Why Has #WomenSupportingWomen, the B&W Selfie Campaign, Riled Up So Many Men?


Why Has #WomenSupportingWomen, the B&W Selfie Campaign, Riled Up So Many Men?

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

It’s been almost 100 years since Virginia Woolf first put forth the radical thought that a woman must have at least 500 pounds a year, and a “room of her own”. In 1929, the demands of the first-wave feminists had just been met, and women – over 30 and owners of some property – were allowed to vote. Earlier, this week a hashtag, #WomenSupportingWomen did the rounds, allowing “equalists” (men) to remind us how much progress women’s rights had made, and berating women for… putting up black and white selfies.

The hashtag originated in Turkey, where a man named Cemal Metin Avci, murdered Pınar Gültekin, a 27-year-old Kurdish woman, in “a moment of anger”. Her body was then reportedly put in a barrel, burnt, and filled with concrete. The episode sparked severe outrage and led Turkish women to start a digital campaign to condemn domestic violence.

Somewhere down the digital pipeline, the trend meant that more than 8 million women on Instagram alone, posted black-and-white photos of themselves with the hashtag #WomenSupportingWomen. A call for solidarity by Turkish women went through a few rounds of American hashtag feminism combined with performative woke-ism by celebrities, before it obtained its oversimplified form in which it reached most of our inboxes – as a message urging the receiver to post a B&W photo of themselves and pass on the tag to other women in private.

Perplexed as many of us were about its origins, after minimal enquiry most of us complied. After all, how often do you hear of trends that ask women to publicly acknowledge themselves and other women in their lives? Everything from classic television and films, to literature to pop culture is littered with stereotypes that constantly pit women against each other. In a cultural landscape, opportunities that celebrate womanhood are far fewer than those that decry it.

How often do you hear of trends that ask women to publicly acknowledge themselves and other women in their lives?

Another incident this week added fuel to the fire: Alexandria Cortez’s fiery speech at the Senate. To have a Congresswoman be called a “fucking bitch”, on the steps of the Capitol no less, reminded us that feminism isn’t merely for “rural areas”.

Why should boys have all the fun?

So women across the globe “thoughtlessly” participated and posted #ChallengeAccepted photos of the days before the virus, “flattering” selfies or photos that best conveyed their politics. They responded with anger, frustration, boredom, but above all, just warmth. There is something particularly sweet about taking a moment to acknowledge both yourself and some women in your life, without needing a real reason. We’re in the middle of a pandemic, locked in within our houses and our minds, and pockets of personal joy are rare. Can you blame those of us who wanted to hold on to an opportunity, even if we hadn’t dug deep into the macabre origins of it?

That’s where things got complicated. We’ve normalised a cultural compass, where identities of women are validated only through trauma. Thus, a trend that celebrated women without any “apparent” cause was ground enough for its dismissal. A whole deluge of woke social media gatekeepers soon descended upon the #WomenSupportingWomen conversation: They first asked us how posting photos was an expression of “support”, then they dismissed it as vanity, and later on, stumbling upon its Turkish roots, called out women for “jumping on to the social media bandwagon without knowing the real reason”. (Is it a mere coincidence that I seem to have heard this from the same people who told anti-CAA protestors the same thing?)

One of the pet peeves of this backlash, and personally my favourite, was this resounding question, posed mostly by the privileged brown male: “But how is posting a photo going to change anything?” While I did not see the merit in pointing out that the ice-bucket challenge never cured cured ALS, just like signing a petition to Save Aarey didn’t actually save Aarey, or making dalgona coffee and banana bread did not alleviate hunger, especially of the migrant worker community, I did note that these and other trends were never questioned on their efficacy, or intellectual capital.

We’ve normalised a cultural compass, where identities of women are validated only through trauma.

Because while social media is a powerful tool to supplement change, it alone has never been the singular vehicle of protest (barring a few instances like #MeToo, where conversation moved to the offline world). These algorithm-driven machinations were at best, tools to connect us to other affirming voices, the few times when conversations are not lost in translation.

The disproportionate tone-policing and contention this particular trend faced is an example of a belief system that any women-led conversations, when they happen at all, have to be rooted around “issues”. They have to have a foundation in some kind of retaliatory politics: they must bear an overarching SOCIAL MESSAGE and must result in CHANGE, preferably overnight.

Because as a woman, you can’t be taken seriously while also being clearly furthering and advocating your own pleasure.

Warm and congratulatory photos will not change the world – neither will photos of men congratulating themselves on “sharing the load” or showing off their newly learnt roti-making skills. Neither will changing your profile photo to black, or enhancing it with a Digital India filter.

Why does #WomenSupportingWomen make some people angry?

Because as women with agency, what are we really doing, if we are not using our agency to fight? When not forwarding narratives of our individual or collective trauma, our “substance”, and approval ratings take a hit. Any other gender-ancillary conversations thus, will quickly draw the labels “vanity”, “populist” or “attention-seeking”, words that in the contemporary politically correct vocabulary are stand-ins for “crazy”, “hormonal”, and “PMS-y”. (“Bitch” as we’ve recently seen is still in the running.)

But in this market-led neo-feminist model that rewards beauty at every step, isn’t it perhaps a little late to call out “vanity”?

This is not to say however, that the dilution of trends like these do not have their own pitfalls – in this case, the original Turkish hashtags, condemning domestic violence got buried in a deluge of “love and light”. Moreover, the reason the photos were originally supposed to be black and white was that in Turkey, a country with the highest femicide rates, if a woman was murdered, their photo appeared on TV channels the next day with a black-and-white filter. The watered-down version of the trend only retained the black-and-white quality as an aesthetic.

Because as women with agency, what are we really doing, if we are not using our agency to fight?

Many feminist activists in the last few days have called this to attention and suggested women who posted make additions to the hashtags to keep the conversation going. Another issue that the trend has highlighted is the complete erasure of trans-identities in the gender conversations. Faye DSouza in her explainer post drew on this by wittily captioning the photo, “Women must support women. Men must support women. Both must support trans people.”

It’s a pitfall of the online conversation to get trapped within a social media echo chamber and devolving from there, often to the point where they entirely lose the original context (much like Western capitalism co-opting Yoga). It left some of us tied up in knots: Posting a photo saying #challengeaccepted didn’t make you a bad feminist, but not posting one, because of its perceived frivolous nature, didn’t get you any social media points.

Either way, it came down to a question of personal choice – and that was OK. What was not OK, was the anger toward women who posted a photo, telling them what was right and what was not, only this time using woke politics. And to those people, I only have this to say: Please sit down. It’s really just a selfie.