Session 6: From sisterhood to femmeship: transformations of feminist solidarity in a digital world

The future of femme solidarities: finding femmes online
Andi Schwartz

As with many contemporary subcultures, femme solidarities are frequently formed online. However, even when formed through digital means, these connections rarely exist solely in the digital realm; online femme connections frequently move offline — through the technologies of “snail mail”, phone calls, and in-person visits — creating multi-sited solidarities. The particular processes of forming many digital femme connections, I argue, are shaped by broader femme-inist values, translated through various technological affordances. 

In this paper, I draw from my dissertation research on femme internet culture to focus on the development of femmeships, or femme friendships, on Instagram. I understand “femme” as a queer identity marked by a critical engagement with femininity that manifests in one’s values and style. I understand “femmeships” as friendships that take the form of political alliances and communities of care. 

I share my findings from a six-month online ethnography of femmes on Instagram. To conduct my research, I created a researcher account and followed femmes using my existing knowledge of femmes, hashtag and keyword searches, and the snowball method. Through this study, I collected data on memes, selfies, and aesthetics, but here I focus on my findings on femme networks, or online friendships. Two key findings are the specifically femme modes of digital communication that my study revealed, as well as the striking interest in forming intergenerational bonds. 

Femmeships on Instagram are structured by a number of femme-inist principles including practicing consent, challenging misogyny, and the politicized support of other feminized folks. Consent practices are enacted through the giving and receiving of emotional support and compliments between femmes. Feminized folks, including women and femmes, are disproportionately expected to provide emotional support and are routinely valued on their physical appearance. One way femmes consciously combat these misogynist or sexist frameworks while still seeking to form connections or friendships is through asking for consent to “unload” or discuss personal problems, or asking if a compliment is welcome — especially as a posted comment. Further, some femmes spoke of making a deliberate effort to compliment things about their femme friends and follow lists that are not about physical appearance. But despite the feminist negotiation of emotional support and compliments, both emerge as primary ways that femmes form the connections they describe as important, sacred, and life-saving. 

My participants described Instagram as an accessible way to interact with other femmes. They said that online interactions and the ability to access another person’s backstory help to mitigate shyness as well as to avoid the re-traumatization of sharing difficult histories. It is well known that online connections transcend geographical space, enabling us to connect with others around the world. Femmes also used online tools to transcend time — connecting with queer folk of different generations. Two of my interviewees described a cherished friendship formed via Instagram with an older femme, and one of my interviewees described a cherished friendship formed via Instagram with a younger butch. The connections made between femmes on Instagram are characterized as more than just friends, often they are said to feel like family. The attachment to these intergenerational bonds reveals femmes’ desire for queer lineage, one that differs from some descriptions of queer kinship. 

As the femmes I interviewed described their reverence for the femmeships borne on Instagram, it became clear that these affects and attachments are deeply politicized. Just as protests against misogyny and sexism structure the unique ways that femmes communicate with each other, they also structure the very attachment that femmes have to one another. In the context of femme competition and femmephobia that pits femmes against each other, objectifies them, and devalues them in broad strokes, developing communities of care between femmes is a political act. Overall, femmeships are the foundation of femme politics and the site of femme futures.

Digital feminism: performing sisterhood within the digital sphere
Favour Esinam Normeshie

The relationship between neoliberal values such as individualism and postfeminist sensibilities has  resulted in the claim that we now live in an era where feminism and sisterhood has lost their  relevance (Mendes, Ringrose and Keller, 2019). However, feminism has been increasingly popular  with the formation of new and diverse feminist communities whose politics are heightened through  their use of new media. For instance, through viral hashtags such as #BringBackOurGirls and  #MeToo, these communities have succeeded in highlighting the ongoing problem of violence  against girls and women. In September 2017, the Ghanaian Facebook sphere was dominated by a  group of women and their male allies who capitalized on two gender-related issues bothering on  the abuse of women within the Ghanaian context and succeeded in setting the agenda for a  nationwide discussion about gender norms. The group, known as the Pepper Dem Ministries, uses  participatory digital media to network, speak, and organize against sexism, misogyny, and rape  culture. While the terms ‘sisterhood’ and ‘solidarity’ may appear quaint and considered by some  as naïve due to the historical, political and philosophical contentions surrounding them within  certain contexts, social movement as well as feminist theorists and critics agree that to be  successful, a movement needs to have some form of bond (hooks, 2000). And in order to build  community and engage, the Pepper Dem Ministries must build solidarity with each other. This  paper thus aims to highlight the nature and performance of sisterhood within the digital sphere.  

