“Swipe This!” is a new advice column about how to navigate human relationships and connections in an age when we depend so heavily on technology. Have a question? Email email@example.com.
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Dear Swipe This!
I cannot stand my friend’s social media presence.
I love my friend. She’s funny and kind and we go way back. We met a decade ago, in college, when we were both performing in musicals and theater productions. We’ve kept in touch through the years and when we’re together in real life, we fall into the old patterns of our theater speak, which is gossipy and girly and fun. She always makes me laugh. But every time I see her post a picture or a promo for her all-white neo-soul band I cringe. Everything is hashtagged into oblivion. #Blessed, #Feminism, #SoGratefulToLiveACreativeLife. It feels so cheesy and inauthentic—I think it’s beneath her.
Part of me feels like a judgmental asshole for having these thoughts. And if I’m being totally honest, I do feel like there’s an element of competition in our friendship. Since college, we’ve both followed our own paths. I came out as genderqueer (I’m non-binary and my preferred pronouns are they and them). I stopped performing in shows and started writing and doing stand-up comedy. My friend continued to act and started her band. When I came out as genderqueer she was flippant at first, but ultimately she was very supportive and now she is very good with my pronouns.
This is not a friendship I’d like to give up. But she is so blind to her own white feminist privilege, and the way it comes out in her social media posts really irks me. I feel like she is using “feminism” to promote her brand and I hate it.
I know my friend values my opinion. She respects me and wants my approval. I tell her I support her and I do. I am proud of her for doing what she loves and I want her to keep pursuing a creative life. But I’d also like her to make things that are good and share them in a way that isn’t so cheesy and wrapped up in faux-feminist hashtags. Sometimes I feel like I should say something. And I’m starting to wonder if there’s a point at which it’s inauthentic to not tell her how I feel.
Should I call her out? Could that possibly help her? Or am I being too critical? Should I keep my judgmental thoughts to myself?
Friend of a #Feminist
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Dear Friend of a #Feminist,
One of my favorite things about friendship is the special language that develops between two people. Words and phrases take on new meaning. We build treehouses with them—sacred spaces we enter together—where we laugh and whisper secrets and tell stories of who we’ve been and who we hope to be.
Over the years, we do not get to keep all of our treehouses. Most wear out over time from regular exposure to the elements. We tend to them less and less until we decide they are not worth the effort or energy to maintain or repair. Others get destroyed overnight in violent storms that render them unsalvageable.
But some last.
Despite the weather. Despite our human tendency toward laziness and neglect. Some are strong enough to endure decades of distress. They welcome us back, no matter how long or how far we stray. They invite us to climb their sturdy branches and take shelter time and again.
Despite your differences, you and your friend still share a beautiful little treehouse where you can sneak away from the world to play. Most importantly, it is a place where you can be yourself. Based on what you’ve shared, I would guess that your friend accepts you wholeheartedly. So before you offer your friend your ideas for edits to her social media self, I suggest that you seriously consider whether you’d like to set that treehouse ablaze.
Social media is the opposite of the treehouse. It’s an open-air flea market where we peddle ourselves and our creative work for likes and followers. We shout our ideas to anyone and everyone and we speak a language that is deeply personal because the voice is our own, and deeply impersonal because the audience is “whoever.”
Social media is also a space where we blur the personal, the political, and the promotional. It’s a combination that many people struggle to navigate, and many more find utterly vile. You’re certainly not alone in finding someone else’s choices to be, for lack of a better word, icky.
That said, there is a big difference between tacking on a few too many hashtags and actively appropriating a political movement or someone else’s culture for your own personal gain. So, while I don’t think you should gloss over your friend’s choices if you have real grievances that need voicing, I do think it’s worth examining the root of your discomfort.
Are you upset because you are concerned that her words actually perpetuate harm? Or are you unsettled by how they discolor not only her image, but your own? Who had you hoped your friend would become? And, perhaps more importantly, who are you hoping to become and how does she threaten that?
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t read the words “all-white neo-soul band” and shudder. But I’d also be doing you a disservice if I said your friend sounds like a person who is acting from a place of malice and self-interest. She sounds, if anything, like a person who is deeply naive. You say she values your opinion and that she has overcome hurdles in learning how to be an ally in the past. This leads me to believe that she is a good listener. She is someone who wants to learn and grow. She is also someone whose drive to succeed may frequently be at odds with her ability to reflect before she posts.
As a writer, you may be tempted to police your friend’s words. Especially when it seems obvious to you that there are better choices to be found. But I believe that kind of criticism would actually do more harm than good. Real learning and growth happen not when we are shamed or scolded, but when we are given opportunities to reflect and make new choices.
I also wonder how many risks you are taking in your own work. Whether it is obvious to you or not, your friend is being quite vulnerable. Not only is she putting herself out there to a larger audience, she’s sharing it with you, someone she loves and respects, whose opinion could buoy or crush her. It is so easy to sit in judgment of other artists. It is much harder and more daring to share our own work with the world.
I could ask you to consider all the possible outcomes for confronting your friend: What is the best that could happen? (She reflects and learns and grows! You never have scroll through her syrupy sweet hashtags again!) What is the worst that could happen? (Your treehouse burns down to a pile of ash.)
But regardless of the outcome, the fact remains that your friend is not yours to edit or mold. Your voice and your creative projects are. So instead let’s consider the outcomes for what would happen if you turned your eyes to your own paper: Could you infuse your work with what matters to you most? Could you articulate what you value? Can you make something bigger and bolder than you have in the past? Could you share your authentic self with an audience? Could you post it on social? Or would that be too icky?
What if, instead of worrying about how to talk to your friend, you took some risks with the words you choose to put out into the world?
My guess is you’d come back to the treehouse with fresh stories and secrets and laughter to share. My guess is your friend would be eager to hear you. Because when you keep your eyes on your own paper, not only do you learn and grow, you light the way for others. And that is when we all can truly call ourselves #blessed.
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