Popular Religion and Participatory Culture Conversation (Round 4): Tisha Dejamanee and Deborah Whitehead (Part 2)

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Tisha

Debbie, I love your take on food storage blogs! And I completely agree that these ideas about women being compelled to return home to shore up the family unit are flourishing in the wake of the culture of high anxiety that currently prevails in the face of the increasing fragility of the American Dream. I’ve mostly approached this topic from the perspective of neoliberal individual responsibility – the notion that now that the American public is increasingly distrustful of the role of the State, corporations and medical authorities that women are increasingly called upon to step up and take on the labor that was once outsourced to these social institutions through homeschooling, cooking from scratch and doing extensive individual research into alternative health practices. 

However, I am also very interested in how you see the process of mainstreaming working to reshape communities around shared knowledge that potentially disrupt the boundaries of traditional political and religious affiliations. For instance, I see food blogging as a practice that increasingly unites women across the political spectrum and, while the narrative is often very intimate, political discussion is tacitly forbidden. Apolitical language clearly serves the commercial purpose of not unnecessarily excluding the blogger’s potential audience, but it also suggests that the blogger’s influence is predicated upon her political silence. After the 2016 election, I noted a few examples of food bloggers who broke the code and used their blogs to share strong feelings about the election outcome and this created a lot of agitation among readers. Are there any points at which you note similar ruptures between secular and religious communities emerge in the exchange of knowledge around prepper culture, or how does discussion of religion insert itself into these blogs? 

In response to the first question that you had for me about ambivalence, the way you discuss prepper culture as explained in terms of ‘empowerment’ and ‘confidence’ is pretty accurate to my understanding of how ambivalence works in postfeminist culture. That is, the rhetoric of choice can be used to justify any act as (post)feminist. Part of this is due to the influence of individualism – there is no discussion of domesticity and food preparation as a gendered outcome of structural or broader cultural pressures, or as labor that is systematically devalued yet obligatory; the only thing that matters is whether the individual interprets such work as empowering or fun. This is not to say that food work cannot be empowering or fun or pleasurable, but that pleasure is increasingly defined as the political end goal in and of itself and it is up to the individual to work out how they will justify and manage all of these pleasures, rather than organize collectively to fight for structural change.  

In response to your second question about authenticity, I was really fascinated about your article on ‘emotional fraud’ in the Christian mommy blogosphere. I think the examples you discuss are really great ways to think about the blurry lines that arise from the ways that bloggers are expected to confess and to share highly personal details about their emotional and domestic lives (and, I do think there is a gendered distinction in the blogosphere here), and the ways these same details form the basis for monetary and emotional payoffs. While most of the fraud that I have encountered in the food blogosphere has been of a less spectacular scale – say, stolen recipes, enhanced photography, and fake cheer (the controversy surrounding Thug Kitchen is a more notable exception of identity fraud) – in my experience there is an acceptance that bloggers can both share meaningful affective content and use these personal details to support corporate partnerships. ‘Hate’ blogs – for instance the GOMI community – are an interesting example of this because they offer scathingly honest critiques of the lifestyle blogosphere (for instance, referring to blogger’s children as ‘content generators’) while also serving as a testament to the seductiveness of blog content. However, this reading relies on a ‘buyer beware’ kind of model of response to the blogosphere – that is, the reader should be savvy to the kinds of renegotiations of identity and truth that are prevalent across the blogosphere, and understand that most popular blogs are aspirational and curated. While I agree that shades of truth don’t necessarily negate the affective impact of content on the reader (as you conclude in your article), I wanted to hear more about how faith shapes the response of readers and the ways that content is framed within the mommy blogosphere? 


Deborah :

