Making Feminism Mainstream


A few weeks ago, I talked to a group of students and faculty at Longwood University, where I teach, about public misperceptions of feminism and how we can use social media to change them.  The day before my talk, Beyonce (who sings like a badass feminist) reluctantly admitted to being a feminist:  “The word can be very extreme…but I guess I am a modern-day feminist.  I do believe in equality.”  Many people who wrote about this statement—and the statements from famous women who disavow feminism—say they don’t care if people identify as feminist or not, as long as they work toward equality.  I agree with that sentiment if the person in question identifies as a Womanist or Mujerista or  feminist ally, but those terms aren’t even in the mainstream conversation.  In the popular media, quoting women who disavow feminism serves to keep the conversation about equality on the sidelines.

One of the things I discussed in my talk, “Yo Mama Wasn’t Born Yesterday,” was the ways in which feminism has become a discourse community.  If you’re in the discourse community, you are acutely aware of this:  only people who identify as feminist, or follow feminist goals as someone who works toward equality, are reading the relevant conversations.  As bell hooks has said, most people are misinformed about feminism:  “Their misunderstanding of feminist politics reflects the reality that most folks learn about feminism from patriarchal mass media.”

Yes, the mass media is patriarchal, and we need to change that; but before we can get enough people raising their voices for change, we need to get them listening to feminist conversations.  Terms like “patriarchal” and “rape culture” need to be a part of our everyday language.  Everything the feminist discourse community is discussing should be as easily accessible as reality TV or misogynist porn.  Oh, it’s all there for the finding—but first, you have to accept the word “feminist” enough to search for it.  And the mass media doesn’t make that easy, now does it?

That’s where social media comes in.  Here’s what I had to say about using Facebook to spread the good word about feminism:

The awesome thing about social media is that we, as individuals, can help shape one another’s perceptions.  What better place to change the national conversation than in pop culture’s own backyard?

Veteran feminists Courtney E. Martin and Vanessa Valenti have long been aware of the power of online feminism.  In a recent symposium at Barnard College, they presented a paper in which they discuss the next step:  creating a sustainable future for online feminism.  To follow this conversation, do a twitter search on the terms #femfuture and #onlinefeminism, and share the news with your twitter community.

It might not seem like you have a lot of influence in your own social media world—the average Facebook user has a couple of hundred friends—but ideas spread like wildfire online, and you never know who might be paying attention.  It is my hope that the current conversations in the mainstream media will start to be more and more informed by feminism, so that the next time a celebrity is asked if she’s a feminist, she can reply as Chelsea Clinton did in the April 6, 2013 issue of Parade magazine:  “Of course.  And everyone I know is a feminist.”

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