Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars
In a revolution-eats-its-own irony, some online feminists have even deemed the word “vagina” problematic. In January, the actress and activist Martha Plimpton tweeted about a benefit for Texas abortion funds called “A Night of a Thousand Vaginas,” sponsored by A Is For, a reproductive rights organization she’s involved with. Plimpton was surprised when some offended Internet feminists urged people to stay away, arguing that emphasizing “vaginas” hurts trans men who don’t want their reproductive organs coded as female. “Given the constant genital policing, you can’t expect trans folks to feel included by an event title focused on a policed, binary genital,” tweeted @DrJaneChi, an abortion and transgender health provider. (She mentioned “internal genitals” as an alternative.) When Plimpton insisted that she would continue to say “vagina,” her feed filled up with indignation. “So you’re really committed to doubling down on using a term that you’ve been told many times is exclusionary & harmful?” asked one self-described intersectional feminist blogger.
Plimpton takes intersectionality seriously—A Is For is hosting a series of discussions on the subject this year—but she was flummoxed by this purist, arcane form. “I’m not going to stop using the word ‘vagina’ for anybody, whether it’s Glenn Beck or Mike Huckabee or somebody on Twitter who feels it creates a dysphoric response,” she tells me. “I can’t do that and still advocate for reproductive freedom. It’s just not a realistic thing to expect.”
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Mikki Kendall is unmoved by complaints about the repressive climate online. An Army veteran, graduate student and married mother of two in Chicago, Kendall is both famous and feared in Internet feminist circles. Mother Jones declared her one of the “13 Badass Women of 2013”—along with Wendy Davis and Malala Yousafzai—for her creation of the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag. But as Kendall well knows, many consider her a bully, though few want to say so out loud. “I kind of have a reputation for being mean,” she says.
On the phone, Kendall isn’t mean. She seems warm and engaging, but also obsessed—she talks at length about slights made in the comment threads of blogs more than five years ago. As she sees it, feminist elites have been snubbing women with less power for years, and now that their power is being challenged, they’re crying foul. Their complaints, she argues, are yet another assertion of privilege, since they’re unmindful of how much more flak Kendall and her friends take.
“If you look at the mentions for me, for @BlackAmazon, for @FeministaJones, for a lot of other black feminists, it’s hard for us to see this other stuff as bullying, I’ll be honest with you,” she says. “Because we are getting so much more than ‘I don’t like your article.’ And we’re getting it all day. I had someone who spent four hours last week dumping porn images into my mentions. I’ve had people send me pictures of lynchings. So then when somebody says, ‘Oh, this article is terrible,’ and a bunch of people talk about how terrible an article was, and you say that’s bullying—I’m going to side-eye your definition of bullying.”
The problem, as she sees it, lies in mainstream white feminists’ expectations of how they deserve to be treated. “Feminism has a mammy problem, and mammy doesn’t live here anymore,” Kendall says. “I know The Help told you you was smart, you was important, you was special. The Help lied. You’re going to have to deal with anger, you’re going to have to deal with hurt.” And if it all gets to be too much? “Self-care comes into this. Sometimes you have to close the Internet.”
Few people are doing that, but they are disengaging from online feminism. Holmes, who left Jezebel in 2010 and is now a columnist for The New York Times Book Review, says she would never start a women’s website today. “Hell, no,” she says. The women’s blogosphere “feels like a much more insular, protective, brittle environment than it did before. It’s really depressing,” she adds. “It makes me think I got out at the right time.”
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