Women and Cultural Reproduction: Self-Representation as Digital Storytelling

Digital storytelling encompasses a broad and crucial area of both cultural production and consumption. In Amy Shield Dobson’s Postfeminist Digital Cultures: Femininity, Social Media, and Self-Representation, young women are the active agents responsible for establishing and creating narratives in the media landscape—they are cultural producers. Using social networking sites as their blank page, these young women digitally reflect and experiment with their identities, participate in the creation and expression of others’, and contribute to the understanding of self-representation within gendered narratives of authorship and self-discovery. Dobson approaches these questions much like a scholar does humanities studies; using social, cultural, political, and historical contexts Dobson theorizes girlhood with the aim of establishing a network of dynamic and interconnected relationships. However, rather than utilizing forms of literature or art as the grounds for analysis, Dobson investigates the increasingly prominent sphere of digital cultural production. This prominence is noteworthy for Henry Jenkins who argues that crucial to “personal development, identity, expression and their social consequences [are] participation, social capital, [and] civic culture” (5). These activities are particularly significant to younger generations, such as the subject of Dobson’s study, as today’s youth is rapidly consuming the volume of cultural production by social networking sites and social media.

In this paper I will prove Amy Shields Dobson’s Postfeminist Digital Cultures: Femininity, Social Media, and Self-Representation functions as a unique study that contributes to the discourses surrounding and produced by digital storytelling. In doing so, I will exemplify digital storytelling as a key problematic of the digital humanities and the humanities through its interest in identity, self-representation, and social implications as they relate to cultural production and consumption. This paper will first consider the ways in which digital storytelling interacts with the humanities through narratives. Much like one would consider a memoir a cultural artifact, ripe for analysis and study, the act of self-representation on media platforms contributes to a consumer’s understanding of larger social, political, and historical implications of a particular subject. Using Henry Jenkins’s definitions of digital performance and negotiation from his book Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century (2009), I will examine how participatory culture creates a matrix of reciprocity between consumers and producers. Within the dynamics of this relationship, one can theorize and draw conclusions from the same analytical frameworks used in the field of humanities. For the purpose of my argument, Ray Siemens article “Toward Modeling the Social Edition” (2012) will assist in contextualizing my argument in linking the study of humanities with interdisciplinary approaches to emerging digital cultures, and community building between academics, practitioners, and the public.

Self-representation is an important form of cultural production as it constitutes and empowers subjects as agents rather than passive objects. These questions, particularly related to feminism and the representation of women in media, articulate the central discourses surrounding women’s involvement in humanities studies. Dobson contextualizes this discourse drawing from feminist works of the 1970s, those of which are primarily involved in rewriting woman’s position in the historical and cultural canon. This cultural shift from sexual objectification to subjectification (Dobson 23) is mirrored in the media’s misrepresentation of women to the growing trend of self-representation in film, literature, and art. Why, for example, are women socialized “to be both consumers of their own images and objects of consumption, rather than producers, even of their own image and representation” (25; emphasis in original). These questions dominate cultural and feminist approaches to understanding the representation of women within discourses related to the studies of humanities. As women have begun to author their own narratives and are responsible for representing and constructing their own perceptions of identity and image, they are enabled to participate as cultural producers rather than just consumers. Creating, changing, and rewriting narratives is central to humanities as an interdisciplinary field. As new contributions both alter and maintain the discourse necessary for critical analysis, the concept of understanding narratives, or rather the participatory and interactive approach akin to storytelling inevitably transfers our frameworks of understandings to digital landscapes.

Dobson argues that digital media creates opportunities for women to function as agents of their own identity and representation. This empowering practice has resulted in a shift of cultural understanding whereby women are now—in a postfeminist mediascape—granted “sexual agency, strength, capacity, and confidence through media representations and public discourses” (35). While this shift marks a positive increase in the inclusion of women and their narratives of experience, there is consequently notable moral backlash within public communities. Dobson states, “we can observe in recent news media, online, commentary, and political and educational debates, panicked protectionist and moralist discourses about cultural sexualization and its supposed effects on girls and young women” (35), triggering society’s moral instinct to police and regulate these free and uninhibited reflections of female desire and sexuality. Since the use of social media and social networking sites has predominated youth culture in the past decade, the discourse of sexualization has emerged as the key problematic with media and culture, bringing young women and their modes of self-representation under intense scrutiny. This scrutiny, however, legitimizes social media as a cultural force within our society. This incitement to discourse to use a Foucauldian term, elicits further possibilities for interdisciplinary approaches, contributing to a larger cultural and social atmosphere to be critically studied and theorized within the field of academia.

In order to demonstrate how these discourses contribute to narratives of identity and experience within the field of humanities, I will demonstrate how participation and negotiation function as networking terms that link the individual with larger cultural practices. Thus situating narratives of identity with the usage of social media and social networking sites in an academic setting, I will exemplify digital storytelling as a key problematic of the digital humanities, and the humanities through its interest in identity, self-representation, and social implications as they relate to cultural production and consumption. Henry Jenkins defines performance as a function of media literacy, being “the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery” (xi). Dobson extensively studies this concept of performance in self-representation on media platforms. In her chapter “Postfeminist Self-Making: Textual Self-Representation and the Performance of ‘Authentic’ Young Femininity on Social Network Sites,” Dobson analyzes young women’s self-descriptions on their personal profiles. Her most profound conclusion is that these sites are “constructed to present identities that are fluid, in flux, and subject to change and revision” (Dobson 104) due to their ephemerality—there is no attempt at absoluteness, but rather illustrates a desire to characterize identity as an ongoing project. This form of self-expression, Dobson argues, exemplifies the influence of feminist scholarship and its discourses, which emphasize the importance of “girls’ confident public self-expression” (105).

