Editor’s note: This post is part of a summer-long series, The Sociology of Trump. Every Friday RI Future will feature an essay written by a Brown University sociology student on an aspect of Trumpism. Read the introduction: Culture, power, and social change in the time of Trump.
“Sociology can move our account of Trump Times by exploring his attraction. Arlie Hochschild’s explanation of Trump’s appeal to those in the Louisiana Bayou inspires Emilia Halvorsen’s analysis of the sub-reddit Feminine not Feminist. Its mode of femininity, substantially defined by the male gaze while departing from traditionally conservative views, can help us understand women who support Trump. ” – Michael Kennedy, professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs, Brown University
In the fallout of the 2016 presidential election in which Donald J. Trump was elected president of the United States – a shocking turn of events to much of the country, including many sociologists – a newfound attention has been turned towards America’s working class whites in the Midwest. Michael McQuarrie at the London School of Economics posits that the politicization of sociology, resulting from a tendency towards identity politics and cosmopolitan cities, created this blind spot in the discipline, preventing sociologists from being at the forefront of predictions of Trump’s win (McQuarrie 2016). Now sociologists and other thinkers aim to address this blind spot somewhat retroactively, examining from many perspectives what led to Trump’s rise.
Among them is Arlie Hochschild, who conducted a five-year ethnographic study of white blue-collar workers in the rust belt. Hochschild created what she coined the Deep Story. The Deep Story describes the psychology of the people she observed, and how Trump’s acknowledgement of this narrative of being ignored and passed over was essential to winning their votes (2016: 686). In addition, Hochschild theorized about connections between Trump and rhetoric of the rapture, with Trump playing the judge who would reward the devout, as playing a role in Trump’s appeal to evangelical Christians who might otherwise regard him as a sinner (2016: 687).
But while much attention has been focused on answering the question of why did white, working class voters turn to Trump, there are fewer articles and studies that have entered the dialogue about why white women came out for Trump, with 53% of white women voting for the new President.
Despite the extreme salience of gender in this campaign, popular articles circulating on demographics of Trump voters have focused on merely the fact that white women voted for Trump, and have not examined in depth the interplay of gender and politics that is key to understanding female Trump voters. Hochschild’s theory of rapture discourse explains how white evangelicals can support a candidate whose behavior has been publicly immoral. But it doesn’t explain why women would vote for a man who’s made misogynistic and violent comments about women, or how their gender and political ideologies contribute to this.
I aim to find connections between Trump’s rhetoric and the mode or modes of femininity practiced by his female supporters, in order to create a Deep Story of female Trump supporters in this community. To do so, I use the social news website Reddit, examining a specific community forum, known as a subreddit. Subreddits are user-created, and users can subscribe and unsubscribe to them. As of April 14, 2017, Reddit is home to over a million and fifty thousand subreddits, with subreddit content curated by users around themes as broad as “Funny” and as narrow as “Cats Inadvertently Swatting Unknown Objects Towards Themselves And Then Freaking Out.” Visibility of posts is dictated by user voting; an “upvote” is a positive point towards the post and brings the post to a higher position on a user’s feed, while a “downvote” is the opposite. Upvotes are given to show approval or appreciation, or purely to boost a post, while downvotes indicate disapproval. Success of a post is determined by how many up- and downvotes it receives, and engagement can also be gauged by the number and quality of comments.
In order to examine modes of femininity of female Trump voters, I study the subreddit Feminine Not Feminist (hereafter referred to as FNF). FNF interested me as a site to examine gender constructions of Trump supporters after reading its self-description and user-created community guidelines, which will be examined in depth below. Feminine Not Feminist is a subreddit comprised of 1,025 subscribers. The forum was created two months ago; moderator Camille11325 articulates the common backstory of FNF as such: “This subreddit was created because we saw how badly the reddit ‘beautysphere’ needed a space for those with non – PC opinions. Many of us were keeping silent because we knew our comments would lead to downvotes, hostility, and conflict.” On the introduction post, where users were prompted to introduce themselves, many expressed they were “excited” to be part of a subreddit of “likeminded women,” and that FNF, where people could post about beauty and femininity “without fear of vitriolic response from the left,” was a much needed space online; many cited harassment on other beauty subreddits for “daring to disagree with the feminist narrative,” and expressed frustration at what they felt was a site-wide trend of subreddits, political and not, becoming spaces for Trump-bashing.
