This paper considers the temporality of feminist protest in online media. To demonstrate how new media have altered traditional engagement, I look at how Planned Parenthood advocates engaged in democratic action through a Facebook photo album. Instead of dismissing virtual protest, I argue that a reconsideration of temporality can help us recognize the meaning and potency behind these types of actions, and frame the ways we conceive of political engagement in our contemporary mediated context.
“They aren’t willing to do the kind of grass-roots campaigning we did. All they want to do is sit at their computers and blog.” quoted in Susan Faludi’s “American Electra”
In her essay “American Electra,” Susan Faludi (2010) reflects on a division between younger and older feminists that she characterizes as “mother/daughter.” She cites the “mother” feminists’ disregard for the younger generation’s predilection for a “sexed-up ‘girly girl’ liberation” (p. 30). Younger feminists respond to this by insisting they are less inclined toward the traditionally recognizable collective action forms of protest, highlighting the importance of their subjective feminist experience, manifested in their bodies and their blogs. i Faludi interprets these tactics with skepticism, longing for the bygone era of visible, collective feminist action.
This generational fissure cracks through U.S. political culture more generally as young people shape their civic participation around online practices. Critics often lament the move toward mediated participation, claiming that it results in citizens who understand themselves as consumers of political culture rather than participants within it. Ironically, democratic themes of connectivity and interaction colored the early days of Internet culture with optimism for its political potential. Many imagined the communicative ease of networked technology would encourage democratic practice, providing spaces for citizens to gather with others to debate ideas, build coalitions, and strengthen connections among the members of their community. Through the expansion and intensification of global telecommunications networks, democratic ideals of access, inclusion, discussion, and participation seemed eminently realizable in ways that were never before possible. As Fred Turner (2006) writes, “talk of revolution filled the air. The ease of connection foretold a transformation of political practice” (p. 1).
Unfortunately, these initial hopes no longer characterize online political engagement, which many have dismissed as weak, shallow, or self-indulgent modes of participation. Among these critics is Evgneny Morozov (2009), who coined the term “slacktivism” in his essay “The Brave New World of Slacktivism” to describe what he perceives as “the ideal type of activism for a lazy generation” (para. 2). In that same work, he asks acridly, “[W]hy bother with sit-ins and the risk of arrest, police brutality, or torture if one can be as loud campaigning in the virtual space?” (para. 2). Once a space of possibility and revolution, the dream of an egalitarian, online democratic culture soon collided with the reality that connectivity itself is not enough to establish community. Instead, fostering a comfortable and egalitarian space for democratic debate is far more reliant on social efforts than technological advances.ii
A successful space of deliberation requires participants to adhere to tenants of civility, and to be willing to consider opposing arguments, and as a result reexamine one’s own position (Zarefsky 2010). However, anyone who has visited an online message forum to find vitriolic and contrarian comment streams, often sprinkled with racist and sexist contributions, realizes that these ideals are rarely met. As a result, although a lot of talk about politics happens online, many question how much of it is productive, or even political.
This debate about new media’s role in democracy was central to the coverage of the 2011 revolutions in Egypt and Libya where social media were used to organize and mobilize democratic protestors. In response to what journalists have termed the “twitter revolution,” critics have responded with the claim that social media do nothing new except provide easier circulation of messages. According to Paul D’Angelo (2011), in his guest article “A Revolution Has Not Been Televised”, the “real significance of social media in Egypt lies in the way that the message is fused with the medium. Thoughtful and powerful narratives are those that blend the role of tweets, Facebook pages, blogs, and YouTube videos with economic and political hardships of Egyptians” (para. 4). For D’Angelo, social media was simply a new medium through which citizens could share their stories as experiences. To credit Facebook with this revolution is to diminish these compelling testimonials, which he claims were the real force behind the activists’ energy.
Similarly, Malcolm Gladwell (2010) writes in The New Yorker that tools like Facebook and twitter are “built around weak ties,” and are useful for “managing” acquaintances and connections, but do not build the significant and tenacious relationships that are useful among cooperative activists. While he admits that Twitter and Facebook might be effective tools for organizing people and distributing information, he also asserts that these media are only effective when paired with traditional forms of protest, demonstration, and engagement.
