A term that gets thrown about in certain internet spheres a lot is ‘Tumblr Feminism’. Tumblr Feminism can be a lot of things, but it mostly refers to a very un-intersectional and overly simplistic approach to feminism.
It also is, funnily, the place and time that all of your favourite internet feminists in their mid 20s to late 30s had their feminist awakening.
Tumblr Feminism is Flower Crown Feminism. It’s Harry Potter Feminism. It’s 2 dimensional and well intentioned, but misguided. And it is having serious long term effects on feminist discourse today.
We can’t fully understand where we as a society are at with feminism without understanding how our most prominent media voices came to form their opinions.
So as somebody who lived through Tumblr Feminism from 2008 to 2014, let me explain.
But first, we must go back. All the way back to the late 19th century.
What Are The Feminist Waves?
Feminism generally tends to come in what we refer to as ‘Waves’. A Wave is simple way to group a period of ideas together within a time frame. When people talk about “X Wave Feminism” they are usually talking about a striped down version of struggle, and the most the most prominent issues from the loudest voices of the era. The “Feminist Waves” do not take into account marginalized people or voices, such as working class, queer, disabled, Black feminists or feminists of color, or any other intersections outside of “white and wealthy”.
What Is Fourth Wave Feminism?
We’re currently in a period called Fourth Wave Feminism, that specifically looks at female empowerment in an ever increasingly connected world. Fourth Wave Feminism is concerned with dismantling the structures of oppression in a way that previous waves never fully embraced.
Fourth Wave Feminism contends with how technology can be used as a tool of empowerment, organization, and oppression. It also, notably, does not focus exclusively on the Western world — with feminist movements across the globe being heard and celebrated more clearly.
So far, 4 WF has brought us #MeToo, Free the Nipple, Slut Walks, #BringBackOurGirls, and the Women’s Marches. It’s also brought us a lot of arguments on Twitter.
Within 4th WF there are various splinters including as Trans-exclusionary Radical Feminism (T.E.R.F.s), Radical Feminism, and Intersectional Feminism.
But sitting within Fourth Wave Feminism was a specific time period, on a specific platform that had a greater impact on ongoing feminist theory and conversations than any of us realized at the time.
I am, of course, referring to Tumblr Feminism.
How Did Tumblr Become Associated With Feminism?
Founded in 2007, microblogging site Tumblr quickly became a place for young (and older) people across the world to share their thoughts, art, fanfiction, and feminism. The best way to describe the Tumblr community is like a long form Twitter. You can follow your friends, post original content, search for shared interested via hashtag, and repost others content on your own timeline. The site presented itself as one gigantic never ending feed.
As a young teen, Tumblr was the first time I ever had the opportunity to see perspectives outside of my own community. People from across the world would write about their day, share anecdotes and photos of their experiences.
Every day, millions of young women would log on to their feed and experience a version of adolescence lived online.
There were the crushes, the anonymous questions that we’re mostly very mean, the cliques, the drama. Tumblr, for a lot of people, replaced substantial parts of offline teenagehood experiences.
But Tumblr also gave countless young women their first exposure to feminism. Posts about the lived female experience would gain thousands of reblogs and make their way onto your dash (short for dashboard) multiple times. And it’s not like we didn’t know it was hard to be a woman, many of us had already been catcalled by the age of 13.
It’s more that we’d never had the space to question that before.
Tumblr Feminism and Intersectionality
The problem with Tumblr Feminism, which only became apparent personally when I moved onto other sites such as Twitter and learnt more about intersectionality, was the narrow parameters that this feminism existed within.
Which shouldn’t be surprising when you consider the main pushers of the movement were literal teenage girls. We talked about feminism in ways it related to us. In school dress codes, in unrealistic beauty standards on TV, with the right to self expression.
But one thing with teenage girls, though, is we were very often very mean to each other. Especially if somebody said something that didn’t match our own world views at that time.
The other thing with teenage girls is that we had the ability to be incredibly and earnestly self absorbed.
Not a great environment for intersectionality to thrive.
Sitting in bedrooms across the world, we could log on and be exposed to different view points, theoretically. But realistically, Tumblr acted as an internet bubble, where people who lived lives similar to our own became the people we interacted with the most.
The internet, at this point, was still very small. in the late 2000s/ early 2010s we were still wary of using our full name online. Our parents maybe had an email. The President of the United States certainly wasn’t using the internet to inform his policies.
And when the internet is smaller, less conversations are happening. Less critical thinking is happening, because there are less people calling bullshit.
And when less critical thinking is happening, we aren’t putting as much energy as we owed ourselves into examining our own prejudices.
When a movement of feminism is insular, is cliquey, and is driven by hormones and angst it’s likely to miss the mark a lot of the time.
I absolutely do not mean to discredit any teenage girl, as many over the years have proved and continue to show incredible maturity, self awareness, empathy, understanding, and drive. But in general, young people (especially those new to the internet or experiencing other world views) can lack in the analytical skills needed to create an inclusive space.
Instead, they look for safe spaces in the existing world, projecting feminism onto anything they can touch. You’ve probably seen more than one mid 20s white woman talk about how “Hermione would have solved this”. But Hermione Granger is a fictional character in a children’s book written by a problematic author. Not the Hitchhikers Guide To Feminism.
And when you grow up challenging your world views through books that can’t argue back, you’re very unlikely to be challenging your world view at all.
In fact, you’re probably simplifying it.
Tumblr Feminism lacks the capacity for criticism and complexity. In a world where there is only a right and a wrong, the experiences in the margins are ignored. Tumblr Feminism also centres the feminism of celebrities above the actions of their effects.
When Elizabeth Warren launched her campaign for US Presidency, large parts of the internet compared her to Hermione Granger.
But comparing Warren, a real person, to Granger, a fictional protagonist, meant that there wasn’t room for serious conversation about her stance on Single-Payer Healthcare.
When Beyoncé performed in front of the word “feminist” during her Mrs Carter world tour, she was forced to defend her use of the word amongst its “complicated history”. She wasn’t asked to defend its use amongst her fashion line being produced in sweat shops, which exploit the labour of women and girls in developing countries.
Tumblr Feminism lacks an accountability. Voices of those with the largest platforms are boosted by the algorithm, and marginalized voices struggle to compete.
Tumblr Feminism achieved a lot of really great things too. It tuned a generation of incredibly online women into actively thinking about feminism as something that was ‘for them’. It gave social media natives the power to harness global action from the comfort of their own home.
But it would be unfair to explain what Tumblr Feminism is without acknowledging its faults.
Tumblr Feminism sits inside, but separate to Fourth Wave Feminism. 4th FW is about unlearning your unconscious biases, to think critically about what systemic discriminations may have led to you having the opinions you do. 4th WF is about intersectionality along all of the margins. Which is something that was never accomplished on Tumblr. Not fully.