This morning, Vox published a lengthy read on the firearm retailers taking over far-right Instagram spaces by using attractive young women to pose with their guns in sponsored posts. As we know, strange communities are rampant on Instagram: off the top of my head, we have InfoWars-branded supplements, luxury pet chicken diapers, vitamin vapes, Instagram witches, and kidfluencers making millions opening toys. Despite this, nothing feels more insidious than the women in American flag bikinis using loopholes in Instagram regulation to sell assault rifles through their social media feeds.
In the Vox profile, writer Kaitlyn Tiffany spoke to several “micro-influencers” like Kimberly Matte, an army wife with 84,000 followers. Others, like Liberte Austin and Lauren Young, have 200,000 followers each. While both sets of women have proportionally smaller followings than your run-of-the-mill Olivia Jade (1.2 million), corporations find such “micro-influencers” useful, as the Verge reported in April, to reach “tight-knit communities that trust their taste.” Tiffany writes:
“It just kind of blew up,” Young says of her account. “I think I fell into [the tactical] niche at the right time before it got oversaturated like it has with the fitness industry, or the Fashion Nova-type industry. I was getting reached out to by companies whose guns I’d shot. I think organically it became a bigger part of my life — more than I expected, for sure.”
Young mentions that she’d previously shot the guns of these various companies before being sponsored by them on Instagram, and it turns out she had joined the Army after high school. In 2016, she told Ballistic Magazine:
Ballistic could be a magazine devoted solely to image, to guns that look cool in studio lighting and do X, Y and Z until they actually hit the range. Every photo could potentially be an attractive somebody holding such a wonder weapon. These magazines exist, and believe us, they do really well on newsstands and online. Even Instagram has become cluttered with models holding new firearms and racking up likes and followers. But as we said, Young is different. She isn’t what’s become known as a “gun bunny.” Far from it. She’s the real McCoy, and that’s why we at Ballistic knew we had to bring her to your attention.
Later, the Ballistic interview reveals that Young toured in Afghanistan; in that piece, she thanked the Army for giving her the chance to shoot “many weapons,” making it hard for her to “pick a favorite” and, at one point, she cited the “terrorists” whose town she invaded at some point in 2012. Several other women in the Vox story say they’re married to retired veterans.
Instagram’s ever-changing regulations only complicate the situation. As Vox points out, companies who sell guns circumvent Facebook’s policies on the advertising of firearms by offloading their marketing to freelance contractors (influencers) who, as un-affiliated parties, are unbound by those same guidelines. These women, or “gun bunnies,” use a cocktail of empowerment feminism and patriotic fervor to whip up sales and gain larger followings. Last year, The Guardian reported on the “defend yourself” movement’s “girl power feminism.” Arwa Mahdawi writes:
This messaging seems to echo the NRA line that guns empower women. After the Pulse massacre in Orlando in 2016, the NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch claimed that calls to ban the AR-15 constituted a “war on women”. Loesch argued that because the AR-15 is the most popular rifle with women, “you’re talking about disarming women”. In the aftermath of this year’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Loesch also defended guns by arguing that arming women would help them defend themselves against sexual assault.
Vox also draws this distinction, mentioning “concealed carry activist” Antonia Okafor selling “Guns rights are women’s rights” merchandise, Tomi Lahren’s concealed carry tights, and Alexo Athletica, which CEO Amy Robbins advertises as a “women friendly” brand. But how do we reckon with corporations and influencers claiming feminism to help gun manufacturers sell weaponry?
From the sheer amount of advertisements populating these “gunfluencers” pages, it’s clear that Instagram has allowed these posts to happen. And while the FTC has cracked down numerous times on posts that violate advertising standards, there’s little that points to any of these posts infringing on the federal guidelines. (In fact, the only mention of the FTC in Vox’s article is a brief musing on the posts’ lack of an #ad disclosure.)
But what about the slow creep of conservative feminism into the realm of tactical weaponry? Amy Robbins, the CEO of Alexo Athletica, even admits that she realized the importance of empowerment messaging in her brand aesthetics after Tomi Lauren captioned a photo of their leggings with: “Live. Speak. Stand. Run. Carry with Confidence.”
It’s not just the natural evolution of social norms influencing the minds of women “gunfluencers,” it’s a co-ordinated tactic by brands to capitalize on the engagement that “girl power” reaps. We’ve long discussed this marketing trend in the realms of fashion and Hollywood, (see Dior’s “We Should All Be Feminist” t-shirt) but how could we not have foreseen a future where firms would be shameless enough to apply the same techniques to an industry that manufactures assault rifles?
For now, it looks like “tactical assault” brands will carry on with their business practice of taking would-be mommy bloggers and former army veterans and transforming them into far-right pinup models. Worse, we can absolutely assume that the conservative base in this country will continue absorbing archaic feminist values, in a last-ditch effort to rebrand for the modern era. Fun!
(Updated 3/3/22 with new details)