‘Swarm’ puts misogynoir on full display

Author Moya Bailey, creator of the term, is ready to push back.

Photo of Moya Bailey against a text background of her name.

What comments would you see if you scrolled through your Twitter feed or the comment sections of the most popular social media blogs?

Whenever I allow my curiosity to get the best of me, I see comments saying Megan Thee Stallion deserved to be shot, Dwayne Wade and Gabrielle Union are bad parents for loving and supporting their child and Meghan Markle needs to shut up and be grateful that she married “up.”

These comments are all examples of misogynoir, a term coined in 2010 by Northwestern University professor, activist and author Moya Bailey. This word is used to describe misogyny directed at Black women specifically.

You have probably grown up seeing examples of misogynoir your entire life — the treatment of Venus and Serena Williams, the commentary on First Lady Michelle Obama’s appearance and the treatment of the most recent Big Brother US winner, Taylor Hale.

“Swarm” is a recently released Amazon Prime show created by Donald Glover. The horror/thriller series follows a young Black woman’s obsession with her favorite pop star, another Black woman, and how her fandom leads her down a murderous path.

While interviewing Bailey, we discussed the prevalence of misogynoir in American society and how Black women are regularly forced to endure misogynistic attacks at the hands of mainstream media.

“Misogynoir was on full display,” Bailey said. “The actress is amazing, but the way she’s made to be grotesque and a monster, someone irredeemable and somebody so delusional and unwell, it makes it hard for the audience to have empathy for her. The depiction of her and the way other Black women were portrayed was frustrating, and the colorism that gets displayed throughout the show reinforces misogyny more in terms of how people think of who is a worthwhile hero and victim and who they don’t have empathy or care for.”

Like many, Bailey became engulfed in Black Twitter as everyone had something to say about this show. Some Twitter users celebrated the quality of the writing and the impeccable acting, while others were triggered by the limited series’ social commentary about Black women.

Nylah Burton, also known as Twitter user @yumcoconutmilk, a Chicago-based writer who has been featured in Vogue, Travel Leisure, Sweet July Magazine and more, posted a snippet of Glover’s interview with Vulture, in which he said that he told the lead actress, Dominique Fishback, to “think of [her character] more like an animal and less like a person,” and later stating that when creating her character he thought about his fear of dogs.

In a tweet about the show, Burton posed the question, “In a world where Black men are misogynistic towards Black women and our interests (including Beyonce) and white women use putting Beyonce down to signal a deeper hostility towards Black people, who does it serve to have a serial killer attacking mostly Black men and white women just because they don’t like Beyonce? What stereotypes is that already reinforcing?” and later wrote an article about it for Vox titled, “Swarm isn’t a love letter to Black women. It’s hate mail.

With “Swarm” being one of many examples of misogynoir celebrated without any internal commentary on the treatment and demonization of Black women, Bailey emphasizes the importance of taking care of oneself mentally in the face of discourse and understands the exhaustion that comes with expressing these issues with those who aren’t on the receiving end.

“I feel like people who experience misogyny should do whatever they need to protect themselves,” Bailey said. “It’s fine if you feel confident and want to engage and try and have those conversations with people, but you shouldn’t feel like you have to do it to your detriment. For people who are unwilling to hear, I think storytelling is powerful. I think narrative is one of a few ways to get people to have different perspectives.”

Bailey has spent her career not only studying misogynoir but calling out the neglect of Black women in conversations about misogyny. She wrote a book detailing the history of misogynoir in the digital sphere called “Misogynoir Transformed: Black Women’s Digital Resistance.”

In her book, Bailey breaks down the presence and effects of misogynoir in the American healthcare system as well as Black women’s experience with policing, politics and the feminist movement. She calls her research method a “harm reduction practice,” but don’t take that to mean it isn’t confrontational.

Her method does something that pop culture often fails to do when addressing Black women’s realities: It acknowledges our existence’s complexities. She accomplishes this by demonstrating awareness when collecting her data by noting that no group or community is a monolith.

“I want community partners to feel like they can ask questions or get their questions answered in relation to the research,” Bailey said. That’s how I think of harm reduction. What I think of as confrontational is more traditional research that doesn’t always consider the needs of the community itself when trying to get what it wants from the community.”

She discussed her research methods on March 28 at a USC event called Transforming Misogynoir: A Conversation with Moya Bailey and A.E. Stevenson. The event began with a conversation about digital alchemy, which Bailey described during an interview with The Digital Democracies Institute as a practice that “transforms everyday digital media into valuable social justice media that recodes the failed scripts that negatively impact their lives.”

Similar to Burton’s tweets about “Swarm,” digital alchemy can spread insight and be used to protest misogynoir. Other examples include the uproar on Twitter after the murder of Breonna Taylor and the anger regarding the initial silence surrounding the shooting; hashtags that have gone on to inspire societal changes, such as #muterkelly, coined by Oronike Odeleye and Tisha Barnes, and #metoo, coined by Tarana Burke, and #oscarssowhite, which April Reign coined–all of whom are Black women.

I asked Bailey about the changes communicators can make to combat misogynoir. Her first suggestion: create space.

“I think it’s important for accomplices to make sure that they’re learning from and reading the work of Black feminist scholars. Are there Black feminist scholars integrated into the syllabi? You can start to make sure that the next generation of strategists and communication specialists have that history and knowledge,” Bailey said. “I want a world where communication specialists feel like it matters to advocate for those who are marginalized in whatever way they can.”

And while an academic education can significantly contribute to learning how to practice awareness, Bailey notes the impact of intentionally building awareness outside the classroom.

“There’s this idea that there’s a certain set of skills that you need to learn to be effective on a job, but none of that includes rocking the boat or challenging the system as it exists," Bailey said.

A scholar first, Bailey shouts out The Salt Eater Bookstore in Inglewood, where she was shopping before our interview.

“It’s an independent, Black-owned bookstore. They have a Black feminist tool kit. It’s a shelf of books you should have,” Bailey said.

So how can we participate in digital alchemy? How can we fight back against the constant dehumanization of Black women? By joining digital alchemists like Moya Bailey, Nylah Burton, Zahira Cebrera, Angelica Bastien, Noella Williams, Shannen Dee Williams, Njera Perkins, Letisha Engracia Cardoso Brown, Ezinne Ofoegbu and Leslie Ekpe; all of whom have taken to Twitter to call out misogynoir and demand better the treatment of Black women.

For more information on Professor Moya Bailey, follow her on Twitter at @moyazb, Instagram @transformisogynoir, or her website: