Women, healing, and community: Cyberfeminist activity on Reddit
Reddit, a social networking site that describes itself as a “network of communities,” is not often an online space that people associate with communities of women looking to connect with other women over women-driven topics. That may be because reddit is mostly populated by young men, with only 33% of reddit users being women (Pew Internet Research Center, 2013). In fact, according to a 2016 Pew Internet Research study, reddit is the only social media site with a primarily male user base. Nearly every other social media site, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, have more female users than male. Reddit users are not only male, but also young; over half of reddit users are men between the ages of 18-29 (Pew Research Center, 2016). Many subreddits (subsections of reddit) showcase these demographics by often featuring misogynistic content, including various men’s rights subreddits that argue women have more privilege than men and advocate for the social and legal equality of men and boys, as well as subreddits with NSFW content that feature secretly taken footage of women in compromising positions. Even reddit executives have discussed the fact that reddit has a complicated relationship with women, noting there is a problem with sexism and misogyny (PBSoffbook, 2012) that makes it a difficult space for women to navigate. To many, reddit generally seems wild and unregulated, designed for men to discuss whatever they want, however they want.
I was surprised then to learn in 2015, when I became one of the 5-10% of women aged 18-44 diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)(U.S. Department of Health & Human Services [HHS], 2016), that the top website/blog for women living with PCOS is a section of reddit devoted to discussion about living with PCOS (Feedspot, 2019). PCOS, a chronic illness affecting women causing imbalances in reproductive hormones, is typically known as a common (but usually treatable) cause of infertility. It has sensitive side effects, including acne and hirsutism, weight gain or difficulty losing weight, diabetes, high blood pressure, and depression and anxiety (HHS, 2016). These are all symptoms that can be hard to talk about with others. And yet, when visiting the PCOS subreddit (r/PCOS), I found a thriving community who spoke about all the side effects of PCOS and some I didn’t know of before. In a social media application where 71% of male users visit primarily for news (Pew Internet Research Center, 2016), this subreddit was supportive and nothing like what I knew of reddit. I found many women who use this space to discuss sensitive medical issues, opening themselves up to a larger audience of reddit who may not understand what they are going through and who potentially may interrupt this community’s goals through provocation and misanthropic comments.
This webtext examines the subreddit r/PCOS to understand the functions and appeal of reddit to women seeking support in this illness. While scholars such as Marissa McKinley (2019) and Kittie Grace (2010) have discussed women’s rhetorical ingenuity in online PCOS support groups, arguing that these sites empower women to unpack chronic illness and take action, I take up women’s writing in a male-dominated community interface to describe the surprising affordances of an unlikely online community for women with PCOS. Using a feminist approach to social media, as well as drawing from feminist and cyberfeminist research, and other literature concerning women’s health issues and online information, this webtext contends that women have seized a space on reddit for women’s lived experiences to empower themselves in their illness as a part of a community because of its various functions and affordances, making for a rich cyberfeminist space.
Although reddit is a male-dominated space and is often considered
problematically gendered, women with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome have
created a subreddit for supportive discussion of living with their
illness. This webtext investigates this contradiction of users on
reddit and contends that women have embraced reddit as a space for
cyberfeminist activity through their PCOS subreddit. I analyze the PCOS
subreddit through feminist guidelines of social media to uncover the
cyberfeminist practices that are taking place on reddit. Using a
feminist approach to social media, as well as drawing from feminist and
cyberfeminist scholarship, and other literature concerning women’s
health issues and online information, this article argues that women
have seized reddit as a space for women’s lived experiences to empower
themselves in their illness as a part of a community.