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Why are trending topic #hashtags so sexist? Part 2

2011 February 3

In my previous post I gave some examples of standard sexist trending topic hashtag fare and examined some theories I have heard about why they’re so popular.  Here’s my two cents.

Hashstag drawing by Rakka - a silhouette of a stag made entirely from hash symbols

Hashstag, by Rakka

Twitter hashtags make conversations and exchanges that would previously have been invisible to anyone not involved in them available to everyone. You can stick your head out of your own online bubble and peer into someone else’s. If you listen in to a conversation on a bus or in a bar you’ll often get a similar effect, and if you ever share a train carriage with a stag party you may well overhear some of the same sentiments.

There are a lot of possibilities and interesting conversations growing out of this (here’s a good Mashable post about cross-cultural conversations) but it can be uncomfortable having a front row seat for the social reproduction of gender stereotypes in real time.

Tweeting gender

[Apologies to any gender theorists out there for this next bit, in which I will be oversimplifying some complex ideas.]

[Oh and just to be clear, when I’m talking about men and women I don’t mean all men or all women, and I know those categories are far more fluid than our friends the hashtaggers would like to admit.]

Part of the Great Promise of the internet was that in the gap between your avatar and your fingertips on the keyboard all kinds of subversive genderfuck fun was to be had. And it is being had (hooray!), but there’s a tangible disappointment in some areas that the web is used as much to police and reinforce gendered ideas of appropriate behaviour as it is to undermine them. Social networks, it turns out, are simply another arena in which to enact and consolidate gender identity. Like the bus, like the pub.

And a big part of successfully Being A Man or Being A Woman is policing the behaviour of others. By laying down the rules you’re letting everyone know you understand them. In fact you’re an expert. By calling out someone else on their inappropriate behaviour (for example, women that are ‘loud’ – how unfeminine!) you’re picking up gender points for yourself. And appropriate gender behaviour points win prizes!

You can see this in action in the huge numbers of women participating in sexist hashtags and imparting helpful advice to their own gender:

#rulesforgirls stoppp being so easyyyy!

#ihatefemaleswho act like they in to sports

#agoodwoman sucks her mans dick w|. out no hesitation lOl.

#agoodwoman aims to please

Thanks for that. Now I’m all set. In another recent hashtag, #youneedanewboyfriend, large numbers of male and female Twitter users took the opportunity to remind everyone that male femininity = gay! Which as we all know = very bad indeed:

your man has more clothes with different shades of pink than you.#youneedanewboyfriend

If your man turns down sex from you, #youneedanewboyfriend

#youneedanewboyfriend If he knows all the words to every @ladygaga song out there #notnormal

It’s not just about putting women in their place, it’s about keeping men in line as well. If you can do both that makes you the Manliest Man of all, and king of all you survey. The tweets I quoted in the first post are part of this process. On the one hand encouraging traditionally feminine behaviours, and on the other boosting the masculinity points of the men tweeting, and asserting their dominance and entitlement (consider yourself lucky if you missed #itaintrape – that one was Not Nice).

What I think is happening here is that a large number of people are using a new medium to do exactly what an even larger number of people have already been doing for centuries, millennia, even. What’s different is that the isolated conversations are being collected and shared on a global platform.

What now?

"You are what you tweet" doodle by neabate A ticket with red felt tip doodle with block letters reading "you are what you tweet".

"You are what you tweet" doodle by neabat

The flagrant misogyny of most of these trending topic hashtag tweets makes me furiously angry. But I don’t find them shocking. I think Germaine Greer is wrong on lots of things but right on this one: “Women have very little idea of how much men hate them.” Well, now we have a handy index in our Twitter sidebar. The scale of the problem is intimidating, I agree, but being shocked isn’t going to help.

The good news is we don’t need to start a cultural revolution from scratch. There’s some excellent work already going on: for example, Womankind and PinkStinks are challenging misogyny and sexist attitudes among young people (who seem like the obvious group to start with, to my mind).

There are also lots of truly wonderful online projects that are trying to break down some of these poisonous stereotypes and ideas. BadRep is one, of course ;-) .  But another of my favourites is Genderfork – follow them on Twitter for the perfect antidote to all this #rulesforgirls/boys crap.

What else can we do? Mocking the hashtags is fun. Hijacking them is fun too. It might not overthrow the sexist idiot regime, but if it makes just one person stop and think then it’s surely worth it. Another blogger on the topic of hashtags suggested getting some feminist hashtags circulating. Suggestions included #feminist and #ilovemybody. That’d be nice for other feminists, but I can’t see how they’d have very wide appeal, particularly because they don’t invite people to personalise them.

So I’m going to end with a challenge: can we come up with a funny, pro-feminist / genderfuck hashtag people might actually use?

