Exploring Disabled Girls’ Self-representational Practices Online

in Girlhood Studies
Author: Sarah Hill 1
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  • 1 University of East Anglia sarahhill02@outlook.com

ABSTRACT

Recently, the field of girlhood studies has witnessed a growing body of research into girls’ self-representation practices, but disabled girls are largely absent from this work. In this article, I intervene in this area by asserting the need to explore how disabled girls represent themselves online in order to consider the intersections between girlhood and disability. I attempt to move away from discourses of risk that circulate around girls’ digital self-representation practices by demonstrating how these practices provide disabled girls with visibility in a postfeminist mediascape that renders them invisible, and also act as a form of social advocacy and awareness raising. I then explore how disabled girls represent themselves online in a postfeminist cultural landscape through a case study of a severely sight-impaired blogger, looking at how they must be seen as both motivated and motivational.

A growing body of work in girls’ media studies, with which this article is aligned, addresses girls as active users and producers in the digital media landscape (Holmes 2017; Kearney 2011; Keller 2015; Shields Dobson 2015) and seeks to subvert the dominant risk discourses that deem girls’ self-representation practices to be trivial at best and dangerous at worst (Shields Dobson 2015; Tiidenberg and Gomez 2015). However, this article intervenes further into this work by specifically exploring disabled girls’ digital self-representation practices since disabled girls are largely absent from existing research in this area.1 In her article “Trumping All? Disability and Girlhood Studies,” Deborah Stienstra (2015) calls for the removal of the “trump card of disability and [shows that we need to] see girls with disabilities as an integral part of girl and girlhood studies.” Stienstra argues that disability is often framed as a problem or lack, and that experiences of disability for girls appear to trump or silence other experiences, such as those of sex and gender, and the intersections that exist between these. She notes that we “know little about how girls with disabilities see themselves … We know little about the intersections of being … a girl, and disabled” (2015: 54). Indeed, this article explores further some of the intersections between girlhood and disability through its examination of disabled girls’ digital self-representation practices. In doing so, I draw on a body of work that explores girls’ self-representation practices in relation to discourses of visibility, selfhood, and surveillance while also exploring the intersection between girls’ media studies, disability studies, and feminist work on the body. Exploring the intersections between disability and girlhood is crucial because, as feminist disability studies informs us, incorporating disability into explorations of gender helps us to further understand the relationship between identity and embodiment, and the environments in which we live (Lindgren 2001) given that disability is often an invisible identity category. All too often, work that explores constructions or representations of gender fails to include disability as an intersectional identity category alongside class and race; this is indicative of how disability has traditionally remained outside of questions of discourse and explorations of popular culture (Ellis 2015).

In exploring disabled girls’ self-representation practices online, I have two aims. First, I want to subvert the commonly held notion that, as Laurel Hart and Claudia Mitchell (2015) point out, girls’ self-representation practices are risky and trivial by situating these practices as part of what Joseph Bock (2012) terms technologies of nonviolence. I argue that, far from being trivial, disabled girls’ self-representation practices are often intended to advocate for and raise awareness of disability while providing them with a much-needed voice and visibility in a popular media landscape that typically renders them invisible. Second, this article interrogates the role of the disabled girl within what Jessica Ringrose terms a “postfeminist mediascape” (2013: 13). To that end, in the first part of this article I situate this research within existing work on girls’ self-representation practices, and on girlhood and disability in popular culture. In the second part, I begin to explore disabled girls’ digital self-representation practices. Through a case study analysis of a disabled girl blogger who is severely sight impaired, I argue that disabled girls must negotiate contemporary postfeminist femininity within their self-representation practices by presenting themselves as subjects who are both motivated and able to motivate others.

Postfeminist Girlhood and Self-representation in Digital Media Culture

Any examination of contemporary girls’ self-representation practices takes place within a cultural landscape defined as postfeminist (Banet-Weiser 2012; Gill 2007; Harris 2004; Keller 2015; McRobbie 2004, 2007, 2009; Shields Dobson 2015; Tasker and Negra 2007). I use the term postfeminism in line with Angela McRobbie (2009) and Rosalind Gill (2007), who theorize postfeminism from a UK perspective and define it as a “double entanglement” of feminist and antifeminist ideas. In this “double entanglement,” elements of feminism have been “taken, and absolutely incorporated into [Western] political and institutional life,” and a vocabulary of words like choice and empowered is then employed and “converted into an individualistic discourse” that is used as a “substitute for feminism” (McRobbie 2009: 1). While the scope of this article prevents me from offering a detailed discussion of postfeminism, it is worth outlining some of its key characteristics. As Gill (2007) explains, one of the defining characteristics of postfeminism is a preoccupation with the body. In today’s media, Gill argues, “Possession of a ‘sexy body’ is presented as women’s key (if not sole) source of identity” (149), a body that is both a source of power and in constant need of monitoring and regulating. Other characteristics of postfeminism include “the shift from objectification to subjectification; an emphasis upon self-surveillance, monitoring and self-discipline; [and] a focus on individualism, choice and empowerment” (147). Moreover, in a postfeminist mediascape, women must be young women, and various scholars of girlhood have discussed how the figure of the girl emerged from the 1990s onward as an image of change and crisis, and how the idea of what it means to succeed or lose out in these neoliberal times is inextricably linked to girlhood (Driscoll 2002; Harris 2004; McRobbie 2009). As Rosalind Gill and Christina Scharff note, the “autonomous, self-calculating, self-regulating subject of neoliberalism bears a strong resemblance to the active, freely choosing, self-reinventing subject of postfeminism” (2011: 7). This has resulted in the increased visibility of girls in contemporary Western media culture, leading Sarah Projansky to declare that twenty-first-century media culture is “obsess[ed] with girls” (2014: 95).

