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Web Event 1: Self-Expression and Gender Identity on Facebook

pialamode314's picture

            The rise in popularity of social media networks such as Facebook in our generation has sparked a lot of discussion amongst people about its potential for breaking down barriers of self-expression, especially when it comes to gender identity and exploration. As one study quotes, “Online media was cast as a potential agent of social change with respect to gender oppression and discrimination on a number of levels” (Bailey et al. 4). People talk about having the freedom to customize their Facebook profiles to portray the person they believe themselves to be, or aspire to be. It also seems in many ways to be a great avenue in which to explore and express gender identity. I myself have found that I love using my Facebook profile to express my continuously changing gender identity. Though I identify as a woman and have never changed genders, over the past few years the way I express my gender identity has certainly altered. By uploading photos and making posts on my Facebook profile, I have found a way to proudly express my identity to my “friends” as it changes. I even have a good friend who transitioned to a gender-neutral identity over the summer, and they used Facebook as a way to make people aware by changing their name and pronouns on their profile, followed by an open statement about it in a post to clear up any confusion. With all of these positive experiences, it would seem that Facebook is an ideal playing field for social change. However, could Facebook also be a place that restricts gender identity expression and exploration? In what ways could Facebook be limiting my gender expression as a cisgender queer woman, and people with different gender identities, especially non-binary genders?

            One of the most obvious aspects of this question to explore is stereotyping and how one’s gender on Facebook affects how their pictures, posts, etc. are judged by outsiders. In the offline world, there are clear socially constructed gender roles and “norms” that many people, especially young people, are influenced by and feel pressured to adopt, if for nothing other than acceptance in a judgmental society. In a study that looked at the embodied sexuality in Facebook profile pictures, a similar social construction was found to exist in the online world of social networking. As the author says of the profile pictures studied, “The influences of social construction are also evident in the difference of bodily poses/movements performed in the photos…this online community submits to the offline society’s normative rules” (Luna 2). This would imply that because of Facebook’s emphasis on “truthful” presentation of the self, especially through photos, many people may feel subjected to follow the same gender roles and ideas of conventional beauty pressured by society. That is, many women and girls feel the need to appear slender, curvy, emotional and nice, while men and boys must appear strong and indifferent to emotions. There seems to exist a distinct set of rules that differentiate males from females and govern how each should act in the social world, offline and online (Luna 3).

            This plays right into the ways in which people of various genders are judged on their profiles and social network activity. It is not hard to see clear “discriminatory double standards in online social network” (Bailey et al. 17), that allow boys and men to be judged much less harshly than girls and women. Another study was performed where a fake profile was created for a young woman who fit the conventional ideas of beauty, had photos with friends and her boyfriend, posted about various “normal” things in the life of a teenager, etc. Participants were asked to make judgments about this person based on her profile, and the overwhelming majority made statements about her seeking too much attention, appearing superficial, and being a “slut” (Bailey et al. 11-15), for the mere reasons of having too many “fun” photos, her poses and outfits in photos with friends and her boyfriend, and her emotionally-geared posts. The participants later acknowledged the existence of the double standards to which males and females are held in online spaces; as stated in the article, “…boys were judged much less harshly than girls for demonstrating indifference to their relationships online…boys who do emphasize their girlfriends in their profiles are judged positively, while girls risk being judged negatively for the same kind of content…” (Bailey et al. 13). The participants agreed that girls and women in general have to be much more careful than boys and men about how they construct their Facebook profiles (Bailey et al. 16).

            When looking at a social network like Facebook from this viewpoint, it would seem that Facebook is particularly limiting for girls and women and stifles their freedom to openly express their gender. In fact, having read this study, I found that even I felt these subtle pressures, though I may not have realized it before. For example, tying into my anti-self portrait from class, I have always been afraid to post videos on Facebook of myself performing music not because I am embarrassed, but because I fear being wrongly judged as an “attention-seeker.” The author of the study summed up these ideas well towards the end of the paper: “…continuing discriminatory standards around public participation may effectively police girls’ capacity to fully participate online and complicate their ability to shirk off the socially-imposed shroud of modesty through defiant gender performances” (Bailey et al. 18).

