Matthew Carpenter was already hard at work at 4:30 this morning, at his home in Australia, filling the orders pouring in at ShipYourEnemiesGlitter.com. “The house looks like it’s 1975 and Donna Summer has just hit the stage,” he told The Washington Post. The 2016 elections may just be gearing up, but glitterbombing, the most unusual protest tactic of the 2012 cycle, is back with a vengeance.
The sparkly stuff, traditionally associated with fairy godmothers, a much-ridiculed Mariah Carey film, and New Year’s dresses, has found a second, darker use. The "glitterati" gleefully flung the stuff at politicians, to express anger and disdain for their positions on LGBT rights and marriage equality.
ShipYourEnemiesGlitter.com, an Australian-based venture, is trying to strike gold with glitter. The site’s launch—and subsequent crash—on Tuesday means that it hasn’t been able to ship glitter to your enemies quite yet, but, as founder Mathew Carpenter told The Washington Post, “We are a real service, we actually do send glitter to your enemies.”
Glitter is an ingenious tool of protest. Its shimmery sheen carries an innocence and sparkling carefreeness that prompted The New York Times to declare it "a kinder, gentler form of pranksterism." Its association with fanciful things make glitter easy to dismiss as silly, random, even fun. Even the first glitterbomber, Nick Espinosa, believed glitter to be essentially "harmless," as he told news outlets after launching the first glitter attack: "I knew he wasn't going to be hurt by it, but I also knew that it would stick with him and that, you know, for the days to come he'd be remembering what I said as he pulled the glitter sparkles form his hair. And that you know, of course, who doesn't want to see Newt Gingrich covered in glitter?"
One reason why glitterbombs are so effective is that they make their targets look ridiculous. They make an explosive statement, but without hurting their targets. Glitterbombing, in essence, makes a serious point about the status quo without the serious side effects.
But glitter's sparkle disguises its ability to be intensely annoying—it's been derided as "craft herpes" for a reason (“Like the STD herpes, once you have glitter on you, you cannot get rid of it”). Glitter’s—and glitterbombing’s—associations with the gay community and flamboyance have made it a popular tool for protesting stances against marriage equality. What makes it perfect in this context is its symbolism. It's immediately identifiable with the LGBT platform and makes a not-so-subtle statement about what protesters want. Unlike classic protest staples like pie, it can’t easily be wiped away, making glitter an ideal means for LGBT activists to make their point.
The first instance of glitterbombing can be traced to Espinosa, a then-25-year-old activist who took a Cheez-It box of glitter to presidential candidate Newt Gingrich while screaming, "Feel the rainbow, Newt! Stop the hate! Stop anti-gay politics. It's dividing our country, and it's not fixing our economy!"
At least 21 glitter attacks soon followed, their targets overwhelmingly Republican—former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Karl Rove. But even liberals—a group one might think would be exempted from such attacks—were not immune. Dan Savage, the popular and openly gay sex columnist, got showered in pounds of sparkles for his controversial comments regarding transgender people and rape. Savage, for his part, "laughed it off and said that, being gay, he loves glitter."
Its sparkle, though, may hide some real danger. The spate of glitterbombings against Republican candidates had doctors warning the public of glitter's corneal crushing capacity.
"If it gets into the eyes, the best scenario is it can irritate, it can scratch," Dr. Stephen Glasser told The Hill. "Worst scenario is it can actually create a cut. As the person blinks, it moves the glitter across the eye and can actually scratch the cornea." Snort or sniffle and your sinuses could take the shimmery dust and stab it in your lungs.
But Lauren Dyer, manager at Glitterex Corporation, a worldwide supplier of wholesale glitter, doesn’t think ordinary glitter has the capacity to inflict harm. “The stuff kids use in school is plastic,” she explained. When asked if glitter could be ingested or inhaled without harm, Dyer said: “Our glitter is 100 percent safe. Everything is tested.”
That hasn’t stopped those assaulted by glitter from claiming that they’ve experienced pain and danger, which in turn, raises a Constitutional question. Is glitterbombing a protected form of political speech or is it, as former presidential candidate and ex-Governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee argued, "an assault"?
Gingrich and Santorum, the most frequent targets of activists, actually cited glitterbombing to justify their requests for Secret Service details. Gingrich complained to the Times that "glitter-bombing is clearly an assault and should be treated as such." Is he right?
“This is easy: Glitterbombing is not protected by the First Amendment,” Erwin Chemerinsky, a First Amendment law expert at the University of California-Irvine School of Law, told me. “There is no First Amendment right to throw something at a person, whether glitter or anything else.”
Chemerinsky explains that glitter is no different than pie or shoes or any other object thrown at a person’s face. It’s assault. “A person cannot punch another and then say it was just to express anger,” he said. “[It] is a nuisance. There’s no right to throw ashes or paint or glitter or feces at someone else. It would be an assault and there is no First Amendment right to assault another.”
It's too early to tell whether glitter will become even more popular as a tool of protest during the 2016 campaign, or if it will disappear as a historical footnote, a sparkly, curious form of protest associated with the 2012 race. Marriage equality is gaining momentum across the country, though it's not federally mandated and has faced setbacks at various levels.
But newer issues in the LGBT community have come to the forefront, and activists will want their voices heard during the election season. Transgender rights have become a hot-button topic—thanks in no small part to pop-culture phenomena like Orange Is the New Black and Transparent, which snagged a Golden Globe. Given the success they enjoyed with the tactic in 2012, it's hard to believe that activists won't use it again.And with ShipYourEnemiesGlitter.com, a tactic that debuted on the 2012 campaign trail has gone global, expanding the range of potential targets from a small group of American political figures to everyone on the planet.
Ironically, Carpenter, the founder of ShipYourEnemiesGlitter.com, is apparently the victim of his own success. On Wednesday afternoon, he posted a plea to the public to "stop buying this horrible glitter product—I'm sick of dealing with it." But it might be too late: Thousands of orders are in, and we may be in for an ultra-sparkly 2016 election season.