Social media has been changing our perception of women ever since we first logged on. Aside from square eyes, itchy fingers, and an obsessive-compulsive need to post pictures of everything we see, eat, and sleep with, has social media unleashed a new kind of sexist hell? Or has it actually brought about a sense of female empowerment?
From rape threats to rape jokes, leaked footage of naked ex-girlfriends to violent images of women, misogynist memes (‘’they say a woman’s work is never done, maybe that’s why they get paid less”) to Women Who Eat on Tubes – the Facebook group which makes women think twice about chowing down a six inch Sub on the Circle Line - there’s no doubt about it, social media has been bad for women. Especially since it’s also given rise to bitchiness amongst them.
Whether it’s the pre-pubescent fans of One Direction, who seem to get their knickers in a twist every time Harry Styles is photographed with a girl, or the generic Twitter troll out to get anyone with a muffin top, social media has become a playground for girl on girl bullying. Just look at Lena Dunham who has been criticised on Twitter for being ''fat'' or ''ugly'', or Scout Willis, who had her Instagram account deleted because someone reported a photograph of her in a sheer top. So, yes, social media has indeed been bad for women, but then it’s also done some good stuff too.
As leading feminist Germaine Greer wrote in a recent article, feminism exists both as ‘’a media phenomenon and as an academic discipline.’’ However, thanks to social media, the gap between these two disparate strands of feminism is starting to close and, with that, filter in to our daily lives. Today, you don’t need a PHD, a library card, or a fully-grown bush to join in the debate about women. To make yourself heard as a feminist, and connect with others like you, all you need is decent Wi-Fi and a catchy URL.
‘’The Internet accelerated the objectification of women and unravelled a lot of ground work made by feminists in previous generations,’’ says artist, model, and author of feminist blog Cunt Today, Phoebe Collings-James, ‘’I think many women are now trying to reclaim that identity, salvage it from Google searches of tits and arse... and take control of that objectification to create their own image.’’ From an extract of the late Maya Angelou’s inspirational poetry to a poignant discussion of rape culture, Cunt Today is a refreshing examination of what feminism means in the 21st century. ‘’I wanted to create a blog that collated content from a variety of perspectives and sources, almost as a kind of research project that was open to contribution and can be used as a resource.’’ Combining cool snippets of popular culture with traditional feminist debate, Phoebe uses social media to wipe away the cobwebs of feminism past and make it accessible for all those online. And she’s not alone; Petra Collins, Arvida Byström, Karley Sciortino, the girls from Be Here Nowish, and Tessa and Grace Edwards have all been doing it too, sometimes even doing it together.
‘’To be honest I think loads of us still represent ourselves through some kind of male gaze, but I do think there is a huge difference to somewhat be able to hold the camera yourself and take a selfie without having a man present.''
Petra Collins is the uber cool artist from Toronto whose Instagram account is a candy-coloured, sugar coated dream world filled with selfies, stickers, and sprinkled with fairy dust. But instead of being some shrine to Barbies, pink princesses or any other gendered typecasts out there, each curated image is a deconstruction of female stereotypes and their negative connotations for women. In one photo Petra is reclining on the floor in her underwear with an emoji of a devil blocking out her face, while in another she’s in the bath with a slice of peperoni pizza covering her breasts and an emoji of a star hovering over her nether regions. There’s also a picture of a period stained sheet with the caption ‘’Rorschach tests all up in my bed’’; a picture where she’s revealing her armpit hair; and a video of her holding up a tampon against a beautiful beach sunset, with the caption, ‘’just got my period & bled on the floor at Untitled Art Fair #ArtBaselMiami.’’ Just like Phoebe, Petra uses social media as a means of female empowerment and does it in a cool, refreshing, and modern way.
