On constructing a lesson plan to teach Pinterest and feminism

I teach sociology; usually theoretical and centered on identity. I pepper in examples from social media to illustrate these issues because it is what I know and tends to stimulate class discussion. It struck me while reading arguments about Pinterest that we can use this “new thing” social media site to demonstrate some of the debates about women, technology and feminist theory.

We can view Pinterest from “dominance feminist” and “difference feminist” perspectives to both highlight this major division within feminist theory as well as frame the debate about Pinterest itself. Secondly, the story being told about Pinterest in general demonstrates the “othering” of women. Last, I’d like to ask for more examples to improve this as a lesson plan to teach technology and feminist theories. I should also state out front that what is missing in this analysis is much of any consideration to the problematic male-female binary or an intersectional approach to discussing women and Pinterest while also taking into account race, class, sexual orientation, ability and the whole spectrum of issues necessary to do this topic justice.

“What’s a Pinterest?”

Before we begin, let me very briefly explain what Pinterest is [or read a better summary here]. Likely, most readers of this blog already have some experience with the site. Simply, one can post collections of images of things you come across on the web to the site; that is, one “pins” these images to various “boards” you can create under your name. Think of something you like, say, landscape photography. You can pin such photos to your “landscape photography” board and search other people’s boards for the same. The usefulness of the site comes immediately into focus when you are looking to purchase something: you can find dozens of photos of a type pinned by other users. The site has been especially useful for things like wedding planning, where one can collect cakes, centerpieces, dresses and so on that one likes.

The site has taken off, driving more customers to retail sites than “Google+, YouTube and LinkedIn combined.” People spend lots of time on Pinterest, too. In fact, the average user spends about thirty times as many minutes on Pinterest than Google+.

The next step in the typical tech-site-Pinterest-description is to go on and on about how woman-heavy the site is. Current statistics show that the site is 70-80% female, and a perusal of the main page usually reminds users of this. While the female-centeredness of the site is sometimes overstated, it also should not be dismissed.

And, no surprise, the tech community, which is still a boys club, has been terrible at writing about how people, especially women, use Pinterest. The site has been used as an excuse to make fun of women, stereotype women as shoppers, dismiss the site as overly gendered and anger some of the feminist blogosphere.

Of course, there is no one single feminist position on Pinterest or anything else. Some have celebrated and some have critiqued Pinterest as a safe space for femininity on one hand and also a sometimes troubling version of femininity on the other. This is a useful rehashing of a fundamental theoretical distinction we can make within feminist theory: difference versus dominance feminism.

Difference versus Dominance Feminism

The “difference” perspective holds that there are fundamental differences between men and women that should be respected and celebrated. Traditionally, in the non-feminist sense, differences have been used to justify male dominance. A famous case is Kohlberg developing his stages of moral development using a standard created by studying just men. He found that men typically scored higher than women on his scale and therefore men, on average, are more moral than women. One of his colleagues, Carol Gilligan, had a different take. In her book, In a Different Voice (1982), Gilligan notes that men and women have different ethics: men an ethic of justice and women an ethic of care; each not better or more moral than the other. We can consider this a paradigmatic version of difference feminism; that the differences between men and women are more fundamental than the inequalities those differences take on socially. The solution is to value that which makes women different.

“Dominance” feminism holds that those differences are themselves a result of patriarchy and to celebrate them is to celebrate the dominance that created them. Catherine MacKinnon, for example, argues that many sex differences, especially with respect to sexuality, are constructed by a patriarchal society in such a way as to reproduce these inequalities. This perspective holds dominance as more fundamental than difference, and thus the strategy is to critique both the socially-constructed differences between men and women and also the systems of oppression that created them.

This is a far too short overview of these two perspectives (which, of course, are not the whole of feminist theory!) but enough to begin applying examples from the Pinterest debate.

