Lana Lopesi weighs the risks and rewards of toiling in the digital mines, in this extract from her new book Bloody Woman published by BWB
Among the varying digital feminisms of the fourth wave, I am interested in the particular manifestation which I call ‘Pacific digital feminisms’ as enacted by Pacific cyberhunnies online. I use this term as an umbrella for a wide range of expressions and cultural production, on social media and elsewhere online, which employ feminist tenets.
Since first joining Twitter a decade ago, I have watched and participated in shifting conversations around issues to do with gender inequity, patriarchy and womanhood, many of which centre on knowledge-sharing. Over the past few years Pacific women, queer, trans and non-binary folk have become a significant (and over- lapping) group producing counter-narratives and counterimagery on social media. When FAFSWAG (established in 2013) came onto the Auckland art scene and into internet stardom, this queer art collective accelerated the need for the Pacific community to examine their own homophobia and transphobia. I’ve seen obsessions with diet culture and the glorification of over-exercise shift toward body positivity, fat positivity and the calling out of fatphobia. There has been a constant reclamation of Pacific sexualities, with an emphasis on pleasure as important for everyone involved in a sexual encounter, which often clashes with conservative and misogynist values that put a man’s ‘needs’ first.
In the last week alone I’ve engaged in Twitter conversations around attitudes toward tampons (over pads), unconscious bias in Plunket nurses and the news of MP Kiritapu Allan’s cervical cancer diagnosis (which prompted discussion of the need to ‘smear your mea’ and the barriers to that kind of health care). As a young Brown mum, I found Twitter to be the key place where I saw parenthood like mine represented positively, and in some cases at all. I found and joined a group of mums redefining the negative narrative around young motherhood and reclaiming it in a jointly empowered way, sharing knowledge and building community. As I was dealing with my gendered body, which post-partum wasn’t able to perform as easily as it once had, I saw Pacific folk claiming their sexuality. I don’t think any of these online participants thought they were engaging in ‘digital feminism’ but that is what it was, and still is. Together they built a counterimage and a counterpublic. This place opened up knowledge, gender expressions and conversations which I had not been privy to before.
One of the main characteristics of Pacific digital feminisms is the creation of self-images. The online is a space where people can refuse dominant narratives or remix their sense of self, separate from their body, into something else, becoming cyberhunnies. It is a space where people can reimagine their identities in whatever ways make sense to them; reclaim or mediate elements of their culture that may otherwise be inaccessible or that they may not be able to practise; and assert their sexuality and speak openly about sex in ways that centre the notion of pleasure. It wasn’t until I hit social media that I saw other Pacific women talk openly about erotic pleasure, sex toys, sex work and OnlyFans accounts. While not all women create self-images that are sexy in this way, the era of the thirst trap saw a huge shift in public presentations of Pacific bodies.
Within the hyper-conservative context of Pacific expressions of gender, this reclamation of sexuality was pretty radical. However as visibility for and of Pacific women increases, so too does criticism, misogyny and lateral violence. It comes from all sides, at all times.
Recently, Coconet had a segment on their TV show Fresh called ‘Say It Wit Yo Chest’. The segment involves a group of Pacific panellists discussing a topic. One recent topic was ‘Is WAP Female Empowerment?’ While this is not a novel question — Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s song ‘WAP’ (standing for ‘wet-ass pussy’) has been discussed in this way since the song was first released — asking it within the Pacific context was pretty progressive. The panel itself was tame but good; it felt appropriately levelled for Fresh’s audience. Yet it was the conversations that ensued in various places on social media afterwards, namely the contributions from the men who felt that female empowerment was a topic for their input (slut-shaming and arguing for respectability), rather than leaving it to the women to discuss, that were more telling.
