Social media feminist influencers play an important role in reminding us offline and institutionalised feminists that the ‘who’ in feminist movement building matters less than the ‘how’.
If there is something that we all have to admit, it is the fact that we have always had influencers. Less than 10 years ago we had political, ideological and yes, feminist influencers who too had followers; on listservs and mailing lists and academic journals where their ideas held what they thought were the building blocks of an African feminist movement. There has always been a handful of African feminists that form and influence what other feminists think and feel about the shape-shifting nature of our contexts and movements.
If there is something that we all have to admit, it is the fact that we have always had influencers.
Often, if not always, these few feminists and activists were located within influential organisations and institutions that then in turn magnified their influence or vice versa. What these iterations of influence then did, was (whether deliberately or not) create a gate-keeping mechanism, that left out a lot of younger activists and feminists, as well as people that worked outside institutions and organisations. Proximity to an influential feminist or an organisation affiliated with said feminist(s), made all the difference in determining who did and who did not have access to what spaces and resources. These influencers were referred to as ‘leaders’ back then, but the critical premise still holds true.
I remember, 15 or so years ago, as a young university student and a budding feminist hungry for courses, conferences, meetings and feminist gatherings, my applications to attend specially created feminist spaces were consistently rejected. Who were my references? My sociology and psychology lecturers did not cut it and neither did any other women or activists that inspired me. None of them were feminists. I was not affiliated with any ‘known’ and ‘respected’ feminist organisations in Southern Africa and the small girl’s empowerment project that I was co-running was not ‘feminist enough’. This all changed when I began working for an influential feminist organisation in Southern Africa. In the space of a month there was no conference, no meeting, no feminist pow-wow, both within Africa and outside it that I could not gain access to by simply stating my organisational affiliation. This organisation was then led by a highly regarded and respected feminist influencer, and my interest, passion or even skill and ability to participate actively in a space suddenly felt less important than my proximity to this sphere of influence.
While riding this wave of newfound access and acceptance by proxy, it was hard to see how I too was participating in the gatekeeping that individuals and feminist activists outside institutions face. Fungai Machirori, founder of the feminist organisation Her Zimbabwe adds another dimension to the dynamics of organising in African feminist spaces. Fungai writes about an encounter where
"… An older feminist who I held in high esteem came to me at a meeting one day. Curtly, she asked me why I had not sought the buy-in of the women’s movement before going about and setting up a platform. I was perplexed and embarrassed. Was there a procedure that one was supposed to follow prior to starting up an initiative? Had I flouted the rules?"
There is an unspoken desire or requirement to be ‘allowed’ to feminist in a particular way. One can argue that this is how we work in Africa-that you need the permission of the area chief to open a kiosk at the intersection of Main Road and Chipera Avenue. But what this does, whether as protocol or not, is it sends a clear message that our feminism needs to look a certain way or it cannot belong. And over the years our belonging and the legitimacy of our activism and feminism has come by way of institutional affiliation. This subtle, but far-reaching exclusion of unaffiliated and un-institutionalised feminists and activists is still a frustration, but now, we have the internet and with it, we have social media.
Times, as will always happen, have changed.
There is an unspoken desire or requirement to be ‘allowed’ to feminist in a particular way.
Influence, no matter what we call it ̶ this ability to command attention, space, time, resources, whether on a global scale or a local one ̶ has always been, and will always be about power. This analysis of power, and locating it not in the who or the where but in the why is what Jessica Horn’s opinion piece is missing. It is unfair to simplify this collecting and wielding of power by individuals that identify as feminist and their many followers on social media into an obsession for the narcissistic and self-absorbed. Yes, it is easy to see how social media feminist influencers place themselves firmly at the centre of a collective politic, contradicting what we intended to be a shared and a co-created feminist movement. But if it looks like a feminist, walks like a feminist, talks like a feminist and says it’s a feminist, is it not a feminist?
I see this uptake of feminist language, representation and space on social media as a way for the unaffiliated and un-institutionalised to gain some credibility in what is still a very heavily policed and controlled African feminist space. Horn asks of these influencers ̶
‘We are not really sure how they came to represent us, but there they are speaking about us (or is it for us?) on Africa policy platforms, mingling at events with dubious heads of state and other representatives of the ruling patriarchy and requesting us to “like” it because, well, proximity to mainstream power."
I too have in the past asked the same question of the small collection of feminist voices and faces that time and again occupied space and voice in local and international spaces speaking for ‘us’. We, and I too implicate myself, have been these people, many times, token Africans and lesbians and feminists and trans* humxns in international conferences and panels where we spoke for everyone, without caring who ‘everyone’ was. We had inhabited a certain kind of power and privilege that easily made us blind to the replication of the same oppressive power dynamics that we point fingers at. We assumed too easily that our political arguments for feminism and whatever other social justice cause we represented was the voice of the majority.
