At the risk of alienating some of my more opinionated anti-feminist readers, I’m about to do something that most of you probably didn’t see coming: I’m going to defend Tumblr.
Especially in the anti-feminist parts of the online world, I see an awful lot of posts about Tumblr, Tumblr feminism, Tumblr social justice warriors, and other silliness, usually with captions like “This is what feminists actually believe.” This usually comes along with general sentiments mocking the site and its bizarre notions about sexuality, equality, and personal identity, and blaming it for the degradation of sanity and toughness we see in modern cultural trends, but I just don’t think that’s fair. There’s a reason I never bring up Tumblr’s particular brand of feminism or social justice when I talk about egalitarian and men’s issues, and that reason is simple: Tumblr is a children’s website (or, at least, the parts of it that these types of arguments highlight).
Take this paradigmatic example of a post on one of their forums (taken from some rant on Facebook about how far down the rabbit hole feminism and related movements have gone). Yes, this looks downright out of touch with reality, when you look at it from the assumption that internet users are adults, but that’s just not true of Tumblr (google their demographics if you doubt me). Most of the users that produce content like this are children and adolescents, and let me tell you something.
This is really common behaviour for children and adolescents, and it’s nothing new. The only difference is that now we are teaching 3-year-olds how to use technology, so new generations are working their way into internet forums much earlier than we did (so now, their embarrassing childhood silliness is codified into public internet permanence to embarrass them later).
Don’t believe me? Let me give you some examples. At the risk of airing all my childhood ridiculousness for the internet to see, here are some (yes, SOME) of the things that I personally convinced myself when I was between the ages of 8 and 18:
I was from Mars, and my parents found me as a baby alien on their doorstep.
I had superpowers (this was a recurring theme in various incarnations throughout my childhood, and is unbelievably common of children).
Harry Potter books described a real secret world, and I would get a letter from Hogwarts. (Let’s be realistic: most Harry Potter fans at least hoped for that letter.)
I had some kind of psychic or magic connection to Harry Potter, and that’s why I get migraines.
I can become a character on a cartoon show and live as a cartoon superhero, and this is something that will probably happen.
I can perceive and talk to ghosts, have ghost friends and enemies, and sometimes even fight those ghost enemies.
Yes, I really believed these things growing up (much to the dismay and bafflement of my parents, who had never had a child before). And you know what? I had friends, lots of them, that believed them too. In fact, every one of these silly little narratives was part of a game I played with one or more friends. Some of them were people I met online through games, forums, or other digital communities. Some of them were people I knew in person, friends from school or other real-world communities. And I knew other people who insisted that they were mythical creatures, real-world incarnations of fictional characters, religious figures, and beings they themselves made up. I had a friend from Quizilla (anyone remember Quizilla?) who claimed she was part demon, part angel, part vampire, and the physical incarnation of an anime character. And that was 15 years ago, long before Tumblr was a thing.
And now that I’m a teacher, I’ve overheard many middle and high school students over the years engaging in play like this. Because children and adolescents are in desperate search of their identity. They’re building their personalities and self-stories. They’re breaking from the parts of them that are constructed by their environment and upbringing and forging individual humans as they develop, and a lot of this, just like everything else children do, comes with some egocentrism, a great deal of imagination, and a certain detachment from empirical reality. There’s nothing weird or scary about it. After all, we don’t panic when a little girl sits in a cardboard box and claims it’s a spaceship. We don’t tell her she’s mentally ill for thinking she’s an astronaut, and we don’t suggest she’s having a delusion that has a harmful effect on culture or policy. She’s just a child, and children play.
Now, the worry I often hear is that of the legitimizing effect of a gigantic global online community of people, using formalized language to describe things that perhaps shouldn’t be legitimized, but this just doesn’t worry me, and I’ll tell you why.