25 Responses leave one →
  1. Sarah J permalink*
    February 3, 2011

    Apparently #iamafeministbecause was running a while back – thanks @BookElfLeeds and @Sianushka!

    I like it because it’s positive, and someone clicking through might be surprised at the reasons people give. (i.e. “What? You’re not a feminist because you’re a humourless harpy who likes to eat children? Whoa.”) But what I’d really like to find is something funny… Basically my goal is to trick people into thinking about gender :-)


    • Russell permalink
      February 3, 2011

      The problem you’ll have is with any of them that might “trick” someone into thinking about things the way we want them to they can quickly be hijacked into something else. One that springs to mind might be #girlsliketo , but as much as it’d start out with you and me and everyone else on BadRep saying things like “#girlslike to be respected” or “#girlsliketo do most of the things guys do, actually” it wouldn’t be long before it degenerated into “#girlsliketo cheat so watch out” (I self-censored from my original suggestion!) and things like that. I’m not sure how you could create a tag that would attract attention and be used in the way that you want it to. I mean, thinking about it that is part of the problem with hashtags in the first place, as you discussed.

  2. Russell permalink
    February 3, 2011

    I would just like to call you on your use of the Greer quote. I expect some sort of enormous discussion on the pros and cons of Germaine Greer will happen around here someday, and I’m less than qualified to get into that, so I’m not going to get into that too much but rather discuss the specific quotation you used and how wrong I feel it is. I acknowledge that you said in the first part of the article that you were going to generalise and I understand that, it’s fine and sometimes necessary, but I’m concerned that you think it’s “right” that men hate women so intensely and that women have no idea how much. I think that the past century has given both men and women slightly more pause for thought than they ever had in the past about gender, but it’s also true that the issue is often deliberately overlooked, dismissed and derided. However, what you highlight in your article appears to me, first and foremost, to be a lack of understanding and education.

    People hate what they don’t understand and society, both male and female, perpetuates the lie that men do not and cannot understand women, and to an extent vice versa. What we see in the hashtags is not a signifier of a universal and perpetual “hatred” directed towards women from men but rather the effect of a societal notion that the two genders are separate, unequal and cannot be reconciled. I suspect that if you were to survey a wide and varied segment of the male population you would come up with as many who have at very least “equalist” views as are openly sexist. I think that the fact that historically, feminists have not really engaged with men regarding gender issues, has led to a discrepancy in terms of a lack of understanding of what women really “are” to the male population. The answers may seem obvious to you and I but in a society where the average male is taught that girls are less capable and he is supposed to be the strong provider type, that average male is inevitably going to show some less educated views. The views expressed by those on Twitter are extreme, but I still feel they come from that same lack of education, understanding, and engagement.

    I don’t think that comments like the one you quoted from Germaine Greer are helpful in resolving these issues and moving towards a more equal society as they necessarily keep men entirely out of the discussion, which I feel is reductive towards getting men to see women as equals. If men are told that they “hate” women, they will continue to view feminism in it’s stereotypical emasculatory form, regard it as a women’s issue that has no benefit to them, and dismiss it accordingly. I think you need to engage rather than assume that women are hated by men and that sexism springs from this hatred. The quote does have a slightly charming ambiguity to it but I still feel it’s ultimately reductive.

    • Sarah J permalink*
      February 3, 2011

      It’s been a LONG TIME since I read the Female Eunuch but I think Greer is talking about the prevalence of misogyny in culture and society rather than the hatred of individual men (though obviously the two flow into each other) That’s certainly what I mean by it even if I’m quoting her wrongly. Has anyone read it more recently?

      The reason I brought it in here is because I see a lot of these tweets as evidence of the misogyny in Western culture and society, and the fact that so many people – including feminists – are surprised or shocked by them as evidence that lots of people are still unaware of the extent of that misogyny.

      That’s not the same as saying misogyny is “universal and perpetual”, and that isn’t what Greer was saying either.

      I really really recommend reading Misogynies by Joan Smith. She does a great job of showing how insidious and deeply ingrained misogyny is in culture and society, using a huge range of examples:

  3. Pet Jeffery permalink
    February 3, 2011

    It might attract more attention if it begins with “sex”… we all know that sex sells. Perhaps:


    • Sarah J permalink*
      February 3, 2011

      Sadly I think you could be right ;-)

      • Pet Jeffery permalink
        February 3, 2011

        On second thoughts, it’s probably best to avoid the word “sucks”. ;-)

  4. Sarah J permalink*
    February 3, 2011

    Well, quite. I suspect it may be an impossible task ;-)

    What I’m thinking of atm is whether there’s some way of making not being a stereotype into something cool and rebellious? Like ‘don’t make rules for me’. Hm…

  5. Pet Jeffery permalink
    February 3, 2011

    I just clicked on a hashtag for the first time (#girls_c_fes). It’s all in Japanese!