Similar critiques have emerged in scholarly works as well, which tend to dismiss online efforts that do not manifest outside their virtual space. Furthermore, even those who celebrate the affordances new media provides to activists only consider action “successful” when online organizing results in traditional enactments of political participation such as public protests or demonstrations.iii What both critics and advocates of online democratic practice have in common is an adherence to the notion that political engagement is a teleological process, and that its success can be measured. Political media theorist Peter Dahlgren (2003) characterizes this discussion by noting that the critics dismiss the possibilities for online political engagement based on the claim that the Internet “has not helped mobilize more citizens to participate, nor has it altered the ways that politics gets done” (p. 154). For Dahlgren, the study of politics online requires scholars to recognize democracy as “precariously, at a new historical juncture,” one that will radically shift how people participate in politics (p. 154). Therefore, rather than measuring the efficacy of online efforts according to traditional modes of engagement, scholars must expand traditional definitions of participation in order to affirm a wide range of acts that can be considered political.
Locating novel forms of engagement requires a move away from a Habermasian model of deliberation, one that attempts to erase power difference by establishing ideal conditions for communication, and toward a search for moments online where average people articulate their own experiences in ways that critique larger systems of inequality and injustice. In doing so, these contributors are able to make claims not for their own benefit but on behalf of large groups of citizens. Social media provide a useful platform for this type of action because they allow people with similar concerns and interests to gather and engage with one another. While some may criticize this tendency as limiting because it does not promote diverse or varied discussion, I contend that spaces such as these are crucial because they help people understand their own experiences as products of larger forces and articulate their dissatisfaction in political terms by linking their claims to structures of inequality related to social dimensions such as class, race, and gender identity.
Furthermore, social media is a space in which individuals can develop the emotional connections to issues that motivate and sustain their energy and desire to participate in democratic life. Debora Gould (2009) contends that emotion is a fundamental element of political life, not as a counterpart to rational deliberation, “but in the sense that there is an affective dimension to the process and practices that make up the political” (p. 3). Echoing the feminist mantra that “the personal is political,” Gould describes emotion as a culturally informed practice that can be shaped in ways that motivate civic engagement. Therefore, more than simply looking to the spaces where individuals participate in explicitly political efforts online, it is crucial to attend to the more quotidian interactions that allow users to practice engaging other citizens, to recognize themselves as part of collectives, and to develop identities as public actors. For this reason, I argue that it is crucial for studies of digital culture not only to recognize the overt instances of political action as worthy of attention, but also to locate the ways individuals can develop an affective sense of citizenship. This enables a novel type of civic education that can help people recognize their individual commitments in terms of larger democratic practices.
A useful example for analyzing this phenomenon is the Planned Parenthood Facebook fan page. On Facebook, users can construct “fan” pages to pay homage to a celebrity or artist they admire, or simply to celebrate businesses and organizations they frequent as well as spread the word about political issues. Early in 2011, when government budget reform threatened the funding Planned Parenthood receives, a fan page titled “I Stand With Planned Parenthood” emerged on the social networking site. This page provided users with information about the organization and the debate, and also encouraged discussion and participation among members. A popular tactic for showing solidarity was the posting of self-portraits that identified users as supporters of the organization.
Critics like Morozov and Gladwell would describe this collection of Facebook users as a failed opportunity for civic engagement because the users did not gather in physical spaces. However, rather than dismissing an effort like this as simply a preliminary step toward “real” political action, it is imperative that we recognize the important consciousness-raising and group solidarity work that occurred within that fan page, especially on its photo stream. One way to observe novel tactics of online civic engagement is to situate ourselves outside of dominant modes of time that focus on linearity and futurity. A more productive perspective benefits from what I describe in this essay as a feminist view of time, one that accounts for cyclical structures of experience and the power of everyday routines. Through the lens of feminist time, online social spheres like Facebook become more than repositories of “mere talk.” By focusing on the ways discourses within Facebook shape the quotidian, lived experiences of users, we can begin to conceive of how political engagement can be a feature of everyday life. This mode of being is shaped and formed through the “weak ties” that expose citizens to one another, inviting them into semi-intimate spaces that model behaviors, attitudes, and logics for them in political terms. Although posting self-portraits on Facebook does not align with traditional definitions of protest, participation in the group represents a form of engagement that makes use of a feminist temporal sensibility.
