Book review

Girls' feminist blogging in a postfeminist age, by Jessalyn Keller

Alice Marwick

Data & Society, New York, New York, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Activism; Feminism; Gender; Social media; Youth

Marwick, Alice. 2017. Girls' Feminist Blogging in a Postfeminist Age, by Jessalyn Keller [book review]. In "Queer Female Fandom," edited by Julie Levin Russo and Eve Ng, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 24.

Jessalyn Keller, Girls' feminist blogging in a postfeminist age. London: Routledge, 2015, hardcover, ₤95 (198p) ISBN 978-1138800144, e-book, ₤24.49 ISBN 9781315755632.

[1] Jessalyn Keller's first book, Girls' Feminist Blogging in a Postfeminist Age, is a qualitative examination of teenage girls who blog about feminism, based on interviews with bloggers and content analysis of their blogs. Keller, assistant professor in the department of communication, media, and film at the University of Calgary, is situated in the nascent field of girls studies and, alongside scholars like Emma Renold and Jessica Ringrose, is doing fascinating work on digital feminist activism. As her research makes clear, many studies of activism focus on communities where male experience is considered normative and women are shunted to the side; even scholarship on feminist activism usually presumes adult experiences. Thus, because of their gender and age, girls are often unheard and invisible in discussions of both activism and feminism. Given this landscape, Keller is interested in how girls produce a political culture that is rooted specifically in their subjectivity as girls, reflecting their experiences as teenagers, students, and burgeoning feminists. Using a cultural studies approach, Keller places blogging within a continuum of girls' media-making practices, from scrapbooking and diaries to zines and fan fiction. She argues that blogging resists neoliberal postfeminist discourse that reduces feminism to an individual series of choices, instead giving girls space to simultaneously acknowledge structural oppression and structural power. The book theorizes a politics of affect that will be familiar to anyone immersed in online culture. The author argues that the friendships and warm feelings that come from participating in and claiming a group identity are in themselves political.

[2] At the time Keller did her research, the feminist blogosphere consisted of a handful of famous blogs like Jezebel, Feministing, and Racialicious, surrounded by a sprawling network of lesser-trafficked blogs written by a wide diversity of women, including Keller's participants, who identified explicitly as girls. These young women used writing to explore a wide variety of feminist issues, often taking an explicitly didactic or pedagogic approach to teaching themselves and their peers about women's history, feminist theory, or famous feminist figures. (I love Keller's insight that most teenage girls are primarily students, so this point of view is fully understandable viewed in that context.) Community was part and parcel of blogging and intrinsic to the experience. Feminist girl bloggers read each other's blogs, linked to each other's posts, wrote letters, and chatted on comment sections and within platforms like Tumblr. Blogging enabled young women to explore their budding feminist identities in community with other girls at the same stage. Keller makes entries into these networked counterpublics in various ways, examining how young women perform feminist identities online (chapter 1), describing girl-oriented activism (chapter 2), mapping the collective practices of young feminist bloggers (chapter 3), discussing their engagement with women's history (chapter 4), and assessing the strategies of publicness adopted by and the media reception of famous teenage bloggers like Tavi Gevinson of Rookie Magazine (chapter 5).

[3] Historically, what is considered activism privileges the experience of white, middle-class men, be they union members or hippies. Feminist history, critical race theory, and cultural studies have created a parallel history of forms of resistance and political participation that may not look exactly like the protest march or the strike; Dick Hebdige's work on subculture remains relevant. But Keller points out that even practices thought of as subcultural or counterhegemonic often exclude the experiences of girls. Girls may live far away from urban centers, lack transportation or income that affords participating in protests, or lack the subcultural capital to adopt resistive identities. If girls are able to participate in adultcentric notions of activism, they may be working in a structure created by adults and for adults that fails to recognize young people's issues. Moreover, girls are usually treated with a mix of protectionism and condensation even by deeply progressive people; either they should be protected from public spaces, or they are too silly or frivolous to participate fully.

[4] In contrast, Keller's account of girl activism encompasses consciousness raising, media making, and education, positioning activism as part of Angela McRobbie and Jenny Garber's concept of "bedroom culture" (McRobbie and Garber [1976] 1993; McRobbie 1990). McRobbie and Garber criticized British cultural studies for focusing on the activities of young white men in public (hippies, mods, skinheads) while ignoring or dismissing girls' cultural productivity. They argued that girls are often discouraged by their parents from participating in the public sphere. Instead, they are literally and figuratively confined to their bedrooms, private spaces where it is safe for young women to express anger or frustration. As Linda Duits explains, bedroom culture demonstrated that "the domain of the girl was the home; the personal that feminism aims to make political, visible" (2008, 16). McRobbie and Garber were making a feminist intervention into youth subcultural studies; Keller's participants are making a youth intervention into feminism from the bedroom. It is the bedroom where girls' recent media making has taken place, including diaries, 1990s-era zines made with scissors and tape, and 2000s-era fan fiction created on laptops. But like the postal service or the online fan fic archive, blogs provide a distribution network that simultaneously allows connection and collaboration with like-minded others.

