#YESALLWOMEN: Reclaiming Power and Redefining Victimhood through Social Movement
This paper was originally developed for an undergraduate rhetorical theory class and later adapted in a senior writing seminar.
In the fight against misogyny, rhetoric has predominantly become a tool for women. Although scholars often debate the meaning of rhetoric, rhetorician Kenneth Burke defines rhetoric as “the use of words by human agents to form attitudes or induce actions in other human agents” (Foss 63). In other words, rhetors use language to persuade an audience and express an exigence that must be solved. The #YesAllWomen hashtag was a social movement that used Twitter as a platform for expressing instances of misogyny. In this paper, I initially complete a cluster criticism to analyze the movement’s effectiveness as a movement, revealing an underlying misogynistic ideology. Such misogyny is reflected in everyday behaviors and actions that women are subjected to daily. Within these experiences, women are automatically positioned as victims.
Additionally, I argue that my methodology revealed that this specific hashtag contributed to the development of the hashtag activism genre, leaving space for personalized rhetoric that allows participants to express personal instances of misogyny, a process that ultimately permits them to reshape their identities and regain power within the rhetorical situation.
For the sake of my argument, the exigence broadly refers to any evidence of misogyny. The rhetoric of #YesAllWomen on Twitter aimed to address societal misogynistic behaviors and their effect on the modern day woman in an attempted call for action following a specific rhetorical event, the Isla Vista Killings.
My artifact of study within this paper is the #YesAllWomen hashtag, a social movement that was ignited by the Isla Vista Killings. This mass shooting occurred on May 23, 2014 near the University of California, Santa Barbara campus. The shooter left six dead and thirteen injured before turning the gun on himself. He was fueled by a deep-seated hatred of women, as evidenced by videos he released prior to the shooting of his own misogynistic rantings, as well as a 140-page manifesto that condemned the women who he claimed had ignored him and the men who purportedly received their attentions instead. Rodger’s actions and beliefs sparked the #YesAllWomen movement:
#YesAllWomen offers a counter testimony to the disturbing evidence left behind the tragedy Rodger’s produced. #YesAllWomen demonstrates that Rodger’s hate grew out of elements that are still surrounding society such as sexism, oppression, and patriarchy. The tweets produce personal one sentence narratives demanding for a more just society for women (Weiss, 2014, as cited in Dixon 35). Some of these tweets personally define hashtag feminism as an acknowledgement of their pain and a platform to share their experiences of living in a male-dominated society. (Dixon 35)
This movement essentially expresses the idea that “No, not all men are misogynists, but yes, all women experience misogyny” (Panda). The hashtag initially occurred on Twitter, a social media site that allows participants to express thoughts and information in statements of 140 characters of fewer, known as “tweets.” A “hashtag” is a feature of various social media in which a key word or phrase is used to categorize information within posts. The word or words are written un-spaced and preceded by a number symbol (“#”). This feature allows related information on social media to be grouped together and easily accessible. Additionally, the use of a hashtag permits participation from, potentially, all members of a social media community in a larger conversation.
Twitter is a wide platform, with approximately 645,750,000 active accounts that publish around 58 million tweets a day (Twitter, Huffington Post, E-Marker, 2014, as cited in Dixon 35). Due to Twitter’s ever-growing nature, it is difficult to properly quantify the tweets within a hashtag. The peak of the movement occurred around the summer of 2014. However, between March 11 and April 11 of 2015, the #YesAllWomen hashtag was used 43,366 times with a total of 38,664 contributors. Such widespread participation has resulted in an overall meaningful conversation that allows various women to contribute personal stories about instances when they experienced expressions of misogyny. I will be focusing my study on the use of the hashtag on Twitter.
The implementation of hashtags for Internet activism is often referred to as “hashtag activism.” Using social media platforms to shed light on and combat various social issues is a practice that has grown in presence as of late with various other hashtags. Some notable examples are #Kony2012 and #BringBackOurGirls. Hashtag activism allows for members of a wide audience to participate in a conversation. #YesAllWomen was an early, important example of how personalization in rhetoric could potentially lead to meaningful societal change.
