Expressing an intention to shift old-fashioned power dynamics, online dating app Bumble claims to empower women and promote equality. Bumble’s Apple App Store listing describes how it “exists to empower women …” and notes “its focus on giving women all the power”.
The ‘old-fashioned power dynamics’ Bumble refers to are traditional courtship conventions, where women remain passive and wait to be chosen, and men actively approach the women they are interested in. Plenty of studies show that these norms are still ingrained in Australian society, so claiming to shift them is no small feat.
Interrogating these claims of change, we asked women who were using the app to connect with men what they thought about the value of the app, its limitations, and the risks in using women’s empowerment as a brand message.
Our paper, recently published, is titled “Shifting old-fashioned power dynamics”?: women’s perspectives on the gender transformational capacity of the dating app, Bumble.
On the plus side: The value of Bumble
Our participants – mostly city-dwelling, university-educated, white women – described that using Bumble meant undergoing a process of unlearning some gendered norms. It helped to change their awareness, understanding and critique of gender expression and norms.
Mindful of the ingrained expectations for women to be ‘innocent’ and reserved, our participants felt Bumble provided a safe space to challenge these norms in several ways, including:
- eliminating the stigma attached to women starting conversations with men
- actually being assertive and starting the conversation
- honing their conversation initiation skill set, and gaining confidence using it on and offline.
“My friends would bag me out for [initiating conversations on Tinder] … Bumble gave that safe space where people couldn’t judge me for it.” – Taylor
“I was super-nervous when I started using Bumble. I was, like, ‘Oh gosh, I can’t talk to boys’, but … I think I could [offline now] – because it’s just learning skills, really, learning how to flirt … just getting the skills and feeling like … you’re good at something just as much as the guys are.” – Mary
Through these experiences, Bumble acted as a space for understanding and reframing femininity as more diverse than traditional scripts. The women also often acknowledged how hard it was to start an interesting conversation, and that this burden is typically left to men.
These outcomes support research outlining the positive potential of social media as a safe space to explore identity. At the same time, such positives might be used as evidence that we live in ‘post-feminist‘ times (a perspective that sees the goals of feminism as largely achieved).
However, digging a little deeper, we quickly see that Bumble’s claim to enhancing gender equality is pretty shaky.
On the downside: The limits of Bumble’s value
Despite reporting tangible changes in confidence levels, breaking down restrictive norms of passivity and gaining empathy towards men’s experiences, the women rejected that Bumble vastly changed ingrained gendered expectations.
There were key and recurring moments described by participants where elements of traditional ideals of femininity and masculinity were present.
Accepting Bumble’s view of the world risks women moving from one policed form of femininity (passivity and waiting to be chosen), to another, of necessary confidence and assertiveness.
One example of this was participants taking up the trope of female passivity. Laura, for example, explained that while she always initiates the conversation on Bumble, she would never initiate arranging the first date. Another woman spoke about the presence of violence, including sexual aggression, and text and image-based abuse (that is, the unsolicited dick pic).
Clearly, and unsurprisingly, the app doesn’t exist in a bubble, and there are subsequent limits to the extent it can ’empower’ users or promote equality as a result.
The discourse of post-feminism, and its risks
These accounts of the limits to Bumble’s ability to shift power dynamics help remind us that these are far from ‘post-feminist’ times.
Bumble’s brand, along with many others, is situated well within the post-feminist narrative, with messaging that positions empowerment as an individual’s responsibility that can be obtained through self-discipline and using its product.
This aspect of the brand’s messaging was openly acknowledged and critiqued by our participants. They recognised that women starting the conversation would only be a ‘piece in the puzzle’ in changing wider norms.
Bumble, though, offers no acknowledgement of structural forms of oppression, and how these are the real things that must be challenged to ‘shift old-fashioned power dynamics’.
Another element of post-feminism encompassed by Bumble is the idea that women should be striving for confidence and assertiveness. But this must be understood as endorsing a limited view of femininity. Accepting Bumble’s view of the world risks women moving from one policed form of femininity (passivity and waiting to be chosen), to another, of necessary confidence and assertiveness. No emancipation, the “cult(ure) of confidence” is simply a shifting of goal-posts.
We’re mindful that no universal experience of womanhood exists, and our participants’ perspectives largely come from white, university-educated and city-dwelling women. Sexuality, class, locality, and gender identities – and their intersections – all shape possibilities and experiences.
However, the women in our research illustrate that technological design can, to some extent, challenge existing gendered patterns. The research also makes clear that the transformational capacity of this app is limited both by the traditional gendered expectations held in wider society, and by the brand using women’s empowerment to sell its product without properly tackling systemic oppression.
This not only reinforces a very individual understanding of empowerment, but also reinforces a new, equally as limiting post-feminist ideal for women.
What is Bumble? Released in late 2014 (Clare O’Connor 2017), Bumble is listed by the Apple App Store as of January 2021 as home to more than 100 million users. Bumble users are shown profiles of other users in their locality; they swipe the profile to the left or right to indicate their (dis)interest. If both users swipe to the affirmative, a match is made, and a conversation can be initiated. Distinctive to other apps, upon making a match between a woman and a man, the Bumble interface requires the woman to start the conversation.
Do the age-old traditions about asking someone out still apply in your world? Have you used an app such as Bumble to ‘find a friend’? Why not share your views in the comments section below?
If you enjoy our content, don’t keep it to yourself. Share our free eNews with your friends and encourage them to sign up.