The recent waves of accusations and revelations of sexual harassment, assault and abuse perpetrated by powerful men the world over, from industries across the world of entertainment to seats of political power, can be contextualised in the context of the emergence of digital feminisms.
The information sharing that has taken place, in particular through stories ‘going viral’ through online feminist networks, has had material effects, e.g. cancellations of shows and banning of books, although there are numerous accusations that have still had no significant repercussions for the accused.
Feminist activists and survivors of sexual violence have led a fragmented but developing digital movement to resist the longstanding abuses of power by men in these positions. How has the digital context, and in particular, lessons from intersectional feminist analysis, given rise to the conditions enabling these revelations to take place?
The sexual and political revolution that happened among women in the West in the 1960s was fomented by the emergence of a class-based analysis, confronted with intersectionality in the 1980s and 1990. In the 1990s a similar culture of speaking out was emerging, but accusers were victim-blamed and perpetrators got away with it.
Intersectionality demonstrated how what was typically taken as feminism was predominantly white and middle class and as such was not inclusive of other subjects. Fast forward to today, when intersectional analyses have been driven by black and brown women and QTIPOC (queer, trans, intersex people of colour) on #BlackTwitter and Instagram, such as Mikki Kendall, The Trudz, bad dominicana, Munroe Bergdorf and women like Tarana Burke, the black woman creator of #MeToo, the hashtag that was popularised by actress Alyssa Milano and central to the current historical moment, where notable allegations of sexual harassment have not been not ignored, but instead trigger responses and consequences from institutions.
While their political analyses are at the leading edge of social justice movements, creating foundations for movements such as Black Lives Matter, Black women’s intellectual property has consistently been co-opted. Thus, when #MeToo was not credited to Burke, who developed the campaign ten years ago, Twitter [email protected] commented: “Our intellectual property goes mainstream far too many times without any credit.”
Intersectional analyses always have been radical in their interventions; a key example is the campaign originated by Kendall, #solidarityisforwhitewomen, pointing out ways in which white feminism fails women of colour and black women in particular. This campaign was catalysed by the public Twitter meltdown of Prof Hugo Schwyzer, who had admitted targeting women of colour. Kendall’s analytical hashtag was a critical response of the absence of support from popular white digital feminists, whose marked silence signalled complicity, and that they did not regard racism as a feminist issue.
In today’s socio-economic, political and intellectual climate, we are experiencing a rupture in our conception of the way social structures, like nations, governments, companies, and banks, are supposed to run, because they have repeatedly let us down, albeit to different degrees depending on context. The digital channels through which people are building upon this conceptual rupture to effect change has long been present on the web (e.g. Anonymous, Arab Spring, Occupy Movement, crypto-currency).
From a feminist perspective, the recent disruption of the narrative regarding power and sexual abuse is consistent with such a rupture. Sexual harassment and abuse is so morally repulsive that to reveal it is to acknowledge that the order of things is disturbed, that all is not well and good with the world and that we can no longer pretend to be satisfied with the status quo. In the larger context of violence against women, it is not the most grotesque or risky environment, but what sets it apart is the way it is supported by formal institutions other than the taken-for-granted cultural patriarchy and misogyny that permeates so many human societies.
These formal institutions that have taken action have caused what is known as the Weinstein effect which has been a marked manifestation of such a rupture. Notably, in the Anglo-American context, it was not white feminism, but intersectionality and its black women creators, who showed us that the Western system as we knew it was really a system of systems, a megasystem, interlocking and self-perpetuating in the way it prioritised men, whiteness, money and power over all else – what hooks referred to as the ‘neocolonial white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’ and Fiorenza called the kyriarchy.
This analysis was enhanced by indigenous feminisms theorising the lasting effects of settler colonialism， postcolonial feminisms that showed us this megasystem’s lasting effect on not just the West, but the entire globe, and LGBTQ thinkers who wrote about heteronormativity, homophobia and transphobia across societies, and trans women of colour founding the modern gay rights movement. Through this combination of perspectives coalescing through contemporary digital feminist debates, we now see the effect of this megasystem on all corners of society as well as its damaging effects on the environment.
The internet is made up of millions of echo chambers, some of which occasionally co-reverberate with the same sounds, but many times they simply do not meet. Yet taken together, digital feminisms, of both the white and intersectional varieties, have had a powerful effect had on the outing of never-before-seen numbers of abusive powerful men – these stories have formed a tsunami of a meganarrative that has publicly named and shamed some of the most elite men in Western culture.
Due to the courage and agency of those speaking up, the activity of online feminist activists, the ease of sharing information through digital platforms, and the virtual compression in space and time precipitated by the Internet, we have seen, in quick succession (in no particular order), Harvey Weinstein’s rapid freefall, Bill Cosby’s fifty year history of drugging and date rape, Kevin Spacey’s collapsing House of Cards, Louis CK masturbating in front of horrified women, the British parliament, countless Catholic priests, and many others. Activists gained some headway; some perps paid their way out of it; some, like predator Jimmy Saville, died before it caught up with them; others, like Rolf Harris, are fighting it in court.
The many survivors are speaking out, some named, some nameless, of all genders, pushing back in their numbers through legal processes, social and traditional media channels and, in sharing their stories, outing the perpetrators. In this milieu, one has the sense that somehow, justice is being meted out one middle aged or elderly entertainer, politician, or former investment banker at a time. Strangely, Trump has been accused of similar and thus far it has not damaged his political armour – yet this article argues it is time to revisit his shameful history with women.
Digital feminisms are comprised of the way feminist performance, protest and activism are created and shared in digital age. In 2017 they have combined to reveal numerous disclosures which, when taken together, have led to a great unveiling of some of the key underlying mechanisms of society, organising principles that have been found to be flawed. The Latin word apocalypsis signifies revelation or disclosure.
At this time of Peak Internet, the sexual revolution has been swiped to the left like our latest rejection on Tinder. We are now in the time of an apocalypse of the sexist and abusive behaviours perpetrated by the most powerful in society, yet to discover what the ultimate consequences of this rupture will be.
Dr Angela Martinez Dy is Digital Women UK’s academic partner and a lecturer and researcher in entrepreneurship at Loughborough University London.