Empathy, Hope and Instafeminists

By Marie-Pascale Lafrenière


“Supports other feminists*

*As long as they’re the ‘cute’ kind and not like, trying to disrupt the status quo with their whole ‘mean angry man-hating bitches’ schtick.’”

Shelby Lorman (@awardsforgoodboys), Instagram, October 12th, 2018


At the beginning of the 2000s, the birth of social media networks was the promise of a new kind of community. MySpace, Facebook, and then YouTube and Twitter, gave the world the opportunity to connect with fellow internet users across all continents, sharing ideas and images, bringing humanity closer to itself than it ever was. Over ten years later, however, it has been argued that social media did the opposite effect than expected. In the age of the Trump presidency, the division has become an auto-sufficient political apparatus, fed by trolls, fake news and censorship on the internet. As humans have never been so in touch with each other, it seems that they have never been so polarized. A new kind of segregation has formed between lefties and righties, neo-Nazis and Antifas, Incels and feminists. This endless battle makes it difficult to see the positive impacts of social networks. This is why I would like to highlight how this resuscitated feminism, specifically its Fourth Wave.

The Fourth Wave of Feminism has a lot of similarities with the former wave, which took place during the 1990s. At that time, gender equality seemed increasingly concrete, in regard to law and the workplace, which allowed feminists to move the focus toward more insidious forms of sexism: identity politics, representation in pop culture, toxic masculinity and rape culture, among other things. Within America, this activism was taking various approaches. In that respect, the punk-rock feminism of Riot Grrrls and the critical theory writings of Rebecca Walker’s Becoming the Third Wave and Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth all had an important impact in various ways. The difference of the Fourth Wave is the globalized approach brought by the internet. More than ever, the feminine condition is being discussed as a world issue, as ideas are being discussed between African, Asian, European, American, Oceanian, and Aboriginal feminists. As the internet and mobile devices become increasingly accessible, a much more intersectional discussion is taking place, considering the specifications of particular issues while working towards a common ideal.


Far from being immune to these changes, the art world embraces them. New social networks such as Instagram, tailored for cell phones and tablets, have become major platforms for a new form of feminist art. At the intersection between meme culture, illustration, and fine-art, emerging women and queer artists from the millennial generation have taken over the internet. Distancing themselves from the perfect lifestyle usually depicted on these applications, these artists offer a contrasting representation of female subjectivity based on flaws, failures, and even sometimes abjection. Without producing overtly activist artworks, they participate in social change with the power of one specific type of affect: empathy.

In her book Empathic Vision, Australian author, curator and professor Jill Bennett studies the role of empathy in contemporary art. She borrows the concept of “crude empathy” from Bertolt Brecht, which she defines as “the tendency to abstract from the specifics of the life depicted and identify with a single emotion of affect”. When capable of this, the viewer can approach an artwork thinking “what if it was me?” even when they have never lived that particular situation. When it comes to gender issues, this can be effective as it gives an outsider something to grab on to. For example, not everyone knows how it feels to be sent unrequested nudes on social media. However, any viewer can understand fear, powerlessness, anger, worry, disgust, disappointment, etc. Consequently, an artist can use one of these types of affect to hook the viewer into the artwork, and hopefully, this empathy will lead to a deeper reflection. Paul Gonsalves (@ghostsinyramen), queer insta-artist, uses this strategy in his work. Reject-Dick depicts “dick pics” as illustrations classifying them as “baguette”, “tempura shrimp”, “burrito”, and “check ur dm”. The abjection conjured by the artwork is a perfect entry point to his practice, while the simplicity of the digital drawing makes it easy for an inexperienced audience to understand the underlying meaning. In that sense, I believe empathy is crucial to the viewer’s thought process here.

On the other hand, empathy plays a different role with “woke” audiences. When recognizing a situation or a feeling, the viewer goes through an affective or sensorial association with their own experience. This “I know how that feels” carries with it the sense of a shared experience. This connection is what makes an artwork relatable to its audience; there is a lot of power in knowing that you are not alone in your struggle, that your experiences are real. At that point, there is an exchange between the artist and the audience, a transfer of empathy towards the artist’s experience and validation of the audience’s experience. I believe it is both reassuring and empowering. Because this new generation of artists uses social networks as their platform, their audience is huge, which means a lot of people benefit from this empowerment.

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Long days & Short Nights

A post shared by POLLY NOR (@pollynor) on

When English artist Polly Nor published Long Days and Short Nights, an illustration of two devils hanging out in a backyard with human envelopes drying on a washing line on Instagram in 2017, over 75,000 people liked the post. This is the entire population of Scranton Pennsylvania, all liking the same image. Looking at her followers, we move to Austin Texas. With a practice like Nor’s, exploring deep subjects such as female subjectivity, authenticity, desire, and mental health, the size of her fan base might seem surprising. However, the honesty and touch of humor tinting her work facilitates the transmission of affect to the audience. This is where empathy comes into play. The viewers feel with her, they relate with her, they identify with her. More importantly, they relate to each other.

The same thing could be said of a lot of other Instagrammers working with similar themes, who all make their followers smile, cry, squint, laugh, and feel with them. Feel together. For example, Frances Cannon’s (@frances_cannon) simple illustrations of bodies combined with body positive captions operate in a similar way as Polly Nor’s artworks. The images are touching in their softness, while judiciously opposing the society of appearances and performance that our generation was brought into. In a different way, Shelby Lorman’s (@awardsforgoodboys) Awards are a celebration as much as a critique of “fuck-boy” culture and dating in the era of social media. Taking a more humoristic tone, her practice is authentic and points at a shared experience, inscribing her in the same discourse as the other feminist artists discussed here. These Instagrammers come from various countries, yet their fanbase is very alike, all relating to similar situations and experiences.

This shared affect creates a sense of belonging to a community inside and outside of the art world. A whole network of feminine and queer creatives is taking form on the internet, giving birth to a new brand of feminist activism. Fuelled on social media and driven on all five continents, they are moving fast, they are taking risks. And they are not stopping. Even in times of darkness, feminist art is an important reminder that empathy still exists, communities are still building, humans are still feeling, and hearts are still beating. Let’s keep fighting.

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