The Act In Activism: an exploration of feminist digital activism through performance


`Performative activism’ has become a pejorative term used to describe activism that is undertaken to increase one’s social capital rather than having a sincere devotion to a cause. The term has gained an increased usage on social media in the last five years in the wake of popular digital social movements such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. However, the term has roots in feminist and performance theory and was first widely used to describe feminist and other political performances and performance art. This thesis collects the empirical evidence to date regarding how and in what ways the internet (and social media in particular) has facilitated a global community of feminists who use the internet for a myriad of reasons, notably self-representation, communication and activism. This thesis forms the consensus that when the term `performative activism’ is used to de-value alternative acts of activism (i.e. digital activism, we must analyse and critique it.

This thesis explores feminist digital activism through performance using a unique interdisciplinary methodology. This methodology consists of ethnographic observation of feminist activism on social media (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram), 15 qualitative interviews with self identified feminist activists, a performance created from the ethnographic observation and finally an anonymous questionnaire and post performance facilitated discussion, designed to gain participants’ reflections. This thesis finds that there are unique insights that can be generated in social research when participants are provided an opportunity to experience the emerging data and findings through performance – and are invited to further reflect on their own responses. Based on the findings of this research, this thesis presents an alternative framing of `performative activism’, in turn challenging the negative connotations that have come to be associated with this term. This thesis argues that `performative activism’ does not equal `less real’; nor should it suggest a lack of sincere engagement and a failure of productive outcomes. Rather, this thesis contends that all activism can be viewed as performative; activism is performed, and performance is a powerful activist tool.

Full thesis available for download here