Digital Feeling 3031235614, 9783031235610

This book offers a trailblazing account of postfeminist sensibility as a digital feeling that shapes how we understand t

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Digital Feeling
 3031235614, 9783031235610

Table of contents :
Chapter 1: Postfeminist Sensibility as a Structure of Feeling
A Postfeminist Sensibility
Digital and Feely Flows of Postfeminism
An Emotional and Affective Postfeminism
Popular Feminism
Sensibility: A Structure of Feeling
Summary: Digital Feeling in (Post)digital Cultures
Chapter 2: Gender, Race, Nation … and Barbie Savior
White Saviour Industrial Complex
Celebrity Humanitarianism
Barbie Savior’s Postfeminist Colonialism
Gendering (White) Voluntourism
“Orphans Take the BEST Pictures!”
Enterprise in the White Saviour Industrial Complex: “It’s not about me … but it kind of is”
Conclusion: What Are We Laughing at, Exactly?
Chapter 3: Sweat Is Just Fat Crying
From Fitness Culture to Fitspo Culture
Postfeminist Healthism: “Strong is the New Skinny”
A Structure of Fitness
Pro-ana Versus Fitspo: Or the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Body Work
Fitspo as Cruel Optimism
Shame, Shame, Shame
Chapter 4: Making-Up Enterprising Selves
Post-Fordist Labour Contexts
Smiling, Happy People
Do What You Love
Influence Me!
TikTok Beauty and GRWM
“It doesn’t smudge, it doesn’t budge”
“So stinking cute, go look at my Instagram”
“Just the way you are”
Chapter 5: Hot Men on the Commute
Sneaky Pics and the Politics of Public Space
An Intimate Alienation
The City
The Commute
The Carriage
“See, Snap, Share”
Chapter 6: Cute! Cats! Intimacies of the Internet
Intimacy: Public-Private and More-than-Human
Feline Femininity
A Very Short Genealogy of Cats and Women
Cats of the Internet
Cute Cats and Normativity
Cats as a Political Strategy
Chapter 7: Epilogue: Digital Feeling

Citation preview

Digital Feeling Adrienne Evans · Sarah Riley

Digital Feeling

“Digital Feeling is innovative, theoretically rich and timely. This book takes scholarship on postfeminist media cultures into new directions by considering postfeminism as a structure of feeling. Using diverse and engaging case studies, this book taps into a digital culture that is highly oriented towards feelings, vibes and moods.” —Clare Southerton, Lecturer in Digital Technology and Pedagogy, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Adrienne Evans • Sarah Riley

Digital Feeling

Adrienne Evans Centre for Postdigital Cultures Coventry University Coventry, UK

Sarah Riley School of Psychology Massey University Wellington, Aotearoa/New Zealand

ISBN 978-3-031-23561-0    ISBN 978-3-031-23562-7 (eBook) © The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2023 This work is subject to copyright. All rights are solely and exclusively licensed by the Publisher, whether the whole or part of the material is concerned, specifically the rights of translation, reprinting, reuse of illustrations, recitation, broadcasting, reproduction on microfilms or in any other physical way, and transmission or information storage and retrieval, electronic adaptation, computer software, or by similar or dissimilar methodology now known or hereafter developed. The use of general descriptive names, registered names, trademarks, service marks, etc. in this publication does not imply, even in the absence of a specific statement, that such names are exempt from the relevant protective laws and regulations and therefore free for general use. The publisher, the authors, and the editors are safe to assume that the advice and information in this book are believed to be true and accurate at the date of publication. Neither the publisher nor the authors or the editors give a warranty, expressed or implied, with respect to the material contained herein or for any errors or omissions that may have been made. The publisher remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations. Cover illustration: PM Images/Getty Images This Palgrave Macmillan imprint is published by the registered company Springer Nature Switzerland AG. The registered company address is: Gewerbestrasse 11, 6330 Cham, Switzerland


We want to express how grateful we are to Rosalind Gill and Angela McRobbie. So much of our thinking starts with their generative work and is the soul of our own feeling and writing. We would also like to thank the editors of New Sporting Femininities: Embodied Politics in Postfeminist Times, Aesthetic Labour: Rethinking Beauty Politics in Neoliberalism and Digital Intimate Publics and Social Media, who have given us room to develop some of our earlier thoughts on some of the subjects covered in this book, especially in Chaps. 3, 4 and 5. We thank Adrienne’s colleagues in the Centre for Postdigital Cultures at Coventry University, especially Janneke Adema, Lindsay Balfour, Miriam De Rosa, Gary Hall, Mel Jordan, Marcus Maloney, Sarah Merry and Elpida Prasopoulou, for helping create generous spaces to explore the ideas in this book; and Francien Broekhuizen, Silvia Diaz-Fernandez, Poppy Wilde, Virginia Yiqing Yang and Esme Spurling for all the fascinating conversations. Thanks also to the international community of the AHRC Postdigital Intimacies Network that Adrienne co-organises with Jessica Ringrose, and which includes so many inspirational colleagues. Finally, we would like to thank our family, friends and partners; plus, Adrienne’s two dogs for their love and support; and, also, Dan the Cat, whose own signature style of grumpiness is very much missed and whose companionship was the original inspiration behind Chap. 6.



1 Postfeminist Sensibility as a Structure of Feeling  1 2 Gender, Race, Nation … and Barbie Savior 27 3 Sweat Is Just Fat Crying 55 4 Making-Up Enterprising Selves 87 5 Hot Men on the Commute115 6 Cute! Cats! Intimacies of the Internet139 7 Epilogue: Digital Feeling163 Index169



Postfeminist Sensibility as a Structure of Feeling

A Postfeminist Sensibility In this book, we locate much of our discussion of subjectivity in digital culture within the context of a postfeminist sensibility. A postfeminist sensibility was described in Rosalind Gill’s (2007) pivotal work as having several elements: a shift from sexual objectification to sexual subjectification; a transformation ethic, where the self is constantly worked on; femininity as a bodily property; individualism, choice and empowerment understood through consumerist logics; a deepening of self-surveillance, self-­ monitoring and self-disciplining; and a return of biological essentialist arguments about the ‘nature’ of gender. These elements were contextualised within a cultural discourse of gender equality as achieved and thus any residual sexism should be understood as playful and ironic (Gill, 2007). Such sense-making suggested that feminism was no longer needed and could withdraw to “a retirement home in an unfashionable rundown holiday resort” (McRobbie, 2004, p. 512). But within this celebratory context, some feminist analysts saw instead the flourishing of new forms of gender power. They associated a postfeminist sensibility with a ‘re-traditionalisation’ of gender, whereby women were encouraged to participate in traditional gender practices such as working on the self to look heterosexually attractive, but—with an added postfeminist twist—to understand this work as driven by their individual choice as empowered women and underpinned by their biological hardwiring © The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2023 A. Evans, S. Riley, Digital Feeling,




(e.g. McRobbie, 2009, 2020). This re-constitution of traditional female gender practices as modern and empowering was seen as a response to a liberal feminist agenda that called for greater freedoms and equality in relation to women’s pay, employment, education, motherhood, public participation and domestic labour. Such an agenda held the potential for radical social change, a potential reduced by a postfeminist sensibility that offered women a sense of empowerment through an individualism that made redundant collective, political activism for social change. Postfeminism offered women new subjectivities that allowed them to understand themselves as empowered through particular practices and associated sense-making (e.g. beauty work as a pleasurable choice). Drawing on Foucault (1975), in opening up possibilities to understand oneself in particular ways, postfeminist sensibility is a form of disciplinary power. Postfeminist sensibility is also an example of a new form of post-­ truth non-linear power (Cosentino, 2020; Riley, Evans & Robson 2019, Riley et al., 2022). Non-linear power works through complexity and contradiction, whereby the subsequent confusion and uncertainty creates in people a desire for the stability of past certainties, such as those offered by traditional gender roles. One example of complexity and contradiction in postfeminist sensibility is the bringing together of individual choice and biological essentialism. The contradiction that women are both agentically choiceful and driven by their biological hardwiring creates the context where, for example, the recent fashion for marriage (which feminists had previously critiqued as a patriarchal institution) is understood as evidence of women’s ‘natural’ drives to be married, since in an apparently free and equal society women choose marriage (Broekhuizen, 2020). The contradictory logic that women’s desires for marriage are both their individual choice and hardwired also helps make the idea that women are choosing marriage a logical argument, since whatever ‘side’ you take (biology or individual choice) justifies marriage and makes invisible or illogical any consideration of socialisation or social pressure (thus also making it illogical to argue for social or cultural change). Understanding that new forms of power work through complexity and contradiction is also helpful for analysts interested in contemporary subjectivities. Typically, analysts look for coherent cultural or psychological patterns and practices, but with this approach we miss the way postfeminist sensibility works through ambiguity, contradictions and disparity. The brilliance of Gill’s formulation of a postfeminist sensibility, then, has been in allowing analysts to recognise this set of fluid and disparate elements to be



interconnected, and to understand that complexity and contradiction is in part how it works to maintain unequal gender power relations through a language of freedom, choice, individualism and empowerment (Riley et al., 2017). This language of freedom, choice, individualism and empowerment is also folded into consumerism. For example, the socio-historic idea that women still desire and prioritise marriage and motherhood over other aspects of their lives is given a postfeminist twist when this (biological) desire is fulfilled through making free, individual, consumer choices regarding their means of conception (e.g. IVF, egg freezing), choice of different parenting styles (see, e.g., the range of self-help guides from Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Chua, 2011) to The Attachment Parenting Book (Sears & Sears, 2001)) and consumer choice when decorating the home and the nursery, evident across a range of Pinterest and Instagram groups/accounts (see Rossie, 2018; Riley, Evans & Robson, 2019). In this example, two seemingly contradictory discourses—biological essentialism and individual choice—work in tandem, maintaining both women-as-agentic-economic consumer and woman-as-natural-mother, both working together to secure economic participation and women’s ‘second shift’ at home. The interconnections between consumerism and postfeminism are enabled, in part, by the “profound relation between neoliberal ideologies and postfeminism” (Gill, 2007, p.163). Neoliberalism is largely taken to mean an economic doctrine of free market capitalism that promotes market competition and entrepreneurialism. Neoliberalism is important for researchers interested in subjectivity because there is a psychological element to such free market capitalism, whereby citizen subjects are hailed as highly individualistic, consumer-oriented, self-reliant and productive, able to treat the self as a reflective project. In this sense-making, the self is a ‘company of one’, to be managed as though the self was in a market, including understanding the self through the logics of advertising, promotion, exchange and competition (Banet-Weiser, 2012; Bowsher, 2019; Brown, 2015; Dardot & Laval, 2014; McGuigan, 2013; Read, 2009; Rose, 1996). Neoliberal subjectivities are seen in digital culture, where individuals are required to participate in forms of self-branding, especially in social media, online forms of dating and ‘hook up’ culture, and in relation to employment, including the ‘gig’ economy and other precarious digital forms of labour (Woodcock & Graham, 2020; Duffy & Hund, 2015; Pruchniewska, 2018; Illouz, 2007, see also Chap. 4 in this book).



Gill (2016) describes a postfeminist sensibility as “a patterned yet contradictory sensibility connected to other dominant ideologies (such as individualism and neoliberalism)” (p.  621). In this book, we draw on this description to understand postfeminism as a gendered form of neoliberalism, where neoliberal subjectivity and constructions of ideal femininity meet at an important historical intersection (Evans & Riley, 2014; Gill, 2008, 2017). Making the association between postfeminism and neoliberalism is important for helping us situate the reproduction of inequalities, since both make invisible the way social problems are often the result of long-lasting inequalities embedded in structures of class, race, ethnicity, sexuality and so on. Postfeminism, as a gendered form of neoliberalism, offers personal, often consumer-oriented, solutions to inequalities emerging from the continuation of inequality based on social structures (Brown, 2015; Gill, 2008, 2017; Riley, Evans & Robson, 2019). We also understand both neoliberalism and postfeminism as adaptable and fluid technologies. Drawing on Ong’s (2007) analysis of neoliberalism as a “mobile technology”, co-existing “with other political rationalities” (p.4), we see postfeminism and neoliberalism as co-existing rationalities that reproduce themselves at various sites across the globe by adapting to local contexts, with their attendant histories, cultures and political specificities. In this book, we draw on a body of work that has been mapping postfeminism sensibility as it emerges in digital culture. Over a decade of research on postfeminist sensibility has developed the concept, both in terms of scholarship for thinking about a postfeminist sensibility and in tracking it as it adapts across social/cultural change and geopolitical and economic spaces. Here, we use the original framework of postfeminist sensibility described above, since it offers important base-points for thinking about postfeminism (and neoliberalism) and we also draw on more recent discussions of postfeminist sensibility that have focused on three key issues. These are: first, the shaping of postfeminist sensibility in digital flows and through online culture; second, a new attention to the role of emotion and affect in the way postfeminist sensibility saturates contemporary culture; and, third, the resurgence of feminist activity, including ‘popular’ or ‘neoliberal’ feminism, which further complicates what is meant by a ‘postfeminist sensibility’. We turn to each of these areas below.



Digital and Feely Flows of Postfeminism In Gill’s original 2007 discussion of the characteristics of a postfeminist sensibility, a notable absence was of any mention of digital culture. At that time, many of the today’s recognisable mainstays in digital culture were only just evolving (e.g. Twitter was founded in 2006, Instagram was 2010). But, as they did, feminist researchers were quick to develop analyses of how postfeminist sensibility developed online (e.g. Dobson, 2015; Kanai, 2019). A body of work has been produced in relation to femininity and ‘the image’, as the internet, social media and mobile technology make increasing use of visual forms of communication, with a particular focus on selfies and sexting (Hasinoff, 2015; Ringrose & Harvey, 2015; Tiidenberg, 2018; Tiidenberg & Gómez, 2015). For others, the affordances of digital media create new ways to engage in self-branding and brand management, creating an entrepreneurial postfeminist workplace enabled through ‘likes’, ‘shares’ and often premised on forms of aesthetic labour (Duffy, 2015, 2017; Duffy & Hund, 2015; Elias et  al., 2017; Pruchniewska, 2018). Jessica Ringrose’s work on postfeminism and digital culture also makes an important contribution, showing how, through a Deleuzian lens, a postfeminist sensibility flows through the on and offline, shaping educational contexts and young people’s interpersonal relationships (Coleman & Ringrose, 2013; Dobson & Ringrose, 2016; Renold & Ringrose, 2008, 2017; Ringrose, 2012; Ringrose & Harvey, 2015). One notable contribution to this work has been Amy Shields Dobson’s (2015) analysis of femininity and online self-representation. Dobson (2015) suggests that girls and young women’s self-representational practices on social media are often denigrated, understood as self-obsessed, narcissistic and trivial. This trend could also be seen, for example, in the problematisation of young women’s selfie-taking practices (Tiidenberg, 2018). But rather than problematise the girls and young women themselves, Dobson (2015) argues that we should direct our critical attention to the cultural conditions that enable and limit what can be said and done in online and digital spaces. In taking this approach, Dobson (2015) draws on Berlant (2008) who asks us to focus on “what is absorbing in the defensive, inventive, and adaptive activity of getting by” (p.27 emphasis added). In thinking about girls and young women’s activities of ‘getting by’, and of making things work in conditions not of their own making, Dobson’s approach to postfeminist sensibility in digital and social media draws attention to how girls and young women negotiate the conditions of



postfeminism, “to illuminate the complexities, tensions, and shifting flows of power in media and in gendered subjectivity production in postfeminist digital cultures” (p.5). Another incisive move that Dobson (2015) makes, and that we also try and follow in this book, is in arguing for a slow analysis, one that does not immediately jump to conclusions or make critical judgements about those being studied (or those implicated in the analysis). Dobson was writing in a cultural moment in which there was a heightened concern about the ‘sexualisation of culture’ in government, academic and public discourse, which produced a series of ‘moral panics’ that shaped many early considerations of girls, young women and a range of media (Attwood, 2018; Egan, 2013; Evans & Riley, 2014), panics that we believe are still reverberating today. Therefore, in this book, we also believe that in our analysis of digital and social media, “we need to be slow when we are affectively heat up” (Dobson, 2015, p.7). In her validation of slow research, we see parallels between Dobson’s (2015) approach to postfeminist digital culture and to our own call for a “curious affection” to elements of a postfeminist sensibility, ones that allows us to think through the interconnectedness of life and theory by being ‘light’ in our judgements (Evans & Riley, 2014, p.142). A further argument that we made in our previous work was that often the process of problematising, although valuable for shining a light on an object, is also a process of othering (Evans & Riley, 2014). In the context of the sexualisation of culture, this was evident in the focus on young women and girls, for whom an emotional panic and concern was generated. As feminist analysts, we were also not immune from these concerns and could sense the ambiguity of our own emotional responses and the contradictions that these engendered. We treated such emotion as an equal part in our analysis of the sexualisation of culture, where we sought to think through what anxieties were being masked through the concern. In this book, the digital feelings evident in the examples we use—of a satirical Barbie doll, fitspo, Get Ready With Me (GRWM) videos, TubeCrush or cat videos—make us feel too and often with a range of feeling. But, rather than produce more panic, we recognise these feelings, using them to think through what logics are happening for those we might otherwise ‘other’ in our emotive stance. We also suggest that emotional intensities are both analysable within particular digital media contexts and in relation to other objects. By this, we mean the way that digital media and culture does not exist in its own vacuum; just as subjectivity is formed through relationality and in social



context, so too are digital media, and postfeminism flows through these relational connections. For example, in our analysis of TubeCrush (Evans & Riley, 2018, see also Chap. 5), we understand a website that features unsolicited pictures of attractive men on public transport as an assemblage of issues, events, objects and people. TubeCrush is about gender, elements of appearance, desire and attraction. More than this, it is about the city of London, styled urban masculinity, how previously marginalised groups (straight women and gay men) own the image, privacy and consent, the sharability of the image and the public reaction to TubeCrush. Moreover, TubeCrush is also about how it makes us feel. While there is still room for critique amongst this heterogeneity and complexity, we believe it is important to understand the subjective draw, pull or allure of the objects of our analysis. We use this framing to maintain an orientation of curious affection and produce a slow analysis, where the chapters of this book explore element of digital culture that are emotive within themselves, connected up to wider emotional discourses that circulate around them, and that reach out into the world and shape how people can act, think, feel and be. An Emotional and Affective Postfeminism Alongside this analysis of postfeminist sensibility and digital culture, feminist researchers have also begun documenting the deeply emotional and affective elements of a postfeminist sensibility in its address, especially as these emerge online. Many, for example, have noted an emotive shift away from a negative and critical tone. This judgemental tone was characterised by reality TV shows like What Not to Wear, in which the hosts Trinny and Susannah made scathing comments that shamed or despaired at a woman’s sense of style, or the practice of drawing attention to the faults of celebrities, often found in women’s magazines like Heat (see McRobbie (2009) and Gill (2007)). By contrast, the emotions circulating today are more likely to focus on forms of body positivity, self-love and self-care. One way to understand this shift to a more positive emotional landscape within a postfeminist sensibility is to see it as creating a more compassionate, gentle and ‘safer’ space for women to express themselves, to ‘be who they want to be’. This is an alluring and optimistic view. And yet, as we have explored above, the appearance of change (be it gender equality or positive emotions) can reveal more insidious restructurings of power (Gill, 2017). For example, Gill and Orgad (2015) document the turn to confidence, citing the emergence of ‘confidence ambassadors’ in workplaces, and the



