#girlpower: Putting Online Feminism on Stage

As she curls her eyelashes, Eliza McLamb educates her 326,000 TikTok followers about the concept of the girlboss: “I think so many people buy into this idea of empowerment,” she says, “which is marketed so heavily to women because it keeps us tied to the capitalist system.” This is TikTok feminism—in 60 seconds or less, content creators share academic-ish theory while putting on makeup or lounging in bed, all of it tinged with knowing irony. McLamb’s page alone contains style tips, book club suggestions, and snippets of her original songs; she trusts that her viewers will follow along when she casually mentions concepts like “patriarchy” and “deprogramming.”

Since TikTok took off in 2019, this kind of sardonic online feminism has caught fire. One viral trend saw girls dancing to voicemails from their ex-boyfriends; the clips were meant to make viewers laugh, but they also took seriously the harm that occurs in toxic relationships. Another batch of videos, scored to the spoken-word piece “Be A Lady, They Said,” featured young women trying on baggy sweatshirts and stiletto heels as they struggled to conform to contradictory beauty standards. There are podcasts and Instagram accounts galore, and some websites—like Girl Up and FearlesslyGirl—even offer online “starter packs” for young people hoping to start feminist groups in their schools.

As a result, a wide variety of feminist ideas are now broadly accessible to teens. There are feminism clubs at high schools in West Orange, New Jersey, in Bluffton, South Carolina—and in the one-stoplight town featured in Kimberly Belflower’s John Proctor is the Villain. Taking a page from the influencers they’ve seen online, characters Beth, Nell, and their friends use humor and pop culture as a way into thornier issues of gender equality. Beyond informing them, the internet also endows the high schoolers of John Proctor is the Villain with a new sense of agency. When the school threatens to ban their club, Nell wants to “go to BuzzFeed or something, make this ish go viral” and her friend Ivy is ready with the perfect clickbait headline.

As the teenagers of John Proctor is the Villain understand, this kind of social media feminism is inherently participatory. That has some cons: a lot more teenagers are probably quoting bell hooks on Instagram than reading her work. But this interactivity also leaves room for critique, contradiction, and collective growth. Open any Twitter feminist’s comments section and you’ll find hundreds of young people challenging these content creators to make their feminism more inclusive of trans and non-binary folks. And while the vast majority of TikTok influencers are white (due in part to the app’s algorithm, which has disproportionately censored BIPOC creatives), women of color have pioneered more expansive online platforms: the website Therapy for Black Girls, for example, features a podcast, a blog, and a portal to help young Black women connect with therapists.

Such websites are especially important now: in the past 18 months, teens have become even more reliant on the internet for their burgeoning feminist knowledge and practice. And in a testament to these young people’s seriousness, many women’s empowerment groups managed to persist via Zoom. As Sari Beth Rosenberg wrote for the American Federation of Teachers’ newsletter, even in the depths of the pandemic, the members of her club (The Feminist Eagles) could “not wait to meet on Fridays. Some weeks, we have just talked about celebrity crushes…but the other week, a student did a comprehensive history of the feminist movement and the importance of it staying intersectional.” Online feminism is messy and multi-faceted, but this teacher’s reflection encapsulates it at its best—the internet allows high schoolers across the US to be both silly and deeply serious, to ask difficult questions and to find an ever-growing body of answers.

Or in the words of John Proctor’s Beth: “we were gonna talk about the problematic way white feminism is monopolizing the mainstream body positivity movement which is really important and thank god for Lizzo but also she’s just one person and one person can’t be everything to everyone and I found a great article about it.”

—Francesca Sabel