            It is clear that gender roles and double standards for men and women are alive and well in the social networking scene, but one of the most important issues to address is the restrictions Facebook and its structure places on people who do not fit the gender binary. When creating a Facebook account, one of the mandatory questions a user is first asked is what gender they are; however, the only options a user may choose are “male” and “female”. Obviously this poses a huge issue for anyone who may not identify as male or female, because though they may live their non-binary gender identity as strongly as any male- or female-identified person, Facebook excludes them from expressing that in their profiles (Grosser 13). Even more disquieting is that through the process of “gender hacking,” by modifying the computer code using tools built into the major browsers for live editing of HTML and CSS, users can basically change the data value in their drop-down gender choice to 0 (where 1=Female, 2=Male), and this results in Facebook using ‘they, their, them’ pronouns on their profile. Though this may seem like a good thing, it is actually quite disturbing because it suggests that although Facebook clearly has the code in place to allow that option for gender-neutrality, for reasons other than technological complications it (or rather the code writers) prefers to limit the gender options to two, despite having taken the time to program a system with a third option (Grosser 21). This shows clear bias and exclusion when it comes to non-binary genders – let alone the fact that there are even more genders/related pronouns than three, and those are not options in any way. As Kannabiran puts it, “…all these non-binary genders are bundled up into one category that the user does not have access to choose in the first place” (Kannabiran 4).

            It is also of interest to examine the way people utilize and/or are limited by Facebook during a change or exploration of gender. Although it is true that in some ways, as in the case with my friend mentioned earlier, Facebook can be a great tool for confronting change and making acquaintances aware or clearing up confusion, there are distinct ways in which it could limit gender expression in a time of change. Change, especially when it comes to exploring different genders or gender presentations, is often viewed rather negatively. One’s Facebook profile is, in a sense, “an active construction of the self in the digital world…the profile is not static bio-data but rather an organic and evolving identity to which and through which the users interact” (Kannabiran 2). However, this is not a viewpoint held by the majority of society, and one of the ways in which Facebook can restrict this constant state of change and exploration of gender is that it retains everything that a user posts online. “This makes individual change and exploration more difficult due to the perpetual storage and retrievability of the information they make public” (Grosser 7). For example, when I began to go through change in how I presented my gender, including online, I found myself constantly worrying about what other users might see from my Facebook past that could contradict my current views and identity and how they might judge me for that change (since, although this kind of change is normal, it is not portrayed as acceptable by society). Furthermore, any time a user changes something about their personal info it is made public to all of their friends, unless they actively know how to find and hide it. This means that the more personal information a user shares on Facebook (including gender and/or sexuality), the harder it is to change any aspect of it without others noticing (Grosser 8).

            Probably one of the most powerful, yet subtle ways in which Facebook limits personal expression of gender identity is simply in the way it is visually constructed. Facebook profiles all use the same template design and allow for very little customization – though it may seem like a user has total control over how they present themselves, that freedom is boxed. This may not seem like a big deal on the surface, but what this sort of homogenization of profile layouts does is it leaves “each one of Facebook’s 500 million users looking more and more like the residents of a typical gated community, even though there is a world of difference on the other side of the screen” (Grosser 18). I read a striking quote from Wendy Chun’s book Programmed Visions in which she is discussing how networks such as Facebook are all about “you”. I believe it sums up why this idea is troubling and dehumanizing:

“But, who or what are you? You are you, and so is everyone else. A shifter, you both addresses you as an individual and reduces you to a you like everyone else…Tellingly, your home page is no longer that hokey little thing you created after your first HTML tutorial; it’s a mass-produced template, or even worse, someone else’s home page – Google’s, Facebook’s, the New York Times’. You: you and everyone; you and no one.”

In essence, your Facebook profile reduces you to a set of links that connects you to the things you like, along with everyone else. Having a personal profile appears to give you freedom of expression, but in reality that freedom is boxed and limited – a crucial point in understanding how Facebook can be a deceptively stifling platform when it comes to gender expression and exploration.

