Performing Artivism: Feminists, Lawyers, and Online Legal Mobilization and China

It is unequivocal that social media has redefined the way that we think about society and social dynamics. We can broadcast our ideas to a much greater reach of people, and foment public sentiment on a much greater scale. In the United States, a prime example of this would the #MeToo movement; elsewhere, the Arab Spring and Middle Eastern uprisings for democracy were also defined by their social media coordination. However, in China, social media has been an important conduit to generate public discourse about social issues through artistic performance protests.

Sida Liu, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto, has examined the theoretical underpinnings of how activists, particularly feminists and lawyers, use social media and performance art to spread their message. He conceptualizes society as a backstage, the more secretive government dealings, the frontstage, more publicly accessible information, and the audience, the public itself. Liu then applies the theory of subversive disruption from feminist theory – activists disrupt the mainstream societal discourse with their own views, introduce an alternative means of thinking, and then work to make these views socially acceptable. 

In the case of feminists who are generally younger and less well-connected, they use their place in the frontstage to discuss less politically sensitive issues to the public. For example, many feminists have fought against domestic violence or sexual harassment; the “bloody bride” protest of 2012 saw young women dressed in bridal gowns covered in fake blood post photos online to fight against domestic abuse. In this way, social media is an extended stage for these “artivists” to use their creative protest tactics to reach broader audiences. This strategy was extremely successful in the early 2010s all around China, but the feminist movement became more tempered after the “Feminist Five” detention in 2015. 

In the case of lawyers, Liu argues that their status allows for greater connections so that they are able to better expose some of the malpractices behind the curtain in the backstage. Lawyer activists thus have attempted to protest more politically sensitive issues like the hunger strike in Heilongjiang in 2014 that involved helping Falun Gong members. These “die-hard lawyers” take it upon themselves to fight for political and social justice, no matter the size of the foe. They too have used social media to mobilize netizens in support of political and social change.

Liu’s talk today came from ongoing work with Di Wang, a Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. To check out more of his research, click here.

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