There’s a recurring joke on John Oliver’s American TV show Last Week Tonight. Rounding up the week’s news from the White House, Oliver will elatedly produce from under his desk a large red button. This is the “We got him!” button: it can only be pressed when the president has been caught in a lie. And, since this is Trump, the button does get pressed – frequently – and ticker tape cascades from the studio ceiling as marching bands parade noisily across the set. The razzmatazz quickly dies down, though, for this president is exceptional in his apparent indestructibility, despite getting caught in lie after lie after lie.
The presence of an invincible, mendacious misogynist as one of the most powerful people on earth has provided the backdrop for a revival of feminist activism. The Trumpian turn will go down as a key defining moment in feminism’s development in the digital sphere. Much of this feminism, fuelled by fury and expressed online, has met with a backlash which, ironically, makes use of the same social media tools. In Digital Feminist Activism this dynamic is admirably charted by Kaitlynn Mendes, Jessica Ringrose and Jessalynn Keller, for the first time in a book-length study.
All three authors have well-earned academic reputations. Mendes, for example, wrote the important 2015 book SlutWalk: Feminism, Activism and Media, which, as I wrote in a review then, did “a really good job of capturing and recording the genesis and development of a significant early 21st-century feminist movement”.
Digital Feminist Activism is in many ways the next stage of this project.
The authors engage with a huge amount of material – over 80 semi-structured interviews, and the analysis of more than 800 digital items (from blogposts to tweets and Tumblr images) – to examine how women and girls use technology “to document experiences of sexual violence, harassment, and sexism”. Six case studies form the book’s backbone: the “Hollaback!” project against street harassment, the Everyday Sexism project, the Tumblr and Facebook site “Who Needs Feminism?”, the Twitter hashtag “#BeenRapedNeverReported”, various Twitter communities, and a London school’s “Feminism Club”.
It’s the last chapter, “Teen Feminist Digital Activisms”, which is perhaps the most thought-provoking, foregrounding the marginalised voices and experiences of teenage girls in a powerful way. Rules around school uniforms are, the authors demonstrate, often the entry point into feminism and self-expression for these girls, since the rules “are organized around the binary of appropriate/inappropriate sexuality, enforced through the gaze and evaluation of…teachers”.
The book pays careful attention to the “collective care strategies” feminist activists must practise in order to handle at times terrifying online abuse (an endnote explains how, when interviewed for the book, Laura Bates asked that some of the trolling she received as founder of Everyday Sexism should not be documented “because she didn’t want any trolls to know her ‘weaknesses’”). Feminist collaboration is exemplified too by the fact that three authors worked together on this one text, although that’s not to say it’s a completely seamless read. The numerous subheadings at times impede the argument’s fluency and, largely for the same reason, I don’t think I’ll ever be a fan of parenthetical referencing. But until John Oliver can press the “We got him!” button and it stays pressed, we need books such as Digital Feminist Activism to help us navigate the digital “real” world we now almost all inhabit.
Emma Rees is professor of literature and gender studies at the University of Chester, where she is director of the Institute of Gender Studies.
Digital Feminist Activism: Girls and Women Fight Back Against Rape Culture
By Kaitlynn Mendes, Jessica Ringrose and Jessalynn Keller
Oxford University Press, 224pp, £64.00 and £18.99
ISBN 9780190697846 and 9780190697853
Published 21 February 2019