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The embodiment of feminism on social media

What is the place of the body in contemporary, online feminist movements? Human scientists, in particular psychoanalysts, have persistently tried to shift the idea of the body toward a space beyond anatomical, biological, and mechanistic representations.

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In Volume 6, Issue 7, July 2022

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  • Suivre cet auteur Claire Michel
  • 1 Feminism is not an easy movement to define, not least because it encompasses “many different forms of individual and collective engagement, and a wide variety of political positions.” [1] It is therefore often typically defined on the basis of its objective: equality between men and women, and the opportunity for women to access certain rights and freedoms granted to men.

    2 The chronology of feminism, meanwhile, is often defined as being marked by a series of “waves,” beginning with the emergence of its first significant mobilizations in the nineteenth century. Each wave of feminism is seen to represent a historic moment of the movement, with its own specific social demands. The word “wave” itself conveys a great deal about how the past and present are enmeshed in feminist thought, theory, and action, and also prompts us to consider how social movements ebb and flow. This discussion is a particularly timely one at present, since many commentators argue that we are in the midst of a new wave of feminism that began somewhere between 2009 and 2011.

    3 The emergence of this new wave thus requires exploration: what does it signify, and how is it different from the mobilizations of the past?

    4 While there can be no single answer to these questions, the nascent feminist movement of recent years appears to have several characteristics that have the potential to modify the movement’s modalities of thought and action. They include the fact that this new wave has surfaced against the background of the emergence, and later explosion, of the use of digital technologies. This concerns the use of the internet in the broadest sense, but also gradually and more specifically, the social networks that have developed and been democratized over the last decade. In addition to this, as Camille Froidevaux-Metterie argues in her article discussed below, [2] the renewed interest in feminist issues appears to be accompanied by a renewal of the movement’s topics of interest, with a particular focus on intimate bodily experience, previously almost entirely absent from discussion and action.

    5 This conjunction prompts a number of questions: what is the place of the body in contemporary, online feminist movements? How do we explain the apparent paradox of the body emerging at the very moment when the internet appears to be evoking it in a new and different way?

    6 These questions also prompt us to think about the place of the body in social movements: the body as a tool, as disembodied, or sometimes even as a weapon, echoing the way in which the current dominant scientific paradigm approaches bodily questions. Human scientists, on the other hand, in particular psychoanalysts, have persistently tried to shift the idea of the body toward a space beyond anatomical, biological, and mechanistic representations.

    The Toilet of Venus, Diego Velázquez, 1647, National Gallery, London.
    In 1914 this painting of a nude woman was slashed with an axe by suffragette Mary Richardson, in an attempt to draw attention to the representation of women in art and society.

    An online feminism

    Advertisement from the Always campaign launched in 2014.

    7 According to David Bertrand, “the next generation of social movements will emerge online.” In his article published in the journal Réseaux, Bertrand supports the idea of a new wave of feminism having begun around 2011: one that represents a new moment in the feminist movement, and is characterized by both continuities and breaks with previous waves. His hypothesis is backed by observing trends in two determining indicators: a “marked rise in interest in feminism,” and the “regeneration of the methods used by activists and the main topics they address.” In terms of the rise in interest, the evidence seems clear: topics related to feminism and feminist issues are increasingly prominent in the social space, both offline and online, in everyday discourse as well as in political and media discourse, in contrast to the decline in interest seen in the mid-2000s.

    8 While Bertrand does not explore how this new wave is taking a different approach to its main topics of interest, he does discuss a very specific characteristic of this development: the presence of feminism and its actions on social media. There appears to be a mutual influence between the two, as while the movement is spreading its ideas through social networks, these platforms are also changing its methods: “the actions and discussions that are possible on the internet stem from the way in which this technology structures the social relations that develop online, meaning that these mechanisms affect the substance of the ideas and proposals that are most likely to spread.” Activism is thus taking other forms, at various different levels. These include the emergence of actions in the form of websites and webpages, which are also designed to disseminate information and theory; hashtags—as shown by the major recent example of #MeToo and its French counterpart #BalanceTonPorc; and social media accounts. These alternative forms of collective action, which do not require a physical presence, are also putting personal experience center stage. There is of course nothing new about telling one’s story and relating one’s personal, emotional lived experience, sometimes linked to preexisting concepts, in order to highlight the everyday, embodied nature of male domination. But the more general and extensive way in which this device is currently being used is characteristic of the new feminist toolkit that is developing online. It is further driven by ideas from the 1990s and the early 2000s, which put particular emphasis on the importance of situated knowledge through the lens of intersectionality. [3]

    9 While contemporary feminism by no means consists solely of virtual activism, these new methods are therefore bringing change to the movement. It is still too early to know what impact they will have, but they are “raising hopes among certain actors for a paradigm shift from the point of view of collective action.” These new forms of acting collectively, of creating a feeling of community, and of having a voice, suggest that the internet is not solely weakening bonds, or creating another reality, but that it might enable individuals to embody their experience in a different way.