            In starting this writing project, my original idea was to discuss how Facebook enables freedom of gender identity expression and acts as a platform for social change. However, as I began to dig into all of these studies and readings, my eyes were opened to a harsh reality that I had previously been ignorant to. Though for some (mainly those users with various degrees of privilege) Facebook can be a positive force in their own personal gender journeys, it is actually quite exclusionary towards those who may not fit social and gender “norms”. Its limits on self-description, gender identity selections, and its consistent visual layout essentially reduces its users into chunks of data that “describe people not as the complex social and cultural constructions that they are, but instead as collections of consumers to be marketed to and managed” (Grosser 23). These limits are basically embodiments of the views, ideologies, and cultures of the people who create and run the software behind Facebook (Grosser 13). Thus it is no surprise that the vast majority of Facebook’s leadership is in the hands of white, cisgender males (Grosser 14). Perhaps then, change in the way Facebook operates is not an impossible hope. By including people of varying genders and cultures in the creation of Facebook, just maybe it can evolve into the all-gender-including platform for social change and free gender identity expression and exploration for which it has such great potential to be.

Works Cited

Bailey, J., Steeves, V., Burkell, J., Regan, P. (2013). “Negotiating With Gender Stereotypes on Social Networking Sites: From ‘Bicycle Face’ to Facebook.” Retrieved from

Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. (2011). Programmed Visions: Software and Memory. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

De Luna, Teresa Paula S. (2011). “Performing the Face: A look at the embodied sexuality in the profile photos of selected Facebook users.” Retrieved from

Grosser, Benjamin. (2011). “How the Technological Design of Facebook Homogenizes Identity and Limits Personal Representation.” Retrieved from

Kannabiran, Gopinaath. (2011). “Themselves: Critical Analysis of Gender in Facebook.” Retrieved from



Anne Dalke's picture

"residents of a gated community"

what tickles me most about this project is the way it moves--from your initial notion that "Facebook enables freedom of gender identity expression and acts as a platform for social change," to your eventual recognition of the "limits on self-description, gender identity, and visual layout," which are "marketed to and managed." You end with the hopeful thought that if different sorts of people were working for Facebook, a wider spectrum of representation might emerge (women are woefully underrepresented in the technology industry...)

And yet: I wonder. I'm remembering something Scott McCloud taught me, in Understanding Comics [as mediated by one of my students, AnnaP]:

McCloud explains the power of the cartoon in part as a power of identification; when the reader sees a detailed face that looks like a real person, they are more likely to perceive them as a separate and specific character, whereas a simple, cartoon-like face is more universal and easier to identify with.

McCloud examines not only at how the style of images affects how they are perceived, but also how images and words work differently to evoke a response in the reader. Interestingly enough, as images get simpler and simpler (more and more cartoon-like), they actually require more attention and imagination to be understood – just like words usually do. Conversely, when words are simpler and more direct, they don’t need as much attention and are more easily understood, making them more like pictures.

What this makes me question, in your project, is how close pictures--any sort of picture--can come to representing the self, especially the fluid, ever-changing self you describe: the harder it tries, the more specific it gets, the more it misses! Might words allow more space for play, be less directive, than such images? (We talked about this question in class, when we began looking @ graphic narratives....)

iskierka's picture

Social media juxtaposition

It's really fascinating to see how two very current examples of social media can tackle certain issues in very different lights. Facebook, very person based, appears more of a chronicle of events, turning a person into a series of secondhand experiences. I had known there were certain browser plug-ins that gave one the ability to change one's gender online to a gender-neutral option, but I was unaware that the code had already been written up and just neglected implementation. On the other hand, Tumblr seemed more idea-focused - where Facebook asked for specific factoids about the user's life (birthdate, career, likes and whatnot), Tumblr kept more of an abstract blank slate where a user could put up any information they chose, from a completely impersonal photo log to a completely faked identity. There's no correlating gender option, if only because the most personal information requested is an email address. This level of customization became more of a form of expression, for better or for wose, while Facebook seems more a mode of connection; Tumblr's variant can lead to a manipulation of trust and honesty, based on the anonymous baseline, but Facebook can be hugely limiting in terms of expression - both have huge downfalls because of opposing emphases. 

ari_hall's picture

Something I hadn't thought about

The exclusive nature of self-representation and more specifically gender representation on Facebook was something I had never really considered. As a cisgender girl, not knowing much of anything when I first created my Facebook, checking off the "female" box was nothing I took a closer look into. Similar to the topic i discussed, the web seems to be a mode of enhanced exploaration and education, which it can be and often is, however, many times it is also limiting or inaccurate. Gender representation and racial representation through forms of online media often face the same challenges; the online systems are usually created by white cisgender males and do not offer the safest and most flexible presentations of and for individuals.