As our use and understanding of social media evolve, so does its utilisation as a tool for advocacy and activism. Social media has been utilised by many as a tool for activism and advocacy and has provided a platform for social change. While some have criticised social media activism as a form of apathetic and performative political participation called “slacktivism” (Morozov 2009), this paper argues that even behaviours deemed as ‘slacktivist’ retain the potential for enacting real-world political change. Further, this paper explores the utilisation of social media in spreading new forms of feminist theory, namely BimboTok and Bimbo feminism. BimboTok and Bimbo feminism exemplify the way in which the changing world of social media causes changes in the way activism is performed and understood. While many may criticise BimboTok, it represents a new wave of feminism within the digital age. In this paper, I argue that BimboTok is a valid form of feminist expression that utilises feminist traditions and appropriates them for online contexts.
Keywords: TikTok, bimbo, social media, slacktivism, feminism
As social media continues to integrate into all aspects of day to day life, our understanding and performance of certain aspects will inevitably evolve. Together, advocacy and activism make up one of these evolving aspects being shaped by social media networks and communities. Many have criticised social media activists for being performative and not inciting real change beyond online virtue signalling while others argue that traditional advocacy and activism must change and evolve to adapt to social media and reflect its dominant position within culture. This paper explores the advocacy of women’s rights on social media with a specific focus on the current discourse surrounding the bimbofication of feminism within the TikTok bimbo community. This conference paper argues that social media feminist activism and the bimbo subculture are valid forms of activism.
Social Media Activism
Social media aids activism in a number of ways. Not only does it allow for the expression of opinions relating to collective causes, but social media also provides a platform for people with similar views to rally around these causes and form communities (Greijdanus et al. 2020). These communities can then discuss, debate and spread their opinions and beliefs to those outside of the community while also being able to organise activities and movements both within and outside of the virtual space (Greijdanus et al. 2020). However, the question of whether online action can be translated to offline change is a significant criticism of online activism. One major argument is that online activism isn’t a truly valid form of activism, instead feeding apathetic non-participatory behaviour called ‘slacktivism’ (Morozov 2009).
Online Feminist Activism and Internet ‘Slacktivism’
Slacktivism refers to political actions or activities that serve more as a way to make participants feel good about themselves rather than a meaningful way to impact real-life political change (Morozov 2009). While slacktivism can be applied to a variety of offline actions, such as wearing political shirts, it is most colloquially used to examine online activists posting on social media about social justice issues. While some argue that online activism can correlate with offline activity, other scholars argue that even digital campaigns that are viewed as slacktivist still have the ability to reach large audiences, thus increasing the awareness of the political issue itself (Skoric 2012). One clear example of how activists can utilise slacktivist action is the #metoo movement whereby feminist activists harnessed online slacktivist voices for real-life political change.
The #metoo movement began in 2006 when feminist Tarana Burke used the term to raise awareness for people who have experienced sexual assault and abuse. However, it was not until 2017 that the term went viral after celebrities started using the hashtag ‘metoo’ to expose sexual violence. Despite the hashtag going viral due to its advocacy by celebrities, people from all walks of life began using the hashtag. Some posts used the hashtag to accompany personal stories of experiences of sexual violence, while others simply posted #metoo on its own (Bhattacharyya 2018). Though just posting about personal experiences of sexism and sexual violence may be seen as slactivism at first glance, the metoo movement had real-life consequences that are still being felt to this day (Bhattacharyya 2018). The metoo movement is not only an example of how activities perceived as social media slacktivism can, and do, create real change, it also displays the way that social media can be utilised for feminist activism.
The digital age, particularly social media, has ushered in new mediums for feminists to discuss gender issues and women’s rights. This use of social media can develop and broaden feminist spaces, allowing for a wider reach to be achieved (Turley and Fisher 2018). Rentschler (2014) describes how social media is used by feminist activists as a tool for testimonials whereby “girls and young women digitally record and transcribe personal stories based in their experiences of sexual violence and harassment, and in their roles as witnesses to others’ harassment and experience of sexual violence” (66). This documentation of individual experiences has been a crucial part of a variety of online feminist movements including the #metoo movement. More recently, social media sites like TikTok have been utilised by young people as an activist platform for social issues like Black Lives Matter, the Hong Kong Student Protests, and new iterations of feminism.
