Can Feminist Hashtags ‘Dismantle the State’?

“Please emphasize that we intend to dismantle the state,” 23-year-old Suey Park says of #NotYourAsianSidekick, a Twitter hashtag she started. When the tag took off last week, Park says that the “white feminist media” mangled her message. #NotYourAsianSidekick was not intended as fodder for cute Buzzfeed listicles about stereotypes. “We are not looking for white acceptance,” she says. “We’re rejecting all of that.” The hashtag is but one step in a plan to take down “white, hetero, patriarchal, corporate America.”

“Can you make a pinky promise to keep my radical agenda in your article?”

Park’s hashtag was the latest iteration of “Twitter feminism,” the emerging social media community behind several hashtags that cracked the site’s overall trending list and made their way into listicles and thinkpieces this year. Surveying the field, Salon columnist Kate McDonough recently wrote, “Twitter has hands down been one of the most dynamic, vital spaces for feminists in conversation in 2013.”

If the notion that a slew of 140-character utterances could be “vital” to feminism gives you pause, you’re not alone. When #TwitterFeminism peaked as a hashtag on Thursday (proponents used the tag as a forum for celebrating Twitter friendships and critiquing the “feminist mass media”), it was in response to Feminist Current blogger Meghan Murphy’s bleak assessment. “Twitter is a horrible place for feminism,” she argued, because “intellectual laziness is encouraged, oversimplification is mandatory, posturing is de rigueur, and bullying is rewarded.” She described Twitter discourse asfeminist greeting card style.” While that would seem to suggest something glib and accessible, the voices of #TwitterFeminism are surprisingly radical, high-volume, and high-energy — and prone to debates of vicious intensity. But are tweets really enough launch a movement?

Whereas earlier iterations of “hashtag activism” used social media primarily to direct attention to charities (#Kony2012) or specific causes (Instagramming an equal sign during the Prop. 8 debate), the descriptive hashtags that are a hallmark of #TwitterFeminism prompt discussion first and foremost. #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen started in a moment of blogger infighting, when Hood Feminism blogger Mikki Kendall invented it to criticize white female bloggers’ responses to a male blogger’s manic episode. Hugo Schwyzer — the controversial “male feminist” and sometime Jezebel columnist — was having a very public meltdown, and the sympathy he seemed to elicit dismayed some observers. “It started because I got mad,” Kendall laughs during a phone interview.

“The first couple tweets were about that Hugo Schwyzer situation, and then, as happens sometimes when you’re on a tear with a hashtag, I started talking about other things I noticed. The next thing I know, about half an hour in, Twitter shut me down for too many tweets.” When she got back into Twitter, she discovered the tag had taken off. Eventually, it trended nationwide as a method for calling attention to white privilege among feminists. What had started as an insular conversation had grown into a wide-ranging discussion of race and gender. NPR and Al Jazeera discussed it; Kendall wrote about it for the Guardian.

An array of issue-focused hashtags popped up soon thereafter. #BlackPowerIsForBlackMen critiqued sexism in the fight against racism; #FastTailedGirls critiqued sex-shaming in the black community; #NotYourNarrative critiqued Western media’s treatment of Muslims. “The hashtag gives [participants] permission to say something in the conversation,” Kendall reflects. “I’m not saying they need permission. But they find out the conversation is going on, and whatever they’ve been thinking, that they’ve either been afraid to say or didn’t think anybody wanted to hear, now they have license to say it.” She compared tweeting to distributing leaflets. “The reach you have on Twitter is broader than possibly anything you can achieve as an individual who is not on TV or on radio,” she said.

