In an interview with the EDI blog, Keren Darmon – a PhD researcher in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE – discusses her work on representations of the SlutWalk movement in London, the interpretative role of the concepts of feminist and postfeminist sensibilities, and the influence of Rosalind Gill, Angela McRobbie and Bonnie Dow on her work.
EDI: Hi Keren – many thanks for being interviewed by the EDI blog. We were wondering if you could kindly tell us about the research interests that you are pursuing at LSE?
Keren Darmon (KD): At the moment I am writing up my PhD in the Department of Media and Communications. It’s a project that looks at SlutWalk London as its case study. What I’m trying to look at is the differences or similarities between the ways in which SlutWalk was represented in the mass media – namely, newspapers, and in social media, in blogs and on Tumblr. The blogs are written by participants in SlutWalk London and they are self-representations. The Tumblr account was set up by the organisers of SlutWalk London as a place for people to write about why they were marching. The newspapers are articles from across the British newspaper spectrum – reports, comments and letters – on SlutWalk London specifically. What I’m looking at is the differences between social media and mass media, and, even more specifically, between representation and self-representation.
EDI: What would you say are the core messages of the SlutWalk movement?
KD: The self-declared core messages of the SlutWalk movement are to stop victim-blaming and slut-shaming. This came about as a result of comments made by a police officer in Toronto, who was giving a run-of-the-mill talk to law students at York University on how to stay safe on campus and in the city. It was a talk oriented towards women, and at the end of his official speech he said “okay ladies, that’s fine, but you know, off the record, if you don’t want to get raped, don’t dress like sluts.”
A number of people got upset, both with his statement itself and especially because it was coming from a police officer who was supposed to be there to serve and protect. They started to plan a protest and eventually the response was so great that a large demonstration had to be organised in the city centre, as opposed to the smaller one that they had first thought of on campus. This was widely covered in the media and SlutWalks started taking place around the world. Each area in which a SlutWalk protest took place took on the core message of stopping victim-blaming and slut-shaming. But equally, most locations that I am familiar with also featured local messages. I can’t talk to all of those, but in London the additional message was of demanding structural change in the way that police officers handle cases where women come forward, how decisions in relation to prosecutions are decided, and how the courts respond.
EDI: How would you say that the messages of the SlutWalk movement have been conveyed in different parts of the UK media?
KD: The way in which I’m going to try to answer that question in my thesis is through this lens of feminism and postfeminism – and specifically ‘feminist sensibilities’ and ‘postfeminist sensibilities’.
In 2007 Rosalind Gill – who at the time was here at the Gender Institute – developed the theory of a ‘postfeminist sensibility’, which is based on a number of elements. By this, she doesn’t mean ‘postfeminist’ in the sense that “we are beyond feminism because everything has been achieved.” What she means, in my understanding, is that the culture in which we exist has taken parts of feminism, co-opted them and yet discarded the rest, leading the demands and needs of feminism to be emptied out. For instance, what she claims – and which I subscribe to – is that often feminism is reduced to being about choice. However, it is through that prism that feminism becomes very individual, and by nature if something is very individual, not a lot of solidarity is going on. For a movement such as feminism to continue to bring about change, solidarity is required. I’ve taken a number of elements which are relevant to my project – among them, choice and empowerment – and I have drawn out the characteristics of a contemporary feminism, which I call ‘feminist sensibilities’. I have two sets of sensibilities which I look for in each of the articles and images that I’m examining in my thesis, in order to determine whether a certain text or image exhibits more ‘feminist’ or ‘postfeminist’ sensibilities.
As a result of my analysis, I would say that the messages of SlutWalk have been conveyed in a mixed way across the UK media. My emerging findings are demonstrating something quite surprising. For instance, according to the theory on feminist media studies, one would expect the news media to exhibit more postfeminist sensibilities because of the need to be balanced and because the news is generally ‘hard news’, written by men and reliant on ‘facts’. In the literature, columns and opinion pieces are considered to have the potential to be more feminist because women journalists are often more to be found in the spaces where people have scope to express an opinion. There is the assumption – somewhat erroneously, I would argue – that if women are writing and expressing an opinion then that opinion is likely to be feminist. However, the findings show that the news coverage has been quite balanced and if it tilts beyond being balanced, it generally tilts towards being pro-SlutWalk and pro-feminist.