Although contemporary media culture is overwhelmingly preoccupied with girls, the parameters of what constitutes so-called acceptable girlhood in postfeminist culture are very narrow—white, heterosexual, middle-class, and able-bodied (Projansky 2014). Postfeminist girlhood can be articulated through the term girl power, a “sexy, brash, individualistic expression of power, ambition and success” (Harris 2004: 16). Therefore, girls are expected to be sexy (but not overly sexy),2 confident, independent, and active participators who set and achieve goals. Girl power, then, renders racial, classed, and disabled identities invisible. As Nirmala Everelles and Kagendo Mutua state, disabled girlhood challenges the heteronormativity that is present within notions of girl power that “rest[s] heavily on ableist ideologies of independence, assertiveness and strength, laced with patriarchal notions of beauty and attractiveness. Girl Power, thus defined, leaves neither material nor discursive spaces for differentially constituted disabled girlhood” (2005: 254). This lack of space for disabled girlhood within a postfeminist mediascape reinforces Stienstra’s (2015) assertion that in examinations of disabled girlhood, disability trumps gender and we must therefore explore disabled girlhood as part of a range of diverse girls, rather than as presenting them as out of the ordinary or as a problem that must be overcome. With this in mind, I explore disabled girls’ self-representation practices online, paying particular attention to how they negotiate the postfeminist media culture in which these self-representations are produced and distributed, but from which they are largely absent.

Postfeminist girlhood increasingly calls on these seemingly confident girls to “make their private selves and ‘authentic’ voices highly visible in public” (Harris 2004: 125), and as such, girls and young women are particularly prominent creators of, and participants in, socially mediated online content such as blogs and social networking sites. Moreover, they are encouraged to “brand” (Banet-Weiser 2012: 56) their self-representations in line with postfeminist femininity (Shields Dobson 2015). This emphasis on self-branding, along with other contemporary ideals such as individualism and self-monitoring, provides the context for understanding the increase in gendered social media production over the past decade, which takes place in the typically feminine domains of fashion, beauty, and craft. This includes fashion blogs and selfies,3 makeup tutorial videos, and sites dedicated to the making and purchasing of crafts and homemade goods (Duffy and Hund 2015).

However, although girls and young women are prominent participators in digital cultural production, their social networking and digital self-representation practices are often treated with disdain. Self-representation is a “contemporary phenomenon that is intimately intertwined with digital media culture” and is a “condition of participation in Web 2.0” (Thurmin 2012: 3, 17). A key distinction between representation and self-representation is that the latter appears less mediated and more agentic than forms of the former; it implies that mediators have been removed because the person is representing themselves. However, this is not the case; self-representation practices are still subject to processes of mediation according to the contexts in which they are created, displayed, and distributed (Senft and Baym 2015; Thurmin 2012). In her analysis of the online commentary surrounding selfies, Anne Burns argues that “selfies have a regulatory social function in that there is a connection between the discursive construction of selfie practice and the negative perception of selfie takers” that reflects “contemporary norms and anxieties, particularly relating to the behaviour of women.” She claims this discursively produced knowledge “maintains gendered power relations by perpetuating negative stereotypes that legitimize the discipline of women’s behaviours and identities” (2015: 1716). Such stereotypes include narcissism, vanity, and sexual impropriety. For Burns, “instead of being a positive tool for self-exploration and for mediating a position relative to one’s peers, photographic self-expression (particularly by women) is reframed as a matter of petty and squalid attention-grabbing” (1723). Katrin Tiidenburg and Edgar Gomez Cruz similarly argue, “Posting or exchanging selfies is seen as frivolous and self-absorbed, but the relationship between subjectivity, practice and social use of those images seems to be more complex than this dismissal allows” (2015: 2).