Within Pacific digital feminisms, social media and specifically Twitter, Instagram and now TikTok are sites where Pacific women can speak back to white feminism for centring the experiences of the dominant few; where trans and non-binary folk can speak back to trans-exclusionary feminism and its overemphasis on biology; and where everyone who is not a cishetero man can speak back to wide-ranging patriarchal violence. But it’s even more multilayered than that. Pacific digital feminists have to deal with issues of misogyny and patriarchy, from those within and outside of our Pacific communities. They have to call out racism more broadly. And they have to deal with calling out each other for upholding respectability politics or reinforcing the colonial logics which warped Indigenous Moana understandings of gender in the first place. A whole lot of care work is happening here. Working through the overlapping and intersecting concerns for Pacific digital feminists and cyberhunnies calls back to Crenshaw’s intersectional feminism, highlighting why that is so vital for Pacific cyberhunnies in particular, but also arguably all Black, Brown and Indigenous feminists.
Women are caring for each other and for others by making us better citizens, who in turn will be better placed to care for women of all kinds because of the way knowledge was shared and growth was nurtured. At times this discourse can look like online shouting matches or petty politics and can even be disregarded as cancel culture when it gets beyond a certain point. As someone who needs a 2,000-word article or even a full book to enact my own equivalent form of care work, I am in complete awe of the cyberhunnies who can do the same thing in single tweets.
Social media today is the first port of call, the first agon, for many of these loving but tough conversations. Here Moana folks of all walks of life enter the conversation wrapped up in layers of their own white supremacy, internalised misogyny and church teachings, and must navigate through a maze of Twitter threads on decolonisation, race, privilege, classism, ableism and so forth. I myself tend to choose silence and digital inactivity in the face of what feels like danger, a reaction to the risks of online activism that many folks choose. However, much research has shown that women and non-white folks ‘nevertheless continue successfully expanding social resistance through organised activism, despite encountering organised online violence in response’. From where I’m sitting, that diverse and overlapping group of Pacific women, queer, trans and non-binary folk are putting in a lot of work to share knowledge and educate their followers. When I consider that unpaid emotional labour (not even counting the toll that abuse for speaking your mind has on the psyche), a part of me wonders what the worth of committing yourself to the work of a public intellectual really is.
When it comes to notions of labour within Pacific communities, I already know that we’re doing the most work for the least reward. Around 81 per cent of Pacific people in New Zealand engage in unpaid work like child care, household work, cooking, repairs and gardening every week, more than the rest of the population. And of that 81 per cent, it is most likely to be women engaging in the bulk of it. Pacific peoples and women in particular are more likely to care for an ill or disabled person than any other group in the total population. And of Pacific women who are in paid employment, they are most likely to be employed as carers and aides.
The unpaid work of that 81 per cent of Pacific people can be described within a Marxist feminist frame as ‘immaterial labour’. In today’s capitalist society the production of material goods by labour is separate from the maintenance and reproduction of the health, wellbeing and life of people, or immaterial labour. This labour is driven by a set of immaterial qualities which Italian theorist Leopoldina Fortunati describes as ‘affect, care, love, education, socialisation, communication, information, entertainment, organisation, planning, coordination, logistics’. Even menial chores are driven by those qualities, or the desire to serve loved ones.
As feminist scholar Emma Dowling writes, these kinds of ‘caring activities’ tend to be ‘some of the most undervalued and invisibilised activities of all, while those who perform them are some of the most neglected and unsupported people in our societies’. While care is important to every single person, and everyone requires care, it still seems to be of very little value. ‘Care work is either unpaid or paid, and, more often than not, under-paid. Care work takes place in homes, in neighbourhoods, in community contexts, in networks of families and friendships …’
I bring this up because the work that Pacific women, queer, trans and non-binary folk are doing online to educate civil society is similarly immaterial labour — it’s unpaid work which goes into aiding society. Like traditional modes of immaterial labour such as running a household, having and caring for children, showing love and empathy, which all contribute to the mechanisms of capitalist society, immaterial labour online — such as advocating for social justice, engaging in knowledge-sharing and educating — contributes to the capitalist mechanisms which underpin social media sites. Just today across Twitter and Instagram I have seen this care work enacted through education around Covid-19 vaccination. This immaterial labour was specifically aimed at supporting vaccine hesitant people from Māori and Pacific communities to make informed decisions as they navigate the vaccination process. This is something which literally takes care of the individuals and through increased vaccination rates society more broadly. What may seem as simple as an infographic on vaccination, is actually unpaid labour which helps society keep going or, in this situation, get back to functionality.
