There’s an interesting, albeit slightly disturbing, backstory to BuzzFeed, the viral content factory which has become popular with third-wave feminists.
In the 1990s, BuzzFeed co-founder and CEO Jonah Peretti was an undergraduate humanities student. Like many 1990s undergraduate humanities students, neo-Marxist Critical Theory resonated with the young Peretti – so much so that he published an article criticising cultural capitalism and the MTV generation.
In this article, Peretti argued that: “Identity formation is inextricably linked to the urge to consume … and therefore the acceleration of capitalism necessitates the rate at which individuals assume and shed identities. The internet is one of many late capitalist phenomena to allow for more flexible, rapid, and profitable mechanisms of identity formation.”
In less academic terms, Peretti’s claim is that certain individuals make money from the fact that people identify with ideas and movements, and that the internet, as well as other modern developments, makes this process easier and more lucrative than ever.
Peretti is now one of these individuals.
BuzzFeed: Under the Bonnet
Peretti co-founded BuzzFeed in 2006 as a viral lab focussed on tracking viral content. Prior to this, he experimented with contagious media as director of research and development at the OpenLab at Eyebeam.
In short, Peretti is interested in viral content. In fact, through BuzzFeed, he makes a very, very good living creating it. And, while there’s nothing wrong with changing your mind (Peretti presumably now identifies as a capitalist rather than a Marxist), the somewhat disconcerting thing is that BuzzFeed appears to put into practice the sort of techniques Peretti identified and criticised as a left-leaning student back in the 1990s.
BuzzFeed creates clickbait content. By pumping out content designed to appeal to very specific aspects of its reader’s identity – their geographic (e.g., 19 Things You’ll Understand If You Live in London), demographic (e.g., 21 Problems Only People Raised By Doctors Will Understand), and cultural interests (e.g., 21 Things Only Activists Will Understand) – BuzzFeed is able to hoover up readers by reaffirming their pre-existing understanding of who they are.
As Fergal Gallagher of the Tech Times explains, BuzzFeed then makes money by analysing their reader’s identities and presenting them with highly-targeted native ads (i.e., ads that are near indistinguishable from non-ad content – that is, quirky, fun, and, most importantly, shareable articles, listicles, and videos).
How BuzzFeed’s Use of Feminism Highlights Third-Wave Inconsistencies
The majority of the BuzzFeed’s visitors are female, and it’s a testament to the work of the feminist movement that BuzzFeed has, amongst other things, identified feminism as a topic that’s of high interest to its readership.
There is an obvious inconsistency here: on the one hand BuzzFeed posts content that is overtly opposed to body shaming and objectification, on the other it posts content that is guilty of exactly those things. But these inconsistency problems don’t belong to BuzzFeed – though the site, by continuing to publish inconsistent content, certainly exacerbates them.
Since BuzzFeed’s most profitable content is that which strikes a chord with its target demographics’ pre-existing interests, the existence of inconsistent content on the site serves to highlight the fact that these inconsistencies already exist within the minds of some third-wave feminists. People (some of whom identify as feminists) are, after all, simultaneously clicking on, reading, and sharing both of these sorts of articles.
Otherwise put, some, though by no means all, third-wave feminists identify with both content that criticises objectification and body shaming and content that promotes objectification and body shaming.
What Feminists Can Do
Some feminists are aware of these inconsistencies. Some, including Elite Daily’s Alexis LaFata, have even sought to embrace them. But these arguments fall flat.
Muscle dysmorphia (which primarily affects men) as well as male body image problems in general are increasing, and, culturally, it is becoming more normalised to praise or ridicule a man based solely on his looks. In her article, LaFata argues that there is no female counterpart to the male gaze – the concept that much of the visual arts are structured around a masculine viewer. But not everyone agrees. Not least freelance writer Sarah Seltzer, who writes in praise of an emerging female gaze – though she does recognise that “…reducing [someone] to their looks, isn’t great if it’s taken to extremes in either direction”. My contention is that, though currently less prolific – and therefore less damaging – than its male counterpart, a female gaze has the power to hurt people, too. In other words, it’s possible that the increasing prominence of such a view is related (directly or indirectly) to the fact that the amount of men suffering from body image issues is increasing.
There is also a more pragmatic reason for why third-wave feminists should seek to iron out these inconsistencies. Increasingly popular anti-feminist commentators such as the Amazing Atheist (who has nearly 900,000 YouTube subscribers and 81,000 Twitter followers) and Milo Yiannopoulos (who has nearly 200,000 Twitter followers, and whose YouTube videos regularly accrue hundreds of thousands of views) use the existence of such double standards as an integral part of a more generalised and sustained attack against third-wave feminism. Indeed, third-wave feminism’s apparent double standards are one of the most frequently cited criticisms levied against it. In one video, the Amazing Atheist even uses them to (re)justify female objectification. In a world in which 82 percent of Americans don’t identify as feminists, feminists of LaFata’s persuasion need to ask whether their opinions toward male objectification and male body shaming are really furthering their cause.
And, as this article by Robin Tran, a transwoman who was previously negatively affected by male body shaming, makes clear, it’s not just stereotypical men (or, as LaFata calls them, “straight white males”) that male objectification and male body shaming hurts. By reinforcing a “toxic standard of masculinity”, Tran claims, it hurts everyone.
No. Embracing an inconsistency will not do. You can’t build on shaky foundations. The way to win hearts and minds is not to exemplify the very things you oppose, but to stick resolutely to your principles and prove that your way is better – more humane, more logical, more egalitarian. Indeed, two of the most needed, successful, and long-standing cultural revolutions – the African-American civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Indian independence movement led by Mahatma Ghandi – were won in just this way. In terms of feminism, part of this surely means refusing to condone or partake in any exercise in objectification or body shaming, no matter what form it takes or how inconsequential it may appear. Only by setting such a precedent can feminism be the refuge to all affected by objectification and body shaming that, in its best form, it seeks to be.
Women’s rights have come a long way. But, despite what the Amazing Atheist and Milo Yiannopoulos say, I still believe there still some way to go.
I’m aware that there are many differences of opinion within contemporary feminism. However – and, by all means, call me a stickler – the inconsistent views some third-wavers hold toward objectification and body shaming are dangerous to the feminist cause. I hope feminists can make real progress toward rectifying them. Failure to do so will not only fuel the anti-feminist movement, but further normalise objectification and body shaming – and that will hurt everyone.