 Thanks Tisha; I appreciate your questions about the politics of participatory culture.  Like you, I often observe a “code of silence” among women bloggers and readers when it comes to political affiliation – the old cliché that it’s not polite to talk about politics or religion applies in the blogosphere too!  Of course, there are many exceptions to that rule.  Survivalist and prepper bloggers whose anxiety levels peaked during the Obama years and in the run-up to the 2016 election tended to be fairly explicit about their support for Donald Trump.  As “Survival Mom” Lisa Bedford put it after the election, “many (not all!) in the prepper community have breathed a sigh of relief”; but she cautioned her readers that there were still good reasons to keep prepping, including natural, personal and social disasters (hurricanes, floods, job loss, riots, etc). In the post-election climate, while survivalist and conservative preppers may feel able to relax a bit, the election has had the opposite effect on those on the left end of the political spectrum.  A new community of liberal preppers is on the rise, characterized by both their political leanings and their desire to learn how to prep, and bloggers like Lefty Prepper Mom spend their free time reading the same LDS websites as do conservative preppers, learning Mormon techniques for food storage and emergency preparedness though they do not themselves identify as LDS.  But even though conservative and liberal preppers are united in their admiration for these particular aspects of the LDS tradition, they don’t seem to be interested in engaging with Mormons or Mormonism beyond appropriating their food storage practices, nor are they interested in engaging with one another across political boundaries; the Liberal Preppers Facebook group, for example, a closed group with over 3500 members, says in its description that it does not “knowingly accept conservatives and/or Trump supporters, into this group.”  If anything, then, the 2016 election has seemed to harden political boundaries within the larger and increasingly diverse prepper community.  

It’s in the evangelical women’s blogging communities that I’ve seen some of the kinds of disruptions you mention.  Evangelical women’s blogs can be understood as a subspecies of evangelical women’s ministries more generally, sharing a desire to convert and lead other women in the faith, as well as a subspecies of the secular mommy blog, documenting family life and sharing personal reflections, recipes, crafts, etc.  The explicitly religious nature and purpose and the overt religious content of evangelical women’s blogs make them distinctive, but it is still true that like the food blogs you have analyzed, they tend to shy away from overt political discussion, perhaps out of a desire to maintain influence as you say, perhaps also out of a fear of alienating potential converts. This belies the fact that the blogs’ subject matter of women’s bodies, sexuality, marriage, and family is, of course, highly political; the rhetoric of “family values” has been used to advance a number of political positions, movements, organizations, and candidates over the past three decades, as well as to advance a particular notion of the patriarchal Christian family as the most basic unit of the modern nation state.  

A small number of evangelical Protestant mommy bloggers have built personal brands by cultivating decidedly apolitical stances, building large social media followings, authoring books, participating in Christian women’s ministry tours around the country, and even having their own HGTV shows.  The controversy that has erupted around Jen Hatmakerfor speaking out in support of same sex marriage and openly criticizing Trump and his policies (leading to condemnation from other evangelicals, criticism of women’s ministries more generally, and her books being pulled from a major Christian bookstore chain) is a striking example of the power of what Hatmaker has called “the Christian machine” to manufacture a disciplined silence around political issues among women in the evangelical community.  Yet Hatmaker is not alone; evangelical bloggers Beth Moore, Sarah Bessey, Austin Channing Brown, and others have contributed to what some have called an “evangelical crisis of authority” by using their powerful platforms to give voice to those not typically represented in evangelical institutional leadership structures in the U.S., which tend to be dominated by white men.  And so, to answer your question about how faith shapes content and reader response in the evangelical blogosphere and how that might be different from the “caveat emptor” attitude expressed in food blogs or hate blogs, I think it has to do with the question of religious authority – the notion that these women possess a kind of authority to teach and lead other women in the faith, one that may be outside denominational or institutional structures, but a kind of authority nevertheless; and because of that, personal misrepresentations, lies or omissions, or departures from church doctrine or practice, are seen with a unique kind of gravitas.  We’ve been talking a lot about politics and silence and authority, and I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the question of authority in the food blogosphere, as well as whether you’ve seen any political commentary in food blogs around topics other than the election, for example around food politics, sustainable agriculture, food deserts, GMO foods, labeling, and so on? 


Tisha: 

Thanks for sharing these interesting examples. A theme that I think is prevalent across the texts we examine is the nostalgic valuation of certain kinds of knowledge in response to a culture of high anxiety – around politics, around natural disasters, around State failure, around the changing social and demographic landscape of the U.S. In the food blogosphere, I see a direct parallel to the valorization of prepping in the ways that self-sufficiency is based around the desire to deconstruct and recreate food in the individualized domestic sphere, for instance through learning intensive production processes such as grinding one’s own flour or baking marshmallows from scratch. What I find really interesting about the example of the Liberal Preppers is that a lot of this anxiety is explicitly channeled into the kinds of community that form around such knowledge exchange; that a closed liberal community is required to make these discussions ‘safe’. 