Also using Instagram as a way of reclaiming the female image is the blue-haired model and photographer Arvida Byström, who recently shot with Petra for Vice. ‘’To be honest I think loads of us still represent ourselves through some kind of male gaze,’’ she says, ‘’but I do think there is a huge difference to somewhat be able to hold the camera yourself and take a selfie without having a man present.'' From taking stark, desexualising photos of herself covered in bath foam to one of her wearing no make-up in bed, and accompanied by the caption ‘’I think I’m in a nude shoot tomorrow, should I have coloured my pubes too?’’ Arvida’s selfies are a challenge to the many images we see floating around online of girls with their breasts up, bottoms out, lips about to let out a burp – or whatever combination is traditionally seen as being sexy.
Of course there is a narcissism in posting a million pictures of yourself online, but it is also a means of exploring the way in which we represent ourselves, one that has not been conditioned by years of female objectification. By choosing how women represent themselves on social media, we can finally have control over our own image, without having to go (quite literally) through the middleman. ‘’We can now make the choice to post a sexy photo, and try and mimic the way Beyoncé or Miley or Kim Kardashian represent themselves,’’ say Alexandra Roxo and Natalia Leite, co-creators of cool new web series Be Here Nowish, ‘’or we can make the choice to post a photo where we are smiling with spinach in our teeth and a stain on our shirt.’’ Just look at Alexandra’s Instagram account, in which she’s posted everything from a photograph of her holding two glasses of green juice in front of her otherwise naked breasts (a satirical play on Tyrone Lebon’s sexy portrait of Lara Stone in The Q&A Issue of i-D) to a still of her attempting awkward tantric sex with co-star Adam Carpenter.
‘’So many of the images we see of women - on TV, in movies and advertisements are images of women shown through the very narrow lens of mainstream media, which is largely controlled by men, this is why so often women are seen simply as sex objects, or as being one-dimensional.’’
‘’So many of the images we see of women - on TV, in movies and advertisements are images of women shown through the very narrow lens of mainstream media, which is largely controlled by men,‘’ says Karley Sciortino, author of sex blog Slutever, Vogue’s answer to Carrie Bradshaw, and long time friend to Petra, Phoebe, and Alexandra (she recently guest starred in Be Here Nowish) ‘’this is why so often women are seen simply as sex objects, or as being one-dimensional.’’ On top of giving them a voice, and allowing them to choose how they represent themselves, social media has also given women a platform to express themselves as sexual beings, through terms other than those dictated by men.
For Karley, who discusses everything from the female orgasm to becoming a dominatrix on her blog, ‘’choosing to express one's sexuality is different from a woman being sexualised without consent or control. But now, girls have a platform to speak for themselves and create their own audiences online... Girls don’t have to wait to be accepted into boys’ clubs anymore - we can launch our own online magazines, write our own blogs, make artworks and films that are distributed ourselves through the Internet.’’
Also deconstructing the relationship between social media and feminism is dreamy designer Tessa Edwards and her sister Grace. In an exciting, soon to be released documentary called Blurred Lines, the girls explore how Post Internet feminism has been ‘’elevating popular social consciousness to the ways in which women are portrayed online, and the ways women are self-presenting their image to others.’’ But far from merely accepting the latest onslaught of supposedly feminist Internet art, the girls seek to question its authenticity. Are these creative expressions vehicles of female empowerment or, as the girls question, ‘’are they simply affectations of persuasions of the media, narcissism, effects of the desire for popularity, adoration or fame?’’ Interviewing everyone from Penny Slinger to Petra Collins, Barbara Kruger to Brooke Candy, they leave no stone unturned.
Up until this point, some have considered feminism a ‘’dirty’’ word, having previously associated it with crusty academics and angry, man-hating women. I’ve read so many interviews where young girls in the spotlight are claiming they aren’t feminists, purely because they don’t really know what feminism is or are scared of its negative connotations. However, thanks to this new digitalised wave of female empowerment, things are clearly starting to change. Indeed, whether it’s the shiny pink, tampon filled Insta world of Petra Collins or Karley Sciortino’s sexed up riot grrrl blog thanks to social media, feminism has undergone a modern makeover and is being liked, shared, and spread all over the world. And it’s time to join in.