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Constructing Identity: A Collage

Rhapsodica's picture

In making this collage, I wanted to think about the nature of identity. In my proposal, I mentioned a number of questions I’ve been pondering this semester: why so many people feel such a strong need to develop a coherent sense of self, whether a core “inner” self truly exists, who identity is really for (ourselves? others? both?), and how identifying with labels and categories can be both limiting and empowering. I specifically wanted to think about gender identity and sexual orientation—how they are formed and transformed, and how they shape one’s experiences. I wanted to try to think about all of this both in the content and visual medium of a collage, as well as in the process of creating it. These are some of my thoughts in regards to the above questions, as well as a bit of an explanation of what I ended up putting together.

My collage ended up being about the development and maintenance of a woman’s identity in American society. I suppose I think of the experience of clipping pictures and words and organizing them as akin to constructing one’s identity: we encounter different sets of ideas based on what we have culturally available to us, and that is what we use to begin to form our identities… and then how we take in additional information is affected by that original set. Each time I picked up a new magazine to go through, I chose clippings based on the ones I had amassed so far—what I needed more of, what seemed to fit. Had I started somewhere else, the entire collage could have looked different. The media has such a prominent presence in our lives nowadays, so more influences can potentially start getting to us earlier—and that can be both good and bad. As we get older, we have to learn to juggle the values and roles that we are raised with as well as those that we encounter through the media, interacting with peers, and going to school. We internalize a lot without even realizing it, but other times, we can more consciously choose what we want to make parts of ourselves.

One text I encountered in my sociology class last semester, “Social Interactionism” by Herbert Blumer, describes a theory that holds that people react to situations, not to systems, based on the meanings they have developed for objects (including people, institutions, etc.) as a result of social interaction. He writes that trying to understand a person’s actions based on only social and psychological factors disregards the meanings and meaning-making processes that humans consider and go through when deciding how to act. He believes that the illusion of a system continues to be perpetuated because people in similar situations with similar resources end up resorting to similar solutions—but that people do have the ability to react to individual situations in unique ways. His theory implies that humans have the agency to make choices and commit actions regardless of their prior circumstances, and that is a positive message—one with which I agree. However, this leads me to wonder how change and transformation take place within this theory. It seems that it would be necessary for people to be exposed to different ideas of ways of being in order to even conceive of something other than what they were raised believing, and to also have the means and ability to make that alternative a possibility for them. I don’t think it is entirely true to say someone has the choice to do something differently if they are not even aware they have that choice—or if they do not have the means to make that choice. While I agree that it is too deterministic to say that systems dictate how someone’s life will play out, and that we have little control over what happens to us, I think it is important to consider that one’s concept of what is possible—and thus who one can be—can be severely limited by how much chance one has to encounter other possibilities, and whether those systems limit the ability one has to change one’s place in that system.

So, what does this mean for identity? I suppose that I believe it’s hard to say that everyone has a concrete inner self that our experiences allow us to uncover or discover. I think the aspect of “self” that we keep and develop throughout our lives is more of a process than a thing—a process influenced by biological, psychological, and sociological factors, and refined through our social experiences and exposures. I think it is possible to be completely capable of realizing a certain aspect of identity, but to simply not have experiences that allow for that facet of identity to develop.

I guess the example that I have in the back of my mind as I write this is the process of discovering and coming to terms with one’s sexual orientation. There are, of course, as many different stories for that process as there are people who go through it, and the last thing I want to do is over-generalize; I suppose I am thinking about the kind of process someone might undergo when they realize that they are not straight after they have already built up an identity that is in some way tied up with heterosexuality. From my own experience, and discussions that I’ve had with others who have been in a similar place, it seems to me that coming into contact with others who have gone through similar experiences—in person or through media, books, or some other source—and who are open about who they are, is so vital to the development of that identity. I suppose that is shy I so strongly disagreed when someone on the forum stated that the only way to accept who you are is to do it on your own—so much of who we are is bound up with who we are socialized to believe we can be.