 In contrast, I would characterize the food blogosphere as driven by the impetus for expanding one’s influence. Part of this takes place through the ways that food bloggers set themselves up as authorities on cooking, which almost inevitably involves exaggerating the performance of a normative, girlie femininity – through the intimate chatter, self-deprecating commentary, and the foregrounding of family and domestic life. As such, while the community itself is not necessarily closed, the construction of a digital femininity usually is. This is one of the most troubling aspects of the nostalgic romanticization of traditional knowledge – it often simply operates as code for gender and racial conservatism. 

 To answer your question about sites where food politics becomes explicit in the food blogosphere, there are certainly several examples. Many of them revolve around the ethical and environmental impacts of veganism, which is one of the most popular subgenres of food blogs. Breeze Harper’s Sistah Vegan Project is an important example of critical social activism through blogging about food, while many other vegan blogs make explicit the social issues that have led them to veganism (interestingly, just as many vegan food blogs are likely to emphasize their apolitical, judgement-free stance). Jack Monroe’s Cooking on a Bootstrap blog became widely circulated as a British austerity blog, and Monroe has used this platform to publish explicit political commentary on U.K austerity policies and various other social movements. Multiple other examples exist of blogs that frame food choices in terms of consumer politics, although these rarely acknowledge structural deficiencies in the mainstream food system. In general, I see blogs that seek to deal with politics as outliers that may resonate with particular audiences but are not generally rewarded within the mainstream structures of visibility of the blogosphere.

As we close this blog conversation I’m interested to hear your thoughts on how, as scholars, we assess the political potential or impact of the blogosphere. I think your example of disruptive evangelical women’s blogs offers an interesting way to think through the general contradiction of the lifestyle blogosphere, which is that they offer women a platform and a place to document, circulate and add value to their experiences while at the same time this visibility is often contingent upon their performance of a correct kind of femininity or gendered cultural authority. You’ve alluded to this in your previous posts, but I was wondering whether you could speak more explicitly on what kind of potential you think religious blogs have to shape or change gender roles within religious communities? 

Deborah:

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 Tisha, I think you’re absolutely right that the nostalgic desire to recover knowledge around cooking, homekeeping, prepping, mothering, being thrifty, etc. that we see in the blogosphere and beyond is often bound up with political anxiety, gender and racial conservatism and a romanticized view of the past – one in which “traditional” white working class “culture” is unproblematically celebrated and preserved. One could also look at home design blogs and the current craze for “farmhouse style,” most famously exemplified by the long running HGTV show “Fixer Upper” and its flannel shirt, jeans and boots-wearing married hosts, Chip and Joanna Gaines, to see this nostalgia evident in contemporary home design.  Words like “rustic” and “homey” and “rural” are frequently used to describe farmhouse style, which “eschews modern sensibilities and goes back to a simpler time” with its ubiquitous weathered wood finishes, exposed beams, barn doors, shiplap, galvanized steel, mason jars, black and white color schemes, and buffalo plaids, and its values of “simplicity” and “practicality” and “warmth,” evoking a new American Gothic for mass consumption.  Joanna Gaines’ aesthetic has been copied, channeled into several home design show spinoffs, and marketed as a Target line; the look is aspirational, yet achievable, we’re told, as long as we’re willing to “peruse, meander and collect” to meaningfully curate our homes as perfect combinations of “hand-me-downs and flea market finds combined with newer pieces.”  It is not difficult to see Chip and Joanna Gaines and their many imitators and admirers of farmhouse style as literally engaged in rummaging through and reassembling the past for present consumption, all while foregrounding particular normative conceptions of gender, race, sexuality, and nation.  

I appreciate your question about religious blogs and gender roles; it’s a complicated one and returns us to the question of the political potential of participatory culture.  Back in 2005 at an inaugural gathering of women bloggers, a controversy erupted as to the political potential of mommy blogs. As Lori Kido Lopez relates the story, one participant commented that “if women ‘stopped blogging about themselves they could change the world.’”  In response, blogger Alice Bradley declared that, in the context of the male-dominated world of blogging in which mommy bloggers were not taken seriously as writers, “mommy blogging is a radical act!”  Does such a statement recover the second wave feminist rallying cry that the personal is political, or does it reflect the postfeminist rhetoric of choice and pleasure and visibility as a substitute for organized political action?  

