Clickbait Feminism: A Trend Journalists Should Avoid
There has been a recent trend of jumping on the bandwagon of a social justice issue. Whether it is showing disdain for Donald Sterling’s racist statements or targeting businesses in Indiana for refusing to host gay weddings, it seems that people tend to join conversations when the stakes are low. This behavior is acceptable for Facebook and Twitter. It is practically the entire basis of Tumblr. But it becomes an issue within journalism. I don’t expect someone in my Newsfeed to have researched and written a well-thought-out response to a particular social issue, though it is nice when it happens. I do expect the media I read on a daily basis to work a little harder than a clickbait title, a YouTube video, and a half-assed paragraph addressing the low-stake issue at hand. This became more apparent to me than ever as I followed the “debate” around Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Full disclosure: I am a feminist. Even fuller disclosure, I love comic books and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So of course, with Marvel being the focus of this mediastorm, I read every feminist hot take on The Avengers. It started with the press tour, when Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans made some unfortunate slut-shaming remarks about their co-star Scarlett Johansson’s character Black Widow. It continued with Renner attempting to pull himself out of a proverbial hole by continuing to make more unfortunate remarks about what he called “a fictional character.” It was an obvious public relations problem, but it had nothing to do with the movie. Then came the microanalyses.
I define microanalyses as the short jabs at aspects of some pop culture phenomenon that never actually add to any discussion and are typically a play for page views. For example, at one point in the film Robert Downey Jr.’s character Tony Stark makes a joke about prima nocta. Prima nocta, the act of a nobleman demanding to have sex with a subordinate woman before her husband, is best known for its use in Braveheart and less its use in real life. I would have been happy with an article discussing the history of prima nocta, or the character profile of Tony Stark (a known womanizer), or even a discussion of whether the joke was appropriate. Instead most articles lead with a title like: “Is there really a rape joke in Avengers: Age of Ultron?” (Slate) or “There’s a weird old-timey rape joke in Avengers Age of Ultron” (Buzzfeed). Both of these stories contain a clip of the joke, but lack the appropriate discussion about the joke. This is Clickbait Feminism.
Clickbait Feminism instructs the viewer, “don’t think, agree”. This is the antithesis of feminist thinking. Criticizing pop culture requires in-depth critiques that add to the discussion. You can be disappointed in a portrayal or the way a subject is presented in pop culture, but critique demands a conversation that extends past a catchy title. bell hooks argues, “It’s really about being enlightened witnesses when we watch representations, which means we are able to be critically vigilant about both what is being told to us and how we respond to what is being told.” Sady Doyle of Medium offered one of the best critiques of gender issues in the new Avengers film. Her analysis of Age of Ultron delves into the gender troubles of the film by looking at the representation of its characters:
“When the character-based screenwriting breaks down, so does the feminism. Black Widow is just as ill-served as every other character in that story, but because she’s a woman, it’s politically offensive as well as aesthetically offensive.”
Doyle recognizes the gender issues in Age of Ultron don’t arise because the film was made by misogynists, but because the film isn’t well-written– the characters lack the depth needed to create intriguing identities and representations. This is obviously not the only argument for or against the film, but when a writer attempts to add depth to their analysis, the criticism is successful.
One of my favorite websites, but one of the worst offenders of Clickbait Feminism, is Jezebel. Jezebel has always been known for its aggressive style of in-your-face feminism., and there is usually nothing wrong with that. However, in the last few years they have built their brand off titles that encourage views. Take the title of this article about Maggie Gyllenhaal: “Aging Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal Too Old to Play 55-Year Old’s Lover.” Age in Hollywood is a very interesting topic, however this particular article doesn’t delve into ageism in Hollywood beyond a one-sentence statement by Gyllenhaal. Or take “Rich Ladies Who Get ‘Wife Bonuses’ are Your New Favorite Demo to Hate,” where the author attacks the women getting wife bonuses and not a patriarchal institution reminiscent of affluent nobility rewarding young brides who produced male heirs. Both examples use their title to lure the reader in and then provide the reader with no critical analysis at all. Kyria Abrahams of Thought Catalog argues that “Jezebel plays upon the worst female stereotype: that of the gossipy, shrill, cliquish, therapy-tethered, cast of Girls-style spoiled brat. Jezebel writers act the way misogynistic men mistakenly believe all women act, with a stick up their ass and their nose in an iPhone. This website, and sites like them, have single-handedly set back badass chicks faster than Sleater Kinney in a tractor beam.” With articles like these, Jezebel encourages outrage without critique– clicks without thought.
As Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency, a website that gives in-depth critical analyses of pop culture, stated at a recent panel, “Feminism is not about striving for perfection. It’s about striving for justice.” As a feminist, I can’t expect everyone participating in the movement to be doing feminism right, but I can ask more of them. As a feminist, I can ask the media outlets I consume to avoid Clickbait Feminism that doesn’t add to the conversation or the movement. I recognize that I am a consumer and media is a business, but media should earn my views with good journalism. Clickbait Feminism will never be good journalism, especially when it perpetuates a stereotype of feminists that moves us further away from achieving justice.