The performance of femme identity online serves both the audience and the performer. As willing participants in ritual surveillance on social media, women online can perform as objects for entertainment while creating avatars for exploring our own powerful subjectivity. Our value in these spaces is derived from the amount we post, our reach with followers, and the potential of continually cultivating social capital. We are conditioned to want to post more, and femme bodies online are used as bait for exploitation. Expected to cater our brand of self to a specific type of sociocultural mirror — with precedents set by the cultural icons we share space with online.
This week I caught myself in an odd and all too familiar action, scrolling through hundreds of old Instagram posts. At the point of realization, I was somewhere in mid-2015. My hair was much longer, and a different color. I was wearing a dress I recently donated to Goodwill. Somehow this was still me, but it felt so foreign and unfamiliar. It was in this instance that I recognized the strange ability to look at myself now in the third person, seeing my public history of self, replay the sequence of image fragments that make up the action of becoming.
Every time I post online feels like that space of becoming. It serves me to share my subjectivity to the archive, but on all social media I know someone is watching. I know that each post will coincide the image with notifications: likes, comments, reblogs, retweets, or shares. There’s a fascination in the surveillance, this is where the becoming splits into an observable phenomenon. My subjective self, my cat photos, the meal I ate, my freshly painted apartment, the artwork of a friend, all of these make up tiny fragments of this becoming, its an action that is never completed. However in being observed, this performance becomes an object for the visual pleasure of others. Born out of empowerment becoming is also entertainment for those who watch.
There is a little part of us that is made more permanent each time we make one of these posts; we are constructing digital objects in an archive. I think about a social media profile like a capsule of persona for a specific moment in time. It’s a construction of imitated affects, points of self discovery, and for some even self-recognition.
To encourage this behavior, we receive notifications that others are interested in our perspectives or our selfies. Those little red notifications are the currency of admiration or solidarity, a motivating factor that keeps us returning to social media. Humans adore validation, so why wouldn’t the action of becoming, normally a very awkward thing, be permanently linked to more likes, follows, and comments. The thing we are desiring is validation, conversation ,and respect from others. But is that really all that is there? It is incredibly easy to get lost in these spaces, to lose who we are in order to best orient our sense of self to the system. “Will this photo get likes?” “Do I look good enough in this selfie?” Or the darker internal dialogues such as “…maybe I should delete this since it has been up for seven hours and only five people reacted?”
These polarities of thought are both motivating and debilitating. For those who identify as women or less binary but femme presenting folks online, it is important to have a distinct recognition of these oppositions, how to stop them from harming us, and how to use them to push us forward into the future. It can be all too easy in these spaces to see ourselves outside of our bodies, to be haunted by a version of ourselves that we feel detached from, or that now feels incredibly foreign.
I recognize the splits and fissures in my sense of self, a different performance on Facebook, another for Twitter. Do I even remember who I was on Myspace? These are the kinds of splits that rather than seeing as negative, instead can be reframed as a space of femme empowerment. Yes, I know this particular shell of self is strange and may not always reflect what is internal, but it speaks to a specific audience that feeds me, and I can look back at each of the different versions and rehash an identity that still grows from them.
When playing a first person video game, often you have the option to play a view in the third person; meaning you get to see the avatar of yourself directly in action, playing out the narrative before you. In a game, your character is both the subject and the object. She is the empowered heroine in a newly minted suit of armor, she follows the storyline through your guidance, and she is, indeed, a version of you. The third person in video games is a space of deep empathy. In games like World of Warcraft you watch as your avatar takes hits, dies before your eyes in battle, then respawns, combats the enemies. In other third person games like The Sims, it shifts to the quotidian as you watch as she reads books, goes on dates, and washes dishes, while living in a home that is a simulation of a space you desire.
Our viewpoints in these social media spaces are heavily influenced by our ideas of desired space. We desire to fit in, we desire to present a version of self that is seemingly authentic, while simultaneously tailored to fit an ideal image in our minds. Women and femmes are coded to respond directly to this behavior.
John Berger in his famous text Ways of Seeing, he discusses female nude in art history, pointing out the dichotomy of constant surveillance in our cultural code.
“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight”
The online spaces we inhabit are tailored to this unending surveillance, they play into it, codify it with algorithms that make us want to continue to post. We want to share the simple parts of our lives, our moments, our subjectivity with others, in feeds that reference the history of our sharing.
In the feed, within the history, is the point of potential freedom. As women/femme presenting bodies we know that it is part of our cultural conditioning to be participants in this system of observation. However, this act of service to others, service in being an image, is also, I would argue, in service to ourselves.
How could this be? How could we serve ourselves by acting for others? Aren’t we simply becoming a more refined digital object? Aren’t we just helping brands more accurately sell us high heeled boots we don’t need, or the curling iron we looked up for a friend? I think we are definitely becoming digital objects, and we are indeed helping late capitalism’s very broken advertising industry mine our data further for profit. The silver lining I find here is twofold. The first is in a balance of surveillance between genders. Both men and women are subject to the same type of image objectification online. While this isn’t nearly as heavily handed for one gender over the other, there is a significant behavior modification that is happening across genders to post photos that are conventionally attractive or reaction provoking. The second is that now, we can experience the archive of our subjective self. Through our own ability to exist in the third person, and surveil our own online presentation of self, this is where we access the ability to serve ourselves in these actions.
Let me explain. Its 11:30, and you’re trying to drift off to sleep. This week has been particularly difficult with your work life, to do lists mounting, hair disheveled, little time for self care to the point where you’re starting to notice breakouts appearing in unsavory places on your face. Your self image is tanking, and so is your sense of self-compassion. “Im worthless, I feel like garbage” is the song your brain decides to sing you to sleep. Instead, you open up your phone, seduced by the blue screen, and you open the app for Instagram. Here you click over to your own profile and begin to scroll. You see a photo from last week where you made dinner for a great friend, a self portrait from the week prior that was you at your best, skin glowing, laying on the lawn. “Who is this person” you might ask yourself. This person is you, in all of your glory and positive radiance, you can look back at yourself now and bask in your past self with the screen glow. “It will all be over soon, then I can lay on the grass and put on a face mask” The third person perspective takes what was in service to others and makes it in service to ourselves.
If we choose to accept that being watched and being surveyed is part of the constant, it’s important to consider what could we do with learning to embrace this panoptic viewpoint of our everyday lives.
“And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman … Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.” - Berger Ways of Seeing
If we think of ourselves like our Sims character, watching successes and failures in admiration from a birds eye view above, there is a potential to truly unpack our own identities that are presented online as opportunities for self love and freedom. After all, we are the ones watching others too. If we survey ourselves, what outcome might we find in the scroll of our past performances of self? I think there is a deep pleasure to be found in how this is a service to ourselves.
In our creation of these avatars, we can scroll through the archive of our posts and see our bodies in the third person. We are figures outside of ourselves to look back at. Through experiencing our narratives on repeat, in the scroll of our profile past, we can take control and perform identity consciously. The online femme self inhabits both subject and object at once. Becoming is now in service to ourselves and those watching.