How Consumerism Appropriates Social Movements

“The entertainment industry is compelled to present to the American people a self-perpetuating fantasy of American life. The mere concept of entertainment is difficult to distinguish from the use of narcotics. To watch the TV screen for any length of time is to learn some really frightening things about the American sense of reality. We are cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are. We cannot possibly begin to become what we would like to be until we ask ourselves exactly why the lives we live on this continent are mainly so empty, so tame, and lonely.
-James Baldwin 1968

Flash forward to 2018 in America we have all had to come to terms with the fact that we have a reality television star as our president. Augmented reality and changing our appearance and perception of self for social media have become normalized, and as consumers of information in the digital age, we must be critical of “fake” or misleading news.

On the other hand, the digital age has allowed solidarity movements to connect on a global scale, and to directly aid in people’s movement related phenomenon such as the Arab Spring, and virtual volunteerism-greatly aiding organizations such as the United Nations Development Programs internationally. Trans adolescence have unmatched access to resources to understand their experiences and to seek guidance and support when topographically they might be very much alone in their area. Women’s marches in response to the 2016 Presidential Elections reached tens of thousands of people in different cities, as well as marches organized around the world. While the internet has been a great equalizer for many of the causes associated with social movements, let’s not forget how the same tool is utilized as a way to undermine the efforts of activism-and to fit resistance into a nice packaged box-that can be sold and that promotes in-group exclusion.

In our class, we read several different pieces critiquing different angles of the show Queer Eye. Some of the common themes I noticed in these articles were as follows: While lovers of the show have great points about how Queer Eye is an excellent medium for displaying difficult conversations, normalizing LGBTQ individuals in the media, and challenging concepts of toxic masculinity- all this is done within an invisible framework- buy the right fashion, get the right furniture, the right haircut, and you too can be successful; while I would never knock someone for self-improvement or trying to become a better version of themselves-media sensationalized aesthetic as the means to the end, even in how the touch-point of “having conversations” is approached. An article recently posted about Queer Eye’s first trans man represented in the show shows us how the show sensationalizes “trans” experience and perpetuates the myth that trans folks are “born in the wrong body” which is said during the episode. The author brings up the point that the idea of a make-over in this show is a very narrow definition of stylish that reflects a very neoliberal/consumer based approach to self-transformation.

In the two linked articles below posted on Salon and Medium, two authors grapple with the question: Has queer culture lost its edge or is it in transformation? Has the social movement lost its grit/toughness to sensitivity, or are the queer youth of today merely finding new avenues for critiquing power structures?


While I believe both authors have excellent points, one particular idea in the later article stuck with me:

“Callouts, sadly, have too frequently become a way not of criticizing power and demonstrating solidarity, but of signaling one’s cultural belonging and establishing one’s moral-political credentials. By saying something is transphobic, we show that we know how to analyze structures of oppression and position ourselves in a hierarchy of value: “I’m better than them because I know how not to be oppressive.” People who have less access to ever-shifting activist language and to a critical education are disproportionately excluded from spaces because they are problematic, entrenching the classism of most social justice spaces.”

While call out and call in culture is essential, while media representation of LGBTQ individuals and experience is vital, while social media can be used as a great connector we must ask ourselves.

Are we the ones in control of using these tools, or are they controlling us? Is the idea of a better life appropriated into a nicely-packaged box of the next thing you need to be happy truly? And does our social media use create sustainable engagement with issues, or are we merely reacting to the next emotionally charged “call-out” post, forgetting the problem we were obsessed with last week in the stream of stimuli we expose ourselves to daily?