When I discovered the telltale texts, I wrote Sidechick, a stranger across the country, an Instagram comment. “Cute pictures. You have a girlfriend. You don’t need to talk to mine anymore.”
Sidechick then ‘pm’d’ my Facebook page, relieving me with her appeal. “It’s not what it looks like; we met once years ago and she’s the only person I have to play Words with Friends with. But I’m sorry, I’ll back off.”
A phenomenal feeling: girl-to-girl, we’d found a solution.
But when Sidechick’s girlfriend dumped her and my partner’s phone started ringing at 2 a.m., my best friend shrugged. “She’s a sidechick doing what a sidechick does. Be mad at your girl if she picks up.”
A second scan of Sidechick’s sad Instagram imbued me the self-restraint I needed. Bad bleach job, cynical captions, dead-eyed white kids throwing gang signs at college parties. I took it up with my partner instead.
Eventually, I overheard them on the phone laughing about furtive ways to be in touch when Sidechick came to town. Days after my relationship’s consequential end, Sidechick salted my injuries by posting an inside joke on Instagram and tagging my now-ex.
I take perverse pride in my IRL ‘savageness,’ and was sad that in this case, I didn’t have that option. I believe telling someone off to their face is earnest. But these days, when someone’s damaged or offended, they resort more often to—at the least—a wimpy subtweet, and—at most—some sort of viral shaming campaign.
There’s a meme that says: “Don’t fuck with writers. We’ll describe you.” Fittingly, I penned an essay with a clickbait title: “How to Deal with a Sidechick When You’re a Feminist,” confessing to feeling weird about hating another woman, and taking inventory of my theoretical loopholes. “Respecting other people’s relationships is an unexplored feminist concern,” I wrote, “because to resent sidechicks is to toe the line of slut-shaming, and to investigate the pain of abandonment highlights the oppressive narrative of female victimhood.” I slipped in zingers, revealing my partner’s sober disdain of Sidechick, “interloper of several loves, little more than a proxy of my partner’s self-sabotage problem.”
“I dunno, dude,” my best friend said. “Your essay is savage, sure, but you should be braced for reactions.” Pragmatic concerns included the futility of capturing an entire relationship’s essence in a poppy confessional that would likely debut on some twee feminist blog. “Comments are meaner the more vulnerable you seem. They’re gonna ask why you weren’t harder on your girlfriend instead of this stranger.”
Modern feminism evades singular definition, and sometimes it gets weird when famous people observe trends in the discourse and reflect them back. Take Taylor Swift quoting Madeleine Albright in response to a joke Tina Fey and Amy Poehler made about her at the Golden Globes: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” This sentiment, echoed by others like Ariana Grande and Demi Lovato, cements an immutable standard: real feminists function relationally.
But Albright’s quote, which I correlate with Shine Theory (encouraging women to be less competitive in the workplace), has become a usable shield for women who want to seem evolved as they sidestep criticism of any kind. After Swift’s and Lovato’s Twitter spat, Demi was questioned by Refinery29 about her role in the drama. She replied, “Listen, there’s nothing positive that comes from pitting women against each other.” Who wants to be the asshole to question such nobility? When Albright herself endorsed Hillary Clinton, she used the line to pressure young voters into doing the right thing.
I’m Team Demi—and Hillary—but these shaming strategies are enforced by a problem in Internet culture we know well by now. Jon Ronson, Welsh author focused on cultural trends, wrote a book about it: “With social media we’ve created a stage for constant artificial high drama,” something I imagined facing on a small scale if I published my unpopular opinion. “Even if it’s my partner’s fault,” I’d written. “I don’t buy the guns don’t kill people, people kill people argument.” Would anyone empathize with my hatred, a word we shudder to associate with women, if they feel they’re not allowed to? Feminist journalist Michelle Goldberg illuminated the phenomenon in her investigation of the feminist Twitter Wars, describing a new world in which women employ progressive rhetoric to rationalize continued cannibalism of one another.
A feedback loop of irony: just as penning a pseudo-intellectual analysis of Sidechicks really to incinerate one female enemy is a bullshit copout in my pursuit of guilt-free feminism, public shaming and social media warfare have ushered in a disingenuous absolutism of what Feminism Should Be.
Is it doable to entertain multiple truths in the era of Internet Feminism? Consider bell hooks and Beyoncé. hooks has expressed skepticism about Bey’s image, which, she says, manifests the agenda of “ imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy.” Of the Lemonade scene in which Beyoncé bashes car windows with a baseball bat, hooks wrote, “Women do not and will not seize power and create self-love through violent acts.”
But what if a woman is a human who sometimes feels violent? Roxane Gay touched on all this in an essay for the Guardian, concluding, “Feminism is not a free-for-all where anything goes, but I would like to think that feminism allows for women to make choices—even choices with which other feminists disagree.”