I justify my use of FNF as a virtual site of femininity for female Trump-supporters based on a survey conducted by moderators, the user-created community guidelines, and a generally conservative accent in comments. While moderator Camille 11325 does not specify how many users participated in the survey, the survey results for users’ political affiliations provides a helpful scope of the range of political identities represented by active users. The results are listed as “Top political affiliations [of survey respondents]” and are reported as such: “Alt Right, Conservative, Moderate/Centrist, Republican, “Liberal/Democrat but supports Trump”, Independent, Libertarian, “Right of Center”, Anti Feminist/SJW.” Survey respondents also answered a prompt about what they are tired of, which was generalized as:
“Body positivity/fat acceptance/HAES, unwarranted complaints about cultural appropriation, insults directed at non liberal women, anti USA comments, comments against men, comments against white people, women getting offended about things easily, the way women who prioritize their appearance and being attractive to men are looked down on, men wearing makeup and women fawning over these men, shaming, tone policing, and bullying in the name of being ‘open minded ‘tolerant’ and ‘inclusive’.”
The guidelines are also worth looking at, as they emphasize FNF’s politics while also demonstrating certain notions of gender. Two of the five guidelines are standard, emphasizing the intended purpose of the subreddit (“1. Submissions must be related to makeup, skincare, fashion, hair care, the online beauty community, beauty related current events, and/or feminine beauty in general.”) and protecting the safety and integrity of the community (“4. No brigading, doxxing, or harassment!”). The other three reveal more about FNF’s intended users:
- This is an anti-feminist, anti-leftist, and anti- SJW community. It is not a debate forum. Anyone promoting these ideologies, shaming others, concern trolling, tone policing, or otherwise disrupting the subreddit will be banned.
- You not [sic] need to agree with him but we will not tolerate disrespect shown towards President Trump or his family. [emphasis in the original]
- This subreddit is a female space. Men and trans-gendered individuals are not welcome.Identifying yourself as biologically male and/or trans-gendered will result in a ban. [emphasis in the original]
Rule 2 exemplifies what Guardian writer Arwa Mahdawi describes as “populist correctness,” a form of language policing used by conservatives to dismiss liberals, “silencing opposing opinions by branding them elitist” (Mahdawi 2017). As a liberal might refuse to hear an argument after their opponent didn’t use, for example, trans-inclusive language, a conservative might do the same for someone using that very language. Similarly, according to Rule 2, the moderators of FNF will silence users espousing liberal and social justice ideology.
Rule 3 demonstrates the moderators’ commitment to honoring Trump’s authority, which in this case can be understood as rational authority by Weber’s definitions (Weber 1978). Regardless of party line and personal opinions of Trump, users are expected to respect him because they are supposed to respect the office he holds.
Rule 5 implies that men and trans people are unfit to contribute to conversations on femininity and beauty, and that trans women are not to be counted as women. This highly contrasts with the subreddit Makeup Addiction (MUA), Reddit’s biggest makeup community, which has no guideline that addresses users’ gender, and not only allows posts from male and/or trans people, but currently features posts from a boy, a drag queen, and a trans woman (all self-identified) among its all-time top posts.
In recent years, subreddits and other online forums have become studied for their role as echo chambers, particularly in the context of online radicalism and recruitment by terrorist organizations (O’hara and Stevens 2015; Verhaar 2016). Verhaar provides a contemporary definition of radicalism as a “kind of activism that is anti-liberal and fundamentalist,” which could in fact qualify FNF (Verhaar 2016: 7); however, Verhaar gives greater historical context to the definition of radicalism and suggests its relativity in modern times (2016:7). Whether or not Feminine Not Feminist is seen as a radical community, it can certainly be seen as an echo chamber, creating a space of “likeminded women,” and rejecting viewpoints it does not agree with (or “is tired of”), which follows O’hara and Stevens’ notions that “People position themselves to hear similar voices to their own,” and “[…] restrict the feedback they receive, distorting their psychosocial lives” (2016). Sunstein (2007: 60-64; as cited in O’hara and Stevens 2015) is concerned with group polarization, where users’ views become more homogenous over time, creating stronger solidarity, which creates stronger confidence, which can lead to more extreme views.
