Authenticity, Captioned: Hashtags, Emojis, and Visibility Politics in Alok Vaid-Menon’s Selfie Captions

Nicole Erin Morse

Abstract


Introduction

Within social media visibility campaigns, selfie captions usually work to produce coherent identity categories, linking disparate selfies together through hashtags. Furthering visibility politics, such selfie captions claim that authentic identities can be made visible through selfies and can be described and defined by these captions. However, selfie captions by the trans artist Alok Vaid-Menon challenge the assumption that selfies and their captions can make authentic identity legible. Through hashtags, emojis, and punning text, Vaid-Menon’s selfie captions interrogate visibility politics from within one of visibility politics most popular contemporary tools, demonstrating how social media can be used to theorize representation. 

Coherence, Visibility, and Authenticity through Hashtags

Mobilising and organising identitarian counterpublics through hashtags—from #DisabledAndCute (Wade) to #GirlsLikeUs (Jackson, Bailey, and Welles 2)—these captions operate as hyperlinks that lead users to collections of all the images similarly tagged or captioned. This draws attention to certain aspects of the images, and produces coherence and similarity, despite the actual diversity of the individuals participating in these projects of visibility. These captions also question the over-determination of visibility with authenticity in dominant discourse, and the assumption that visibility can guarantee authenticity. For example, this is apparent in the Human Rights Campaign’s 2014 publication Transgender Visibility: A Guide to Being You, which offers visibility as a critical strategy for “living as authentically as possible” (quoted in David 28).

Further, as images that seem to enable direct, unmediated, and hence “authentic,” self-expression (Lorbinger and Brantner 1848), selfies are described as ideally designed for visibility politics (Duguay 4). Visibility politics relies on aesthetic representation to expand the boundaries of commonsense to include those who were previously excluded—all without challenging the underlying logic that produces the inclusion of some through the exclusion of others (Rancière 141–3). In social media visibility campaigns, selfie captions are therefore a critical tool, for they not only use hashtags to create webs of interconnected selfies that produce a coherent, visible identity category, but through doing so, they reinforce the illusion that selfies—as photographs—exhibit an unmediated relationship between sign and signified, offering a visual authentication of identity. Thus, social media visibility campaigns presume that the authentic self can be made legible through selfies and their captions, reiterating, as C. Riley Snorton writes, the “popular, long-held myth—that both the truth of race and the truth of sex are obvious, transparent, and written on the body” (3).

Because visible markers of gender and race are assumed to offer access to the “truth” of identity (Rightler-McDaniels and Hendrickson 178), visibility politics are usually heavily invested in this idea of visible authenticity—they also, ultimately, provide a critical avenue for commodification, branding, and consumerism (Banet-Weiser 35; David 30). However, in direct contrast to this, the trans artist Alok Vaid-Menon—a non-binary South Asian performance artist whose pronouns are they/them—uses selfie captions to expose and explode the insufficiency of visibility politics, albeit while promoting their personal brand.

Vaid-Menon: Captions, Hashtags, and Intersectional Identities

In Instagram posts that include both still and video selfies, their punning captions undermine any direct relationship between sign and signified, and use playful language to challenge the logic that selfies can transparently communicate authentic identity. Instead of producing coherence, Vaid-Menon uses hashtags to insert charged, political posts within supposedly apolitical series, disrupting any claims to similarity. For example, although Vaid-Menon’s selfie captions draw attention to particular elements within the image, they highlight those aspects of the visual field that make it impossible to identify a single, unified identity.

It is also worth discussing here how this plays out in a specifically visual medium such as Instagram. Drawing on the resources of this platform, these selfie captions include emojis, thereby doubling the elements of the visual field within the space of the caption, and emphasising the symbolic function of cultural signifiers of identity. Thus, Vaid-Menon’s selfie captions demonstrate that social media platforms are not merely conduits for visibility politics, but instead offer rich resources for interrogating and contesting the politics of representation.

Throughout Vaid-Menon’s Instagram selfies, punning captions appear—examples include “beach the change you want to see in the world” and “fifty shades of gay.” In these captions, puns not only draw attention to the texture and flexibility of language—a linguistic playfulness that is always already present in social media platforms through ludic hashtags (Rightler-McDaniels and Hendrickson 187)—but also highlight elements within the image that put pressure on the idea of coherent and unified identity. By doing this, these captions explicitly declare that identity work is self-consciously performative, producing identities that are not a question of authenticity—even within the framework of “branded authenticity” (Banet-Weiser 11)—but that might instead be read through the more ambivalent notion of “sincerity” (Jackson 15).