In contrast, the #YesAllWomen movement furthered the development of hashtag activism as a subset of the social movement genre. The distinctly personal nature of the tweets gave them an element of rhetorical power [AE2] over the audience, Twitter users, and more broadly, Internet users in general. This ability of the hashtag to unite women in a form of expression not only personalizes the tweets for the audience, but also centers the movement on human experience. This focus is furthered through the individual stories the participants express that serve to clarify the overall message of the movement: that misogyny is commonplace and has harmful effects on all women.
Analyzing Rhetoric based on Association
Cluster criticism is rhetorical theory created by Kenneth Burke that focuses primarily on a rhetor’s specific choice. The theory focuses on the notion that a rhetor uses specific language to communicate ideas and to guide an audience; “Rhetoric, then provides an orientation in some way and provides assistance in adjusting to it” (Foss 64). Therefore, a rhetor must be clear in making word choices that are appropriate for a specific text’s audience. This form of analysis examines key terms and their associative clusters to reveal the worldview expressed by a given text. Data collection involves making note of the words that cluster around various key terms. Clusters refer both to words that are repeated multiple times throughout a text and those that may not be repeated, but are stressed, particularly if in close proximity to a key word.
Applying Burke’s theory of cluster criticism reveals the #YesAllWomen movement’s message, the daily omnipresence of misogyny, to be its underlying ideology. Through this analysis, the inherent personalization and its value to the movement are revealed.
The Rise of Hashtag Activism and Personalized Digital Rhetoric
In this instance, the rhetoric of #YesAllWomen was created out of necessity following a specific event. The movement began as a means for open discussion about the misogyny, harassment, and violence faced by women everyday. The hashtag communicates a specific exigence, the misogyny faced by women as a result of everyday male behavior. The concept of hashtag activism is not a new one. As social media becomes increasingly ingrained onto our everyday lives, these platforms become a means for activism and social discussion in recent years. Social media provide an open space for the discussion of many issues, and the incorporation of a catchy hashtag allows for the promotion and spread of activism.
One of the earliest instances of hashtag activism was #KONY2012. This campaign went viral across the country, but initially began as sort of online social experiment. Kony 2012 was the title of a short film created by Invisible Children to support their Stop Kony campaign, which aimed to expose notorious African war criminal Joseph Kony. This instance of hashtag activism was, at the time, the fastest spreading campaign ever. As of 2014, Mashable, a digital media website, had named the film “the most viral video of all time” (“The ‘Kony 2012’ Effect”).
Yet another application of this genre occurred in early 2014, around the same time as #YesAllWomen, with #BringBackOurGirls. This hashtag began similarly to #YesAllWomen, sparked by an isolated event, the kidnapping of 276 Nigerian schoolgirls by the Islamic terror group Boko Haram. It spread so quickly and reached a wide audience; even the first lady participated by posting a photo of herself holding a sign with the hashtag written on. The rise of this specific instance of hashtag activism was accompanied by the creation of an advocacy group that continues to advocate for the rescue and safe return of these young girls (Bring Back Our Girls).
While the omnipresence of the Internet subsists, the means for online communication continue to grow; “a good deal of vibrant and effective public discourse in the forms of social activism and resistance occur online… such discourse has had noticeable effects on society … it is therefore worthy of careful study by rhetoricians” (Warnick 3). Within hashtag activism, specifically that of #YesAllWomen, such public communication has become intrinsically personal. The function of a Twitter hashtag is to increase visibility, yet participation in this specific example developed through the use of personalized rhetoric.