TikTok Activism and Bimbo Feminism
TikTok is becoming one of the fastest-growing media sites and is utilised by many as a platform for online activism. What differentiates TikTok from other social media sites is that its emphasis is not on friendships, connection or networking; instead, it focuses on producing and engaging via content (Zulli and Zulli 2020). This is clearly observed in TikTok’s ‘For You’ page. The ‘For You’ page is TikTok’s default main page which, interestingly, isn’t shaped by the posting of friends, rather, showing videos specifically selected by the TikTok algorithm (Zulli and Zulli 2020). This algorithm is utilised to curate content for the user based on their perceived demographic, interests, preferences and previous engagement (Yang 2020). As a result of this algorithm placing users into specific demographics, there is a strong sense of community built around the different ‘sides’ of TikTok. One of these sides of TikTok that has been the subject of significant controversy is BimboTok.
BimboTok is a large community on Tiktok described in a Rolling Stone article as “a glittery island in the middle of the wasteland of TikTok’s infinite scroll” (Dickson 2020). Members and creators of BimboTok have reclaimed the word bimbo and used it as a term of endearment for hyperfeminine women. BimboTok creators emulate the styles of Paris Hilton, Anna Nicole Smith and other 90s and 2000s stars labelled bimbos by the media (Dickson 2020). They wear 2000s inspired clothing and makeup, and always incorporate the colour pink into their outfits.
The term bimbo has had many iterations. The term comes from the Italian word for baby boy, bambino, and was originally used as slang to describe a dumb or foolish man (Cresswell 2010). In 1920, with the release of a song called My Little Bimbo Down on the Bamboo Isle, which uses the word bimbo to describe a woman that the character Bill McCoy is having an affair with, the term began being applied to women. Not only was this one of the first times the term had been explicitly used to describe a woman, but this also marked the shift towards the term being associated with sex or sexuality. Previously a bimbo was someone of diminished intelligence, but from this point onwards, a bimbo was a sexually promiscuous, attractive woman of diminished intelligence. This understanding of the term bimbo was popularised in the 1980s when 1987 was described as the ‘year of the bimbo’ due to a string of political scandals in the media that centred around sex and beautiful women. By the late 90s, the stereotype of the bimbo as a beautiful but dumb, sexual ‘bombshell’ had been cemented. This conflation of sexuality, attractiveness and low intelligence is what most people understand a bimbo to be today. However, with the rise of BimboTok, the concept of the bimbo is being examined and reconstructed as a form of feminist activism and identity. Throughout history, women have used the internet and popular culture as tools and mediums for feminist activism (Jackson 2018) and BimboTok also utilises this strategy.
Creators on Bimbo TikTok use popular culture understanding of bimbos as representations of hyperfeminity and sexuality and subverts them to critique patriarchal expectations of womanhood. The content produced on BimboTok is built on the performance of hyperfeminity as a form of feminist expression and leftist discourse. In a video that has amassed 208.1 thousand likes and 811.9 thousand views, the TikTok user @fauxrich describes the bimbo as a “hyperfeminine woman who is kind, doesn’t judge others, and is pro-body modification, pro-sex work” (@fauxrich 2020) asserting that nothing about the bimbo identity is “dumb” (@fauxrich 2020). In a TikTok by @chrissychlapecker that has amassed 5.5 million views, she explains what it is to be a ”gen-z bimbo” (Chlapecker 2020). What is interesting about the video is that the term bimbo is being appropriated for use by young feminists, at the same time as being overtly politicised as leftist. Chlapecker explains that the gen-z bimbo is a “radical leftist who is pro-sex work, pro-BLM, pro-LGBTQ+ and pro-choice” (Chlapecker 2020). This position demonstrates that the performance of BimboTok is one with a political motive, one that aims to have political value. This iteration of the use of the term bimbo defies previous stereotypes of the dumb but beautiful woman by instead participating in intelligent political discourse while still retaining the hyperfeminine appearance associated with the term.