  6. February 3, 2011

    How about something that unites the genders rather than divides. Then even if morons say stupid things they’d still be saying them about everyone at least?


    • Sarah J permalink*
      February 3, 2011

      That’s an interesting idea, stressing the common ground for a change.

      But then there’s no opportunity to pick up gender points and win those social approval prizes! Now I’m trying to figure out what’s cooler than being appropriate…

      • Russell permalink
        February 3, 2011

        During my English classes at Sixth Form, it was pointed out that women are encouraged to stay on the “straight and narrow” and avoid “leaving the path” (this was in reference to Angela Carter), while men are allowed more leeway and encouraged to be a little bit rebellious and break rules. There must be some way to play off this to get what we want, surely?

        • Sarah J permalink*
          February 3, 2011

          Yay Angela Carter! I heart ‘er *falls about laughing*


          Do you mean something to try and get people to see the double standards for men’s and women’s behaviour? That might have legs – it does get pretty absurd!

          • Russell permalink
            February 3, 2011

            #imnotallowedto might work for it. You could use secondary tags of #becauseimagirl and #becauseimaboy to make the gender thing apparent.

            Honestly, I think the most disturbing hashtag I saw of all the ones you posted, nasty as they were, was #itsnotnormal . I hate that word, “normal”, like you wouldn’t believe. It’s the word that makes everything crap for everyone everywhere all the time. It prevents milkshake from being available in flavours other than chocolate, strawberry or banana, and which causes people to get lynched. It literally ruins everything. Sorry, tangent.

          • Miranda permalink*
            February 3, 2011

            Hmmm. While I think all of our suggestions are obviously open to sarky hijacking and hand-wringing, because that’s the nature of Twitter, I’ve heard “I’m not allowed to” as a direct phrase from antifeminist spouters just a leetle bit too often. “Apparently I’m not ALLOWED to have a joke anymore …” etc.

          • Miranda permalink*
            February 3, 2011

            It only works sarcastically, but my brain keeps forming sarky tweets under #whatsexism in the light of #whatstigma. #whatstigma was meant to be taken straight, obviously, or in defiance of the stigma, whereas a friend deadpanned “Have just discovered what my mother’s male colleagues usually earn. #WHATSEXISM D:”

          • Russell permalink
            February 3, 2011

            Miranda – maybe that’s why it might work, we’d be subverting an anti-feminist trope. Ha!

  7. February 3, 2011

    1) Awesome post, awesome comments.
    2) @BookElfLeeds rules! She is very cool IRL also.
    3) Although I enjoyed #imafeministbecause, I didn’t participate in the hashtag. Not because I’m not, but because I didn’t know what I could say in the remaining characters that could sum up all the injustices, prejudices, loves, wonderfulness etc that comes with being a feminist.

    I think a hashtag must allow people the opportunity to personalise it, as you say, but it also must be short and flexible enough to permit lots of different interpretations, like those using it deadpan (like Miranda’s friend) or someone using it in earnest. Also agree that it should be gender flexible like Brave Sir Robin said.

    Hacking into another hashtag could be combined: like having #thereisno #normal or #whodwanttobe #normal or #sexism #itsnotnormal

    Or you could have #itshouldntbenormal so sort of bouncing off the original?

    I’m so glad I found out where the hash key is on my Apple keyboard.

  8. Helen permalink
    February 4, 2011

    What about #areweequals? which links to a big coalition campaign about to kick off in March. People can share things they are thinking or have seen and means guys can use it too.

    ‘I changed my outfit today because I knew I’d have to walk past that building site and just can’t be bothered with the comments #areweequals?’

    • Miranda permalink*
      February 4, 2011

      I like that one – keeps it political by phrasing it as a question.

      • Russell permalink
        February 4, 2011

        My problem with that (maybe it’s irrelevant) is that people generally have a very poor understanding of what “equals” means. It’s often taken to mean “the same as” but when applied in a social context it doesn’t mean that at all. I am equal to my friend Jim, but whereas I work and he doesn’t, he owns a PS3 and I don’t, he likes eggs and I don’t, we are not the same. The example Helen gives suggests an inequality, but the Monty Python “what if you respect his right to have babies” thing doesn’t necessarily; different characteristics shouldn’t necessarily imply inequality.

        I am willing to accept the possibility that I may be talking nonsense and failing to contribute.

      • February 4, 2011

        Agreed, #areweequals? is ace. Also can be used effectively for sex-politics and race-politics action. Jolly good show!

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