Social Media, Social Movements and Sisterhood 
Contemporary research on the organization and activities of social movements have focused  largely on how these groups utilize social media platforms in recruiting members, sharing their  message, and remaining visible (Rush and Reynoso 2010). These studies suggest that because of  the interactive nature of Web 2.0, for the 21st century social movements, digital platforms such as  Facebook are essential tools which need to be harnessed and used carefully if they intend to make  any impact (Mundt, Ross and Burnett, 2018). Regardless of the suggestion that these digital  platforms afford social movements the opportunity to organize and recruit participants, other  studies (Youmans and York, 2012) established that certain policies (such as prohibitions on  anonymity) that govern these platforms derail efforts of social media movements to recruit and  retain members. Thus, the question of how these groups show solidarity to members as incentives  for retaining them is worthy of investigation. 

The concept of solidarity and sisterhood – important unifying forces in the women’s movement – has been used to mean different things in different times and places. In 1983, Bonnie Thornton  Dill defined the concept as a “… binding force against male chauvinism and patriarchy” (p. 131)  During a 1987 interview, Robin Morgan suggested that the concept referred to the manner in which  women worked together – suggesting that unlike men, whenever women worked together, there  was always an altruistic motive behind their actions. The various conceptualizations of the concept  have been reminiscent of the familial relationships, particularly the reproductive roles of women  and the commonalities of personal experiences. Thus, while women have been socialized to  believe that our very interactions with one another “diminish rather than enrich us” (bell hooks,  1984), the notion of sisterhood suggests otherwise. This explains why even in this age and time, it  is worthy to examine the ways in which the concept is performed. Can women’s work with each  other be considered more altruistic than that of men as contended by Robin Morgan? And if it is,  what are the things done by these women to ensure that they provide a safe space and support  system for each other?  

The Feminist Standpoint Theories  
From the early 2000s, feminist scholars including Sarah Harding and Dorothy Smith engaged in a  revolutionary conversation about the inclusion of women’s viewpoints, lived experiences and  situations in social science research. They argue that in order for social science research to be truly  reflective of the societies they claim to study, the voices of women ought to be included in the  studies conducted. Thus, instead of researchers assuming an ethnocentric stance and studying  women’s issues externally, these issues should be approached from the standpoint of those whom  it affects. Thus, instead of simply studying the Facebook posts and activities of members of the  Pepper Dem Ministries, I interviewed members of the group in order to gain an understanding of  how they perform and encourage solidarity and sisterhood among their members. Since feminist  movements are extraordinarily complex, vast, and multifaceted entities, this paper does not claim  to present an exhaustive or balanced coverage of the nature and enactment of sisterhood within the  digital space. Rather, based off the Pepper Dem Ministries approach to sisterhood, I draw  inspiration used in reframing and theorizing the concept within a post-colonial setting. 

The anachronism dilemma: feminist solutions between violence and advances in technology. GT: Digital technologies and old and new types of inequalities
Simone da Silva Ribeiro Gomes, Yasmin Curzi and Bruna Diniz

Some origins of the Brazilian feminist movement(s) can be traced in the 19th century, with struggles of Amazonian Women and southern women organized against slavery (SPM, 2010). In the mid 1970s, the movement gained from the experience of exile and return of women activists that started small discussion groups in their houses. Adding to that white middle class experience, popular, black and peripheral gatherings already occured in the country, discussing gender equality alongside urban and rural precarieties. In the 90s, feminist networks spreaded in Brazil amidst NGO discussions and group formations, it was an era of participatory experimentalism, that landed in the World Social Forum, in 2001. A specific legislation against gender violence was already demanded by social movements and democractic legislators since the 80s, but the “Lei Maria da Penha ” (Brazilian Federal Law Against Domestic Abuse 11,340/2006) only passed in 2006 (SPM, 2010). In 2015, “Lei do Feminicídio” (Brazilian Federal Law Against Femicide 13.104/2015) was also an important conquest of feminist collective action. 

The later shrinking of the Special Secretariat for Women Policies (SPM), responsible for proposing the Lei Maria da Penha suggest that these achievements are usually followed by a reaction against the policizing of feminist agenda. This same cylcle of feminist actions, is followed by the “adjustments” of allocated demands, before a “reaction” that narrows feminist achievments (BIROLI, 2018) might occur in the future of digital context, where social moviments also have to act outside institucionalized bodies so as to have their claims tanslated into principles (KLONICK, 2020). Within social platforms’ contexts, for instance, private institutions that until recently also lacked civic society presence in organs endowed with decision-making power can be now seen as policy makers, despite its legitimacy. Again, those environments are marked by a small presence of women (specially black women) designing and developing their architecture (WEF, 2019; PRETALAB, 2017) and functioning values, without taking into consideration the same oppression patterns or possibilities of abuse (such as the smart abuse through Iot devices) that are embedded within technologies. 

Our study aimed to examine the attempts to reduce domestic abuse in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic that are being discussed in the Brazilian Parliament and the ones that are being developed by civil organisations and enterprises. Analysing the motivations in the draft bills and pieces of news about the private initiatives around this matter, our goal is to compare them with what the feminist literature and social movements have been historically considering to be effective approaches to tackle domestic abuse.   