Some Tiktok commentary has been critical of this new bimbofication of feminism as an invalid form of feminist expression as it forces women to embody patriarchal ideals of women’s appearances, and actively sexualise themselves. It has also been both criticised and lauded as “choice feminism” (Hirshman 2006). Choice feminism’s core idea is that all the choices that women are free to make and have the opportunity to make are intrinsically feminist (Hirshman 2006). However, this was criticised by many as it applies the term feminist to choices that women make that could actively undermine women’s equality (Gonzalez and Jones 2018). Further criticism suggests that it doesn’t encourage unity between women, instead of encouraging Western ideas of individualistic pleasure at the expense of others (Gonzalez and Jones 2018). These are all valid criticisms of Bimbo feminism. However, this criticism of Bimbo feminism and, in turn, choice feminism, doesn’t take into account the motivation behind choices.
At first glance, BimboTok may be categorised as choice feminism. These women are choosing to strive towards patriarchal expectations of femininity and sexualise themselves, which is harmful to other women who have had to fight not to be objectified. However, when the motivations behind these BimboTok choices are examined, it is clear that the embodying of a bimbo persona is largely used as a vehicle to express their beliefs and critiques of societal expectations of women. While some people who embody this bimbo persona may very well be doing so to fulfil these patriarchal ideals, most Bimbo content on TikTok is built on commentary about modern expectations of women’s appearances and criticism of patriarchal rhetoric. For example, later in the TikTok by @chrissychlapecker, she states “I don’t do this for the misogynistic male gaze, I do it for my gaze” (Chlapecker 2020). This is reiterated throughout most videos made across BimboTok. For example, another BimboTok creator, @bimbokate, highlights the way the current bimbo identity acts as a presentation of patriarchal ideals of womanhood while simultaneously critiquing them. In one of her TikToks talking about being a bimbo, she explains that “being a self-aware bimbo is amazing. You become everything men want while also being everything they hate (self-aware, sexually empowered, politically conscious, etc). Reverse the fetishisation of femininity” (Muir 2020). In this sense, BimboTok creators are embodying patriarchal ideals as a way to criticise the misogyny and sexism that fuels these ideals.
BimboTok and Fourth-Wave Feminism
I argue that the crux of the issue surrounding BimboTok is the changing waves of feminism and the consensus, or lack of consensus, of what it is to be a feminist. As younger generations of women begin expressing feminist beliefs and identities, the way they perform these positions will differ from older generations (Snyder 2008). This means that the way in which feminist activism is performed today looks different to how it has in previous waves, leaving many older feminists questioning the validity of young women who identify as feminists (Snyder 2008). However, it has been argued that we are simply experiencing a fourth-wave of feminism (Munro 2013) in which we can observe performances of feminism that are new and unprecedented. In this way, TikTok Bimbo represents things that previous generations have rallied against, such as sexualisation, infantilisation and expectations of femininity. And while this may be fair criticism of the Bimbo feminist movement, it disregards the thoughts and motivations behind the image, once again positioning these hyperfeminine women as idiots who are preoccupied with their appearances, viewing them purely as the exact stereotype BimboTok is trying to critique.
With the rise of the digital age, the world is changing, thus our understanding of valid forms of activism must change with it. Bimbo activism represents this change in how younger generations of feminists are able to harness social media platforms like TikTok to express their beliefs in a variety of ways not available to previous generations. BimboTok provides a platform for women who employ and enjoy their hyperfemininity yet are still taken seriously in a world of activism that so often disregards women who actively try to adhere to western patriarchal beauty standards. While it is important to be critical of online feminist activists to hold them accountable and ensure they are actively trying to advance the causes they say they stand for, there is no right way to be a feminist. Bimbo feminism and BimboTok are simply valid forms of feminism in an ever-growing variety of feminisms made possible by our digital age and they deserve to have a place in feminist discourse.
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Chlapecker, C [@chrissychlapecker]. (2020, November 27). who is the gen-z bimbo? here’s ur answer 💖 luv y’all xoxo [Video] TikTok. https://www.tiktok.com/@chrissychlapecka/video/6899540522721922310?lang=en&is_copy_url=1&is_from_webapp=v1
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20 thoughts on “TikTok’s Bimbo Feminism: Feminist Activism in the Digital Age.”
