Caitlin E. Lawson

Just Like US: Digital Debates on Feminism and Fame

Rutgers University Press, 2023 

194 pages


Reviewed by Kerri Kilmer 

Caitlin E. Lawson is an Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Emmanuel College (Boston, MA). Her book, Just Like Us: Digital Debates on Feminism and Fame (2023), offers a succinct analysis of the interdependent relationship between celebrity culture and popular feminism in the early 21st century culture—especially how those concepts intersect and are developed on digital platforms amongst networked publics who use those platforms as tools of communication and social change. Lawson does not explicitly define her use of the term popular feminism, but does indirectly explain by claiming that:

[. . .] all roads through the popular lead back to post-feminist conclusions—a reformist version of white liberal feminism that is marketable but ultimately serves to contain radical critique of the systemic roots of white supremacist patriarchal capitalism.

The basis of Lawson’s argument within Just Like Us is elucidating the intersections of three distinct, yet interlocking, kinds of platforms: “the sociopolitical platform of feminism, the platforms given to celebrities by virtue of their fame, and the various digital platforms on which networked publics cohere and communicate.” Lawson identifies her goal as providing the theoretical tools for mapping the extent to which these platforms transform and inform one another—beginning with her own case studies and analyses. Her most salient intervention is arguing that digital discussions of celebrity culture and popular feminism afford publics the ability to “debate the merits of various feminist positions and actions” in ways that were previously denied to them or that were limited to academic and activist platforms. 

Lawson structures her analysis around two feminist imperatives that she identifies on digital platforms—the white feminist imperative and the intersectional imperative. For Lawson, the white feminist imperative treats “women” as a universal category which ignores the experiences of women of color and how experiences of race shape women’s experiences and feminisms. Meanwhile, the intersectional imperative (borrowing its name from Kimberlé Crenshaw’s term intersectionality) assumes the premise that women experience sexism and feminism differently due to their variety of identities—including but not limited to race—and that feminism must center those intersectional experiences. The white feminist imperative and the intersectional feminist imperative increasingly conflict on digital platforms where feminist publics attempt to translate their experiences onto popular feminism more broadly. 

Lawson’s focus on celebrity culture emerges in claiming that digital/networked publics, in discussing celebrity culture and issues that emerge around it regarding gender, sexuality, race, and class, allow those publics to engage in feminism and feminist issues by; firstly, filtering and incorporating broader sociopolitical issues within feminist frameworks; secondly, accumulating and legitimatizing new forms of discourse and ideas; and thirdly amplifying issues of misogyny, racism, etc., that noncelebrity women experience by linking them to celebrity women. As celebrity women increasingly integrated feminism, especially white feminism, into their personal brands in the late 2010s, that integration necessarily shaped popular feminism in turn. Lawson’s most critical intervention is claiming that contemporary feminism has been increasingly negotiated “around celebrity culture, facilitated and shaped by the affordances of digital platforms.” In other words, celebrity feminism is not derivative of any one presumed more legitimate form of academic or activist feminism, but a legitimate (if problematic) component of digital mainstream feminism as it exists today. 

Lawson structures her arguments about four key case studies, each given one chapter. She further identifies her methodology as “multiplatform discourse analysis,” which combines qualitative multiplatform issue mapping with critical technocultural discourses analysis to track “each celebrity incident across platforms.” Her analysis is oriented around groups of peoples she identifies as networked issue publics—groups of individuals who use various platforms to engage with and converse about the case studies and events Lawson chose to discuss. The content itself is important to her analysis, but so is examining specifically how that content has been necessarily shaped by digital platforms.

Chapter One considers two critical anti-feminist moments in 2014: Gamergate and the mass leaking of private celebrity nude photographs. Gamergate, the doxing and harassment of women within the gaming industry, typifies for Lawson the concurrent rise of digital feminism alongside a backlash a digitally mediated and networked misogyny. This incident was overshadowed in pop culture, however, by the hacking of female celebrities’ private iCloud accounts to obtain and distribute their nude photographs. Lawson’s analysis of the news surrounding this event shows how conflicts between online feminist and anti-feminist communities “elided discussions of race and focused almost solely on vulnerability, sex positivity, and retribution against male perpetrators”—in turn shaping the wider public’s interaction with those online spaces through a white feminist lens. 

Chapter Two centers around issues of labor and racism as revealed by the 2015 Academy Awards. Lawson analyzes the #AskHerMore red carpet campaign and Patricia Arquette’s acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress as moments in which online feminist communities used hashtag activism and calling out to challenge the white feminist imperative and more broadly introduce the intersectional imperative. Discussions around who was responsible for doing “the labor of exerting pressure towards a more equitable social media landscape” increasingly centered the experiences of feminists of color on social media, who used digital platforms to call out the campaign and speech for their lack of intersectionality and simultaneously criticize demands for their labor—giving the issues a wider social scope than the celebrity events did alone. Chapter Three critiques feminist anger on social media in response to political activism, especially controversial statements by activist Gloria Steinem and former Secretary of State Madeline Albright while they supported Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. 

Steinem’s out-of-context quip that young women flocked to Bernie Sanders’s campaign because young men did first was juxtaposed on social media with Albright’s claim that there was “a special place in hell” for women who didn’t help one another. This constructed conflict sparked debates on social media about the proper place of anger, especially intra-movement outrage by feminists towards other feminists. Lawson argues that while this moment allowed for productive intergenerational conflicts about the development and value of intersectional feminism, social media also allowed the conflict to be rendered and remembered through misogynistic and virulent terms.

Chapter Four tracks the racist and sexist harassment of actress Leslie Jones in 2016 due to her role in the all-female reboot of Ghostbusters (2016). Jones faced not only a targeted attack on Twitter, which caused her to temporarily leave the platform, but a further hacking of her personal website—resulting in the leak of personal documents, nude photographs, and the addition of racist gorilla photos onto her website. In this chapter, Lawson connects the rise of the far right on social media to the ways social media allowed networked publics—both far right and otherwise—to “define and enact developing conceptions of responsibility and accountability regarding racism and sexism, not only for individuals and groups but also for social media platforms themselves.” 

Just Like Us provides a complicated yet deftly communicated narrative concerning the interrelated nature of platforms, celebrity, and the development of feminist thought in the twenty-first century. Lawson’s selection of case studies reflects a breadth of powerful feminist issues that are still relevant in shaping feminist thought today—from revenge porn to the rise of the far right. Just Like Us would be a useful theoretical base for scholars in fields ranging from media studies to contemporary English literature to help them elucidate the challenges facing women on social media today and to begin defining the steps that should be taken to understand feminism and combat misogyny as they exist within those spaces and fields.