In the age of TikTok, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, social media has become an increasingly influential force in 21st century society. Whether the overall effect of this has been positive or negative is contested (Rotman et al, 2011). On the one hand, the opportunity for online activism has expanded the ways in which people can get involved in social movements and has made them more accessible for those who had previously been denied access to participation in the public sphere. However, the shallow and transient nature of social media raises questions of whether activism expressed online is really tackling the issues it claims to. This article will specifically address the rise in performative feminism in online spaces, and how this has led to the rise of a certain archetype of cisgender ‘woke feminist’ men (Joyce, 2022). I will address how this surface-level engagement with feminism from this particular demographic does not aid the feminist fight to dismantle the patriarchy, and instead shows another example of men being praised for doing the bare minimum, reinforcing harmful stereotypes and systems that uphold the global hegemony.
I will preface this article by acknowledging that it is based on a lot of my personal experiences with social media and online feminist spaces. My experience as a white cisgender woman has given me a lot of privilege online, and I cannot claim to speak for every woman and their experiences. Most of my analysis is based on a certain archetype of cisgender male, which also does not represent all male identifying people in these spaces. The opinions expressed in this article are personal to me and may be contested by others. This topic raises complex issues, and this article is aimed to encourage thought and discussion around such subjects.
What is performative feminism?
The impact that online platforms can have in terms of changing perspectives and encouraging social change should not go unappreciated, and the accessibility this provides to those that cannot access physical activist spaces affords merit. However, the degree to which online activism reaches all the necessary facets of society that need changing, the information being shared is trustworthy and reliable, and the level to which online appearances are superficial and not followed by changes in behaviour, makes the impact of such spaces questionable (Rotman et al, 2011). The word ‘performative’ has become increasingly common in the vocabulary of online activists. The definition of the term in these spaces differs from that in an academic sense. I would define performative feminism as proclaiming one is a feminist, supporting the message of feminism, and engaging in social media posting and sharing of feminist messages, however doing little else to actively promote these messages offline and enact social and political change (Brave Girls Club, 2021).
This type of activism is being increasingly recognised and called out in online spaces (Fu, 2021). Online activism is a fine line to tread, as one runs the risk of engaging with issues on a very superficial level. What is really changing when you share a post with a feminist phrase on it, or include #feminism on your story? The false sense of security created through this form of activism encourages people to believe that these actions alone show their alliance with certain issues, and their willingness to encourage social change, preventing them from reaching deeper into what being an ally and an activist really entails. This discourages people from researching and critically engaging themselves in debates on feminism, and other social issues, preventing them from developing their perspective and making a change within society. Activism goes so much deeper than simply sharing your beliefs with your followers (Fu, 2021). In order for institutionalised systems of hierarchy and oppression to be dismantled, people need to be actively participating in social movements that work towards enacting the societal, political and economic changes that are necessary for the dismantling of these systems. Therefore, the level to which online activism is a hinderance or a help to feminist causes is debateable.
Whilst engagement with performative activism is not restricted to a one demographic, a particular prevalence can be noted amongst cis men entering feminist spaces (Joyce, 2022). My TikTok can become flooded with videos of cis men repeating feminist slogans whilst posing seductively. Although I am never opposed to the spread of feminist messages, the way in which this is done is too often careless and shallow. A recent example of this is the calling out of @turtleneckeemo by @girlsagainstoppression for plagiarising the work of
independent artists and activists on his page. The whole premise of his account was him posting his ‘hot takes’ on feminist issues. His videos consist of him sitting in front of the camera reading out quotes, such as “One of my greatest realisations growing up, was finding out the reason why I disliked so many female characters in movies was because they were written and directed by men who hated women'', which was taken from @rainbowrowell on Twitter (Turtleneckemo, 2022). It emerged that the quotes he was using were directly copied from other accounts, predominantly from the account @farida.d.author on Instagram. After being called out by her for stealing her work without any credit, he blocked her account and continued to post. This is just one example of a cis man centring his own voice in feminist discussions by being outspoken on female issues, however simultaneously profiting off the work of marginalised women without giving them any acknowledgement. His feminism runs no deeper than an online appearance, making it inherently performative.
Why is this problematic?
Although I am critiquing the involvement of men in feminism, it is important to address that I believe cisgender men are integral to the fight for gender equality. This article is by no means suggesting there is not a place for men in feminism, however it is pointing out that this has to be done in a sensitive and considerate way that does not centre male voices and has the right intentions behind it. I recognise there to be three major issues surrounding cis male engagement with performative feminism. The first is the appropriation of labour by marginalised groups, and centring the male voice. It is all too common for the work of women of colour (WOC) to be stolen by and credited to white women, and men (Bueno, 2017). Not only does this disregard the physical labour of these women in creating content, it also shows a lack of respect for their personal experiences. The content created by marginalised women is directly linked to their experiences of patriarchy and white supremacy, and many other forms of oppression, and therefore entails a great deal of emotional labour when being created (Bueno, 2017). The privilege afforded to white cis women and men over these communities means their voices are automatically valued and respected to a greater extent (Percopio and Ramsey, 2017). Therefore, by plagiarising content without due credit, and centring privileged voices in the feminist fight, marginalised voices are being taken away. The role of feminism should be to uplift those who are disproportionately suffering from systems of oppression, which means the privileged taking a back seat.