When analyzing, for example, the differences between apps designed by feminist movements that act outside companies’ structure aiming to address violence againt women, and those developed by big techs (i.e MAGALU, a growing brazilian e-commerce), it is clear how adjusments of demands are made to atend also companies values, that priotize data collection instead of mitigation of vigilance againt women. 

United in queerantine: Sex, safety, and solidarities on queer dating hookup apps during the COVID 19 pandemic
Chris Dietzel, David Myles and Stefanie Duguay

Dating/hook-up apps are important technologies for queer socializing, yet physical distancing  measures implemented by public health authorities have disrupted these apps’ operating  models. This paper examines the corporate responses of seven queer dating/hook-up apps  during initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic. It explores the strategies developed by these  apps to retain their queer publics and remain economically and socially relevant. Our initial  findings point to distinctions in the strategies implemented by queer apps versus their  mainstream counterparts. 

For three months, we conducted non-participant observation on queer apps (Grindr, Growlr,  HER, Hornet, Jack’d, Lex, and Scruff) as well as mainstream apps marketed to heterosexual publics (Ashley Madison, Bumble, Coffee Meets Bagel, Happn, Hinge, Match, OkCupid, Plenty  of Fish, and Tinder). We created user accounts on these apps and followed their social media  accounts and, in doing so, collected 2405 COVID-related app-materials (screenshots of in-app  messages and notifications, blog posts, Instagram posts and stories, and press releases) that  comprised the data of our research. Additionally, we used 188 newspaper and magazine articles  about dating during the pandemic (published in English, mostly from Australia, Canada, New  Zealand, the U.K., and the U.S.) to contextualize our findings. For our analysis, we borrowed  from the app walkthrough method, which aims to conduct a “detailed analysis of an app’s  intended purpose, embedded cultural meanings and implied ideal users and uses” (Light et al.,  2016, p. 881). This paper focuses on our findings from the seven queer apps, though we also  compare these findings to findings from the mainstream apps. 

Queer apps shared content and organized activities that were more politically and community  inclined than mainstream apps. HER and Lex offered numerous online events, shared political  statements on their social media accounts, and launched financial aid initiatives to support queer  women and businesses. Calls for unity and community were also prominent in apps like Grindr and Scruff, especially to protect the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQ+ communities who  may be street-involved, immunosuppressed, or in financially precarious situations. 

Queer apps actively engaged in caring for users’ physical and psychological health, sometimes  by adapting pre-existing features geared toward sexual health. For example, Hornet mobilised  health ambassadors (typically used for STI- and HIV-related social support) to answer COVID related questions. Grindr shared mental, sexual, and physical health resources and adapted its pre-existing HIV monitoring strategy to help inform individuals potentially infected by the  coronavirus. In these ways, apps that predominantly cater to queer men engaged more quickly  and actively in sexual and public health, arguably because of their experience in monitoring viral  transmissions within their user base. 

While mainstream apps also promoted discourses on risk and safety during the pandemic, queer  apps were more likely to eroticize bio-politicized subjects and circulate discourses arguing that  social distancing is sexy. All seven of the queer apps we studied attempted to make isolation  attractive and desirable by sharing erotic pictures of models and/or users who were making the  most of confinement. This strategy contrasted with mainstream apps whose messaging focused  on virtual dating and romantic courtship. Queer apps also acknowledged virtual hookups more  explicitly and in more sex-positive manners than mainstream apps, and they openly discussed sexting, pornography, online sex parties, and other means of digitally mediated sexual  expression. Grindr and Hornet shared memes about sexting during the pandemic, Lex  encouraged sending nudes to essential workers, and HER held events with a sex coach about  masturbation, sex toys, and self-love. 

Overall, queer apps engaged more often in sexual themes than mainstream apps. Queer apps,  and specifically those that predominantly target gay or queer men, actively promoted sexual and  public health strategies similar to those used to sensitize queer publics to the transmission of  HIV and STIs. Queer apps were vocal about socio-political issues and emphasized the  importance of equity, solidarity, and support in their messaging, for example, by encouraging  users to care for members of their ‘communities’ (a term often left open for interpretation). 

Our findings also suggest that dating app companies have been taking more active roles as  public health actors since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic may represent an  opportunity for app companies to harness health-related user data and develop new corporate  strategies to further monetize queer solidarities. In turn, this generates privacy and self determination issues for the LGBTQ+ communities. 

To conclude, as our research examines the corporate practices developed by app companies  during the COVID-19 pandemic, future research should investigate the experience of queer app  users to learn about the strategies they develop to manage their own safety, health, and privacy,  as well as to uncover to what extent (if at all) they engage in dating or hook-ups during the pandemic.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments