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I am woman hear me tweet in numbers too big to … ignore

What do twenty-first-century women and the sixteenth-century Protestant revolt have in common? The advantages of a new, epoch-changing communications technology.

Last week on the Overland blog Jacinda Woodhead raised the ghost of Marshall McLuhan and his 1960s catch phrase ‘the medium is the message’. The medium might be the message – but what if a message suddenly finds a new medium?

95Thesen

This famously happened in the sixteenth century when Martin Luther wrote the ‘Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences’ in Wittenberg in 1517. This was not a revolutionary act. It was merely one more in a line of scholarly disputations against the church. Luther used the medium of his day – a handwritten Latin tract – to protest against the behaviour of the clergy at his local church, which contained an extensive collection of spurious holy relics including vials of the Virgin Mary’s breast milk.

Theologians had been regularly haranguing the Church for its excesses and hypocrisy for decades, but had zero impact on its practices. Luther did the same and sparked a revolution. Why? Because a powerful new device communicated his ‘95 Theses’ across Europe so rapidly that it seemed ‘as if the angels themselves had been their messengers and brought them before the eyes of all the people’.

What was this powerful new communications device? The printing press.

Luther’s theses caused a revolution because they did not stay in Wittenberg. They went viral.

They were translated into the vernacular and multiple identical copies were made on the printing press. In two weeks Luther’s theses had spread throughout Germany. In four weeks they had spread across Europe. Luther himself was baffled by their rapid dissemination. He told the pope at his interrogation: ‘It is a mystery to me how my theses, more so than my other writings, indeed, those of other professors, were spread to so many places. They were meant exclusively for our academic circle here.’

But thanks to a new medium Luther’s message escaped his academic circle, was disseminated across Europe and prompted the Protestant revolution. Such is the power of communication.

In the twenty-first century, women have also found a new communications medium: the internet. It seems that the internet might be doing for women what the printing press did for Luther: taking our talk beyond its traditional, circumscribed realm.

‘In the old days, women marched to win change. Now, they blog.’ So says Julie Power, a former reporter for the Australian Financial Review who now blogs at MomstoWork.com. As Power says, ‘Change starts with talk. And these conversations are happening among the 42 million American women who blog, tweet and update their social networks every week.’

Women across the world are blogging for change. Bahrain activist and blogger Esra’a al-Shafei says the goal of her blog Mideast Youth is ‘to piss off as many dictators as possible’. She says: ‘The stuff we publish is not the cutesy stuff your mum wants to see. It’s the kind of stuff that can get you killed.’

‘Women bloggers have so much power,’ says the activist Gloria Feldt, who started blogging after 30 years of lobbying for women’s reproductive rights. She says that blogging liberated her: ‘At last I could say what I wanted to say.’

Gynaecologist Lissa Rankins would concur. She blogs at Owning The Pink and writes: ‘Vagina, vagina, vagina. Say it with me … Let’s change the way television, and the rest of the world, talks about what it means to be a woman … come on. We’ve all got ’em. There’s nothing dirty or icky about them. And don’t forget. Vaginas make the world go round.’

In the Sydney Morning Herald (31 March 2011) Dr Johanna Blakley also argues that the new medium has the potential to bring change by and for women. She’s been studying the impact of demographics on advertising and media at the Norman Lear Centre, a US research institute, and writes: ‘Recently we’ve been focusing our attention on social media, and we’ve discovered some very interesting things – particularly about the role that women play.’

Speaking of online taste communities, she says that one of the more surprising things about them ‘is that they are being shaped primarily by women’. A report released last June found that ‘because of their full embrace of social media, women are taking the lead in redefining what 21st century audiences are and what they actually want. I believe that the content that makes up our media environment is going to experience a profound shift … Media content, and the advertising that accompanies it, will be tailored to the taste of networked online communities where women happen to be the driving force.’

rosieLast year popular local blogger and tweeter Mia Freedman felt the power of an online community when she and her followers were able to influence the behaviour of a corporation, the church of the twenty-first century. Through blogging and tweeting, Freedman forced the clothing company Cotton On to withdraw baby clothes which carried offensive slogans like ‘I’m a tits man’, ‘F**k the milk, where’s the whiskey’ and ‘They shake me’. The company initially resisted the blogosphere backlash, failing to realise its significance. But eventually Cotton On gave in to its demands, apologised and withdrew the offending t-shirts. It also promised to review its range ‘to ensure no reference is made to categories pertaining to sexually explicit behaviour, child abuse, drugs and profanity’.

