2018 Was the Year of Woke Signaling

If 2017 was the year “woke” broke among the cognoscenti, 2018 was the year it went wholesale, starting with McDonald's.

If 2017 was the year “woke” broke among the cognoscenti, 2018 was the year it went wholesale. Even McDonald's is pandering.
If 2017 was the year “woke” broke among the cognoscenti, 2018 was the year it went wholesale, starting with McDonald’s. Illustration by Tara Jacoby

This year, to celebrate International Women’s Day, McDonald’s planned an elaborate stunt: On March 8, several US locations flipped the chain’s golden arches upside down, so it looked like a “W.” The “W” stands for “women.” Get it?

As critics pointed out on Twitter and in news articles, the gimmick might have proved more meaningful had McDonald’s backed it up in practice. The chain is part of the National Restaurant Association, which lobbies against wage increases, and studies have shown that increasing the minimum wage would disproportionately benefit women. Two months after the arch-flip stunt, ten women filed sexual harassment complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against McDonald’s. In September, organizers planned a strike for women who said they were fed up with the company’s inaction against employees who sexually harass female workers on the job.

McDonald’s had stumbled into a trap that has snared corporations, celebrities, politicians and everyday social media users alike: By sending out a near-literal bat signal of its wokeness, the company only drew attention to the contradictions inherent in its stunt. In a cacophonous era in which nearly every errant comment can be taken as a political statement—and when our means of communicating every stray opinion are more public-facing than ever before— signaling support for a progressive cause is a complicated act. Is it a cynical ploy for attention, or a genuine concern? And can we ever know for sure?

If 2017 was the year “woke” broke among the cognoscenti, 2018 was the year it went wholesale. Last year, Saturday Night Live aired two viral sketches playing on the sudden ubiquity of the term, one in which a string of apparently woke men hit on a woman at a bar, the other a parody ad for the “gender non-conforming denim” of Levi’s Wokes, with an assist from Ryan Gosling. High-fashion, $710 t-shirts emblazoned with bold declarations of the wearer’s feminist bonafides were hot on the runways of Paris in 2017, including designer Jonathan Simkhai’s “Feminist AF” shirt, which, like woke signaling itself, reached critical mass in 2018, with $19 knock-offs littering online stores like Zazzle.

To signal one’s wokeness is an old idea in new vernacular. (It’s the concept behind the ’90s refrain “Some of my best friends are gay!”) Signaling wokeness is Everlane launching a campaign featuring a plus-size model—even though at the time, they didn’t actually carry a full range of plus sizes. (Commenting for Vox, Amanda Mull wrote, “Body positivity in 2018 rushes right up to the line between aesthetics and politics but puts not one toe over it.”) It’s Amazon (AMZN) announcing a $15 minimum wage then slashing bonuses, leaving some workers earning less than before. It’s Uber getting rid of mandatory arbitration for sexual harassment claims, but not for any other labor disputes. It’s Miss America eliminating the swimsuit competition. It’s Michael Avenatti.

Ill-received goodwill abounded in 2018, boosted by a political atmosphere that made it difficult for both individuals and corporations to engage in any social activity without entering the political fray. Some companies, like Nike, deliberately strode into this space: In September, the shoe giant put Colin Kaepernick at the center of an ad campaign celebrating the 30th anniversary of the slogan “Just Do It”—prompting some to scoff that the brand was cynically appropriating a message of social justice to earn a dime.

Of course, it’s not the signaling that’s the problem, but the perceived emptiness behind it. Omar Rodríguez-Vilá, a professor of marketing at Emory University, says that businesses should be prepared to back up their messaging with action. “The moment they start taking positions on social issues or claiming some kind of virtuous activity, people start looking for inconsistencies,” he says. By taking a stand on a social or political issue, a company is inviting scrutiny, and not just from its customers and retailers, but from what Rodríguez-Vilá calls “non-commercial stakeholders”—NGOs and community organizers and regulators and Twitter users with a bone to pick. “The moment you invert that ‘M’ into a ‘W,’” he says, referring to Mickey D’s arch stunt, “you’re really bringing all those stakeholders into your tent.”

One business that has surely learned this lesson this past year is the Comedy Cellar, one of New York City’s most revered stand-up venues. The club has been placed under a microscope since a late 2017 New York Times article forced Louis C.K., a Cellar regular, to admit to longstanding allegations of sexual misconduct. And it faced a backlash when C.K. started popping up again in the late summer and fall in its tiny basement space.

So when the Comedy Cellar sent out promotional emails earlier this month for a fundraising show to benefit RALIANCE, an organization that helps victims of sexual violence, some saw a contradiction. Cellar owner Noam Dworman says he was approached by a producer to host the benefit in late August, a few days after C.K. had first dropped in to do a set after nearly a year of silence. Dworman responded that he would be happy to donate the space, but didn’t want to publicize the event; he didn’t want to appear to be buying PR. But ticket sales were slow, he says, so the club gave the show a promotional push — which triggered an eye-rolling response from critics, who called it a “blatant PR stunt” and “lip service tokenism.” (It didn’t help that RALIANCE itself was founded by a $10 million donation from the NFL in 2016, in response to the controversy surrounding Ray Rice, who was caught on video beating his girlfriend.)