An example of this can be seen accompanying a slow-motion video selfie of Vaid-Menon in a blonde wig (AlokVMenon, 9 January 2016a). The significance of body hair for South Asian women and femmes is a reoccurring theme throughout Vaid-Menon’s selfie captions. They are vocal about the political significance of body hair, and use hashtags and text captions to address how body hair complicates their ability to communicate the truth(s) of their identity. In the video, brightly painted lips parted, Vaid-Menon twirls the blonde curls around their fingers, while the slow-motion effect emphasises the movement of each lock of hair. Simultaneously, Vaid-Menon’s dark body hair is prominent and visible, including chest hair, the shadow of a beard, and thick eyebrows.

The image is accompanied by a caption which asserts punningly “gender is racial construct: blondes have more funding”, thereby transforming the gender studies dogma that “gender is a social construct” and the popular culture slogan that “blondes have more fun.” The caption uses this wording to point out that the gendering of body hair as masculine delimits femininity as whiteness, and also privileges white (cis) femininity within capitalism. Like the caption, the image also reveals how “gender is a racial construct,” staging the tensions between Vaid-Menon’s “natural” dark body hair (gendered masculine) and the bright, blonde wig they wear (gendered feminine, but racialised as white). Further, within late capitalism, the caption “blondes have more funding” lays claim to a possibility that the image forecloses—because “gender is a racial construct,” this increased funding is likely to be out of reach for brown trans femmes who look like Vaid-Menon. Together, the caption and the image suggest that hair is both the solution and the problem for Vaid-Menon—although “blondes have more funding,” the blondes who get funded are white, and definitely not covered in thick, dark body hair.

Posting selfies that show off their body hair, Vaid-Menon regularly captions these images with the hashtag #TGIF (AlokVMenon, 19 August 2016) thereby taking advantage of the cross-platform utility and democratising function of hashtags (Rightler-McDaniels and Hendrickson 176) to insert these images into a space that is not usually one of critical race and gender analysis. Popular on Fridays, the hashtag #TGIF usually stands for “thank God it’s Friday,” but Vaid-Menon uses the ubiquitous hashtag to mean “thank goddess I’m femme.” As a result, the “thank god it’s Friday” hashtag introduces unsuspecting users to Vaid-Menon’s #TGIF selfies and their interrogation of the racialised politics of hair. Through inserting critical analysis of race and gender within such a light-hearted, non-serious hashtag, that is, by capitalising on the popularity of #TGIF, Vaid-Menon appears to defy the norms of discursive consistency within social media discourse (Rightler-McDaniels and Hendrickson 187) while simultaneously enhancing their personal brand (Banet-Weiser 59). Beyond hashtags, Vaid-Menon’s captions elaborate on the distinct pressures they experience around body hair, discussing how their body hair simultaneously obscures their ability to be recognised as femme and makes their race hyper-visible. In the caption on one #TGIF post, Vaid-Menon writes that, when they began shaving at age 13, it was an attempt at “becoming white.” Now, they write, they face pressure to authenticate their transfemininity by shaving, noting that, in this case, authenticity requires “invisibilization” (AlokVMenon, 15 November 2016).

Vaid-Menon continues this theme in another selfie post, again problematising the supposedly direct relationship between authenticity and visibility. This example—in which Vaid-Menon poses against a violet background wearing a curly, blonde wig (AlokVMenon, 9 January 2016 b) their thick, dark hair contrasting strongly with the wig’s light gold—aims to critique the signifying power of the blonde wig.

