Dissecting Digital Futures and the Proliferation of Misogynoir

Sarah Banet-Weiser 0:01
ICA presents.

Hello and welcome to this episode of Feminist Networks and the Conjuncture, a production of the ICA Podcast Network. I'm Sarah Banet-Weiser, Distinguished Professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication as well as Professor of Communication at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. I'm also the Founding Director of the Center for Collaborative Communication at the two Annenberg schools. Joining me today on the podcast is Dr. Moya Bailey. I'm so so thrilled to have her on here for a conversation with her. Dr. Bailey is an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern University. She's the Director of the Digital Apothecary Lab, Board President of Allied Media projects and the Digital Alchemist for the Octavia E. Butler and Legacy Network. Dr. Bailey's work focuses on Black women's use of digital media as tools to promote social justice and self-affirmation. More broadly, Dr. Bailey's work looks at how racial identity, gender, and sexuality are represented in the media ,with her most recent publications including "#HashtagActivism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice" as well as "Misogynoir Transformed: Black Women's Digital Resistance". Some of you might also recognize Dr. Bailey as the host of ICA's own Digital Alchemy series. And again, I am just so thrilled to have Moya here with us today. Her work is truly transformative. She is a brilliant scholar and I warmly welcome you, Dr. Moya Bailey.

Moya Bailey 1:45
Oh, thank you so much, Sarah. It's really a pleasure to be here. And I feel so welcomed. The way that people in communication have taken up my work has been such a treat.

Sarah Banet-Weiser 1:57
I assign your work in all of my classes and it always generates such rich and nuanced discussions. One of the more recent conversations that we've had in my class in relation to your work, and also with my colleagues and community, were the Senate nomination hearings for Supreme Court Justice Kentanji Brown Jackson. One of the things that you mention in your work is that misogynoir describes the particular brand of hatred that is directed at Black women in American visual and popular culture. And when I was watching, it was so disgusting. And it was so violent, the way that White men and women treated Justice Jackson. It was such a display of this brand of hatred that you talk about and it was impossible for me not to wonder like, what did she have to tell herself on those days? How did she have to guide her subjectivity and think about the ways in which whatever reaction she would have would be interpreted as something that was somehow about her being a Black woman and would work against her? Misogynoir is about a specific sort of racism but it's also about dehumanization and I really saw that in these hearings. And it made me think of Imani Perry's discussion in "Vexy Thing" about personhood and how we need to understand that history of patriarchy, imperialism, racism in order to understand misogynoir. So, I thought maybe you could tell us a little bit about what misogynoir means as a particularly urgent concept in the historical moment we're in right now.

Moya Bailey 3:35
I think grounding it in the world we live in, and what's happening right now, is really helpful for people to see that misogynoir - even though it's a new term that I coined - it's actually drawing on lineages that go back to Black people's non-consensual arrival in the Americas. So, one thing that I talk about specifically, is that misogynoir names something that Black feminists have been talking about for a long time. So, we can look at the work of Sojourner Truth, Maria Stewart, Ida B. Wells. There are ways that Black women have been thinking through these questions of what it means to be Black and a woman that isn't just an additive proposition. It's something that can metastasize into something even more ugly, in terms of how people respond to it. I was thinking about misogynoir writing my dissertation, which was looking at medical school representations of patients and students. So, how students were understanding themselves as future physicians and how they were seeing their patients. And it was right after the Flexner Report, the 1910s, where medical students are really pushing against a move to make medical school much more academic, in the way that we understand now. Moving away from an apprenticeship model and so becoming more science-based, much more of a valorized profession, and a profession that only wealthy kids could get into. With that came a lot of ideas about who the "ideal" patient was. And the ideal patient came to reflect these students in medical school. Generally, wealthy White men of a certain age. There were representations of Black women in these texts. I was looking at Emory School of Medicine. This is the segregated South, but there were surprisingly lots of representations of Black women, caricatures of Black women, and jokes and stories putting Black women against the White male medical students as these diametrically opposed entities. These medical students had all of the biases and were taking in all of the social cues and cultural ideas that were percolating at the time. So, there was something very particular about Black women's experience that got me thinking there's a unique antagonism that needs to be named. And that's where I came up with the term misogynoir.

Sarah Banet-Weiser 6:13
I've been working on a project that is questioning this apparent "crisis" that we're having of the "post-truth". Well, "post-truth" for whom? Women, and people of color of all genders, and Black women in particular, have always been in a moment of post-truth, where their truths have not been believed. And one stark example, you can see the vast disparity in prenatal and maternal care for Black women and White women in the United States and the ways in which Black women are routinely not believed if they are in pain. Their truths are questioned. It's a devastating history from 100 years ago and it continues to this day, in terms of belief. We've talked in class a lot about your work with Trudy on citation politics and the fact that people came at you with a misogynoir accusation, "That's a made up word!" As Trudy says, "All words are made up!" When Black women make up these words, somehow they are suspect. So, I wondered if you could tell us a little bit about that.