As all this argues, there is clearly a need to look beyond gendered discursive constructions of the selfie that position it as a vain, narcissistic, and trivial practice. I claim that this is particularly important in relation to disabled girls and young women who are largely absent from discussions of digital self-representation practices, just as they are underrepresented in the broader globalized mediascape of the twenty-first century. As will become apparent in the next section of this article, disabled girls’ online self-representation practices, such as producing selfies and other forms of self-representation, enable them to gain visibility in a distinctly heteronormative and ableist mediascape and also allows them to engage in a form of advocacy through challenging stereotypes and ideas about disability. As Theresa Senft and Nancy Bayn assert, “Any time anyone uses a selfie to take a stand against racist, classist, misogynist, ageist or ableist views, issues of political power are clearly at stake” (2015: 1597).

Karolyn Gehrig’s #Hospitalglam series is one such example of selfie production that is informed by a “politics of visibility” (Tembeck 2016: 8). #Hospitalglam was launched in 2014 and can be found on the microblogging site Tumblr, as well as on Gehrig’s own Instagram account. As part of the project, Gehrig uses selfies to explore the relationship between “illness and representation in everyday life, shedding light on the personal and political stakes of making ill health visible online” (3). As Susan Wendell (2016: 160) observes, disability studies scholars have frequently highlighted how the “relationship between illness and disability is a problematic one.” As she notes, disability activists and scholars have worked hard to promote the social model of disability, one in which, as Katie Ellis and Mike Kent (2011) point out, disability occurs as a result of ableist social barriers. The identification of illness with disability further “contributes to the medicalization of disability in which disability is regarded as individual misfortune” (Wendell 2016: 160). In this article, I am primarily concerned with exploring the self-representation practices of girls who live with disability rather than chronic illness, but the #Hospitalglam project is a useful example of how social media can be used to explore visibility politics and act as a form of advocacy. The visibility politics that play out in Gherig’s #Hospitalglam project are also gendered in a number of ways. First, women are statistically more likely than men to be disabled by chronic illness (Wendell 2016), which reinforces the need for a project such as Gehrig’s. Second, Gehrig’s work continually emulates the generic conventions of fashion magazines that have a typically feminine mode of address. Her work is characterized by the production of glamorous selfies in a medical environment, such as a hospital treatment room, with medical equipment on display. The aesthetics are reminiscent of glossy fashion magazine spreads with Gehrig adopting a model-like pose, while in other photos she stares directly into the camera in a manner more commonly associated with the selfie.

In copying the aesthetics of fashion magazines that are so often dismissed as trivial, Gehrig’s self-representation practices are performing on a number of levels: she is making her illness visible on a personal level by drawing attention to it when it is not always obvious, while, on a broader level, she is asking questions about how we perceive illness and what it means to look disabled. In addition, the images function as a form of advocacy as Gehrig (2014) reminds Tumblr users of the importance of self-care and how “controlling how you look when you can’t control much else, photographing yourself, and seeking support are all part of that.” Indeed, #Hospitalglam has developed into a community of people, mostly young women, who post their own selfies under the #Hospitalglam and support each other through their lived experiences of chronic illness and disability. It has been noted that platforms that characterize Web 2.0, such as social networking sites like Twitter and video-and image-sharing sites such as Tumblr and YouTube, provide people with disabilities with a new voice and enable them to create more connected communities that provide exposure to political issues surrounding disability that have typically be deemed personal, and #Hospitalglam can certainly be viewed as part of this work (Ellis and Kent 2011).

Gehrig’s work raises interesting questions, not only about what it means to look disabled, but also about which disabled or chronically ill people are encouraged to come forward and be visible in the contemporary mediascape. David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder refer to this embracing of certain types of disabled bodies as “neoliberal inclusionism” that is “specifically associated with disabled bodies operative in the policy world of neoliberalism” (2015: 2, 4). Here a “formerly stigmatized” (2) group, such as those labeled disabled, are made newly visible through the adoption of various diversity-based practices in areas such as education and employment on condition that they can appropriate “historically specific expectations of normalcy” (4) based around ideals of able-bodiedness, rationality, and heteronormativity. Inclusionism, therefore, requires that disability be tolerated as long as it does not require an excessive amount of change in the largely inflexibly institutions and normative modes of belonging. Disabled people are expected to “fit in” by “passing as nondisabled, or at the very least not too disabled” (15). Mitchell and Snyder refer to those disabled people who are “paradoxically” able to gain entrance into neoliberal culture as the “able-disabled.” These people “exceed their disability limitations through forms of administrative ‘creaming’ or hyper-prostheticization but leave the vast majority of disabled people behind” (12). This idea that neoliberal inclusionism offers a “grudging recognition” of those disabled people who can most easily “pass” (2) as able-bodied is reminiscent of neoliberal postfeminism supposedly enabling girls and young women to “come forward” (McRobbie, 2009: 54) and participate in Western political and institutional life as long as they conform to an acceptable version of girlhood that is white, heterosexual, thin, and able-bodied.

In the remainder of this article, I explore how disabled girls present themselves online and how they negotiate this postfeminist mediascape. I argue that while these digital self-representation practices provide disabled girls with much-needed visibility that is neither trivial nor risky, this visibility is granted largely on the conditions of “neoliberal inclusionism” and the ability to “fit in” (Mitchell and Snyder 2015: 15). More specifically, these disabled girls must present themselves as both motivated and motivational subjects.