It is clear by now that one of my critiques of Horn’s opinion piece is that there is nothing new afoot. That the culprit here is not social media and the devious way in which it shifts the focus of a politic away from the ‘we’ to the ‘I’. These dynamics have existed long since before I started working and participating in institutionalised feminist and social justice spaces over ten years ago. We are all complicit in creating what we think is a deviation from the intention of our feminist movement and voice that manifests as individuals presenting themselves as a movement, and not the other way around. What this social media feminist influencer has done is found a space, and occupied it. Legitimacy now looks different for this social media influencer. Buy-in is not an invitation to a conference or employment at an institution, it is retweets and followers and a verified badge. It is people’s people ‘fetching’ each other online once a ‘fave’ feels slighted. It is also plagiarism, it is also misinformation. Issues last as long as a hashtag does, and soon they are off to the next one.
We are all complicit in creating what we think is a deviation from the intention of our feminist movement and voice that manifests as individuals presenting themselves as a movement, and not the other way around.
Movements and movement building look very different today. For all our criticism (I too get exhausted by the fleeting way in which we mobilise for change online) we also have to ask, would we rather they don’t exist? Or how can we invite these new, tech-savvy, social media influencers that we think need ‘a commitment to the rigour that our visions and practices of freedom absolutely require‘ to our offline gatherings and spaces to share and learn? One big difference between these two approaches is that it is cheaper to be a social media feminist influencer online than it is to organise offline. Social media is faster and there is autonomy of voice where your platform is yours and your words your own. There’s a freedom that social media feminists experience that we cannot inhabit offline and within institutions. Social media feminists are not afraid to insult and offend and often irritate. This all on its own is quite refreshing.
I remember being in awe and complete admiration of Activist Dr. Stellah Nyanzi, years ago when she spoke so poetically about her vagina and vulva and how she would use her words and all parts of her body to bring down the tyranny of Yoweri Museveni on Facebook. The internet and social media made that possible. Because (and I stand corrected) the only other space for Dr. Nyanzi to express herself would have had to be in a carefully worded, thoroughly edited, slightly sanitized chapter in a feminist book or a paper in a feminist journal. Social media is the bottom door of a full silo flung open, with thousands and millions of messages, ideas, stories, feelings, everything rushing at you all at once. At its very core and intention, social media and the internet offers us all a freedom to express ourselves, even our most problematic expressions, which is a freedom we must fiercely defend. I would in fact argue that we need more such voices to drown out the noise of misogyny online.
Social media is the bottom door of a full silo flung open, with thousands and millions of messages, ideas, stories, feelings, everything rushing at you all at once.
A problem with social media feminism and influencer culture that I will concede to is that it sharply shifts the focus of our work to transform oppressive structures and institutions into a heartbreaking obsession with ‘who is occupying so much space and influence (and power) and how did they get here?‘ These questions are valid. Legitimacy is important, but how we demonstrate or show how we gained this legitimacy needs a conversation. Many old and older feminists found our politics literally through blood, sweat and tears. We fought, with our bodies and minds to be seen, respected, and recognised for trying to move this once immovable rock called patriarchy and capitalism and heterosexual hegemony. From where we sit, it feels too easy, for someone to gain access to a feminist space and use our words, thoughts and ideas, when really we don’t know who they are. But again it should not matter. Because this is the nature of ideas, of popular politics which feminism has become. It must change. Our intentions and our vision for what a feminist future looks like are not the same. The diversity of our realities and histories create a kaleidoscope of possibilities for what a feminist future can look like. We must, sooner rather than later, let go of the idea that how feminism is being articulated today is not our vision for the feminist future we work so hard for.
No matter how our ideas and iterations of feminism manifest, we should never shift our focus from the issues, we should not forget that this same internet where self-centred selfie feminists occupy space and power is itself a site of oppression, and the existence of this voice, whether it speaks for us or not, is resistance. The internet and social media, in particular, has the effect of a microscope, where we stop looking at the whole petri dish of fungus and follow around this one bacteria. Our fight should always be against structures of social, cultural, political, economic and environmental power that oppress us and force us to either hoard space and resources or carve it out for ourselves and on our own terms.
Now, more than ever, we need solidarity with and for our selfie-taking, natural hair care vlogging, feminist fashion selling, anything-goes social media feminist influencers. We don’t have enough of them, and the few that dare make popular a difficult politic are facing a considerable amount of backlash. Feminists that dare the best way they know how to occupy whatever space and influence they can, even when what is being sold is Feminism Lite, we must stand in solidarity with them. The quiet, introverted and offline feminists can co-exist with the loud, self-absorbed online feminists. We have to believe that we dream of a feminist future where we take turns to stand in the hot sun, and believe it or not, the twitter feminists too are doing this blood, sweat and tears work.
Now, more than ever, we need solidarity with and for our selfie-taking, natural hair care vlogging, feminist fashion selling, anything-goes social media feminist influencers.
What the feminist influencers have done is open the curtains in a dimly lit room, allowing us to see the dust in the corners of our house. Now that we see this dust, the work left to do is to clean it, not to call for a meeting to ask who is responsible for opening the curtains. Thank you Jessica, for moving this conversation away from what might have been a hashtag that becomes redundant once Beyonce changes the colour of her hair.
This article has been written in response to and in conversation with the article ‘The age of the feminist influencer: https://mg.co.za/article/2019-08-12-the-age-of-the-influencer