The Shadow
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The Shadow

Gender Theory & Praxis Media Analysis: The Rise of the Alt Right’s Female Social Media Influencer

Originally written for The Fletcher School’s Gender Theory & Praxis course, published on Gender Analysis blog as part of LEADS program, October 2020.

There are nearly 1,000 classified hate groups in America today, with an outsize distribution of white-supremacists nationwide. Men are typically considered its evangelists, an assumption aided by imagery like the Unite the Right’s torchlit Charlottesville rally and our collective awareness about online “incel” culture. But the advent of social media has spurred attempts to curtail the movement’s inherent misogyny to attract a new cohort of vocal advocates to its political cause, a group scholar Annie Kelly dubs: the housewives of white supremacy.

This trend has some historical basis. We can recall the Indiana Klanswomen of the 1920s, and their role in recruiting through “women’s klaverns,” upholding brutal standards of social exclusion for women who did not enlist, and disseminating the organization’s favored narrative, fueling its sense of belonging and importance. Membership was positioned as a “break from the monotony of small-town life,” and actively countered mainstream reports of Klan activities through dubious charity drives and pageantry. These self-described “100% American women” have found their match in today’s female alt-right YouTube influencers, who promote a reactionary counterculture that rejects liberal ideals. Spreading anti-feminist rhetoric, disinformation and hate — while monetizing their speech through algorithms of oppression– has made these digital martyrs a force to be reckoned with.

A Pew Research study finds that 94% of Americans ages 18 to 24 use YouTube. The video-sharing platform is a hub for hyper-partisan creators, who bypass media gatekeepers to broadcast fringe views. The playbook put forth by its female alt-right personalities is especially instructive in how gender can be leveraged to persuade, recruit and splinter viewers’ perception of social, cultural and political “truths” that can best serve them. Journalist Seyward Darby notes that they “see themselves as straddling a line between male and female norms.” A far-right European Parliament member credits influencer Lauren Southern with “the young woman’s tools, among them a quick wit and good looks, [making] her the best spokesperson for the nationalist cause.”

“Gender is often viewed as an invisible, sometimes secondary, factor in extremism. But it can often play a central role in comprehending processes of appeal, recruitment, and retention.” While the emergence of the “involuntary celibate” (incel) and “manosphere” subcultures — dominated by rhetoric of men’s ostensible repression, denial of sexual relationships and disavowement from public spheres of influence — rules headlines, the role of fanning the flames of hate is labor left mostly to its female proponents. Their political orientation is centered on racial superiority, a rejection of multiculturalism in favor of “race realism,” and direct engagement with audiences that prioritizes a version of the truth detached from the coastal elite legacy media agenda — replacing credibility, norms of objectivity and fact checking with personal anecdotes and subjective storytelling tropes.

There are many dimensions to influencers’ appeal and success, aided by adept gaming of YouTube’s search engine optimization by tagging trending terms like “intersectionality” and promoting extremist ideas rewarded by the site’s recommendation model. For one, the projection of relatability and authenticity foist their content’s addictive “friendship simulator” effect and underpin radical new media’s dedicated fanbase and viral nature. Videos center on “reclaiming,” emphasizing and performing hyperfeminine traits, overtly subscribing to old-fashioned gender norms, and selling an idealized traditional (“tradwife”) lifestyle.

Respectability narratives play a big part in the patriarchal contract female alt-right personalities sign onto. As Kendall suggests, “white privilege knows no gender,” but that does not exclude white women’s self-professed role to delineate its boundaries and police it. Attacks on feminism and the sexual revolution are doubled down upon through a vocal exploitation of “female” fears of objectification and sexual violence, and then offers chastity, marriage and motherhood as an escape. One YouTube commentator affirms that traditionalism does “what feminism is supposed to do” in preventing women from being made into “sexual objects” and treated “like a whore.” This vision also entails defining what types of masculinities are to be performed and rewarded in a binary contrast, thus further socially coding and constructing what Butler identified as the naturalization of gender as performance. The “hegemonic masculinity” upheld by alt-right women map back to essentialist characteristics discussed in Connell’s scholarship, namely around the roles of head of the family and main breadwinner, defined by his physical strength and overt sexual prowess whose needs must be met, and as a valiant protector of feeble and vulnerable women who surround him.

Finally, influencers actively invert and mock politically correct (PC) language and “social justice warrior” labels and jargon. A return to what Connell labels the “good old days” — associated with hetero relationships, early marriage and childbirth, male authority– is deemed aspirational. This trend struck me as an embodiment in direct opposition to bell hook’s conception that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” as it strategically reclaims power over linguistics of liberation to encourage followers to parrot problematic and inflammatory talking points, thus supporting the rejection of modernity and mainstream liberal views that are staples of white supremacy influence operations.

Tradwives go beyond discussing existential threats by pushing “social outcast” personas, with discourse describing themselves as victims of racial, gender, and class oppression posed by the “other” — liberal feminists, LGBTQ+ folks, African Americans, and Jews. Here, we see an abject rejection of Crenshaw’s intersectionality, wherein white women align themselves with their racial status as a mechanism to divorce their identity from their gender and sexual preference, in order to partake in the spoils of a patriarchy their privileged whiteness grants them access to. Wife With a Purpose’s Ayla Stewart is a prominent figure espousing traditional domestic values, “being a good wife,” and overtly committing to bearing many children. Beyond indoctrinating viewers with their brand of the “gospel,” these women are equally complicit in advancing the myth of a “war on men” that has converged in horrific acts of violence — from Dylan Roof’s “benevolent sexism” justifying his attack on Black churchgoers who “rape our women” to Elliott Rogers’ “Day of Retribution.”

However, not everyone fits the neat “tradwife” box, like influencer Lauren Southern, who published “Why I’m Not Married,” pleading with haters to stop calling her a “tradthot” for not being married with children at age 22. Black conservative vlogger Candace Owens also exposes movement fragmentation by discussing the shame in publicly disclosing her views, hinting at the double discrimination she receives due to her race. She launched her YouTube career with the facetious video “Mom, Dad: I’m a Conservative” — in a first sketch, she “comes out” as gay, which is greeted with love and support, but her second “coming out” as conservative is met with judgment and concern.

Female alt-right influencers receive approximately 10,000 YouTube followers a year, while male counterparts see about ten times that reach. But the niche space is steadily growing. It is possible that an imagined stronghold in today’s attention economy, a monopolization in its marketplace of ideas and the monetization of their unique voice represents the ultimate “anti-feminist feminist” seizing of power.

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Adriana Lamirande

Adriana Lamirande

A place to gather research papers, academic projects, op-ed columns and creative musings. Interests include internet policy, human rights & video art.

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