Small changes so far, but perhaps in the twenty-first century women’s tweets will prove more potent than our roars.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Jane Gleeson-White is a writer and editor with degrees in literature and economics. She’s a PhD student in creative writing and the author of Double Entry (2011), Australian Classics (2007) and Classics (2005). She blogs at bookish girl and tweets at @janeLGW.

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  1. Pingback: Twitter Weekly Updates for 2011-04-03

  2. Thank you for the interesting article.
    I’m just wondering though,…is the campaign against the Cotton On baby tops actually, er, progressive, as in are the clothes actually reactionary or just in bad taste?

    • That’s something I’ve wondered about as well: the relationship between sexual content and sexist content. In their history of the sixties in Australia, Robin Gerster and Jan Bassett, argue that:

      [T]he new politics, so publicly identified with charismatic male personalities and imbued with an essentially masculinist insurrectionary thos, was to consolidate oppression of women. Wendy Bacon’s publication of the crassly sexist ‘Eskimo Nell’ as part of the attack by Tharunka on politically entrenched censorship suggests the extent to which the interests of men were served by radical discourses. Male counterculturalists and politicos, for their professed belief in ‘freedom’ constructed a rigidly defined set of gender role expectations in which women were either idealized as ‘earth mothers’ or encouraged to shed their ‘inhibitions’ by assiduously unleashing their sexual energies.

      The first sentence is manifest nonsense, and the third one is pretty tendentious, too. But what do people say about ‘Eskimo Nell’, the poem that Wendy Bacon published in Tharunka (as she documents here)? It’s a bawdy limerick; it’s crass and it’s sexual. But is it sexist? You can read the full poem here.
      That’s a genuine question, and I’d be really interested in responses.

  3. My short answer is no. It isn’t sexist. Equally, I would say that the Cotton On slogans are not ‘offensive’. I’d say tacky, sure, and wouldn’t buy them but I take absolutely no hope from this dynamic of women in social media ‘changing’ corporations. No change is occurring. This is just feel-good whack-a-mole censorship which achieves nothing. And I think it is important to note that those who drive these sort of campaigns are not just ‘tweeters’ or ‘bloggers’. They are people with high media profiles and media relationships which are suspect. And in Freedman’s case, her entire work history is of being part of the problem.

    All this censorship is simply changing the packaging. There is little difference between corporations selling us exclusion and insecurity or selling us validation and acceptability. In fact, they do very well combining both and, over decades, it has given them great agility when responding to challenges.

    Censorship and ‘change’ campaigns are not only ineffective but actually bolster the power corporations use to define us. I don’t downplay the influence they actually have in how we perceive, but surely the goal should be to strip them of that power, rather than make it appear more innocuous. Because it is guaranteed that each redefinition of what is acceptable will be just as limited, and limiting, as whatever came before.

    Moving back to the main thrust of the article, there are some great opportunities in social media for women. But campaigns like the Freedman example isn’t where they can be found. The very fact that they do so well just illustrates how pointless they are. All I see are Damned Whores and Capitalism’s Police. Privilege protecting and defining privilege. If that is what we call an achievement for women, the joke is on us.

  4. Thanks for that.
    The claim that the the New Left was riddled with sexism is made so often that I’d always kinda believed it. But having just read most of Tharunka, well, the reality seems much more complex. It published lots of nudes and pictures of people having sex and so forth, but, contrary to Gerster and Bassett, was very unmacho, with, for instance, a quite casual acceptance that most men would be (and perhaps should be) having sex with other men.
    Would say, though, that, whatever you think of the wisdom of the campaign against those clothes, there is a difference between advocating a consumer boycott or protest campaign or whatever, and calling for state censorship. The two things are not the same.

    • I agree that state censorship is a very different beast but would say in some ways social censorship , via corporations, is more insidious and less accountable. I’m not opposed to consumer boycotts. The boycott of Tasmanian products over their sodomy laws springs to mind. But the goal of that was institutional, legal, real change, not ‘sell me something else although I didn’t have to buy your other crap anyway’. And I don’t even think more directly targeted campaigns are invalid.