Method

This research explores how disabled girls present themselves online.4 In using the term disabled, I do so in alignment with the social model of disability. This model claims that a “limitation in a person’s physical or mental functioning becomes a disability because of the impact of prevailing ableist social structures” (Ellis and Kent 2011: 3). While the social model of disability is useful in that it situates disability in a cultural and political position in a way similar to other binary distinctions rather than presenting disability as a problem that the individual must overcome, I am aware that it has its limitations, particularly from a feminist perspective. As Rachel Reinke and Anastasia Todd state, “We know that disability is much more complicated and the social model can elide the messy, fleshy, nuanced texture of disabled people’s lives” (2016: 99). Although I include a range of impairments under the term disability, in no way do I wish to universalize disability, since each disabled individual will have a different lived experience of this. Given the limited scope of this article, I have chosen to center my analysis on a case study of one particular disabled girl blogger who exemplifies these key themes. Hannah5 is a 22-year-old UK-based fashion, beauty, and lifestyle blogger who is severely sight impaired. In referring to Hannah as a girl, I am acknowledging that she identifies as a girl,6 as well as highlighting how the category of girlhood is increasingly expanding. As Anita Harris notes, although the term “girlhood” problematically implies a “natural, fixed state of being for that category” (2004: 191), nowadays, the category of girl in the contemporary mediascape extends to include the tween-age girl who is between 9 and 14 as well as older women in their 30s and 40s who are often referred to as girls.

As is typical of lifestyle bloggers, Hannah is active over numerous interlinked digital platforms, maintaining a blog and a YouTube channel as well as social media accounts such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. While I will refer to outputs on these platforms in order to provide contextual information, I need to limit my analysis here to Hannah’s Instagram posts from January to November 2016, which are presented under the same brand name as her blog. Since bloggers post numerous photos on Instagram every week, I felt I had reached data saturation at this point. I offer textual analysis to explore how Hannah’s Instagram posts, which include photos and accompanying captions, illustrate some of the key ways in which disabled girls construct their self-representations online and how they negotiate the postfeminist visual culture in which these self-representations are produced.

Makeup and Motivation

As Brooke Duffy and Emily Hund note, the past decade has “witnessed a proliferation of socially mediated cultures of creative production located in the traditionally feminine domains of fashion, beauty, parenting, and craft.” Of these, they argue, fashion blogging is “one of the most commercially successful and publicly visible forms of digital cultural production” (2015: 1). However, disabled women and girls are typically absent from existing research in this area. In their research into self-branding among mainstream fashion bloggers, Duffy and Hund argue that the bloggers they studied “performed visibility according to scripts that made them simultaneously relatable and aspirational” (7). Here I demonstrate that disabled girl bloggers gain visibility through presenting themselves as being motivated and wishing to motivate others.

Hannah’s self-branding as a disabled fashion and beauty blogger is indicative of the importance placed on beauty and the presentation of heterosexual femininity in postfeminist culture as part of what McRobbie terms the “postfeminist masquerade” (2009: 7).7 Typically, disabled people have been positioned outside discourses of beauty because they have been thought of as being unwilling and/or unable to ascribe to cultural standards of beauty (Ellis 2015). Earlier work on gender and disability has described how female disabled bodies can be viewed and experienced as “doubly corporeal, doubly devalued, and … doubly shameful” (Lindgren 2001: 147), so disabled women are not subject to the same social expectations to conform to the cultural standard of beauty as are able-bodied women. Hannah draws attention to this in her creative productions. For example, in a YouTube video themed around the awkward and inappropriate comments people address to her, Hannah talks about how she is regularly told, “You don’t look blind,” and asked, “How can you put makeup on if you can’t see?” She then goes on to explain how these comments are both offensive and incorrect.

However, as Katie Ellis (2015) notes, recent work in disability studies has begun to focus on the importance of discourses of beauty and the inclusion of disability in them. This is particularly important when we are exploring disabled girls’ self-representation practices online, because to ignore discourses of beauty in relation to disabled girls and young women fails to take into account that they are producing themselves in a postfeminist cultural landscape that greatly emphasizes adhering to cultural and gender norms through beauty practices; beauty is therefore part of their lived experiences. Thus, to exclude disabled girls and young women from discourses of beauty may serve to provide another site of what Ellis terms “cultural disablement” (2015: 55). This exclusion from discourses of beauty is acknowledged here through the reframing of beauty as a form of advocacy that is beneficial to other disabled girls. For example, Hannah writes on her blog that her motivation for starting her blog arose as a way of responding to the aforementioned inappropriate questions with the aim of challenging some of the myths that surround sight loss and visual impairment. She asserts that she wants to challenge these perceptions through her passion for fashion, beauty, and style and to make fashion more accessible and inclusive. This sense of advocacy is also evident in posts in which Hannah discusses her work with charities and other organizations on raising awareness of sight impairment and accessibility.