“I understand how people feel,” Dworman says, “but I know that people would be just as eager to criticize me if I didn’t do the benefit.” Citing Harvey Weinstein’s pledge to redouble his support for gun control after he was outed as a serial sexual abuser, Dworman adds, “I don’t blame people at all for being skeptical about these organizations or people who try to cleanse their image with these type of events.” But in the end, he says, “That’s not the way this happened. I just said yes because somebody asked me to do it.”

The #MeToo movement, which bloomed in the wake of the Weinstein allegations in late 2017, has, perhaps inevitably, become a deep reservoir of woke signaling. Suddenly, men appeared all too willing to publicly back efforts to close the gender-wage gap or end sexual harassment in the workplace. And yet that sentiment didn’t necessarily change their own behavior. Jessica Valenti recently wrote about a new study in which the surveyed men agreed that women and men should be equal in the public sphere—but that women should still do the majority of housework and childcare. Valenti cited outdated beliefs about women’s innate ability to nurture, calling them “a convenient excuse made for men who want to seem ‘woke’ while maintaining personal power in their relationships.”

In March, Cardi B spoke for many women when she said that she doesn’t trust a lot of men, particularly in the music industry, signaling their support for the #MeToo movement. “These producers and directors,” she told Cosmopolitan, “they’re not woke, they’re scared.” (This year’s Grammy Awards sure weren’t a paragon of equality: the Recording Academy rewarded just one woman as a primary artist, and when questioned, Neil Portnow, its president, initially responded that women in the industry needed to “step up.”)

Social media has without a doubt enabled this scourge of woke signaling. Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has come under fire for hyper-woke messaging that critics view as pandering. “Senator, you already have this crowd,” writer Meghan Daum tweeted in response to a statement celebrating feminism and intersectionality. “Please stop taking tweet direction from whoever’s telling you to do this.”

Like Weinstein touting his efforts to slay the NRA, some men have responded to #MeToo allegations by pointing to their unrelated yet still undeniably woke bona fides. Earlier this month, astrophysicist and TV host Neil deGrasse Tyson posted a long apology/explanation on Facebook in response to accusations of sexual misconduct from several women who’d worked with him. He defended one such accusation by evoking a special handshake he claims to have learned from an “elder Native”: “You extend your thumb forward during the handshake to feel the other person’s vital spirit energy—the pulse. I’ve never forgotten that handshake, and I save it in appreciation of people with whom I’ve developed new friendships,” he wrote. Nothing creepy here—just an age-old Native American tradition.

Then there are the everyday woke signalers, those who take the concept of using respectful language in reference to minorities to a near-parodic level—like this Twitter user who took a viral joke about eating a burrito before a sex party as an opportunity to lecture on the narrow-mindedness of the white queer community:

And yet social media also gave rise to the #MeToo movement, which would not have spread so fast, and allowed so many women to share personal, traumatic stories, in the pre-internet age. The movement has quickly set a new standard for gender norms, leaving big organizations scrambling to react.

Angela Lee, a professor of media and behavior prediction at the University of Texas at Dallas, credits social media with urging people, and brands, to espouse messages of social good. She sees this is a positive, regardless of the intent behind those messages. “From a normative standpoint,” she says, “this could be a good thing, because it pushes us to become a more ethically aware, if not ethically conscious, society.”

But what good is that awareness if it’s not acted upon? What good is a music video fetishizing the aesthetics of the #resistance, like Justin Timberlake’s “Supplies,” if the only beneficiary of that message is the musician’s brand? What good is an organization like the White House Correspondents’ Association if it’s only going to pay lip service to the idea of speaking truth to power—and then chastise its chosen speaker, comedian Michelle Wolf, when she does just that? What good is a highly publicized year-end bonus if the tax breaks your company claims to have used to pay them out were mostly used to buy back shares of its own stock?

These questions linger as this cursed year comes to a blessed close. If woke signaling were the biggest problem plaguing us today, we’d be pretty lucky. (Too many people profess too loudly to care about the world’s ills too much!) Meanwhile, the world is burning and we’re scrolling through screens, ready to pounce on what we perceive to be a message of misbegotten intent.

This compulsion is a manifestation of life under late-stage capitalism, when all our consumption habits feed the beast. Amazon and Twitter and Google and Facebook are probably ruining our lives, but how else are we supposed to shop and communicate and find out who played drums on that Steely Dan track? We live in a world that makes it all too easy to signal our intent to behave ethically, but harder than ever to follow that through in practice. So we sheepishly signal our wokeness online, despite the fact that— or more likely, because—we’re all part of the problem.

2018 Was the Year of Woke Signaling