I believe authentically processing dark feelings offers usefulness to the cause, if only because showing how you feel is earnest, and good movements are built on honesty.
But I’d done this wrong, letting laughing at someone’s Instagram suffice when taking time to understand my feelings would have been better—even if it still resulted in the eventual bashing of windows.
hooks remains one of my heroes. As for Beyoncé, Lemonade wasn’t written for me. A vital positive of the Internet is the access it provides to unheard voices. Still, I admit to feeling grateful when Bey, quoting British-Somali poet Warsan Shire, chants, “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Sidechicks.” Can’t say I haven’t been tempted to post a fire selfie captioned by that quote.
Instagram: an app powerful enough to blow a million Think Pieces to smithereens in everything it says about female relations. There for a girl when a relationship begins, when it ends, and for all the drama between. Where we figure out who their ex was, assess ‘likers’ for any threats, and unfollow when a fight gets dramatic. Have you noticed an increase in a woman’s selfies when she’s suffering a breakup? Have you ever geo-tagged a photo in the hope it’d inspire your crush to pop up in the area?
Instagram: where, at nineteen, I stalked the partners of girls I was flirting with. I admit it that, long before I’d experienced requited love, I was talking to girls whom I eventually discovered had girlfriends. I didn’t see the big deal; my sad thirst trumped whatever an anonymous partner might suffer if discovered. Till inevitably stumbling upon PDA pix—seeing my crush in the arms of a happy, oblivious stranger who was rendered, via image, a real person with feelings—I always backed off, only vaguely understanding the depth of the bond I was honoring. It is this mark on my past that enables me now to conjure enough empathy to get past Sidechick’s moral vacancy, to willfully subscribe to the Albright quote, which deep down I know to be true.
Instagram isn’t only competitive lurking. It has arguably also facilitated a breath of fresh feminism—not least amidst these gloomy weeks in my personal life. The morning after my relationship died, a gorgeous stranger, Kayko, posted a new photo: herself sitting in a packed U-Haul with her best friend, flipping off the camera, hashtagged #lemon.
I’d followed Kayko months earlier because she and her andro girlfriend were cool in that iconic way particular to social media (certainly why she has twenty-three thousand followers). Tall, thin, perpetually photographed by their talented friends, they were visibly, epically in love.
Stunned by the possible dating drama of two strangers who live in California, I wondered if they’d split. Sure enough, next my imaginary insta-pal posted an old party gif that featured her, her partner, and the former friend her partner had cheated with. “On social media,” the caption read, “we tend to think other people have perfect relationships and wind up comparing them to our own. Some can paint a pretty picture and yet be suffering. Breakups happen, cheating happens, and too often we just pretend nothing happened to the rest of the world.” She proceeded to detail the whole heart-wrenching story.
How true, I thought, impressed by Kayko’s awareness of the #relationshipgoals that had once characterized her account. As weeks passed, I was comforted to witness her moving through the same post-breakup stages I was. The hot selfies, inspirational quotes about independence, squad pix.
Kayko’s social media presence succeeds in what we all strive for in our own—the convincing broadcast that her life is amazing. Her “about me” says she’s a grief worker and hypnotherapist. Her photos are stunning. She travels. She appears to have many friends. If a woman this badass was betrayed, I reasoned, it’s not so shameful that I was too.
For others, I’m the Kayko. In my breakup’s aftermath, I received a private message from a pictureless account identifying herself as “Camilla,” begging me to meet her in the West Village. It was clearly a former fling of my ex who used to call us on blocked numbers until she was eventually talked down. “I’ve been stalking your pictures for a while now,” she confessed. “I need to see you in person.”
When I made my Instagram private, another account tried following me, seemingly my ex’s most significant ex. Evidently, my former partner’s trail of broken hearts was welcoming me to the club. I was reminded of last year, running into my first girlfriend’s first girlfriend in a bar. Her eyes widened as she grabbed my hands. “You have no idea how often I stalk your Tumblr!”
“Makes sense,” I’d replied, fascinated by how openly we refer to these habits as “stalking.” “We suffered the same bullshit, didn’t we?”
And at one time or another, I’ve stalked them all too, some with more hunger than others. The remarkable fact is in reality I know none of these women: Sidechick, Kayko, Beyoncé, Madeleine Albright, the Broken Heart Club. But we are all connected, some through cyber-disdain, and others through cyber-tenderness.
At its best, this strange sisterhood is common, unspoken, and special for women, redemptive of the hell that social media can often otherwise be. As my friend Allie wrote of the Instagram alliance she feels with an ex-boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend:“I think about her a lot, probably more than I think about him. I still search for her profile handle, often. When I see her pictures, I find myself hopeful for her. I also find myself sad for her, as I’m sad for myself for every heartbreak I’ve experienced. I want, more than anything, to tell her that I think I might understand some of the things she’s gone through. But she’s a stranger, I can’t do that.”