SlutWalk on Digital Media: A New Materialist Reworking of Women’s Identity


Every year, SlutWalk protesters gather together  in various cities around the globe to rail against the slutshaming of rape victims and to counter the stereotypes surrounding female victims’ physical appearance. Permeating through the protests are women who dress up as “sluts,” which is a method of subverting the rape culture that blames women victims for how they look. The protests receive a far-ranging coverage including their appearance on mainstream media such as CNN and NPR news. The SlutWalk protests not only gain public attention on the mass media, but also exert a great influence on feminist and compositionist scholarship. The movement has been lauded as an empowering march striving for women’s rights and gender equality. Despite such an acclamation, the movement has also elicited criticism, part of which involves the movement’s potentiality to silence the voices of women of color.

Drawing from feminist and materialist theories, compositionists have construed Women’s protests such as SlutWalk as ways of “rescripting” rape through “pairing revealing garments with messages such as ‘NOT ASKING FOR IT’,” “countering the stereotypes of the victim as visibly a slut,” and “voicing the condemnation…because of cultural scripts blaming women for their clothing” (Marks-Dubbs 193). What is equally intriguing about SlutWalk is that material elements such as clothing, in conjunction with linguistic messages such as signs, co-create the persuasiveness of the rhetorical move subverting the stigma that correlates wearing a certain type of clothing with becoming a victim of rape. This blog post seeks to extend Marks-Dubbs’s analysis through a different lens—that is, how discussions surrounding SlutWalk and women’s identity reverberate in digital media.

I will deploy Karen Barad’s notion of “intra-action” to complicate the ways through which women’s identity has been taken up on digital media. New materialistic notions such as “intra-action” can be useful analytical tools for reworking studies of women’s identity. Following and extending Foucault’s notion of discourse, Barad’s post-humanist “intra-action” and Alicia Jackson and Lisa A. Mazzei’s “intra-active” analysis of race move beyond viewing identity as produced in discourses. Key to Barad’s concept of “intra-action,” is a rejection of subject/object and observer/observed dichotomies in support of a “flow of agency” (Barad “Posthumanist Performativity” 817) permeated through both human and non-human forces.  Barad postulates a view of agency that complicates expands the construction of identity beyond the social realm into the joint networks of the discursive and material practices. Through this lens, identity and agency can be conceptualized as emergent from and mediated by material reality, including digital materiality as well.

Protesters in SlutWalk Toronto, 2011

At the same time that SlutWalk subverts the stigma of rape victims, the women’s movement has been critiqued for its lack of attention to representing minority races and their experiences. Known for its “counter-stereotype” rhetorical actions with protesters self-identifying as “sluts”, SlutWalk has elicited not only applause but also doubt. In “An Open Letter from Black Women to the SlutWalk” published on Susan Brison’s blog, feminist researchers and practitioners have called into question the very notion of “slut”. This notion, albeit seeking to fulfill its anti-rape purpose, also serves to reinforce the historical deep-seated stereotype of women of color as oversexualized and promiscuous. As the authors write, “As Black women… We don’t have the privilege to play on destructive representations burned in our collective minds, on our bodies and souls for generations” (“An Open Letter” 10). The lack of attention to the diverse historical, cultural, and bodily experience of minority groups, including African American women, makes SlutWalk deviate from being inclusive for all women. The digital reverberations of SlutWalk, in this way, add complexity to a normative representation of women that fails to sustain conversations of racial and cultural differences.

Other critiques online further delve into the movement’s problematic non-representation and misrepresentation of women of color and their agency. Andrea Plaid on Alternet pinpoints that through using the linguistic signifier of “slut,” SlutWalk serves to “recenter white ciswomen’s sexual agency and bodies” (par. 3). Similarly, in “SlutWalk: #Hashtag Activism” Jessie Daniels delineates that shortly after the publication of “An Open Letter,” a woman further ignites the racial tension of SlutWalk by holding a sign that reads “women are the N of the world” (par. 17).  Echoing the dissonance of these alternative voices, Serma Bilge argues that the slutwalk marches fail to live up to the “intersectional political awareness” (406), fueling the racial blindness towards the problematic implications of “slut”  and silencing the alternative voices of subordinate social groups. Alternative voices on digital media, in this sense, intra-act in meaningful ways with the connotations of “slut” in SlutWalk. Their intra-action co-constructs the phenomenon of SlutWalk not only via physical performance but also via digital materiality, bringinging to the fore a call for a more diverse representation of women of color and their agency.

Digital platforms, albeit operating within complex ecologies, push forward the identification of different voices. The material spaces of online platforms intra-act with the questionable racial (non-)representation in SlutWalk to explore alternative possibilities. Just as Tully Barnett has used the metaphor of “virus” to demarcate the subversive power of cyberfeminism, the online reverberations of SlutWalk intra-act with the movement itself, calling into question the normative configurations of women of color that the feminist movement may have inadvertently entrenched. Far from offering a definitive answer to the question of racial representations in feminist movements, the digital discussions do create the space for a departure from normative representations and a reorientation towards racial inclusiveness.

Works Cited

Barad, Karen. “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matters Comes to Matter.” Signs 28.3 (2003): 801-31. Print.

Barnett, Tully. ““Monstrous Agents: Cyberfeminist Media and Activism.” Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology 5” (2014).

Bilge, Serma. “Intersectionality Undone: Saving Intersectionality from Feminist Intersectionality Studies.” Du Bois Review 10.2 (2013): 405-24. Print.

Black Women’s Blueprint. “An Open Letter from Black Women to the SlutWalk.” September 23 (2011): 2011.

Daniels, Jessie. “SlutWalk: #Hashtag Activism and the Trouble with White Feminism” Racism Review, 12 Nov. 2014, Accessed 15 Dec. 2017.

Marks-Dubbs, Kaitlin. “Bodies Under Construction: Rhetorical Tactics for Rescripting Race.” Re/Framing Identifications, ed. Michelle Ballif. Long Grove: Waveland P, 2014. 187-97. Print.

Jackson, Alecia Y., and Lisa A. Mazzei. “Barad: Thinking with Intra-action.” Thinking with Theory in Qualitative Research:
Viewing Data across Multiple Perspectives. Jackson and Mazzei. London: Routledge, 2012. 118-36. Print.

Plaid, Andrea. “Does SlutWalk Speak to Women of Color?” Alternet, 22 June 2011, Accessed 15 Dec. 2017.

Photograph of Protesters in SlutWalk. Torontoist, 11 Aug. 2017, Accessed 15 Dec. 2017.

About Author

Jialei Jiang

I am Jialei Jiang, a PhD candidate in Composition and Applied Linguistics at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. My research areas of interest include digital rhetoric, new materialism, and multimodal pedagogy.

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