The Ups and Downs of Being a Feminist on Pinterest
by Jarrah Hodge
Confession: I’m a feminist and I’m on Pinterest.
I thought it was time for me to weigh in on the discussion that’s been going on about feminism and Pinterest. A BuzzFeed article that was making the rounds back in October argued that Pinterest was “killing feminism”, saying:
“Pinterest’s user-generated content, which overwhelmingly emphasizes recipes, home decor, and fitness and fashion tips, feels like a reminder that women still seek out the retrograde, materialistic content that women’s magazines have been hawking for decades — and that the internet was supposed to help overcome.”
Amelia McDonell-Parry at The Frisky was one of several feminists who called the BuzzFeed post an overreaction:
“How users experience Pinterest varies from person to person. I, for one, rarely see a diet recipe or a fitness tip come across my dashboard, because I don’t pin that type of content and I don’t seem to follow users that do. But I don’t knock users that do; what’s wrong with wanting to get in shape, lose weight, and eat healthy? Is there something explicitly anti-feminist about that and thus anti-feminist about a platform that allows users to link to that type of content? Give me a break.”
I think it’s fair to recognize, as Terri Ciccone at the Jane Dough does, that there is problematic content on Pinterest, but that “Pinterest didn’t put it there; it’s not a monolith. Women did.”
It’s important to look at what’s on Pinterest because it can tell us something about what its users (60% women, although some estimates go as high as 79%) are looking at and sharing online. We can talk about the potentially problematic messages being shared just like we do with Facebook pages, Twitter hashtags, and Tumblr posts, by looking at what it means that so many people participate in spreading those messages. But we also need the perspective of recognizing that Pinterest is only part of many users’ social media engagement, so looking at it probably doesn’t give us quite the whole story.
So I’ve been on Pinterest now for 8 months and I wanted to talk about what I see as the potential ups and downs are for feminists on Pinterest. When you add my craft and recipe boards to the tens of millions of other Pinterest users out there, does it start to seem to an average user that women are more interested in traditionally feminine pursuits than, say, politics or the pursuit of equality? It might, and that’s something worth discussing. Are there ways to make Pinterest more of a feminist tool? I want to talk about that, too. If you’re a feminist already on Pinterest, let me know if you agree, disagree, or have anything to add.
But first, here are some stats, courtesy of an episode of one of my favourite podcasts, Stuff Mom Never Told You:
- US unique monthly visitors: 20.4 million (as of July 2012)
- Monthly pageviews: 1.9 billion (worldwide)
- Average time spent on site: 15 minutes
- Investment income: $238 million
- Top pin categories:
Aaaannd, with this context, back to the analysis. Let’s start with the down sides.
- Pinterest is ultimately a business. Although at this point there’s no advertising other than pins by corporations and organizations, or seeing your friends sharing things they’d like to buy, Pinterest is ultimately there to make money. The reason it’s attracted so much investment income is that it’s been incredibly successful attracting users to buying products that they see pictures of. In February it was revealed that Pinterest was making money replacing users’ links with affiliate links, which give kickbacks to the site owner when a user kicks on them. Pinterest at minimum needs more disclosure on this kind of thing, and we as users need to be aware that there is a business entity involved in our interactions so we don’t fall into a trap of thinking using Pinterest is the same as having your friend tell you over the phone about this great movie she just saw or coat she just bought.
- Thinspiration posts are still a problem. In March Pinterest said they’d ban thinspiration and pro-anorexia posts, after the site’s visual nature made it a magnet for those communities. Pinterest’s policy says they will ban any post that creates: “creates a risk of harm, loss, physical or mental injury, emotional distress, death, disability, disfigurement, or physical or mental illness to yourself, to any other person, or to any animal” but as the picture at right shows, it’s hard for them to catch every post and it gets through.
- The aspirational images mirror social inequalities. As Cristen and Caroline point out in the Stuff Mom Never Told You podcast, a good part of Pinterest is aspirational. Many of the boards are images of users’ dream weddings, dream travel, dream fashion, dream homes, etc. Knowing that 79% of users are white and almost 30% have annual household incomes over $100,000, it does make me question how much is harmless fantasy and how much is false consciousness. At any rate, the images of aspiration that I see getting shared around are reflective of how success is defined in our society: through stereotypical ideals of beauty and conspicuous consumption.
