If you’ve spent as much time as I have engaged in various internet feminisms—in Facebook groups, Tumblr communities, forums, Twitter cliques—you’ll know how idiosyncratic those spaces are and that they operate with different, autonomous rules of behaviour. Sometimes they are unspoken and at other times very explicit. Some LGBTIQ spaces, for instance, regularly talk directly to queer theory in relation to their own experiences. But many feminist spaces tend to value an individual’s lived experience over the theoretical for two important reasons: that academic jargon can be alienating and perceived as classist (as tertiary study comes with certain class privileges), and that theoretical ideas can be inappropriate when discussing private, personal and often painful real-life experiences, in particular when under the disingenuous guise of playing devil’s advocate. Likewise, theory shouldn’t be used for cheap point scoring in arguments (responding to criticism with ‘Foucault!’ or ‘Marx!’ is not an actual argument).
The occasional rejection of theory in favour of experience is not a bad thing. Elaine Graham wrote that the primacy of lived experience ‘requires a high degree of methodological sophistication… a preparedness to live with the “messiness” of existence’ and resists ‘universalising appeals to the human condition’. In bell hooks’ Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre, hooks wrote about the divide in the feminist movement between excessive intellectualism (by mostly white academic women) and anti-intellectualism. Too much of a focus on academic research by one group can fail to reflect the realities of all women, while a rejection of academic research ignores all that it can offer in ways of understanding and conceptualising structures and experience. If we’re not discussing theory in many activist communities, we’re certainly not discussing it in mainstream mass media.
Theory is generally preferred in small doses, preferably in entertaining, attractive packaging, and the mainstream media often turns to celebrities if and when feminism is brought up. This might be one of the reasons that we end up with popular feminist icons like Joss Whedon using his platform at the Make Equality Reality conference to talk about the etymology of the word ‘feminist’—an exercise that is as irrelevant to feminist practice as his argument was plainly wrong (Whedon objects to the word because he thinks the ‘ist’ suggests equality isn’t natural). We end up with accessible yet deeply problematic celebrity feminists like Caitlin Moran—notorious for her comments on race, privilege and victim blaming—held up as a feminist authority. hooks, who in the beginning of her career avoided the media for fear of having her words twisted, was concerned that ‘many theorists do not even intend their ideas to reach a mass public, and consequently we must take some responsibility for the superficial and perverted versions of feminist ideas that end up in the public imagination.’ hooks argues for theory to do away with the jargon, that ‘there will be no mass-based feminist movement as long as feminist ideas are understood only by a well-educated few.’ The trick is educating without diluting the message.
While theory is largely absent from mass media, it has developed a curious relationship with the internet. Blog-turned-book Feminist Ryan Gosling takes quotes from feminist texts and fits them into the popular Hey Girl meme model. The book doesn’t actually discuss the theories it references, so its appeal is largely confined to those already well versed in feminist theory. But it has also served as a novel starting point and, if nothing else, has given curious readers plenty to Google. Its startling success—and its recognisability, which arguably surpasses other ‘real’ feminist texts—demonstrates both a public appetite for feminism, but also how distant theory still is from mainstream audiences.
Hannah McCann, PhD student at ANU and gender studies tutor, might be more recogniseable from her Tumblr Binary This. McCann uses pop culture references to help explain theory to her students—for example, Judith Butler explained with cats, and Foucault explained with hipsters. I asked McCann what prompted her to take this approach. ‘Popular culture has a certain explanatory power: a set of tropes, symbols, and memes that most people are aware of and engage with on a daily basis,’ she says. ‘Using references from everyday life that people are familiar with and enjoy is a way to make dense, sometimes scary, theory seem more approachable—it can offer a “way in” to different ideas.’ McCann also believes in the pedagogical power of cats: ‘The general rule is that there is a cat picture to suit just about anything you are trying to express. Even people that don’t like cats enjoy it. I think.’
In my own feminist practice, I consider theory as one of three equally important components. I studied some feminist literary theory and philosophy at university and urge anyone with a love of words to read Helene Cixous’ The Laugh of the Medusa or Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ experimental essay ‘For The Etruscans’ (apart from being notable texts, the commentary on women’s writing, and the writing itself, is stunning). The discussions that I have on forums, Twitter and in person form an invaluable second component, often serving to break down those complex things we read about, or through the sharing of information and each other’s experiences. The third is my own lived experience, what happens day to day—from the big events to the micro-aggressions. Each uniquely informs my understanding and is an invaluable resource.
When theory has so much to teach us, when it provides us with so many frameworks of thought and methods of engaging with the world, we are cheating ourselves by ignoring it, both in small scale and in the mainstream media. bell hooks was writing about this in the 80s but it seems we still need reminding: if we want hooks’ ‘mass-based feminist movement’, it requires a balance between theory and experience.