The Expression of Female Identity Through New Media

When the new millennium dawned, few would have anticipated that the age of highly proprietary, corporate-monopolized mass media was coming to a close (Mann and Niedzviecki). But with more widespread availability and increased accessibility to the internet and its related forms of new media, more people, and importantly, more young women are plugging in and becoming competent and confident “netizens” than ever before. Not only are girls using the World Wide Web for homework, chat rooms and e-commerce, but they are also utilizing new forms of media such as blogs, vlogs and social networking to express their unique ideas, dreams, opinions and feelings to the world. In this essay I will be exploring how the Internet has presented girls and young women with the opportunity to craft their own personal narratives through self-created medias and so-called “democratized technologies,” (Garrison).

The mainstream and mass media have historically played a pivotal role in shaping how girls think and feel about their bodies, their lives and their ambitions. The creation of a coherent self-identity is a process that is universal (Giddens), and in western society often one dictated by the kinds of images and narratives portrayed in books, magazines, radio, film, television and advertising. More and more “lifestyle” marketing is being targeted towards the female teen and “tween” demographic, capitalizing on the vulnerable nature of girls trying to become women, or girls just trying to become themselves.
The success of the media in shaping young female identity largely stems from facilitating and exploiting a natural human desire to connect and to find an acknowledged or “acceptable” niche within society. This basic drive to belong and feel valued in a community is powerful. Charles Whitehead wrote on Mead’s “Social Mirror Theory”:
[Mead] rejects solipsism and the notion that self-awareness is our sole bedrock certainty: we cannot become self-aware without simultaneously knowing that others are aware. He thus denies the first-person subjectivity of self-awareness: since it depends on a third-person perspective, self-awareness belongs to the public. (34)
An acknowledged presence in the public sphere is thus an important part of identity formation, and often one restricted or denied to youth by parental control, social inhibitors and/or lack of venues for such an activity. Especially in formative years, young women feel the need for a secure autonomy from parents or guardians in which to express aspects of a burgeoning identity (Garrison). This expression could be for the benefit of a chosen peer group, an anonymous cyber “audience” or even just for their own private satisfaction in declaring “THIS IS WHO I AM.”
It is this drive that has fuelled the explosion of young, female-created new media on the Internet. Girls are writing, composing, videoing and photographing themselves and their individual journeys to adulthood at an unheard of and uncontested rate. The number of adolescent girls creating new media shadows that of their male counterparts, often at two to three times the amount in volume, duration and frequency (Herring, Scheidt, Bonus and Wright).  And girls are using new media technologies in creative and innovative ways, tailoring their online experiences to shape how they work, play, socialize and portray their own unique identities in the cyber world.
Weblogs, or “blogs” are defined as “frequently modified web pages in which dated
entries are listed in reverse chronological sequence and are becoming an increasingly popular form of communication on the World Wide Web” (Herring et al.). They started appearing in this form around 1997, although the history of “blogging” is rumored to stretch back into the annals of Internet history to Tim Berners-Lee. The advent of widely available free blogging software in 1999 has resulted in the exponential increase of number of blogs and bloggers in the years since. Now there is a virtual cornucopia of free blog sites and services that can be accessed by anyone, anywhere, anytime. It is estimated that there are about 30 million blogs in existence today (Scheidt). And people aren’t just using these blogs to write about technology or professional topics—an army of independent news sources known as “citizen journalists” has emerged, equipped with laptops and cell phone cameras, capturing and uploading media everywhere they go. People also blog about sports, food, travel, nightlife and their pets. These days, if you can think of a subject, you can pretty much guarantee there is a blog dedicated to it.
The migration of tech-savvy teens to the Internet has seen the rise of personal diary-style blogs on the net (Scheidt). Because the practice of blogging is analogous to journaling or writing in a diary (a practice very much in the cultural realm of the adolescent girl,) young women especially flock to sites like Blogger, WordPress and LiveJournal. These sites offer free web space, a personalized URL, data storage and built-in communities linked by blog category, metatags, geographic location and user interests.
Girls join these online communities and find peers with which to exchange feedback in the form of entry comments, private messages, forums and email. They form groups and collaborate on multi-author blogs by shared interest. In essence, they become part of a virtual society, built over time and governed by the practical, technical and understood social rules of the online community.
Lori Ann Scheidt, a professor of communications at Indiana University, states, “The uniqueness of weblogs comes from their ability to blend personal narrative with performance characteristics, like stage settings, through the use of color and image and interaction with the audience”.  The personal narrative might be present in diary style entries, poetry, lyrics, stories, and journalism, while the performance aspect embodies artistic expression in the form of fine arts and digital multimedia. The visual component of blogging is a critical aspect of identity expression, utilizing elements of the creative arts and web design to present a certain aesthetic, often seen as representational of the creator and their sense of self. As Meredith Badger writes:
When we encounter images in weblogs the sense of entering a private space is enhanced, particularly as weblog images often reveal information about the blogger, either intentionally or by accident. . . . Viewed over time, photographs in weblogs create a composite image of the blogger, a portrait that builds incrementally.
This incremental composite image is enriched by emergent themes in the narrative, and the underlying details that build a cohesive picture of the individual as a whole.
Identity is also expressed through opinion editorial writing, providing an opportunity or “stage” for young minds to put forth their thoughts on current events, politics, philosophy and philanthropic pursuits. This “stage” is beneficial to the writer in that it provides a safe or secure platform on which to express and experiment with personal opinions or beliefs, and solicit feedback and peer engagement through interactive blogging communities.
The availability of this kind of creative and intellectual outlet has historically been lacking in respects to young women and girls. At the community level, often the public institutions in which young women are involved do not present opportunities for them to freely voice their opinions or display their creative talent without threat of criticism or censorship by authority figures or judgment and alienation from their peers. Along the same lines, at a micro level, the opportunity for young women to voice their feelings and solicit support in matters of family, health and personal relationships can be little or nonexistent depending on their social situation. Blogs supply a safe platform on which to communicate personal problems to a receptive peer group and obtain emotional support, advice and assistance. The ability to exercise these forms of expression is an aspect of identity communication, providing a continual thread of personal narrative that runs throughout the blog.
