Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Guest Blog: Performing Identities on Facebook: Young Bhutanese Women and 'Selfie' Photos

I met Jessica about a year ago, at a mutual friends 21st Birthday when we discovered we were both completing our Master's degrees in Anthropology - we met again, a few months later, at an Anthropology conference in Queenstown and the paper she presented on her research was amazing to say the least. After getting to know Jessica and learning more about her research, I knew she needed to guest blog for us here at Anthsisters! Jessica's MA research traced the re-settlement experiences of five Bhutanese refugee women: a single mother and her four teenage daughters. The visual methodologies used in this project exposed the complicated "body appearance work" that Bhutanese women willingly undergo as they learn how to be 'Kiwi' women, as well as the many ways social media is used to negotiate these experiences. This post is based on her research - enjoy!

- Tayla

Jessica Halley is a Massey University Graduate and a social anthropologist by trade, her ongoing interest in life history analysis and women's stories has shaped her research projects. Her research interests include identity construction, migration, new media technology, visual ethnography, globalisation and women's stories. Having completed her master's thesis, Jessica is currently teaching at Massey University and is preparing embark on a PhD.

If you want to talk to Jessica about her research, contact her on:


Reflecting on the many pathways this research took, I can see that the course of my analyses was organised by the visual methodologies I used. At its roots, visual ethnography endeavours to explore and comprehend visual manifestations of culture and identity. This means that the items we have in our lives, the clothes we wear, the pictures and films we enjoy are often indirect displays of our cultural backgrounds or individual identity.

As an anthropologist, I was aware that my research focused on a vulnerable group, refugee women. If I was behind the camera lens and spent my fieldwork photographing them, I would have power over the direction of this research. I wanted the direction of this project to be guided by my participants. To achieve this, the participants needed to be behind the camera lens, so I relinquished control over my research and provided four young refugee women with digital cameras. I asked them to make a photo album that experienced their identities.

The girls used their research cameras to take photographs of themselves (selfies), tracing these photos led my analyses, serendipitously, into the online world of Facebook. Here my research deconstructs the selfie. I found that whilst selfie photos, at glance, might appear as seemingly superficial displays of self vanity, they are also performative by nature, and thus expose the identity work the photographer is currently undergoing.

This means that the visual methodologies used in this project expose the private and complicated identity work that Bhutanese youth undertake in their experiences of ‘growing up’ in an new home country. Using Judith Butler’s theory of performativity, I was able to trace the relationships between these young women and the complicated online and offline worlds they are a part of.

The identity work of my participants has been influenced by both socio-cultural and political forces beyond their control. As refugee women, their lives have been shaped by the political decisions of others. Their early experiences of resettlement in Palmerston North stimulated and enabled their exploration of identity. This takes place as an embodied practice, which I call “body appearance work”. This work comprises ever changing ways of styling their bodies.

So make sense of this process I needed to source a theoretical framework that began with the body. Furthermore, I needed a theoretical approach that allowed a balance between structure and agency. Butler offers this balance with her claim that social construction is the enabling condition of individual agency and embodied behaviour (Butler, 1999, p. 187).

Social theories provide frameworks for understanding human identity and behaviour within the constructs of culture. Judith Butler’s theory of performativity was first proposed in her book Gender Trouble which was published in the 1990, a period in which gender studies was in its prime as academia continued to evaluate the aftermath of the 1970s feminist movement. Butler’s theory has grown from her personal life experiences of being a lesbian and growing up in a migrant Jewish community in the United States. Her theory is also her response to feminism. In Gender Trouble, Butler suggests feminism made a mistake in its attempt to unify women as a group embodying common understandings and characteristics. She argues that by making this claim, feminism has unintentionally reinforced a binary view of the masculine man and the feminine woman. Here, Butler takes issue with the assumption that human beings are divided into two ways of being, two simple genders. Gender Trouble is her critique of this binary perspective. Her theory of performativity is her answer to this problem and challenges the ways we should think about gender and identity.

Butler’s theory of performativity stems from her on-going belief that human identity is not fixed. Gender should not be thought of as a fixed attribute of identity, but as a set of relations among culturally constituted bodies that are performed in particular social contexts.

Butler maintains gender is fluid and variable within different social contexts and life stages; she is arguing against gender essentialism. By taking a non-essentialist stance, Butler argues that sex is a series of designations that occur within culture rather than a pre-cultural biological reality. Although, she does not dispute the biological differences between the male and female body, she maintains that these differences have a socio-cultural history (Butler, 1993). The body is continually constructed by this history from the time of birth. Here, her theory builds on Foucault’s suggestion that sex and sexuality is an ongoing historical concept (Butler, 1993). As we move through the social world, our body is constructed by this history and, as a result, we learn to perform it. In doing so, we also actively participate in the creation this history.

