The Fragile Femme: social media politics


Graphic by Alejandro Gonzalez

Social media activism affects how we regard the true complexity of important issues.

Sometimes I go on Instagram and I feel like I’m drifting into the depths of some online teenage society that operates under tacit norms and, in recent years, overwhelmingly swarms with headlines, infographics and political opinions stuffed into the ten short boxes of the Instagram slideshow. Frequently, we reshare posts that call out racism in ordinary life, or perhaps stress the impending threat of climate change, criticize societal complacency towards rapists or delve into another issue that deserves the attention of our followers. On occasion, we might add a personal touch to these posts by writing “very important” or “please read” somewhere along the margins. This activism on social media reflects—and seems to be the prime manifestation of—our generation’s social awareness, which is particularly prevalent in a liberal place like Brookline.

I’ve clicked through these posts for over a year, and I’ve realized two things about the politically-minded culture we’ve embraced. First: somewhere along the way, the posts lost most of their power to induce any positive change. Now they seem performative, simplistic and perhaps even detrimental to our ability to think deeply about these serious issues. And the other thing I’ve noticed is that, generally, only feminine-identifying people contribute to the pervading progressive consciousness here.

In a similar sense, it was almost entirely girls who narrated the Day of Change a few weeks back, which prompted students to think about sexual harassment and toxic masculinity at the high school. It was almost entirely girls in my classes who affirmed the information SHARP offered or supported the ideas that they shared. One of my teachers was absent on that day, so my class was supposed to go to the auditorium and participate in the presentation from there. As I left the classroom, I heard a group of boys huddled in the corner. They decided to skip the presentation and hang out in the library instead since there was nobody who would be taking their attendance in the auditorium. They wouldn’t get in trouble for not being there, and so they instantly dismissed the entire day—dispelled it from their minds, and left to do more interesting things.

It seems to me that boys at the high school—specifically white boys—rarely speak out. They turn the other way, perhaps because they think that caring would make them look lame. If a high school boy does show interest in larger societal issues, it is striking. In the Day of Change videos, one high school boy spoke at length, and he lead a conversation about the causes and patterns of rape culture. I listened and I was immediately intrigued, because his empathy and his overt commitment to the issue felt so rare to me. The other male-identifying students who openly indicate these same qualities stand out among the never-ending expanse of “cool” boys at the high school. The typical boy doesn’t dare to betray any concern for anything involving social justice, because they’re confined to social pressures that curb their every move. Most stay silent, perhaps because in our society it’s too cringey, or too feminine, for white boys to involve themselves with issues beyond their own selves, or do anything that reveals genuine compassion.

At times, white boys at the high school might communicate some support for the Black Lives Matter movement, but more often than not these gestures feel superficial. Their involvement is meek and surface level, and mostly it seems to depend on how it reflects back onto their own identity and place within our social structures.

On the surface, the feminine population here seems so different, because at the high school, it’s so normal for girls to support liberal, and often even radical ideas. But in a way the prevalence of our stances are not really so different from the seeming indifference of the boys. We adopt the activism, not always because we’re genuinely passionate, but sometimes because we feel like we have to. Everybody around us is “speaking out,” and so we do the same. For girls, it almost becomes a necessary means to prove to your friends and to the people around you that you’re a good person.

Of course, we all want to prove that we are good people. But when opinions become a mold for validation, they lose their complexity. We follow the crowd, and we repeat phrases and general arguments, but in the pressure to conform, we often forget to think deeply about things ourselves.

We should all strive to understand the world beyond the narrow limits of simply knowing the “right opinion.” We should know, in a deeper, philosophical sense why the right opinion is right. Perhaps these realizations might come from confronting our own minds, rather than leaning into the familiarity of attention grabbing sentences that reappear on social media.

This issue of cookie-cutter activism is complicated, though, because whenever I see a white boy making fun of the girls who “think posting infographics will solve all the world’s problems,” I am immediately upset. They feel threatened by girls who speak out, and they disguise their ridicule of feminine voices behind some social critique, but of course, they’re not doing anything more themselves.

On either side of the gender spectrum, there are lingering expectations and unspoken rules that influence how we decide to present ourselves. In Brookline, the identity of activism has weaved its way into our complicated web of social interaction. Most of us usually adhere to the safest norm, and inevitably this conformity leads to hidden forms of complacency.