Here, the network between the individual and cultural production is established, demonstrating how digital narratives of identity, or rather, digital storytelling, benefits from a similar framework of analysis and theory to those used in studying culture and humanities.

Key to the concept of digital storytelling is a participatory culture, which valorizes creativity, community, and a sense of interconnectedness. Jenkins provides such a definition, stating,

A participatory culture is a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby experienced participants pass along knowledge to novices. In a participatory culture, members also believe their contributions matter and feel some degree of social connection with one another. (xi)

Due to the inherently participatory culture of social networking sites, seen in functions such as commenting and sharing, the act of self-representation contributes to ongoing narratives and discourses of identity. As a platform to analyze, digital storytelling thus contributes to the building of a community amongst academics, as well as both practitioners and the public within the broader field of digital humanities. As culture “absorbs and responds” (8) to the emergence of new media, the participatory nature of digital media facilitates the sphere of self-discovery and representation through the social connections it builds. With its emphasis on supportive encouragement for creating, the subject encounters an ideal space for the fluidity and experimentation that Dobson illustrates as central to the project of self-representation, built upon agency and choice.

As social networking sites increased in popularity over the past decade “a new context [emerged] within which to imagine the network, and within which to imagine new ways to use computers in humanities research” (Jones n.p.). Whereas the field of humanities is interactive and participatory in a much less instantaneous way (i.e. responding to an article or criticism years after original publication, peer review) the contributions to the field in the way of digital forms marks a “growing movement in humanities knowledge-building communities to expand the scope of community membership beyond academics, and into the interested and engaged general public, to those practicing what has come to be termed citizen scholarship” (Siemens 450). Thus, the study of digital humanities permits a type of diversity, inclusion, and accessibility in its participatory and interactive nature. These dynamics allow for cultural and social discourses to reach beyond the privileged realm of academia and become accessible for both public communities and practitioners. Siemens states, “many in our community have highlighted ways in which digital scholarship can welcome the contributions of participants from outside academe, via means of control and regulation that are not wholly foreign to processes used by humanists traditionally” (450). Take for example the process of peer review in traditional academia. In order for an article to reach scholarly publication, a number of scholars in similar fields read, annotate, and provide feedback on the article before it is approved by a journal. This process serves to legitimize and maintain the high standards of academia. However, the entire process can take years before completion. This rather large gap from completing the work to publishing the work is problematic in an academic setting as it removes any effect of instantaneous and relevant response.

Though articles on digital humanities are also peer reviewed, the interactive and participatory nature of the field allows for new modes and forms of knowledge-building communities to grow. The ability to promptly share information and collaborate with one another in a creative online environment maximizes productivity. Moving away from the scholarly edition’s reliance on the print medium, as well as “the expertise of a single authority or editor at its helm” (447), the digital sphere incorporates “word-based scholarly activities such as concordance creation and indexing, collation, collocation and distribution, attribution and dating, and rhyme and content analysis, while allowing the reader to engage with the text dynamically” (447). With this potential for intertextuality, the medium maximizes the amount of information to be consumed by the reader. This level of accessibility broadens the readership, engaging beyond the realm of academia allowing for citizen scholarship. In doing so, the emerging cultures surrounding the field of humanities allows for a wider community of participants, amplifying the potential for contribution and the creation of new knowledge.

This paper examines the term digital storytelling as a model, or narrative, for understanding the participatory nature of both digital humanities and humanities, linking them through the creative and interactive formation of discourses. Dobson’s critical study Postfeminist Digital Cultures examines women as cultural producers within a postfeminist techno-social mediascape, illustrating various ways in which they interact with media as a platform for self-representation and expression. Contributing to both the field of digital humanities, in its exploration of digital storytelling, as well as humanities through its interdisciplinary approach and contribution to ongoing discourses surrounding feminism and media, Dobson’s book demonstrates the parallel between new and traditional methods of academia. As it targets not only academics but also practitioners and the public, the study exemplifies the cultural shift towards participation based knowledge-building communities. Thus, as accessibility and diversity becomes a central concern in critical thinking, digital storytelling becomes a key factor in understanding the function of humanities as not only an academic concern, but also a field that informs broader pedagogical concerns and frameworks of understanding.

Rebecca Anderson

Works Cited

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

Jenkins, Henry, et al. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009. Print.

Jones, Steven E. The Emergence Of The Digital Humanities. New York: Routledge, 2014. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 7 Mar. 2016.

Siemens, Ray, et al. “Toward modeling the social edition: An approach to understanding the electronic scholarly edition in the context of new and emerging social media.” Literary and Linguistic Computing 27.4 (2012): 445-471. eJournal.

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