On International Women’s Day 2021, my Instagram feed was flooded with eye-catching graphics affirming female empowerment by means of catchy slogans. Despite being particularly prolific on IWD, posts of this kind are generally fairly routine and not exclusive to any particular day. Up until this point, Instagram feminism had always seemed inspiring and unifying to me. However, the devastating news of Sarah Everard’s murder, and the outpour of personal testimonies of gender-based violence which it triggered, has highlighted just how shallow and performative Instagram feminism really is.
As a platform that prioritizes aesthetics, Instagram has proved itself to be the perfect breeding ground for what’s been termed “popular feminism” over the last few years. Influencer Florence Given utilizes bright colours and snappy fonts in her Instagram posts, boasting feminist catchphrases like “love sex, hate sexism” and “dump him”. Given makes feminism appear trendy, fun and, most significantly, accessible. This acts as a contrast to jargon-heavy feminist literature, which is often unappealing to the general public and can feel unrelatable for younger generations who have grown up using social media as a primary source of information.
With over half a million Instagram followers, Given’s brand of popular feminism evidently empowers many people, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. She is quick to acknowledge her privilege as a white, middle-class, conventionally attractive woman and consistently uses her platform to voice support for marginalized communities. In particular, Given identifies Black feminism as a source of her own education and inspiration, citing the names of several Black women in the “Acknowledgements” page of her book, Women Don’t Owe You Pretty. However, this move was quickly criticized as performative by Chidera Eggerue who publicly pointed out the similarities between Given’s book and her own. In a series of Instagram stories which pre-empted the premature termination of Eggerue’s publishing contract, Eggerue called upon Given to “pass the mic” to Black authors such as herself, and she has a good point. It seems somehow wrong that, for all her privilege, Given has become the ‘voice’ of intersectional feminism for thousands of people.
It isn’t just influencers who use Instagram to share feminist content performatively. Large corporations regularly run campaigns centred around female empowerment on the social media platform, which in reality, have no further intentions than the selling of a product. Brands like Nasty Gal share posts embodying the “Girlboss” strand of feminism, while Dove exhibits photos of women with cellulite and belly rolls, promoting a message of female self-acceptance. The clear issue with this type of consumerist feminism is that it fails to bring about any real-life change on the issue it claims to be an advocate for. Nasty Gal is infamous for exploiting its workers, many of whom are women. What’s more, sending out a message to the public that feminism can be bought and embodied by a piece of merchandise undermines the feminist aim of equality by excluding those who can’t afford the latest “female power” product.
What’s most damaging about performative Instagram-feminism is the subtle, yet powerful impact it has upon regular users. Most people who consume feminist content on Instagram fail to consider how the algorithm is shaping their feed and, in turn, how this can limit what they see in terms of diversity. The power of infographics to inspire by means of an empty-worded message is also hugely underestimated. In an interview with Vox, graphic designer Eric Hugh spoke about what makes a post engaging, namely fonts and colours: “There isn’t much of a relationship between content and aesthetics; if anything, the content is just interchangeable”.
However, influencers and brands do more than just shape regular users’ understanding of feminism. They also impact the way in which we use Instagram to speak out on and promote feminist issues. A main consequence is that there is an increased pressure to do just this. It’s feeling less and less socially acceptable to abstain from sharing Instagram posts and stories in support of feminism, or indeed, humanitarian issues in general. While spreading information is undeniably important, the peer pressure to do so via Instagram tends to result in a lot of users blindly reposting infographics without properly researching the topic, and without taking any meaningful action offline. On top of this, the aesthetic standards which prevail in the world of Instagram mean that often, making a post appear visually attractive takes priority over spreading a helpful message. Performative feminism is not just something regular users are merely exposed to, as many more seem to be becoming active participants.
With the pandemic prohibiting many forms of physical interaction, life has largely shifted online, and social media sites like Instagram have become a necessary space to present and engage with views and ideas. At a time when women’s safety is at the forefront of public discussion, it is important that we recognize, call out and abstain from performative feminism on social media. Without meaningful action on the part of society, no positive change can occur, regardless of how many infographics are reposted.
Words by Alice Forbes
This article was published as part of The Indiependent‘s May 2021 magazine edition.
Support The Indiependent
We’re trying to raise £200 a month to help cover our operational costs. This includes our ‘Writer of the Month’ awards, where we recognise the amazing work produced by our contributor team. If you’ve enjoyed reading our site, we’d really appreciate it if you could donate to The Indiependent. Whether you can give £1 or £10, you’d be making a huge difference to our small team.