‘Smash the patriarchy’: the changing meanings and work of ‘patriarchy’ memes

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Abstract

This article discusses the resurgence of the term ‘patriarchy’ in digital culture and reflects on the everyday online meanings of the term in distinction to academic theorisations. In the 1960s-1980s, feminists theorised patriarchy as the systematic oppression of women, with differing approaches to how it worked. Criticisms that the concept was unable to account for intersectional experiences of oppression, alongside the ‘turn to culture’, resulted in a fall from academic grace. However, ‘patriarchy’ has found new life through Internet memes (humorous, mutational images that circulate widely on social media). This paper aims to investigate the resurgence of the term ‘patriarchy’ in digital culture. Based on an analysis of memes with the phrase ‘patriarchy’ and ‘smash the patriarchy’, we identify how patriarchy memes are used by two different online communities (feminists and anti-feminists) and consider what this means for the ongoing usefulness of the concept of patriarchy. We argue that, whilst performing important community-forming work, using the term is a risky strategy for feminists for two reasons: first, because memes are by their nature brief, there is little opportunity to address intersections of oppression; secondly, the underlying logic of feminism is omitted in favour of brevity, leaving it exposed to being undermined by the more mainstream logic of masculinism.
Original languageEnglish
JournalFeminist Theory
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 18 Sep 2020

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