Representation 8. Self-representation and gender in popular culture (class group one)

Self-representation and gender in popular culture: Selfies, avatars; Chinese feminism, LGBT.

We’ve been looking at representation in language, and discussion the examples of race and gender so far this semester. Being represented by others is obviously not quite the same thing as representing oneself (remember the examples about the different ideas of blackness owned by white and Afro-American Americans).

In the modern world of social media self-representation is an intrinsic part of everyday life. Today we’re going to look at self-representation, partially in relation to gendered representations (masculinity, femininity, androgyny, LGBT).

Quick femininity quiz

First, let’s do a quick quiz together to see what we learned from the first reading from last week’s class (“Femininity”).

Avatars and online tags as self-representation.

Let’s use our own (and a few others’) avatars and online names to think about self representation.

Avatars are commonly used online for things like weixin groups or games. Some academics believe that they can convey their author’s preferences, feelings and personality, reflecting the way they see themselves and what they expect of themselves. Some academics argue that authors regard their avatars as surrogates or idealized versions of their selves.

Now, have at look at our weixin avatars (in random order).



















Group discussion One: Our avatars, our selves.

Working in your small groups discuss the following.

  1. The avatars are all forms of self representation. Choose 6 that you think are interesting (not your own!) and tell us what you think is being represented (what is the image communicating about its author?) Why is in interesting?
  2. Choose five images that could be coded together, and tell us what your code is and how it works.
  3. Tell us about your own image. Why did you choose it? What do you think it communicates? Is your intention the same as the group’s interpretation of your image?

Quick Quiz: Cultural Racism

The fact that racism is a cultural phenomenon means that it works through representation and kinds of language (it doesn’t just mirror reality).

Let’s see if we can answer these questions based on the reading. Questions to be given in class.

Group discussion two: Self-representations and Socialist Values

(questions to be given in class).

2. a. Do the reading given in class, and watch the video.

Reading: China’s goths protest after woman told to remove ‘distressing’ make-up on subway

b. Discuss the following

Gothic (or ‘Lolita’) style inolves way of dressing and doing make up.

i. First describe the style. Tell us what you know about it, how it works, and what its influences might be (maybe you know, or if not, please have a guess).

ii. What kinds of self-representation are the goths/lolitas involved in? What kinds of identities are they expressing? What does this kind of self-representation communicate? who does it communicate too?

Selfies, gender, feminism

Selfie: (noun) a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website. (Oxford English Dictionary)

Selfies (zipai) are part of social media, and

Ubiquitous to….

an Intrinsic part of …

modern social life in China, Korea and in Western countries and elsewhere too (so, globally).

Like avatars, they can be interpreted as forms of self-representation.

Selfie profile pictures are the most popular form of online self-representation. In the digital era, personal cameras and the use of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Weixin, have become so ubiquitous, that compulsive self-imaging is engendering a new consumer-based language in the visual realm.

Often discussed in negative terms in the West, the selfie appears to represent a critique of youth who have become subsumed within a consumerist fixation with the superficiality of self-imaging and the cult of personality.  This characterization involves gendered implications that link young women, self-obsession (narcissism), and insatiable consumerism. If traditional media objectified women as sex-objects in movies and advertising, then selfie-culture involves young women turning themselves (via images of their selves) into objects.

Some post-feminist writers argue that such women are reclaiming their own sexual agency, not submitting their images for the approval of the male gaze. For example, some selfie-posters use classic pin-up tropes, like Betty Page, but subvert them (as below).

Classical Betty Page image


Others argue that the selfie world is highly competitive, and forces young women to compete with impossible ideals of the beautiful self.


Chang, Ren and Yang (2018)  write that young women are the largest group using social media for self expression and social mobilization in China.

Instead of seeing their use of selfies as a negative phenomenon, they suggest that for young women choosing and editing selfies maybe a form of critical self-expression and self-empowerment. They argue that young women choose and edit selfies in order to enjoy representing their beauty/prettiness, celebrating the female body, and femininity.

In doing this, they counters the pre-existing Communist discourse that men and women are just the same.

So empowerment in this sense is not about becoming equal with men, but about being able to express a feminine identity that was lost under previous forms of official discourse.


These authors argue that young woman are more concerned with the wide range of social relationships, including family bonds, workplace politics and contact with former classmates, than relations between men and women (whether equal, or unequal).

So mother-daughter, guimi (close friend, I think) photos are more common than selfies with boyfriends or husbands.

Quick discussion: what do you think?

Think about the groups of young women and men you know or know of engaged in selfie-culture and discuss the following questions.

  1. How would you describe the types of selfies those young women and men take and share on social media (talk about where they share them)?
  2. Do you think that selfies taken by young Chinese women are objectifying or empowering? If so, how and why, and to what extent ?
  3. Do you have other ideas about how to characterize them?

Selfies and suzhi, class

Academics argue that many young Chinese women seek to demonstrate something like middle income status in their selfies, either by product placement (ie., a nice car, starbucks, expensive clothing, hotels), or through travel selfies.


According to the above authors, young women seek to demonstrate desire for or possession of a good life defined in terms of harmonious social relations.

So, within this aim, young women are said to challenge pre-existing social relations in a variety of ways;

  • by reclaiming femininity, and asserting their right to express and enjoy their own beauty,
  • by demonstrating independence and capability (through, for example, travel selfies).

Quick Discussion

  • Is selfie taking and sharing related to class as the authors suggest? Can you say why or why not?
  • What about su zhi (I mean ‘quality)?

Activist selfies: feminism

Selfies are sometime used for even more challenging kinds of representation, as occurred in a range of feminist protests over the last decade.

Many women and men engaged in a variety of selfie representation to promote a range of feminist causes, including the#metoo movement, the campaign against domestic violence, the campaign against gender discrimination in Chinese universities, and the campaign for more public toilets for women.

The image below shows a group of women using a group selfie to support the “feminist five” activists (by wearing masks of the detained activists). Many people (both male and female) got involved in this campaign. Some of the others involved in this selfie-feminist protest photo-shopped the activists faces onto their own instead of using masks.


Class discussion: selfie-taking: Gothic/lolita, femininity and gender equality as kinds of self-representing empowerment

The Chinese authors above descibed feminine selfies as a form of empowerment.

The goths/Lolitas in the Guanzhou subway protests might think of gothic/Lolita dress as empowering too, as involves self-expression (as the commentator suggested, a right to self-expression).

People involved in the ‘feminist five’ selfie protests might see the the use of selfies to advocate gender equality as empowering as well.

Each of these are forms of self-representation involving the communication of different aspects of people’s identities.

What kinds of words might we use for these three different kinds of self-represented identities?

  • Goths/Lolita selfies
  • Feminity selfies
  • Gender equality selfies






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