In many ways, Hannah’s Instagram feed, like those of other disabled girl bloggers, is reminiscent of the Instagram feeds of well-known able-bodied lifestyle bloggers, and it conforms to the codes and conventions of lifestyle blogs and self-representation genres. This includes closeup photos of collections of beauty products (known as hauls), seasonal outdoor scenes, and selfies taken in a mirror. Photos are also often filtered or lit with high key lighting. Typically, selfies are used to showcase makeup designs that are linked to YouTube tutorials, and they are captioned with a list of the products used. As Valerie Gannon and Andrea Prothero note, these “beauty selfie sub-types” carry “specific meanings for bloggers—of teaching, sharing, sincerity and authenticity—and are intertwined with significant life stories” (2016: 1865). The use of selfies for teaching is, on the one hand, in line with fashion and beauty blogging conventions, whereby selfies are used to teach followers how to recreate various makeup designs. On the other hand, here teaching is also linked to disability advocacy as demonstrated by Hannah’s desire to help other visually impaired girls by providing them with the skills and knowledge to create their own style. Moreover, for disabled girl bloggers like Hannah, this teaching is framed through motivational discourses that become more overt whenever aspects of her sight impairment are particularly apparent. For example, in one post Hannah is photographed sitting next to her guide dog. In the accompanying caption, she encourages followers to think positively in order to achieve their goals, and it is implied that this something she also does. Hannah’s self-representation practices indicate a parallel subject position: she is motivated, striving to achieve her goals in accordance with postfeminist can-do girlhood, and, at the same time, she is motivational.

Hannah’s status as a motivational subject is also tied in with notions of authenticity which is a key discourse surrounding fashion, beauty, and lifestyle blogging, as well as girls’ self-representation practices more broadly (Gannon and Prothero 2016). As Duffy and Hund note, bloggers share elements of their personal lives and “let their guard down,” seemingly in an attempt to depict themselves as “authentic” (2015: 7). According to Sarah Banet-Weiser, authenticity is part of the “moral framework” of self-branding and is based on traditional notions of authenticity as being open and transparent, without artifice. Authenticity, she argues, is not only viewed as “residing inside the self but is also demonstrated by allowing the outside world to access one’s inner self” (2012: 60). These discourses of authenticity, such as being true to and believing in oneself, occur most often in posts in which disability or impairment is most visible, such as in Hannah’s photo described above. This link between authenticity and disability is reinforced through the act of sharing information about their disability of which nondisabled audiences may not be aware. For example, Hannah invites followers to contact her through her Instagram feed in order to ask her questions about anything they would like to know about her, including questions about her sight impairment, which she will then answer via a YouTube video. As Duffy and Hund (2015: 3) state, the idea that bloggers must present themselves as authentic relies on their “emotional labor,” which, for Hochschild (1983: 7), “requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others.” Duffy and Hund (2015: 3) note how emotional labor is gendered as part of women’s work that has a long history of being “undervalued and underpaid.” In the case of disabled girl bloggers, this emotional labor is seemingly heightened since it is not only gendered but also intertwined with their identity as disabled girls who are also required to respond to, and sometimes challenge, people’s notions of disability. This is framed as awareness raising in accordance with their position as motivational subjects.

Inviting and answering questions creates opportunities for the kind of awareness raising and advocacy that Hannah outlines in her blog through educating those who are not disabled. Potentially, it could also allow those who may live with a similar disability to share their experiences and create a community in a manner similar to the #Hospitalglam project that uses the rhetoric of lifestyle blogs for the “benefit of patient empowerment” (Tembeck 2016: 6). Thus, these self-representation practices evoke Bock’s (2012) concept of technologies of nonviolence in that their digital practices demonstrate the potential these technologies offer for advocacy, raising awareness, and prompting social action. However, the fact that self-representation practices such as Hannah’s are constructed through the normative aesthetics of fashion and beauty blogging also complicates this idea of awareness raising because this would not be immediately obvious to users who are quickly scrolling through images in their feed. This suggests that awareness raising must be made more palatable, particularly for able-bodied audiences, but this also shores up able-bodied hegemony through neoliberal inclusionism that, as mentioned, requires that disability be tolerated as long as it does not “demand an excessive degree of change” and that the disabled person has the ability to fit in, as mentioned, and not appear too disabled. Neoliberal inclusionism also enables the “embrace of some forms of difference through making them unapparent” (Mitchell and Snyder 2015: 4). Therefore, any awareness raising is rendered acceptable when it is contained within the recognized aesthetics of girls’ self-representation practices because these visual codes work to make the intention behind the posts less apparent and the disabled body within them more normative.