The difference perspective tends to view Pinterest as something distinctly feminine and therefore something to celebrate. As Tracie Egan Morrissey writes, Pinterest “is giving ladies what they want”; which is the whole point. When visiting the site, one quickly notices the refreshing “lack of misogynist content.” Amanda Marcotte states that “the pink and girly exterior of Pinterest works as a jerk force field, keeping the most piggish men away.” Women are using the site and enjoying it and spending lots of time there and that is a good thing. [In the comments, it would be great to get more examples of posts, papers, essays taking on this perspective.]

From the other side come those who view the type of femininity on Pinterest as itself problematic to some degree. The dominance perspective does not view the fact women are collectively doing something as essentially good, but the starting point of critique. Some view Pinterest as exemplifying a particularly juvenile and defanged version of women and empowerment that is ultimately more appealing to men; a critique that has been laid on so-called “domestic” or “cupcake feminism”; aka “the Zooey Deschanel problem.”

Perhaps the most biting critique of the site I have read is Bon Stewart’s argument that Pinterest creates a Stepford Wife version of identity that is hollow and uncreative. While not explicitly “feminist” in language, the argument is that what happens on social media sites, even those women enjoy, can be problematic. [Again, please send along more arguments from this perspective.]

To be fair, those taking on the “difference” position above are not responding to the dominance arguments but to the general tech-writer-trend to dismiss the site because of the number of women using it. In fact, this demonstrates another fundamental feminist theoretical point.

Pinterest, Beauvoir and the “Othering” of Women

The difference-feminist arguments above had to remind the tech world that a site should not be dismissed because women are using it; rather, this is precisely what makes it important. The cultural conversation around Pinterest has followed that similar path perhaps best outlined by Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex (1949). There has been a historical trend to view the male as “natural,” devoid of gender and able to stand in for all of humanity (remember Kohlberg only using males to construct a scale applied to everyone). Another example is the continuing usage (especially in tech-writing in the year 20-f’n-12) of male pronouns to stand for humans in general. As Beauvoir states,

In actuality the relation of the two sexes is not quite like that of two electrical poles, for man represents both the positive and the neutral, as is indicated by the common use of man to designate human beings in general; whereas woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity.

This othering means that websites comprised mostly of men are seen as “neutral” and those that have even the slightest hint of femininity come to be seen as thoroughly saturated with gender; indeed, Pinterest has almost come to be defined by it.

Take Wikipedia: 87% of its contributors are male; a bigger discrepancy than Pinterest by any count. However, when discussing Wikipedia, it certainly is not the norm to go on and on about how male the site is. Instead, it is far more common for the site to be praised for its “neutral point of view.” Usually-male tech writers describing the male Wikipedia have convinced themselves that the site is neutral and thus useful to all of humanity. Pinterest, on the other hand, is implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, dismissed as merely female.

Even the description of how feminine Pinterest actually is can be overstated. Using Pinterest for the past month or so, I have noticed a great diversity in content. Yes, people post about cupcakes, but architecture, food, photography, design and lots of other things are popular, too. As Rebecca Hui states, “Pinterest is, very simply, a place for pretty things, and last I checked, beauty wasn’t gender-specific.”

In fact, over in the UK the majority of Pinterest users are male. Is the UK press going on and on about how male Pinterest is? (Of course not; remember, ‘male’ is thought to be neutral).

It seems that Pinterest can be effectively used to illustrate at least these two points when teaching feminist theory: the Dominance/Difference divide and the Othering hypothesis. I hope that these perspectives also help us understand Pinterest and how the site is discussed in general.

Last, I hope others can help me with this lesson plan and provide more links/examples and other feminist perspectives I have not yet mentioned. Again, the articles I have linked to and my own analysis do not problematize the male-female binary. And these analyses are rarely intersectional or queer in nature. Perhaps these perspectives have not yet been written up, or, more likely, I don’t know how to find them. How else can the conversation be improved, especially with the goal of using all of this as a teaching tool?

Follow Nathan on Twitter: @nathanjurgenson