inclusion of a ‘body confidence’ badge in the otherwise practical skill-­ oriented Girlguiding youth group organisation (see also Orgad and Gill (2022)). Likewise, our own work has identified this shift in self-help literature, where transformation is now predicated on self-­belief (Riley, Evans & Robson, 2019). For example, in the 2016 bestseller The Goddess Revolution author Mel Wells suggests that women throw away their scales and ignore diets that focus on rules. Wells instead proposes that success begins by getting ‘full of yourself’ (cited in Riley et  al., 2019). However, in Gill and Orgad’s (2015, 2017; Orgad & Gill, 2022) research, and in our own work (Riley, Evans & Robson, 2019; Riley et al., 2022), the focus on self-esteem, self-confidence and self-belief can be critiqued for creating new pressures, while being underscored by an understanding that we are already failed subjects. That is, the constant messages that we should be more confident, positive or accepting of our bodies assumes we are not already—and need to work harder, transforming not just our bodies, but minds too. A similar observation is made by Gill and Elias’ (2014) in their discussion of ‘Love Your Body’ discourses in advertising, often promoted by companies who have a vested interest in the diet and cosmetics industries (e.g. the WeightWatchers dieting programme or Dove cosmetics), of which Orgad and Gill (2022) term a “confidence industrial complex” (see Chap. 2 for another use of the term industrial complex, in relation to digital culture, voluntourism and aid). As Gill and Elias (2014) suggest, a key to the success of these advertising campaigns is their sharability. Love Your Body are one of a range of emerging body-positive sentiments expressed by advertiser’s consumer base, permitting a ‘viral’ effect by harnessing the advert’s emotional appeal alongside hashtags that also seek to share positivity, such as #bodypositive, #nomakeupselfie and #effyourbeautystandards. Research also highlights the emotional and affective components of a postfeminist sensibility in how people use digital culture. Notwithstanding a recognition of the hostility of digital culture, many researchers have explored the subtler forms of power embodied by positivity, warmth and shared feeling. Kanai’s (2019) analysis of postfeminist girlfriendship in online blogging communities shows how belonging and sameness are developed through the sharing on memes and gifs with others who are notknown but addressed as known. Kanai makes sense of these communities by drawing on Winch’s (2013) analysis of postfeminist girlfriendship, in which representations of female camaraderie actually create the ground for heightened forms of self-surveillance and self-discipline. Adding to this account, Kanai analyses girlfriendship alongside Berlant’s (2008) discussion of the



intimate public, in which shared sentimentality and knowingness bring together communities in ways that redirect discontent with gendered practices so that complaint is abandoned and normativity is upheld and reinforced (we discuss the intimate public in more depth in Chap. 6). Using both postfeminist girlfriendship and the intimate public, Kanai (2019) suggests these online forums are saturated with positive feelings, including belonging and friendship. Such feelings permit the sense of being close to others so that they might share the disappointments of femininity (e.g. putting on weight, seeing the guy they fancy fall for someone else), without challenging femininity. Instead, good feeling is created through humour and a sense of shared experience. Similarly, in Retallack et al.’s (2016) work on what they term ‘inspo-paras’—the short messages of body positivity shared between young women and girls through digital media in school— they identify the “circulation of affective solidarities” (Ringrose & Renold, 2015, p.11), or a collective recognition of the toxicity of femininity, which is addressed through highlighting friends’ ‘best features’. Thus, these spaces create good feeling, sharing experience and support. But in this good feeling, there is also forms of self-surveillance and self-discipline, where the potential to challenge and question a culture that values women for their appearance is redirected, reinforcing a toxic culture of feminine appearance (Gill, 2022; Riley et al., 2016). Popular Feminism These emotional repertories of postfeminist sensibility also intersect with the final development in contemporary research of postfeminism—that of the complex relationship between a postfeminist sensibility and a resurgence of feminist activism, which itself often takes digital forms. For Retallack et  al. (2016), the forms of shared solidarity between young women in schools and over social media, for example, mark a push back or ‘line of flight’, which, although not uncomplicated or clear in how they will unfold, do suggest an articulation of feminist identities that were less visible at the turn of the century. The relationship between feminism (as a social and political movement and identity category) and postfeminism (that we have documented here as a sensibility of the times) is complicated. For researchers like McRobbie (2009), feminism existed within a postfeminist sensibility only to be repudiated, undone and shown to no longer count. For example, in the Grazia magazine advert that claims “42% of women who ask for a pay rise get



one”, with the follow up “100% of them would probably celebrate with shoes”. In this advert, then, feminism is called upon (i.e. equal pay), but is rejected through humour and in favour of appropriate feminine consumption (McRobbie, 2009). Yet today, feminism is just as likely to be celebrated without a need to disclaim it (Banet-Weiser, 2018). Sometimes referred to as the ‘fourth wave’, digital feminism has widened the visibility of activism across a number of causes (Keller & Ryan, 2018). This visibility not only contains optimism but also raises questions about what kinds of activisms, bodies and subjectivities are made visible. This includes, for example, the #MeToo movement, which produced a vast shift in recognising and calling out forms of sexual harassment (Mendes et  al., 2018), even while it is often located on the bodies of particular celebrity women (e.g. Alyssa Milano), which hides its original emergence from grassroots Black feminist activism begun by youth worker, Tarana Burke (see Onwuachi-Willig (2018) and Phipps (2020) for a detailed critique of how #MeToo made its Black feminist activism invisible). Likewise, the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, which responded to the election of Donald Trump as president of the US, was organised through social media platforms and was the largest public protest in American history. In protesting Trump’s election, it was both a huge demonstration of solidarity and yet internally fraught with the politics of representation. Claims that the movement lacked inclusion emerged from faction organisers, while the symbolism of the ‘pink pussy’ hat led to retorts that “Not all women have pussies — not all pussies are pink” (cited in Brighter, 2018). Further examples of the contemporary movement’s tensions include international campaigns such as #bringbackourgirls and #iammalala. As Chap. 2 discusses in detail, such campaigns have been accused of taking ownership of the bodies of Black and Brown women from the Global South, while the trauma often attached to such hashtags is not knowable to those in the Global North who use them (Berents, 2016). Like other feminist analysts, then, we often feel excited and always emotional about the so-called fourth wave,1 especially in moments when such activism is heightened in response to the political and ideological control over women’s bodies (as we write this in the context of Roe being 1  We are, however, critical of the approach that sees feminism happening in ‘waves’, especially when the metaphor of the waves creates an image of feminism as linear, coherent and uncomplicated (see Hemmings (2010) for a detailed discussion of the limitations of this view).



overturned in the US). At the same time, this activism has been accompanied by, and is sometimes indistinguishable from, a growing popularisation of feminism more broadly, described by some as ‘popular feminism’ (BanetWeiser, 2018) or ‘neoliberal feminism’ (Rottenberg, 2018). Through these highly visible forms of feminism we witness the continuation of postfeminist sensibility, adapted and rearticulated to fit alongside contemporary feminist activism. Banet-Weiser (2018), for example, has argued that feminism now works within an economy of visibility. This visibility is evident in the growing consumption of affirmative feminist slogans, especially those proclaiming ‘empowerment’, used to sell t-shirts, home décor and women’s magazines. The result of this popular feminism is that a hyper-visible media friendly form of feminism, such as those embodied by celebrity feminism, is often celebrated, even while it often fails to challenge oppressive social structures. By contrast, other forms of feminism are obfuscated when they do speak back to patriarchy. Similarly, Rottenberg (2018) suggests that the collective politics of feminism is often missing in what she terms a ‘neoliberal’ feminism, where individual success, often measured in financial terms, is celebrated over societal change. The popularity of feminism creates certain problems in analysing postfeminist sensibility, leading some to question the usefulness of the concept. For some feminist analysts, because feminism is no longer so adamantly repudiated, we need new ways of making sense of contemporary gender identities in the context of a feminist resurgence. Others further question whether the language of postfeminism in the humanities and social sciences has become overused and over-applied, being used to discuss so many different things that the language has become meaningless.2 This is captured, for example, when Keller and Ryan (2018) suggest that they wish to “problematize constructions of postfeminism as an all-­encompassing and more or less permanent state of affairs” (p.5). For a variety of reasons, we, however, would argue for the continued usefulness and critical capacity of “a postfeminist sensibility” (Riley et al., 2017). For example, Gill (2016) contextualises the claim that a postfeminist sensibility is now ‘out of date’ as part of the academic push for ‘the new’. She tenders, by contrast, that there is “a profoundly complicated relation between feminism and postfeminism—one that is marked variously by incorporation, repudiation, commodification, and so on” (p.  621). While our current situation might seem ‘new’, it 2  Similar claims have been made about neoliberalism, as “intellectually lazy” and “a blanket swear-word for everything [the left] despise” (Mirowski, 2014, p.3).



nevertheless co-exists with older discourses, creating particular complexities and contradictions. The strength of a conceptual framework like a postfeminist sensibility lies exactly in its ability to address such complexity. In light of the turn to popular feminism, in this book we do not attempt to define or delimit what counts as ‘feminist’ or not: indeed, like many others, we find such attempts exclusionary in themselves, and to avoid othering, we seek to recognise the value, as well as the complexity in those feminisms understood as ‘popular’. Further, popular feminisms may open the door to other politically engaged forms of activism (Banet-Weiser, 2018). We also see the two terms, feminist and postfeminist, as distinct— even while they may co-exist. One term, feminist, defines an (political) identity category. By contrast, even though postfeminism shapes subjectivity, people cannot define themselves as ‘postfeminist’ (i.e. there are few people claiming “I am postfeminist”), within the framework we use. This is because postfeminism is a sensibility of contemporary society—a feeling. In Gill’s (2016) terms, “postfeminist media culture [is] an object of analysis, not a position or a perspective” (p.621). Correspondingly, one line of thought that we would like to develop is how we think about postfeminist sensibility as a sensibility. We would suggest that the conceptualising of this sensibility—or feeling—needs further clarification; something we often see conflated with, for example, an epistemological shift, position or feminist backlash, both in the literature and in the way postfeminist sensibility is taken up, for instance, in other forms of media. Its roots in a particular understanding of sensibility as feeling are also often lost. We turn to this below as an important way of developing postfeminist sensibility by unpacking the relationship between postfeminist sensibility, structures of feeling and affect.

Sensibility: A Structure of Feeling In this book, we want to think through the link between postfeminist sensibility and a structure of feeling. One recurrent theme within Gill’s work is the regular—yet nascent—theoretical link to Raymond Williams’ notion of a structure of feeling. Gill and Donaghue (2013, p.241), for example, claim that a postfeminist structure of feeling shapes academic feminist work when scholarship celebrates the choice and agency, and refutes victimhood, of women in particular realms but not others, for example “sex work, but not supermarket work; egg donation, but not kidney donation; youth studies, but not old age studies” (p.251). In analysing postfeminism in the



workplace, Gill, Kelan and Scharff (2017, p.227) suggest a structure of feeling allows us to see patterns that transverse individual workplaces, shaping calls for resilience training for women, for example. And in talking about the mediation of sex, intimacy and relationships, Barker et al. (2018) describe postfeminist sensibility as a “semi-­autonomous ‘mood’ [or] ‘structure of feeling’” (p.10) that shapes intimate spheres. While, in other work on postfeminism, Gill et al. (2017) argued that a postfeminist sensibility shapes a whole way of experiencing subjectivity, as a deeply affective, psychic sensibility, and that a postfeminist sensibility shapes not only culture, conduct and psychic life but also produces a distinctive ‘structure of feeling’ (Williams, 2001 [1961]) in which women must disavow—or at least render palatable—a whole range of experiences and emotions—notably insecurity, neediness, anger and complaint. (p.619)

Such observations map onto the turn to emotional life in analyses of postfeminist sensibility that we documented above and explicitly tie this ‘turn to affect’ with a framework of structures of feeling. These different mentions of a structure of feeling give us insight into what constitutes a postfeminist sensibility, but the link to a structure of feeling is often not developed. One reason for the vagueness of these comments may be that Williams’ (1977) own discussion of a structure of feeling is itself vague and, despite provoking significant work by others, was only briefly discussed by Williams himself. In a short chapter in Marxism and Literature, Williams (1977) identified the problem of ‘culture’ for the cultural analyst. He suggests that what analysts are often talking about are cultures past, or in ways that allow for us to talk about them in past tense. This is because, for Williams (1977), in analysing culture, we unnecessarily give it form and fixity. For example, it might be easy to look back and define the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s in the Anglo-American West, as many have done. But, what these characterisations do not get to is the complexities, contradictions and tensions of that feminist movement that form the experience and feeling of that moment, nor the absences and invisibilities, for example, of alternative feminisms, that such monolithic cultural analyses produce (Hemmings, 2010). For Williams (1977), a better way to think about culture requires consideration of ‘structures of feeling’, which refers to how we sense the present



moment, of what gives the ‘now’ a quality or feeling. In contrast to the supposed fixity and stability of talking about culture in the past, Williams proposes that consciousness—or what we think of in this book as ‘subjectivity’—is relational, connected up with a dynamic process, or what we might like to think of, in Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) terms, as ‘becoming’. From this perspective, ‘knowledge’ or ‘culture’ is never in a state of being fixed and stable, and there are constant relations and flows between objects, utterances and things. For Williams (1977), culture is a process, and the notion of a structure of feeling attempts to identify what it means to live in such constant state of process. As much as we might try, “[a]ll the known complexities, the experienced tensions, shifts, and uncertainties, the intricate forms of unevenness and confusion, are against the terms of the reduction and … by extension, against social analysis itself” (Williams, 1977, p.129). Following Williams (1977), we are not suggesting a move away from social analysis or ideology (as the formal, often fixed and uniform structuring ideas), or that structures of feeling do not work in ways that are ideological, as indeed we believe postfeminist sensibility is ideology at work. We do not avoid ideology because it may sometimes act in ways that are multiflorous, processual and uncertain, and within a postfeminist sensibility, such complexity and ambiguity is exactly what we argue requires critical analysis. For us, what Williams’ (1977) notion of the “tensions, shifts, and uncertainties” (p.129) implies, is that to only focus on the ideological misses the way ideology makes us feel, and the unintended, changing outcomes of such feelings. From this, an analysis of structures of feeling would pay attention to emergent “changes of presence” (Williams, 1977, p.130). For example, a critical analysis of the ideology of the ‘haul’ genre of YouTube video, in which (mostly) young women disclose the contents of shopping bags, often revealing lavish and glamorous purchases, could easily be understood through critical frameworks for making sense of capitalism. We do not dispute these forms of analysis, they are important. However, to really make sense of the ideological pull of the haul video (and why they matter to so many people to warrant watching them) would also mean asking something of the way capitalism shapes pleasure, excitement, cynicism and disgust, amongst the other ways these videos structure ways of feeling. Why might we feel disgusted at the show of consumption, yet unable to look away, or miss the next item in the haul, for example? (see Chap. 4 for our own discussion of hauls and the developments of these as GRWM



videos). The notion of structures of feeling allows us to think about these issues too because it proposes a merging of the ideological and the emotional: We are talking about characteristic elements of impulse, restraint, and tone; specifically affective elements of consciousness and relationships: not feeling against thought, but thought as felt and feeling as thought: practical consciousness of a present kind, in a living and interrelating continuity. (Williams, 1977, p.132, emphasis added)

As well as drawing on Williams, we find insightful Ahmed’s (2010) provocation on structures of feeling. In thinking about how structural inequality is reproduced through happiness, Ahmed (2010) suggests that we should take note of what causes violence, hurt and pain, rather than seek protection from them. In doing so, she draws on Williams, arguing that as well as structures of feeling, we should look to the ‘feeling of structures’, of how “feelings might be how structures get under our skin” (p.216). We take this to further imply the importance of both ‘structures’3 and ‘feelings’ and structures of feeling in this book’s analysis. Thinking more explicitly of postfeminist sensibility as structures of feeling would bring to the foreground the way contemporary gender relations are always processes in the making. It would mean seeing postfeminist sensibility, not as monolithic or stable, but as multiple, fluid and dynamic. In light of this, if we return to our discussion above of Gill’s (2017) description of a postfeminist sensibility as a “distinctive” structure of feeling, we might therefore want to think with her statement that postfeminist sensibility shapes “not only culture, conduct and psychic life”, but also the “experiences and emotions” that postfeminist sensibility engenders (p.619, emphasis added). In framing so much of the articulation of a postfeminist sensibility within the terms of structures of feeling, we read Gill et  al. (2017) as drawing on what has become known as the ‘affective turn’ in social sciences and humanities. The ‘affective turn’ describes the significant discussion about affect, emotion and feeling in the social science and humanities in recent years. However, in laying the groundwork for the thought in this book, we feel an important distinction should be both recognised and discussed. This distinction can be defined by (1) those who 3

 Here meaning the institutions, organisations and customs that shape everyday life.



understand affect as rooted in the body, and only ever pre-cognitive, presocial and pre-discursive, and (2) those that understand affect located between the psychic and the social, with these two spheres always being in dynamic interaction with one another. In the first body of work in the ‘turn to affect’, affect is understood as a bodily intensity or ‘shimmer’. Once this shimmer has reached the level of language, it loses its vibrancy. Seigworth and Gregg (2010), for example, define it as “those forces—visceral forces beneath, alongside or generally other than conscious knowing, vital forces insisting beyond emotion—that can serve to drive us towards movement, towards thought and extension” (p.1). Thus, affect exists as something distinct to emotion, and is not accessible to conscious thought. Affect creates a bodily sensation, and emotion is the interpretation of that feeling. Massumi (2002) similarly distinguishes between affect and emotion. Massumi (2002) argues that affect and emotion happen through different logics, with affect occurring at an unconscious, automatic and autonomous level, and thus evading subjectivity, representation and thought. As indicated by the way affect is positioned as existing in the beyond, many of these accounts allude to a Lacanian distinction between the symbolic and the real (Hook, 2011). For Lacan, the symbolic exists in language, signs and representation, whereas the real can never truly be accessed, or else when channelled into the symbolic loses its original meaning (Clough, 2000; Hook, 2011). For these theorists, the radical potential of affect is in the way it allows us to work at the edges of intelligibility, or to move our analysis beyond what is consciously, linguistically available to us. We believe this body of work contains a lot of productive ideas, some of which we draw on in this book. However, as we discuss in detail below, we are also cautious of relying too heavily on the distinction between affect and emotion. The critique that we outline below is especially important to us given that it highlights the ‘missing ideology’ in particular threads of affect theory, which is problematic in our thinking of postfeminist sensibility as a structure of feeling, where postfeminist sensibility is ideology at work. Equally important for us in this book and for our own thought, this lack of ideology in certain forms of affect theory has been especially problematic for feminist theorists.



