/ |

Handbag hashtag turns tables on misogynist social media conversation

by Patrick ST. Michel

Contributing Writer

When does posting a photo on social media of something you use on a daily basis represent more than simply sharing a slice of your life with your followers?

It’s a question that took on new relevance last week as hundreds of social media users posted images of their handbags alongside a hashtag titled “女の価値を決めるバッグ” (“Onna no kachi o kimeru baggu,” or “Bags that determine a woman’s value”) in an attempt to mock a disparaging comment someone had posted online.

The hashtag proved extremely popular on Twitter last week. Click on it and you’ll find pictures of handbags galore, from bags shaped like owls to lemons and frogs. Others celebrated pioneering German synth-pop groups, dinosaurs or sports teams.

Nobody would blame you if you stumbled across the hashtag and jumped to the conclusion that it was Japanese netizens showing off their bags — plenty did. Yet the hashtag was intended as a response to a comment a somewhat well-known Twitter user made, claiming that the quality of a woman’s handbag defined her value. In response, women celebrated their own bags regardless of where they came from or how they looked, showing that they aren’t hesitant to kick back in creative and funny ways at men presenting problematic views.

The catalyst for all of this was Yuhei Umeki, a freelance marketer who runs a blog called The Startup and organizes something called Umeki Salon, which connects people who have internet and start-up culture in mind together on a monthly basis — for a price. More than 20,000 people follow him on Twitter, among them some pretty famous names.

On April 7, he tweeted that he thought the type of brand bag a woman owned was correlated to her value, especially women who are older than 30 (he personally sets the starting line at luxury goods brand

Celine). Egged on by Tabata Shintaro at online retailer Zozotown, he elaborated, even posting a price breakdown of major bag brands. Initially some agreed with him, expressing relief that they owned high-end goods.

However, the support didn’t last long. Soon enough, Umeki’s tweet spread beyond his bubble of tech gurus and upper-class folks to more regular users taken back by his argument. The conversation online spread, with some pointing out how problematic this notion is or simply hurling insults his way — for example, calling him a virgin or speculating that he wrote such a thing because of his face. Others were just happy they weren’t in a relationship with anyone like him.

Anyone who has used Twitter in the past four years knows such tactics can only go so far. A far better way to criticize someone is to mock them by getting something trending, showing that the offending person exists in their own secluded world. Enter the hashtag, which started gaining traction on April 9. It appears to have started — or at least blow up — via user @merec0, who first talked about her own bag, which featured a bug design, before sharing it with the hashtag.

Hundreds more joined her over the next few days, sharing photos of their bags, none of which were bank-breaking designer items. Most looked unique, including one resembling a green payphone and another made from a bag of rice. Plenty took the chance to poke fun at Umeki, including Twitter user @fuwante_0x0_, who showed off his or her “Louis Vuitton” — a brown paper bag with the logo markered on.

Aggregator sites around Japan collected the best pictures, offering one-stop spots for people to see a wide variety of bags. Men joined in, launching a similar hashtag, although it never trended or came close to overshadowing the original. Inevitably, brands smelled an opportunity. Corny, yes, but one has to wonder what Umeki started to think when potato chip producer Calbee started to get in on the action.

Not surprisingly, Umeki remained mostly silent following the hashtag’s ascendance, although he wrote a post on the site Note in its wake. Without addressing the hashtag directly, he said he had learned about many new brands and even attempted humor, arguing that lots of people were too sensitive about his idea (“I’m not owned, I’m not owned!!”). He then offered an article doing the same thing, but with men’s wristwatches — if one is willing to pay ¥1,480 for access.

Hashtags have been used as a way to mobilize people for political causes in Japan before, but this bag-centric tag felt different. It felt like a way to strike back at an individual’s elitist notion, but one that also reflects an underlying idea — that women older than 30 are expected to live a specific way — that is still prevalent. This Twitter trend reveled in the sheer diversity of bags women used in Japan, serving as a kiss-off to the notion that they need to own a certain item to prove their worth.