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Crying on Camera: “fourth-wave feminism” and the threat of commodification

For Open Space, Sarah Burke writes about fourth-wave feminism, aka “selfie feminism,” which she believes is problematic because of its privileging of white, conventionally attractive, cisgendered female bodies and reliance on corporate social networking platforms such as Instagram. She writes mainly about photographer Petra Collins, and by extension Tavi Gevinson, who Burke sees as problematically propagating this movement. Read Burke in partial below, or the full version via Open Space.

In 2013, a slew of think-pieces introduced what has come to be known as “selfie feminism” into the popular consciousness, arguing that selfies are empowering because they reclaim the male gaze by allowing women to flip their own gaze onto themselves and let it be publicly known that they’re doing so. By explicitly and publicly “feelin’ themselves,” women could work to erode the oppressive notion that female confidence is narcissistic and arrogant; the key to unlocking empowerment, in other words, was online visibility.

Since then, the selfie debate has been ongoing, extending to every realm of the cultural sphere — from Kim Kardashian to Richard Prince. Of the many critiques that quickly followed in its wake, Aria Dean’s “Closing the Loop,” published on The New Inquiry in March, is among the most eloquent. Dean argues that, with help from media platforms like Dazed and i-D, “selfie feminism” has fallen into popular approval and become tailored to normative tastes along the way, now favoring whiteness, slenderness, and all the other qualifications it was initially intended to resist. “Time passed and the selfie’s more general life- and difference-affirming politic — which had previously allowed for a wide variety of non-normative identities to circulate and receive validation on user-driven platforms like Tumblr and Instagram — whittled itself down to its most palatable iteration,” Dean writes. “…this selfie feminism has taken hold of and become the mainstream.”

Meanwhile, algorithms on social media work to ensure that top posts and mainstream tastes mutually mimic each other by further promoting images with the most likes. And what underlies this “like economy” is actual economics — the fact that social media platforms are corporations and users their unpaid content creators.

In a talk given at the 2015 Superscript conference held at the Walker Art Center, The New Inquiry editor-in-chief Ayesha Siddiqi expressed her concern regarding this reality. While acknowledging the importance of the volume and visibility that online platforms afford typically marginalized communities, she also asserted that, for social media corporations, online communities are a commodity and the social movements that rely on them are totally and unavoidably vulnerable to their mediation and surveillance. On Instagram, for example, that often manifests in direct censorship that specifically targets women, literally limiting the visibility of their bodies and confining expression to the company’s terms of use.

That’s why, Siddiqi argues, online visibility does not simply equal power.

*Image: Petra Collins, “So Sad Today” series (2014-16)