Cultivating Intersectional Awareness Through the #performanceartselfie: A Creative Multimodal Pedagogy

Column by
Lehua Ledbetter
Nate Vaccaro


Introduction

On the official Women’s March (2019) website, readers are called to action, asked to take a stand against a multitude of social wrongdoings: “Social movements are the only bulwark against the rising tide of authoritarianism, misogyny, white nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, ableism, classism, and ageism.” Yet, some feminists and activists argue that the March, despite being advertised as being framed by principles of “intersectionality and inclusion,” still managed to exclude marginalized women, particularly women of color and trans women (Moss & Maddrell, 2017; and Pough, 2017). Moreover, for many working individuals, collective activism can be difficult to balance with childcare and career demands. For those who are excluded from or don’t have the means to participate in collective activism, we offer the selfie project as an alternative.

Drawing inspiration from and expanding on Qwo-Li Driskill and Michael Floyd’s (2018) article “Digital Photograph: ‘Our Lady of Perpetual Blood Quantum,’” we share our experiences integrating individual activism into multimodal writing practices, particularly with performance art selfie making. In what follows, we first disclose our own backgrounds as a full-time, tenure-track faculty member and an undergraduate student who share an interest in activism. Then, we each offer our stories of individual activism and our perspectives on exploring the selfie as counterhegemonic discourse.

Ledbetter: I want to preface this column with a discussion of my own background and the experiences that have shaped who I am as an activist scholar. I am half Japanese-American, half Caucasian cisgender female scholar in writing and rhetoric studies. As an academic, I have had relatively easy access to discussions about activism within academia. I am also an abuse survivor with multiple mental illness diagnoses, and as I discuss later in this essay, I have found that some forms of highly visible activism in which I have engaged can trigger post-traumatic stress, depression, and anxiety.

These experiences inspired my desire to bring conversations about who can access and participate in individual and collective activism to the forefront of my teaching practices. The course that I developed (and the student work showcased in this column) is designed to raise critical questions about what counts as activism and is designed to equip students and teachers with tools to practice inclusivity and foster dialogue while making change.

Vaccaro:  I am a senior undergraduate writing and rhetoric student. I come from an evangelical Italian-American household, and my father is a university professor. My parents homeschooled me through high school, and my life was always tied to traditional Christian values and academic rigor.

Breaking from my upbringing, I came out as a gay man at the beginning of my time at college and then as a non-binary individual using singular they/them pronouns at the beginning of my junior year. I have had the privilege of coming from a collegiate family, and the struggles I have faced as a gay non-binary person have influenced my interest in studying writing as a tool for activism and self-expression. I have become particularly passionate about the academic work that is done outside of the usual classroom and that uses technology to help break down some of the restrictions of traditional academia.

We hope that through this proposed pedagogy and sample student work, as well as our experiences with individual activism, can inform the work of future activist scholars and educators. The primary implication of practicing counterhegemoic image making for the classroom and teaching is in the teaching and practicing of radical inclusivity for students and educators. When educators participate in meaning-making and storytelling with their students and are willing to take the same risks, engage with the technologies that students use to explore their identities in multiple modalities, and model listening and sharing, they encourage inclusivity. We found that students learn and practice radical inclusivity when they feel that it is safe and important to tell their own stories rather than attempting to tell others’ stories, when they are given options to tell their stories in both visual and written modalities, and when they build a classroom community around self-exploration and shared meaning making. In addition, Ledbetter found that scaffolding the performance art selfie project with a sequence of cultural rhetorics, digital rhetorics, and community-based theory and literature enhanced conversations about inclusivity and responsible individual activism (see Appendix A for a sample assignment).

Tactics of individual action: Learning from Women’s March conversations 

Ledbetter: Concerned that I had not been doing enough visible activism, and motivated by the 2017 Women’s March, I volunteered to be an escort at my local Planned Parenthood. On a cold, early January morning in 2017, I donned a bright pink reflective vest and staked out sections of the sidewalk adjacent to the abortion protestors at the only Planned Parenthood clinic in our New England state. Patients parked their cars, and we greeted them before they endured a short but precarious walk to the clinic doors—a mere two hundred feet or so lined with protestors. Along the crosswalk, protestors, who were handing out anti-abortion pamphlets and small plastic fetuses, harassed patients as they made their way to the clinic.

