Mixed Signals and Narrative Hijacking


On January 21, 2017, people around the world took part in the Women’s March, an international protest that has since been labeled as having been the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. The protests took place the day after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, intended to send a message to Trump, his administration, and other leaders that “women’s rights are human rights,” as well as to bring attention to many other human rights issues. Somewhere between a half a million to one million people participated in the Washington, DC March, and over 1% of the total U.S. population showed up for marches around the nation. I myself marched in the one that took place in Westfield, New Jersey, along with my husband and some of my close friends (please excuse my lack of creative capabilities, which would make a kindergartener laugh!)


On that day, I noticed that people at the various protests were wearing the pink “pussyhats” that have since become synonymous with the Women’s March.  At the time, I didn’t think much of them, as neither I nor anyone I knew had worn one. Its creator and the people that wore the hats claimed that the hats were meant to symbolize the power of women and their allies and the relevance of the human rights issues they were trying to bring attention to, as well as being a dig at Donald Trump’s infamous “grab them by the —–” comments to Access Hollywood. In the months following the protests, I noticed that these hats had been appropriated by the right-wing to trivialize the Women’s March and its associated causes. As Zeynep Tufekci writes, “what appears to empower one group can also empower its adversaries and introduce novel twists to many dynamics.” What had been intended to empower supporters of the March and bring attention to the issues its participants were concerned about had been turned into a joke that the opposition was using to ridicule the protesters and their concerns.


In addition to the way that conservatives have warped the “signals” being sent out by the protesters, the protesters themselves failed to recognize the fact that the signal they were sending with the pussyhats was not inclusive of all women. Although the hat was created with a positive, empowering message in mind, many aspects of its signals were offensive and exclusionary for trans and queer women, women of color, and other marginalized groups. Rather than uniting women in the interest of common causes, it was dividing them.


Tufekci explains that social movements are characterized by “capacities” (abilities) and “signals,” which indicate a movement’s capability to sustain itself.  Her examples of the Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street movements and her comments about “outcomes” not always being representative of success put me in mind of the Women’s March. Even though the protests garnered attendance in record numbers and brought attention to a strong opposition to Donald Trump and his policies, the conservative right still managed to maintain their hold on the Senate in the midterm elections. The taking of the House by the Democrats suggests that some change has indeed been achieved, but the number of protesters that showed up for the Women’s Marches doesn’t seem to have translated into the kind of electoral change many expected considering those “outcomes.” One has to assume that the mixed “signals” it’s sent out, the trivialization of those signals by the conservative right, and the speed with which the movement was organized (a hazard much warned against by Tufekci) all have something to do with that.

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4 Responses to Mixed Signals and Narrative Hijacking

  1. erivka says:

    Can you attach a larger version of the last image? I can’t really read it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dani, you chose a perfect example to demonstrate Tufecki’s assertion about signals. At the time of the Women’s March I was admittedly wary of participating for many of the reasons mentioned in your post and the image of the Facebook post–the rhetoric and some of the imaging did not seem inclusive to my already marginalized identity. The trivialization of the “pussyhats” ,which received vastly more attention than the actual issues raised by the march itself, is a prime example of what contributes to my continued disillusionment with this country’s state of affairs. Movements can be organized and display a huge ephemeral presence but there is a disconnect when it comes to institutional capacity that seems to be plaguing much of the social action efforts nationwide.


  3. Noelle Lorraine Williams says:

    This was an interesting post. As an artist and feminist I was asked by several friends if I was attending the march and if I wanted to join a pussy hat making workshop. I generally do not attend big marches – if I attend marches they are usually ones where they “need people” or “need bodies.” With the exception of several big marches like the Million Black Women’s March or even the Annual Dyke March.
    However, I found it to be compelling that a lot of my colleagues and friends who I did not know were feminists were attending the march and making the hats. I wondered what about the message instigated this “out of the closet” feminism. I think it was the clarity of the injustice of sexual harassment and the disbelief that Hillary Clinton had lost.
    This message translated well across social media to recruit the millions needed to attend.the March. I think the post that you bring up above about legislative wins and losses is significant since so often the protest wins and the uproar do not translate to action at the polls. I think that your examination of the “signals” brings the concept of outcomes to the fore again.
    Again, I did not go to the march or make a pussy hat, or want to even though they looked cute and I could have bonded with my friends.. LOL However, I did still think it was some advancement for women who are afraid of the “F” word (feminism) generally and do not really like to make waves at work, home and their communities. So in this way I thought that it was very powerful.


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