Feminist Time and Political Action
A key component in recognizing political potential in online participation is shifting one’s expectations about and definitions of democratic engagement. One way to do so is to imagine civic participation outside of linear perspectives of time that favor models of collective work oriented toward a specific institutional goal. Whether that goal is the passing of legislation or introducing new services to needy communities, getting to it is often imagined as a linear endeavor, one that occurs in a special time and space that is removed from the realm of everyday. This definition not only ignores the varied ways citizens engage one another in navigating structures of inequality, it also excludes a number of people from ever being recognized as legitimate political actors. A feminist, anti-hegemonic conception of time can realign focus and pay due attention to the types of engagement that occur in the realm of the everyday. In this essay I draw from a variety of feminist perspectives of time and temporality in order to develop a notion of “feminist time,” a temporality that can better account for novel practices of online civic engagement by emphasizing cycles and the creative potential to be found in everyday actions.
I use the term feminist time to describe a temporal perspective of political engagement, one that recognizes that social transformation requires a variety of citizen action including performances of protest and resistance in public displays, as well as in quotidian interactions. This sentiment is drawn from Julia Kristeva’s (1981) foundational text “Women’s Time” wherein she describes linear temporality as “hegemonic time”; she notes that it positions advocacy work as a temporally discrete effort, which depicts feminism as a project of progress and development. An activism that emphasizes teleology and progress cannot take into account the ways individuals develop a feminist disposition that orients and structures the interactions of their daily lives. Instead, linear political movements require tangible goals in order to demarcate progress. While this effectively documents strides made in the realms of law and policy, it discounts the impact of interpersonal efforts made within civil society. Therefore, a non-hegemonic notion of time is important for focusing on interactions and relationships between people that perform the important work of transforming individual prejudices and beliefs. Only in a frame of dominant, linear time can Faludi’s “mother” feminists so confidently chastise blogging projects and individual enactments of feminism. When progress is measured by the adoption of new policy or legislation, it is hard to see how posting personal stories about street harassment to share with your followers is worthwhile. There is no question women today owe a debt of gratitude to those who have done and continue to do the type of feminist work that ensures their basic human rights. However, this does not need to be the only frame of reference for recognizing forms of civic participation, and these achievements should not blind us to the ways feminism can manifest in daily practices.
In the example of the Facebook Planned Parenthood fan page, users participated by uploading photos of themselves to show support for the organization. As the page gained popularity, particular tropes developed across the photos, uniting this collection of individual submissions with certain stylistic markers that communicated a cohesive message, even though each person was acting independently. In particular, most of the pictures uploaded featured women, although not exclusively, with the phrase “I stand with Planned Parenthood” written on small placards or directly onto their skin. One popular spot for inscription was the stomach, which several women bared before this wide and public audience. The sight of the exposed abdomens, within which women’s reproductive organs are housed, demanded that attention be paid to the vulnerability of a gendered body. With access to crucial women’s health services threatened, the segmented bodies ironically demanded that viewers recognize their wholeness. The offer of a bare body in this context incites the recognition of that body’s vulnerability when it is denied basic access to the healthcare Planned Parenthood provides. Examples such as these indicate that efforts to develop feminist dispositions and progressive perspectives produce effects that are difficult to trace, but should not be ignored or dismissed. Though Faludi’s “mother” feminists might balk at this segmented and arguably sexualized iteration of feminist action, it does indicate that even in the absence of a collective movement, individual feminists are still contributing to an effort of securing rights for women and shaping a more egalitarian world.
In order to recognize the value of spaces like the Facebook fan page it is useful to shift one’s temporal perspective and recognize that some efforts are directed toward fellow citizens, rather than lawmakers or representatives, and that these strategies often rely on repetition as a way of combating naturalized or ingrained sexism. Feminist time is a register that recognizes time as “implicated in every aspect of our lives and imbued with a multitude of meanings” (Adam 1990, p. 2). Feminist time recognizes that traditional forms of political participation are often unavailable to those with childcare responsibilities and working-class individuals whose time is ordered by their labor obligations. Significantly, Carol Greenhouse (1996) claims that “time articulates people’s understandings of agency,” so realizing how time is differently ordered and available for individuals is an especially relevant consideration for examining democratic participation (p. 1). Feminist time celebrates efforts that take advantage of small opportunities embedded within the cycles of everyday life, enabling us to recognize how people work around their material constraints.