I had used Planned Parenthood services many times myself and wanted to give back to the organization that helped me and so many others. Yet, I struggled with the emotional toll that this work took on me; my fellow escorts also reported that the barrage of verbal abuse from protestors could be stressful even for the most seasoned volunteers. As a former abuse victim and neurodivergent individual with multiple mental illnesses, I found myself triggered by the hateful words hurled at me and at the patients. I would sometimes lapse into exhaustion and depressive episodes following my shifts. These episodes made it difficult to do my paid job: educating my students. For others with a history of abuse and/or mental illness, this work, and the greater political climate that surrounds this work in the United States presently, might not be safe—so, how could we contribute to the activist movement?

I began to question whether this was the only kind of activism that is needed. I wanted to find a more accessible, personal kind of activism in which I could participate without lapsing into paralyzing flashbacks. After reading Driskill and Floyd’s article (2018), I wondered if activist pedagogy might also be triggering to students who also have histories of trauma, mental illness, and/or abuse, and I wanted to find a way to integrate activism into my classroom so that we could all participate. Cultural rhetorics’ focus on “cultural communities” gave me the language to build my syllabus (Powell, Levy, Riley-Mukavetz, Brooks-Gillies, Novotny & Fisch-Ferguson, 2014); Driskill and Floyd inspired me to integrate an activity centered around acts of individual activism in the classroom: one that acknowledges that resistance does not always have to entail participating in a publicized, collective movement. Driskill and Floyd proposed that activism could be highly personal and even private and still disrupt hegemonic norms of identity and behavior. In the following sections, I provide some background on student demographics at my institution and then share my iteration of the performance art selfie project, which is based on Driskill and Floyd’s work.

Context

Ledbetter: Both the course—WRT 490: Feminisms and Digital Rhetoric—and the selfie project were developed at a large, rural research university in the Northeast. While the course mentioned above is a prerequisite for the final capstone portfolio class in the Writing Major, it is part of my own effort as a cultural rhetorics scholar and writing teacher to engage students with timely issues regarding race, class, and gender in multimodal contexts.

The performance art selfie project asked students to read and engage with Driskill and Floyd’s (2018) article before taking the selfie. In my version of this project, students draw from the readings (see Appendix A for a copy of the assignment) to ask questions about how and why representation matters when it comes to identity. They respond to these questions before taking their selfies. This exploration of self-representation—especially those messy identity markers that exist outside of the institutional and societal categories (e.g., Cintron, 1997)  into which our students are written—encourages the radically inclusive nature of the project. I’ve included the assignment sheet and sample course schedule with suggested readings for the selfie project in Appendix B.

Vaccaro: Non-binary identities are still fairly misunderstood by the general public, and the specifics of our experiences as people are often drowned out by the din of political and semantic arguments waged against us. Selfies can serve as tiny pieces of performance art, allowing us to stage and perform slices of our life experiences in bite-sized portions.  Every time I present femininely, I open myself up to the threat of violence. I have had men try to look up my skirt while on a mall escalator, yell explicit phrases at me from across the street, or glare at me in public bathrooms. Despite living in a world where many places are not safe, I take pride in continuing to express myself authentically and to visually explore my identity.

The selfie project

Ledbetter: I set out to create my own version of the selfie project that appeared in “Digital Photograph: ‘Our Lady of Perpetual Blood Quantum.’” Driskill and Floyd (2018) use the debate within feminist studies about whether selfies, as a form of visual rhetoric, can truly serve an anti-hegemonic purpose, or whether they are just narcissistic calls for attention. In their article, the authors describe the selfie as performance art; discussing a selfie, Driskill provides as an example:

This image, then, intentionally uses embodied, performative, and visual rhetorics to challenge the scanning of my body—and the bodies of other Indigenous, Trans, Two-Spirit, mixed-race, and Disabled people—through inviting viewers to confront their desire to scan bodies for markers of authenticity and/or identify with the experience of being scanned, monitored, and categorized. (Driskill & Floyd, 2018, p. 114)

As the authors point out, the selfie project provides students with a low-tech, multimodal platform to experiment with visual and embodied rhetorics. It also works as an activist-oriented project where students “write with…rather than just about,” a concept from Lauren Obermark and Madaline Walter’s “nothing about us without us” methodology (qtd. in Wheeler,  2018, p. 98). Doing so “allows participants to learn how to write within the stories they find themselves in, as opposed to writing themselves into an unfamiliar—and often unwelcoming—story” (qtd. in Wheeler, 2018, p. 98). This was the key difference between Driskill and Floyd’s approach and the call to participate in large-scale, collective (and sometimes exclusive) activist movements that provided an already existing narrative of resistance.