Moya Bailey 7:19
I was working on this in the relative silence of the dissertation and came up with misogynoir; this portmanteau of "misogyny" and then "noir", French word for black but also "noir" having these film and media connotations. So, I really liked using "noir" without the "e" because if it was proper French, it would have the "e" at the end doing that gender thing we do to language. Then it started to move online once I published my first entry on the "Crunk Feminist Collective" blog. Then other bloggers who wrote for "Crunk Feminist" started to use it as well. And when Trudy started to use it, she hadn't even realized that it was my term, specifically, because many of the "Crunk" feminists were using it. Trudy had been doing a lot of theorizing around misogynoir on her own blog "Gradient Lair". All of my writing about misogynoir was online and I had not done as extensive exploration as Trudy had done at that time. A lot of people learned about the term through her work. It was the blogs that, I think, made it popular but then it was a student in a women's studies class at NYU who decided for her project that she would make a Wikipedia page for misogynoir. That got codified and people started to pay even more attention to it. Trudy and I wrote something about how people were often not giving proper citation or acknowledging that this word did come from somewhere. That became its own citational practice that people then referenced and so things just iterated from there. So, it's been a really interesting journey in terms of the word moving back and forth between the academy and outside of the academy, then also in popular culture. It was on an episode of an ABC show called "Queens" and also on the reboot of "Charmed". It's a double-edged sword. I'm glad people find the term useful, but then also I'm saddened that it needs to be used so often, that the word has proliferated because there's too many occasions for it to be necessary.

Sarah Banet-Weiser 9:41
I think that is important for us to think through - the way in which there's a commodification of these terms so that Black women creating a vocabulary then is appropriated by mainstream culture, made "safe", made to be something that can easily circulate, and it just seems to continue to happen over and over over again. It is a violence that we need to pay attention to.

Moya Bailey 10:04
Oh, absolutely.

Sarah Banet-Weiser 10:05
Your book is titled, "Misogynoir Transformed". The book is about resisting; specifically digital resistance. And it's so important for us to hear about what resistance to this kind of violence might look like. So, I wonder if you could talk about how you're seeing digital resistance? What are the things that we can do to transform misogynoir?

Moya Bailey 10:26
I really wanted to not center so much on people's experience of the negative and harmful ways that misogynoir impacts them; I wanted to really lift up the ways that people were using the opportunity to address misogynoir through digital, social media platforms. And that that act, of using those tools, was really transformational. So, "Misogynoir Transformed" is playing on that idea that there is something that can be created when we are using these platforms, that are so ubiquitous. People have been able to use some digital alchemy and take these social media tools and use them for social justice. And that transformation is really important. I think about the law of the conservation of energy, this idea that nothing can be created or destroyed, just transformed. I see people taking all of this negative, swirling energy of misogynoir and transforming it into something else through a creative practice. Whether that's on YouTube, Tumblr, I see a lot of the things that people are doing with TikTok, now the young kids are on Discord and Twitch - there are just lots of opportunities for people to use new platforms to create new conversations. I really see "transformation" as the way people who use these tools, imagine a new way forward with them.

Sarah Banet-Weiser 12:11
I tend to be super cranky about feminism and the ways in which it's taken up and appropriated by popular culture, and becomes transactional rather than transformational. So, I'm just so grateful for your work on transformation. Digital media, like Tiktok and Instagram, are increasingly becoming quite complicated and nuanced from the ways that we've seen before.

Moya Bailey 12:33
Oh, absolutely. I'm really looking forward to a moment where we're not just reacting to what is being created but in the process of actually creating things for ourselves, recoding and reimagining how we build our tech. Ultimately, it's not going to change just by adding, quote unquote, diversity into an organization and trying to "stir"; that doesn't work. I've been into a lot of Netflix documentaries and I just watched "White Hot" about Abercrombie and Fitch and how they were dealing with a very clear, particular decision not to embrace diversity. And they thought, well, a diversity officer would be the thing to make things better. If it's happening at such a high level, one person being hired does not change the entire culture of an institution. And so, when I think about the transformative possibilities that we need, it needs to happen not just at the level of a diversity officer at Facebook, or at Twitter. It has to be something that is really integrated into the work of all of the people who are in the supply chain of the organization. And that's going to take some time. And it's also going to mean, new people at all levels.

