Negotiating heteronormativity to challenge gender inequality : what's happening on Instagram?

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Massey University
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Gender is performative and embodied. Heteronormative performances and embodiments (re)produce gender inequality in part by maintaining the cultural stigmatization of femaleness and femininity, and the hegemonic function of maleness and masculinity. Those who choose to transgress heteronormativity threaten its cultural legitimacy as the only ‘natural’, ‘normal’ and ‘correct’ way to do gender. In doing so, they also challenge broader processes of gender inequality. In this thesis – through a critical, feminist, and social constructionist lens – I present a visual narrative inquiry into the ways in which female bodybuilders, male bodybuilders, and transgender men perform gender through representations of their bodies on the social media website, Instagram. Female bodybuilders, through representations of their muscular bodies on Instagram, present narratives around female strength, independence, and empowerment that challenge feminine expectations around female weakness, passivity, and subservience. Male bodybuilders, by objectifying their bodies, by being emotionally expressive, and by being emotionally intimate with other men on Instagram, present inclusive masculinities that challenge hegemonic masculine expectations around dominance, stoicism, and rationality. Through their visibility and advocacy on Instagram, trans men present gendered narratives that challenge the heteronormative assumption that all men are born with stereotypically male bodies. These trans men also challenge male hegemony through relatively soft expressions of masculinity. However, I also reveal how the gender-transgressive narratives presented by these groups remain heavily constrained by heteronormative surveillance, through which others heavily police their bodies and encourage them to limit their transgressions through various heteronormative bodily conformities. I argue that these bodily conformities function in part to negotiate, or preserve, the transgressive identities of female and male bodybuilders and trans men on Instagram. Through their exposure to heteronormative surveillance on Instagram, these individuals learn that, in order to have their transgressive identities recognized and validated by others, they must maintain some degree of heteronormative bodily intelligibility; otherwise, their transgressions are dismissed. This is counter to past assertions made by many gender scholars, who have claimed that the gender-conformities of these groups negate or outweigh their resistance. My conclusions take into account the relational and negotiated nature of gender; how our experiences of gender depend on, and manifest through, our interactions with others. Ultimately, I reveal contemporary ways in which cultural understandings of gender are diversifying through online social practices, while also revealing how bodily expectations in particular remain heavily involved in the (re)production of gender inequality. This thesis has important implications for the feminist quest towards eradicating dualistic understandings of gender and the power differentials that exist between the cultural categories of ‘men’ and ‘women’; ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’.
Images re-used with permission.
Gender identity, Bodybuilders, Psychology, Instagram (Firm), Sex discrimination