The Driskill and Floyd project asked students to use selfies as a mode to write within their own stories instead of trying to write themselves into one that already exists. Likewise, I developed the selfie project as a way for students to examine and express their own stories so that students can better understand and practice individual activism in issues of concern for them.

I also developed the project to address my concern for the safety and accessibility of activist pedagogy in a politically fractured and volatile climate for students with a history of trauma. This last component is perhaps different from the focus that Driskill and Floyd bring in their selfie project, but we have found that it enhances and brings even greater inclusivity to the classroom.

Individual action via the selfie

The following examples feature student work that is publicly available for viewing, either online or in an art installation, that students completed as part of the selfie project. Students who wished to share their photos publicly compiled and arranged their printed photos to display in the Department of Writing hallway. They also chose selected excerpts from their reflective essays to display with the photographs. In the image below (fig. 1), we show the public art installation that students created, which the students installed on a wall space immediately in front of the third floor department elevator. This location creates immediate visibility, attracting the attention of people entering the department from the elevators.

This image shows a gallery wall covered with approximately two-dozen selfies.
Fig. 1: students created a public art installation of their selfie projects directly in front of the Department elevator so that visitors would see the installation upon entering the building

Below, Vaccaro shares and discusses their performance art selfie, which they publicly shared on several social media platforms, including Instagram, in addition to putting it on display in the art installation:

The image depicts the article's second author, Vaccaro, against a plush pink background, wearing a pink sweater, and holding a card and a walkman.
Fig. 2: Vaccaro’s #performanceartselfie

Vaccaro: When creating this selfie project, I wanted to take a photo that fit with my Instagram aesthetic, something that my Instagram audience of friends, peers, and fellow LGBTQ folks would enjoy. I use Instagram and Twitter frequently to post selfies that are stylized, spending an evening doing makeup and picking an outfit that goes with a concept in my head specifically for a selfie. This selfie portrays me dressed monochromatically in pink, in one of my favorite sweaters and wearing my favorite pink glasses and pink bow, with a fuzzy pink background. Disrupting the pink are my nails, painted blue to play off the gender binary color scheme, and my gold and pearl cross earring.

My pose is looking slightly down and away from the camera and is meant to mimic classical paintings of the Virgin Mary, a Biblical figure I take personal inspiration from, giving the photo a classical and saintly feeling. The fact that I am not looking at the camera signifies that I am wholly engaged with myself and not outside perspectives, working with the idea that the selfie project is an opportunity for students to work within our own stories, instead of subscribing to one that already exists.

In my photo, my facial hair is juxtaposed with the dominant shade of bubblegum pink and the heavy eye makeup. I enjoy wearing a beard as much as I enjoy playing with makeup, two things that are often seen as mutually exclusive, a blending of masculinity and femininity. The bloody nose in my photo that is fluorescent pink (actually a NYX liquid lipstick) communicates a sense of violence, a piece of the bubblegum-colored landscape of the photo that makes the viewer pause. By portraying the threat of violence that I have to co-exist with as something bright pink and absurd, I portray it on my own terms and refuse to let its possibility silence me. The Walkman and cassette entitled “GIRL MUSIC” are a nod to the female pop stars of the last few decades that I look to for inspiration and strength, as well as a parody of my father when he told me once in high school that my interests were “too girly.”

I am also wearing a dangling gold and pearl earring with a cross pendant, a small detail which perhaps does not fit with the viewer’s expectations of the selfie’s theme. Oftentimes, trans and non-binary folks aren’t seen beyond the fact that they are trans or non-binary; that facet of their life becomes their defining factor for other people. The cross earring not only represents my Christian upbringing but also my current relationship with faith and hints at the larger elements of my personhood going on behind this singular photo.