I would like to look briefly at another Internet/ blogging phenomenon that has gained popularity in the last year—the emergence of the photo blog. Sites such as flickr have resulted in an easily accessible form of photo sharing in youth culture that has journalistic aspirations, but often results in a perceived “celebritization” of cliques and individuals. This genre of new media seems to most frequently appeal to and find support from young women.  Often focused on social events, music and fashion, these photo blogs have resulted in a “teen paparazzi,” often times mirroring content traditionally found in the society pages of a newspaper or gossip tabloid .
These blogs are updated frequently, often times after the weekend (when college and high school students have engaged in social events,) and monitored by a wide cross-section of the youth culture to see which of their peers did what with whom, as well as what club they attended, what music they danced to, what clothing they wore, etc. Garrison argues, “Technology that is accessible to young people alters the controlling role of adults and other authority figures in the production of youth cultures,” and I have to agree. The dissemination of youth culture through these photographic blogs is evidence that youth identity is now frequently being influenced not through the traditional mass media, but through media created by their peers, specifically for peer consumption.
The development of sexual orientation and gender performance is a critical aspect of identity construction and expression among young people (Huston, 1983). One genre of new media, the video blog, or “vlog”, has been a unique and dynamic tool for girls to express this part of their developing identities. In his article “Gender, Identity, and Language Use in Teenage Blogs,” David Huffaker comments on this phenomenon, stating, “In a virtual world, where flexibility and anonymity are possible, adolescents may feel more comfortable expressing their sexual orientation and exploring their sexual identity beyond social prescriptions.”
One online resource that is arguably “beyond social prescriptions,” and useful to examine this theory, is the website YouTube. Launched in 2005, it has since cyberpioneered the “coming out” confessional style video and has developed extensive networks of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual and questioning (GLBTQ) users. This democratized technology gives equal access to all users and creates the opportunity for traditionally marginalized minorities of the global population to document and share their sexual identities and transitional journeys with an unlimited group of peers. This group of peers is often part of the GLBTQ community and provides knowledge, guidance and advocacy for other members.
I’d like to examine the use of vlogs by young female members of YouTube, and the ways in which this resource is utilized to construct, express and relate aspects of lesbian and feminine identity. I’d also like to touch on the interactive elements of the lesbian collective on YouTube and how this group positively informs and affirms the developing sexual identity of young women.
There are many ways in which young women are using YouTube to construct and express their identity as women, and as lesbians.
Cheyenne, a 19 year old girl from Minneapolis, hosts a channel called “LesbiaNation”, on which she posts vlogs ranging in topic from personal anecdotes, to abortion, to world peace. She expresses her identity as a lesbian and a woman through her outspoken opinions and passionate discussion of feminism, politics and human rights. She is unarguably “Out and Proud”. Her personal narrative is characterized by the strong and unapologetic nature with which she tackles highly controversial issues, often drawing from a seemingly large experiential knowledge base. Her strength of character is also revealed in her physical appearance. Resisting the pressure to fit any kind of lesbian stereotype, she consciously experiments with self-portrayal in a variety of costumes, as well as props, backdrops and background music.
What interests me most about Cheyenne is her involvement in a collective group on YouTube called “The Beaver Bunch”. A tongue-in-cheek play on the sitcom “Brady Bunch,” this channel’s multiple contributors reflect on personal issues that fall far outside the “Brady” realm. The collective establishes weekly topics like atheism, queer politics, homophobia, dating, sexual health and discourses on popular culture, and each member posts a candid video with their own personal thoughts and opinions on the topic. Members utilize text and video responses in order to facilitate open discussion and critical analysis of these subjects. Through these dialogues we see examples of each member’s personal experience come into play, often building on the established narratives and expressing aspects of each member’s personality and worldviews.
Huffaker succinctly comments on the impact of sexual identity and online expression:
Disclosing one’s sexual identity online may also provide a way for gay teens to find others who share their sexual identity. Taken together, our findings suggest that adolescents seek a continuity of representations of who they are, as well as a confirmation of those representations by their peers. (Huffaker)
By examining the comments, video responses, friend lists and subscribers of these lesbian collective channels on YouTube, I have discovered a large number of young lesbian women who are struggling to define themselves and their sexuality or gender identity and are actively seeking such external forms of affirmation. In my research, much evidence supports the notion that “…by engaging in different forms of collective practice online users transcend the sphere of narrowly private interest and experience” (Bakardjieva). The availability of positive role models and dramatically illustrated examples of different lesbian women for these girls unarguably provides a source of information, support and identification with a larger social group—one they might not necessarily have access to if it weren’t for online communities.
My research also suggests that through the medium of video, these women are actively negotiating and performing new aspects of female gender that might not fall under normative cultural practice. These performances introduce new ideas and ways of being a girl or a woman that are continually evolving and questioning established stereotypes. This openness and acceptance of many different types of women shows a positive way of establishing and expressing individual identity online. This no doubt encourages other users to express their own unique identities as well. I have found that the formation of online collectives, which stimulate debate and analysis, as well as providing affirmation, support and positive relationships with other members of the GLBTQ community, are a critical resource used to inform and express sexual identity for young women.
Examining the use of self-created media such as blogs and vlogs, and the innate social networks that result, allows a new perspective on identity expression by young women. Through the format of these diary-like genres, as well as the relative anonymity and autonomy of the online sphere, the establishment of a personal narrative is made possible in a way that is fluid, interactive and constantly evolving, mirroring identity expression in life offline. However, where it differs greatly is in the larger social impact these self-created medias are having on the influence of mass media as an industry. Instead of the traditional model of the mass media determining set modes of acceptable feminine expression, we see more young women are utilizing the Internet to relate, process, and broadcast their own personal definitions of identity and gender to an ever-growing audience of receptive and responsive peers. The networks that result from these online interactions are in essence subverting the influential role of the traditional media in favor of a democratized and interactive new media.