Opposing hegemonic notions of linearity, feminist time acknowledges the usefulness of alternative ontological registers, such as Ann Kaplan’s (2008) “sisterly” mode of time. Avoiding the hierarchy of the mother/child distinction, sisterly time is one that “works horizontally rather than hierarchically or cyclically” (p. 59). This time is not task-oriented and is marked by a fluidity and freedom that allows one to “forget time while being creative” (Kaplan, p. 59). Sisterly time might be used to describe the temporal dimension inherit to a phone call between good friends. Because creativity emerges within the interactions between individuals, conversation can be considered a moment of shared world making, a joyful practice of connection that becomes so engaging that people temporarily “lose track” or move outside the pressures of time until an inadvertent glance at the clock inspires the phrase “look at the time!” The authority of the clock thus reasserts the demand to contain moments that escape time by refocusing attention to linearity.
Though Kaplan’s notion of creativity is nebulous, what she describes seems to avoid the particular pressure of what Diane Negra (2009) terms “post-feminist temporality,” a main feature of which is to define female life stages in terms of time panic (p. 47). Through her analysis of popular television and film, Negra observes that in a post-feminist culture, “women’s lives are…simultaneously ever more governed by notions of temporal propriety and conformity but also assessed in relation to women’s perceived abilities to defy time pressure and impact” (p. 50). In this context, the mastery of time is positioned as a strategy for reclaiming the self. In noting the vexing tendency of popular culture to act “as a zealous timekeeper for women,” Negra enumerates the various ways contemporary women are bound by temporal pressures, but are also doomed in their attempts to master time (p. 85).
Negra’s and Kaplan’s observations remind us that an orientation that does not privilege linearity or temporality can never imagine that time is “lost.” Instead, moments of reflection and creativity that move outside everyday practices and obligations are better understood as eluded. In the context of online democracy, this sentiment is important, especially for responding to the critiques that most online discussion does not result in offline collective action. In particular, critics like Jodi Dean (2010), who admonishes against “unproductive” endeavors like reading blogs or milling around a Facebook newsfeed, describe these technologies as mechanisms that “postpone our confrontation with drive,” ensuring that political change is always delayed while we instead content ourselves with mindless distraction (p. 93). On feminist time, however, Facebook allows for creative engagement through plural practices of imagination. Because the site allows users to maintain connections with both close friends and mere acquaintances, it provides an opportunity to escape time with more people simultaneously than a phone call. This is an exodus from a world ordered by deadlines, obligations, and the ticking clock. As Meghan Morris (2009) reflects, “in a day consumed by memos, reference-writing, refereeing tasks, managerial compliance chores and a never-ending stream of email, Faceboook is my bit of heaven, a haven of warmth, silly fun and friendliness” (p. 3). In Morris’s testimonial, Facebook is more than a space of mere distraction. For her and many other users, Facebook allows individuals momentary transcendence from labor into a temporality conducive to creative thought and invention.
A perspective of feminist time must take into account these moments of creative but not necessarily productive time, allowing individual spaces of reflection and thought without the ever impeding onus of an end goal. “Teleology,” Kaplan (2008) claims, “leads only to limits, to ends, to patriarchal time linked to an obsession with ‘progression,’ to capitalist greed and consumption” (p. 188). A feminist perspective of time encourages us to remove ourselves from a mindset that measures time as well or poorly spent. And it is with this critique that we can begin to recognize engagement as it exists in the online connections of civil society: a realm shaped by the cyclical time of the everyday.
Civil Society and the Everyday
A focus on quotidian action searches for political engagement in the realm of civil society. Theories of civil society importantly point out the ways in which practices inherent in everyday life can prepare citizens to enact traditionally recognizable forms of democratic practice. However, when considered from a non-linear perspective of temporality, a critic can see that these quotidian interactions have more than preparatory value. The discussions one has and connections one makes in civil society perform the important function of developing one’s political identity, discursively transforming individuals into citizens by showing them how to articulate particular claims into issues that speak to the needs of a group. Civil society, either online or offline, is not simply a space where people learn the protocols of engagement. It is also the starting point for cultivating attitudes that will eventually be employed persuasively toward political ends. To conceive of a feminist politics in these terms is to look at the ways in which interpersonal discourses shape public opinion within these interactions.
Hesford and Deidrick (2008) define feminism “as a project that acts on the present in order to enact a different future,” one that emerges through persistent evolution of individual perception (p. 5). In order to achieve particular goals, we must imagine a plurality of feminist practices, one that celebrates both “official” achievements like enactments of policy and legislation as well as “unofficial” accomplishments. Therefore, large-scale public protests cannot remain the only indication of political engagement. Nor can we readily dismiss the contemporary moment as one marked by disengagement and apathy simply because traditional or recognizable forms of protest no longer occur as commonly as they once did. Instead, it is important to expand our sites of investigation to what Hauser terms “vernacular” spaces, which include spaces online that do not manifest outside the virtual world.