In Tyler’s (2008) reflection on the ‘methodological fatigue’4 of feminist theory, she argues that the turn to affect has also engendered a turn away from ideology. This turning away from the political, for Tyler (2008), exists in the same moment as a postfeminist sensibility, where, for example, the feminist language of empowerment, freedom and liberation is taken up by the media and advertising industries. Tyler (2008) argues that the complexity and unpredictability of a postfeminist sensibility adds to the sense of fatigue, in which the language of feminist analysis no longer seems so certain. In our own work, this has been particularly evident when terms such as sexism and objectification have been used to describe and thus delegitimise our (feminist) research (Evans & Riley, 2022). Drawing especially on the work of Massumi (2002), Tyler (2008) argues, working alongside a postfeminist sensibility, the framing of affect as beyond ideology makes it “purified of power and resistance” (p.88), thus locating affect as something beyond critique. Tyler’s (2008) suggestion in the face of such fatigue is to explicitly question the autonomy of affect, as something that can mutate and act beyond ideology, discourse or language. Tyler (2008) urges us to “refuse the absolute distinction between affects, feelings, and emotions not only because the purification of affect abjects an entire history of counterhegemonic scholarship but because affect is by definition unanalyzable and thus critically and politically useless” (p.88). Hemmings (2005) also finds affect theory problematic. She notes the promise of this body of work in that it challenges the dominance of critique, questioning what poststructuralism and deconstruction miss in their focus on discourse at the expense of the material body and sensations that are ‘in excess’ of discourse. And yet, in doing so, Hemmings (2005) argues that affect theory enacts a new set of binaries, including the privileging of bodily sensations which are then divorced from the social structures that may shape them (see also Leys (2011), Thien (2005) and Wetherell (2012) for similar arguments). In her critique, Hemmings (2005) argues that affect theorists (her focus is on both Sedgwick and Massumi) overstate affect as autonomous and void of sociality, which she counters with examples in queer and postcolonial thought that captures the affective sensations of being in a particular socially and historically located body. As such, she suggests we create 4  The term methodology, Tyler (2008) states, “refers not only to the tools employed in analysis but the organizing principles, motivations, and political commitments that shape feminist media studies—and its scholars its research questions, research practices, and objects of study” (p.85).



an account that “rejects the contemporary fascination with affect as outside social meaning” (p.565). A similar observation to both Tyler (2008) and Hemmings (2005) is made by Ahmed (2014), when she suggests that what is often at stake in ‘the turn to affect’ is a turn away from feminist and queer theory, where ‘emotion’ is often understood as the ‘touchy feely’ and thus not for serious theoretical work. In contrast, Ahmed (2014) argues that, within feminist and queer theorists work, the study of emotions or affects has always been of central concern (see also Cvetkovich (2012) on feminist and queer approaches to understanding depression, and Halberstam (2011) on the queer art of failure). In this book, we side with the feminist and queer critiques discussed above. We understand affect as central to the social, and vice versa; that the social shapes the affective capacities of bodies. For us, the discursive and the non-discursive, the conscious and the non-conscious, and the psychic and the social are in dynamic interplay, not separate realms of experience or logic, and we make no hard distinctions between the terms ‘affect’, ‘emotion’, ‘feeling’ and ‘sensibility’, except for when it is analytically useful. A recognition of such fluidity is evident in much of the work in which we find inspiration. Brennan (2004), for example, speaks of the transmission of affect as interweaving affect, emotion, feeling, sensation and so on. While all have different definitions, for us and other feminist analysts, their actual movements overlap and intersect, creating no clear distinctions between body and environment (see Brennan (2004, p.6)). Likewise, in Ahmed’s (2014) discussion of the politics of emotions, she argues that affect and emotion have been artificially separated, and that her work is a direct challenge to this separation. In discussing the sociality of emotions, she argues that there is little to distinguish between her own use of emotion and the ‘turn to affect’: “[e]motions, in other words, involve bodily processes of affecting and being affected” (p.208). Finally, in refuting distinctions, we also want to make a brief note of the methodological implications (we discuss this in action later in this chapter). Methodologically, our position resonates with others for whom the definitions of affect as autonomous, pre-cognitive, bodily and inaccessible to language make it difficult to account for affect as a research object (Kundsen & Stage, 2015). In this book, our position with affect theory means we also take up the call for a more “eclectic approach” (Wetherell, 2012, p.56), one that takes seriously the way the affective and discursive are in interplay. In taking this approach to the study of affect, we attempt to



produce analyses in which we “integrate—not polarize—accounts of affective and discursive processes and practices” (Stenner, 2017, p.211). Aligning with this approach to understanding affect we locate postfeminist sensibility as part of a feeling of the times, one that makes us feel in particular ways. We see this sensibility as shaping, for example, not only how we experience digital cultures but also how these cultures map onto much larger systems and interlocking political structures. Following our line through Gill to Williams, and to feminist theories of affect, means seeing culture as a web of relations that cuts across the personal and the political, and the social and the subjective. In this, we follow others in thinking of affect as having a sociality (e.g. Ahmed, 2014). This also means disrupting the perceived distinction between wider political structures and how they come to feel deeply personal. To return to Gill et  al. (2017), this means thinking about the way a postfeminist sensibility is implicated in: The waves of misogyny, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia and xenophobic nationalism that are evident in the vote for Brexit and its aftermath; the election of Donald Trump as the US President; the rise and ‘respectabilization’ of the Front Nationale in France under Marine Le Pen, and the growing strength of right-wing parties and movements across Europe [that] mark a new moment in political life. (p.608)

Importantly, these affective-political-discursive structures of the now are not static, but are generative and unfixed, evident in newer social and political crises that shape the feeling of the present, for example COVID-19, the cost of living crisis, the overturning of Roe in the US, the war in Ukraine and the acts of violence directed at marginalised bodies in public spaces, among others. And, for us, they are inextricable from a postfeminist sensibility in the way that the organisation of gender power shapes the feelings of this new political life. Thus, when we speak of a postfeminist sensibility in this book, it is the discussions above that we are alluding to. In particular, we are interested in the ways a postfeminist sensibility, as a structure of feeling, is manifest in various forms of postdigital culture. Below, we tie together this account of feeling within the context where digital culture has become an assumed, integrated, normative way of interacting with the world, dramatically shaping a new moment of political life. We also provide an outline of what follows in the rest of the book.



Summary: Digital Feeling in (Post)digital Cultures To review briefly, so far, we have suggested that research on a postfeminist sensibility has been gathering pace in relation to digital culture, its shaping of emotional and affective life and in terms of the recent heightened visibility and popularity of feminism. We have also argued for a more nuanced, expanded account of how we can understand postfeminist sensibility as a structure of feeling. Following Williams (1977), this means attempting to make sense of contemporary gender relations as a process, shaped not only by ideology but also by deeply effecting subjectivity. We used this account to navigate affect theory, aligning ourselves with those feminist approaches that do not seek to recreate another binary, the autonomous body over the cognitive, discursive brain, nor do we seek to overturn ideological critique. Our account is more in line with Williams (1977), when he states that structures of feeling are “not feeling against thought, but thought as felt and feeling as thought” (p.132). One underlying, but often unspoken, element of the work we have reviewed above is how much it is being shaped by ‘postdigital culture’. For example, in Gill and Elias’ (2014) work on Love Your Body discourses, it is the sharability, through likes, shares, hashtags and retweets, that spreads the affective components of new body positivity messages: while in more micro-level communities in schools, documented by Retallack et  al. (2016), inspo-paras—or short body-positive and inspirational affirmations—are shared between young women through mobile technologies and social media platforms as a form of ‘caring digitality’, which are carried around schools and positively shaped how others were able to feel about themselves and their bodies. The organising of contemporary feminist activism would be impossible to imagine without the cultures of the internet, as would much of popular feminism. And it would be difficult, if not impossible, to think about structures of feeling without also thinking of the public nature of digital communication, the circulation of visual images and the ‘shared values’ of our own social media ‘bubbles’. In this book, we term the location of these as ‘postdigital’ in the sense that this element of contemporary culture so often does not need to be named. Discussion of the postdigital has largely taken place in art and aesthetics (e.g. Alexenberg, 2011; Berry & Dieter, 2015), largely to refer to a hybrid mix of the digital and the non-digital. However, we position this book as about the postdigital in as much as previous accounts of a ‘digital revolution’, ‘new media’ or the binary between ‘real life’ and ‘digital life’, or ‘analogue’ and ‘digital’, now appear outdated (Cramer, 2015), while the



digital itself has embedded itself fully, inconsequentially and unassailably into the way many of us make sense of everyday life: or as Bassett (2015) puts it, the digital is both “everywhere and nowhere” (p.136). Alongside feminist analysts of the postdigital, such as Bassett (2015), we do not take postdigital as a mindset; rather, like postfeminism, we prefer to think of the postdigital as a sensibility or structure of feeling that deserves attention, working its way into how we think, feel, act and behave. With this in mind, and in the chapters that follow, we apply our arguments above throughout Digital Feeling, producing original analysis of postdigital, postfeminist structures of feeling evident in: the Instagram account Barbie Savior; fitness culture represented through assemblages of ‘#fitspo’; influencer culture in Get Ready With Me videos; the website; and in the intimacy and political capacities of cat videos and memes. We use these various examples as tools to ‘think through’ some of the complexities of contemporary subjectivity. By this, we do not mean that subjectivity exists solely in our engagement with particular websites, social media accounts or technologies. Subjectivity does not begin and end with the online. Neither do the examples used in this book represent anything of the breadth of postdigital cultures, and they are likely examples that are largely accessed by people in the Global North. What we do suggest, however, is that what these different online phenomena do is reflect back at us and speak to certain elements of contemporary subjectivity, especially for those living within English-speaking, consumerist economies. We use these “texts as nodes”, in which “textuality becomes the trace of affective movements” (Kundsen & Stage, 2015, p.18). We use them to ‘think through’ because they allow us to tap into larger discussions and pressing issues. For example, in Chap. 3 we use #fitspo as a starting point to connect to a range of health, wellness and wellbeing issues. Similarly, our discussion of TubeCrush in Chap. 5 connects not just to desirable masculinities but also to contemporary working practices, feminist activism and the shaping of subjectivity within the city. We see each of the examples we use as parts of much larger assemblages, with each of these examples allowing us to unfold a number of issues with how we live.

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Gender, Race, Nation … and Barbie Savior

In this chapter we explore digital gendered affect through the Instagram account Barbie Savior. Barbie Savior presents a mock narrative account of the Barbie doll’s ‘white savior’ tour around Africa. The Barbie Savior account began in March 2016, with a series of images showing Barbie getting ready to leave America and travel to Africa. Alongside an image of the Barbie doll superimposed onto a photograph of a plane, the Barbie Savior comment reads: “This photo is the last picture of me on American soil for several months. My bags are packed, my heart ready, and arms open to love on those sweet sweet orphans in the country of Africa. I hope they like me, because I already love them.” From this parodic opening series of posts, the account has since documented the Barbie doll’s various humanitarianism, entrepreneurialism and participation in the growing industry of ‘voluntourism’: as Barbie Savior’s biography reads, “Jesus. Adventures. Africa. Two worlds. One love. Babies. Beauty. Not qualified. Called. 20 years young. It’s not about me … but it kind of is.” Knowingly playing with the image of the Barbie doll, the selfie and the critique of ‘white saviour’ voluntourism, the Barbie Savior account makes use of the functionality of Instagram to critique practices of those who travel from the Global North to the Global South. Barbie Savior employs these functions through the centrality of the image on Instagram, with creative use of the Barbie doll and other dolls, particularly Black doll-­ children, photoshopped into and against different photography, and

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through an abundance of hashtags that both perform in the act of Barbie Savior and provide critique, for example #whitesavior, #povertyporn and #wheredemorphansat. Barbie Savior follows a collective of critical voices that emerged at the end of the 2010s, including the Tumblr account titled Humanitarians of Tinder, which in 2014 began posting screenshots of Tinder user’s profile photos where these images included various aid efforts, typically the White Tinder user surrounded by Black children. Such accounts have become steadily less curated; no new Barbie Savior posts have appeared since 2019, and the last post on Humanitarians of Tinder Tumblr feed was in 2017 (although the Facebook group posts sporadically), and have been superseded by advocacy groups who are less parodic, such as No White Saviors.1 However, Barbie Savior continues to receive coverage as new social media platforms develop, for example in recent concerns about white saviour content emerging on TikTok.2 In this sense, Barbie Savior has become a cultural reference point for talking about the industry surrounding aid, humanitarianism and voluntourism, and people who participate through social media. The Barbie Savior account was created by Jackie Kramlich and Emily Worrall, two White American women, to express their observations of various international aid, missionary, health and NGO experiences. The popularity of Barbie Savior led to a number of connected activities, for example collaborating with Radi-Aid to produce a guide on social media use when volunteering,3 as well as press coverage in The Guardian, BBC and CNN. In a 2020 podcast on The Good Problem,4 Worrall claims their use of the Barbie doll was because “she is almost an easy protagonist because she’s not real and it’s very easy to see it when it’s a doll … it’s much easier to see the absurdity in it when it’s a doll rather than when it’s an individual doing these things and you’re calling out”. Following Berlant (1997), we suggest that Barbie Savior is a ‘silly archive’, which nevertheless uses “the silliest, most banal and erratic logic imaginable to describe important things” (p. 12), in this case racism, the histories of colonialism and the commodification of ignorance through tourism. Barbie Savior’s Instagram page offers a critical account through  See their website  See, for example, 3 4 1 2



the iconic figure of the Barbie doll of certain practices of particular people from the West, who engage in visits to countries and continents previously under colonial rule (most notably, within the continents of Africa, India and South America), and whose visits to these countries and continents are a recognisable visual trope on platforms like Instagram, where images make the tourist and their altruism the central focus of the image, and often feature them with Black or Brown people (often children) in ways that diminish those people’s dignity. In this chapter, we develop an account of Barbie Savior’s ironic postfeminist colonialism and explore how this Instagram account allows us to explore the intersections of classed, raced, gendered and national implications of digital subjectivity. Barbie Savior makes explicit the way social media practices take place in real material contexts, and sometimes have unintended material effects, locating digital culture as an unequal space that reproduces underlying social structures (Nakumura & Chow-White, 2012; Benjamin, 2019). We draw from Brah and Phoenix (2004) to define intersectionality as “signifying the complex, irreducible, varied, and variable effects which ensue when multiple axis of differentiation—economic, political, cultural, psychic, subjective and experiential—intersect in historically specific contexts” (Brah & Phoenix, 2004, p. 76). In doing so, we argue that postfeminism can only be understood through its intersections with various social structures, including the histories of colonialism and how they shape global flows between ‘the West’ and ‘the rest’. We begin our analysis by introducing the concept of the white saviour industrial complex, alongside the modern industry of humanitarian aid in relation to celebrity humanitarianism and voluntourism, before unpacking how Barbie’s performance of these central ideas is put to comedic effect within Barbie Savior’s Instagram account. We then explore how the nexus of these issues is also affectively gendered, raced and nationalised, tapping into concepts of feminine care and feminine triviality, as well as the notion of the girl-child of the Global South as in-need-of-saving through the examples of #iammalala and #bringbackourgirls. Finally, we explore how self-enterprise is engaged with and critiqued in Barbie Savior, in ways that bring together Barbie’s femininity and saviourism. In doing so, we ask: what does this Instagram account tell us about the way digital feeling is shared to highlight classed, raced, gendered and national oppressions?



White Saviour Industrial Complex An ‘industrial complex’ is a phrase usually used to identify the way that the operation of a specific service, organisation or group comes to shape social and political life beyond its normal remit. For example, the ‘military industrial complex’ refers to the way military has commercial and profit ties beyond wars, while the ‘prison industrial complex’ is used, especially in the US, to identify how higher prison populations are tied to economic interests rather than the rehabilitation of those inmates. Similar to Foucault’s (1977) ‘dispositif’, an industry is supported by a network of media, politicians and other key actors; however, differently to Foucault’s diffused power, the industrial complex works in a way so that power is maintained by the few. The notion of a ‘white savior industrial complex’ was originally a term coined by the African-American novelist Teju Cole (2013). In defining the white saviour industrial complex, he used it to make sense of the viral video Kony2012, which documented the violence and oppression of Ugandan militia leader Joseph Kony. A key part of the emotive storytelling in the Kony2012 video was Kony’s use of child soldiers, with scenes in which the White filmmaker, Jason Russell, is shown to have a close connection with one recovering child soldier, Jacob Acaye. The film was also noted for the speed and volume of spectatorship; at the time, it was the fastest YouTube video to reach one million views, and had significant celebrity backing, most notably from Oprah Winfrey (see Bex & Craps, 2016 for a detailed discussion). For Cole (2013), this, amongst other examples, demonstrates the way that “[t]he banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality”, a component of the white saviour industrial complex that avoids recognising the multifaceted histories of colonialism. Cole’s account of this sentimentality references Hannah Arendt’s (2017 [1952]) account of the banality of evil, where Arendt argued that the evil embodied by the Nazi holocaust and Hitler’s ‘final solution’ were enabled by bureaucracy. For Arendt (2017[1952]), the structures of bureaucracy allow a nation state to organise otherwise uncivilised acts (murder, theft, rape), as though they are mere acts that need to be counted, documented and filed away. Thus, evil, rather than being extraordinary, becomes banal. In Cole’s (2013) account of the white saviour industrial complex, such evil has been replaced with sentimentality, an excess of emotions in which one expresses their goodness and virtue to the point that such expressions



of sentimentality become ordinary and banal; a quick “oh no”, before returning to ‘life as usual’. To return to Worrall’s podcast interview on The Good Problem, she further reflects on the use of the Barbie doll by suggesting that, “if that post [like one on Barbie Savior] were to happen in a feed with a friend you might not see it, because it’s become so normalised to go overseas and volunteer and post it all over your Instagram”. The banality of sentimentality, for Cole (2013), means that the emotion of the event of volunteering is not about providing justice; what it performs instead is the validating of privilege, one that “does not connect the dots or see the patterns of power behind the isolated ‘disasters’” (n.p.). Cole’s (2013) point is that sentimentality often allows us to ignore the complexity of situations, where poverty and violence are caused and structurally supported by the same nations that then act as saviour; the example he gives is of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, where the US economically undermined Haiti over a long period of time, but where it might have “felt good” to donate to Haiti’s recovery (n.p.). For us, two other concepts implicated in Cole’s (2013) critique of white saviour complex help unpack the ironic use of sentimentalism in Barbie Savior. These are: celebrity humanitarianism and voluntourism. We turn to each below, before applying them to Barbie Savior. Celebrity Humanitarianism Celebrity humanitarianism is embodied by the humanitarian, aid and issue-raising efforts of (often White and wealthy) celebrities, such as Angelina Jolie, Bono and Madonna. As Mostafanezhad (2013) argues, many of these celebrities have been significant spokespeople, and have heightened awareness of important causes, for example George Clooney’s advocacy of the Darfur crisis and his activism against the regime of Sudanese President al-Bashir. However, their participation often overlooks other problematic and contradictory consumption patterns (e.g. private jets, expensive homes, luxury lifestyles). Because of this, their emotional and sentimental attachments to different causes can also appear inauthentic and superficial. Others have highlighted the deeply affective registers in which this sentimentality takes place (Kapoor, 2013). White privilege embodies a number of emotional structures, including fantasy, pleasure and superiority, but also fear, guilt and pity (Mason, 2016). This is evident in Chouliaraki’s (2012) analysis of the theatrics of humanitarianism, where the spectacle



