The Protest Club

Teen activists face down the pressures of social media stardom

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The night before Valentine’s Day, about twenty-five women filled the second floor of a narrow building on Fourteenth Street in New York for a “sexpo” at the office of the online sex toy store Unbound. The space, which looked more like an apartment, complete with a living room and kitchenette, was decked out with a millennial pink rhinestone lip phone, a millennial pink shag rug, a unicorn piñata, a helium balloon in the shape of a champagne bottle, and a mini marquee that said, “Orgasms R* Us!” That night’s party featured millennial pink Solo cups, cupcakes with millennial pink frosting and millennial pink sprinkles. Millennial pink vibrators were for sale, the most famous vibrator being The Squish, priced at $99, which looks like a silky-smooth Easter egg. As I turned The Squish over in my hand, Em Odesser, the eighteen-year-old activist and organizer of the event, popped her head into the room. She wore a low-cut, red mini-wrap dress, white patent leather booties, and a thick, S&M-style leather choker with a metal ring. “That’s one of the best vibrators I’ve owned,” she said. “Would highly recommend. 10/10.” Then she left.

Odesser, who is living in New York while she takes a gap year before starting college, summoned the attendees into the living room. She was giving a discussion about sex on antidepressants. She talked about Zoloft, dry vulvas, and masturbation. Then asked for questions. “I just talked about squirting so if you want to say some weird things, go ahead,” said Odesser.

During lulls between other workshops, Odesser posed for photos, which she uploaded to her Instagram Story, a kind of post that disappears in twenty-four hours. She spread her arms wide in front of her guests mingling behind her. “This was about a quarter of the folks who SHOWED TF UP!” she wrote.” She posted another shot of women worming through a doorway. “The workshop line was literally out the door.” And finally, a selfie. “Plz send pics from the night esp the rly sweet person i took a pic w at the end! U were lovely and i forgot to get your name and handle,” she wrote.

She has a little more than three thousand Instagram followers, a modest amount compared to some other teen activists, but still enough for her to feel overwhelmed. “Im sorry i can’t get to everyone,” she wrote in a post for anyone trying to get in touch with her. She’s an influence for other teenage girls and is known amongst young activists for her online chutzpah, like how she poses in panties that say “Matriarchy now!” At times, her feed reads like an online resume with clips of her being interviewed and promotional posters of herself (“Me and my life size tits”). Other times, it’s an outlet for her activism, though the line between the two feels blurred. Two days after President Trump signed an executive order for the Muslim ban, Odesser heard about a protest in New York, hopped on the subway and took out a piece of notebook paper. “If fertilized eggs are ‘people’ & refugees aren’t, we have a problem,” she scribbled. At the protest, a photographer took a picture of her. Odesser uploaded the image to Instagram and watched as the post went viral. “It was very exciting,” she said, though mentioned she felt icky talking about Instagram in terms of likes.

This sort of Instagram content has given Odesser a standing in the teen activism world, much more so than the protest she organized at her high school when three people showed up. “The past year I’ve been starting to be branded. I think the clinical term is a ‘micro influencer,’” she told me. She said she now feels pressure that her followers expect certain content. “There are moments when I’m like, ‘Was I not doing enough when I was younger?’ and the day I was worrying about that I got a DM (direct message) from someone who said, ‘Oh my god, you do so much. I’m so impressed by you.’ And I was like, ‘Phew.’”

Billie Eilish Lookin Vibes

Odesser’s Instagram is like a case study for the sort of activism teens are engaging in today, which largely takes place on social media and is an intermingling of the personal and the professional, with a certain pressure to perform and live up to expectations. The platform is used to publicize one’s work and help spread the word, but in turn, by the very public and inward-looking nature of Instagram, can also propel teens to a certain level of admiration. Especially when photos of protest signs are dispersed among selfies or portrait shots, highlighting the person behind the activism just as much as the activism itself. Odesser will take selfies lying in silk bed sheets, for instance, a tactic one friend described to her as “political thirst trap.” Odesser explained this to me as almost a form of bribery. It’s like, “if you want to keep seeing selfies, go vote on net neutrality,” she told me.