Hi Grace! This is a very interesting and enjoyable paper!
I agree with the points you make about the evolving state of activism and the Feminist movement as being dictated by the affordances of popular social media.
Feminism has indeed evolved to be more intersectional, with many different branches growing from the movement – with this growth being facilitated directly via online platforms. Fourth-wave Feminism, as you have discussed in your paper, focuses on allowing women to choose how they want to present themselves, for themselves, regardless of whether they are conforming to traditional standards of femininity or not.
Your paper examines this point very well, and I think you have used an excellent case study – BimboTok – to do so.
One question I have for you is – due to the individualised content feed on TikTok, do you think that there is an issue with many people missing out on this particular subset of Feminism due to an inability to access this type of content? Furthermore, do you think this poses an issue in educating people about intersectionality, as those who may not be aware of Fourth-wave Feminism and Feminist ideologies are unable to access content that can inform them about Feminism because they are not engaging in this type of content?
What an interesting choice of community – something I’ve never heard of until reading your paper. It’s amazing to see how the term ‘bimbo’ has been used to empower people – a word that was initially used as an insult has now become something empowering which I find amazing.
What I found interesting about your paper are the different perspectives feminism takes when being used on different social media platforms.
Feminism is something that has become significant through the different movements as well and TikTok is a great platform for raising awareness as this platform is exposed to a large majority of social media users.
I thought this was a really interesting and well written paper.
I find how feminism is performed across different platforms to be fascinating – BimboTok resonates with me in particular, because I think reclaiming a particular term which such purpose is really great. Comparatively, feminism on Instagram appears to be far more performative and less rooted in feminist rhetoric and more about being seen to behave in the confines of an ‘appropriately feminist’ manner – i.e. feminist enough to appear empowering to women, but not too much so as to appear threatening to men. I’d love to get your thoughts about why there seems to be such a difference in the way feminism is performed and conveyed across platforms? Is it platform demographics? Or maybe the kinds of content that are created?
I also haven’t spent a lot of time on BimboTok – I note from some of the articles linked that that community consider themselves pro-BLM and generally very social aware, but how does this translate into community participation? Do you perceive BimboTok to be quite intersectional in its performance, or does playing the role of hypersexualised, infantilised and self-aware only belong to white women?
Thank you so much for reading my paper. Feminism is always an intersectional topic and I think race and white privilege are a huge part of understanding bimbo-feminism/BimboTok. I really wanted to explore it but I felt as if I didn’t have enough space to address it effectively as it is a topic that deserves deep analysis and respect. I think that bimbo-feminism does play into white-centred feminism as POC women are often constructed as masculine and inherently strong, and rarely afforded the freedom to behave feminine, let alone hyper-feminine bimbos. While this can be seen on the BimboTok with the algorithm favouring white creators over POC creators, I think that there is more awareness and demand for intersectionality. I recommend creators like @fauxrich who use bimbo-feminism as a platform for intersectional feminism and discussion for everyday racism. But, at the same time, I think it’s always important to have those critical thoughts to try to keep white creators accountable.
I loved reading your paper! It was really well thought out and structured. Bimbotok is honestly the place to be! I love how it completely subverts everything we’ve been taught about traditional feminism and encourages young women to embrace their sexuality but for themselves.
I was wondering if in your research you came across the Refinery29 article ‘Our Smooth Brained Future: The Rise Of The New Age Bimbo’ by Michelle Santiago Cortes (2020)? I found an interesting look at how BimboTok is not only subverting ideas surrounding feminism but also academia.
I also wrote about TikTok in my conference paper and would love if you would check it out! https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2021/2021/04/25/tiktok-the-kesha-song/
Santiago Cortes, M. (2020). No Thoughts. Head Empty. Just Vibes: The Rise Of The New Age Bimbo. Refinery29.com. Retrieved 7 May 2021, from https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2020/12/10204376/tiktok-bimbo-gen-z-trend.
I, unfortunately, found that article after I had already finished my essay! I think that it does a great job of explaining both BimboTok and the history of the bimbo identity. I also think that their breakdown of @fauxrich and their academic career. I think @fauxrich is a prime example of how women should be able to be hyper-feminine and express their sexuality while simultaneously being taken seriously as intellectual beings.