    David Bertrand is an associate professor at the University of Bordeaux, specializing in the sociology of social movements and online political participation. His doctoral dissertation, defended in 2020, focused on the emergence of a fourth wave of feminism in France.


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    The genital turn in feminism

    Statue of a clitoris, installed on the Place du Trocadéro, Paris by the artist Julia Pietri, on March 8, 2021. Photo from the Instagram account @gangduclito, managed by Julia Pietri.

    11 Camille Froidevaux-Metterie also argues that we are seeing a renewal of the feminist movement. In her view, contemporary feminism is characterized by the fact that it is tackling previously unmentionable topics. Froidevaux-Metterie takes a historical perspective in order to explain these apparent breaks with the past, which she demonstrates are in fact part of the continuity of the social movement. Rather than describing feminism as a series of waves, she prefers to “pick out the major battles that have marked its history,” in order to emphasize the diversity of the movement. All of these moments—from the battle for the vote to the battle of gender, via the battles of reproduction and work—are connected, respond to, contrast, and complement one another, and have brought us to the contemporary movement, which she situates as beginning in the 2010s. While the new topics addressed by feminism may seem strangely specific, or even unrelated, they have “no less coherence as a whole,” for all of these concerns—from new types of sanitary protection to gynecological and obstetric violence, (re)discovery of the clitoris and its role, endometriosis, and sexual assault—have one key thing in common: they relate to intimate female bodily experience. This “genital turn in feminism” is thus attacking the “first and last bastion of male domination.”

    12 The novel nature of public discussion of these themes arises from the fact that they could not be broached in the past, and Froidevaux-Metterie’s analysis points to a number of reasons for this silence. One of these is the convergence of several currents of feminist theory in France, which made the female body “the ultimate place of submission to the phallocentric order.” As the primary site of alienation the body thus had to be diminished, in an attempt to break away from what was perceived to be a fundamental source of patriarchal domination. But while “the emancipating movement initiated by the feminists of the 1970s had stopped short at the threshold of intimacy,” contemporary feminists are now charging over it. Why now? There is clearly no easy, single answer to this question. In Froidevaux-Metterie’s view, it is due in part to the #MeToo movement, which has both enabled and been enabled by this movement of bodily reappropriation. She also points to the continuity of the movement: contemporary feminism is built on the back of the battles waged, rights obtained, and individual and collective representations challenged by its predecessors.

    13 In the author’s view, these developments also point to the need for a renewal of the theoretical framework in which feminist issues are considered. On this basis, she proposes a phenomenological feminist approach, which she argues provides a way to effectively tackle the now central question of the “lived experience of [female] corporeality,” which can also be linked to David Bertrand’s observation of the growing importance of personal stories. Lived experience is thus a paradigm of contemporary feminism, through the possibility of a re-embodiment.

    14 This points to an intriguing apparent paradox: feminist concerns relating to bodily experience have emerged at the precise moment when the movement is seizing on the opportunities provided by social networks. Is this pure coincidence, or a condition for its emergence? Might the virtual world have favored a form of embodiment, or are these two characteristics simply separate manifestations of a chronological, technological, and social evolution? While it is still too early to prove or disprove these hypotheses, one thing is certain: the emerging wave represents a shift in the experience of the body and the possibility of making sense of it.

    Camille Froidevaux-Metterie is a researcher and professor of French political science at the University of Reims. Her work focuses on the contemporary feminist movement and centers on the lived body, advocating a phenomenological feminism centered on lived female bodily experience.


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    Psychoanalysis: thinking the sexed body

    Panel to Conceal the Origin of the World, or the Erotic Earth, André Masson, 1955, private collection. This painting was used to conceal Gustave Courbet’s painting Origin of the Earth, then owned by French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.