Conclusion

In keeping with the original assignment created by Driskill and Floyd (2018), the public photos include little or no text and rely on visual and embodied rhetorics. According to Driskill (2018), this strategy was used because “I don’t wish to direct its interpretation too much. Instead, I want to allow for meanings to be made reciprocally with the audience…through inviting viewers to confront their desire to scan bodies for markers of authenticity and/or identify with the experience of being scanned, monitored, and categorized” (pp. 113–14). Students similarly invite their viewers to reflect on their own assumptions and interpretations of the selfies. However, the students did choose to include some textual elements to their installation.

As mentioned earlier, the placement of the installation at the entrance to the department, immediately in front of the elevator, was a deliberate choice intended to direct the gaze of visitors. Vaccaro further reflects on their experience with the selfie project:

Vaccaro: Ultimately, the selfie project allowed me and the other students in the class to experiment with the intersections of the selfie format and personal activism. The project marked a pivotal moment in my own understanding of myself as a potential activist, a student, and a social media user. It validated in an academic context the work we do every day as a generation intrinsically tied to the Internet and social media, and gave us language to communicate the value and theory behind the private power of our selfies.

We offer our stories as individual action sparked first by conversations generated around high-profile collective activism (e.g., the Women’s March) and then by discussions of how rhetorically sophisticated individual activism can take place on a smaller and more accessible scale, with inexpensive and widely available technology. Our findings add further possibilities for Driskill and Floyd’s (2018) performance art selfie project as a pedagogical tool for students and teachers alike.

In sharing this piece, we hope to make activism even more inclusive for students and educators who may not be able to participate in activism that can be triggering or re-traumatizing, or otherwise not feasible. Citizenship status, language barriers, financial and work obligations, chronic illness, and many other factors influence an individual’s ability to participate in activist movements like the Women’s March and activities like escorting patients to Planned Parenthood. Activism should be inclusive of these groups, and we propose that radically inclusive individual activism in the form of the performance art selfie encourages community well-being, critical dialogue, and representation.

References

Cintron, Ralph. (1997). Angels town: Chero ways, gang life, and the rhetorics of everyday. Boston, MA: Beacon Street.

Driskill, Qwo-Li & Floyd, Michael. (2018). Digital photograph: Our lady of perpetual blood quantum. Reflections: A Journal of Public Rhetoric, Civic Writing, and Service Learning, special winter issue, 111–16.

Moss, Pamela & Maddrell, Avril. (2017). Emergent and divergent spaces in the Women’s March: The challenges of intersectionality and inclusion. Gender, Place, and Culture, 24(5), 613-–20.

Pough, Gwendolyn. qtd. in Williams, Sherri. (2017, Jan. 21). Historic exclusion from feminist spaces leaves black women skeptical of march. NBC. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/decades-exclusion-leave-black-women-skeptical-womens-march-n710216.

Powell, Malea, Levy, Daisy, Riley-Mukavetz, Andrea, Brooks-Gillies, Marilee, Novotny, Maria & Fisch-Ferguson, Jennifer. (2014). Our story begins here: Constellating cultural rhetorics. Enculturation: A Journal of Writing, Rhetoric & Culture, 18. Retrieved from http://enculturation.net/our-story-begins-here.

Wheeler, Stephanie. (2018). Engaging disability studies as a site of activist and leadership possibilities. Reflections: A Journal of Public Rhetoric, Civic Writing, and Service Learning, special winter issue, 87–110.

Women’s March on Washington. (2019). 2019 agenda. Retrieved from https://www.womensmarch.com/agenda.

Author Bios

Dr. Lehua Ledbetter (she/her/hers) is an Assistant Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Rhode Island. She holds a joint appointment in the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies. She teaches courses in feminist, digital and cultural rhetorics. Her teaching and research areas include technical and professional communication, community writing and activism, feminist theory, and cultural rhetorics.

Nate Vaccaro (they/them/theirs) is a recent graduate from the Writing and Rhetoric department at the University of Rhode Island. Their academic interests include the Internet’s possibilities within academia, digital rhetoric, and social media.