I see my collage as having two halves that sort of flow into one another, with the pieced-together female body in the center. On the left are words and pictures that represent expectations and factors that might initially shape and influence person’s life. At the top corner, I scribbled “there is no such thing as starting with a blank slate. Our lives were written for us long before we started living them. … or were they?”—I mostly did this because I hate starting with a blank page and wanted to use some kind of statement as a starting place. As I said, I do not think our lives are determined by the circumstances into which we are born, and I believe that we have agency in changing who we are and where we are—but I do think we all start somewhere, and that our starting place affects the possibilities we are open to as we learn and develop.

The woman in center is pieced together from a few different clippings—she has a different head, mouth, and body, which I think of as representing the divide (and sometimes, disconnect) between what a person might think, say, and do. It might be possible to recognize some feeling or aspect of who you are, but if you cannot verbalize it—if you do not have language for it and cannot find that language in your world—how can you learn more and act on it? On the left side, I have the pink metal female doll-like thing whispering “girl” to the baby, representing the process of gender socialization that begins as soon as a child is born; this woman in the center whispers “feminism” to the doll that already bears the markings of her society and the pressures to conform. The framework of feminism gives women the understanding and agency to speak and act back against those expectations; it gives them a language for identifying the oppression that they face in their daily lives, and for identifying other possibilities for their lives beyond what they have been exposed to in the past.

On the right side of the collage, I have put together an amalgamation of faces representing women who use words and creative mediums to break through expectations, speak, and express themselves. A lot of the women I have here have had some influence on my own conceptions of gender and sexuality, and who have shaped my own view of my life in some way. I believe that words can be both constraining and empowering, and so “words” and “language” can be found on both sides of collage. I include a bunch of different labels of sexual identities here—“queer,” “lesbian,” “gay,” and “bisexual” (side note 1: it was hard to find a larger clipping of “bisexual,” and side note 2: the labels do not necessarily correspond with the people featured directly around them or how they identify). I think it is a personal choice to decide which of these labels to apply to oneself (and whether to identify with one of them at all), and that labeling can serve the function of allowing the individual to find a coherent narrative of her life—to identify with others who have had the same kinds of experiences (as implied by the label), and as Kate Bornstein explained at her talk, to meet other people like them and thus find a network and gain strength in that identity. It is, to some extent, for other people—to help others figure out how to relate to them, as well as to create community among others who have similar feelings and experiences—but I also believe that choosing a label for one’s sexual identity can change how one processes one’s own experiences, and thus have an effect on the choices they make later, and on how open they are to different feelings and experiences in the future. I guess I’d have to disagree with Felice Picano to some extent—while he and many others may not feel a need to identify themselves for themselves, others do feel that need, and it turns out to be a vital part of their development. Whether that is a socially constructed need or not, it is still very real in how it shapes one’s actions and self-concept.

As for the picture of Hilary Clinton that appears to be holding the caricatured “nutcracker” doll—I don’t really have a deep explanation for that. I found the two clippings in different magazines and thought it was kind of ironic that I could combine them and make it look like she was wielding the doll herself. This is one of the three depictions of women interacting with dolls in the collage, and I suppose it does represent the end of the progression I am trying to represent (and consistent with the pieced-together woman in the center)—first the ideal gives initial shape to someone’s life, then through the raising of awareness she is able to find the vocabulary to understand and speak back against that ideal, and then finally she is able to take control of that ideal and live her own life in spite of it.
I could go on trying to explain and reflect, and I know there are more things that I'd like to address, but I think I’ll leave the rest of it up to interpretation.

Larger pictures can be found at
Although I do not name or quote from many specific texts above, my thinking before, during, and after the creation of the collage and the writing of this reflection was influenced by:
Blumer, Herbert. “The methodological position of symbolic interactionism.” Symbolic Interaction: Perspective and Method. University of California Press, 1986. Print.

---. “Society as symbolic interaction.” Symbolic Interaction: Perspective and Method. University of California Press, 1986.

Bornstein, Kate. My Gender Workbook. London: Routledge, 1997.

Giddens, Anthony. “The trajectory of the self.” Modernity and Self-Identity. Stanford University Press, 1997.

Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday, 1959.

Mason-Schrock, Douglas. “Transsexuals’ Narrative Construction of the ‘True Self’.” Social Psychology Quarterly, 59(3): 176-192. 1996.