From the hyper-saturated colours, to the bright gold nose rings, to Vaid-Menon’s body hair, the selfie combines—and emphasises—markers of artifice and authenticity, femininity and masculinity. Reinforcing these contradictions, the caption interrogates the relationship between authenticity and visibility, stating “authenticity is a fraught project in a world that ritualizes your invisibilization.” Bringing together weighty concepts that occur in time, the caption speaks of ritual, the project of authenticity, and the process of invisibilisation, yet the selfie itself is a frozen instant, with nothing in the post clarifying what point of these processes, if any, it captures. In the selfie, the hyper-saturated colours highlight the wealth of information that the visual field makes available, but the image itself cannot answer the question of what visible markers, if any, communicate the truth of Vaid-Menon’s authentic identity. As the caption states, also foreclosing any answers, “authenticity is a fraught project,” and, moreover, that authenticity is threatened by what is not visible. While authenticity discourse presumes that the visual field offers the firmest epistemological grounds for assessing and legitimating identity, the visible may not convey the full reality of identity nor experience (Jackson 159). Furthermore, within selfie conventions, visual imperfection usually signifies authenticity (Lobinger and Brantner 1849), but this selfie has characteristics of professional photography, including the studio background, further marking it as a hybrid of authenticity and artifice.

Through the intersection of the caption and the selfie, Vaid-Menon therefore casts into question the ability of the visual to successfully signify authentic identity. Thus, the caption reinforces and extends the work that the selfie does to trouble the coherence of Vaid-Menon’s identity. It should be noted, however, that this caption simultaneously participates in the production of Vaid-Menon’s personal brand, investing in a distinct mode of authenticity that Sarah Banet-Weiser has dubbed “AuthenticityTM,” an authenticity that is available to artists precisely through their creative and performative rejection of social norms (119–20). Refusing such normative assumptions about the relationship between hair, race, and gender, the caption and the selfie therefore position the blonde wig as simultaneously artificial and authentic.

The tension between artifice and authenticity is explored further by Vaid-Menon in a set of two videos exploring the symbolism of the blonde wig, both captioned with an emoji of a blonde, white woman (AlokVMenon, 11 January 2016; 12 January 2016). By doubling the image of blonde hair within the caption—through the emoji that operates, rebus-like, as a substitute for language—these two captions shift the function of the blonde wig from a tactile, experiential object to an abstracted symbol of white womanhood. In the videos, Vaid-Menon, in character as “Becky” (Kelly) plays with the wig while delivering a monologue full of stereotypes about white women, a monologue that is summed up by the static, cartoonish emoji. As the visual spreads from the photograph into the space of the caption, the caption emphasises the symbolic—as opposed to the tactile or realist—function of the photographed wig.

Across the series with the blonde wig, this shift from experiential object to abstract symbol happens primarily through the captions, although it also extends to the images. For example, accompanying the slow-motion video, the first caption puns “blondes have more funding” as the slow-motion video shows Vaid-Menon enjoying the physical sensation of the blonde curls. The slow-motion video creates an endless, looping present as its 7-second runtime repeats over and over, drawing our attention to the materiality of time and touch through the slow-motion effect. In the close, frontal framing of the video, the viewer does not see the pleasure of Vaid-Menon’s hand touching the wig itself, but rather its effect, as the curls fall slowly against Vaid-Menon’s cheek. Meanwhile, the punning caption is also concerned with texture, experience, and effect, drawing the viewer in to the texture of language. While the video stages an intimate, haptic pleasure, the selfie, posted later that same day, displays the wig, stressing what it might represent, rather than how it moves or how it feels. In the selfie, Vaid-Menon poses with one hand raised, caught in the act of twirling a curl, and the caption moves away from the pleasures of wordplay to a more overt political stance—“authenticity is fraught.” Here, their hand seems to pull the hair away from Vaid-Menon’s face, interrupting the sensuous intimacy of curls against their face.

These selfie captions assert not only that cultural constructs make authentic visibility fraught for minoritised subjects, but, through the “transparent and economical” emoji (Bloom 248), these selfie videos and their emoji captions also serve to mediate blonde, white womanhood. As the image of the blonde wig proliferates, moving into the space of the caption, the final video selfie also introduces a second character, a white woman, presumably cisgender, wearing a different blonde wig, who appears suddenly behind Vaid-Menon.