When it comes to the religious blogosphere, the question is refracted through the lens of authority and tradition.  On the one hand, I agree with you that the price of visibility in the blogosphere is too often the performance of “proper” gender roles and, I would add when it comes to religious blogs, the performance of institutionally or communally sanctioned religious belief and practice.  The religious blogosphere is, of course, incredibly diverse, and my observations here are confined only to the evangelical and LDS blogs I’ve studied.  Jen Hatmaker and other evangelical women have spoken about the presence of a “pink ghetto” in evangelical Christianity that limits women’s opportunities to participate in ministry or leadership roles, constraining them both offline and online into a “less threatening,” Instagrammable, “hey girl” performance of femininity, one that eschews taking stands on controversial issues.  When Hatmaker spoke out in support of same sex marriage, the furor around her (which she has said included death threats) was not just about the specifics of this particular issue, but about the fact that she’d chosen to, as a female influencer, speak publicly about it.  “Being on the wrong side of the evangelical machine is terrifying and punitive,” Hatmaker has said, so it is not surprising that most evangelical women are reluctant to take it on, and therefore that despite what I earlier mentioned as a “crisis of authority” within the tradition generated by social media, the possibilities of institutional change remain similarly constrained, at least for now.  Heidi Campbell’s analysis of 100 religious blogs reached a similar conclusion, finding that religious bloggers more often affirmed than challenged traditional sources of authority in their respective traditions, because bloggers’ online practices are so deeply embedded in and connected to their offline practices and beliefs.  

 On the other hand, I find the kinds of examples of youth activism and political engagement that Henry Jenkins and his colleagues have collected in By Any Media Necessary to be inspiring.  I am particularly intrigued by the notion that in an era of increasing distrust in political organizations and institutions, political change has become, through social media, something that is part of everyday lives instead of just being confined to discrete events like organized rallies or protests.  Seen from that vantage point, moments of disruption in the blogosphere where political views are surfaced in normally carefully guarded apolitical, “everyday” spaces become very significant.  For example, in October 2016, Christian women’s ministry superstar Beth Moore, who had “spent her career carefully mapping the boundaries of acceptability for female evangelical leaders,”tweeted her outrage at then-candidate Donald Trump’s 2005 Access Hollywood tape, and the way that some male Christian leaders rushed to excuse it as “locker room talk,” to her 900,000 followers, arguing that the evangelical community needed to “wake up” to its pervasive sexism and its frequent willingness to overlook sexual harassment and abuse of women.  Blogger and author of Jesus Feminist Sarah Bessey started the hashtag #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear on a whim in April 2017 to “amplify the voices of women who have too often been silenced” in the church; more conversations, including #ThingsOnlyBlackChristianWomenHear, have followed, highlighting experiences of misogyny, sexism and racism.  These actions by Moore and Bessey and many others are helping to generate the evangelical community’s own #MeToo movement. One could also look at the way in which many religious (and secular) lifestyle bloggers and Instagrammers interrupted their daily posts this past April to denounce the Trump administration’s new “zero tolerance” immigration policy that resulted in separating parents from children at the border, explaining that as mothers themselves, they could not stay silent on this issue, and urging their readers to take action by calling their congressional representatives and donating to legal aid organizations for refugees.  Such disruptions are risky and controversial even among one’s followers, and generate both praise and criticism.  But perhaps, in the context of religious traditions which do not ordain women or where women’s leadership roles are tightly controlled and constrained, they represent small steps toward a kind of participatory politics grounded in the power they have as influencers and organically connected to their identities as women, mothers, and people of faith.    

Tisha Dejmanee is an Assistant Professor in Communication at Central Michigan University. She has authored several journal articles on issues where the fields of gender studies, popular culture, politics, new media and food intersect. Published work relating to the themes discuss in these posts include "‘Food Porn’ as Postfeminist Play” (http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1527476415615944)  and “Consumption in the City: The Turn to Interiority in Contemporary Postfeminist Television”

Deborah Whitehead is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and Senior Resident Fellow with the Center for Media, Religion, and Culture at the University of Colorado Boulder.  Her research focuses on intersections between religion and philosophy, gender, popular culture, and media in the U.S.  She is author of William James, Pragmatism, and American Culture (Indiana University Press, 2016) and several articles on James, religion, gender, media, and popular culture.  She is currently working on a second book on U.S. evangelicals and new media, forthcoming with Routledge.