#FreetheNipple or #FreeMaleDesire? Has social media really been good for feminism?

Web 2.0 was meant to be a game changer for feminism. Academics and social commentators alike told us that social media platforms would be a fabulous resource for our activist practices, allowing us to work collaboratively, communicate with ease, develop ideas, and expand the reach of the movement. Some argue that social media has resulted in all this and more. Common doctrine persists that “there is no glass ceiling on Twitter.

Undoubtedly, many single-issue liberal feminist campaigns are visible, even prolific, on social media platforms. From Slutwalk to #FacesofProstitution, women are using social media to organize in the name of women’s liberation. Men are even defending their right to do so. But surely it is here that we need to start asking more questions. What kind of feminism is being facilitated by social media platforms? And what kind of feminism can really develop while men are watching?

The #FreetheNipple campaign, for example, clearly illustrates the type of feminism that is able to flourish on social media platforms. Free the Nipple claims to be “an equality movement, and a mission to empower women across the world.” It calls for a “more balanced system of censorship and legal rights for all women to breastfeed in public.” This, certainly, is a good thing. But the campaign now seems to be less about a woman’s right to breastfeed and more about a woman’s right to post a topless selfie.

By comparison, feminist activism that offers revolutionary ideas and issues a strong challenge to dominant cultural norms appears to be severely lacking on social media platforms. During the second wave, feminists deeply questioned personal life politics in order to formulate their political theory. Women made connections between issues, and remained resolute that emancipation on male terms was not enough. It was always about asking the hard questions. In the words of Catherine MacKinnon, the process of consciousness raising represents the “collective critical reconstitution” of female social reality. At this time, women were engaged in reframing patriarchal assumptions: understanding the pornography and prostitution industries as violence against women, theorizing the reproductive technology industry as facilitating male control of women’s bodies, and developing the concept of compulsory heterosexuality.

The type of feminism occurring on social media platforms today, however, often appears to be little more than what the recent book, Freedom Fallacy: the Limits of Liberal Feminism, describes as a popular brand of “fun-feminism” or “feminism-lite.” This type of feminism is palatable to a male audience, does not require women to engage in the often painful process of self-reflection integral to consciousness raising, and contains little, if any, political conceptualization of structural male dominance. Rather, the kind of social media campaigns that receive the most media attention often focus on a woman’s individual right to objectify herself.

Using the very language of the sex industry, the twitter account @freethenipple prompts a response from its viewers by asking: “How far will you go for Equality?” Increasing numbers of young women are now uploading topless photos of themselves on Twitter using the hashtag. The campaign has garnered widespread public support, and generated a large amount of publicity due to the backing of popular celebrities such as Miley Cyrus and Lena Dunham.

It is difficult to understand, however, how the Free the Nipple campaign in any way challenges male social dominance. Rather, young women are being urged to strip for the entertainment of an infinite number of men on social media sites. Insidiously, such behavior is being sold back to women as empowering, and once again the sexual objectification of women is being rebranded as feminist. Men, meanwhile, are able to share and download these images countless times for their own purposes.

When the popularity of the Free the Nipple campaign is compared to the abuse feminist campaigner Anita Sarkeesian received in response to her YouTube series, Tropes vs Women in Video Games, it becomes increasingly clear that we need to question claims that social media has deepened democracy and amplified marginalized voices. Sarkeesian’s videos look at gaming “from a systemic, big picture perspective” and argue that women in video games function as “a decorative virtual sex class who exist to serve a straight male desire.” In making this argument Sarkeesian displays an explicit awareness that involving women in the gaming industry will not be enough to alleviate its structural misogyny, as the wider problem stems from the positioning of a dominant and violent male sexuality as normal.

Subsequently, Sarkeesian has been subjected to a barrage of misogynistic abuse because she questioned the blatant sexism running rampant in the gaming industry. Most of us are familiar with the story — Sarkeesian was sent rape and death threats via social media, her personal social media pages were hacked and her private information was distributed, her Wikipedia page was amended to include sexualized images. In 2014, she also received multiple bomb threats in relation to her appearance at speaking engagements, and cancelled her appearance at Utah State University.

Sarkeesian’s experience of digital feminism clearly highlights the dangers to women who dare to challenge structural male dominance online, and perhaps goes some way towards explaining why more radical and revolutionary feminist ideas do not appear to be developing on social media platforms. If men like it, chances are it is not effectively dealing with the real issues. If they don’t like it, well, we are all aware of the fury directed at individual women, often forcing them to leave social media sites.

Given the increased opportunities social media has provided men with to promote and engage in violence against women, it is becoming increasingly necessary to consider whether the technology has been good for feminism. #FreetheNipple is a social media success story because it plays into the dominant sex industry ideology that views women as products to be consumed by men. In this sense its popularity is not so much a win for feminism, but a win for male dominance.

Jessica Megarry is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. Her research explores feminist theory, new media, social movements and violence against women. She tweets @jessicamegarry.

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