“Words and actions”: Donald Trump, Rape Culture, and Hashtag Feminism

Rosemary Clark


Donald Trump: I moved on her like a bitch. But I couldn’t get there. And she was married. Then all of a sudden I see her, she’s now got the big phony tits and everything. She’s totally changed her look…I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her. You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful. I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything… Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.

When, late in the afternoon of Friday, October 7, The Washington Post released behind-the-scenes footage from a 2005 Access Hollywood taping session featuring Donald Trump, the American electorate witnessed the rehearsal of a ritual now signature to the reality television star’s presidential campaign. Supporters and Trump himself were quick to excuse his objectification of journalist Nancy O’Dell and actress Arianne Zucker as yet another instance of the Republican nominee’s words not reflecting his actions as a businessman or his potential as the Commander-in-Chief.

Like all of his previous headline-worthy indiscretions – mocking a reporter with a disability, labeling Mexican immigrants as “criminals” and “rapists,” calling former Miss Universe Alicia Machado “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeping,” perpetuating the racist birther movement, and on, and on, and on – supporters contend that the eleven-year-old Trump Tapes are just talk, hot air emanating from a hot-blooded man with a hot microphone.

In the leaked conversation with correspondent Billy Bush, Trump proclaims that, as a “star,” he is entitled to access women’s bodies whenever and however he wants – “Grab ‘em by the pussy,” he says, “You can do anything.” Trump initially dismissed the audio as “locker room banter,” an example of everyday small talk between a couple of straight men, and his supporters backed him up on Twitter under the hashtags #LockerRoomBanter and #LockerRoomTalk, normalizing Trump’s description of sexual coercion as pompous but harmless “boys will be boys” machismo.

After several Republican leaders withdrew their support of the party’s nominee, Trump released a one-minute-and-thirty-second video apology and double-downed on his insistence that his comments have no real significance, that his words are separate from his actions:

Let’s be honest. We’re living in the real world. This is nothing more than a distraction from the important issues we’re facing today…I’ve said some foolish things, but there’s a big difference between the words and actions of other people. Bill Clinton has actually abused women, and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed, and intimidated his victims.

Trump, in other words, may have said some horrendous things about women, but at least he (allegedly) hasn’t done anything to “actually” harm women.

That evening, Canadian author and Twitter personality Kelly Oxford made a simple request to her women-followers that would complicate the disconnect the Trump campaign has driven time and again between words and actions:

Oxford, after recounting the first time she was assaulted, called on women to break their silence, recognize that “they aren’t just stats,” and reply to her tweet with their own stories of sexual violence. Within hours, Oxford was receiving at least two sexual assault stories per second and her Twitter handle was trending across North America. As of 12:00 a.m. EDT on October 9, Oxford had received nearly 10 million responses to her initial tweet.

Oxford eventually started the hashtag #NotOkay, providing survivors with a more visible platform to connect and share their stories.

The hashtag’s digitally networked and archived narratives are not only heartbreaking evidence that sexual violence remains a pervasive social injustice, but implicit reminders that the discourse normalizing the objectification of women’s bodies enables the material reality of sexual violence. When sexual assault is dismissed as mere “locker room banter,” the norms that support men’s entitlement to women’s bodies and rationalize gender-based violence as an accepted element of social life are further cemented. As Oxford tweeted, “This is rape culture. This is what we hear & live.”

A great deal of social movement research has illuminated the many ways in which social media help streamline the process of organizing and participating in a protest. Today’s activists check Facebook to find out where and when a protest is taking place and use Twitter to mobilize bystanders and counter mainstream media coverage of protest actions. Hashtag campaigns like #NotOkay, however, suggest that social media platforms can also be the very spaces within which protest unfolds. The survivors tweeting under the hashtag may never meet face-to-face to march in the streets or to volunteer for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, but their collective action is just as powerful. Far from what some commentators have referred to as “slacktivism,” hashtag feminism is a digital form of what Stacey Young, in her 1997 book, Changing the Wor(l)d: Discourse, Politics and the Feminist Movement, calls discursive activism. Hashtag feminism aims to deconstruct dominant discourse and, in its place, promote new interpretive frameworks for understanding and responding to social phenomena. Unlike Trump, feminist hashtag campaigns connect words and actions, underscoring how the ways in which we tend to think and talk about issues like sexual violence directly affect people’s lives and wellbeing. Whereas Trump has repeatedly promulgated degrading discourse about women, feminists have strategically used Twitter’s pithily hashtagged medium to gather support, condemn misogyny, and promote the idea that sexual violence is #NotOkay.

Twitter, a platform that enables immediate and broad reach and rewards concise but poignant messages, has been an especially forceful tool for discursive activism. In a 2014 essay for Feminist Media Studies, Samantha Thrift calls feminist hashtags feminist meme events, or a media event that references not only a current event (in this case, the Trump Tapes), but also becomes a reference point for understanding broader systems of injustice, of which the event might be a symptom (in this case, rape culture). In this way, hashtag feminism harkens back to Civil Rights Era feminists’ declaration that “the personal is political,” everyday experiences are enmeshed in broader structures of power. #NotOkay, as a feminist meme event, refuses to write off the Trump Tapes as “a distraction from the important issues,” instead shedding light on the deep entanglement between Trump’s “locker room banter” and systems of oppression. Like its predecessors #WhyIStayed, #YesAllWomen, and #YouOkSis, #NotOkay pushes up against the discourse feeding the roots of the violence women face in their everyday lives. While it is difficult to draw direct lines of causation, hashtag feminism, the latest tactic in a long tradition of feminist media activism in North America, has shifted the frameworks mainstream media use to report on sexual and gender-based violence.

Of course, hashtag activism is not an inherently progressive tactic, but one whose politics shift depending upon who is sitting on the other side of the screen. While I drafted this post, Trump supporters were still tweeting under #LockerRoomBanter and Twitter trolls were harassing Kelly Oxford. As feminist activists and researchers grappling with the possibilities and limitations of digital platforms, we must take heed of Sarah Banet-Weiser’s warning that with popular feminism comes popular misogyny. But, in a sociopolitical context in which one of the country’s two major political parties dismisses feminist critiques of misogynist speech and behavior as little more than censorious “PC culture,” activism that exposes the connection between how we talk and who faces violence is more important than ever. Hashtag feminism may be a virtual activism, but its causes and effects are deeply felt.


Photo Credit: Johnny Silvercloud, You’re Proving Her Point, Trump Inauguration 2017, Creative Commons 2.0

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