Imagined Digital Communities: Bailey Reconstitutes Harmful Digital Ecologies as Spaces of Transformation

Probing the negative digital discourse directed toward Black women and nonbinary individuals online, Bailey examines how those individuals reconfigure such harmful messages into digital resistance against anti-Blackness and misgony.

By Sherri Lawson Clark

Misogynoir transformed: Black women’s digital resistance, by Moya Bailey. New York University, 2021. 248p bibl index, 9781479865109 $28.00, 9781479890491

Ed. Note: Choice considers racial justice a cornerstone of its mandate to support academic study. Accordingly, Choice is highlighting select racial justice titles through the creation of long-form reviews such as the one featured here. Though the scope of these reviews will be broader than those applied to our standard 190-word reviews, many of the guidelines regarding what to focus on will remain the same, with additional consideration for how the text under review sheds light on racist systems and racial inequities or proposes means of dismantling them. Our intent is to feature important works on racial justice that will be of use to undergraduates and faculty researching racism and racial inequalities from new perspectives.

The cover of Misogynoir Transformed, a book on digital resistance

As social beings, humans’ existence is dependent upon social interactions and can be examined by the ways in which we communicate with one another. The proliferation of social media platforms, which first appeared in the mid-1980s and continued with the development of behemoths like YouTubeFacebook, and Twitter twenty years later, are examples of a cultural evolution suggesting that the ways humans communicate and their subsequent impact on how people see themselves have forever changed. Now a fixture in people’s daily routines, digital media has thus become big business. This is evidenced by Facebook’s 2012 acquisition of Instagram and the structures of power embedded in social media platforms’ ability to communicate quickly and broadly to users and even affect norms, as demonstrated by Apple and Google banning the conservative-leaning platform Parler in 2021 after observing hateful content on the site related to the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

In Misogynoir Transformed, Bailey (communication studies, Northwestern Univ.), a Black feminist scholar and activist, highlights the transformative power of social media by calling for a radical, more inclusive, paradigm shift in examining the intersections of race and gender. This shift, she argues, is realized by creating new content via the same digital media that promotes misogynoir. Positioning digital media as the mode through which resistance occurs, she contends that users can lessen the impact of misogynoir’s destructiveness. Coined by Bailey, the term misogynoir “describe[s] the anti-Black racist misogyny that Black women experience, particularly in US visual and digital culture” (p. 1).

Beginning with an exploration of the digital world, Bailey scrutinizes the ways in which hashtags, memes, and videos disseminate harmful images and ideas that propagate misogynoir, arguing that these negative symbols have deleterious health consequences on Black women in general, and on Black nonbinary, agender, and gender-variant women more specifically. Her study expands the literature on Black feminist resistance strategies by featuring the voices of queer and transgender Black women as well as Black gender-nonconforming communities and highlighting “the ways that [they] transform everyday digital media into valuable social justice media that recode the failed scripts that negatively impact their lives” (p. 24). This “digital alchemy” is enacted not exactly to eradicate misogynoir but to mitigate its harm by reconfiguring it to promote positive images and language (hence the title). The organizers of the #GirlsLikeUs hashtag, for instance, successfully challenged the decision to remove Jenna Talackova from the 65 finalists in the Miss Universe Canada beauty pageant in 2012 after pageant organizers found out that she was assigned male at birth. Though Bailey is careful not to understate the uneasiness of the battleground on which this victory was won—the patriarchal, misogynist, and racist gaze of the beauty pageant itself—she reveals the power of digital campaigns and hashtags like #GirlsLikeUs to connect with multiple audiences, each having its own objective. 

These shows demonstrate the charge set forth in in this book to transform misogynoir, each performance striving to explain the varied injustices Black queer women face while struggling to remain on air by entertaining audiences who may or may not identify with the characters they portray.

Throughout the book, Bailey presents similar case studies to demonstrate other examples of misogynoir transformed. For example, in chapter 3, she details digital media projects created by and for Black queer women that address their community’s specific physical and mental health concerns. The web shows she documents continue to be intentional in spreading their digital alchemy to mainstream audiences, challenging tropes, geographies, gender roles, and social relationships. Bailey borrows the term worldbuilding to describe how viewers see “a Black queer space that reflects some contemporary realities of Black queer life but also imagines what might otherwise be possible” (p. 104). These shows demonstrate the charge set forth in in this book to transform misogynoir, each performance striving to explain the varied injustices Black queer women face while struggling to remain on air by entertaining audiences who may or may not identify with the characters they portray.

In chapter 4, Bailey presents a case study of two Black nonbinary femmes, Danielle Cole and Antoinette Luna Myers, who entered the digital media world via the blogging site Tumblr. Both women used the platform to upload positive content created by Black people and to build community along the way. While both were able to connect with others who shared similar experiences, they were also vulnerable to attack from those who perpetuate misogynoir. Here, Bailey depicts misogynoir as a parasite feeding off racial, gender, and class perceptions that have been embedded in the ways Black nonbinary, agender, and gender-variant women are treated in a heteropatriarchal world where most social media is owned and operated by white cisgender people.

In today’s world one can interact and build social relationships with strangers separated by time zones and oceans. People come together over social media to confront social problems like systemic violence and oppression. Digital media has thus socially constructed imagined communities over time and throughout space that pave the road for misogynoir to be not only propagated but transformed. In Imagined Communities (1983), political scientist Benedict Anderson describes the nation as an imagined community in which “members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their community” (p. 6). Readers might similarly view the digital world as an imagined community that is bounded, sovereign, and rooted in a culture with its own language and written script. This reviewer sees in the digital alchemy of Black women and the ability to communicate online with large groups of people who share a common language what Anderson argues is one of the most important factors of a nationalist revolution, perhaps the key to transforming misogynoir: a shared sense of belonging.

Bailey illustrates how identities and social interactions are complex constellations shaped by intersectionality.

With an imagined community comes a collective identity. Individuals who belong to the community share a knowledge of the assigned roles members are meant to play, as sociologist Erving Goffman writes in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956). Individuals are rewarded or sanctioned based on their performances, and in the digital realm, Bailey illustrates how identities and social interactions are complex constellations shaped by intersectionality. 

As a Black, cisgender woman, this reviewer wanted to see herself represented in this work and rallied for Misogynoir Transformed. However, because Bailey’s units of analysis are Black nonbinary, agender, and gender-variant women, this reviewer did not see her lived experiences portrayed here nor opportunities to transform digital media in the ways Bailey has so eloquently described. Nevertheless, “by centering the most vulnerable of Black women, fighting for their lives, and paying attention to their generative digital projects,” as Bailey argues, “we increase the possibilities for justice for all” (p. 177), including Black cisgender women.

In sum, Misogynoir Transformed is a timely and significant work that squarely advances Black feminist literature into the fields of 21st-century communication and social interaction studies. The author introduces several terms into the feminist lexicon such as misogynoirdigital alchemy, and worldbuilding, all of which create a strong foundation for more in-depth ethnographic inquiry that will be useful for researchers, practitioners, and activists examining racial and gender disparities to work toward a more equitable future.

Summing Up: Recommended. General readers through faculty; professionals.
Interdisciplinary Subjects: African and African American Studies, Women’s & Gender Studies, Racial Justice
Subject: Humanities – Communication

Sherri Lawson Clark is Associate Professor of Anthropology and the Director of the American Ethnic Studies program at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Her research examines the effects of public policies on the lives of low-income families and communities.