    16 This emancipating body, which may be subject to reappropriation and subjectification, this body that can be liberated, is the body modeled by the biology-led dominant scientific model. In contrast to this, Freud’s invention—psychoanalysis and its metapsychology—is a “truly subversive gesture” that opens up a space for thinking a sexed body, which reveals itself before the totalizing and normative scientific gaze. This gaze on the body is embodied above all in the medical gaze, through which “the ‘naked’ body becomes an endlessly observed reference point,” making it possible to know, identify, survey, and indeed punish. It is a gaze that exercises a form of power, since it believes it uncovers the truth of the body: “a gaze that sees is a gaze that dominates.”

    17 Laurie Laufer draws on the examples of the athlete Caster Semenya, who underwent a so-called “sex verification” test following doubts about her genitalia, and the memoirs of Herculine Barbin, used by physician Ambroise Tardieu in 1874 to establish a causal relationship between the gender and sexual orientation of Abel Barbin, born Herculine, the first person to have their gender officially changed in France. The comparison of these two examples, separated by over a century, may initially seem an odd one. But it emphasizes the fact that, in both the nineteenth century and today, “sexuality and sexual practices are both the object of and what is at stake in the scientific discourse which determines the subject’s identity,” and that it is medicine that underpins this discourse. The medical gaze of both past and present is based on the same mechanisms, those that claim to uncover the real, objective, true body, through making it visible, an indicator of its conformity to the norm. Thus, “abnormal physiological formations are the sign of potential monstrosities in the social field”: this was true for Herculine Barbin, whose body was subjected to the gaze of the pathologist thought to hold the truth about their sex, just as it was true for Caster Semenya, whose real body was thought to be revealed by a battery of hormone tests and clinical and ultrasound examinations. Feminist movements, their claims, and their theorizations were thus informed by the disowning of the body, of sexuality and its practices: the place of the body that could, or could not, be thought, is also read through the lens of its scientific objectification.

    18 Psychoanalysis responds to this with the concept of drive, infantile sexuality and polymorphous perversity, or the idea of the unconscious. Drive, a concept that straddles the border between the mental and physical, shifts away from the connections proposed by the modern scientific frame of reference between mind and body, while the disturbing idea of infantile sexuality—characterized by polymorphous perversity—reveals and challenges the normative shackles in which sexuality, the object of scientific discourse, is embedded. These examples show how psychoanalysis reminds us that “the body resists through its experiences of pleasure, which make it impossible to define.” As the idea of an act of resistance is part of the contemporary feminist vocabulary, it could be argued that the emergence of topics and problems concerning the female body in this fourth, online wave of feminism, might represent the return of what science has repressed—of what medicine has tried to objectify, anatomize, and count, believing that through these acts it would uncover its unique truth. This social movement that is reappropriating the body by recalling that it is not only the site of power relations, but also the place where sexuality is experienced, might be seen as the sign of this return, and of the affirmation of the elusive nature of this experience.

    19 The body itself opposes the desired veridiction of which it is the object, and affirms the impossibility of being wholly and completely understood: it is this that founds the subject and the conditions for a possible emancipation, which is thus defined more by unique creative potentialities than by the legal or social framework.

    Laurie Laufer is a psychoanalyst, a professor at the Université de Paris’s School of Psychoanalytic Studies, and director of the Centre de Recherches Psychanalyse Médecine et Société (CRPMS) (Center for Research in Psychoanalysis, Medicine, and Society). Much of her work deals with the themes of gender, norms, and sexuality, in relation to psychoanalysis.


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    Translated and edited by Cadenza Academic Translations
    Translator: Hayley Wood, Editor: Suzy Bott, Senior editor Mark Mellor


    • [1]
      Josiane Jouët, Katharina Niemeyer, and Bibia Pavard, “Faire des vagues. Les mobilisations féministes en ligne,” Réseaux 1, no. 201 (2017): 21–57. Translator’s note: Our translation. Unless otherwise stated, all translations of cited foreign language material in this article are our own.
    • [2]
      Camille Froidevaux-Metterie, “Le féminisme et le corps des femmes,” Pouvoirs 2, no. 173 (2020): 63–73.
    • [3]
      This term “aims to describe combined forms of domination” (Alexandre Jaunait and Sébastien Chauvin, “Intersectionnalité,” in Dictionnaire. Genre et science politique: concepts, objets, problèmes, ed. Catherine Achin and Laure Bereni (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2013)), including forms of domination linked to sex, gender, race, and sexual orientation. It thus demonstrates that women do not all experience discrimination in the same way, or to the same degree.

    What is the place of the body in contemporary, online feminist movements? Human scientists, in particular psychoanalysts, have persistently tried to shift the idea of the body toward a space beyond anatomical, biological, and mechanistic representations.

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