I can’t wait to read your paper!
Such a shame you didn’t find the article until after you wrote the essay!! Yes I also loved the part about @fauxrich and really loved how they’re pushing back against this ‘cool girl’ narrative that has been created by the patriarchy!
Congratulations on an interesting and well thought out paper.
TikTok communities was also the subject for my conference paper, however I was previously unaware of the BimboTok community until I read your community. I think it is excellent that women are able to reclaim words that have previously been used to belittle them.
You paper reminded me of the work of feminist academic Dr. Carolina Are, who is a researcher, activist, blogger and pole dance instructor (https://bloggeronpole.com/about/). I came across her work last year when researching a paper about Instagram’s content moderation practices. In her research and own personal experience, she has “witnessed hateful comments and the lack of moderation surrounding them driving women off platforms” (Are, 2020, p. 742).
In your research, did you come across any examples of BimboTokers being censored by the platform? Do you feel this could threaten the activist work that the community is undertaking? Are the women of BimboTok subjected to trolling and other harassment online?
Are, C. (2020). How Instagram’s algorithm is censoring women and vulnerable users but helping online abusers. Feminist Media Studies, 20(5), 741–744. https://doi.org/10.1080/14680777.2020.1783805
Thank you so much for your kind words! There is actually pretty significant censorship across all TikTok communities and I think BimboTok is not different. Whether this is just my perception or if it’s real but I’ve noticed censorship of POC creators, or at least the algorithmic preferencing of white creators.
As for your second question about the harassment of BimboTok creators. Yes, there are huge levels of trolling on BimboTok videos. While a lot of these comments are deleted or blocked by creators, a few still get through. What is interesting is that while a lot of these comments are made by men who are aiming to degrade women, there have also been comments from other women. While I think that bimbo-feminism does deserve a level of criticism, a lot of these women aren’t actually criticising BimboTok they are instead shaming women for expressing their sexuality.
Grace, I really enjoyed your paper, and I thoroughly enjoyed how you formulated your argument. As a complete TikTok novice I can truly say that I’ve learned something here. I see how entertaining and creative this stage is for users. But as the mother of TikTok fanatics, I become incredibly frustrated with the repetition of soundbites. In saying that, are these BimboTok[er]’s representative of a true collective force or is this trend creating an echo-chamber of users whom are interested in only recreating popular content? Are these Bimbo Feminists supporting and representing a collective identity, or representing a singular identity of self, and would this sense of self carry over onto other stages (social media sites)? Will this identity lead to offline engagement and discourse that continues to create an impact on society, or will we see these TikTok’s summed up as a popular phase that will drop off when 90’s and 2000’s fashion becomes unpopular?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on my paper if it interests you. You can find my paper here: https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2021/2021/04/25/change-org-empowering-everyday-citizens-to-enact-social-change/#comment-945
My paper, Change.org: Empowering everyday citizens to enact social change, is another example of how everyday citizens are engaged with digital politics and motivated to leverage their connections across digital networks to enact social change. Whilst I don’t tackle feminism, I do similarly discuss slacktivism.
I can imagine how the repetitive TikTok sound bites may become frustrating!
I think that the idea of whether social media activism is for the collective or for a self-centred performance is a complex question that I honestly have no answer for. But I do think that whether it is a self-interested performance it at least will spread awareness which may lead to real-world change. However, I’m not sure if this is realistic or just my own perception.
I’m excited to read your paper as I feel as if I didn’t get to fully explore slacktivism as deep as I would have liked to!
Hey Grace, what a fantastic paper! Love!
I loved how you structured it, it flowed really well.
I connected with the slacktivism versus activism part. I personally think activism looks a lot differently in the age of social media. Sharing is an important part of this and allows for conversations to spread to a wider demographic easier. I’m thinking about the conversations that have started all over my family by the amount of stuff I share, and I think that is an important first step. Influencers like Clementine Ford and Abbie Chatfield come to mind when I think about whose conversations I have continued with a new/different audience.
