It's likely too early to call this a "new age" of feminism, but it's undeniable that the phenomenon of social media, and its capacity to spread feminist activism, news, and protests, has become one of the main ways in which people encounter feminist ideology and specific examples of gender inequality. What used to be just an anecdote shared between friends can now go global in hours; from concern over body image discussions to outrage at sexist dress codes and injustice in sexual assault cases, activists and feminists can now turn on their laptop, make a post, and (if it catches the zeitgeist at the right moment) watch it soar.
Heralding this as a universally good thing isn't always wise, though. For one, it's flattening; we don't often engage deeply or at length with feminist viral "moments," even if we approve and retweet accordingly (and deal with trolls in the process). For another, it can feel like an onslaught, miniature moments of discrimination and anger that keep coming and don't seem to effect much change. The key way to look at viral feminist moments, it seems, is as incremental; if they cause rage, if they're seen as important enough to gain the national platform at all (even for a minute), if they build up momentum, then they're doing something. Awareness is change; conversation is change; yelling about things on social media can definitely be change.
Here are nine examples of feminist viral incidents in recent history that changed the conversation, created a precedent, and took no prisoners.
1. Carey Burgess
Viral social media is now an effective means of demonstrating protest and disbelief at sexist dress codes for girls and women across the country. Examples, unfortunately, are everywhere you look: Evette Reay of West Side High School's suspension in 2015 for a "too-short" dress, or a Texas schoolgirl being sent home in 2016 for wearing a long shirt and leggings. My personal favorite, though, is the excoriating letter written on Facebook by Beaufort High School senior Carey Burgess after being sent to in-school suspension for her outfit. Burgess's letter is a masterclass in deconstructing the issue, from the innate sexism of the dress code to its humiliating execution, and finishes with an epic mic-drop: "Maybe instead of worrying about my skirt, Beaumont High should take notice of its incompetent employees, and sexist leaders."
2. Lesley Miller
When a bikini selfie makes the Huffington Post, you know it's not the average airbrushed Instagram. In June this year, 21-year-old Lesley Miller, a student at Rice University, published a full-length bikini photo on Facebook with an accompanying autobiographical account of her lifelong feelings of discomfort and misery about her body, including Weight Watchers at seven, a lap band surgery at 11, self-harm at 15 and, finally, her first bikini at 21.
The decision, she said, was to let her friends and family (and, as the post gained momentum, worldwide audiences) "see it all. Weird bulges and rolls of fat. Hanging excess skin. Stretch marks, cellulite, surgical and self harm scars. Awkward protrusion on my abdomen from my lap band." It was seen as exceptionally powerful and deeply moving, and Miller told ABC that the message was that "we’re inherently valuable the way that we are now." Awareness of the pressure on female bodies and female value as "attractive" reached a new level. Bravo.
3. Emma Sulkowicz
One of the most powerful and famous acts of defiance about on-campus rape culture in American history, Emma Sulkowicz's senior art thesis at Columbia, Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight), has been discussed and dissected by art critics, politicians, news anchors, and feminists around the world. You likely know exactly what it is: Sulkowicz's thesis involved carrying a dorm mattress, similar to the one on which Sulkowicz alleges she was raped by a fellow student in 2012, everywhere she went until the student in question was either expelled or left Columbia. Her alleged rapist sued and lost, and Sulkowicz, who carried the mattress all the way to her graduation, has now burst onto the international arts scene and political feminism, earning the National Organization for Women's "Courage" award this week.
4. Shoshana Roberts
The concept behind "10 Hours Of Walking In NYC As A Woman" is extremely simple: a hidden camera films a woman, actress Shoshana Roberts, walking the pavements of New York and the reactions of the people around her. But the video itself, trimmed down to nearly two minutes and featuring a selection of the 108 catcalls encountered during the 10-hour day, was a massive viral talking point in 2014. Roberts herself received rape threats and told The Guardian she was "scared out of her mind" by the entire experience, and that (less empoweringly) the company behind the idea hasn't given her any money or control over the final product.
5. Ashey Kaidel
Breastfeeding photographs have a tendency to hit the "viral" button. Just this week, a photo of a Canadian bride, Christina Torino-Benton, breastfeeding her hungry baby during her wedding ceremony has hit headlines, but others have gone viral for less distinctly sweet reasons.
The 24-year-old Ashley Kaidel shared a photo of herself on Facebook feeding her child in a restaurant without a cover over her breasts or baby, staring straight at another customer who was attempting to shame her for it. Kaidel, an activist for breastfeeding rights in public, captioned the photograph in part, "My goal here is to let breastfeeding mothers know they matter, they have a right and they're supported by federal law (in the US) AND by mothers like myself all over the world. We won't be belittled, we won't be shamed, we won't be run over. We will stand together and change what society sees as a social 'norm' and get back to the basics of natural, beautiful breastfeeding."
6. Miss Black Awareness
The recent #NoWomanEver hashtag genius, in which women across the world sarcastically explained what men apparently thought they'd do when harassed: "I wasn't attracted to him. I politely declined his number. But when he followed me off the bus? Heart eyes. #NoWomanEver," is a very typical example. The BBC traced the hashtag's new popularity to Miss Black Awareness on Twitter, who started documenting harassment from dudes in June 2016 as the beginnings of true love, heavy dose on the sarcasm, and the trend caught on like wildfire. How did you know he was "the one"? When he shouted "whore" at me out of a moving car. Obviously.
7. Caitlyn Cannon
When it comes to viral popularity, short and sweet often gets as much play as long and well-argued. In May 2015, the yearbook quote of a California high school senior, Caitlyn Cannon, made headlines everywhere for basically being awesome. "I need feminism because I intend on marrying rich and I can't do that if my wife and I are making .75 cent for every dollar a man makes." Boom. Done. Feminist LGBT legend forever.
8. Brock Turner's Victim
She may be anonymous, but the victim of the now-infamous "20 minutes of action" by Stanford rapist Brock Turner became one of the biggest voices in the history of societal discussion of sexual assault when the letter she read to Turner in court was published by Buzzfeed News. The letter rapidly became the basis for a huge wave of sympathy, empathy and discussion, sparked responses from Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, and made her, whoever she is, a national figurehead for what we all hope will happen: the end of rape culture, permanently.
9. Iris Wenger
The deep difficulties of sexism and misogyny in STEM fields is written about frequently, but perhaps nobody turned the conversation on its head as effectively as Iris Wenger. Wenger, an engineer at a company called OneLogin, was one of the team members featured in a series of subway ads in 2015 aiming at boosting company recruitment, and the public's reaction was confusion: she was pretty and female, and therefore couldn't actually be an engineer or be bright. Wenger rapidly had about enough of this, and she came up with a strategy: she created the hashtag #ILookLikeAnEngineer to boost public awareness of the many women, of all appearances, who did in fact work as engineers. It took off, and now the world knows a lot more about what women "look like engineers" (i.e. all of them).