and theatre of the celebrity figure are foregrounded over wealth redistribution. Chouliaraki (2012) argues that these theatrics work on the relationship between pity and inauthenticity through an analysis of celebrities Audrey Hepburn and Angelina Jolie, as historical and contemporary figures of humanitarianism. She argues that spectacle and the politics of pity shape the performance of celebrity interjections into humanitarian crises, and suggests that “by appearing to care for the ‘wretched of the earth’ whilst enjoying the privilege of rare wealth, he or she glosses over the ongoing complicity of the West in a global system of injustice” (p. 4). She suggests that the emotionality of such accounts distracts us from what is really necessary to overcome such crises—that is, a more fundamental and global redistribution of wealth. In outlining what pity means in her account of celebrity humanitarianism, Chouliaraki (2012) argues that performances of celebrities like Hepburn and Jolie become aspiration, where their performance of pity defines what it means to be a good altruistic Western subject. Chouliaraki’s (2012) discussion of pity is thus similar to Berlant’s (2004) account of compassion, where compassion refers to “emotion in operation … compassion is a term denoting privilege: the sufferer is over there” (p. 4, emphasis in original; see also Conran 2011 ; Mostafanezhad 2013). The problematics of the performance of pity is embodied, for example, by Comic Relief campaigning in the UK, which until 2020 was regularly criticised for its white saviour complex. For example, in 2019, celebrity documentary filmmaker Stacey Dooley was called out by the UK MP David Lammy after she shared photographs on social media of herself carrying a young child in Uganda, while the previous year the singer Ed Sheeran was criticised for his emotional displays where his crying took precedence over the voices of those he was crying about. Elsewhere, Lammy (2017) argues that Comic Relief’s white saviour imagery is based on a perpetuation of colonial imaginaries, the emotive hierarchising of guilt over anger and a prioritising celebrities’ experience of the other, instead of allowing people to speak for themselves (Kapoor, 2013). In 2020, Comic Relief changed the practice of the White celebrity visiting countries in Africa, with CEO Ruth Davison suggesting “[w]hat prompts people to give is an emotional connection— that doesn’t have to be pity. … It can be joy, it can be anger, it can be a sense of positivity and hope” (cited in Waterson, 2020). One useful way to interpret the emotional imperative in humanitarianism and charity efforts would be to see such participation (e.g. celebrity humanitarianism and Comic Relief) as a technology of the self, in which



to become a better person one must work on the self through various techniques (Foucault, 1988). For Foucault (1988), these techniques are enacted within social norms of what it means to count as ‘normal’, ‘good’ or ‘intelligible’. Read through this lens, we could assume that the personal self-betterment of humanitarian entrepreneurialism is at the very least intelligible, and deemed as making some (e.g. celebrities) worthy and ‘good’—while the Instagram account Barbie Savior’s aim is to critique such practices. These practices also, however, reach further than celebrity culture. The individual self-betterment of such humanitarianism can be witnessed, for example, in the previously mentioned Humanitarians of Tinder. Many of the profile images screenshot from Tinder featured White Tinder users holding a Black child in much the same way that Stacey Dooley’s image pictured her with a Ugandan child. In her analysis of humanitarian profile images on Tinder, Mason (2016) argues that the ‘good White person’ of Tinder uses their aid to “establish themselves as both good and desirable through their class and race power where their fuckability is constituted through representational practices of othering” (p. 834). That is, the technique of visualising oneself in the act of aid works to present someone as ‘good’ person, and therefore increases perceived sexiness and desirability, by fetishising those that are not White. Many of these images that feature on Tinder and in other social media platforms are enabled by the voluntourism market, which we explore below. Voluntourism One key site of the white saviour industrial complex, according to Cole (2013), is the expansion of ‘voluntourism’, as a tourism market that offers vacations, career breaks and gap years in ‘developing’ countries. As Cole (2013) notes, it is one of the fastest growing tourism industries in the US (and we would argue elsewhere—for example, it is notable that much academic literature on voluntourism emerges from Australia), with estimates of 1.6 million tourists creating $2.6 billion profits a year (Save the Children, 2017). Although the market came to a standstill during COVID-19, with the exception of those wanting and able to volunteer online, increasingly companies are calling on people to volunteer again, with claims that communities are missing their volunteer tourists.5 Often 5



marketed as providing a mixture of leisure, volunteering and travel, locations typically include ex-colonies of the British and French empires, creating a practice that has been heavily critiqued for ignoring colonial histories and the power imbalances between the Western ‘tourist’ and the people who are identified as ‘in need of aid’ (McGloin & Georgeou, 2016). Given this, some have likened the practice of voluntourism to the historical practice of the ‘grand tour’, as a form of travel undertaken by aristocratic young men in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to demonstrate a privileged masculine worldliness and sense of adventure (Vrasti, 2012; Wearing et  al., 2015). Alongside these deeply colonial undertones, we further read voluntourism as indivisible from neoliberal and consumer logics. We explore this below in terms of: (1) the treatment of ex-colonies as marketplaces; (2) the discourses of self-betterment; and (3) the emotionalising and sentimentalising of capitalist practices. As we argue, these critiques of voluntourism mean seeing the relationship between neoliberalism, consumerism and neo-colonialism as co-­ dependent, where voluntourism becomes “one link in a broader chain of the expansion of neoliberal moral economies” (Mostafanezhad, 2013, p. 319). First, then, voluntourism treats aid and development as a market. For example, Rosenberg’s (2018) expose on voluntourism in The Guardian explored the practices of one company, Hope of Life International, a mission-­ voluntourism organisation in Guatemala focused largely on orphan children. She estimates that the total earnings of Hope of Life may be around $9 million, with ‘added extras’ including options to go on a ‘baby rescue trip’ for an additional $1500. As she argues, such a market orientation has actually led to an increase in orphanages, where the children in such orphanages do have a living parent, but where financial incentives, poverty and the promise of care create an alternative option for otherwise struggling families. A supply and demand logic thus drives the increase in orphanages; that is, the orphanage industry is built on the demands of people from wealthy countries who want to visit orphanages with lots of children. Meanwhile, the activities undertaken by Hope of Life and other voluntourism organisations, such as building and teaching, often take work away from skilled people within the community and pass that work to people who are unskilled volunteers and tourists, thus further worsening hardship among families and increasing the likelihood of families placing children in orphanages (Rosenberg, 2018). Given this skewed economy, even with the best of intentions, “[t]he fantasy of ‘caring’



capitalism or ‘humane’ neoliberalism is little more than a clever smokescreen” (Vrasti, 2012, p.  29). Since voluntourism inserts itself into an economy that is already exploitative, consumption practices within this industry are only ever going to reproduce power differences, because the logic of neoliberal capitalism is fundamentally about accumulation and not “potentially radical, affective and intellectual predispositions” (Vrasti, 2012, p. 29). Following on from this commodification and marketisation, the second characteristic of voluntourism is that it also engages with neoliberalism by promoting notions of self-betterment and self-enterprise. We have already touched on this above, where celebrity humanitarianism becomes a technology of the self, creating ideals of what it means to be a good and virtuous person, while voluntourism provides a mechanism through which to improve the self by gaining ‘experience’. In McGloin and Georgeou’s (2016) analysis of voluntourism marketing material, for example, they show how the industry presents itself as a way to develop one’s CV and gain life skills, with such packages regularly promoted through recruitment drives targeting universities. Thus, voluntourism is regularly marketed to young people, and increasingly families (Molz, 2017), as ‘lifechanging’ from the point of view of the consumer, rather than the community. Even where the community experiences positive emotional and material effects as the result of the interaction between themselves and the volunteer (e.g. Conran, 2011), much of the literature on voluntourism suggests that such practices increase, rather than abate, structural inequality (Vrasti, 2012; Conran, 2011; Wearing, 2001). Both the market of voluntourism and its sales pitch of self-betterment make use of an emotional capitalism, which, as we identify above, is “deliciously consumable” for the tourist, and “cruelly ineffective” for those communities deemed as needing volunteers (Woodward, 2004, p.  71). Conran (2011) terms voluntourism as being an ‘intimate economy’, arguing that it creates a cultural politics of intimacy that normalises “the structural inequality on which the encounter is based and reframes the question of structural inequality as a question of individual morality” (Conran, 2011, p.  1455). For example, during Conran’s (2011) ethnographic research with three different NGOs in Thailand, her participants talked about voluntourism as providing them with a more authentic feeling of the culture than had they simply gone travelling, while also allowing them to create intimate friendships with people ‘from afar’. Likewise, an NGO coordinator suggested that, for the tourist, voluntourism enables them to



feel the “heartbeat” of a place (Conran, 2011). Drawing on this same research, Mostafanezhad (2013, nee Conran) suggests voluntourism produces a ‘geography of compassion’, in which making a difference is predicated on a hierarchy of perceived suffering—with ‘Africa’ holding the most emotional currency amongst people taking part in voluntourism. Here, Mostafanezhad notes that participants spoke of volunteering in Thailand first, as a gataway location, with the ultimate and most authentic aid experience being had in countries within Africa. For Mostafanezhad (2013) the emotion promoted and manifested in the voluntourism industry fit within the logic of neoliberalism since they work on ideas of privatisation and deregulation. Voluntourism can therefore be understood as a moral economy that neutralises political action and structural change, whereby the intensity of emotions and intimacies overrides the demand that things should be different (Mostafanezhad, 2013, 2016). Pedwell (2012) makes a similar argument in relation to feminist notions of empathy in her analysis of professional training literatures of those working in international aid, such as Action Aid, the World Bank and the Institute of Development Studies. In feminist and anti-racist accounts, empathy has been an important construct, for example in challenging the privilege of Whiteness (e.g. Alexander & Mohanty, 1997; Bartky, 1996). However, Pedwell (2012) suggests that the opportunities of such empathy are challenged in a postcolonial neoliberal context. In her analysis, and contra to feminist and anti-racist discussions of empathy, Pedwell (2012) suggests that such humanitarian industries participate in a broader therapeutic and psychological emotionalisation of society (Swan, 2008), captured in aid organisation’s use of ‘immersion’, which we detail below. International aid agencies differ from voluntourism, since the main aim of international aid is poverty reduction and a career in this industry does imply a more extended amount of time spent considering aid. However, such agencies do recommend workers engage in an ‘immersion’ in the countries to which aid is provided, so that workers can empathise with the contexts and people they are representing. In her analysis of material, Pedwell (2012) suggests that such immersions are presented as a ‘reality check’, where the emotions experienced during a short (three or four day) visit are taken as ‘truth’. What is left out, according to Pedwell (2012), is imagination, which has been central to feminist and anti-racist concepts of empathy—through, for example, literature, film and art. In contrast, immersions prioritise physical proximity as a proxy to truth. Likewise,



people working in international aid undertake such immersions as a way to build work-related skills and capacity building in relation to their own emotional capital, in which, having experienced an immersion, they can claim authority. That is, immersions engage in a self-betterment narrative as part of career trajectory so that, like voluntourism, the benefits remain largely with the individual undertaking such travel. In this space, Pedwell (2012) argues, radical notions of empathy are co-opted in international development rhetoric, leaving the privileged who empathise and the underprivileged who are empathised with in place, so that it often fixes relations of power rather than challenges it. The themes of marketisation, self-betterment and emotional capitalism that we have discussed above are inseparable from colonialism itself, since making money in/from these geographical spaces assumes a relation of power that connects deeply with the historical structure of power put in place by imperialism (Hardt & Negri, 2000). For example, neoliberalism, as a political and economic doctrine, has included a neo-colonial tying of economies of less-developed countries to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, through which free trade deals work to maintain a global and colonial status quo. Through such geopolitical moves, the West is able to assume authority. This can be witnessed, for example, in the significant restructuring of labour through deindustrialisation in the developed West and North. Such deindustrialisation in the West and North has meant that less-developed countries have to take on the low-­ skilled production of goods, even while employment rights are dramatically different across the globe (see Chap. 4 in the book for a discussion of this in relation to the digital industries). In this context, the voluntourism market’s place in such dynamics represents corollary market (Conran, 2011), in which the wealthy traveller can intervene in an economically productive and highly individualistic, small-scale (and often problematic) way into deeply rooted and structurally unequal relationships.

Barbie Savior’s Postfeminist Colonialism Our outline of white saviour complex above identifies the key ideas at play in our silly archive, Barbie Savior. Barbie Savior finds humour in parodying a white saviour industrial complex that is underpinned by and repeats colonialism, racism and global structural inequality. The account is also framed by an excessive sentimentality which lampoons the emotional capitalism of celebrity and voluntourist humanitarianism. There are also



intersecting gendered elements that make Barbie an ideal object of ridicule in Barbie Savior, which as we discuss below, include Barbie as a White and feminine figure who cares for children ‘in-need-of-aid’, and who participates in enterprising techniques to become a ‘better’ more economically productive doll/person. Gendering (White) Voluntourism According to Mostafanezhad (2013), 80% of those who take part in voluntourism are women, and 80% are between the ages of 15 and 35. Meanwhile, humanitarian efforts by female celebrities, such as Angelina Jolie, have further contributed to the gendering of voluntourism (Chouliaraki, 2012; Mostafanezhad, 2013; Repo & Yrjölä, 2011; Kapoor, 2013). Barbie’s normative feminine heterosexuality is underscored in Barbie Savior when, early on in the Instagram account, Barbie talks about having to leave her boyfriend, Ken, in America. When Ken visits Barbie Savoir, he brings his ‘bros’ with him, and together they high-five children, carry babies in papooses and play bongos, demonstrating recognisable lad homosociality. This visit takes place alongside activities that Barbie engages with, with these activities placing her within the logic of postfeminist femininity, including an interest in shopping, beauty, fitness and other expressions of excessive femininity; “The lack of high heels in this country is devastating. So today, one heel at a time, I am changing the face of Africa as we know it.” The use of the Barbie doll itself is an important component of this gendering of the critique of voluntourism. Barbie, as a commodity item, is the ultimate symbol of appropriate, girly femininity and heterosexuality, and also comes to stand in for the imaginary girls who play with the doll, with Barbie often marketed to them through an entrepreneurial postfeminist sensibility (Pritchard et al., 2019). For feminist analysts, and through her celebrity-doll status, Barbie has become a feminist symbol of patriarchal society, signifying the tyranny of White feminine beauty standards (duCille, 1994, 1996; Motz, 1992; Toffoletti, 2007; Rogers, 1999). Celebrity humanitarianism is thus alluded to by the Instagram account creators’ use of the Barbie doll, an immediately recognisable, iconic figure of desirable femininity. Barbie is therefore a spectacular and theatrical figure (Chouliaraki, 2012) used through the account to engage with practices similar to those celebrity figures the account seeks to critique.



Alongside gender, feminist and anti-racist accounts suggest Barbie’s Whiteness is evidence of a White racial superiority, in which the Black, Brown and Asian versions of the doll retain the same mould as the White Barbie doll, save for slight alterations (e.g. fuller lips for black Barbie, angled eyes for Asian Barbie) and new names—Shani, Asha, Nichelle— while maintaining an “unrelenting sameness” that assumes Whiteness as the model for all others (duCille, 2004[1994], p. 269). This is also implicated in the colonialisms of national identity. In Varney’s (1998) analysis of the White ‘Australian Barbie’, part of the Dolls of the World collection, she argues that the cultural appropriation of stereotypical signs and symbols of a culture, such as a cork slouch-style hat (the 2011 version includes a ‘koala friend’), represents the purchase power of a form of cosmopolitanism. This, Varney (1998) argues, creates the ‘feeling’ or ‘ambiance’ of a culture that is used to market an imperialistic product, while making indigenous Australian women invisible. While in Barbie Savior, the account brings together a colonial national identity and Whiteness with the racism implicit in the idea that Africa is homogenous. The statement “the country of Africa” is a repeat trope throughout the Instagram feed, used as evidence of Barbie’s ignorance. At one point in the narrative, Barbie Savior reflects on this: “I have noticed people informing me that Africa is a continent and not a country. I hope you can forgive my mistake. I have so much to learn—but I do know one thing for certain—and that is that my love for this place is bigger than ANY country!” In another post, Barbie Savior claims: “It has come to my attention that the country of Africa is actually made up of several countries! The time has come to disclose my location … I live in Nambia!”, repeating Donald Trump’s infamous error when, in praising Namibia’s healthcare system in response to the Ebola epidemic, he called the country Nambia. Barbie Savior’s sartorial highlighting of how femininity, Whiteness, national identity and postfeminist sensibility intersect is also discussed in academic analyses of media representations of humanitarianism (Calkin, 2015; Koffman et al., 2015; Switzer, 2013). Koffman et al. (2015), for example, argue that a new feminine visibility dominates aid and humanitarian efforts. This visibility shapes both those giving and receiving aid: the young woman of the Global North becomes the agent of change, emancipation and empowerment, meanwhile the young woman of the Global South is positioned, contradictorily, as both victim and agent. The victim position is longstanding, discussed for example in Mohanty’s (1984) analysis of oppressed ‘third world women’ and continuing to frame



contemporary young women of the Global South through a “familiar colonial gaze” (Koffman et al., 2015, p. 160), as oppressed and victimised by a patriarchal culture; limited by poverty in their capacity to act; and as having internalised a ‘backwards’ view of gender relations, seeing themselves as weak and inferior because of their sex. Yet, framed within a postfeminist sensibility, such young women are also positioned as full of potential. Koffman et al. (2015) give the example of the Nike Foundation ‘Girl Effect’ campaign, which is “dedicated to the most powerful force for change on the planet: adolescent girls”, and, along with many other initiatives, use the slogan “invest in a girl and she’ll do the rest”. Switzer (2013) also draws on this campaign in her analysis of postfeminist development fables. Analysing three videos produced for the Nike Foundation, Switzer (2013) suggests that a dichotomy is produced between the sexualised child-bride and girl-mother versus the schoolgirl, and in doing so “packages her for easy consumption by viewers in the global north” (p. 354) (see also Koffman & Gill (2013) and Calkin (2015) for further analysis of this campaign). Connecting with our critique above, Koffman et  al. (2015) use the term ‘selfie humanitarianism’ to define this postfeminist girlification of aid and to highlight two different elements at play in many of these media campaigns. First, the selfie represents the practice of self-photography taken with mobile technology and shared on social media, as a practice that is coded as feminine since it is often premised on appearance and about the sharing of good feeling (Tiidenberg, 2018). It also, according to Koffman et al. (2015), often means turning the gaze on oneself, judging, for example, the quality of the photograph, before sharing with others. Second, Koffman et al. (2015) use the term selfie humanitarianism to underline the way humanitarianism itself turns the gaze away from “those in need and onto the individual donor … it highlights the reframing of ‘helping others’ in terms of entrepreneurial and narcissistic self-work” (p.  158). They use this concept to analyse the Girl Up campaign, produced by the United Nations Foundation, which asks girls from the Global North to produce media content, especially in the form of selfie, with girls asked to ‘donate’ their photographs. Further activities in the campaign included asking girls “If you were given $1 million, how would you spend it to help girls around the world?”, with their responses uploaded to the campaign’s website in video form. Through such activities, Koffman et al. (2015) argue that the girl of the Global North is made spectacularly



visible, demonstrating her ‘sisterly’ care of the girl of the Global South by reflexively introspecting on her own life or encouraging imaginary practices of consumption. Such selfie humanitarianism is routinely captured within Barbie Savior. A key object of humour, for example, are a number of commodities that Barbie brings with her to ‘Africa’. These include various brands, from Coca Cola to UGG boots and Starbuck’s coffee: “I can’t wait to see the joy on each child’s face when I bestow upon them their first UGG boots and they take their first sip of pumpkin spice latte”. Reflecting on her need for coffee, Barbie Savior’s caption for one image exclaims “Can you believe they have coffee here?!?”, performing a lack of knowledge of the history, production and global flow of coffee and coffee beans as a commodity. Similarly representing her selfie humanitarianism, Barbie Savior, as an Instagram account, is predicated on the logic of the selfie—since that is the dominant representational mode of the site. That is, all the images we view are there to be tacitly read as selfies. Barbie Savior further mocks this preoccupation with the self by drawing attention to the selfie, for example, in an image where Barbie Savior is imagined as being in an orphanage, the caption reads: “It provided me the perfect opportunity to snap some selfies with the less fortunate, even with poor lighting. One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned over the years is taking selfies in Africa is NOT for the faint of heart … it’s an art form.” As suggested by the above caption, an important object of critique in Barbie Savior’s Instagram feed is her engagement with children, and especially the Black girl doll-child. Attesting to this, Barbie Savior’s profile image features the Barbie doll holding a Black doll-child at face height, with both Barbie and the doll-child looking into each other’s eyes. We read the relationship that Barbie Savior has with these various doll-­children as a significant part of the gendered representations of the Instagram feed, linking up ideas of women as intimate carers and ‘can-do’ agents of change, and girl children of the Global South as, dualistically, oppressed and with potential. As Zeddies and Millei (2015) suggest, “[i]n an increasingly intimate and globalizing world, children and childhood often emerge as sites of people’s hopes and anxieties and as symbols for societies as global connections” (p. 101). We explore the significance of the girl-child below, by unpacking Berents’ (2016) analysis of social media hashtag campaigns that centre on girlhood, and reading this through Barbie Savior.