When it comes to Bimbos I love them, I absolutely love when a minority takes back a word that was used as an insult, personally, there’s one I want women to reclaim! When I read “I don’t do this for the misogynistic male gaze, I do this for my gaze” I clicked my fingers like yassss queen! I find Bimbo feminist’s entire vibe so empowering and this is why I love this new wave of feminism! It’s no longer bra-burning, but where the sexiest bra you can and feel hot! You do you! Iconic.
Seriously what a phenomenal pick for a conference paper! Snaps for Gracie!
Thank you so much I’m so glad you liked it. Can’t wait to read your paper and leave a glowing comment!
I loved your paper so much!
You truly introduced me to a new topic that I hadn’t really seen before despite using tik tok loads haha.
When you used the Rolling Stones magazine quote “a glittery island in the middle of the wasteland of TikTok’s infinite scroll” (Dickson 2020) it really captivated me and helped me have a better point of view of what the topic was. Also, what a great way to describe that part of TikTok hahaha.
I really think that feminism has become really important on social media and it is so amazing to see that women have retaken power over the old derogatory meaning of bimbo into something so empowering in a way that it truly challenges social norms and how we perceive women online.
I think TikTok is the best platform to put forwards feminism in this way as it reaches so many people around the world including younger women who may have felt oppressed or unheard. TikTok truly gives women a voice and it was so refreshing to read your paper on Bimbo TikTok.
Hope you have a great day!
Check out my paper here : https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2021/2021/04/26/beauty-influencers-marketing-advertising-on-social-media-and-authorial-identity/?fbclid=IwAR0seBdcGlZCin8C6rgbnr-c0kLk4KLRlc4WleAbJVS_HdmjF9rNwCQZKQY
Thank you so much for reading my paper, Emma! I loved reading your paper as it’s a topic that I have always found interesting and loved discussing in my personal life.
Hi Grace! My paper is on the same line of thought as yours and focuses on the effectiveness of slacktivism. https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2021/2021/04/26/from-slacktivism-to-activism-exploring-the-increase-of-youth-participation-in-online-social-movements-through-twitter/
I totally agree with you, slacktivists have a real potential of harnessing real-world political change. The burden of proof is too high to condemn slacktivism as an ineffective form of activism. While some popular discourses even consider slacktivism as the laziest form of activism, the Me too movement is a prime example of slacktivism at its best and how it can translate into massive on-ground actions. Did you find it difficult to find supporting ideas for the effectiveness of online activism due to the various discourses using the word of “slacktivism” pejoratively to refer to online activism?
I was really interested by how you explored the link between online activism and feminism. The term BimboTok is something that I did not know and will make sure to learn more about as it is a really fascinating topic!
Thank you so much for taking the time to read my paper! To answer your question on my research into slacktivism, I found it difficult in the sense that there was a lot of conflicting research into the effectiveness of slacktivism. Some studies found that slactivism was a viable avenue for social change whereas others outright condemned it as selfish virtue signaling. I also found conflicting research into what actually constitutes a slacktivist act. In the end, I think I had to reflect on real-life examples of how I’ve seen slacktivism impact real-world change.
I’m very excited to read your paper as I didn’t have space in my paper to deeply explore slacktivism despite finding it such an interesting and complex topic!
I love this so much! Thank you for introducing me to Bimbo TikTok!
You’re absolutely right when you say, “there is no right way to be a feminist”. We’re up against enough resistance from outside, we should build each other up as feminists rather than wasting our energy with in-fighting.
When I was growing up in the 90s/early 2000s there was definitely a perception that to be taken seriously as a woman you had to eschew femininity, which is just a new iteration of the same misogyny we’ve been fighting against forever – only the masculine is worthwhile, and to be taken seriously you need to make yourself more like a man. So many millennial women are only now, in our 30s, discovering that hey, actually, we really like the colour pink and other feminine things (I say this while sitting on my pink gaming chair wearing a pink hoodie and surrounded by sparkly pink soft toys!).
I love that these young women are taking that a step further and really owning it. Thanks for shining a light on it!
Thank you so much for this comment! This idea that women must act masculine in order to be taken seriously is still rather prevalent, but I’m glad young women resisting those pressures and being actively critical of this dominant discourse is helping millennials and older feminists to embrace all aspects of their identities.
Thanks for explaining BimboTok, it’s a new term for me!