FNF will make an interesting case study for such a theory, being a relatively new community with roots that can be traced to Trump’s inauguration. Capturing the subreddit’s current views and trends will be important for comparison over the next four years, to see if and how changes in the political landscape affect attitudes and rhetoric of users, if users’ views become more extreme as Sunstein suggests is possible, and the size of the active user base over time. Below I begin to capture some of the prevalent attitudes of FNF, and create a variation on Hochschild’s Deep Story for the FNF community.
Constructing Femininity on Feminine Not Feminist
The women of FNF most likely would not agree with West and Zimmerman’s claim that gender is not biological, but socially constructed through interaction and performance (1987), based on the exclusion of trans women from the subreddit and ideas expressed about biological differences between men and women’s psychology. However, West and Zimmerman’s point about gender being enforced and reinforced through behaviors including speech and dress would most likely be perfectly logical to a typical FNF woman. Many comments and posts argued for the idea that despite anyone’s natural appearance, a woman can make herself look more feminine through the use of makeup, dressing for one’s body type, and plastic surgery; such a response could be seen as the beauty version of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. Beyond appearance, performing all acts in a feminine way is of high importance to many users. Users ask and answer questions about how to navigate certain social situations “femininely,” like facing an interpersonal problem with a friend. In a thread about Melania Trump’s femininity, users pondered if Melania’s personality and manners aligned with their views of femininity, in addition to her features, for example, user Littleknownfacts “couldn’t confirm or deny if she [Melania Trump] has internalized femininity.”
In discussions of fashion and beauty, users’ conceptions of femininity tended to be very traditional and often rooted in the male gaze, with a few exceptions. Many users emphasized wearing dresses and skirts as much as possible, and wearing pants that showed off their forms. Dressing for one’s partner or potential partner was implied or directly expressed in many threads related to fashion: “I’m literally always freezing in these ensembles but M likes the view lol I just curl up under blankets!”2 “I wear whatever my fiancé wants me to wear to bed […].”3 “My SO [significant other] really likes this a-line v-neck faux wrap dress of mine that has a large blended purple swirl pattern thing on it.”4
User kaitopet captures the common FNF feminine ideology in her comment: “I think going to sleep in something sexy/elegant is a great way to feel feminine, which is just as important as looking feminine! If I feel feminine every night when I go to bed and every morning when I wake up, I will be reminded and inspired to put in more effort when it comes to behaving and dressing like a respectable, desirable woman for myself and for my boyfriend.”5 Femininity is conceived of as a lifestyle, as an impermeable performance, practiced for a woman’s own betterment as well as the seduction and keeping of her partner.
FNF also veers from a few traditionally conservative views. On the post discussing Melania Trump’s femininity, a couple of users expressed excitement at Trump’s sex appeal. In reference to Melania not flinching at mentions of her nude photographs, Littleknownfacts expressed, “It’s an aspect of femininity that I think gets overshadowed by a lot of the trad-con [traditional conservative] talk that can happen in this community. But to me that makes her more complete (not sure if that’s the right word exactly) as a woman than Mrs. Calf-skirt and cardigan.” Women on FNF are not shy about the fact that they attempt to look sexy, often for the enjoyment of men in their lives; sex appeal is seen as a tool of femininity.
In addition, FNF users have different feminine styles, and emphasize the fact that there are many different ways to be feminine. Users find the Kibbe system of body typing helpful for finding a style that accentuates their figure in feminine ways, no matter their shape. Women have posted about finding feminine goth clothing, have shared they have nose rings and bellybutton piercings, as well as tattoos; all have found support from FNF users, even if users do not personally appreciate these styles and decisions.
The FNF Deep Story
Hochschild based her deep story on social interactions in the community she was studying, and hundreds of hours of interviews with 60 Louisianans (2016: 685). From this, she created a “feels-as-if” metaphor-based narrative. My attempt at a deep story for FNF is based on far less research than Hochschild conducted, and can only accurately be seen as a first draft, piecing together pilot data observations, mostly incorporating ideas from what users claimed they are tired of and from the introduction post. This draft is as follows:
You’ve just joined a new club. It’s a club for women with similar interests, but you feel alienated, again. You raise your hand and speak politely but honestly, and your ideas keep getting shouted down by the other women there. They keep trying to shut you up, claiming that it’s to make the club more inclusive! It stuns you that they cannot see the hypocrisy in this. They keep saying they care about women’s issues, but how can they, when they don’t care about women like you?