“Orphans Take the BEST Pictures!” Berents (2016) analyses both the popularity and celebrity responses to two hashtags, #iammalala and #bringbackourgirls. The first hashtag emerged because of the work of Malala Yousafzai, who in 2009 began blogging for the BBC from the Taliban-controlled region of Swat in Pakistan, where the Taliban had banned education for girls. Yousafzai was 11 years old at the time, and in the following years she became a prominent activist for girls’ education in Pakistan. At aged 15, her school bus was hijacked by the Taliban, who asked “who is Malala?”, and Yousafzai and two other girls were shot. Yousafzai was treated in the UK, and during this time was visited by the former UK Prime Minister and UN Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown. Brown later started a petition, using the phrase “I am Malala”, which quickly became a hashtag on social media, #iammalala. The second hashtag, #bringbackourgirls, began in 2014 after the kidnapping of 276 girls from the Chibok Government Secondary School by Boko Haram. In response to a lack of intervention by the Nigerian government, people in the Chibok region and elsewhere in Nigeria began using the phrase “bring back our girls”, which later became used widely on Twitter. The extensive sharing of the hashtags #iammalala and #bringbackourgirls on Twitter demonstrates, for Berents (2016), the power that girlhood has as an important symbol of suffering and innocence. Furthermore, Berents (2016) argues that the hashtags rely on simplifying these experiences to stories of either ‘heroine’ or ‘victim’. Thus, as Berents (2016) argues, Yousafzai comes to stand for the girl-as-exception, as a heroine who is able to rise above, where others cannot. Yousafzai’s mediation through Twitter means that other elements of her political activism that do not fit the Western narrative (i.e. her questioning of Barack Obama over the continued use of drones in Swat) are written out and made invisible in an effort to position her as both exception and willing recipient of support from the Global North. Meanwhile, according to Berents (2016), the schoolgirls in Chibok come to represent the “idealized, innocent victim” (p. 520). Their mediation means they are able to stand for a range of violences inflicted by Boko Haram, including the execution of adult men, looting and the abduction of women and girls, abridged into a hashtagable narrative of lost innocence (Berents, 2016).



Of both campaigns, Berents (2016) shows how, by using these hashtags, people in the Global North “reproduce problematic relations of power that are intimately bound up with simplistic conceptions of girlhood” (p.  514). Importantly, the hashtag works to repackage experiences and allows those in the Global North come to see girls in the Global South as their own: I am Malala, or bring back our girls. This ownership of the bodies of girlhood in these two campaigns is highlighted by the way celebrities engaged with them, for example with Angelina Jolie claiming in an article for The Daily Beast that “We Are All Malala”,6 or Michelle Obama’s claim on YouTube that “Barack and I see our own daughters” in the struggles of the Chibok girls. In doing so, celebrity engagement with these two social media campaigns works to ignore differences in location, history, geopolitics, wealth and privilege that shape the different experiences of Malala, the Chibok girls and the celebrities themselves. As Berents (2016) concludes, the support these campaigns both received, albeit with the best of intentions, reinforces notions of ownership and reproduces a narrative in which the Global North is positioned as superior and progressive and the Global South fails in taking care of its most innocent and vulnerable. This, in turn, is “facilitated by the uneven topographies of digital power and that reinforces neo-colonial global hierarchies while seemingly making a depoliticized appeal to solidarity” (p. 524). The way Barbie’s interactions with the Black doll-child/girl are presented—and mocked—through the Barbie Savior account has parallels with Berent’s (2016) critique of the way girlhood is presented in the Global North and Global South through social media. On one level, that Barbie Savior’s affections often orient towards orphans locates the critique of humanitarianism and voluntourism within a care-oriented femininity: “I feel like mothering all of this country’s children. I was chosen for this!” This in turn maps onto other gendered patterns in the larger discourses of aid intervention. By drawing on motherhood, Barbie Savior engages with the critique of celebrity adoption, in which White Western women demonstrate their virtue by ‘saving’ children in the Global South, an act that not only privileges a Western concept of the family, but also adopts such children into families of extreme wealth and privilege (Kapoor, 2013; Wilkins, 2015; Shome, 2011). But additionally, the discourses of care align with gendered constructs of who gets to enact more fundamental change. For example, in the case of #iammalala and #bringbackourgirls, it is Angelina 6



Jolie and Michelle Obama who provide sentimental care and benevolent reflection on the girls’ circumstances; while it is Gordon Brown and Barack Obama who have the capacity to act decisively to change those circumstances—with the latter called on to intervene in the Nigerian government’s slow response to the abduction of girls from Chibok (Berents, 2016). Alongside the appeal to femininity-as-care, Barbie Savior’s Instagram account also takes aim at the notion of victimhood. Throughout the account, Barbie’s engagements with children repeatedly highlight the inaccuracies of media representations. For example, the story regularly presents moments when Barbie and her friends take trips to the ‘big village’ (i.e. a city) and laments how it undermines the message that she is trying to communicate through her Instagram account. In another post, Barbie admits that “Although children with flies swarming their faces are relatively rare here, it’s important to me to portray this as the norm”. Victimhood is also presented through sentimentality, as an opportunity for Barbie to emote. One image, for example, stands out since it features only the girl-doll, and not Barbie herself. Alongside this image, the caption reads: “Too young to know that she doesn’t have to be here. She doesn’t have to live in the sun. And yet, she does. The sorrow she carries in her eyes all but overflows while my heart widens to catch the excess. I will hold your pain in my heart, little one. I will not forget you.” In another post, Barbie is shown standing and reaching her arms down to a small Black girl-doll. The caption reads: When I first walked through the gates of the orphanage, a flood of children ran to me—I stepped forward, my feet cascaded in the red dirt, my arms open wide. I have never felt more loved or needed as I did in that moment. This … this is where God wanted me. Each one of his children clamoring for attention, for just an ounce of love. I saw them with His eyes: pure and faultless. I held, loved on, kissed, and laughed with them. These few short hours felt like a lifetime. My cup is full and I am forever changed. These precious little ones, who laugh in the face of much trial, who choose joy despite their circumstances, inspire me—and should inspire us all.

As with Berents’ (2016) analysis of #bringbackourgirls, the orphans are presented through Barbie’s narrative as the “idealized, innocent victim” (p. 520), or, as narrated by Barbie, “pure and faultless … precious little ones, who laugh in the face of much trial”. Similarly, Barbie’s reproduction of this scene implies the same Western superiority of Berents’ (2016)



analysis of social media campaigns, where Barbie’s love and attention, as a form of intervention, is enough to provide meaningful change in the lives of the orphan girl-dolls. However, as with elsewhere in the account, the encounter is imagined to affectively benefit Barbie more than the children: “I have never felt more loved or needed”, as well as creating the child as an object to be “loved on”. That is, Barbie Savior critiques the girlorphans’ status as victim by highlighting how, in humanitarian and voluntourism discourse, she is not given full subject-status but instead becomes simply a recipient of love from the Global North. This is further deepened by the continuation of individualism and self-betterment in the caption above, so that Barbie is ‘forever changed’, or where elsewhere in the account the girl-doll acts as a means to improve her social media standing. As she proclaims elsewhere: “Orphans take the BEST pictures! So. Cute.” Enterprise in the White Saviour Industrial Complex: “It’s not about me … but it kind of is” As a parody, the sentimentality of celebrity humanitarianism and the critique of voluntourism play out through Barbie Savior, with humorous effect. One way this is engaged with is through mocking the emotional sentimentality of guilt and pity perpetuated by campaigns such as Comic Relief. For example, a series of posts engages with Barbie’s own campaign, Harness the Tears, which we explore below. Harness the Tears is presented through several Barbie Savior posts as a campaign that seeks to bottle the tears of people who follow her Instagram account (who are presumably White and American), since, according to Barbie Savior, ‘Africa’ does not have access to clean water. The narrative of Instagram allows Barbie Savior’s humanitarian campaign, Harness the Tears, to unfold. Earlier in the arc of Harness the Tears, we see an image of Barbie crying, which is captioned: “I’m crying because of the beauty … then crying because of the heartache. Then when I realize the clean water my eyes are wasting by just CRYING … I cry some more because I don’t know how to harness my tears yet. Oh, Africa. You really know how to make me soul search!” Barbie Savior’s critique thus combines absurd sentimentality through an excess of emotion (e.g. “I cry some more …”) with absurd logic, where tears from Barbie Savior might be a waste of a potentially clean water source in ‘Africa’. Like the problematics of the white saviour, this expression of sentimentality is ultimately shown as



self-­serving, referencing Barbie’s own personal gain, as an individualistic soul searching and route to private self-fulfilment. Later in the narrative, however, material change is enacted through campaigning, but Barbie Savior’s actions are used to show how such aid work is, nonetheless, still fundamentally self-serving. Having discovered how to “harness the tears”, Barbie draws on a neoliberal rhetoric of self-­ improvement and entrepreneurial spirit (Foucault, 2008; Vrasti, 2012) to instigate her own NGO, with echoes of the United Nations Foundation Girl Up campaign and their call for ‘donated’ selfies (Koffman et  al., 2015). In the narrative, Barbie Savior states “Given the fact that I’ve always wanted to be a CEO and I’m already 20 years old, I figured it was time to get moving! With that, I introduce to you, my new NGO, Harness the Tears! Please donate as much as your emotional self allows before your rational self questions any of my qualifications, legitimacy, or effectiveness.” With these donated tears packaged in bright pink bottles, Barbie Savior reproduces the perceived inauthenticity of celebrity humanitarianism, as well as mocking the emotional sentimentality of guilt and pity of much celebrity humanitarianism, by encouraging her Western followers to ‘donate’ through their own tears. As suggested above, aid campaigns that position Global North girls at the centre of Global South girls’ narratives are understood through the critique of the white saviour industrial complex as implicated in the market appeal of voluntourism, as a means of improving career prospects and demonstrating neoliberal characteristics of resilience and independence. The entrepreneurialism of Barbie Savior’s practices is well represented on the account through stories that imagine Barbie to have undertaken commercial enterprises. While Harness the Tears represents part of Barbie Savior’s NGO efforts, the Instagram storyline also has Barbie building her ‘empire’ (orienting to the word’s dual celebrity and colonial allusions) by launching: Savior Chic Attire, a clothing line that uses zebra skins to create costly mini-skirts, while all profits are sent to a zebra sanctuary; Skinny Barbie Collective, a diet regime, which features the hashtags #donateyourcalories and #theyneedit; and Rodent in Heels, a beauty cream whose ingredients include “29% white guilt, 8% good intentions and 12% African stereotypes”. Barbie Savior therefore mocks the neoliberal entrepreneurialism of voluntourism, while highlighting its attempts at monetising inequality. Alongside these parodic capitalist ventures, Barbie Savior is also shown engaging in a number of volunteer practices that might otherwise require



skills. For example, a regular feature of voluntourism packages is teaching, which Barbie is shown engaging in with the caption: “Who needs a formal education to teach in Africa? Not me! All I need is some chalk and a dose of optimism. It’s so sad that they don’t have enough trained teachers here. I’m not trained either, but I’m from the West, so it all works out. Good morning, class!!”, suggesting a Western exceptionalism and superiority. The Barbie doll is also presented in the account as visiting many orphanages and hospitals. Within such posts, Barbie again provides her labour as though enacting the illusion of ‘humane’ or ‘caring’ capitalism (Vrasti, 2012), with the account highlighting the contradictions of Barbie’s belief systems as a colonial form of Western enlightenment: “One of the many misunderstandings in this culture is that herbs can take the place of real medicine! So, to help reinforce the importance of modern day scientific medicine, I introduced my essential oils. It’s such an easy way to revamp an entire healthcare system, and I cannot believe I am blessed to be the one to introduce them!!” Finally, the notion that the belief in authentic emotions and experiences shape voluntourism markets is performed on Barbie Savior where other forms of racism are permitted through Barbie Savior’s White desire for “this country, Africa”; for example, trying on ‘native’ clothing, getting a tattoo in the shape of Africa, and “[l]earning to dance like a native. May the movement of my hips be as intense as the belief I have in myself!”. Such images, posts and captions also engage in what hooks (1992) referred to as ‘eating the other’, or a form of cultural appropriation and the finding of pleasure in racial difference. Therefore, throughout the account, Barbie Savior is shown to gratuitously heap admiration and love, for example, in constant claims to “love on” orphans, or in exclaiming “The people living in the country of Africa are some of the MOST beautiful humans I have ever laid eyes on”. Meanwhile, Barbie Savior demonstrates that this sentimentalism and heightened emotionalisation of voluntourism are, in fact, inauthentic and self-serving. For example, we see this taking place in relation to orphans and orphanages. Dovetailing with our discussion of the figure of the child in our discussion above, these posts are also amongst some of the most detailed on the site. In one image, the White Barbie doll is pictured holding a smaller Black doll close to her face, with a large bus image used as a backdrop. In the caption, the text takes the form of a letter:



Dear child, You inspire me. You inspire me to be the best person to myself and I guess everyone around me, even my frenemies. But mostly myself. The best thing I could dream of is to become successful, to have a big family in a big house in beautiful white suburbia. When I asked you what your biggest dream was you said “to dance” … (such a hysterically quaint dream that surely no privileged child has ever had) one of the most happiest moments in your life was definitely when you met me and my friends (but mostly me) and you asked me when I was coming back. I am sorry to tell you that there is a very small chance we are ever going to meet again. I have a lot of other children to take selfies with. It keeps me busy. Something you may not know about saviors is that we can see the future … in two years you are going to meet a grown up man that you have never met before, you two are going to have a child, and if you are lucky he will stay with you. But he will probably leave you alone with your child in your small home made of mud and trees. You will probably sell your body to someone else to earn money for your child. And then, a white woman will come to your child and give her the best day of her life. Just like I have given to you. Ah, the circle of life. I could keep on talking, but I want you to know there is hope. It’s me. But I have to catch a bus … #dearwhitesavior #kenyanot

In the above caption, the Barbie Savior account embodies unequivocally the critique of the white saviour industrial complex as performed through voluntourism as self-serving and individualistic, suggesting that the benefits of voluntourism are wholly about inspiring her to be the “best person to myself”. The account then mock-reveals the good life fantasy of the Global North, where success is defined by “a big family in a big house in beautiful white suburbia”, while the imagined child’s dream to “dance” is patronised “a hysterically quaint dream that surely no privileged child has ever had”—implying the kinds of power imbalance that emerge from these forms of pity. Following this, the account then satirises the effects of the commodification of orphans, suggesting that relationships are built that are both intimate yet fleeting (Conran, 2011). In her renowned essay, Under Western Eyes, Chandra Talpade Mohanty (1984) discusses how ‘third world women’ are imagined in feminist academic work. She suggests that Western feminists tend to highlight the free, liberated, White Western woman and her poorer, less enlightened and ‘primitive’ counterpart. For Mohanty (1984), the ‘third world woman’ is presented homogeneously as the object of patriarchy, where such narratives of women “appropriate and



‘colonize’ the fundamental complexities and conflicts which characterise the lives of women of different classes, religions, cultures, races and castes in these countries” (p. 335). In the above caption from Barbie Savior, we see a similar pattern mocked. Barbie, in her letter, informs the child of a necessary life narrative, highlighting once more and at the very least the lack of impact of voluntourism initiatives to the local community. Significantly, this future life narrative, in contrast to the dream of the “big family in a big house in beautiful white suburbia”, consists of a narrative of young pregnancy, single motherhood, a home of “mud and trees” and prostitution, thus enacting Mohanty’s (1984) critique of the simplification of narratives in sexualised terms (Switzer, 2013). The account concludes by highlighting the false promise and unreliability of the white saviour industrial complex, with Barbie suggesting “there is hope. It’s me. But I have to catch a bus.”

Conclusion: What Are We Laughing at, Exactly? In this chapter, we have explored the mock affective sentimentality of the Instagram account Barbie Savior, as a silly archive that produces an important critique of the white saviour industrial complex by performing the intersections of gender, race, class and nation. We have done so by outlining Cole’s (2013) original arguments about white saviour industrial complex, and how such an industrial complex plays out in both celebrity humanitarianism and voluntourism. Both of these are taken up in the Barbie Savior account, sharing a postfeminist digital feeling of humour by reproducing sentimentality, pity, celebrity, desirable commodities and imagined good lives, including those that live a good life through doing ‘good’, and therefore engaging in their own self-betterment through enterprise. What is gained in an account like Barbie Savior is a wider public discussion and recognition of the affective fabrics that create a commodity of geographical locations that were once part of empires, a discussion that, as we have shown, maps neatly onto academic accounts of the gendered racism and imperialism of various aid and humanitarian efforts. Its creators have also used the account to engage with other organisations, creating social media guides, for example, to educate volunteers, and posting links to information about the problems of the voluntourism market. However, there is a doubled movement in Barbie Savior, where what is less evident



from within the Instagram account are the ways that we are all implicated in the global flows of oppression, from those engaging in voluntourism markets to those laughing at Barbie Savior. In Gregg’s (2010) analysis of PassiveAggressive Notes, a website where people submit found written notes that perform all the pleasantries of social norms with an undercurrent of threat, she identifies user comments that focus on the grammar and spelling mistakes made by others in their passive-aggressive note writing. For Gregg (2010), these comments buttress the middle-class snark and sense of superiority of those engaging with PassiveAggressive Notes. In the same way, there is the risk of superiority, knowingness and othering of recognisable white saviour-types in the potential to laugh at Barbie Savoir. This is without questioning the wider social infrastructures, such as foreign policy, the maintenance of economic debt and the histories of colonialism that distributed wealth, industry and resources in certain directions, that are absent in the humour of Barbie Savior yet, as Cole (2013) has shown, essential for the white saviour industrial complex to flourish.