Lauren Hogg, the sister of the Parkland survivor David Hogg, is especially adept at this Instagram balance act. In a recent photo series, she’s posing in a white T-shirt, tucked in and belted, that says, “I don’t want my friends to die anymore.” The words on the T-shirt are powerful and, as a survivor of the Parkland shooting, she sends a somber, pointed message. But what is even more striking about the photograph is Hogg herself. She looks modelesque in the pictures, which she uploaded as a two-picture album (the post has since been deleted on her Instagram but still exists on her Twitter). The camera uses a shallow depth of field, blurring out the palm trees and what looks like an outdoor festival behind her. The sunlight from the golden hour evening glows across her face and her hair is swept messily to one side. Hogg is just as much the focus of the photographs as the T-shirt, if not more. The resulting photo humanizes and softens her as an activist, playing into societal expectations of what a girl is supposed to be. “We’re supposed to be quiet and docile,” said Emma Bonz, a seventeen-year-old activist in Connecticut. And at the same time, Instagram elevates Hogg to a place of celebrity and cultural icon. Under one of Hogg’s selfies captioned, “billie eilish lookin vibes,” referring to the seventeen-year-old singer, a girl commented, “Wow this should be the next cover of Vogue.”

Instagram brings about a mix of stress, jealousy, self-doubt, and idolization, particularly among other teen activists. Jamie Margolin, the seventeen-year-old founder of Zero Hour, told me she doesn’t see Instagram as a popularity contest, but at the same time, she often compares herself to other teen activists, causing her to doubt herself and her work. “Social media is such a time suck and there’s a whole suck of my own —[of] confidence. It makes you feel like you’re not doing enough or making an impact, especially because I’m part of this community with other amazing activists.”

Under The Influence

David Hogg became a teen activist while he was still on lockdown. On February 14, 2018, Nikolas Cruz moved through Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School armed with an AR-15 rifle, eventually killing seventeen students and adults. The video, taken while Cruz was still an active shooter, begins with a close-up selfie shot. Hogg whispers into the mic as the camera moves around with urgency like footage from the Blair Witch Project. He states the time and that he heard one gunshot. The video, as published the next day by the Los Angeles Times, then cuts to a more interview-like scene where someone seems to be holding the phone so Hogg can give better updates. Then, Hogg becomes the Hogg we know today, who gripped America: the orator, the rallying cry, the call to action. “I call on the legislators of this country to take action and stop, stop this from happening. Thousands of people have died from gun violence and it’s time to take a stand. Forget the NRA. Forget all the political backing. Take a stance. For human lives. For children’s lives.”

Teens have formulated opinions and beliefs but are, at different ages, barred from certain rights, like voting, driving and drinking.

Within just a few days, he and several other Parkland survivors became media sensations. Hogg, Emma Gonzalez, Cameron Kasky, and Delaney Tarr mobilized on Twitter, made appearances on CNN, and gave impassioned speeches at gun violence rallies (none responded to my requests for interviews). The Parkland student activists were named part of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. They were profiled in magazines, interviewed on Bill Maher, dissected in the papers, and given book deals. “I feel like they’re almost not teenagers,” said Abby Rice, a teen activist for menstruation rights. “It’s crazy to see how huge the movement has gotten through social media.” Bonz, the seventeen-year-old activist in Connecticut, went to see the Parkland kids speak in Newtown last summer on their Road to Change bus tour. A couple hundred people came, she said. She bought a T-shirt from Gonzalez, but did not have time to chat with her because of the crowd.

And it’s not just the Parkland students. The internet is clogged with articles about teen activists. In particular, news outlets seem to veer toward the listicles, headlined “20 Young Activists Who Are Changing the World” or “The youth activists who proved critics wrong in 2018.” The same young people continually top these lists because, it seems, media begets media. But what about the teen activists who don’t have a social media presence? Are they still teen activists?

“No one knew my name but I called myself a teen activist the minute I started organizing and sacrificing time and putting work into this movement,” said Margolin. Since that time, she’s been profiled by the New York Times and mentioned in several other high-profile magazines. The press only makes Margolin work more. Besides school, she spends six hours a day in front of the computer for Zero Hour, which often includes sifting through her “hellish inbox,” sending alerts to their partners, making conference calls, and looking at documents. In my interview with her in February this year, she told me she’s never been in a relationship, that her grades have dropped, and that she envies seeing her friends socializing on Instagram. While we were on the phone, a friend called to see if she wanted to hang out, but she couldn’t, of course, because she was in the middle of an interview. “There’s pressure,” she said. “I can’t just put the Times piece in my room and call it a day. It’s like, ‘How do I use this to fundraise?’ It’s kind of annoying. I can’t relax and be like, ‘That was cool.’ It’s like, ‘How do I amplify this?’ It’s just a lot.”

