Trolling in the Fashion Blogosphere

Last week as I was reading Susanna Lau a.k.a Susie Bubble’s Style Bubble blog, I found this post called, “Going Skinny and Strappy.” In it, Lau recalls a fellow blogger’s attack on her style. Drawing a distinction between anonymous trolls and identifiable fashion bloggers, Lau hesitates to characterize her attacker as a troll, but I’m not so sure there’s always a difference. Consider some of the comments the blogger hurls at Lau:

I’ve been to London tons of times before, and I have yet to see someone so poorly dressed.

And then there’s this choice comment:

[Y]our aesthetic looks as though it was completely random . . . as if your wardrobe would have exploded in your face this morning and random pieces of clothing landed on your body . . the colors are horrible and anyway . . . do you go out like that???????? (Ellipses in the original comment.)

Anyone who has their own blog or who reads blogs or any other digital publications that are open to reader commentary has probably experienced trolling, that irritating and tiresome practice of digital rabble-rousing in which inflammatory, aggressive, and usually (though not always) off-topic comments are intended to incite responses from the writer or other readers. Trolls count on and then abuse the ideals of open access and free-exchange that characterize the participatory Internet. They’re not interested in debate or disagreement, only discursive demolition. (Thankfully, troll assaults are infrequent on Threadbared – though we’ve had some doozys.)

But Lau’s attacker, as she points out, is also a fashion blogger. Because the role of the fashion blogger and the technocultural medium of  the fashion blog are underwritten by the principles of democracy and freedom of sartorial and verbal expression, Lau finds trolls and trolling incompatible and indeed contrary to fashion bloggers/blogging. Lau writes:

Then perhaps those processes of ‘democratisation’ and ‘liberation’ that pepper the articles full of high praise for the impact of the internet on fashion, aren’t what they seem to be.  And so nothing has happened and dressing to please yourself is not actually something truly seized by everybody, even by those who purportedly love fashion (forgot to mention that the commenter is a fashion blogger).  I feel like I need to eat a whole Terry’s chocolate orange because that in itself is depressing.

Without taking anything away from Lau’s understanding of this attack, I want to consider for a moment not how the democratization of fashion is antithetical to the personalized attacks of trolling but rather how this phenomenon is framed by a neoliberal moral imperative that makes possible if not inevitable such troll-like attacks. (I want to state, for the record though, that I am so impressed with Lau’s thoughtfulness and grace in the face of these attacks. Read through the comments and you’ll find that Lau is concerned more about the fashion blogger’s narrow conception of “feminine dressing” than digital retaliation – surely, Style Bubble wields plenty enough cultural power to wallop this blogger’s blog.)

In previous posts, Mimi and I have both remarked on the pernicious underside of the democratization of fashion. As well as a cultural, political, and economic mechanism for increasing access to fashion resources and the rights that are imagined to come with them, the democratization of fashion is a disciplinary and sometimes violent technology of social production (of producing and securing norms of gender, gender presentation, ideal size, etc). Fashion bloggers who, as Lau mentioned, are located centrally in the phenomenon of democratization also play a disciplinary role. And not just fashion bloggers but style gurus and ordinary people (friends, colleagues, and family) who subscribe to shows like that insipid snark-filled mess What Not to Wear and entertainment news programs about Hollywood’s “worst dressed.”

We see the operations of this disciplinary technology very clearly with Lau but also previously with Natalie (of definatalie) and with the Chicago Bar Association’s What Not to Wear Fashion Show. Haul vloggers like Chanel Blue Satin and JuicyStar07 both deploy and denounce this technology – the very same democratizing rationalities and procedures they embrace as self-identified “beauty gurus” are also denied to those who offer them a bit of “advice”.

The discourses and technologies underlying the democratization of fashion have not only helped to increase entitlements to fashion resources and rights (but in many cases, this “democratization” has only served to distribute sociopolitical power upward, not downward, further empowering those who already fit squarely within the corporeal, racial, class, and sexual ideals of the fashionable subject), the discourses and technologies of democratization have also helped to consolidate a neoliberal moral imperative. Now that fashion objects and fashion knowledge are so much easier to access, there is no excuse for not accessing them, for not participating in these markets of commodities and ideas. To do otherwise, we are led to believe, is to suffer an array of sordid fates: unemployment, loneliness, and self-loathing.

Instances like the one Lau discusses in “Going Skinny and Strappy” should remind us that we need to decouple or at least put under critical pressure the easy association of democracy and freedom. If liberalized or democratized markets (of consumer goods and ideas) produce freedoms for some, what we see in all the above examples is that they do so at a cost to other people’s freedom.

Susie Bubble in a gorgeous Dagmar gown, vintage lace crop top, and Beyond the Valley kimono, expressing herself as she does so well.




5 responses to “Trolling in the Fashion Blogosphere

  1. I can’t believe anyone would dare to be a troll to you or Susie…this is a most amazing blog to mix academia and fashion, and I always appreciate the consideration and research (not to mention art and fun!) that goes into each post! There’s nothing like it!

    And Susie’s gown… YOW!! Incredible!! So beautiful!!

    So if people want to be jerks…what can you do. You know what mom always said…..
    “…those people…they’re peobably just jealous.”
    * ; )

  2. T-Rex

    I’ve long been a reader and lover of Susie’s blog. Not so much lately, but my blog reading addictions seem to wax and wane. Anyway, I have always loved the fact that Susie dresses to please herself. Even when she adds a (to my eyes) bizarre accessory to an otherwise lovely outfit, I still love it. I’d rather be sartorially challenged than to be bored to tears by yet another cookie cutter *on trend* outfit.

  3. Do you think it always happens that someone loses out in liberalized or democratized markets?

    • Well, if we understand the liberalization or democratization of markets as an expansion or globalization of capitalism then yes, there’s always a “loser” since capitalism inherently produces uneven benefits for those who control the means of production. And what we’ve learned from political economic theorists is that this outcome is structurally rigged. Countries in the Global North (notably, the US) give themselves an economic edge in the global economy because their policymakers manipulate or find ways to get around market regulations.

  4. this is really wonderful to read and something i’ve thought a lot about before when i was younger and posted mainly in fashion communities like newestwrinkle. there were lots of debates about the nastiness that would come up, and discussions about “constructive criticism only.” often when i would post, i would get probably 80% positive responses, and a handful of “i don’t get it” or “i never like what you post.” some were straight up nasty, and sometimes others would defend, but it just got away from the original intention of why people posted; to share their outfits, to talk about fashion, to inspire each other.

    instead, however, i think one of the main reason those sorts of livejournal fashion communities fizzled out was because it ended up reproducing these judgmental, body-hating, heternormative, catty and unhelpful norms that we specifically went to the internet to try and avoid. no one in my small town would come up to me and say, “wow, you’ve got great style,” but for a brief time i could post online and would have fifty strangers compliment my taste and style.

    i think a lot of online fashion communities are trying to find a balance between fostering a place for actual discussions about clothing and fashion, as opposed to simply toeing the line of “omg i luv ur dress!!!!”/”omg how could u dress like that?!???”

    and goodness… that last photo? amazing. so amazing.