Swipe right for equality: Is Bumble really empowering women?

Czyka Tumaliuan
Swipe right for equality: Is Bumble really empowering women?
On the dating app, women are required to message matches first. But is it as 'feminist' as it claims?

Last month, my friend introduced me to her new boyfriend. The guy is an artist like her. I felt their connection and the guy’s sincere intentions. They look good together and it seems that she’s so happy with her current status. It appears to be a perfect match. Curious, I asked how they met.

“In Bumble,” she replied.

“It’s a feminist dating app. You make the first move. The guys there are respectful and it’s really safe. You should try it!” she added.

A “feminist” dating app? I’ve always thought that apps — technology in general are neutral. How can an app be “feminist?”

I got really curious, so I tried it.

Virtual prejudice

I’ve never tried using a dating app. I don’t like the idea of getting in touch with a stranger online because you were initially attracted to a digital persona. Oftentimes, we get disappointed when we meet the actual person and things could get really nasty. But the book Ready Player One changed my perspective about online relationships.

In the novel, the protagonist met the love of his life through a game. They were both chasing the same dream — find James Halliday’s easter eggs and win his game. They got really close because of this shared passion and because they admired each other’s competence and determination. Their mutual fondness for each other slowly blossomed online through constant teasing and chatting.

When they spoke online, it felt like two kindred minds just bouncing off energies and ideas. It was a palpable connection that transcended the physical world. It was more than real and it shattered my preconceived notions about virtual relationships.

Image-making online

Like in Facebook, Bumble lets you create a digital persona, an image that will give other people an idea of who you are. Born rascal, I uploaded distorted photos of me. One is a snap where I have a dog filter and the other is an alienized image of me using Apple Photo Booth effects.

I also uploaded a screenshot of Jesse and Celine’s cameo on Waking Life. My “About Me” is just a simple: “dark matter.” I didn’t reveal who I really am. I thought that should be reserved for the ones who truly deserve it. I was secretly hoping to find a fellow geek in the app who has a sense of humor and knows that 80% of the universe, including us, is composed of undiscovered subatomic particles.

After creating a profile, I tried the dating feature of the app. The app is not only for dating apparently. You can use it to meet a “bff” or a new professional network. There are three routes that you could take and turn on and off in Bumble.

I was laughing so hard when I saw a lot of my friends in the app looking so sexy and desperate. It was a weird experience. Some of them are really awesome human beings but had strange, trying-to-be-the-next-top-model selfies.

After 40 swipes, I got really bored and saturated with the scrolling photos of men. At some point, they started to look like odd flat objects than actual people. Too much photo editing I guess. I’m being presented with these illusions, self constructs that I can’t even authenticate. I wished I just continued reading Annihilation.

What a waste of time, I thought.

I told my friend about it and she said that it’s normal.

“It takes me 50 swipes before I get a match,” she said.

After over 70 swipes, I had five matches. True enough, they were funny guys who are mostly foreigners and are just “passing by” Manila. They swiped right because they know the movie. This awareness was enough for me to engage them in a conversation.

I chatted with them for a bit, but after a day of being on the app, I got bored. I didn’t know why I even tried it. I’m a single mom with a lovely daughter and I can’t possibly find someone who could complete our family in this app that feels like an online version of an aquarium in a strip club. Playing the video game Journey was far more rewarding. I suddenly regretted the social experiment I started.

Feminism and other lemons

Since I couldn’t bear using it any longer, I interviewed people who used it and asked about their experiences. I also asked my friends who have strong views on feminism and what they thought about it.

“I prefer meeting people in real life. It’s more natural and organic. I can’t believe Bumble is branding itself as a feminist app. Making the first move in relationships doesn’t mean anything. Being a feminist is more than that,” Aly Cabral, founder of feminist collective Kababae Mong Tao said.

Women, Create founder Marika Callangan shared the same sentiment, and questioned the extent of empowerment the app is designed to do.

“In my previous dating app experiences, I always made the first move. Did it feel empowering? No, it felt normal, kind of like posting on my Facebook wall,” Callangan said.

“Do Bumble’s efforts address the issue of gender? Is there a section where women are encouraged to meet with other women and tell their stories and anxieties as they go on the dating site? Is there a space where women can share stories about date rape? If it’s just marketing the idea of feminism by saying the ‘girl can make a move first,’ then that is just a shallow way, if not insulting way, of tackling the women’s movement,” she expressed.

Couple Monty Antonio and Joycee Mejia who met in the app explained that “empowering” is not really the best way to describe what the app does, but “convenient.”

“Bumble just makes everything convenient, you know? I don’t need to second guess if a girl’s into me. There’s no games. You just cut to the chase and see if it’s meant to be,” Antonio said matter-of-factly.

“It’s an exciting experience that I get to make the first move. Not sure if it’s really empowering but it’s definitely refreshing to have that control,” Mejia confessed.

Different people have different kinds of definitions and actualizations of feminism. In Rwanda, they’re allergic to the term “feminism.” They see it as a license or excuse to be promiscuous and is too focused on fighting back, rather than constructively asserting one’s rights and living the virtues of feminism. Interestingly, their government is run by women — more than half of the positions in the government are held by females.

Indeed, there’s a tendency for feminism to be a mere slogan than an assertion of equal rights and identity. Clearly, Bumble has figured out how to monetize this romantic understanding of a vogue concept.

“It’s not even the ideology itself that is being capitalized; it’s human relationships. We’re all online most of the time. And we tend to look for meaning, for answers and for real things from it for some reason, whether we admit it or not. Our innate desire to connect is just being exploited,” visual artist Iya Regalario said.

Callangan thinks that brands use these slogans to give a sense of empowerment to women, to pass on a feeling, to make them buy the idea, not really to imbibe and live in accordance to it. In the end, it aggrieves us even more without us knowing it.

“Most brands would rather just have random ‘girl power’ slogans that have no deeper meaning other than to lure you into their product so you can buy them, and then slapping the word ‘feminism’ on it. That is how this entire ideology declines, when capitalism has found a way to use it against us for the same purpose of oppressing us and this time, with us women supporting it,” Callangan said.

In retrospect, trying out the app wasn’t a waste as it made me ascertain the state of feminism in the country: juvenile and brand-driven.

As a single mom who had experienced my own share of domestic violence, feminism, battling oppression should personally matter to me, but I choose to keep quiet about it. Now it’s clearer why: the existing platforms are too focused on being a “girl boss” or man-hating.

I’d rather do projects that push women to fully realize who they are outside of social expectations, that allows them to pursue passions that are pigeon-holed for males like, physics, presidency or robotics, than to participate in rallies or ‘movements’ that has no concrete, step-by-step plans of toppling the oppressive infrastructure around us that causes prevalent abuse of and discrimination against women.

I’d rather create my criticism than shout about it.

I’ve always dreamt of becoming a housewife who homeschools her children, and writes poetry and fiction on the side. I want to do the laundry and wash the dishes and cook for my family. I want to serve the people I love and I don’t feel like it’s an insult to my being or a degradation of who I am.

Does it make me an anti-feminist? Do I need to unlearn this desire? Does it make me less free, or the power to choose my own path makes me a real feminist? What is feminism? There should be safe spaces to tackle these issues and get critical about our habits and culture. We should take over and make brands stop taking over our day-to-day decisions and life. – Rappler.com