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Sweat Is Just Fat Crying

One element of postfeminist sensibility is of femininity as a bodily property produced through work on the body. In earlier articulations of postfeminist sensibility, this work was more often than not beauty work, but in the context of sustained critique against appearance concerns and associated toxic femininity, health was moved into the spotlight. The outcome is ‘postfeminist healthism’ (Riley et al., 2019), defined as a postfeminist orientation to health where working on the self to transform the self—apparently not for appearance but for health—is a cultural prescription and thus a moral obligation. It is also a highly gendered space, tied into wider discourses of ideal femininity (which, in turn, throw into particular relief other gendered positionalities). Through this assemblage, certain feelings and desires are invited and evoked, and flowing through, and perhaps holding this assemblage together, they create a signature affective structure of digital fitness culture. This includes social media practices and platforms, websites, digital tracking, wearable and implantable technologies, fitness video games, fitness and exercise equipment, and fitness and gym wear. These practices and platforms of digital fitness culture are interconnected and intertextual, using and remixing imagery from different content, as well as crossing over into a number of other digital spaces and borrowing codes across practices and aesthetics from advertising, social media influencers and physical gym cultures. Thus, although we focus on #fitspo in this chapter, we begin here with the © The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2023 A. Evans, S. Riley, Digital Feeling,




example of fitness influencer Alice Liveing as a crystallisation of these intersections reproduced across social media to map out this terrain. According to Alice Liveing’s website, she has “a passion for educating the masses on all things health and fitness”. And she has succeeded in this ambition, gaining a following of 700,000 on Instagram, first as ‘Clean Eating Alice’, and more recently as simply ‘Alice Liveing’. Through her influencer status, she has also published three bestselling health and fitness books. She is the founder of the app, Give Me Strength, and uses the same title for the podcast she hosts; she features frequently on the cover of Women’s Health magazine, where she writes a regular column and has produced a clothing line for Primark. Liveing’s Instagram account features regular positive, inspirational and motivational messages, selfies and videos of workout regimes, either in a large empty gym space or at Liveing’s home, a London top-floor apartment where we also see full floor to ceiling windows, balcony and a large, fashionable kitchen. These symbols of stylish consumption and wealth are a familiar trope in the represented lifestyles of health and fitness influencers (O’Neill, 2021; Riley et al., 2022; Wilkes, 2021), which often have a domestic, warm, yet professional style. Liveing is no exception, with a number of the photographs having a stylised quality to them, presenting Liveing in the gym performing activities requiring strength or flexibility, or in feminine clothing with full-smile-beaming at the camera, and reflecting a comfortable happiness. For example, one post features Liveing wearing a light floral camisole. She is facing the camera in full sunshine, the background blurred and one of her hands drifting backwards, touching a cream-coloured painted wall. Liveing’s tanned White skin glows in the sun, while her blonde wavy hair sweeps back as though in a light breeze. In these images, attention is drawn to her body, and many photographs also have her phone in the image, as part of the technologies of creating a selfie, capturing moments of herself living the good life. In these images, boundaries blur between beauty, femininity, muscular strength, health and fitness, consumption and success to form an assemblage of fitness and a branded performance of the self, which “pivots on attention and narrative” (Khamis et al., 2017, p. 196), giving Liveing’s account the feeling of a sustained form of aesthetic labour associated with the ‘Instafamous’ (Elias et al., 2017; Banet-Weiser, 2012; Marwick, 2015; Abidin 2018; see Chap. 4 for more discussion of such forms of labour). Alongside such content, Liveing is also a proponent of the equivalence between good mental and physical health. The importance of good



mental health is reflected in Liveing’s narrative of how she became a personal trainer, which includes having experienced food and body-related distress (including through clean eating) and an abusive relationship. This positions Liveing within a triad of ‘perfect-imperfect-resilience’ (p-i-r) (McRobbie, 2020). That is, as with other social media influencers who appear to live a good life, Liveing’s Instagram account identifies the ways in which her body and mind are imperfect, through mental distress and a lack of body confidence, and from which she healed herself by becoming a resilient figure, thus situating herself back in a good life narrative, but one that carries more authenticity (Illouz, 2008; Orgad & Gill, 2022; Riley et al., 2022; Evans, Forthcoming). P-i-r also aligns with a postfeminist framing of self-help that merges historical discourses of women’s psychology as pathological with contemporary transformation imperatives to work on ones’ self for optimal living (Riley et al., 2019, 2019). In connecting her fitness training to mental health and the p-i-r narrative arc, Liveing is part of a contemporary therapeutic culture that centres suffering (Illouz, 2008; see also Chap. 4 for a discussion of this in relation to the influencer). Such a narrative of suffering is present throughout Liveing’s Instagram, so that while all the images and videos feature her presenting a ‘good life’, one full of joy, playfulness and exercise as part of the positive feeling rules of digital culture, they are produced against the shadow of a former life defined by trauma, and associated struggles with confidence and self-esteem (Dobson & Kanai, 2019). Through the dual narrative of good life and of suffering that connects to postfeminist self-­ help, Liveing is shown working on her mental health through activities such as meditation, support networks and changes in thinking. Her work on the psychological also becomes indistinct from her physical work. As the cover of an online style magazine featuring Alice, and shared on her Instagram account, states, “Alice Liveing on recovering from trauma through strength-training”.1 Such an association between good mental health and good physical health is part of an increasing emotionalisation of everyday and public life, a therapeutic narrative of the self that is confessional (Illouz, 2008; Swan, 2008) that we see extending into a postfeminist sensibility that focuses on emotions and feelings (Gill, 2017; Orgad & Gill, 2022; Riley et al., 2019). As we document in this chapter, such emotionalisation is becoming crucial for understanding digital expressions of women’s strength and physical fitness. 1



We argue that social media influencer accounts like Liveing’s are important because they are implicated in a wider postfeminist digital feeling emerging from the dispersed, non-linear, but interconnected narratives of health and fitness online. Another example of this is represented under the hashtag #fitspo and associated hashtags (#fitspiration, #fitblr, #instafit). Building on our analysis of the structure of fitness within which Liveing as a social media influencer operates, we turn to fitspo as a collectively produced ‘structure of fitness’ shaped by a postfeminist healthism that, in turn, shapes feelings about living a good life. Starting with Liveing allows us to introduce the core elements of postfeminist healthism as it materialises in digital fitness cultures. These elements include how digital health crosses various online platforms which reiterate similar representations of health as produced through a blurring of boundaries between the body, mind, beauty and brand, with the outcome of toned sliminess and a vulnerable yet survivor-strong femininity. Below, we consider #fitspo as an element of digital fitness culture produced mostly by social media users and micro-influencers. These people may not have the individual reach of Alice Liveing, but collectively they produce a significant amount of content on fitness that positions itself as a body-positive alternative to appearance concerns through celebrating the strong female body. In our discussion we show how previous research on fitspo and related content suggests the thin ideal continues to circulate in this space, with associated body dissatisfaction, and in line with a transformation imperative that makes work on the body a moral obligation, yet one that is recognised as difficult. What has been less explored is the way the affective intensities of fitspo work alongside a broader postfeminist healthism to shape its structure of feeling. Positioning fitspo as a form of postfeminist healthism, we develop this analysis of a ‘structure of fitness’ by examining pro-ana as fitspo’s corollary; fitspo’s optimism and promise of a better future self through neoliberal hard work and determination; and fitspo’s potential to intensify shame. The outcome is a structure of feeling through which the promise of pride generates feelings of shame.

From Fitness Culture to Fitspo Culture As we have suggested above, digital fitness culture is part of a digital assemblage, located in a wider shared and networked digital context, including professional social media influencers like Liveing. The term ‘fitspo’ is shared across a number of social media platforms, including



Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, TikTok and others. For example, fitspo content includes reposts of social media influencers, and likewise social media influencers borrow styles, aesthetics and hashtags from fitspo content (e.g. motivational quotes and slogans), while content flows between and within platforms, and imagery is borrowed from different content (e.g. Nike advertisements imagery is reposted in fitspo and borrows from fitspo). These examples show the interconnected, intertextual and fluid remixing of content across digital fitness cultures, so that while there may be distinct sites, platforms, brand advertising, physical gym cultures and social media influencers, they circulate content with a recognisable, shared ‘feel’. The focus of content that is networked specifically through the fitspo hashtag is to provide inspiration, motivation and information to people wanting to become “lean, light, fit and tight” (Riley & Evans, 2018, p. 207). Fitspo often works through the practices of sharing content, especially slogans and images. Examples of these slogans include “fitness isn’t owned, it’s rented, and you have to pay rent every day”, “great things never came from comfort zones” and “sweat is just fat crying”. These slogans are often overlaid on images of women exercising, or standing in exercise clothing, with an aesthetic that is reminiscent of Nike adverts. This allusion to Nike is significant, since Nike has successfully marketed itself as a global enabler of girls’ and women’s emancipation and empowerment through sport, exercise and fitness (Cole & Hribar, 1995; Lucas, 2000; Posbergh et  al., 2022). Nike’s marketing campaigns build on a form of popular feminist sentiment that while raising the profile of women’s emancipation, simultaneously aligns feminism with neoliberal notions of citizenship, thereby reducing feminist’s more radical potential (see Chap. 1 for our more detailed explanation of popular feminism). A popular feminism shapes contemporary fitness culture. For example, in Nike’s adverts Dream with Us and Dream Further, we see women from professional football teams who competed in the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. In both adverts, these recognisable sportswomen play alongside or support younger women. In Dream Further, this is accompanied by the Joan Jett song Bad Reputation and the closing text, “Don’t change your dream. Change the world.” These advertisements thus mimic popular feminist rhetoric of empowerment, allowing Nike to align itself with a notion of women working together for physical (and by extension, world-­ changing) success. Similarly, fitspo content of motivational statements and images of women’s athletic, trained bodies connects to a narrative of



empowerment. This narrative of empowerment aligns fitspo with body positivity, constructing work on the body for fitness and health as a positive alternative to appearance-related beauty work, especially when contrasted with a thin ideal. A regular statement within fitspo content, for example, is to proclaim that “strong is the new skinny”. Fitspo, like Alice Liveing, thus celebrates the strong female body. This emphasis on the strong female body as symbolic of female empowerment in the context of a wider toxic femininity related to appearance concerns contextualises other forms of fitspo content that include infographics and user-generated photographs. These infographics often direct people on how to do various exercises (push ups, crunches, squats), or how to make ‘healthy’ foods (e.g. “how to get all your nutrients on a plant-based diet”)—thus sharing a visual, discursive and affective repertoire with clean eating (see O’Neill, 2021; Riley et al., 2022). Meanwhile, photographs shared through the fitspo hashtag typically feature young, White, slim and normatively attractive women (Maddox, 2021). The visual landscape in which they appear includes a mixture of ‘before’ and ‘after’ images; selfies, often taken in the mirrors of bedrooms, bathrooms and gyms; and more glamorous photographs featuring highly stylised beach and expensive gym locations. Such images echo the visual rhetoric of Alice Liveing’s more professional photographs. Fitspo and associated hashtags have received some attention in feminist discussions of health, fitness and wellness. This includes a number of content analyses and experimental studies. For example, Boepple et  al.’s (2016) content analysis catalogued the first three websites to show up on search engines when using the terms ‘fitspiration’ and ‘fitspo’, since these websites represent the most visible and widely read online content. Coding variables included body type, culturally based beauty ideals, sexual objectification (e.g. women in bikinis or underwear), thin ideal messages and exercise and food (e.g. exercise for appearance, food restriction). Their data suggests that fitspiration content is heavily focused on appearance concerns, and reproduces thinness as an ideal body (97.82% of images). This is supported by other content analyses. Simpson and Mazzeo’s (2017) analysis focused on the platform Pinterest. Of the 1050 pins that Simpson and Mazzeo’s (2017) analysed, they found that the majority of these “promoted weight management standards and behaviors as a way to be thin, fit, sexy, or beautiful” (p.  564). While in Tiggemann and Zaccardo’s (2015) experimental study, 130 female undergraduate students were exposed to either fitspiration or travel images. Both groups reported being inspired by the images (i.e. to either exercise or go



travelling). However, those women in the fitspiration group also reported greater body image dissatisfaction and lower self-esteem (although see Slater et al. (2018) for a very different result, where fitspiration had no effect). Thus, in line with analysis of healthy eating and anti-diet diets as replacing “the old diet rules with new diet rules every bit as disciplinary” (Spitzack, 1990, p. 11, cited in Duncan & Klos, 2014, p. 247; also see Cairns & Johnston, 2015), fitspo reproduces a thin ideal, one that is materially felt, while purporting to offer an alternative to the thin ideal. Analysis of a postfeminist sensibility within fitness cultures also illuminates important elements of fitspo. In our own research on fitspo represented through the hashtag #fitblr (a portmanteau of fitspo and the micro-blogging platform Tumblr), we explored fitness culture as reproducing the postfeminist transformation imperative, where women are expected to engage in constantly transformative techniques of self, body and mind. Within the logic of postfeminism, the transformational imperative is a moral imperative. An individual’s ability to participate in transformative work become the measure of the person, with the outcome that people are also held personally responsible for their own success or failure, for example, through content that proclaims “you can’t have a million dollar dream with a minimum wage work ethic” (cited in Riley & Evans, 2018, p. 221). In our discussion of the transformation imperative, we also highlighted how the constant self-work promoted by fitblr content circulated discursive contradictions, including that Fitblr was both a community and made up of rugged individuals (e.g. “push yourself because no one else is going to do it for you” (p. 219)); that the thin ideal was an inappropriate goal while celebrating thin bodies as ideal; and that transformation was both easy and difficult. The latter was shown with statements like “just get off [your] arse” alluding to the Nike slogan “just do it”, sitting alongside descriptions of pain and physical discomfort that made ‘just’ doing it sound really difficult. We connected these contradictions to other analysis of postfeminist sensibility, highlighting how research across a range of sites from drinking cultures to body image had documented postfeminism as an ‘impossible space’ to inhabit (Griffin, 2005; Evans & Riley, 2014; Riley & Evans, 2018; Riley et al., 2022). As well as identifying similarities across postfeminist spaces, our analysis also highlighted differences, in particular, fitspo’s radical departure from other forms of postfeminist media at the time in its recognition that transformation was difficult and failure not just as possible—but likely. But



while the failure was recognised, its radical potential to challenge postfeminist sensibility was negated by being positioned as either happening to abject others (e.g. people with poor mindsets) or by being both simultaneously acknowledged and rejected, as with statements such as “every day is a fresh start”. This gives fitblr a temporal element, similar to dieting regimes (Coleman, 2010), where motivational content can be engaged with over time while hoping for and optimistic about an ideal imagined future self (Riley & Evans, 2018). In considering this temporal element in the light of our current focus on feeling, we argue that imagined future achievements create an optimistic orientation, directing desire towards a hoped-for future that seems possible despite difficulties and contradictions. Paying specific attention to the affective flows of fitspiration (and drawing on Ahmed (2014) and Kuntsman (2012) to do so), Toffoletti and Thorpe (2020) argued that affect, emotion and feeling are connected and dynamically flow through relations between “bodies, psyches, texts, and machines” (Kuntsman, 2012, p. 2). They applied this approach to affect (which has much in common with our own ways of navigating affect, see Chap. 1) through analysis of content related to the fitspiration hashtag #BBG, an acronym for Bikini Body Guide, a 12-week fitness and nutrition plan by social media influencer Kayla Itsines. Toffoletti and Thorpe (2020) suggest that their focus on the #BBG hashtag is both recognisably fitspiration (because, like us, they see a cross-site shared digital fitness culture), while also providing the opportunity to explore a greater sense of community and togetherness that might not be present in data from the hashtag #fitspiration, since #BBG specifically brings together and connects women who are engaging with Itsines’ 12-week plan. Their analysis identified three themes in #BBG content. First, they showed how feelings of pride in the exercising body create a sense of belonging to a community and of receiving recognition for the hard work of transforming the self. Second, and drawing on Kanai (2019), they noted that relatability and authenticity is created through sharing the hashtag #BBG and by expressing the vulnerabilities of body and mind and thus the need for (self-)care. Finally, they identified a structuring of shame and pride, demonstrated in ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs where the shameful ‘before’ body is contrasted with pride in the fitter, leaner ‘bikini’ body. Toffoletti and Thorpe (2020), our own (Riley & Evans, 2018) and others work (e.g. Maddox, 2021) on fitspo highlight importance of affect in making sense of digital fitness culture (see, e.g., Lucas and Hodler (2018) on the queer potential of #takebackfitspo hashtags). What research has not



done is connect this assemblage of affective flows through discourse, bodies, technologies and subjectivity to postfeminist healthism. Yet, as we show below, locating fitspo as a form of postfeminist healthism opens up important new insights.

Postfeminist Healthism: “Strong is the New Skinny” Postfeminist healthism highlights how health is a primary site for postfeminist sensibility. Postfeminist sensibility intersects with neoliberal notions of health in important, gendered ways, making health one of the many normalising and disciplining technologies that shape how women understand themselves and others. A postfeminist healthism defines a context where there is a “normative expectation for women to be confident, sexually agentic, and efficacious and successful, in their life plans for public roles, paid employment, intimate relationships and embodied health” (Riley et al., 2019, p. 6). Through the concept of a postfeminist healthism, a woman’s achievement of health is understood as a marker of individual self-made spirit and a freed and empowered feminine subjectivity (Riley et al., 2019). This shapes women’s expectations to be constantly working on the self, body and mind, and doing so through notions of self-love, a care of the self that is also about maintaining a ‘successful’ body, which is typically taken to mean White, slim but toned, and recognisably heterosexual, middle-class and normatively attractive. Thus, those who fail to successfully work on themselves to meet cultural ideals are constructed as failed citizens, with an underlying flawed psychology demonstrated by their inability to discipline themselves appropriately. Together with these recognisable sentiments of a postfeminist sensibility, we suggest a healthism works to deepen the subjective attachments to notions of health, wellbeing and fitness, where we are expected to understand socially and culturally constructed definitions of health as common sense, normal, natural and desirable, for example that slimness is an indicator of good health, from which we might experience shame or pride depending on how well our bodies align with this figure of health. Healthism defines a context in which health has become disconnected from the solely medical or clinical, but instead can be applied in a range of contexts. For example, we might talk about having a healthy lifestyle, a healthy relationship, a healthy work-life balance or a healthy positive attitude. Crawford (1980) argued that the shift of health into these spheres has coincided with an increasing neoliberal privatisation of health and



welfare. In the same way that neoliberalism, a political and economic doctrine, allows one to think, feel and make sense of the self through notions of competition, ‘companies of one’, or as a value circulating in a marketplace (Read, 2009; Rose, 1990, see also our overview in Chap. 1), so too the dismantling of health as a provision of the state turns health into an individual project with market solutions (Brown, 2006). For Crawford (1980), this expansion of health represents a “new health consciousness” (p.  365), which, by infiltrating everyday life and experience, also becomes more readably consumable—for example, achieving a healthy lifestyle by purchasing gym memberships, expensive holidays, attending detox and yoga retreats or health and wellbeing bootcamps. To give another example, consumerism is embedded in a range of food choices, such that we might ‘choose’ between health products that are macrobiotic, organic, antioxidant, low in salt, sugar or fat and with a range of added minerals, vitamins and supplements (Riley et al., 2019, p. 9). Or, as Nash (2016) suggests, where “exercise was once seen as a means to fitness, fitness is now seen as part of a holistic ‘healthy’ ‘lifestyle’” (p. 220). Thus, while once health was a concern for those who were ill, healthism makes health a central concern to everyone, but, in its most ideal, valued forms, also one that only a privileged few can afford. This, we argue, sets the affective tone of the structure feeling to digital fitness. We view fitspo as a key example of the way postfeminism and healthism fold into one another. One way of illuminating the postfeminist and neoliberal elements of fitspo is by contrasting it to what it positions itself against. As previously noted, a regular statement within fitspo content is to proclaim that “strong is the new skinny”. In doing so, fitspo content suggests that skinny was once the desired bodily appearance, but that this idea has been superseded. Both the idea that, prior to fitspo and its celebration of muscular strength, ‘skinny’ was (digitally) dominant, and the adoption of the portmanteau of fitness and inspiration, references ‘pro-­ anorexia’ (or pro-ana) communities. In what follows, we begin analysing a structure of fitness by contrasting fitspo and pro-ana. We suggest this contrast makes visible how such postfeminist healthism sentiments are embedded in moral notions of what it means to live a good, healthy life. Next, we explore the good feeling created by fitspo through Berlant’s (2011) notion of cruel optimism, as striving towards goodness that always remains out of reach. Finally, we argued that this failed aspiration positions fitspo within a cultural production of shame. We explore each of these in turn below, in what we term the ‘structure of fitness’.