Here Butler attempts to resurrect the role of human agency and choice in the formation of identity. To do this, Butler draws from both Derrida’s notions of performativity and de Beauvoir’s analysis of gender to construct her theory of performativity and provide a theory of identity formation that considers both agency and social construction. In the following story, Butler shares how her life experiences provoked her curiosity about gender and identity:

“My mother’s family owned movie theatres in the city of Cleveland, and like many Jews they entered into a new industry that started in the 20th century. I think I grew up with a generation of American Jews who understood that ‘assimilation’ meant conforming to certain gender norms that were presented in the Hollywood movies. So my grandmother slowly but surely became Helen Hayes, and my mother slowly but surely became Joan Crawford, and my grandfather, I think, maybe, he was Clark Gable or Omar Sharif or something like this. So I grew up with these people, they were Jews, they belonged to a Jewish community, but they were also Americans and they were both leading their community lives and very much wanting entrance into American society. So I think that by the time I grew up, in the late sixties early seventies, looking around me trying to make sense of gender, I saw these extremely exaggerated notions of what gender was. But I think that these were notions of Hollywood gender that came through as assimilation, and maybe Gender Trouble is actually a theory that emerges from my effort to make sense of how my family embodied those norms. And also how they didn’t! They tried to embody them, and then there was some way in which they couldn’t possibly. And maybe my conclusion was that anyone who strives to embody them, also, perhaps fails in some ways that are more interesting than, perhaps, their successes” (Butler in Zadjermann, 2006).

This story was particularly interesting as it bears many similarities to my own fieldwork experiences. Indeed, as I spent time with my participants, I noticed how they seemed to copy celebrities. This would manifest in the way they dressed, the way they spoke, the way they moved their bodies, and the photos they took. Slowly, I began to see that subscribing to exaggerated Hollywood codes of femininity was particularly important to them.

Taking selfie photos aimed to capture this form of femininity is a common activity amongst Bhutanese young women.  For my participants, capturing photos for my research project was not a priority, rather the photos they took, were taken with the attention of being shared amongst an array of online social forums, one of which was Facebook.  Although Facebook is an online space detached from the physical body, I found identity occurs in embodied forms on Facebook.

For these young women, sharing carefully selected images on their profiles accumulates responses from their individual Facebook communities. In this sense the identity practices that take place on Facebook are intersubjective: as the girls cite certain gender norms through images, these norms get further reinforced as their Facebook community responds accordingly to them. 

Butler (1990) believes to be embodied is to be shaped and fashioned through language. This means that body is a ‘series of possibilities’, in this sense, we do our bodies within the context of historical and localised gender norms and discourses. As the girls cite various cultural norms on Facebook, their Facebook identities are collectively written into being by their Facebook communities.

It is in this way that Facebook is an important space for identity experimentation among Bhutanese youth. Here we can make links to Miller’s (2011) interpretations of Facebook as culturally specific space. Miller likens this to the internet in general stating;

“The internet was whatever any particular group of users had made it into. No one population was more ‘proper’ or ‘authentic’ then any others. For an anthropologist studying in Trinidad the internet itself was something created by what Trinidadians do online. From which point we then try and understand why each place produces the internet we find there” (Miller, 2011, p. xiii).

So, in an anthropological sense, Facebook is also culturally relative, as different communities use Facebook to produce identities that are culturally appropriate and specific. For Bhutanese youth, Facebook remains a crucial space of embodied identity practice and this is because performing Western norms becomes easier on Facebook.

Through smart phone technology, photo taking is now mobile, instantaneous and easily linked to Facebook. Facebook puts the user in control: the user can choose what they want to ‘show’ about themselves to their Facebook communities. In this sense, Bhutanese refugees need not be marked by their ‘refugeeness’ or their cultural background on Facebook.

As Butler states “for something to be performative means that it produces a series of effects” (Big Think, 2012). So as this group of young women continue to take selfie photos and share them amongst an online Bhutanese audience, they are making Western codes of femininity more available to other young Bhutanese youth, through this process they are rewriting what it means to be a young Bhutanese women. By deconstructing the selfie, my findings problematize universal notions that the identities of young refugees are a ‘singular’ or ‘fixed’ reality, centred on their inherent ‘refugeeness’. Alternatively my research endeavours to bring to light the enabling factors that allow these young women to negotiate the performative process of ‘growing up’ in a new country.


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