The Internet of today has a far wider reach than any other information source in existence. Activism on social media forums, such as Twitter, has a persuasive power that similar campaigns on other media forms do not. “… Web-based affordances offer a number of advantages for public discourse that are unavailable in mass media. Among these are affordability, access, opportunities for horizontal communication and interactivity, online forums for discussion and mobilization, networking capacity, and platforms for multimedia” (Warnick 6). In Rhetoric Online: Persuasion and Politics on the World Wide Web, Barbara Warnick analyzes the intervention of public discourse, politics, and digital rhetoric. She raises a number of questions relevant to consider in regards to hashtag activism, such as “How does online communication facilitate offline social protest and social activism?” (8). Her article broadly references the use of various forms of online communication and the potential impact on the public sphere. #YesAllWomen, although not a particularly political campaign, uses similar rhetoric to facilitate “social cohesion and public involvement in major events and issues impacting the public sphere” (8).
#YesAllWomen was one of the earliest campaigns to use a public forum to take personal experiences to call for collective responsibility. The movement allowed hashtag activism to develop further as genre through focus on personalization. The personal rhetoric applied within individual tweets served as both a call to action and a means of redefining identity for participants.
A Call to Action with Women as Victims
One of the primary functions of the use of personalized rhetoric is that it allows the rhetors to pose a call to action to the rhetorical audience. Throughout the #YesAllWomen tweets, however, the use of “men” and “women” within this personalized rhetoric as god and devil terms, position women as victims.
The hashtag exposed a societal view of women that dehumanizes them, contributing to the rhetors’ worldview of a misogynistic society. Throughout various tweets that were categorized within #YesAllWomen, the key term women is paired closely with words that portray females as victims, who are characterized primarily by their experience with the exigence that these tweets address, the everyday instances of misogyny women face. The word women appears throughout multiple tweets, which indicated to me its rhetorical significance and identity as a key term. The resulting clusters specifically refer to the treatment of women. One rhetor stated, “#YesAllWomen because the media present men as people but present women as sexual objects” (Panda). Associations between the key terms women and objects are implied through their close proximity within this particular text. The equivalence of these terms allows the rhetor to claim that women are viewed as less than men in modern society. Together, these terms attempt to make the audience aware of the objectification, and resulting dehumanization, of women in society.
Alternately, looking at the simultaneous keys term of women and men reveals a portrayal of males as aggressors and perpetrators of misogyny. The clusters that accompany this term refer to male behavior towards women. One rhetor writes, “Not ALL men harass women. But all women have, at some point, been harassed by men. Food for thought. #YesAllWomen” (Panda). Here, the key term men is closely linked with the word harass, implying that the men are acting in a manner toward women. Additionally the key term women is associated with the word harassed, since the harassment is an act that women undergo. The association is made clear by the idea expressed in this statement, that all women experience harassment. The rhetor of this tweet is making an implication that (some) men perform the action of harassment towards (all) women. This is supported further by the verb forms associated with both key terms. The artifact makes the claim that women are harassed, indicating an experience, whereas men harass, signifying an action. Thus, it is understood that these women experience an action that is conducted by the men. They are victims of male behavior.
The words woman and man are further characterized as “god” and “devil” terms throughout additional #YesAllWomen tweets, subsequently furthering the characterization of women as victims within the exigence. One tweet reads, “When a man says no in this culture, it’s the end of the discussion. When a woman says no, it’s the beginning of a negotiation” (Panda). Man and woman are linked with situational words, discussion and negotiation, respectively. The act of a man saying no is characterized as the end of a discussion, which suggests that the man has full control over the situation. Alternatively, the same action by a woman is described as a negotiation, implying that the woman is not allowed or given any power in the situation. This language communicates a lack of balance between the two parties that further indicates the rhetors’ worldview of misogyny. Within this situation, the women are at the mercy of male behavior and control. This tweet expresses the notion that women have little to no power to control the misogyny that they experience from men. Such a lack of control is itself an expression of misogyny, as men are given the authority over women’s experiences.
The analysis of every as an additional key term, and in conjunction with other key terms, further illustrates the widespread nature of misogyny that the rhetors are responding to and together they represent a call to action. The inclusiveness of this term indicates that neither men nor women are absent from the exigence of this rhetorical situation. Every is associated with various words that indicate the widespread presence of the exigence. One tweet reads, “#notallmen practice violence but #YesAllWomen live with the threat of make violence. Every. Single. Day. All over the world” (Panda). The key term every is linked with cluster words day, violence, and threat, which all convey a sense of urgency. Both violence and threat have a strong negative connotation; they indicate a dangerous situation of which women have little to no control. At the same time, the word day communicates to the reader that these negative acts are ongoing. All together, these words convey a sense of danger, as well as a urgency and a lack of control for women over the situation.