“Mikki has been really crucial in my understanding of how to use social media to connect with people,” Park notes. Park’s first “viral hashtag” was #POC4culturalenrichment, critiquing institutional tendencies to treat people of color as education opportunities for whites. As for #NotYourAsianSidekick, in its first 24 hours, the tag was tweeted some 45,000 times. She quickly teamed up with Asian-American advocacy group 18 Million Rising, which now handles her media appearances and travel. An ethnic studies graduate student, Park plans to take time off from school to work full-time on activism. She says #NotYourAsianSidekick followers are already organizing in their communities and college campuses. She owns a NotYourAsianSidekick URL. “This is really a movement,” she says. “This has been generations coming.”

While Park is busy planning the movement, trend-chasing websites that arrange The Best Tweets From #WhateverHashtag into listicles only seem to amplify the giant-stack-of-greeting-cards perception of Twitter activism. Even the most profound of one-liners start to seem vapid when you’re reading Bartlett’s Quotes cover-to-cover like a novel. (Particularly when a #NotYourAsianSidekick roundup appears in the realm of identity-bait posts like “10 Times Being South Asian Is the Worst.”)

But continuous, focused reading is also not the way most people experience Twitter. When I started following Park and some of her compatriots, #NotYourAsianSidekick and #NotYourNarrative missives began appearing in the stream of pop-culture jokes and Beyoncé GIFs that generally dominate my Twitter feed. They were a welcome addition. The questions that the Twitter feminists are raising have to do with cultural assumptions and blind spots; they’re reminders that are most useful when they’re catching you off guard and shaking you out of day-to-day complacency. Integrating hashtag activists into my social media routine did just that.

But is my way of appreciating of hashtag activism even what Park and her compatriots want? I’m only half white, yet when Suey Park decries “the white gaze, people co-opting and infiltrating our online space,” I wonder if she’s talking about onlookers like me, those without enough skin in the game to compose their own one-liners. And #TwitterFeminism isn’t always the most welcoming environment for casual participants. The debates around #TwitterFeminism are so complex, heated, and sometimes personal that one female blogger who saw that I had tweeted an interview request at Mikki Kendall asked me to call her at 11 p.m. that night; she was concerned that my article would legitimize a “toxic” environment of bullying.

By e-mail, Kendall agreed that #TwitterFeminism infighting approaches bullying “to some extent,” but “I also think that often it is framed as bullying when black or brown women are the ones pushing back & not so much when it is white women.” She thinks Murphy is “full of shit,” but does echo the Canadian blogger’s belief that “in some ways this can get very high school.”

“I actually think my bullies were mostly white women,” Murphy says when I read her Kendall’s quote. “But it’s hard to tell. It’s Twitter, it can be anonymous.” In the aftermath of her blog post, Murphy participated in the #TwitterFeminism debate with such fervor that she, too, was briefly “shut down” for tweeting too much. Despite her reservations, Murphy has no plan to stop using Twitter. “I’m a freelance writer. It’s still the best way to get my work out there,” she explains.

At the height of the #TwitterFeminism debate, New Yorker writer Emily Nussbaum tweeted a link to a 1976 Ms. Magazine article entitled “Trashing.” Written by Voice of the Women’s Liberation editor Jo Freeman, it described “a particularly vicious form of character assassination which amounts to psychological rape” at the hands of “Movement women.” (Rape metaphor! Imagine the Twitter backlash that would incite today.) Feminist-on-feminist rage, she wrote, burned brighter and hotter than any other kind:

I have never seen women get as angry at other women as they do in the Movement. In part this is because our expectations of other feminists and the Movement in general are very high, and thus difficult to meet. We have not yet learned to be realistic in our demands on our sisters or ourselves. It is also because other feminists are available as targets for rage.

Rage is a logical result of oppression. It demands an outlet. Because most women are surrounded by men whom they have learned it is not wise to attack, their rage is often turned inward… While the men are distant, and the “system” too big and vague, one’s “sisters” are close at hand.

And thanks to the Internet, the sisters are closer than ever.

Click here to read a Q&A with Jo Freeman. Forty years after “Trashing,” she has revised her theories — and still runs into her trashers.

Can Feminist Hashtags ‘Dismantle the State’?