A Structure of Fitness Pro-ana Versus Fitspo: Or the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Body Work Pro-ana is the term used to describe what is a varied and complex series of digital practices across many different platforms that in some way are being produced by and for people who identify as anorexic. Features and content are diverse, including blog-journals, social media feeds, hashtags, human rights and legal advice (e.g. what to do if you get fired for being too thin), motivational affirmations, and images of thin or anorexic women, sometimes including celebrities (Cobb, 2020; Dias, 2003; Ferreday, 2003; Riley et  al., 2019). However, despite the complexity within and between content, pro-ana is often more simplistically discussed as presenting anorexia as a ‘lifestyle choice’ or in terms of a number of ‘commandments’ (e.g. “thou shall not eat”), especially in journalistic social commentaries that have raised the visibility of pro-ana. In relation to fitspo, however, pro-ana represents a digital community of body work where the community attempts to connect those whose eating practices are defined as ‘unhealthy’—in contrast to the focus on health and wellbeing of much digital body work. Pro-ana has been the subject of substantial media controversy. In the early 2000s, a series of articles by publications like Time Magazine and Salon, plus a segment on The Oprah Winfrey Show, created a heightened public awareness of the existence of pro-ana websites and, consequently, calls for them to be removed—which Yahoo! attempted in 2001, by deleting all pro-ana content on its servers. This process of both heightened awareness and erasure also initiated an ongoing and regular return to the subject of pro-ana by journalists, with content often following the same structure. This structure regularly features a claim to uncover a ‘dark side’ of the internet; interview material from somebody who uses/used pro-ana sites; and an interview from a representative of an eating disorder charity or organisation. Each of these narrative structures is typically accompanied by an affective tone of disgust, shock and fascination. As Time Magazine suggested in their 2001 expose, “Beyond their obvious ‘ick’ factor, the sites provide a fascinating insight into the world of anorexics”,2




demonstrating the duality of abject disgust and fascination that shapes responses to pro-ana (Ferreday, 2003). The calls to censor content or objects that seem related to pro-ana have also been ongoing since 2001. In 2014, a number of clothing outlets, including Hudson Bay Company and Urban Outfitters, had to remove t-shirts that featured pro-ana motifs (see Riley et al. (2019) for a full discussion). Online, pro-ana has morphed, avoiding censor by using different terms, or becoming attached to more popular terms. In 2020 the social media platform TikTok received public calls to respond to pro-ana content, especially given its young audience, by removing content or adding trigger warnings to content that uses particular hashtags associated with pro-ana, for example #weightlosshacks (Gerson, 2020). Pro-ana content has also been aligned to hashtags such as #whatieatinaday, used by celebrities like Kylie Jenner on TikTok, while leaked information from TikTok has shown moderators being requested to supress videos that featured people who are “ugly, poor, or disabled” (Biddle et al., 2020). Pro-ana is a useful juxtapose to fitspo because, while they appear to differ in concepts of health, they act in dialogue with one another. The relationship between pro-ana and fitspo is evident in their respective terminology, with fitspo hashtags like #fitspiration and #fitspo appropriating the pro-ana community’s use of the terms #thinspiration and #thinspo. Both pro-ana and fitspo rely heavily on digital technology’s visuality, creating visual libraries of images overlaid with textual quotes and mantras that are meant to motivate people. Significantly, where fitspo seems united in the statement that “strong is the new skinny”, a large amount of pro-­ ana content references the model Kate Moss’ quip that “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”. Further parallels are evident in the emphasis on the female body, especially the midriff, and hard work and dedication that go into transforming that body. In terms of the focus on the midriff, for example, one fitspo image features a slim White woman leaning up against a punchbag with her head held back. Wearing shorts that are rolled down below her hip bone, the woman’s midriff is clearly the focus of the image, while the text reinforces the notion that such a body is the outcome of transformative hard work and ambition: “And yes, it is possible. And no, it isn’t easy.” Likewise, the focus on hard work and dedication is put to work in parallel ways across pro-ana and fitspo content. Where, for example, a post tagged ‘pro-ana’ on Tumblr claims “I just need to stay focused” alongside a black and white ‘thinspirational’ image of a slim midriff, another tagged



with ‘fitspo’ reads “Crawling is acceptable. Falling is acceptable. Puking is acceptable. Crying is acceptable. Blood is acceptable. Pain is acceptable. Quitting is not.” Both communities express an expectation to be wholly consumed with the project of transforming the body and a level of determination that favours all potentially painful or uncomfortable bodily experiences in order to achieve an end goal. In both, we see an emphasis on self-determination that is in keeping with a neoliberal work ethic. In such a neoliberal work ethic, we see an expanded concept of labour, in which the body becomes a project to be worked on, along with an expectation of entrepreneurialism, self-sacrifice and productivity.3 There are aesthetic differences between pro-ana and fitspo. For example, the body across fitspo content is tanned and glowing. This glow is important, since it signifies health across a range of wellness media, as though the skin’s surface (often oiled, and with all the technologies and cosmetics that can be used to achieve a tanned appearance, including photo-editing) is tantamount to the health inside of that body. The healthy glow is a feature, for example, of fitness experts like Alice Liveing and clean eating representatives such as Ella Mills, otherwise known through her brand name Deliciously Ella. In her analysis of Deliciously Ella, O’Neill (2021) suggests the glow in digital body work stands in for health. In line with our discussion above of healthism, such a glow means that health “is understood not simply as freedom from disease, but a kind of preternatural exuberance and luminous vitality” (O’Neill, 2021, p. 1284). Meanwhile, pro-ana content has been noted for the grunge aesthetic of the waif that, in contrast to fitspo’s glow, removes the “glossy masquerade of femininity” (Burke, 2012, p. 41). In removing the gloss, pro-ana imagery seeks to expose the vulnerability of femininity that links the female body to culturally historic and romanticised constructs of feminine pathology, crystallised in the figure of Ophelia (Riley et  al., 2019). However, despite these differences—and there are others, including, for example, that across fitspo content, breasts and bums are curvier—a notable overlap is the way that the skinny waist holds value across both. In both, thinness is a sign of success. 3  These themes are central to contemporary analyses of work, such as analysis by Gregg (2018) and Duffy (2017), and a topic we develop further in the next chapter in this book, where we look at TikTok beauty videos to further examine relationships between work, labour, emotional capitalism and entrepreneurialism. Here, we highlight how work on the body is framed in the same way as other forms of labour.



The content discussed above highlight a normative expectation of a thin ideal, with a focus on the waist and an emphasis on food restriction in pro-ana or exercise in fitspo as demonstrating one’s strength of character and dedication to change. But, despite the parallels between pro-ana and fitspo, the latter has received nowhere near the same attention, visceral reaction or attempts at censorship that pro-ana content has provoked, even while it has steadily gained critics (e.g. Kiberd, 2015). Thus, where a search on Tumblr for the term ‘pro-ana’ prompts the question “Everything Okay?”, alongside information to official sources of support (i.e. National Eating Disorders Association, The Beat UK), searching for fitspo content produces no similar self-reflective questioning about feelings of wellbeing. We would argue that these different responses to search terms pertaining to the body reflect fitspo’s position in alignment with a neoliberal healthism. As we argue above, such healthism includes treating health and the body as an individual responsibility, in line with a privatisation of healthcare and an expansion of health into all areas of life. In addition, embedded within a neoliberal framework, the subject of healthism has to engage with, reflect on and assess their own bodies as part of a constant transformation of the self (Riley et al., 2019), becoming—in the words of one fitspo post—“leaner, fitter, lighter, tighter”. We can also see these same healthism rationalities at work in self-tracking apps, which require the constant self-monitoring of the body and self, measured through quantification (e.g. Lupton, 2016; Sanders, 2017); or in the denigration of those who are seen having ‘let themselves go’, not engaging in the requirements to work on the body, which often centre on the fat body (e.g. LeBesco, 2011; Lupton, 2013). But what the comparison between fitspo and pro-ana also demonstrates is that it is not enough to simply work on the body, but that there is a right way to do such body work. Pro-ana communities engage in the practices of self-transformation required by a neoliberal biopolitics, but their participation in these digital communities falls outside of normative constructs of ‘healthy’;4 whereas fitspo is entirely consistent with a healthism discourse where norms of a slim, highly toned appearance come to stand for what counts as healthy. 4  This is not to undermine the risks of anorexia, which has the highest mortality rate of all entries in the DMS-5, but to show what fitspo is comparing and contrasting itself to in order to count as ‘healthy’. One of the behavioural practices of anorexia is also excessive exercise, and it is likely that the parallels we have noticed between pro-ana and fitspo mean they are used interchangeably, despite fitspo fitting in with notions of good health.



We would further suggest that what counts as healthy—and fitspo’s existence within the parameters of such healthiness—is shored up by a postfeminist and popular feminist turn to body positivity, which in its appeal to good feelings, further distances fitspo from the abject disgust produced by pro-ana. Body positivity has for a long time been a staple of advertising discourse, for example in L’Oréal’s slogan “Because you’re worth it” (Riley et  al., 2022). But more recently, this has intensified, becoming a pervasive marketing and advertising tool (Gill & Elias, 2014; Gill & Kanai, 2019), featuring in pages of magazines (Favaro, 2017; Murphy & Jackson, 2011), and in self-help and advice books (Orgad & Gill, 2022), as well as an affective tone that women draw on to make sense of their own bodies and selves. The shift to body positivity is especially true in digital spaces. For example, Toffoletti and Thorpe (2018) demonstrate the way notions of self-­ love and self-empowerment shape female athlete’s social media accounts. Their analysis includes the tennis player Serena Williams wearing a “Strong is Beautiful” t-shirt, while the racing driver Danica Patrick’s self-­ representations emphasise her empowerment through confident and (hetero)sexy photographs in which she is positioned as having individually overcome her marginalisation in her industry and is able to be herself. As Toffoletti and Thorpe (2018) suggest, these images operate in an economy of visibility, where claims to self-love and self-empowerment must fit into already legible notions of femininity. Likewise, such a focus on body positivity also resonates throughout fitspo content; “Shout out to all the girls working on loving their bodies because that shit’s hard and I’m proud of you”, “Be your own kind of beautiful”, “Eat like you love yourself. Move like you love yourself. Speak like you love yourself. Act like you love yourself”, creating a positive embodied subject in contrast to pro-ana’s unhealthy body. In fact, through fitspo content, strength itself—as in “strong is the new skinny”—comes to act as a byword for women’s empowerment, even while this strength is underscored by a focus on women’s appearance as the site of her value, as well as the continuation of already recognisable ideals of beauty (i.e. strong equating to toned and not too muscular), with the added bonus that through positivity, empowerment and normative female beauty, the subject is engaging in good healthy citizenship. A final point we want to make on the legitimacy of fitspo in contrast to pro-ana is in relation to how food operates within each community. As has been documented in research on pro-ana communities, there is a focus on



food as a threat and as something to be quantified, measured and managed (Cobb, 2020; Lavis, 2017; Riley et  al., 2009). A similar focus on regulating food intake is evident in fitspo content. Except in fitspo, the focus shifts to stylish salad and smoothie bowls, ‘superfoods’, plant-based diets and clean eating. As Cairns and Johnston (2015) argue of the diet industry in the context of postfeminism, there is a shift away from dieting and deliberate weight loss, since this can be positioned as a negative relation to the body, a form of control rather than a practice of the free and liberated female subject. What we see in fitspo content is that deliberate weight loss is reinstated and connected to empowerment, through the framing of food restriction as a practice of good health. Drawing our analysis together, the structure of feeling associated with fitspo is that good health is something to feel good about (Evans et  al., 2020). In contrast to pro-ana and its location within the medical and the clinical, the strong body reflects the way fitness falls into categories of ‘good’ health, appropriate consumption and happiness. Fitspo content works by ‘rebranding’ the negative connotations of skinny, discrediting dieting and the thin ideal by tying thinness and dieting to healthy eating and strength. In so doing, fitspo validates both dieting and the thin ideal even as it discredits them, all through an optimistic, hopeful and positive affective tone. This positivity is contrasted to the abject other of fitspo, pro-ana, which is culturally framed through disgust. Fitspo as Cruel Optimism As we have suggested, fitspo is engaged with the production of deeply affective postfeminist sentiments, which, in their positivity, might move others to feel motivated or inspired. In the context of postfeminist healthism, these affects, we argue, create a normalising desire for ‘good health’ as a vital component of living a good life (Riley et  al., 2019). However, as we have discussed above, the way ‘good health’ is constructed makes it both normal and unachievable—a dynamic of fitspo content that we explore below through Lauren Berlant’s concept of ‘cruel optimism’. Berlant (2011) suggests that cruel optimism exists when the objects that we are attached to make life worse. One example that Berlant (2011) provides of cruel optimism is the short story Exchange Value, by Charles R.  Johnson (1986 [1981]). In this story, two poor African American brothers, Cootis and Loftis, break into the house of a local beggar and hoarder, discovering that she has both died in her bed and had huge



amounts of wealth—money, stocks and other valuable items, which she had inherited from her wealthy employer. The brothers are at first excited by their new future good life. However, they soon realise that they too are unable to spend or enjoy their new wealth. Instead, the brothers find themselves repeating the actions of the beggar woman. Like the beggar woman before them, they set booby traps in their house to prevent others taking the money and valuable items, and they allow their own accommodation to go into disrepair—for example, when their toilet breaks, they don’t call the landlord, since they cannot risk others seeing their wealth. The brothers come to the realisation that “as soon as you buy something you lose the power to buy it” (Johnson, 1986 [1981], p. 38). Berlant (2011) uses this story to demonstrate the toxicity of cruel optimism, that gaining the thing that was meant to bring one closer to the good life actually makes life worse. The brothers end up being “in proximity to plenitude without enjoyment” (p. 41). The object that should bring them the good life (i.e. wealth) causes both brothers to lose everything. Cruel optimism, for Berlant (2011), is a concept that allows us to understand how the fantasy of the good life operates, especially in the current moment. In a context shaped by precarity, the fantasy of good life attachments, such as health, but also wealth, job satisfaction, secure housing, family and marital bliss, have become increasingly difficult and unattainable for many in the current economic, social and political context. At the same time, they are also taken-for-granted and expected as part of a ‘normal’, ‘ordinary’ life. As one fitspo quote reads, “You become extraordinary when you do the ordinary things consistently”. However, what does this mean in a context where the ordinary has also become challenging for most? The outcome of these ordinary/extraordinary expectations, as read through the lens of cruel optimism, is that an aspiration for the ordinary good life means we are held back from being able to flourish. Since these optimistic attachments are so assumed and normative, seeking other attachments is risky—or become outside of the realms of possibility. We saw this, for example, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. While some saw opportunities to reenvisage economies and protect a natural world under threat, a predominant narrative (in the UK, at least) emphasised a collective desire to restore ‘business as normal’ (Adeleman, 2021). The UK Government, for example, actively encouraged a return to pre-­ pandemic spending, putting in place an Eat Out to Help Out scheme and



commanding people back to the office, to reassert the importance of the economy rather than reimagine alternative ways of structuring life and work. A cruel optimism exists in wanting to stay close to the promise of a good life, while we remain tied to a normativity that damages us and prevents us from flourishing or identifying alternative ways of being. Cruel optimism is also shaped by social inequalities that structure how good life fantasies can be taken up. For example, in Exchange Value, Cootis and Loftis’ poverty, structured through and in the context of a racist society, means that once they realise wealth, they are unable to spend it, for fear of losing it again. In relation to health, it is harder for those without money to take up consumption-led health that takes a range of resources including time, money and a safe environment. At the same time, building muscle and strength might also be one of the few forms of capital left for some marginalised groups. As Hakim (2015) suggests, both deindustrialisation and austerity in the UK have meant that the bodies of working-class men who used to become strong through the physical labour of factory work are now those bodies we see worked-on in gym cultures that are shared through social media. Thus, in a context where those marginalised by sexuality, gender, disability and class have always been defined by their bodies, the socio-politics of neoliberal austerity may also make such body work a key mechanism in retaining cultural value, even while these neoliberal gendered positionalities remain cruel. It is associated with having the disposable income to buy activewear, equipment, gym membership and technological and tracking devices (e.g. Fitbit). In Nash’s (2016) analysis of activewear brand Lorna Jane, for example, having spending power to engage in fitness is also tied to expectations around what the brand can do, including fabrics that shape the body in desirable ways. Fitness is a material and economic activity, as well as one that sculpts the body, both in fabric and through exercise. Fitness culture also assumes a freedom in time and space, where leisure time, accessibility of gyms, or spaces to run and exercise that are safe may be in short supply. Of the latter, this was highlighted recently in a UK 2019 police campaign, #JogOn, which was criticised for advice suggesting women run in groups to avoid street harassment, rather than challenging those behaviours such as catcalling that might make women feel less safe. Others have highlighted how the intersections of gender, class and race shape available spaces for exercise, for example where Black people running in White neighbourhoods in the US might be the target of violence, as was the case in the racist murder of Ahmaud Arbery who, in 2020, was



shot dead by three White neighbours who believed he was a burglar (Hornbuckle, 2021). Research also identifies the difficulties fat Black women face running in public, even when such acts can become the focus of decolonial resistance (Ashdown-Franks & Joseph, 2021; see also Sniezek (2021) for a discussion on being fat and running in public space). Like fitness, fitspo, we would argue, also functions as a form of cruel optimism, attaching health and the benefits of exercise to a sense of personal wellbeing, value in life, spiritual and emotional contentment, and general goodness as a person. In its optimistic attachment, fitspo presents body transformation as more than changing the body, but also a way to change ‘life’, making it more rewarding, happy or ‘good’—with health and happiness often presented as co-dependent, both in fitspo and more generally, for example, in the World Happiness Reports (2012–ongoing), where national ‘happiness ratings’ become signals of a nation’s health and health indicators are used to measure national happiness. However, although the promise of fitspo is health and happiness, this outcome is also always positioned as out of reach, even while the images of slim, toned, fit bodies show it should be possible. Or if it is possible, this creates anxiety that it might be lost again, as one fitspo slogans reads, “fit is not a destination”. Bauman, likewise, noted a similar dynamic in fitness cultures, whereby the “pursuit of fitness is the state of perpetual self-scrutiny, self-­ reproach and self-deprecation, and so also of continuous anxiety” (Bauman, 2012, p. 78). We argue that the anxiety of fitness cultures is embedded in both the temporality of fitness and a cruelness contained in dismantling the mind/ body dualism. Considering the temporality of fitness, we connect this with Coleman and Moreno Figueroa’s (2010) research on beauty, which draws on Berlant’s (2007) concept of cruel optimism. Coleman and Moreno Figueroa (2010) described beauty as a bodily inclination, a construct that has no present, but “a process which exists as and is produced through the relations between bodies, things, memories, dreams and hopes” (p. 361, emphasis in original). In their data with British girls and mestizaje Mexican women, they identify this bodily inclination as creating an orientation towards a hopeful future, a ‘future perfect’. Fitness, we would argue, exists in the same temporal frame, its achievement always exists in a future perfect since it requires imagining an ideally imagined future self (Riley & Evans, 2018). Deepening analysis of fitspo’s relation to the future perfect, we would also argue that its temporality is afforded by the digital architecture. This is to say, with the habitual and distracted scrolling for content



