New Research Finds Dating App Bumble Challenges Some Gender Norms But Reinforces Others

Pamela Connellan
on 1 December 2021

A new study carried out by Monash University has found the Bumble dating app doesn’t empower women as well as it claims, and it hasn’t changed deeply-rooted and old-fashioned power dynamics. Participants in the study did feel the app attracted a ‘better’ cohort of male users, describing them as less sexually aggressive and sending fewer or no unsolicited images compared with other dating apps.

The study, titled: ‘Shifting old-fashioned power dynamics?’: Women’s perspectives on the gender transformational capacity of the dating app, Bumble, was published this month in the journal Feminist Media Studies by honours student Meg Young and Associate Professor Steve Roberts.

The study found that while Bumble claims to shift old-fashioned power dynamics by requiring women to “go first” in conversations with matched men, the extent to which it can shift such dynamics or promote equality is ultimately limited by traditional ideals of femininity and masculinity.

For this research, Young worked with focus groups made up of 28 women aged between 18-37 who had used Bumble. She says: “Participants felt Bumble provided a safe space to challenge gendered expectations, gain confidence to initiate conversations and even appreciate the societal expectations often put on men.”

“It eliminates the stigma attached to women starting conversations with men and provides a safe space for challenging gendered expectations. Perhaps women weren’t comfortable with approaching men on other dating apps or offline, but they found Bumble to be a safe space to do that.

“We found, however, while users appreciated the opportunity to explore non-traditional ways of courtship, there were many instances where gendered norms undermine Bumble’s claims about women’s empowerment,” Young added.

Some women felt comfortable enough to pursue casual sex or a serious relationship

While some women spoke about feeling comfortable enough to pursue and obtain casual sex as well as more serious relationships on Bumble, many were still cognisant of pressures to embody particular ideas of femininity and remain innocent and reserved. Young said: “As one participant put it, she felt she appeared too eager if she had to start the conversation on Bumble.”

Researchers also found that using Bumble meant unlearning gendered norms, gaining confidence, being assertive, and learning to exercise power in new ways. “Despite reporting noticeable benefits, our participants disagreed that Bumble vastly changed the gendered expectations that are deeply rooted in our society. They rejected Bumble’s claim to ‘shift old-fashioned power dynamics’,” added Young.

“Bumble positions empowerment as an individual’s responsibility and as something that can be obtained through using its product. However, empowering women takes more than just women starting the conversation – it is a problem that needs widespread change. Bumble, like so many other brands, uses the narrative of empowerment to sell its product, yet doesn’t seem to be doing much more to actually solve the problem of women’s empowerment,” she added.

Participants were critical of the idea that women initiating conversations with men would empower women. As Young said: “We found Bumble supports a limited version of femininity that involves confidence and assertiveness. While this allows users to move away from traditional expectations of women being innocent or passive, there is a risk they will be restricted in a new way.”

Overall, the research found technological design can, to some extent, challenge existing gendered patterns, yet Bumble’s ability to empower users and promote equality is limited by traditional gendered expectations held in wider society as well as the brand’s individualised messaging around women’s empowerment. Researchers said further research into Bumble was required, particularly around men and masculinities.

To read the study in full, visit here.

For more from Women Love Tech on apps, visit here.

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