A feminist perspective on time permits critics to recognize the value of online vernacular spaces. Rather than determining the efficacy of social media by tracking which online collectives transform into offline, public demonstrations, it is crucial to look at the ways participation in these spaces develops a civic disposition among users. While critics dismiss this aspect of political development, Rita Felski (2000) explains that there is a great deal of possibility in the realm of everyday cycles and habits. Thus, it is precisely because engagement on Facebook is not out of the ordinary that it has political potential. Felski describes the temporality of the everyday as phenomenological, a subjective experience of time on a day-to-day basis: “Everyday life simply is, indisputably: the essential, taken for granted continuum of mundane activities that frame our forays into more esoteric or exited worlds, nonnegotiable reality” (p. 77). A key feature of everyday time is its rootedness in cycles and repetition, which, according to Felski, is a factor in shaping identity. Repetition, she writes, “is one of the ways we organize the world, make sense of our environment, and stave off threat of chaos. It is a key factor in the gradual formation of identity and as a social process, we become who we are through acts of repetition” (p. 84). It is in this juncture that we need to consider the ways that Kaplan’s definition of sisterly time works into the practices of Facebook, allowing for moments of creativity to enter into the identity shaping iterations of everyday life.
Felski describes the everyday as “the process of being acclimatized to assumptions, behaviors and practices” (p. 95). Therefore, the experience of mediated civic discourse in this space is a productive model for imagining what democratic engagement can look like. While Facebook is hardly the only space for this type of discourse to emerge, it does provide unique tools to protestors and advocates who wish to engage performatively with large audiences and with the possibility of wide circulation. This particular effect is achieved mostly through Facebook’s news feed feature, a ticking update of posts made by a user’s various connections. In this space one can read status updates, post links to news articles and other content, or post personal photographs. Though to many the feature adds an uneasy sense of surveillance to otherwise friendly, online engagement, E. J. Westlake (2008) suggests that the news feed is an important tool for youth who use Facebook “to define the boundaries of normative behavior through unique performances of an online self” (p. 23). Westlake points to the several ways people model political dispositions for others, claiming online performances of self are “energetic engagements with the panoptic gaze: as people offer themselves up for surveillance, they establish and reinforce social norms, but also resist being fixed as rigid, unchanging subjects” (p. 23). Taking advantage of surveillance seems to be a central strategy in the example of the Planned Parenthood fan page. This space not only worked as a corrective to misunderstandings of what the organization does, it also opened an opportunity for individual advocates to display their support and take part in a public, albeit virtual, demonstration.
Facebook as Political Space
Several critics are pessimistic about the possibility of new media revitalizing democratic culture, and instead describe social media as spaces of self-indulgence rather than civic-minded performance. For example, Jodi Dean (2010) questions whether or not we can truly identify online political talk as engagement, noting speedy interconnectivity can result in “communicative capitalism,” a term she coins to describe the transformation of online discourse from a precursor to action into a commodified artifact of capital (p. 4). Communication, in this theory, is performed for its own sake and not for the more noble, civic purposes it claims to be part of: “The problem, then, is that ubiquitous, personal media communication for its own sake, turn our activity into passivity” (Dean, p. 122).
For thinkers like Dean, online spaces will remain useless unless they transform discussants into collective actors who participate in traditional models of advocacy. This attitude makes sense within a linear temporal framework, but again does not take into account cycles and repetition. What Dean describes as a feedback loop of conversation can only be conceived of as a failure in a model of time that imagines progress toward a specific end. On the other hand, a mode of time that celebrates cycles and repetition realizes these discourses are not failures at all. Instead, Dean’s account actually models the process of transforming public opinion through textual and visual discourse. While changes in law and policy mark a movement’s official progress, transformation is still necessary on an interpersonal level. Official victories cannot fully combat the more insidious and embedded forms of prejudice people carry with them, and that sort of transformation must happen within the everyday realm of civil society. Therefore, instead of dismissing circular and seemingly aimless discourse, it is crucial to realize that these discussions have a critical role in shaping the ways that participants make sense of their world.