Works Cited

Badger, Meredith. “Visual Blogs.” Into the Blogosphere: Rhetoric, Community, and Culture of Weblogs. Ed. Laura J. Gurak, Smiljana Antonijevic, Laurie Johnson, Clancy Ratliff, and Jessica Reyman. June 2004. <
Bakardjieva, Maria. “Virtual Togetherness: An Everyday-Life Perspective.” Media, Culture & Society 25.1 (2003): 291–313.
Garrison, Ednie Kaeh. “U.S. Feminism-Grrrl Style! Youth (Sub)Cultures and the Technologics of the Third Wave.” Feminist Studies 26.1 (Spring 2000): 141-170.
Giddens, Anthony. Modernity and Self-identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age.
Chicago: Stanford University Press, 1991.
Herring, S. C. “Gender and Power in Online Communication.” Ed. J. Holmes and M.
Meyerhoff. The Handbook of Language and Gender. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003.
Herring, S. C., Scheidt, L. A., Bonus, S., and Wright, E. “Weblogs as a Bridging Genre.” Information, Technology & People 18.2 (2005): 142-171.
Huffaker, David A., Sandra Calvert. “Gender, Identity, and Language Use in Teenage Blogs.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 10.2. (23 Jun 2006): 00.
Huston, A. “Sex typing.” Handbook of Child Psychology: Socialization, Personality and Social Development. Ed. E. M. Hetherington. Vol. 4. New York: Wiley, 1983. 387-487.

Mann, Steve and Hal Niedzviecki. Cyborg: Digital Destiny and Human Possibility in the Age of the Wearable Computer. Toronto: Doubleday, 2002.
O’Connor ,Barbara and Carol Mackeogh. “New Media Communities: Performing Identity in an Online Women’s Magazine.” Irish Journal of Sociology 16.2 (2007): 97-116.
Scheidt, L. A. “Adolescent Diary Weblogs and the Unseen Audience.” Digital Generations: Children, Young People and New Media. Ed. D. Buckingham and R. Willett. London: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2006.
Sege, Irene. “A Window into Their Lives.”  The Boston Globe April 4, 2008. Home/Lifestyle Section. 3-42(35).
Stone, Jessie. “Digital Ethnography: Identity and Vlogs Insights and Analysis” Digital Ethnography. Apr 8 2008.
Whitehead, Charles. “Social Mirrors and Shared Experiential Worlds.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 8.4  (2001): 34-6.

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2 Responses to “The Expression of Female Identity Through New Media”

  1. […] Cyborg: Digital Destiny and Human Possibility in the Age of the Wearable Computer. More here […]

  2. I’ve gotta say, I don’t pay attention to other people’s fashions anymore… I just enjoy creating my own looks and posting photos and videos on the internet. The internet is like a canvas for my artistic creations… 🙂

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