In their simultaneous position as motivated and motivational subjects, disabled girl bloggers such as Hannah appear to invoke aspects of the “supercrip” discourse that is widely used in disability studies through which a disabled person is represented as inspirational, and individual attitude, perseverance, and determination are presented as a means of “overcoming” (Schalk 2016: 73) disability. However, as Sami Schalk argues, the term supercrip has become something of a catchall term that encompasses a wide variety of representations of disability. Moreover, analyses of the supercrip discourse often “dismiss the possibility of finding positive aspects of representation” (71) or assume that these representations are unhelpful to disabled people, leading Schalk to call for a more nuanced approach to supercrip representations. Schalk also proposes that it is necessary to consider the genre and medium contexts of supercrip representations. With this in mind, it may be more useful to consider self-representations of disability as different from other supercrip narratives, which are typically discussed in relation to media representations. Therefore, the use of motivated and motivational subjects, I argue, helps to better explore the nuances, complexities, and ambivalences within the self-representational practices of disabled girls as my analysis has demonstrated. Additionally, when we are analyzing girls’ self-representation practices, it is important to take into account the generic context in which these self-representations are being produced (Cheyne 2013). Although the fact that the girls’ self-representation practices are constructed in line with the normative aesthetics of self-representation genres potentially obscures their awareness raising function, it is equally important to recognize that they are working within the “generic limits” (Schalk 2013: 82) of socially mediated digital production as they create and distribute their digital self-representations within a postfeminist mediascape.

Conclusion

In summary, in this article I hope to have contributed to a growing body of work on girls’ self-representation practices. I have intervened in this area by asserting the need to explore the self-representation practices of disabled girls that are largely absent from existing work. We need to move away from the discourses of risk that have tended to dominate discussions of girls’ self-representation practices by demonstrating how engaging in these on social networking sites provides disabled girls with much needed visibility in a cultural landscape that typically renders them invisible.

Through my analysis, I have demonstrated that disabled girls’ self-representation practices position them as both motivated and motivational subjects. In doing so, they tend to shore up discourses of can-do girlhood (Harris 2004) through the premise of neoliberal inclusionism that embraces disability on the condition that it is not too apparent. Furthermore, while socially mediated productions provide opportunities for disability advocacy and awareness raising in line with the notion of technologies of nonviolence, this is made more palatable through their integration into the normative aesthetics of self-representation genres. Although this leaves little room for alternative embodiments of disabled girlhood, I do not wish to undermine the important awareness raising work that girls like Hannah do, and we must acknowledge that they are performing their visibility within the constraints of the genre in a postfeminist mediascape that is significantly ableist and heteronormative. In exploring disabled girls’ digital self-representation practices in this article, I have highlighted some of the ambivalences, contradictions, and complexities in disabled girls’ social media production that make this a rich area of study. It is crucial that we continue to view disabled girls, and their media production, as a significant part of girlhood studies.

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank the anonymous peer reviewers for providing such thoughtful and helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article.

Notes
1

I have chosen to use the term disabled girls rather than girls with disabilities because the phrase person with disability suggests a “‘normative’ resemblance that we can attain if we achieve the status of being deemed ‘people first’ (with the emphasis on independence and extreme liberal individualism) in the eyes of an ableist society” (Overboe 1999: 24; see also Todd 2016).

2

While postfeminist girls are celebrated for being more confident and resilient than previous modes of femininity have required, this has given rise to fears and anxieties that Jessica Ringrose terms “postfeminist panics.” These panics include concern over the sexualization of girls and the idea that it is “too much too young” and concern over “mean girl” behavior, often evident in discussions on cyberbullying, which is deemed a consequence of girl power being taken “too far” (2013: 5).

3

A selfie is a self-portrait taken at arm’s length. Its prevalence in popular culture is demonstrated by its status as Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year in 2013 (Tiidenburg and Gomez Cruz 2015).

4

The research presented in this article forms part of the initial findings of what will become a wider research project into disabled girls’ self-representation practices online. The arguments presented here highlight some of the key recurring themes that have emerged during the research process thus far.

5

Names have been changed. I have chosen not to identify this blogger correctly because although the blogs, Instagram posts, and YouTube videos I analyze here are readily available on the Internet, they were not produced for the purposes of academic analysis.

6

Hannah refers to herself as a “girlie girl.” This not only indicates that she identifies as a girl, but the use of the word “girlie” is associated with the playful girlishness of postfeminist femininity (McRobbie 2009).

7

Postfeminism’s emphasis on choice means that women can choose to adopt an “openly fictive” (McRobbie 2009: 63) mask of womanliness that displays traditional markers of femininity, such as makeup and other beauty routines and reframe them as freely chosen. The postfeminist emphasis on choice means that women no longer seek male approval, so the fashion and beauty industries emerge as an authoritative regime that reinstates self-imposed feminine cultural practices as the norm.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gill, Rosalind, and Christina Scharff. 2011. “Introduction.” In New Femininities: Postfeminism, Neoliberalism and Subjectivity, ed. Rosalind Gill and Christina Scharff, 119. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Harris, Anita. 2004. Future Girls Young Women in the Twenty-First Century. London: Routledge.