Digital media academic Kylie Jarrett makes this argument by showing how traditional immaterial labour activities map closely onto the new types of unpaid labour associated with digital media industries (managing community forums, commenting on a friend’s Instagram post or educating people on Twitter, for example). Our social media participation relies on our cognitive labour (how something affects us) and communicative, cooperative labour (our social relations), activity that changes the state of real-world systems. Using the model of domestic work to think through social media activity, Jarrett coined the idea of the ‘Digital Housewife’. The Digital Housewife is the person whose cognitive and affective efforts in building and sustaining relationships online, in communicating and coordinating activity, in producing and sharing content, is at the heart of the collective intelligence of a media platform’s commercial properties. Basically this person creates the content that makes a given social media site meaningful, and does so in a way which can be commodified. Doing this work for free means that social media companies significantly increase their surplus value.
McKenzie Wark points to a similar distinction between those who do the work and those who profit from it, in her conceptualisation of a new class relation between the ‘hacker class’ and the ‘vectorialist class’. The hacker class are people like me and (most likely) you, who use social media websites, create content and reinforce our social relationships online. The vectorialist class are the ones who own what we make. Wark comments that ‘we have run out of world to commodify’, and so ‘commodification can only cannibalise its own means of existence, both natural and social’. The part of Wark’s book that really got me was when she writes, ‘most people seem rather alarmed that their desire to share and be with each other, to reach out to friends, to pass on cat pictures, even their desire to have ferocious arguments with strangers, is making someone else very, very rich’. ‘This is not capitalism anymore,’ Wark claims, ‘it’s something worse.’ It’s not only labour and leisure which has been commodified but also ‘our sociability, our common and ordinary life together’.
Immaterial labour online has previously been connected to the historical gifting practices of the internet or the idea of the internet as a ‘high-tech gift economy’. The original concept argued that exchanges on the internet were gifts because they didn’t rely on monetary transactions, and because each input contributed to the cultural commons or general intellect online. These early ideas posited the internet as a mode of anarcho-communism which could provide radical alternatives to capitalist modes of production. But what happens when the gifts are unevenly given or sold on to others? Not everyone has something to give.
And herein lies the contradiction. Social media creates platforms for radical counterimages and counter-narratives which are tied to the notion of sovereign bodies, which is vital. But on the other hand social media platforms capitalise off of everyone who uses them; toilers in the mines of social media, with their quests for social justice, are making straight white American dudes (to put it crudely) a lot of money. If this is correct, then creating radical counterimages and counterpublics without a consciousness of the larger gendered and racialised capitalist system at work may actually reinforce capitalist production, because the social inequalities discussed in online activisms are inseparable from capitalism.
Where are we supposed to go from here? Digital feminisms have a lot of work cut out for them, both in what they’re seeking to do (the problems implicit in their movements) and in the systems of social media that are their mechanisms of choice for attempting social justice. The problematic way the internet works is really no different from the way the world currently functions — this ‘world is not built for us; yet still, somehow, we are here’ — and so at worst the internet ‘only reflects back to us the misery of the world around us’. Despite this, at best, the online space may be used and hijacked in ways that bring value to people. Digital feminisms (like the best of previous feminisms) are a kind of making life, even in the face of violence.
According to Silvia Federici, sites of social reproduction or care work are ‘ground zero’ for revolution; from there, a dismantling of the capitalist patriarchy’s infrastructure can begin. In introducing a different consciousness to Pacific digital feminisms, we can start to construct something new, because engaging in care work is already to be engaged in the remaking of worlds. This something new must not fall into individualistic definitions of empowerment but be a redefining, remixing and reshaping of the tenets of feminism so they make sense to the people and communities being empowered.
This extract from Bloody Woman, written by Lana Lopesi and published by Bridget Williams Books, is published here with permission.
Dr Lana Lopesi is an author, art critic, and the editor-in-chief of the Pacific Arts Legacy Project. She is also interim director of Pantograph Punch, and a lecturer in the School of Art and Design at AUT. In 2018, Lana published her debut book, False Divides (BWB Texts), and in 2019 she co-edited the book Transits and Returns (Vancouver Art Gallery, Institute of Modern Art).