EDI: If we think about columnists and established feminist thinkers who are not involved in SlutWalk, how would you characterise the reception to the movement in the media and the interpretation of what’s gone on? Has there been a diversity of views, or has there perhaps even been antagonism towards the movement?
KD: I need to split out here commentators and thinkers in the media and commentators and thinkers in the academy. In the media, to my surprise I have found that, overall, writers who classify themselves as feminist and who self-identify as feminists have more often than not been opposed to the movement and found it wanting. A term that I have found used quite a lot is that of ‘feminism gone wrong’. They self-identify as feminists and from that position critique SlutWalk as ‘feminism gone wrong’.
Of course, I have no issue with people critiquing SlutWalk and in my opinion too there are a number of issues, which is why I’m writing a PhD about it. It’s not a straightforward pro or con. But the language and the nature of the critique – and I base this on definitions put forward by Angela McRobbie [Professor of Communications at Goldsmiths] and Rosalind Gill [Professor of Cultural and Social Analysis at City University London] – have been put forward in a decidedly anti-feminist way. It has been demeaning to the women, demeaning to their thought processes and their tactics. Overall, I’ve been quite taken aback by the nature of the critique of some of these female, self-identifying feminist columnists who find very few redeeming features in SlutWalk.
In the academy, SlutWalk has also been written about a fair amount and it’s more mixed. I think generally there was a positive reception of young women expressing feminist values. There was almost a relief among many feminists – particularly older feminists in the academy – that finally, young women are engaged and are coming out in droves and expressing themselves across the world. I think especially initially it felt like a welcome re-energising of the solidarity that had been lacking in feminism for quite a number of years, due to the backlash against feminism and this whole postfeminist media culture. That said, there have also been a number of academics who have written quite critical texts – but again not just critical but also quite anti-feminist – using quite anti-feminist language in their critique of SlutWalk, and so it’s not been a unanimous picture.
For me, the most important piece written about SlutWalk by an academic was written by Bonnie Dow [Professor of Communication Studies and Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Vanderbilt University]. She said – and I wholly subscribe to this – that we don’t have to agree. Feminism isn’t just one thing and there isn’t just one way in which to express one’s feminism and in which to call for feminist principles to be adhered to. She argues that we should embrace our differences and our forms of expression, and just because one set of women who call themselves feminists choose to protest in this way doesn’t mean that we should be shutting them out because we don’t necessarily like it. I think the thing that has bothered most people has been the name – ‘slut’ – and claims that it cannot be redeemed, as well as the mode of dress that some of the protesters have chosen to adopt by dressing in what they perceive to be ‘sluttish’ clothes. But, then again, others have said “well, we’re just making the point that even if we’re dressed like this, we do not deserve to be raped.”
EDI: Lastly, given your experience as a communications professional, are there any tips for success that you would share with others?
KD: Tips for good communicating are quite simple really! It’s really a very simple business, although many people don’t adhere to these rules.
One is to always have before you an understanding of what your objective is – what are you trying to accomplish? This comes long before tactics. The first question needs to be, what are you trying to achieve?
The second question is, who is your audience and why do they need to know this information?
Then you have to have some key messages. I would recommend no more than three, at which point you sit down and say “Okay, my objective is to achieve this. These are the people I want to reach. This is what I have to say to them, so how is it best to communicate that?” That’s when you decide on your tactics. This tendency to put the tactics upfront, in my experience, is often misguided!
EDI: Many thanks for your thoughtful answers!
* Keren Darmon is a PhD researcher in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE. Her commentary, ‘Framing SlutWalk London: How does the privilege of feminist activism in social media travel into the mass media?’, was published in Feminist Media Studies.