  • Hart, Laurel, and Claudia Mitchell. 2015. “From Spaces of Gender-based Violence to Sites of Networked Resistance: Reimagining Social Media Technologies.” Perspectives in Education 33 (4): 135150.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 1983. The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Holmes, Su. 2017. “‘My Anorexia Story’: Girls Constructing Narratives of Identity on YouTube.” Cultural Studies 31 (1): 123. doi:10.1080/09502386.2016.1138978.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kearney, Mary Celeste. 2011. Mediating Girlhoods: New Explorations of Girls’ Media Culture. New York: Peter Lang.

  • Keller, Jessalynn. 2015. Girls’ Feminist Blogging in a Postfeminist Age. London: Routledge.

  • Lindgren, Kristen. 2001. “Bodies in Trouble: Identity, Embodiment and Disability.” In Gendering Disability, ed. Bonnie G. Smith, and Beth Hutchinson, 145165. London: Rutgers University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • McRobbie, Angela. 2004. “Post-feminism and Popular Culture.” Feminist Media Studies 4 (3): 255264.

  • McRobbie, Angela. 2007. “Top Girls.” Cultural Studies 21 (4–5): 718737.

  • McRobbie, Angela. 2009. The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change. London: SAGE Publications.

  • Mitchell, David T., with Sharon L. Snyder. 2015. The Biopolitics of Disability: Neoliberalism, Ablenationalism and Peripheral Embodiment. Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Overboe, James. 1999. “Difference in Itself: Validating Disabled People’s Lived Experience.” Body and Society 5 (4): 1729.

  • Projansky, Sarah. 2014. Spectacular Girls: Media Fascination and Celebrity Culture. London: New York University Press.

  • Reinke, Rachel, and Anastasia Todd. 2016. ‘“Cute Girl in Wheelchair—Why?’ Cripping YouTube.” Transformations: The Journal of Inclusive Pedagogy 25 (2): 93103.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ringrose, Jessica. 2013. Postfeminist Education? Girls and the Sexual Politics of Schooling. London: Routledge.

  • Schalk, Sami. 2016. “Reevaluating the Supercrip.” Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies 10 (1): 7186.

  • Senft, Theresa M., and Nancy K. Baym. 2015. “What Does the Selfie Say? Investigating a Global Phenomenon.” International Journal of Communication 9: 15881606.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Shields Dobson, Amy. 2015. Postfeminist Digital Culture: Femininity, Social Media, and Self-Representation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Stienstra, Deborah. 2015. “Trumping All? Disability and Girlhood Studies.” Girlhood Studies 8 (2): 5470.

  • Tasker, Yvonne, and Diane Negra. 2007. “Introduction: Feminist Politics and Postfeminist Culture.” In Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture, ed. Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra, 126. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Tembeck, Tamar. 2016. “Selfies of Ill Health: Online Autopathographic Photography and the Dramaturgy of the Everyday.” Social Media and Society 2 (1): 111. doi:10.1177/20563051664343.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Tiidenburg, Katrin, and Edgar Gomez Cruz. 2015. “Selfies, Image and the Re-Making of the Body.” Body and Society 21 (4): 77102. doi:10.1177/1357034X15592465.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Thurmin, Nancy. 2012. Self-Representation and Digital Culture. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Todd, Anastasia. 2016. “Disabled Girlhood and Flexible Exceptionalism in HBO’s Miss You Can Do It.” Girlhood Studies 9 (1): 2135.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wendell, Susan. 2016. “Unhealthy Disabled: Treating Chronic Illnesses as Disabilities.” In The Disability Studies Reader, 5th ed., ed. Leonard J. Davis, 160174. London: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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Contributor Notes

Sarah Hill recently completed her PhD dissertation, “Young Femininity in Contemporary British Cinema: 2000–2015,” at the University of East Anglia. Her research interests include feminist media studies, female authorship, and British cinema. She is currently researching disabled girls’ online self-representation practices. E-mail: sarahhill02@outlook.com

Girlhood Studies

An Interdisciplinary Journal

  • Banet-Weiser, Sarah. 2012. Authentic™: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture. New York: New York University Press.

  • Bock, Joseph. 2012. The Technology of Nonviolence: Social Media and Violence Prevention. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Burns, Anne. 2015. “Self(ie)-Discipline: Social Regulation as Enacted Through the Discussion of Photographic Practice.” International Journal of Communication 9: 17161733.

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    • Export Citation
  • Cheyne, Ria. 2013. “Disability Studies Reads the Romance.” Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies 7 (1): 3752.

  • Driscoll, Catherine. 2002. Girls: Feminine Adolescence and Popular Culture and Cultural Theory. New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Duffy, Brooke Erin, and Emily Hund. 2015. ‘“Having It All’ on Social Media: Entrepreneurial Femininity and Self-Branding Among Fashion Bloggers.” Social Media and Society 1 (2): 111 doi:10.1177/2056305115604337.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ellis, Katie. 2015. Disability and Popular Culture: Focusing Passion, Creating Community and Expressing Defiance. Surrey: Ashgate.

