’s nothing new, but it’s suddenly become electrifying.” Calling yourself a feminist in the mid-2010s nodded as much to a vague lifestyle choice as to doing the academic and activism work. The question of who and what made a feminist (Can you dress sexily and be a feminist? Can you watch porn and be a feminist?) became a regular point of conversation on social media and websites, to the point of dizzying distraction. Coupled with this, portions of social media became breeding grounds for misogyny: social media meant women across all walks of life where experiencing online abuse with more frequency than men.

The year that Vagenda died, gal-dem was born. The online publication by and for women of colour and non-binary people of colour was part of a wave of legitimately intersectional feminism. March 2016 ushered in their first viral moment: a skin lightening series they published included a discussion about Emma Watson’s image being used to promote skin lightening cosmetics. She was seen as a prominent feminist at the time, and the backlash prompted Watson’s rep to issue a statement. Blogs proved, as they had previously been, a legitimately powerful way to push through a new feminism.

Around a similar time, we saw a proliferation of new online spaces (Black Ballad; Burnt Roti) carved out by women of colour demanding more self-reflection from the most privileged in mainstream feminism. Gal-dem Head of Editorial Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff distinctly remembers a conversation she had with author Reni Eddo-Lodge for the first print issue of gal-dem. “Reni told me about how she was one of the lone voices speaking up against the Caroline Criado-Perez-type white feminism that existed at the time in British media,” she tells me. In other words, feminists who prioritised the writing of white women out of history through banknotes and statues rather than issues that may seriously affect black women.

In this vein, what is now called “Tumblr feminism” was being interrogated for its whiteness. This pastel movement focussed around the acceptability of body hair and teen girlhood, celebrating and playing up to everything that teenage girls were sold and then made to feel embarrassed by. The movement was widely joyous and Tumblr allowed for teenagers to discuss real issues that affected them and make art.

Any irony, wit or political messaging was stripped from the particular “girlish” feminism of Tumblr Feminism.

Sessa Omoregie, a black artist very active in the Tumblr Feminism scene, feels the platform shaped the discourse. “Since it was visual, a lot of the discourse and people contributing was done through aesthetics,” she says today. Though other users often assumed she was white (she used a picture of The Birth of Venus as her avatar) and the movement’s accomplishments were easily overlooked, she still stands by its importance. “At the end of the day, Tumblr Feminism was the first time a lot of young women were thinking aloud out of their heads for the first time on a social platform. There’s so much critique of young women doing anything. We weren’t academics, we weren’t trying to teach people anything – we were girls learning from each other.” She remembers how people would write whole feminist think-pieces and share researched essays with citations, for example.

Predictably, as Tumblr Feminism was critiqued, it simultaneously became another iteration of feminism to be co-opted by brands. Women found themselves sold its aesthetic and simple messaging in the form of “feminist” products: pink notepads, jumpers, fluffy pens, iPhone cases, just about any advertising aimed at women. Any irony, wit or political messaging was stripped from this particular “girlish” feminism. If you were a woman, you were identifiable as A FEMINIST offline because your T-shirt said so.

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Website Babe.net will be remembered for one piece. The Tab – a student site-turned-media brand – launched the subsidiary, as a platform aimed at young women, in early 2016. Irish journalist Roisin Lanigan pitched Babe in the Tab’s New York office, having noticed that between didactic, heavily self-policed feminist thought and fluffy, consumption-based nonsense, “there was nothing my friends and I could connect to. Babe could’ve sat between those.” In 2018, its story alleging coercive sexual conduct by comedian and “male feminist” Aziz Ansari went viral – notably, via critiques of the reporting done by young journalist Katie Way (both she and her source were 22 at the time).

For all its important gains, unwieldiness and faults, the #MeToo movement dominated online feminism during the tail-end of the decade. “It did feel good to be doing work that felt like it might mean something to people or that I could validate people’s experiences,” Way tells me now, “even if it was through the lens of a celebrity.” Babe’s contribution prompted debate around “grey areas” and the need for “enthusiastic consent”. It revealed how delicate the balance was between those willing to believe stories they read, and those wanting to cry foul because what was alleged ‘wasn’t as bad as Harvey Weinstein’ or violent rape. In 2017, the hashtag originally started in 2006 by civil rights activist Tarana Burke to raise awareness of the pervasiveness of sexual assault, dominated social media globally.

Sex, it was clear, was complicated. Once, it had definitively sold. Post-#MeToo, in the late 2010s, vague notions of activism did. In a world of marketplace feminism, as Andi Zeisler wrote in her book We Were Feminists Once, “the fight for gender equality has transmogrified from a collective goal to a consumer brand”. The latter half of the decade insisted that the act of purchasing itself was a feminist act. Influencer culture meant that women with large and relatively small follower counts could sell things en-masse. No longer reliant on magazines, women could essentially make the magazine content themselves. As the decade came to a close, it was incontestable that feminism and capitalism were no longer mutually exclusive.

In only one decade, identifying as a feminist has gone from being woefully unfashionable to both commonplace and considered “divisive” and “man-hating”.

Today women are all feminists if they are successful and have a personal brand: the assumption is that a woman is a feminist – and possibly an intersectional one to boot – just by existing. That counts even if she doesn’t do much but sell. As women must remain brand-friendly to survive, the most market-friendly feminists are held up as leaders. It can hardly be a coincidence that beautiful, thin celebrity activists still raise the same issues feminists battled a decade ago: think the Photoshopping of ads, or other celebrities selling diet products. The issues of the day are ones that mainstream women’s mags can safely write about to look safely “woke” while ensuring commercial clients return. In only one decade, identifying as a feminist has gone from being woefully unfashionable to so commonplace that anyone can – it's also spun 180 degrees back to being considered more “divisive”.

With the commodification and dilution of online feminism that has categorised the end of the decade, the issues that’ll dominate the 2020s have arisen. Will feminism challenge its own middle-class bias? Will it be a movement that turns away from the individual to focus on the collective? Will it turn its female gaze to the least privileged and brand-friendly? As Lanigan said of her former site – she’d left by the time Way’s article went up – “It’s a weird time to be a writer, and a website, and a woman.”

@hannahrosewens

Tagged:
Tumblr
internet culture
intersectional feminism
gal-dem
2010s
online feminism