As more teens get involved, the space becomes saturated and teen activism becomes less extraordinary.

Last March, just over a month after the Parkland shooting, Laura Ingraham taunted Hogg on Twitter for being rejected to four colleges he applied. His acceptance to Harvard later signaled just how effective his activism was in securing his future and also the mainstreaming of activism more broadly. It seems safe to say that Hogg’s debate team and journalistic endeavors were overshadowed by his activism. In fact, he probably didn’t need to join a club. His activism was his extracurricular. Harvard didn’t respond to my requests about how activism figures into their admissions process. Historically, we see activism as socially deviant. There’s a scene early in The Way We Were, set in the McCarthy era, where Barbra Streisand’s character, Katie Morosky, stands on stage making a speech at a peace rally to taunts, boos, and eye rolls from her more popular, preppy college peers. But according to a survey taken and published last year by the National Association of College Admissions Counseling, 58 percent of schools that admit less than half of its applicants saw an increase in college essays addressing activism. “It’s obviously not the reason why I’m outspoken or passionate but I do hope that when I’m applying to college, those qualities will come through and I can write about the things I’ve done,” said Bonz.

Alliyah Logan, who is a seventeen-year-old gun control activist from the Bronx, had a similar answer, though hers hinted at the role of activism as not just a way to differentiate herself from the crowd but almost as a replacement for traditional extracurriculars like soccer or dance. “That I was able to help out at Youth Over Guns and balance out my school work and SAT prep, I think it helps me stand out to different colleges I’m applying for.” Organizing a rally for apathetic peers or pushing a reluctant principal to stock the girl’s bathroom with tampons is more impressive, in my opinion, than making the varsity basketball team. But as more teens get involved, the space becomes saturated and teen activism becomes less extraordinary. In fact, the phrase “teen activism” could become cliché, another buzzword for brands to capitalize on. An ABC article about Teen Vogue’s two-year-old summit in Los Angeles said, “Teen Vogue’s shift to social activism is paying off. The brand has seen huge growth, garnering 10 million monthly page views and 12 million social followers.” Last year, a Girl Up survey found that 65 percent of Gen Z girls from around the world want brands to take a stand on social issues. With their social media savvy, those teen girls could have a serious influence on brand behavior.

#Accepted

Colleges seem to be jumping on the teen activism bandwagon—at least to some extent. Last year, after a few high school principals threatened students with suspension if they participated in the national walkout over gun policy, Adelphi Admissions tweeted, “Attention HS students: @AdelphiU fully supports your desire to stand up for your beliefs. Participation in non-violent demonstrations has never and will never affect your status as an applicant in any way. #AdelphiAccepted.” Dawson Barrett, who wrote Teenage Rebels, told me, “Part of the narrative is that people are just making trouble, so whenever there’s a high school walkout in history, again, all the way back to the 1910s, they said, ‘Oh they just want to skip class, they’re not trying to make change.’ So often, high schoolers have to have adult allies to provide cover.” Adelphi’s helping hand only goes so far, though. “There’s an obvious difference between standing up peacefully and demonstrating for beliefs, versus individuals who make a choice to destroy property or become violent in any way,” Kristen Capezza, the associate vice president for enrollment management at Adelphi, told Nerd Wallet. Capezza’s quote brings to mind the Instagram picture of Lauren Hogg in the T-shirt and other photos in her feed where she poses with roses or set against the Florida palm trees. We like teen activists so long as they’re nice.

Teens exist in a rebellious stage of life. They have formulated opinions and beliefs but are, at different ages, barred from certain rights, like voting, driving, and drinking. Today, they’re using social media to assert their autonomy in much the same way as other forms of youth protest in the past. The lunchroom sit-ins in the 1960s asserted that black people, literally, had a right to sit at the same table as white people. And only they should decide where they eat. Today, that same idea is reiterated through the self-determining nature of media. Henry Jenkins, a professor of communication and journalism at the University of Southern California, told me the Parkland students “moved towards a No Permission Needed medium, where they didn’t need anyone’s permission.” Once the students mobilized online, he said, the mainstream publications came knocking. “They became mass media celebrities, in part, by intervening in social media.”

