How the Internet Ruined Me for International Women's Day

*This blog appeared March 6 in the Ottawa Citizen

This year, I'm not feeling especially connected to International Women's Day. No, I'm not a misogynist who thinks women get a touch too emotional during that time of the month to deserve equal pay. I love that on previous Women's Days the UN has focused on hunger, poverty and violence against women. My problem is that this Women's Day feels more like a Hallmark celebration than the complex version of feminism I encounter online.

I'm not arguing that we should spike the day entirely. Not at all. For many women, it has great significance. But for those of us who constantly engage with virtual campaigns and discussions about equality, a day that focuses mostly on women in the workplace falls flat.

While this day should showcase marginalized women around the world, in North America, it can feel more like a celebration of Feminism Inc. A quick scroll through the day's official Twitter page shows that eight out of first 10 tweets are from corporations, the majority of the financial variety. Though admittedly some events tackle issues such as precarious or migrant workers, most are thrown by big companies. Staples, for example, invites women entrepreneurs "to share their stories" in store while other organizations host gala events that cost upwards of $100 to attend.

By contrast, the rest of the Internet shows that not all of us want to wear power suits. Spend time online and you'll quickly learn about problematic hierarchies within women's rights based on race, sexuality and social class. A blog titled "Saved by the bell hooks" combines text from the black feminist theorist ("The process begins with the individual woman's acceptance that American women, without exception, are socialized to be racist, classist and, sexist in varying degrees") over the shiny faces of students from the classic teen sitcom.

As a white, middle-class woman, it's uncomfortable to be called out on your myopic views. But it's important to be reminded that feminism shouldn't only advocate for an affluent group. Pieces such as "As a black feminist, I see how the wider movement fails women like my mother" by Lola Okolosie and the work of black feminist and queer advocate Roxane Gay confront privilege. After being praised for an Oscar speech that demanded equal pay, Patricia Arquette bungled her message when she added that "gay people and all the people of color" need to step up and fight for women's wage equality. Twitter exploded with a backlash against feminism that sees the battles of anyone who is not white and cis-gender as somehow separate from the core movement.

For obvious reasons Women's Day promotion avoids the fervid passion that characterizes online debate. But its messaging feels more like corporate speak than activism. The day's slogan, #MakeItHappen, paired with photos of purple cupcakes and t-shirts (the day's official colour) are too earnest to feel empowering. Online, women's rights are often combined with humour (as with the blog called Feminist Ryan Gosling.) The messages feel more like they are coming from your cool older sister than a sombre women's study professor.

Take, for example, the Tumblrs dedicated to tongue-in-cheek terms such as mansplain (lecturing a woman expert) manspread (taking up too much space on the subway) and mantouch (acting like John Travolta at the Oscars). They're funny, but they also draw attention to the existence of these everyday microaggressions. The blog called Feminist Ryan Gosling features memes of the actor with messages such as "Hey Girl, the post-feminist fetishization of motherhood is deeply rooted in classism but I still think we'd make cute babies."

Cute, but also impactful. A study from the University of Saskatchewan showed that feminism presented by Gosling made men up to 10 per cent more likely to embrace the ideas. Online, there's diversity in how feminism is packaged and constant criticism of its messages.

On Women's Day it's hard to celebrate a topic I'm used to endlessly debating online. Of course I don't think equal pay should be up for discussion. But I also don't agree with Sheryl Sandberg that the climb towards equality should be done on a corporate ladder. On the web, we're constantly shaping modern feminism with discussions about whether women should be striving to "have it all." Most recently there was a debate about how female writers support themselves: one piece argued the merits of being "sponsored" by a partner while the other made the case for freedom through financial independence. Those nuances are what make women's rights exciting to fight for.

The best part about engaging with feminism online is that it's not a smooth road. I like that in contrast to the more uniform version touted on Women's Day, the movement is littered with potholes, unexpected turns and dead ends. I hope that in addition to celebrating female entrepreneurship, we pause to celebrate the fact that feminism is made up of women who lean in different directions.