[5] This collaboration and community make feminist blogging resistive to contemporary articulations of postfeminism, "a cultural sensibility" that Keller argues is characterized by "a shift from objectification to subjectification; an emphasis on surveillance, monitoring, and self-discipline; a rhetoric of individualism, choice, and empowerment" (13). Postfeminism is an ultimately individual, neoliberal discourse, denying structural inequality and emphasizing work on the self and personal success as empowering—which for me is personified by Charlotte in Sex and the City (1998–2004) screaming, "I choose my choice!" when criticized by her friends for quitting her job upon marrying a wealthy man. However, the bloggers in Keller's study did not discount the importance of individual activity; indeed, they saw publicly articulating feminism as crucial to resisting stereotypes. While attempting to separate oneself from the "hairy, man-hating lesbian" trope can reinforce heterosexist, homophobic norms, we must be mindful of girls' location in sexist, often hostile environments, such as many secondary schools. Feminist identities, located outside the acceptable realm of heterosexual expression for teenage girls, were often interpreted by peers and parents as threatening. Keller relates that girl bloggers found that simply identifying publicly as a feminist and finding other young women with similar politics was a deeply affirming and pleasurable act. At the same time, this restricted participation in the young feminist blogosphere. Keller's participants were primarily white and middle class; she suggests that perhaps the restrictive nature of feminist stereotypes made it difficult for girls already denied privileged race or class subjectivities to experiment with nonhegemonic femininity.

[6] The social life of blogging is where Keller begins to theorize a politic of affect and Internet community—although I think this needs to be pushed further. As she notes early on, she characterizes feminist girl blogs as networked counterpublics, drawing from Nancy Fraser's concept of "subaltern counterpublics" as alternatives to a bourgeois, Habermasian view of the "public sphere" (1990), and Mimi Ito (2008) and danah boyd's (2007) theories of networked publics, which describe the discourse and deliberation that take place via social media and earlier technologies. Keller writes:

[7] Girl bloggers are best understood as networked counterpublics, forming networks around particular discursive feminist identities and issues, coming together, dissolving, mutating, and reconvening in a fluid manner…understanding girl feminist bloggers as networked counterpublics both allows us to better understand how contemporary feminism is being practiced, as well as provides a politicized language with which to talk about girl bloggers. (80)

[8] Keller makes a convincing case that social protests like Slutwalk are only intelligible from within these counterpublics, which discussed slut shaming at length. The event must be contextualized within discussions criticizing rape culture, dress codes, and victim blaming; when taken out of that context, these discussions may be misinterpreted. Still, what is most interesting about networked counterpublics is the affective dimension of such activism. There are some lovely moments in the text where the sheer pleasure of feminism comes through in the bloggers' words, in blog posts that bubble with excitement about attending a feminist event, or gushing interview segments about the importance of feminist friendships. (This pleasure is rarely acknowledged, let alone discussed, in popular discussions of feminism.) While Keller examines the importance of these friendships and emotional connections to blogging practice, her short overview of the affective dimensions of girl feminism is fascinating and ought to be taken up by other scholars.

[9] This book provides a thorough overview of scholarship related to girls' activism, blogging, and young feminism. It would be an excellent resource for scholars investigating related issues within fan studies, Internet studies, and media or cultural studies. However, Keller's study has its limitations, which are primarily methodological. While Keller's participants are located within the same network, their voices, for the most part, remain singular. Thick description and ethnographic moments might have enlivened the text, as would have behind-the-scenes examinations of letters or attendance at in-person events. It would also benefit from diverse voices. Although locating the book within the feminist blogosphere enabled Keller to dive deeply into a situated set of practices, examining queer girls, girls of color, or girls with disability active in different blog communities would have opened up a lot of possibilities.

[10] Blogging is no longer the buzzword that it was in a decade ago, and Keller's participants have moved on to graduate school, professional careers, and feminist identities beyond those of girl or student. But for a new generation of young women, digital feminist activism is thriving. Many young feminists have moved to Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and Tumblr, where they learn about feminism, form the same affective attachments documented by Keller, and rapidly engage with current issues, from high school dress codes to transphobia. This work is increasingly urgent in a political climate where the 2016 election seemingly affirmed rape culture, and where online communities inculcating misogynist thought are tied to global networks of white nationalists. Keller, in this book and in some of her other recent work (Keller and Ringrose 2015; Keller, Mendes, and Ringrose 2016; Winch, Littler, and Keller 2016), provides important reminders to recognize and affirm young people's political work, even when it comes in the form of selfies, memes, or hashtags.

Works cited

boyd, danah. 2007. "Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics." In Youth, Identity and Digital Media, edited by David Buckingham, 119–42. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Duits, Linda. 2008. Multi-Girl-Culture: An Ethnography of Doing Identity. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Fraser, Nancy. 1990. "Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy." Social Text 25/26:56–80.

Ito, Mitzuko. 2008. Introduction to Networked Publics, edited by Kazys Varnelis. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Keller, Jessalynn, and Jessica Ringrose. 2015. "'But Then Feminism Goes Out the Window!': Exploring Teenage Girls' Critical Response to Celebrity Feminism." Celebrity Studies 6 (1): 132–35.

Keller, Jessalynn, Kaitlynn D. Mendes, and Jessica Ringrose. 2016. "Speaking 'Unspeakable Things': Documenting Digital Feminist Responses to Rape Culture." Journal of Gender Studies. In press.

McRobbie, Angela. 1990. Feminism and Youth Culture from "Jackie" to "Just Seventeen." London: Palgrave Macmillan.

McRobbie, Angela, and Jenny Garber. (1976) 1993. "Girls and Subcultures." In Resistance through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-war Britain, 2nd ed., edited by Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson, 209–22. London: Routledge.

Winch, Alison, Jo Littler, and Jessalynn Keller. 2016. "Why 'Intergenerational Feminist Media Studies'?" Feminist Media Studies 16:557–72.