Imani Perry Discusses Feminism in the Digital Age

Photo by Carolyn Brown '16 | Imani Perry discussed feminism’s role in future society.  

Emily Kowalik '18 Assistant Copy Editor

Imani Perry, a professor at Princeton University, delivered a lecture entitled “Which Feminism Will We Choose?” last week as part of Smith’s Presidential Colloquium series. Perry has written extensively on issues of race and African American culture as seen through the lenses of law, literary studies, music and the social sciences.

Perry’s lecture integrated topics from her forthcoming book “Vexy Thing: A Book on Gender,” drawing on how feminist philosophers are affected by the political economy, international relations, social media and the digital age.

In her lecture, Perry noted how fortunate she was to be lecturing at Smith, as she is currently in the process of writing about gender. The goal of her lecture was to “revisit the question of what feminism means” and which type of feminism people will choose to embrace in the future. Perry insisted that “the most important thing a feminist does is read … the world around [them].” She emphasized that such critical reading is difficult because of the complexity of our current social and political landscape.

One piece of the complex global climate is how society focuses on marketization. Since in a fundamental way all people are entrepreneurs, Perry believes that people are compelled to market themselves and are “forced to corral resources or skills that make us desirable to others.”

Such an obligation to package ourselves as a commodity places pressure on people to perform optimally and compels us to make ourselves responsible for our behavior and choices, Perry argued.

Perry discussed the issue of identity and how our circumstances and experiences help to develop our fundamental nature. She contended that identity can lead to injustices because identities can become brands used to provide a simple, though incomplete and often stereotyped, image.

Several students agreed with Perry’s view that society has programmed people to present themselves in a certain uniform or packaged way.

“Labels are efficient but tend to generalize groups and promote separation rather than unity. I think the concept of “us” versus “them” has been around for a long time,” said Julianna Calabrese ’18.   

Suzanne Abreu ’17 agreed and pointed out the detrimental effects of such labeling, saying that it “suppresses your real definition of yourself.” She also said that it’s difficult for one to fully express themselves when placed under such a label, since they don’t feel at liberty to act outside of that definition of themselves.

Perry also spoke about social media and how its “pervasiveness … shapes our lives” in that it is a source of information, can educate people and can provide stimulation and excitement. Perry took the position that society has become full of “cyborgs” because part of existence resides within the context of “digital self-representation.”

Social media is “our public sphere now; experience and identity are often displaced onto them,” Perry said.  In this way, social media has become a form of presentation, which becomes a representation of oneself and the way to assert oneself.

Several people commented on how social media acts as a way for people to present themselves. Abreu said, “I don’t necessarily think that [the things I post] define me, but it does show what I think about on a daily basis. If I post a picture … the caption is most likely what I’m thinking about at the time. It’s just a form of expression.”

Calabrese disagreed, saying, “I think you’re defined by your social media whether you like it not. I don’t post political or controversial stuff on Facebook for that reason, because it might just end up in a fight. But if I do post something controversial, that means I’m willing to fight over it and defend myself.”

Perry went on to relate how necessary it is to read between the lines of how one presents oneself and to think of the global context of choices and actions, saying that “a critical part of feminism is choice.”

Perry mentioned that some people take a stance on an issue, such as sex trafficking, without truly understanding the breadth of the issue. It is necessary to “push us beyond opinions… to an understanding of relations at work,” she said.   

“I don’t think enough people are aware of these global issues happening in the world, but I don’t think we have the responsibility to know every issue because it’s almost impossible to keep up with all the bad things,” Calabrese said. “We should try to have awareness, though.”