When all of your female friends seem to be sharing articles about gender issues on Facebook, it’s hard to ignore.
Terms like slut shaming are going mainstream, feminist websites such as Jezebel are producing widely shared content, and people who may never have considered themselves activists are showing their support—or lack thereof—with a “like” here, a retweet there. These are insignificant actions individually, but en masse they amplify gender-equality conversations to a point where they’re within earshot of many people who might not have heard them had they happened a decade ago.
“I think a lot more girls are in tune with technology than ever before,” Angela Robert, CEO of Vancouver-based tech company Conquer Mobile, told the Georgia Straight over the phone.
A member of various women-in-business organizations, including the Women’s Executive Network and the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs, Robert observes that the relationships users are able to foster through social media are a key draw for women. High-profile women such as Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, who wrote a controversial book about how more women can move into leadership positions, are “smart about making bite-sized pictures and videos that are really, really easy to share,” she said.
Despite social media’s power to rally support for gender equality, these platforms also have a dark side, according to Kasari Govender, the executive director of West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund, a women’s rights group in Vancouver.
“There’s an incredible amount of misogyny online,” Govender told the Straight by phone.
Govender cited the widely publicized cases of Amanda Todd in B.C. and Rehtaeh Parsons in Nova Scotia, each of whom committed suicide following online bullying that had strongly sexist overtones. “The online format allows for anonymity in a way that can protect the identity of the person who’s posting the hateful messages,” she said.
Although it poses challenges, Govender believes that social media is also having a dramatically positive effect on gender equality. For one thing, online social networks allow for increased access to information about gender issues.
“You have access to so many more writers and activists, and you can find out what’s going on in the community, in B.C., and around the world,” she said.
Through its law-reform initiatives, West Coast LEAF is contributing to the public debate on how to regulate cyber-misogyny—online hate against women and girls. Govender often finds herself engaged in Twitter conversations with law students who want to promote gender equality.
“They learn about what feminism is and the potential of it,” she said.
Social media is certainly informing people about gender issues, but it’s doing so in a much different way from before, according to Lucas Crawford, the Ruth Wynn Woodward lecturer in Simon Fraser University’s department of gender, sexuality, and women’s studies.
Crawford is currently teaching a course that examines how gender, sexuality, and desire are represented in popular culture. He argues that discussing feminism and gender equality via social media has its limitations.
“Sometimes the debate on gender issues gets turned into a kind of infotainment,” he told the Straight over the phone. “Whereas people grab a book or newspaper because they want to learn something or think about something, when you read online or participate in social media, there’s also an expectation that we’re going to be very entertained.”
Crawford sees social media as acting like a filter. Although the medium has ushered new ideas about feminism and gender into the public consciousness, its nature constrains which and whose stories get told. When being heard on social media depends on being meme-worthy, it’s usually the ironic, “quippy”, and very short messages that win the day, Crawford said.
He’s found that his students come to class well briefed on the latest developments in feminism and gender issues in popular culture.
“In my very first day of teaching this popular-culture course, I kicked the course off with a big question about Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke on the VMAs,” Crawford said, referring to the MTV Video Music Awards in August. “And every single student had watched the video of the performance.”
For Crawford, communicating the big ideas is where social media hits a bottleneck. There just aren’t enough words in a social-media post to give a complicated story or concept the context it deserves.
One example Crawford mentioned is a meme featuring well-known feminist theorist Judith Butler. It distills her complex ideas into a one-liner superimposed on her picture, LOLcat-style.
Such a meme can make a good jumping-off point for discussion, but it often dramatically oversimplifies the original idea and distorts it in the process, Crawford noted. According to him, social media should be seen as just one of many ways to learn about and discuss gender issues.
“My challenge is pushing them beyond what they’ve heard on the Internet,” Crawford said of his students.