Screenshot from a search for “Feminism” on Pinterest
- It’s not just weddings and dieting. On Pinterest you can find and follow boards on topics that interest you, whether those are typically feminine subjects or not. There are boards by women about women in STEM fields, about trucks, about football, about pirates, about parrots, about carrots, about ferrets, about barrettes. You can follow only certain boards or everything by certain users. That means you can basically determine how much content of each type you want to view in your feed when you login. If you want lots of pins from those top five categories SMNTY talked about, awesome! But if you can’t get into looking at pictures of jewellery it’s not hard to unfollow those boards and find other stuff that will interest you.
- Pinterest is relatively troll-free. While there are certainly sexist and anti-feminist posts on Pinterest (one Tumblr site has collected some examples), they probably won’t show up in your feed unless you’re following those users. A search for “feminism” on Tumblr will get you about a 60/40 mix of pro and anti-feminist posts, but a search for “feminism” on Pinterest will actually turn up mostly positive posts (as shown in the screen-cap above). Maybe the misogynist trolls are spending all their time on YouTube and Tumblr and Facebook and Twitter and don’t have time for another platform, or maybe they’re too worried about seeming “feminine” to start Pinterest accounts. But whatever the reason, I’ve found my feminist content on Pinterest to be more respected than on other social networking sites.
- People and groups are using it to educate on social issues and promote feminism and social justice. One of the first things I noticed using Pinterest was that one of the Gender Focus contributors, Sarah Jensen, was using one of her boards to catalogue “Photoshop Disasters” to show just how big a problem photoshopping women into an unattainable beauty ideal is in advertising and magazines. With Sarah and another feminist I knew from Twitter, Opinioness of the World, I started a group board called “Sexist Advertising” that collects examples of both retro and modern sexist ads. Groups like GLAAD pin inspiring images and and messages in support of LGBT equality. The visual nature of Pinterest makes it ideal for collecting and sharing infographics, images of protest signs, political cartoons, and meme-type graphics that show a single image and quote. All of this can be used in cool ways, and here are some of my favourite examples.
My Favourite Feminist Boards:
Shot from Feminism: Intersectionality
- Feminism: Intersectionality by Annie Hayford. Annie’s board is one I re-pin off of a lot. There’s a lot there to inspire us as feminists, remind us what we have to be angry about, and not to let us forget that we have more than just straight, cis, white women’s struggles to fight. Honourable mention has to go to another great intersectionality board by Leah Jane Grantham, The “I” in Intersectionality.
- Pointlessly Gendered Products by Sociological Images. Sociological Images has tons of great Pinterest boards (I also recommend “Imperialism, (Post-) Colonialism and Slavery”) but this is one of my favourites that I think does a great job demonstrating how gendered marketing works and why it doesn’t usually make sense. Learn about “beer for women” and “Man Glaze” nail polish as well as more popular examples like the Honda Fit “She”.
A couple of Sociological Images’ “Pointlessly Gendered Products”
Ladies Doing Stuff by The Mary Sue. Geek Girl Blog The Mary Sue has put together this board of women doing really cool things. Includes the world’s oldest woman Facebook user (age 101), teen science-fair winners, athletes, and activists.
- Women’s Filmmaking by Bitch Flicks. Bitch Flicks is a great website devoted to reviewing movies through a feminist lens. It makes total sense that one of the things they’d use Pinterest for would be to promote women’s filmmaking.
- Feminism by Sarah Jensen. I mentioned Sarah’s “Photoshop Disasters” board but she also has a general feminism board, as well as ones on suffragette history and Rosie the Riveter.
- Messages of Equality by GLAAD. I wish GLAAD was a little more interactive on Pinterest but they still deserve props for distributing effective inspiring messages on the platform.
- #NotBuyingIt by Miss Representation is part of a campaign the group is doing to call out sexist advertisers and sexist products online and to rally consumers together to put financial pressure on those companies.
- Anti-Racism by Nicole G-O. As I mentioned, there’s a serious racial imbalance on Pinterest, but it can be used to advocate anti-racism, as Nicole does here (you also might want to check out YWCA USA’s “Racial Justice” board). It doesn’t seem like this board is getting updated much anymore but what Nicole put together is worth checking out.
Those are just a few examples of cool boards by users I follow and I know there are many more people doing neat, progressive things on Pinterest. I hope you’ll share your favourites below.