Sarah Banet-Weiser 14:03
Those stories - institutionalizing of DEI, and diversity officers, and diversity chancellors - get so much attention and build the reputations of institutions, while they continually push into the shadows, and eclipse, the ways in which people of color aren't being hired. That disconnect between a rhetoric of diversity - "add race and stir" or "add gender and stir" - and what actually we can do to transform a culture is, I think, one of the key issues of the time. One of the things that you, and other critical race scholars in the digital humanities and the critical information studies, are really demonstrating so clearly and so convincingly, is that actually we can change. It doesn't have to be opaque.

Moya Bailey 14:52
Absolutely. There are ways that we can make it much more clear what's happening. There are ways that we can open up how they understand their role in an organization and in the ecosystem of a social media platform, like Twitter. Those are the things that really change the face of an organization long-term. It's so interesting to think about the early days of Twitter and how Twitter didn't really know what they had. It grew and grew and grew, and a lot of the the response was in relationship to the things that users created and the way that users use the app themselves. So, one of the things that was really important to me in the last chapter of the book, was having users create their own imagining of what a new social media platform could look like. And one of the people I talked to was Danielle Cole, whose Tumblr, @strugglingtobeheard, is one of the features in that fourth chapter. And Danielle talks about wanting a social media platform that would allow the people who are using the app to also be integrated into coming up with the design for how the app is used and for that design process to be one that is in motion and isn't static; trying to trouble that relationship so that it isn't one-directional. And that also, there's an understanding that the user can be the designer and that the designer can be the user.

Sarah Banet-Weiser 16:41
So, it's not just troubling the position of the user as someone who uses and doesn't produce, but it's also troubling the position of the "owner" and actually saying, "That's not even a useful term for us to use."

Moya Bailey 16:53
I think that's already happening. Through my connection to Allied Media Projects, there's an organization called the Detroit Network Project, and they're really doing fascinating work building mesh networks across the city of Detroit where people have access to a local internet that is powered by nodes of connection throughout a specific community. And so, people can chat with their neighbors. It's very local. When we only imagine the internet as this big, expansive global phenomenon, we forget that it is actually built on the land and the places of individual communities. Moving to a less massive scale and actually coming back to the local, I think, will also be helpful as we imagine what social media platforms can be in the future.

Sarah Banet-Weiser 17:53
I would like to take that as a segue into asking you just to say a few words about your book with Sarah and Brooke, "#HashtagActivism". What I love about that book, among other things, is that the chapters define neighborhoods, or communities, on Twitter. Instead of thinking about Twitter as being just one thing, you talk about "feminist Twitter" or "Black Twitter". And I think that that is a really useful way for us to understand what are the generative possibilities of digital media rather than just think about them as these top-down, huge corporations.

Moya Bailey 18:27
There are connections that people make within their local node but then have the possibility to make connections across. In "#HashtagActivism", we really looked at the way people were using Twitter to build networks around issues of racial justice and issues of justice along the axes of gender and sexuality. We were pleasantly surprised when we looked at Twitter that a lot of the people who were moving these big conversations, were local folks who didn't actually understand themselves as activists, perhaps, prior to engaging with Twitter and having that platform be a real springboard for ongoing activism and connecting them to activism that was happening on the ground. So, one big takeaway from that text is that, even when we think of these "digital neighborhoods" as happening in a virtual space, they're very much connected to what's happening on the ground and in our real world; that that dichotomy, as it's been set up, is not an accurate one. I think all of that angst people had about the "next generation" as being totally siloed, and just focused on the digital, seem unfounded, by our research. People are really making a connection between the things that they're learning and conversations they're having online, with the things that they're doing in their actual lives and in community with others in person.

Sarah Banet-Weiser 20:07
This is precisely why I think your work is such a model for all of us. You give us a sense of what is possible. You've really chipped away at some of the ways I feel hopeless and helpless to do something that could create change, that could work towards social justice. Thank you so much for being on here and sharing your work. Everyone who's listening, read these books. They are so brilliant and so important. I'm just so grateful that we could have this conversation, Moya.

Moya Bailey 20:38
Oh, thank you so much, Sarah. It's really been a pleasure.

Sarah Banet-Weiser 20:42
Feminist Networks and the Conjuncture is a production of the International Communication Association Podcast Network. This podcast series is brought to you by the Annenberg Center for Collaborative Communication, established as a joint effort between the schools of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California. Our producers are Sharlene Burgos, Lucia Barnum, and Joe Lambert. Our executive producer is DeVante Brown. The theme music is by Lance Conrad. To learn more about me, my guest today, and our podcast series, check out the show notes in the episode description. And thanks, as always, for listening!

Dissecting Digital Futures and the Proliferation of Misogynoir
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