Postfeminist Digital Cultures: Femininity, Social Media, and Self-Representation

Dobson, Amy Shields. Postfeminist Digital Cultures: Femininity, Social Media, and Self-Representation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Print.

Dobson’s critical study grapples with the question of what it means to perform femininity in contemporary digital cultures. Her book attends to both digital spheres and genres of digital media, using platforms such as social networking sites, as they span and straddle our understandings of the public and private, personal and professional. Her subjects of study are young women and the ways in which they interact with media as an expression of identity through digital self-representations. These online identities and self-representations, she argues, carry with them the political implications of negotiating conditions within post-feminist techno-social mediascapes. Dobson uses cultural theories such as the Foucauldian notion of regulation, to investigate the cultural ramifications of self-representation within a participatory and interactive culture, emphasizing the systems of power, coercion, and exploitation at play within these mediascapes. How, for example, does one negotiate their identity and agency in order to participate and belong within this growing online culture? What are the implications of submitting to these forms of control in one’s authentic representation of self?

In addition to drawing from Foucault to understand dynamics of power, Dobson draws on Judith Butler in examining the materiality of bodies and gender performativity—how do we as participants avoid notions of absoluteness within narratives of self-representation and authorship? Using feminist performance theory and cultural studies, Dobson examines how these shifting modes of power interact with both media and gendered subjectivity production in postfeminist digital cultures. Central to her method is ‘slowing down,’ a term she uses to express the need to think critically to understand the complexities of participation before inciting moral panic. These moral panics, she argues, arise in reaction to young women’s participation on social networking sites. Her studies particularly examine young women’s sexual self-representations through both self- and celebrity images—what Dobson terms heterosexy iconography. Considered a key contributor to moral panic, Dobson pays close attention to young women considered at risk based on low self-esteem and other social and metal health implications of the psychopathologization of femininity and what she terms gender melancholy. These pathologies remain today a primary concern and criticism of youth engaging and participating with social networking sites. Dobson believes these are alarmist accounts of incidents that point to social problems beyond the digital sphere, and in actuality serves to mediate and police young femininity within a postfeminist era. For Dobson, as participants of digital cultures, we must privilege choice and agency when navigating our understandings of post-feminist girlhood. This task, and central to Dobson’s critical examination of young women in digital culture, can only be pursued once we consider the limitations of current feminist theory and analysis.

Dobson’s book appeals to academics in the critical and scholarly context with which she situates her argument, as her argument is built from and contributes to the ongoing discourses on feminism and media. Due to this informed approach, Postfeminist Digital Cultures undoubtedly provides contexts in which to study the field of digital humanities. It is a valuable book for academics as her analysis of case studies leaves room for further interpretation and intersectional approaches. Though Dobson’s book is targeted towards academic readers and peers, its diversity of subject matter, as well as its accessibility, provides useful frameworks for both practitioners and the public.

For practitioners, Dobson’s book provides insight into both professional development and project development as it creates the potential for awareness at the level of those who are creating and maintaining social networking sites. Dobson argues that the design of these sites is integral in understanding the ways in which her subjects, young women, interact with one another, as well as how they choose to reflect their own identities. By informing themselves of the necessity for safe online spaces, practitioners are more likely to consider these factors in the design of their aspired projects and careers.

The public, being parents, educators, activists, community groups, and journalists for the purpose of this annotation, are perhaps the most important audience for Dobson’s argument. As this form of self-representation is overwhelmingly engaged with and criticized by the public, it is imperative for these readers to inform the discourses they participate in. The ways in which women choose to represent themselves is already a widely socially governed topic. Dobson’s book aims to reconfigure the frameworks with which we view and understand young women’s media use. In her clearly dictated manner, Dobson instructs the public away from the instinct of quick moral judgment and instead provides the information needed to constructively analyze the broad forms of power at play.

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