The second issue with this type of male ‘feminist’ is the intentions behind their actions. The aim of feminism is to obtain social, political and economic equality for all genders (Percopio and Ramsey, 2017). Although for these cis men that engage in performative feminism, their aim is to attract validation and praise from women (Joyce, 2022; Carli, 1999). True intentions are exposed through the contradiction of online rhetoric and practical inaction. While keen to label themselves a feminist, there is a reluctance to get involved with any more demanding forms of activism, like attending marches or joining campaigns, to read further into unconscious bias and intersectional feminism, or simply to instigate conversations on feminist topics with their peers. The focus of these men is simply to gain the appraisal of ‘woke’ women and be seen as ‘one of the good ones’ (Joyce, 2022). This surface level engagement with feminist discourse becomes a hinderance to the feminist cause, as it prevents people from searching deeper into themselves, and questioning how they are complicit in systems of oppression. If one is truly a feminist, and sincerely cares about the social, political and economic equality of all genders, they would not stop at the point of sharing an Instagram post, but they would delve further into what they can do to contribute to the movement. On the other hand, if the aim of one’s feminism is to simply attract female attention, then the performative act of a social media post creates the false illusion of engagement and requires no further action.
The issue of intentions is inextricably linked with the final issue recognised; women being held to a higher standard than men. The social expectations of women far exceed those of men (Bezanson and Luxton, 2006). Women are expected to participate in the workforce, whilst also performing unpaid domestic labour, which is physical and emotional; men, on the other hand, are expected to do much less (Bezanson and Luxton, 2006). Therefore, when a man assumes some of the responsibilities typically attributed to women, like taking his kids on a day out, or doing the washing up for a week, or calling himself a feminist, he is afforded endless praise (Joyce, 2022; Percopio and Ramsey, 2017). However, when women do the same, and more, on a daily basis, they are seen as simply ‘doing their job’ (Bezanson and Luxton, 2006). Women are also held to a higher standard ethically, and are expected to act more morally than men, within the workplace and in society (Smyth, 2018). An experiment in 2016 in the US found that women were more likely to be given higher sentences for the same ethical corporate crimes as men, the only difference being their gender identification (Smyth, 2018). Therefore, it is understandable that women and men are expected to perform differently in activist spaces, allowing men to be praised for doing the bare minimum.
What needs to change?
Although this essay has focused on the negative consequences of online activism, the situation is not all bad. Online activism can be an amazing tool for spreading information and education to people who would otherwise not encounter certain topics, however the performative nature of much of this activism is what needs to be tackled. In this final section, I will outline some key ways in which men can be an asset to the feminist cause. Firstly, marginalised voices need to be centred in feminist spaces. This is a vital part of the feminist fight, and something that has previously been, and is still, missing from mainstream white feminism (Daniels, 2015). Cisgender men hold a lot of power and influence within society, meaning their opinions are more valued than those of others (Percopio and Ramsey, 2017). Therefore, they have the ability to uplift the voices of marginalised communities. The construction of privilege can be used to one's advantage, and can be a beneficial tool if used in the right way. The role of cis men in feminism should be to centre the voices of those who are overlooked in society and mainstream activism spaces.
Secondly, there needs to be more focus placed on education, rather than surface level engagement with feminist issues. Repeating feminist phrases means nothing if they are not followed with research and thought into what deeper meaning they possess. Educating oneself does not simply mean reading feminist literature or watching feminist films, which many see as a taxing exercise, it also means listening to the experiences of others, and engaging in conversations with people who suffer under the patriarchy, which includes people of all genders and identities. However, in doing this it is important to distinguish when these conversations become a taxing experience for women, especially those from marginalised communities, such as trans women and WOC. It is important to establish boundaries when one enters into such conversations to establish whether those partaking in the conversation are happy discussing such issues, and ensuring the conversation doesn’t become an exercise of emotional labour for either party. If this is not possible, a simple Google search can reveal a multitude of educational sources on feminist issues. Encouragement for cis men to engage in such conversations and deeper research develops understandings of the roots of feminist issues and prevents one from falling into the trap of becoming a performative activist.
Finally, one of the easiest and most basic ways cis men can not be a performative feminist is by having conversations with friends and family about casual sexism. As has been established, men have more influence over others than women do (Carli, 1999). Therefore, the act of a man calling a friend out for casual sexism is much more powerful and valuable than a woman doing so. This is another way that cis men can utilise their privilege to positively influence others. Interpersonal conversations about such issues can be difficult and awkward, however they are vitally important in the process of questioning one’s internal bias and changing destructive patterns of behaviour (Hamde, 2019). Engagement in these conversations is important for all privileged people; white people need to be calling people out for racism, cisgender people need to be calling out transphobia, and the list goes on. If one is worried they may be a performative feminist, questioning whether one would call out a peer if they used misogynistic language is a good place to start.
It is important to address that these actions stated are the bare minimum. It is not a big ask for people with privilege to educate themselves, give space to others to share their experiences and to call out problematic behaviours or language. These are the essential initial moves towards rejecting performative feminism, and they are not difficult to enact, meaning they do not need to be afforded praise. Ultimately, issues of performative activism across the board, and particularly from cis men, will persist for as long as social media, and the patriarchy, exist. The only way the huge and demanding task of dismantling this system of oppression is going to be achieved is by starting with small changes in the behaviour and attitudes of those who have the privilege and power. The increased level of accountability brought by social media, and people feeling more empowered to speak out, is having a positive influence on starting these changes. In the aftermath of his exposure, @turtleneckemo responded by apologising for plagiarising the work of others, and removed himself from the platform. His account is still accessible, and his bio reads “Left this space to make space for women creators, follow FaridaDAuthor”. This demonstrates the power of accountability on such platforms, and the influence it can have. The more people continue to realise the difference between performative and real activism, and call this out when it appears, the more encouragement there will be for people to reach deeper into their activism and enact real change. This is where change starts, on these platforms and in these spaces. If you are worried that you could be grouped into the camp of performative cisgender male feminists, then this is the time to reflect on why that may be and what you can do to change that.
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