When I was a kid, we legitimized each other’s wild ideas in person, and it reinforced them just the same. In middle and high school (here’s more information to indict my mental health if I ever run for president), I had a group of friends who used to hang out in the basement and play with a Ouija board. Lots and lots of kids do this, but we built one hell of a complex world using this toy. We invented characters with relatively complex personalities, rules for how that world worked, and an elaborate mythology in which all this took place. We constructed a jargon to describe this world and mythology, too, just like Tumblr does. The only difference is, there were about half a dozen of us, rather than a few million. We pretended to communicate with these beings and even allow them to take control of us, and we totally believed that shit. Sometimes the characters did frightening or terrible things, and we believed that too. We would get legitimately scared or upset, invested in the characters and the effects we supposed that they had on our lives. We talked about it, we discussed and problem solved. We played out the solutions. And we did this stuff for years.
When I was a young adult, I looked back on this in fear and confusion and questioned the hell out of my mental health. But then I started studying education and developmental psychology. Perhaps my friends and I were a bit more imaginative than the average kid, but overall, this type of play is totally normal. I encountered it in others when I was that age, and I see it all the time now that I teach (like the young man who told me that the poltergeist that lives in his bedroom tried to push him out the window). It’s not an indictment of our culture, it isn’t scary, and by no means is it a product of Tumblr. In fact, not only is not scary and not harmful, but it’s actually an evolutionary mechanism by which we learn how to perceive, understand, and navigate the world. That’s what play is. Just as kittens play fight or pretend to hunt to learn to do these things for real, a human child plays through imaginary scenarios to learn to problem solve and develop other cognitive skills, and in the process, just like kittens, they look a little silly.
The tumblrite SJW stuff is no different, either. Who among us hasn’t had ridiculous, misinformed opinions that they grew out of when they started to experience and read about the actual world? Tumblr politics are no more or less than the ideas of young people who are just starting to try to understand the world from a sociopolitical perspective, and pointing to them to criticize actual adult politics is intellectually lazy and dishonest.
I’ll give you one more embarrassing story from my personal childhood. When I was maybe 8 or 9, I was really into Captain Planet. I’ve always cared about environmental issues, but as a tiny human, my understanding of the way such things worked was pretty limited. One day, my uncle came by to dig a big trench in our yard to install some kind of piping. In my limited understanding of the planet Earth, influenced by a children’s cartoon, I decided that this trench was a wound that harmed the planet, and since (unsurprisingly, I’m sure) I’ve always fancied myself something of an activist, I snuck out after the digging had been done and replaced as much of the dirt as I could before the piping could be laid. Yes, I actually did that, more than once after my uncle repeated the process, and my family was very upset with me when they found out what had been happening. Of course, it eventually turned into a big joke. Every once in a while, some members of my family will still tell this story. Because you know that I was a child when this happened, you might be laughing right now, too. Of course, it was a ridiculous act on my part, a hilarious misunderstanding of any reasonable environmentalist position. But you wouldn’t use this story as a representative argument to indict actual adult environmentalism. That would be dishonest and unfair, and this is why I never talk about Tumblr feminism.
But is this community of young people a dangerous thing to expose to that section of the adult population that could be described as dysfunctional products of the self-esteem movement, who may use it to validate their misguided narcissism? Maybe, but that’s more the fault of failing education and mental healthcare systems (and the movement that produced said individuals) than an online forum for children to play and discuss the construction of their identities. You and I grew out of our childhood games, and so will they, whether it’s attention seeking behaviour or they truly believe what they’re saying. After all, many of my friends who once believed they were superheroes, ghost hunters, or vampires have long since grown into successful, productive, healthy, and quite reasonable people (in fact, one of them grew up to be a prominent student leader at an ivy league university and went on to make even grander accomplishments that earned international recognition). An adult that never grows out of these behaviours is a separate issue entirely, and should be addressed from an educational or mental healthcare perspective.
Listen, I don’t like Tumblr either. So I have a simple solution. I don’t go there, for the same reason I don’t watch Disney Channel shows and I don’t play in the ball pit at McDonald’s: I’m an adult that isn’t interested in those things.
So, if you wouldn’t hate on Disney Channel or ball pits, don’t hate on Tumblr. It isn’t for you. If you don’t like it, use a different social media site, and stop using it as a straw man to attack adult politics. You’re literally picking on children just because they’re easy targets, in addition to committing some pretty egregious cherry picking that makes the anti-feminist community look like a bunch of buffoons. Kindly stop it. There are plenty of perfectly good arguments to be made against actual practiced and influential adult feminism. How about we focus on those?