Image linked from BulletJournal.com blog.
Bullet Journals as Craft
Since it is largely a written practice, it makes sense to look at bullet journaling through a Writing Studies lens. However, it’s also important to note the visual and artistic components of bullet journaling. While these components are probably not a part of everyone’s bullet journaling practice, many of the bullet journal images shared online tend to be aesthetically striking, utilizing bright colors, illustrations, and brush lettering.
Because of these visual components, it’s helpful to consider bullet journaling as part of craft culture, especially because of the ways in which the practice seems to be gendered. In “Crocheted Strategies: Women Crafting Their Own Communities,” Janis Jefferies offers an overview of the links between feminism and craft culture since the 1970s and how these links are shifting (2016). She notes that first- and second-wave feminists have used domestic, traditionally gendered craftwork “as a statement on domestic roles firmly based within the language of empowerment and enacted through collaborative practice-based work” (Jefferies, 2016, p. 15).
However, Jefferies worries that “40 years of feminist literature is in danger of being erased” as contemporary craft movements are “reconfigured by a neoliberal agenda, which appropriates such nascent movement and renames the activity as evidence of successful encouragement of a ‘creative’ economy built on self-employment” (Jefferies, 2016, p. 26). She also notes that crafting activity can easily become “a re-entrenchment of gendered ideals” when divorced from feminist politics (Jefferies, 2016, p. 27).
While Jefferies is primarily concerned with the textile arts in her overview, bullet journaling seems to very clearly reflect her concerns about neoliberal ideologies reshaping craft practices. Bullet journalers are taking very old forms of art—calligraphy and drawing—and using them in service of personal productivity and social media clout-building. Additionally, bullet journaling may be re-entrenching gendered ideals of women as ultra-capable household managers who work to maintain lovely homes, families of happy children, personal health and attractiveness, along with professional careers. (This tendency can especially be seen in blogs written by and for at stay-at-home mothers.)
However, just because bullet journaling may be breaking from a feminist tradition of crafting for political resistance doesn’t mean that it’s not a worthwhile practice for women. Sinikka Pollanen and Laura Voutilainen have studied the effects of crafting and taking part in online craft communities on stay-at-home mothers in Finland (2017). Pollanen & Voutilainen note that previous research has shown that participating in self-chosen crafting activities can lead to improvements in subjective well-being and one’s sense of self (2017). To learn more about what crafting meant to stay-at-home mothers, the researchers solicited written narratives about crafting from a group of women taking part in a Facebook-based craft community (Pöllänen & Voutilainen, 2017). The researchers found that these women’s intentions included “crafting as an escape from one’s daily routine and worries, crafting as a way to enjoy one’s family-centric life, and crafting as a means to enhance self-realization” (Pollanen & Voutilainen, 2017, p. 6). Perhaps bullet journaling provides similar personal benefits for its users; taking the time to richly embellish spreads may offer bullet journalers a mental break from more onerous forms of work, a way to celebrate one’s daily life, and a way to express an artistic identity that isn’t otherwise given an outlet.
Whether the artistic aspect of bullet journaling is feminist or anti-feminist, and whether its users find it therapeutic or not, what is clear is that crafting can reflect a complex array of meanings for its complex array of practitioners. Rosemary Sallee explores this multiplicity in her 2016 American Studies dissertation “Femmage and the DIY Movement: Feminism, Crafty Women, and the Politics of Gender Performance.” Sallee engaged with multiple crafting communities through interviews and ethnographic participation, as well as through examining artifacts such as how-to videos, handmade objects, social media posts, and more (2016).
Sallee argues that “crafts, like any other art forms, have always incorporated and responded to the popular culture, economic atmosphere and political sentiments of the creators’ times” (2016, p. 11). Subsequently, she situates contemporary crafting within the broader DIY movement and alongside the slow food movement, suggesting that crafting works to resist capitalism while also empowering crafters (Sallee, 2016). However, she also notes that crafting is “also a mark of a leisure society; not everyone has the time and finances to cope with stress and alienation through leisure activities such as crafting” (Sallee, 2016, p. 13); consequently, class is returned to repeatedly in Sallee’s work (2016).
Sallee ultimately concludes that crafting serves complex and often contradictory purposes for its practitioners. She notes that “women’s crafting reinforces their autonomy and agency while at the same time embracing and reproducing dominant narratives” (2016, p. 179). But she also finds that whatever ideologies women’s crafting upholds, crafting practice is frequently depicted in strong emotional terms (Sallee, 2016). Crafters produced new work “in response to stress, sorrow, or cataclysm,” and crafters often
“referred to their work in terms of addiction, obsession, or compulsion; they also consistently reported that crafting was a necessity, if not a strictly economic one, then a way to claim personal time and comfort in the face of the demands of career, family, and society.” (Sallee, 2016, p. 181)
It’s likely that further study of bullet journals will reveal similar contradictions within groups of its practitioners, or even within individual practitioners. As the work of Sallee shows, it’s possible that bullet journals offer both empowerment and capitalist exploitation, feminist freedoms and a reification of sexist tropes, escapism and deeply meaningful self-fashioning, all within one small notebook.
Jefferies, J. (2016). "Crocheted Strategies: Women Crafting their Own Communities." Textile: Cloth and Culture, 14(1), 14–35. https://doi.org/10.1080/14759756.2016.1142788.
Pöllänen, S., & Voutilainen, L. (2017). "Crafting Well-Being: Meanings and Intentions of Stay-at-Home Mothers’ Craft-Based Leisure Activity." Leisure Sciences: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 0(0), 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1080/01490400.2017.1325801.
Sallee, R. L. (2016). FEMMAGE AND THE DIY MOVEMENT: FEMINISM, CRAFTY WOMEN, AND THE POLITICS OF GENDER PERFORMANCE. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.proxy2.library.illinois.edu/docview/1836799186/89498BB0C319457CPQ/3?accountid=14553.