A related concern among critics is that political blogs and other online content merely serve as an echo chamber for mainstream news media, replicating the opinions and agenda of already elite political reporters. Kevin Wallsten’s (2005) study of political blogs found that the theory is correct in many instance, noting that blog topics often mirror those of popular news outlets, and that the amount of coverage an event receives in mainstream media frequently influences the attention it gets among writers online. The Planned Parenthood Facebook group seems to support this claim since it emerged at a moment during which the debate over funding received a great deal of attention from journalists. However, Wallsten notes that his data can only measure the “amount” of online discussion of a political topic, not the “character” of that discussion (p. 27). While the fan page did emerge in response to mainstream coverage of those debates, it was skeptical and critical of the ways Planned Parenthood was being depicted in these venues. The fan page responded by providing resources for people to find factual information about the organization. More than simply “getting the word out,” this data was a crucial corrective to the widespread ignorance about the services Planned Parenthood provides, evidenced for instance by Senator Jon Kyl’s false assertion that over 90% of the organization’s activity is abortions. Furthermore, a Fox News correspondent assured his viewers that most of the care services Planned Parenthood offers are available at Walgreens.
The fan page provided a space where people could gather and respond to the false claims that were permeating mainstream media, and thus performed an important preliminary step of shaping public opinion by simply correcting these misconceptions. This information not only provides citizens with a better idea of the organization’s function, it also fundamentally shapes the debate about providing funding for services like Planned Parenthood. If their primary function were administering abortions, the debate could simply fall along pro-life and pro-choice lines. However, correcting this misconception transformed this debate from a moralistic impasse to a conflict regarding public healthcare and class warfare.
The Planned Parenthood Facebook page refuted the inaccurate descriptions of the organization that permeated mainstream media at the time of the funding debate, and took advantage of this digital space to list the full range of services they offer and describe the people who benefit from those services. In doing so, the organization focused on the necessary healthcare it provided to women with low incomes, which allowed the page’s followers to rearticulate the conflict in terms of class and access to care. For scholars like Dean to dismiss practices like this as “mere talk” ignores the crucial role that discourse has in forming public opinion and shaping the debates that eventually decide issues of policy and legislation. If in fact we live in a nation where news corporations with television and online presence can frame social services with such glaring inaccuracy, there must be a place for citizen-produced discourse to combat the influence these figures have. While the average person lacks the means to respond in mainstream news outlets, she probably does have a way to make her opinion known in various venues online.
In addition to correcting the misrepresentations of Planned Parenthood, the organization’s Facebook page opened opportunities for average citizens to participate in the debate by showing their support for the organization. Facebook’s format is helpful in this regard because once a user becomes part of a group a link to that page is displayed on their profile and a notification is posted in the news feed, thereby alerting their friends and acquaintances of their affiliation. In addition, the page itself was a useful space for fans to demonstrate their support, primarily through contributing to the page’s photo album. Not entirely unlike traditional protest and advocacy work, members uploaded self portraits that pictured them with the works “I stand with Planned Parenthood” written on their skin, publically declaring their stance on the debate.
Unfortunately, while the photo stream serves as a useful example of how civic dispositions can be developed in online social media, it is no longer available for viewing. The page was deleted by Facebook administrators, likely due to the posting of several pornographic images of women engaging in anal sex, a favorite among internet trolls who captioned these images with the sentiment that they don’t need Planned Parenthood’s services because non-vaginal sex was their preferred form of birth control. While it might seem counterintuitive to analyze images that, for all intents and purposes, no longer exist, the deleted archive remains a salient feature of the Planned Parenthood debates because it likely remains in the memories of fans like myself who flipped through its photos, read through the comment streams, and were surprised by close-up shots of anal intercourse. Although this is another example in which the influence is difficult or impossible to trace, the ephemerality of this archive should not completely undermine its power. Instead, its fleetingness merely relocates its influence in perspectives that were shaped by the original content.
While analyzing these photos from recollection produces certain methodological anxieties, at the same time it establishes strategies for considering the role of memory and experience in establishing public opinion and a political disposition. I cannot promise the accuracy of each of these photo descriptions, but misremembering is a constant feature of information consumption and political life. The ways I remember the archive reveal the ways I was shaped by it. Ann Cvetcovich (2003) makes the important distinction of a queer archive that “leave[s] ephemeral and unusual traces” (p. 8). In writing on gay and lesbian archives, she notes the lack of institutional documentation, and claims that in the absence of tangible evidence, memory becomes a valuable historical resource offering alternative forms of knowledge. Memory, in this instance, does not belong privately to individuals who partook in the fan page, although they were abundant. Instead, memory works more publicly, and is performed through the stories fans can tell about the page, as well as the ways they were shaped by the messages held within. Moreover, Diana Taylor’s distinction between the archive, a set of written documentation, and the repertoire, which transmits information through embodied actions, points to the usefulness of analyzing something like a deleted photo stream. A refiguring of archive with attention to repertoire refuses the privileging of texts and narratives, but looks “to scenarios as meaning-making paradigms that structure social environment, behaviors, and potential outcomes” (Taylor 28). Therefore, the lasting effect of the archive continues in my writing about it and discussing it among those who may or may not have witnessed the photos firsthand.