This tall, skinny woman with corkscrew blonde curls approaches the viewer with curiosity, swaying her body as she walks forward, with her eyes fixed on the camera. Pursing her lips, she produces the facial expression commonly described as “duckface,” a feminised facial expression that is common in selfies and marks the performative—rather than unmediated—self-expression they make possible. As she approaches Vaid-Menon and the camera, she ends up half-in and half-out of frame, lingering at the edge of our vision. Her presence has a disquieting and jarring effect, as Vaid-Menon continues their monologue without acknowledging her, despite the fact that she must be visible to Vaid-Menon on their cell phone screen. Then, because the video is a loop, the monologue ends abruptly, and the video restarts. As Vaid-Menon performs the role of Becky, the white woman who hovers eerily behind Vaid-Menon in the final video is pushed to the edge of the frame and ultimately vanishes at the moment of the loop. The structure of the loop is a provocative approach to questions of visibility, given that visibility politics asserts that visibility is teleologically directed toward future change, while in fact visibility politics reproduces the status quo that it makes visible (Keeling 33). Here, since Vaid-Menon only manages to displace “Becky” by enacting her (over and over), the final result is not (yet) an uncomplicated or uncompromised brown trans femme visibility.

By staging the incoherence of claims to visible authenticity, Vaid-Menon’s selfie captions foreclose the possibility of successfully “passing” into coherent identity categories. In the series of posts with the blonde wig, Vaid-Menon never succeeds in seamlessly embodying any single identity category, and these tensions appear within the images as well as in the relationship between image and caption. This failure to “pass” is political, and as J. Jack Halberstam writes, there is a queer art to failure, for “under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world” (2–3).

Failure is also a critical aesthetic element in social media humour, with the hashtag #fail curating posts that ironically celebrate mistakes and failures (Zappavigna 152). In selfies and selfie captions, Vaid-Menon revels in the queer art of social media failure. For example, in a selfie posted on 23 December 2016, Vaid-Menon stares solemnly past the camera, wearing vibrant, contrasting colours, including a bobbed purple wig, bright yellow lipstick, and a dress covered with bright, multi-coloured polka dots. The caption on this colourful, clearly queer, photograph proclaims that Vaid-Menon is “str8 acting looking for same #discrete” (AlokVMenon, 23 December 2016).

Everything in the caption operates as a promise that will never be fulfilled, as even the hashtag—#discrete—fails to connect the selfie to other, similar images, as this hashtag is populated by a wildly heterogenous mix of images ranging from sexual images, to landscape photography, to images of fashionable, modern homes. Here, Vaid-Menon participates in a common social media practice, subverting the utility of hashtags and using them as paratextual commentary rather than as tools for networked cataloguing. In this post, Vaid-Menon’s failure to conform to the standards of homonormativity—which would require Vaid-Menon to appear “straight-acting” and to be able to promise discretion to a lover—is pushed to excess, producing a glorious rainbow of queer failure. Similarly, in the series of posts featuring the blonde wig, Vaid-Menon’s campy, parodic version of blonde, white womanhood does not simply demonstrate soberly that the standards imposed by white supremacy and heterocispatriarchy are unreachable. Instead, the series produces this attempt to pass into acceptable white femininity as a strange, delirious failure, accompanied by brilliant colours, strobing slow-motion, and punning, incisive captions.

Conclusion

In Vaid-Menon’s Instagram posts, selfies and their captions interrogate and challenge the assumption that authentic identity can transparently be made legible through selfies. Through hashtags, Vaid-Menon’s captions draw upon the resources of the social media platform to connect their selfies to a network of other—not necessarily similar—images, inserting their “thank goddess I’m femme” selfies amid the wealth of “thank god it’s Friday” Instagram posts. And, by using emojis as captions, Vaid-Menon undermines the ability of the caption to anchor the visual to coherent meaning by substituting images for language.

Through images and captions, Vaid-Menon’s Instagram selfies restage the act of direct, immediate self-expression as a complicated negotiation of the mediating pressures of language, social media platforms, digital photography, and, ultimately, culture. Furthermore, although selfies are celebrated in popular culture and online activism for the “visibility” they seem to make possible, Vaid-Menon’s selfie captions indicate that social media can do far more than simply promulgate visibility politics. This is necessary, for, despite its compelling lure, visibility politics not only neglects to imagine alternative futures, but actually limits future possibilities through its focus on the present, which is inevitably shaped by the past (Keeling 23). Instead, while building their personal brand on Instagram, Vaid-Menon simultaneously uses selfies and selfie captions to interrogate visibility politics from within one of its most popular contemporary tools, exposing the limitations and compromises of “visibility.” Rather than merely a tool for representation, Vaid-Menon’s work demonstrates how selfies and selfie captions can produce theories of, and about, representation.

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Keywords


selfies, trans, transgender, politics of visibility



Copyright (c) 2017 Nicole Erin Morse

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