      However, when the target is how to morally ‘package’ women or children or identity generally, I think we have to ask exactly what the goal is, and who is defining it. The fact that they are so easily effective shows how little the actually bring about lasting, structural change. The fact that they are often led by people with privilege (from supposed ‘feminists’ to the religious right) is indicative that they challenge privilege not all all.

      I realise those statements require supportive evidence but i’m on my phone so I’ll let them stand, and be challenged, as is. But I think the recent fight over Freedman’s ‘does my bum look big tweet’ and Cannold’s article in her defense illustrate that well. Women with less voice in MSM were told in MSM, and I quote, ‘admire her or shut up’.

  5. I’d say no. Obscenity isn’t per se sexist or masculinist, except in where it’s permitted to exist (ie, a woman swearing or being filthy will often be condemned in ways that men are not, an extension of slut shaming). Feminist argument gets pretty uncomfortable for me when women “unleashing their sexual energies” is parsed as a masculinist activity: it denies women any sexual agency of their own, and suggests that women’s sexuality can’t but serve the “interests of men”. At the same time, I flinch at the contemporary pornographic aesthetic that some women embrace as liberating. Censorship of those images isn’t the answer, since in a way they’re a mechanism of censorship in themselves, as they marginalise representations of women’s sexuality that exist outside an increasingly narrow norm… They’re a million miles from the kind of feminist burlesque done by Moira Finucane, for instance, in which female (and male) desire is presented as full-on, polymorphous and perverse (and the women have hair). The mere fact that these kinds of representations are nowhere near the mainstream suggests that there’s a long way to go, and that female sexuality remains as hidden from the public gaze as it ever was.

    One of the things that distinguishes sexual obscenity like Eskimo Nell for me from the soul-deadening (and for me deeply unfunny) pornographised woman is its humour: anxieties about sexuality are all exploded in grotesque exaggerations, whereas the pornographic woman stuff is just about anxiety that presents as feminine lack – if there is humour, it’s aggressive and only directed against the woman and/or feminised male – which can only be answered by consumption, which can only provoke more anxiety… thus serving, as Lani points out, the interests of corporations very nicely indeed.

  6. I agree with L.K. I don’t think ‘Eskimo Nell’ is sexist and, for me, it’s about context as much as content. I also agree with L.K. that the Mamma Mia empire is all about privilege and maintains a fairly strict boundary around what women are ‘meant’ to be reading, thinking, speaking – ie. it doesn’t focus on the lack of women CEO’s or what the latest feminist writings are, but is endlessly self-referential about ‘our lives’. I also agree that the Cotton On T-shirts weren’t offensive, just stupid. In a commercial sense they were simply just an extension of the baby clothes with ‘My mum went to Las Vegas and all I got was this lousy T-shirt’, ‘I’m a Princess’, and Bob Marley pictures plastered all over them.

    I’m also not completely sold on the ‘power of social media to empower women’ line either but Twitter has put me in touch with a great many more feminist bloggers in US and UK and India particularly. I wouldn’t have found them any other way.

    • Yeah, I agree Pip – I’m also not sold on the ‘power of social media to empower women’. I’m more interested in what might be possible for us to achieve in the flux of a media revolution the like of which was last seen 500 years ago … now our talk can go beyond its traditional circumscribed realm and we can talk to and connect with people all over the the world. I think it’s potentially pretty exciting.

  7. I agree that it has much to do with context. ‘Eskimo Nell’ was subversive when Tharunka published it. Today – given the highly conservatised yet explicitly sexualised yet gendered clime – it wouldn’t be so much. Same goes for commodified, heteronormative photos of people fornicating. I mean, we already accept that body image is constructed, so much of this acts as reinforcement.

    When it comes to culture, it’s about who is having sex, and how they are having it [think Hollywood vs your most recent experience].

    Bring on depictions of the polymorphous desires, I say.

  8. Yes, I agree that the Cotton On t-shirts were probably just tacky and also that Mamamia is not a site of progressive thinking about women.

    But what interests me about the Cotton On case is that conversations that would pre-social media have happened over the back fence, around the water cooler and possibly even on the streets, have courtesy of social media and the Mamamia blog found their way into a new public space and there gained some potency, to the extent that a corporation was forced to change its practice. Yes, perhaps the case is trivial in every way, except that it suggests to me that talk has a new agency in the world – and that gives me hope.

    • I do agree. There is definitely reason for hope, not least in the ability to connect more easily with other progressive thinkers. There is still a battle for space but perhaps it is a little less unequal.

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