What was shaped in this space, specifically, was a more productive orientation to the debate, one that refused to allow the conversation to resort to partisan impasses about abortion rights and instead refocused attention on women’s health and the need for affordable care. The enormous outpouring of support by users of various races, ages, and genders demanded recognition of the important role Planned Parenthood plays in communities. While there certainly were sophomorically articulated debates about abortion within the confines of the fan page, the participants were also motivated to portray the organization in all of its complexity. This was achieved mostly through the photos that individuals of all ages posted of themselves as marked supporters of the organization. These photos were important performances of identity that linked political policy with its manifestations in everyday life, thus providing users an understanding of the connection between the two. The Planned Parenthood archive continues in the memories of those who witnessed it, and links the world of politics with the world of embodied, quotidian life.
In the convention of linear time, these portraits can be dismissed as pre-political or simply a digital pastiche of the “real” efforts of protest that sprung up across the nation, preventing the funding ban from actually passing in the senate. However, from a feminist perspective of cyclical, creative time, we can see that these digital portraits are more than an ersatz version of offline protest. What the Planned Parenthood fan page provides users is a way to assert a particular perspective on public services, thus transforming conversations about policy and budget cutting into manifestations of trauma. The discourses on this site were more than just reactionary. They collectively establish a progressive perspective that demonstrates the necessity of public heath services to a democratic culture.
A number of people uploaded photos to the group, several of which displayed clever strategies of resistance that refute the charge of “slacktivism” cynics might apply to these efforts. For example, many mothers posted pictures of themselves with their children that included captions describing how happy they were that Planned Parenthood had given them the means to reproduce when they were emotionally and financially secure enough to raise children well. In a manner akin to Ms. Magazine’s “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” campaign, these mothers realized that including family style portraits in this photo stream denied Planned Parenthood’s opponents the opportunity of vilifying the organization’s clientele.
Other users attested to the realities of teen sexual practice and warned that lack of access to birth control will only lead to more problems. Additionally, some people just supported the organization without explicitly defining a motive. One humorous example is a photo of a homely college-aged man, surrounded by action figures and toy swords to mark his “nerd” identity. In his photo, he holds up a sign saying, “I stand with Planned Parenthood, even though I’ll probably never get laid.” This example is another display of creative and strategic performances of protest. The young man in this photo explicitly marks his identity as a nerd, and by extension an assumed lack of sexual prowess, in order to again transform the stereotypical depictions of individuals who see the need for organizations like Planned Parenthood. In his message he implies that it is unlikely he will be in need of STI screenings or abortion services. Nevertheless, he supports the cause because it is simply the right thing to do for the sake of those who will make use of these options. These photos were just two examples of a vast collection documenting the page’s many followers, and provided a creative way for people to easily engage in a moment of civic discourse. This space allowed for democratic debate among strangers who were linked to one another by the page, and served as a meeting place for civil society.
In constructing this archive from memory, only a few photos stand out as unique or memorable in my mind. One image in particular refutes Morozov’s claim that vulnerability and bodily danger only exists in traditional forms of protest. A young woman posted a picture of herself topless, wearing only a blue bra, with the protest’s slogan written in blue letters across the entirety of her abdomen. Unlike the lithe, tight tummies featured in other protest photos, this woman had ample curves and flesh that she offered for public viewing. Though she fit the conventions of the protest perfectly, posting the same sort of picture several others had uploaded, this woman faced an unusual amount of censure, mostly regarding the size and shape of her body. In the comment stream below the photo, abortion opponents were quick to dissolve serious debate into personal attacks on this “fat” woman, or to imply her moral character was somehow lacking because she appeared online without clothing, an abuse not as readily applied to thinner bodies. Several other members of the group came to her defense, saying her curves were sexy or congratulating her bravery in the protest. Yet, the harsh response and critiques she faced indicate that the virtual space is not one without hazard or threat of harm. There was a great deal at risk for this young woman, and her actions required the bravery of an advocate, even if she never had to leave her house.
