Generally, more citizens choose easier ways to be involved politically: voting, contacting elected officials, signing petitions and so on. Those who take their grievances to the streets generally have a wide range of motivations, according to scholars, including a perceived crisis, an unexpected event, a desire to visibly express popular dissent, a fear of material or status loss and resentment.
But movements often find it hard to attract enough participants to be noticed and make a difference. Most people find street marches, demonstrations, confrontations with police or government officials and civil disobedience to be intimidating.
So how do we account for the record-breaking and enthusiastic turnout for recent anti-Trump actions? Many people clearly feel the Trump administration presents an acute threat. But another major factor that can move them from the couch to the streets is the tangible pleasure people can feel from acting publicly and collectively to try change something.
The pleasures of protest were visible at the post-inaugural women’s marches, beginning with the pink knit “pussyhats.” Started as a craft project by Los Angelean Krista Suh and friends, the hats echoed the “pussy grabs back” slogan used by women objecting to candidate Trump’s derogatory comments last fall about grabbing women.
The handcrafted head coverings emerged en masse and became instantly iconic. Clearly, people enjoyed wearing them. The fun was amplified by the variety of handmade signs protesters brought, with jabs like “You’re so vain, you probably think this march is about you” and “A woman’s place is in the resistance.” A pleasurable aspect of protest is having a space to defiantly “talk back” to political adversaries.
The women’s marches built on feminists’ long history of employing pleasure and play as movement tactics. Consider the women’s liberation movement. This radical spinoff of the New Left student movements of the 1960s catapulted itself into public consciousness in the summer of 1968 when it staged a protest of the Miss America pageant on the Atlantic City boardwalk. To highlight the pageant’s sexism, activists crowned a live sheep and tossed bras, false eyelashes and other “instruments of female torture” into a “freedom trash can.” (That’s the source of the feminist “bra-burning” myth, though no lingerie was actually burned.) Inside the pageant, as the outgoing Miss America delivered her farewell address, activists unfurled a bedsheet with “Women’s Liberation” scrawled across it. This early and impish “women’s lib” action made the movement’s radical challenge to the gendered order seem less threatening, even fun, and attracted others to the cause.
Later, in 1971, women’s liberationists again displayed their playful side in a rhetorical faceoff with literary titan and outspoken anti-feminist Norman Mailer in New York’s Town Hall. Amid a buttoned-up crowd of New York literati, Village Voice columnist Jill Johnston delivered an outrageous speech declaring that all women are lesbians — then rolled around on the floor groping, kissing and getting generally freaky with two other women who rushed the stage. This impromptu lesbian “love-in” delighted the audience. Mailer, missing the joke at his expense, rebuked the feminists for lacking a sense of humor.
This spirit of humor, pleasure and play continues in contemporary feminist activism. Take the SlutWalk movement, for example. In addition to protesting rape culture, slut-shaming and victim blaming, SlutWalk marches are a kind of feminist Halloween. During a typical march, activists of all shapes, shades and ages can dress up in their favorite slutty attire — corsets, fishnets, vinyl panties, you name it — and get a taste of the freedom they long for in a world without rape.
The gay liberation movement provides another trove of examples. The movement’s signature event, the Pride march, is also a parade featuring drag-queen kicklines, campy color guards and leather-clad “Dykes on Bikes.” In addition to making a bold political statement — “We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!” – these annual events also provide much-needed oases of sensuality and freedom for the LGBTQ community and its allies.
Protest movements are fueled by more than fear and righteous indignation. They bring together like-minded comrades and give them a chance to show off their creativity, express emotions, share a singular and powerful experience, and push back together against a resisting but malleable world. Protests can be enlivening, empowering and even fun. They can forge solidarities, communities and friendships that make the more arduous and tedious aspects of political activism bearable.
Of course, what constitutes pleasurable protest is always a matter of perspective. And the tactics of one movement can inform those of its adversaries, in a movement-countermovement call and response. The sexual boldness of the women’s and LGBTQ movements certainly stoked conservatives’ fears of a loss of a cherished moral order. Since the 1980s, the Christian Right has, in turn, channeled such fears into political engagement. Tactics like pro-life street politics or blocking gay rights at the ballot box have their own logics of pleasure for participants fighting against cultural change.
In the Obama era, tea partiers reveled in defiant displays of guns, paramilitary costumes and anti-Obama posters that some argued were racist. (The racism of the tea party has been debated.) Movement participants may have felt this was all in good fun, but some onlookers were frightened.
In 2016, Donald Trump’s campaign rallies had a carnivalesque atmosphere, as participants paraded their anti-Hillary paraphernalia and iconic red hats before the cameras. Who could deny the vicarious thrill many Trump supporters receive from watching the president flout well-established norms and thumb his nose at “political correctness” and the mainstream media?
As both Trump’s rise and the resistance to it show, at their most effective, pleasurable and playful politics can bring together and energize individuals and groups, enabling them to settle in for the long haul.
Lorna Bracewell is assistant professor of political science at the University of Nebraska Kearney.
Nancy D. Wadsworth is associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.