  • Ellis, Katie, and Mike Kent. 2011. Disability and New Media. London: Routledge.

  • Everelles, Nirmala, and Kagendo Mutua. 2005. “‘I Am a Woman Now!’ Rewriting Cartographies of Girlhood from the Critical Standpoint of Disability. In Geographies of Girlhood: Identities In-between, ed. Pamela J. Bettis and Natalie G. Adams, 253269. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gannon, Valerie, and Andrea Prothero. 2016. “Beauty Blogger Selfies as Authenticating Practices.” European Journal of Marketing 50 (9–10): 18581878.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gehrig, Karolyn. 2014. “#Hospitalglamhttps://hospitalglam.tumblr.com (accessed 12 June 2017).

  • Gill, Rosalind. 2007. “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 10 (2): 147166.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gill, Rosalind, and Christina Scharff. 2011. “Introduction.” In New Femininities: Postfeminism, Neoliberalism and Subjectivity, ed. Rosalind Gill and Christina Scharff, 119. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Harris, Anita. 2004. Future Girls Young Women in the Twenty-First Century. London: Routledge.

  • Hart, Laurel, and Claudia Mitchell. 2015. “From Spaces of Gender-based Violence to Sites of Networked Resistance: Reimagining Social Media Technologies.” Perspectives in Education 33 (4): 135150.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 1983. The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Holmes, Su. 2017. “‘My Anorexia Story’: Girls Constructing Narratives of Identity on YouTube.” Cultural Studies 31 (1): 123. doi:10.1080/09502386.2016.1138978.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kearney, Mary Celeste. 2011. Mediating Girlhoods: New Explorations of Girls’ Media Culture. New York: Peter Lang.

  • Keller, Jessalynn. 2015. Girls’ Feminist Blogging in a Postfeminist Age. London: Routledge.

  • Lindgren, Kristen. 2001. “Bodies in Trouble: Identity, Embodiment and Disability.” In Gendering Disability, ed. Bonnie G. Smith, and Beth Hutchinson, 145165. London: Rutgers University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • McRobbie, Angela. 2004. “Post-feminism and Popular Culture.” Feminist Media Studies 4 (3): 255264.

  • McRobbie, Angela. 2007. “Top Girls.” Cultural Studies 21 (4–5): 718737.

  • McRobbie, Angela. 2009. The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change. London: SAGE Publications.

  • Mitchell, David T., with Sharon L. Snyder. 2015. The Biopolitics of Disability: Neoliberalism, Ablenationalism and Peripheral Embodiment. Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Overboe, James. 1999. “Difference in Itself: Validating Disabled People’s Lived Experience.” Body and Society 5 (4): 1729.

  • Projansky, Sarah. 2014. Spectacular Girls: Media Fascination and Celebrity Culture. London: New York University Press.

  • Reinke, Rachel, and Anastasia Todd. 2016. ‘“Cute Girl in Wheelchair—Why?’ Cripping YouTube.” Transformations: The Journal of Inclusive Pedagogy 25 (2): 93103.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ringrose, Jessica. 2013. Postfeminist Education? Girls and the Sexual Politics of Schooling. London: Routledge.

  • Schalk, Sami. 2016. “Reevaluating the Supercrip.” Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies 10 (1): 7186.

  • Senft, Theresa M., and Nancy K. Baym. 2015. “What Does the Selfie Say? Investigating a Global Phenomenon.” International Journal of Communication 9: 15881606.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Shields Dobson, Amy. 2015. Postfeminist Digital Culture: Femininity, Social Media, and Self-Representation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Stienstra, Deborah. 2015. “Trumping All? Disability and Girlhood Studies.” Girlhood Studies 8 (2): 5470.

  • Tasker, Yvonne, and Diane Negra. 2007. “Introduction: Feminist Politics and Postfeminist Culture.” In Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture, ed. Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra, 126. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Tembeck, Tamar. 2016. “Selfies of Ill Health: Online Autopathographic Photography and the Dramaturgy of the Everyday.” Social Media and Society 2 (1): 111. doi:10.1177/20563051664343.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Tiidenburg, Katrin, and Edgar Gomez Cruz. 2015. “Selfies, Image and the Re-Making of the Body.” Body and Society 21 (4): 77102. doi:10.1177/1357034X15592465.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Thurmin, Nancy. 2012. Self-Representation and Digital Culture. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Todd, Anastasia. 2016. “Disabled Girlhood and Flexible Exceptionalism in HBO’s Miss You Can Do It.” Girlhood Studies 9 (1): 2135.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wendell, Susan. 2016. “Unhealthy Disabled: Treating Chronic Illnesses as Disabilities.” In The Disability Studies Reader, 5th ed., ed. Leonard J. Davis, 160174. London: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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