Beyond the democratic principles of plurality and expression that mark this space, a trope of marked bodies emerged consistently throughout the hundreds of photos that were uploaded. Several users appeared with the slogan “I Stand With Planned Parenthood” written on their arms, fingers, and most popularly abdomens, bringing the flesh to bear on this debate. By marking and baring their bodies to the gaze of strangers, these users protested budget cuts by demonstrating the ways in which their existence and survival will be made vulnerable without the health services of Planned Parenthood. To see this event in terms of trauma is to see how bodies themselves are rendered helpless upon the removal of social benefit in capitalist culture. Eliminating funding for and access to basic health care needs like pelvic and breast exams renders low-income, female bodies vulnerable. Without this access, many women will not have the means to keep themselves healthy, and so this threat has material consequences for those affected. The repetitive nature of this trope intensified this message, visually implying the enormous impact that budget cuts will have on women’s health. A feminist temporal perspective refocuses debates centered on abortion to one about basic human needs and rights.
Taking sites like this Facebook group seriously is an important first step in recognizing the role that online social media can play in political life and culture. Rather than measure the efficacy of the Internet by traditional measures of political engagement, it is crucial to widen the definition of participation, and to give credit to actions that traditionally have been dismissed by theorists and commentators as preliminary or “pre”-political. While new media may certainly amplify traditional efforts of protest, like in the example of the 2011 revolutions in the Middle East, this is not the only function they serve. A feminist mode of temporality works as a productive lens that focuses scholars’ attention toward some of the subtler and novel ways these sites contribute to the shaping of culture. By taking seriously the slow, cyclical efforts that take place in the realm of the everyday, we can look for the ways that new media provide opportunities for citizens to productively engage one another, and to develop a civic disposition that orients them toward political action in their own lives. It is with these observations that we must begin to conceive of the changing shape of political discourse in contemporary political culture. With an orientation to feminist time, the debate about political action online takes a significant turn. The contest is no longer about relevance or legitimacy, but rather emphasizes the moments of political possibility in the realm of quotidian discourses, and searches for moments of creativity in a world intensely ordered by routine.
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i Christina Scharff explains this resistance to collective feminist action as a condition of neoliberal subjectivity in which people derive confidence and worth from independently addressing the problems they encounter. For more on contemporary resistance to collective feminist efforts, see Scharff, 1-26.
ii See Foster for an analysis of the communicative capabilities necessary to foster community through online connectivity.
iii There are numerous examples of this tendency across media scholarship, but a few notable examples are listed below. In his piece “Classifying Forms of Online Activism: The Case of Cyberprotests Against the World Bank” Sandor Vegh’s critiques the efficacy “hactivism,” explaining it is too often perceived as a crime or breech of security rather than a creative form of dissent. It is significant that Vegh positions these online activities as somehow more vulnerable to public misunderstanding than actions taken in embodied public display, which ignores the fact that activists efforts are often controversial or risky. Inherent in this distinction is the attachment to the idea that protests that take place entirely online are somehow less substantive than those performed in actual space. This attitude echoed, in “Comparing Collective Identity in Online and Offline Feminist Activists” by Michael Ayers. Ayers compares two feminist activist groups, one that meets in person and another that gathers online. He comes to the conclusion that online collectivities do not develop in the same way that organization do in shared, embodied space, and therefore are less politically effective. Ayers bases his conclusion on the fact that the online group’s discourse often revolved around meeting other activists for sex, while he considered the work done in the other spaces more substantial. In making this distinction, Ayers dismisses the personal dimension of political coalition building, which sometimes may involve intimate relationships between member. While the political efficacy of hooking up is certainly debatable, the ease with which Ayers dismisses it is indicative of the fact that traditional distinctions between what does and does not count as participation still color contemporary analyses of online engagement.
Inherent in the attachment to established modes of democratic action is the privileging of offline action to efforts that take place online. One example is Maria Bakerdjieva’s “Reconfiguring the Mediopolis,” which tracks the ways that various online platforms were employed by environmental activists to organize demonstrations in the streets of Bulgaria. These attempts were successful at getting mainstream media coverage and attention from parliament. Bakardjieva credits the affordances of social media with part of the success of these activists, claiming this to be the first example of bloggers demonstrating their ability to act as agenda setters and influence the public discourse around a social issue. Therefore, even in instances of success, online connectivity is positioned as a pre-political effort that simply leads up to “real” action.