They don’t respect your life and your decisions, while at the same time pushing agendas that don’t lead to happiness. They want you to fill both men and women’s roles, and say that men and women have no special characteristics. You find it demeaning; your femininity is part of what makes you special and powerful as a woman. It’s a tool for getting the most enjoyment out of life. You live in reality, while they pretend looks don’t matter, and celebrate men wearing makeup with bad contouring.
You raise your hand again, a little more hesitantly this time, and when you finish speaking, the other club members actually insult you and your intelligence. You are hurt and offended; you pride yourself on your intelligence and inner beauty, and you’re shocked these so-called “feminists” would harass you for expressing your opinion. You don’t need this kind of negativity in your life. At the next meeting, you don’t bother raising your hand; there’s no use arguing with these people.
After the meeting, you go home. Your family, especially your partner, are extremely fulfilling parts of your life. You have a man who is a provider, and you trust him for love and guidance. Of course you want to please him, and be attractive for him. He does so much for you, and you try to appreciate him as best you can. He faces the same problems in his own clubs and activities; you’ve both learned to keep quiet, even among friends, and can only express your real opinions with each other.
While this is not a perfect summation and metaphor of users’ feelings in FNF, it does help clarify why these users would find an appeal in Trump. For those sick of feeling talked down to or that those in authority are inauthentic, Trump’s idiolect could make his speeches seem more conversational and intimate, as well as genuine (Sclafani 2016). FNF users’ constructions of femininity, where women are to some extent deferential to the preferences of their male partners, might also find in Trump a charismatic authority; he is confident, successful, wealthy, and is married to a beautiful woman. In addition, Trump’s comments from the leaked Access Hollywood tapes may not be seen as more than locker room talk; a subreddit listed as related on the FNF page is RedPillWives, the female counterpart of an online movement that says men, naturally, are always seeking sex and must partake in “alpha” behaviors to get it. It is unclear exactly how many FNF users also subscribe to RedPillWives, but the forum and Red Pill ideology does frequently come up in comment sections, especially related to sexiness, relationships, and what men want.
Examining the construction of femininity and its relationship to politics of Trump supporting women is helpful in both understanding what attracts them to Trump, and what repels them from the feminist movement. These are not women-hating women; they celebrate International Women’s Day, they had some solid critiques of the Day Without Women protest, and they clearly are invested in and care for one another. The way these women felt marginalized in predominantly female spaces online mirrors the Midwest’s feelings of being ignored; understanding why these women felt that way will help add another piece to the puzzle of what led to this election, as well as the steps we can take next.
Hochschild, A. R. 2016. “The Ecstatic Edge of Politics: Sociology and Donald Trump.” Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews 45(6):683–89.
Mahdawi, Arwa. 2017. “Populist correctness: the new PC culture of Trump’s America and Brexit Britain| Arwa Mahdawi.” The Guardian. Retrieved April 14, 2017 (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/19/populist-correctness-new-pc-culture-trump-america-brexit-britain).
McQuarrie, Michael. 2016. “Sociology Has A Trump Problem.” London School of Economics. Retrieved (http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/researchingsociology/2016/11/17/sociology-has-a-trump-problem/ ).
O’hara, Kieron and David Stevens. 2015. “Echo Chambers and Online Radicalism: Assessing the Internet’s Complicity in Violent Extremism.” Policy & Internet 7(4):401–22.
Sclafani, Jennifer. 2016. “The Idiolect of Donald Trump.” The Scientific American. Retrieved (https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/mind-guest-blog/the-idiolect-of-donald-trump/).
Sunstein, C.R. 2007. Republic.com 2.0. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Verhaar, P. 2016. “Radical Reddits: into the Minds of Online Radicalised Communities.” thesis. Retrieved (https://dspace.library.uu.nl/handle/1874/336681).
 It is also interesting to note how FNF uses and relates to terminology which emerged from social justice and leftist circles. For example, one post asks users to share what they do for self-care. Audre Lorde, a Black writer, womanist, and activist, notably politicized the term “self-care” in her 1988 essay collection A Burst of Light, writing “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare,” a much quoted passage among social justice circles. FNF user lo_andbehold_ implies self-care is synonymous with “some extreme pampering;” other users responded with skin, hair, and other beauty routines.