Together, these #YesAllWomen tweets place the responsibility on all parties for demanding and enacting change and therefore solving the exigence. The rhetors employ women and men as “god” and “devil” terms, respectively, which helps them to further characterize the rhetorical situation for the audience. The use of the key term every indicates that the exigence is extensive and affects all members of the society. Men are represented within the tweets as the performers of the action, while women are displayed as the victims of male behavior. It is through the lens of these “god” and “devil” terms that the language of these tweets and the message that they convey can be fully understood. These key terms and their accompanying clusters reveal a greater emphasis within the movement on the women that are being mistreated, as opposed to the men that are mistreating them. This focus reveals an attempt to refrain from simple placing blame within the situation and calls for people to instead share the responsibility for solving the exigence. Further analysis of the hashtag displays reclamation of power.
Reshaping Identity and Reclaiming Power After Victimhood through Personal Experience
The #YesAllWomen movement contributed to the development of the genre of hashtag activism through its focus on personalization. When I completed a cluster analysis of the hashtag, I revealed the emphasis on personalized rhetoric that rhetors employed to draw support for the movement. #YesAllWomen was an instance of hashtag activism that was truly personal for it called for all women to contribute their stories. Misogyny is a problem that these women experience every single day to varying degrees; it was not an isolated issue, but one faced by every woman. Thus, the collective nature of the hashtag allowed women to ultimately reshape their identities, and to resist the stigma of victimhood.
The use of specific events contributes to the personal nature of the tweets. One user wrote, “#YesAllWomen because for my sixteenth birthday my best friend gave me a weapon to defend myself” (Twitter). The message conveyed in this tweet is a specific memory. This woman gives details to recreate the situation, such as her age at the time and the fact that it occurred on her birthday. In our culture, sixteenth birthdays are often seen as a coming of age, so this is an event that the majority of the audience is likely to be able to relate to. This is typically the age at which American teenagers get their licenses, and a sixteenth birthday often comes with the gift of a car. However, this trope is overturned in this tweet, because the user received a much more unconventional gift: a weapon. The rhetor seems to take a sense of empowerment through this experience. The contrast between “all” in #YesAllWomen and her use of “my” within the tweet to describe this memory gives it a personal feel, allowing the rhetorical audience to be drawn into the experience, while also serving as a means for the rhetor reshape her identity and regain power within the rhetorical situation. She finishes the tweet with the word “myself,” so the statement ultimately ends with her; she remains in complete control. The weapon that she was gifted is not described as a way to fight back against an attacker, but as a way for her to defend herself. Thus, she controls the situation in which she may be confronted by a form of violence due to misogyny. She does not allow herself to be made victim to said misogyny, but instead becomes empowered through her own strength and ability to protect herself.
The various tweets within the #YesAllWomen hashtag employed personal rhetoric in order to characterize a specific situation, daily misogyny, for the rhetorical audience. These tweets raised awareness of an issue that is often disguised as commonplace behaviors and attitudes in an attempt to call the audience to action. This social media movement involved the first instance of personalized rhetoric. The various participants were inadvertently contributing personalized rhetoric simply through their support of this hashtag. By expressing a statement of support underneath the hashtag, they were personally recognizing its relation on their own experiences. There were also many instances in which participants used specific stories or memories to reinforce the existence of daily misogyny for the audience. Such personalization has since become a rhetorical tactic of hashtag activism. Within the #YesAllWomen movement served as a means for raising awareness and calling society to action. This is a step towards eradicating the exigence of misogyny. Individuals must recognize its existence in order to finally put an end to these harmful behaviors and actions. Yet, ultimately, the movement, and any instance of true hashtag activism, must be accompanied by real action in order to enact true change.
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