Doing It For The ’gram

Many of the teen activists I talked with raised the issue of “Instagram activism.” Several examples I heard to explain this phrase included the Women’s March and involved female participants. Bonz explained the term as someone who shows up to the Women’s March with a sign but doesn’t stand up against sexist slurs said in the high school hallway. Remi Riordan, the editor in chief of Crybaby zine, told me the term refers to someone, usually a white girl, who scrawls their Instagram handle at the bottom of their sign at the Women’s March. In short, the issue is the teens who claim they’re standing up for, say, women’s rights but they’re not putting in the work. Mostly, they’re just doing it for the ’gram. “Social media politics play out so badly and it becomes about what are you posting about and what are you not posting about and that creates a lot of pressure,” said Sonia Chajet Wides, a fifteen-year-old activist from New York who toggles between having her Instagram public and private.

“I think part of it is posting what events you’re going to and what things you’re doing within activism in general to show the people who look up to you that you’re actually doing work,” said Clara Meyers, a junior who works with Bonz in the menstruation rights movement. “So there can be pressure to do a lot and it can be proof and evidence that you’re being an activist and it’s not just for show and sharing posts.”

Besides school, Margolin spends six hours a day in front of the computer for Zero Hour, which often includes sifting through her “hellish inbox,” sending alerts to their partners, making conference calls and looking at documents.

On January 18, the day of both the Indigenous Peoples March and the March for Life, a video of Nick Sandmann, a teen boy from Covington, Kentucky, standing face-to-face with a Native American elder named Nathan Phillips went viral. Sandmann’s facial expression in that moment was swiftly dissected throughout the media—as smug, smirking, racist. There were conflicting stories and missing context and debates about Sandmann’s age, sixteen, and whether he was old enough to be held accountable for his actions. In the midst of the controversy, Sandmann went on The Today Show, and you would be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t know his name by now.

A flyer for a "Calm Down Party." The copy reads: "We're just gonna eat some sandwiches by the creek ALL SUMMER LONG."
© Nathaniel Russell

What was largely excluded from the conversation though, was the fact that Sandmann and his peers were in D.C. to attend March For Life, an anti-abortion march not to be confused with March For Our Lives, as part of the school’s annual field trip. One day, I spent the better part of an afternoon scrolling through the hashtag #marchforlife. I clicked on the pages of teenagers who attended and saw feeds that seemed like “Instagram activism.” There was a boy in a MAGA hat standing in front of the White House making an “I love you” sign with his hands (as confirmed by a mommy blog post titled “12 Hand Signals Teens Make & What They Mean”). But much of the rest of his Instagram feed featured pictures of him on vacation. A junior in high school captioned her picture at the march, “When I say Jesus, you say Jesus! Jesus!” I saw little other indication of her viewpoints in her feed though, other than in her bio, which read, “Woke.” It was hard to tell whether that was sarcasm. The glossing over of Sandmann’s participation in March for Life—within the broader notion of “Instagram activism”—indicates he was never considered an activist even though he was in the city to express his views about a highly charged political issue. The media looked at him as a bystander. In a story for City Journal, a public policy magazine, Bruce Bawer hailed Sandmann’s innocence as a mark of normal teendom. “I see an all-American boy, brought up in a decent home, raised in a decent community, and educated in decent schools, who has been cornered by somebody who, for all he knows, may be a harmless, pathetic nutbag, a genuinely dangerous character, or just a publicity hound,” he wrote, referring to Phillips. In the scenario that played out, Phillips was the activist and Sandmann just a teenager. Sandmann’s high school hired private investigators and he sued major news publications for disparaging and attacking him, which isn’t anything teenage female activists haven’t experienced. A large part of teen activism today is putting yourself in a national, public spotlight. Sandmann did exactly that.

As someone who is confident maintaining a public image, Odesser still worries how her online persona will affect her teenage life. She told me she sometimes feels anxious knowing a crush follows her on Instagram. “I remember when I started going on Tinder and boys asked for my Instagram I was like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t give them my Instagram. It’s riot selfies and me yelling about rape culture.’ And I was like, ‘That’s not going to get me dates.’” There’s a discomfort that comes with the fact that people have different ideas about what her activism represents. As her platform grows, companies are also starting to respond to her Instagram. “Now I’m considered an influencer and it’s like, ‘Oh my god, brands are looking at my platform!’” she said. “And that’s my biggest gripe of 2019.”

Britta Lokting is a journalist based in New York. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, New York magazine, and elsewhere.

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