encouraged by platform affordances (Dean, 2015; Chun, 2016; Paasonen, 2020), the spaces on which fitspo exist (Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, TikTok) function in a way that content appears never-ending and the images that inspire fitness do not ever reach a conclusion, a continuity of looking that maps onto the continuity of fitness—there is always more one could be doing—making attainment unfulfilled. Alongside these technical affordances, there are other ways too that fitspo maintains an optimistic future temporality. The bodily inclination towards a future perfect is generated, for example, in that the short quotes and affirmations of fitspo are meant to be motivational, encouraging someone to work on something. Often, the future perfect is expressed in the promise that fitness is to be achieved, giving discrete segments of time; “this month’s choices are next month’s body” and “three months from now you will thank yourself”. Such statements construct a temporality of the importance of the present into the future, while others represent the continuous ongoing flow of everyday in the efforts to work on the body so that “[e]ach new day is a new opportunity to improve yourself. Take it. And make the most of it.” These temporal elements also open up space to recognise failure within a postfeminist sensibility (Riley & Evans, 2018), in contrast to transformation narratives where pain and failure are erased (e.g. in reality television makeover formats, see Banet-Weiser and Portwood-Stacer, 2006). Instead, a new dynamic emerges, where the p-i-r narrative arc (McRobbie, 2020) connects with fitspo—often as a reason to keep working towards the future perfect; “if at first you don’t succeed fix your ponytail and TRY AGAIN”. As a cruel optimism, we can see how these multiple temporalities fit into the subject’s attachment to transform, the promise of a better future and something to hope for. But we can also see how they might leave us at what Berlant (2011) terms the impasse of the present, a “thick moment of ongoingness” (p. 200), of always working on the self, failing and then having to try again. We can understand such future-oriented optimism as cruel, since it ignores the way the body changes over time, as the body ages, for example which means even if the fitspo body were attainable to everyone, it would still be something we would lose. It also fails to recognise that bodies may experience disabilities, either permanent or temporary, visible or invisible, that shape what a healthy body means to a given body. However, even in moments where embodiments demonstrate the changing body, such as the pregnant body, an attachment to fitness remains, such as in #pregnantfitspo that includes routines and images of women exercising at different stages of



pregnancy, the transformation of the pregnant body is made to fit into the ongoing progress narrative of fitness—and especially after pregnancy where the body that can “snapback” to pre-pregnancy appearance is celebrated as both an ordinary/extraordinary achievement and an expectation (Riley et  al., 2019). Fitspo’s future perfect is an orientation to ever-increasing levels of fitness, rather than the ebb and flow of real material bodies. The second way fitspo is shaped by a cruel optimism is in its framing of the mind, in which “the only thing that’s stopping you is yourself”. For feminist analysts, this promise holds significance since it appears, at first, to challenge a dualistic mind/body relation, one that has often mapped onto equally dualistic male/female, masculine/feminine binaries, where men have been associated with logic, reason and rationality, and women with the body (Grosz, 1994). However, as Fullagar (2020) suggests, rather than a complete undoing, the psychic promise of exercise is too often explained through a biochemical model (e.g. serotonin levels), and where mental betterment is presented as an agency located within the individual body, such as through psychological constructs of ‘motivation’. Thus, while loosening the binary, exercise culture often asserts particular roles for mind and body and, through postfeminist sensibility, as a form of empowerment for both or either (e.g. “strong body, strong mind”), rather than emphasising the entanglement of mind with the political contexts in which it is located,5 including neoliberalism, and associated individual competition in the context of widening inequalities and precarity that make the fantasy of good life attachments hard to attain. Fitspo instead engages with its mind/body relation through the language of positive psychology, and a doubling up on the levels of work involved in transformation, changing both body and mind to fit normative subject and body ideals (Gill & Elias, 2014; Riley et  al., 2022). Continuously working on the body will thus allow a person to realise a good life, incorporating confidence, resilience, self-esteem and good body image. Moreover, there is a disciplining of the mind (e.g. “You can’t achieve a healthy lifestyle with a negative mindset”), so that the subject that is created is one who can reflect on its own self, treating the mind as separate from itself, in a similar way to how the language of body image separates out the body and makes it an object, an image (Coleman, 2009). 5  An example of feminist efforts to emphasise body and mind as co-constitutive have included understanding psychic trauma as a public affect, as in the slogan “Depressed? It might be political” (Cvetkovich, 2012).



Shame, Shame, Shame Our analysis so far has suggested that the postfeminist healthism of fitspo engages with an aspirational version of the good life, a cruel optimism that ends up as a fantasy that is difficult to achieve and structured on a normative, stable, White, non-disabled, financially wealthy body. As an expression of cruel optimism, its need for constant transformation and maintenance of the fit body makes it an ideal object for optimistic attachment. In expressing what is aspirational, hoped-for or ideal, fitspo engages with a visual and textual imaginary of what one might want to be or cannot be. We finish this chapter by thinking through the outcome of such an affective postdigital, embodied digital archive of motivation, one that is intended to have material effects on real bodies. In presenting such an ideal version of health and fitness, fitspo, we argue, creates the scene for shame, as the implicit affective sensation created by aspirational cultures that have no finality because they require constant work on the self. Shame connects up the psychic, biological and social (Probyn, 2005). As a social construct, shame relies on a relation of ourselves to others, and recognitions of the social norms that allow us to feel shame (Ahmed, 2014; Probyn, 2005). Shame is therefore also about a person’s relationship to structures of power, with those who are White, non-disabled, heterosexual and financially affluent being less likely to experience the disciplinary regimes of shame. Shame can therefore be described as a ‘sticky’ affect, attaching to people and objects based on historical oppressions that attach themselves to emotions (Ahmed, 2010). Women have historically been tied to shame so that their leaky, fleshy, fluctuating bodies can be controlled by the fear of shame, for example in the way menstruation is treated as a bodily process that needs control, carefully managing it so that it does not ‘leak’ or reveal itself (e.g. by publicly having sanitary products) (Young, 2005). As Fahs (2016) suggests, the deployment of shame to discipline women’s bodies also engenders a silencing that makes it difficult to engage in collective action (even while ‘pride’, as its opposite, is often employed to challenge shame (e.g. Munt, 2007)). Alongside the social effects of shame, it is also a deeply embodied sensation. The experience of shame happens through a rush of affect, causing biological sensations such as blushing and feeling sick, as well as physically wanting to hide ourselves (Probyn, 2005). The strength of shame means it is connected to wishing “the world would swallow me up”, with the feeling of shame being dangerous enough to evoke death; “I could have



died with shame” (Sedgwick, 2003). Shame is also sticky in this sense too then, since it “tends to leave a residue to which other emotions are easily attached, namely envy, hate, contempt, apathy, painful self-absorption, humiliation, rage, mortification and disgust” (Munt, 2007, p. 2). Shame has been a key affect in discussions of the body, especially in relation to notions of both fat and skinny shaming (e.g. Riley et al., 2022; Rose Spratt, 2021). However, the shame that emerges from fitspo is not in those bodies typically shamed (the fat body, the menstruating body), but in presenting a normative notion of what fitness (and by extension, health) should look like, and assuming that the viewer does not measure up. One example of this is in the recurrent theme in fitspo content which denigrates what are defined as ‘excuses’. These include, for example: “Be stronger than your excuses”; “When its hard work you work harder. No more excuses”; “You can have results or excuses. Not both.” Any reason for not participating in fitness is thus constructed here as a failure, based on an excuse rather than a legitimate reason. Being “stronger” and someone who engages in “hard work” to get “results” shows acts of mind and body that map onto a neoliberal rationality that absents a consideration of systemic social structures that shape exercise. Such rationality also fails to consider the complexity and nuance of how people are produced through and within their social, political and economic contexts—and instead orients only to a highly psychologised separate, self-contained individual with will power. This psychologised construct of health sits in contrast to a body of literature highlighting how social determinants of health related to economics, education, social and community factors, healthcare systems, neighbourhoods and built environments can influence health more than lifestyle choices.6 The psychologising in fitspo thus functions to both focus attention on the individual and absent important structural and social factors involved in people’s health. Such absences mean that fitspo fails to recognise, and thus provide a vocabulary for understanding, health inequities. It also directs desire in particular ways—towards wanting to work on one’s mind and body rather than, for example, enhancing social cohesion in one’s neighbourhood. This orientation to the psychological and absenting of the social also intensifies the circulation of shame in the affective structure of fitness. Shame is doubled in these constructs of fitness, where, for example, the fat person who is shamed when running is also shamed when not running, 6



since avoiding the shame they might experience when running is just an excuse not a social barrier; likewise, the person who cannot afford expensive gym membership, activewear and other consumer items is shamed by this, and shamed again since this is also an excuse not to engage. Fitspo places the obligation to see the self as strong and hard working in comparison to the person who makes excuses alongside a continued conflation of health and appearance, one that undermines its emphasis on body love and self-care. We see shame in statements that claim, “What you eat in private, you wear in public”, and in asking “Would you rather be covered in sweat at the gym or covered in clothes at the beach?—It’s up to you”. The former, for example, engages with shame by inciting historic notions of morality and women’s food consumption and appetite for food. This history includes notions developed in the nineteenth century that linked the appropriate consumption of food and control of appetite to a woman’s virtue and sexual morality, demonstrating her ability to control intake and thus control her body and her flesh (Probyn, 2000; Lupton, 1998, p. 118). Where disgust about women eating in public is typically understood as a form of fat shaming (Bound Alberti, 2021), in this fitspo slogan (although it is one commonly tagged by both #fitspo and #proana users7) it is also the private consumption of food that causes shame—since it is only eventually reflected on the body as a public object. This kind of shaming is also taken up in hailing the viewer to consider whether they would rather sweat or wear clothes on the beach, as a question aimed at provoking motivation to sweat in the gym, while locating that choice in the individual (“It’s up to you”). Like the earlier “You can have results or excuses. Not both”, this caption expresses a binary choice. Such a binary is also evident in the affective quality of fitness, where the solution through fitness culture to this shame is the promise of happiness, confidence and optimism, “with the hippest exercise spaces promoting euphoric feelings of self-love and capacity as you cycle, jog, or train” (Orgad & Gill, 2022, p. 54). Yet, as we have suggested above, because it makes mental and physical health both a normative ideal and one that very few people have, the dual imperative to be both happy and healthy—like the therapeutic narrative more generally—“in fact produces a wide variety of un-self-realized and therefore sick people” (Illouz, 2008, p. 176). Fitspo slogans such as “You can have results or excuses. Not both” also evoke the controversial Protein World’s 2015 adverting campaign for their 7

 And as such offers another example of how fitspo and pro-ana have shared content.



‘weight loss collection’ of supplements, with a billboard that asked “Are you Beach Body Ready?”, which was eventually banned for body-­shaming. Yet what is hoped for here in the fitspo content is precisely to be beach body ready, thus emanating the shame that will be experienced if one is not, and of having to hide the body through shame since it did not work on itself hard enough.

Conclusion In this chapter, we positioned fitspo within postfeminist healthism, a concept that describes a cultural imperative for women to work on their bodies to meet narrow ideals of healthy embodied femininity and to understand this work as empowering and a measure of their morality and citizenship. Postfeminist healthism addresses a range of female-identified people, but these ideals of health and femininity are linked to socio-cultural privilege (e.g. being affluent, White, cisgendered, heterosexual and heterosexually attractive) and thus are rendered unattainable for many. While these norms are represented as desirable and empowering, they direct peoples’ desires towards unattainable or toxic ideals. Framing fitspo within postfeminist healthism thus helps understand the affective structure of fitness where positivity entwines with shame in a highly psychologised framing that absents other ways of thinking about health. Notions of physical and psychological strength, female empowerment and the affective flows of optimism, hope, pride and positivity circulate within fitspo. But these good feelings are attached to elements that are otherwise considered bad for both our mental and physical health, including a future orientation that reduces the possibilities of being satisfied with the present, a thin ideal and dietary restriction to achieve it. Further, an absence of recognising the social determinants of health mean that there is no vocabulary to challenge inequities, creating a cruel optimism that blames the individual for failure, even when lifestyle ‘choices’ are limited by our environments and have limited impact on our health in comparison to other collective or political actions. Underpinning the good feeling circulating in fitspo is a more insidious feeling of shame, a sticky, annihilating emotion that threatens our sense of self and that creates an abject affect generating feelings of hate, anger, disgust and fear (Riley et  al., 2022). The positivity of the structure of fitness is therefore mired in disgust, both of the other and for the self, if one is unable to accomplish this normal-­ exceptional achievement.



Rich and Miah (2014) highlight how constructs of health are learnt in publicly accessible digital culture, so that “despite the absence of explicit learning goals within such informal spaces, they nevertheless foster certain kinds of learning” (p.  306). Developing this point, they argue that we need to consider not just the content but the pedagogical relations produced within digital culture because they inform the “relations of affect circulating through the intersecting publics that emerge online” (p. 307). In paying attention to the relations affect within fitspo we have shown how a structure of fitness that orients to strength, empowerment, optimism, pride and positivity also enables a range of unhealthy practices supported by the circulation of shame, disgust and fear—especially of the fat body, as in the fitspo maxim with which we entitled this chapter, “sweat is fat crying”. But since fitspo locates itself within the realms of health, it avoids the cultural narrative of concern that occurs with its corollary, pro-­ ana. Searching for fitspo, for example, does not produce pop-ups asking if we are okay, nor are there calls to ban fitspo, even though we know fitspo and pro-ana share content, because people’s desires to lead a good life and be a good person can be folded into regimes that tie them into forms of sense-making and attachments that may be harmful to them.

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Making-Up Enterprising Selves

In this chapter, we move our discussion from working on the self and the body for health to doing this work in the name of earning money. Our focus is on the new labour practice of being an ‘influencer’. Influencers are people who act as ‘brand ambassadors’, reviewers and taste-makers for particular consumer items, or even more informally, those who raise the status of a brand by using it regularly and lending authenticity and visibility to products (Abidin, 2018; Arriagada & Bishop, 2021; Bishop, 2021). Being an influencer and participating in what is now a recognisable influencer culture, has become viable option or ‘side hustle’ for many people in a context where working life has become increasingly impermanent, flexible and precarious. These precarious working contexts intersect with developments in access to and knowledge of technology, including mobile devices such as phones with inbuilt video recording and editing software, live streaming and platforms on which to upload such content (Duffy & Sawey, 2021). Our focus in this chapter is on GRWM (Get Ready With Me) beauty videos on the platform TikTok. TikTok is an interesting platform in relation to its relative newness and extraordinary popularity (Abidin, 2020), with Forbes claiming that in 2021, users accessing its platform came in higher than both Google and Facebook (Monroe, 2021). Developments in its functionality also indicate changes that make it a useful site on which to explore beauty influencer culture. TikTok videos have gradually

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lengthened, with running times increasing from 15 seconds, to 60 seconds, to 3 minutes and then, in 2022, to 10 minutes. The rising video length of TikTok videos was in part a response to beauty and make-up videos featuring heavily across the platform, but being split into multiple parts by the content creators trying to cover a full tutorial. Longer videos also enhance the platform provider’s ability to monetise through advertising, enabling TikTok to compete with YouTube and others for their share of popular influencer content and therefore viewing figures (Vincent, 2022). GRWM videos form a specific subset of beauty tutorial and make-up videos, where the TikTok user takes the viewer through their process of getting ready, from a face free (or almost free) of make-up through to complete face, and sometimes including hair and outfit. Usually GRWMs are created for a special occasion such as a date or day out, although ‘natural’ and ‘everyday’ GRWMs exist. At the time of writing, the most popular GRWM is one by milliemacmakeup, with the caption “another grwm hehe this one is fun #getready #grwm #eyeliner #makeupgrwm”. In this GRWM, she starts by applying tanning lotion, then showing the product to the camera. She then adds Glow Recipe avocado serum and Glow Recipe banana moisturiser to her face, followed by Bare Brows jelly to shape her eyebrows. Wanting to “look really fresh”, milliemacmakeup then adds Charlotte Tilbury Hollywood flawless foundation, Lancôme all over concealer and XX Revolution concealer (the second concealer is lighter and will “brighten up” the look). A Charlotte Tilbury contour wand is applied on the cheeks, forehead, bridge of the nose, chin and neck. Two different Beauty Crop Juice Pot cheek tint products are used to create an “Ombré blush moment”, after which she adds Beauty Crop Milk Glow highlighter, Maybelline translucent Fit Me powder and bronzing powder. Freckles are drawn on, and brow pen is used to add detail to the eyebrows. Finally, Sheen Cosmetics’ Epic Liner in Iris, mascara, Qui Cherie lip oil and a Dior blush are all included in the GRWM. The video finishes with milliemacmakeup indicating that there is a reason why she hasn’t done her hair in the GRWM, then says “love you, thanks for watching, bye!”. During the GRWM, all the products are described or shown to the camera, always with positive appraisals, while the application of make­up gradually reveals the final made-up face. The majority of milliemacmakeup’s videos on her TikTok account are in the form of GRWM, which has amassed her nearly half a million followers. In this chapter, we explore how a postfeminist structure of feeling shapes the production and popularity of GRWM, and through this



analysis, how particular assemblages of work, self, gender and affect are enabled. We begin this chapter by outlining the conditions of possibility for these new forms of labour in the context of a deindustrialisation and shift towards the service sector in the Global North. This shift involves an emotionalising of labour, from performing positive emotions as part of service sector work to new forms of blurring self with work, as individuals become their own ‘brand’. We then show how an emerging ‘Do What You Love’ (DWYL) ethic ties particular forms of labour that are often low paid, flexible and precarious to good life narratives in highly gendered ways. We then identify the ways influencer labour is implicated in these new ways of working, and a shift in focus in beauty cultures from the outcome and towards the process and skill of transformation. These are presented by influencers as aspirational but which requires a careful orchestration of authenticity and new forms of emotional labour. Against this backdrop, we offer our analysis of GRWM, considering the emotional register, technological affordances, and the performances of appropriate femininity that is imperfect but not ‘tasteless’. Through this analysis we offer a novel exploration of the structure of feeling of influencer culture as a form of postfeminist entrepreneurialism.

Post-Fordist Labour Contexts A post-Fordist labour context describes a shift from industrialisation to ‘service-with-a-smile’ consumer-based economies. Fordist labour was premised on the assembly line to mass produce consumer items (see Chap. 5 for a discussion of how Fordist labour creates an affective alienation). Subsequently, a neoliberal political and economic agenda shifted and decentralised these labour practices, focusing on individual entrepreneurialism and adaptable, ‘portfolio’ workers who could move flexibly between different forms of labour (Adkins, 2016; Gregg, 2008; Sennett, 2006). What these shifts engendered was a form of labour where the worker moved “from mass production to flexible specialization, and from mass consumption to individualized and diversified consumption regimes” (Rose & Miller, 2013, p.173). With this, we see a move from manual labour, factories and production, to the “factory without walls” (Negri, 1989), a space in which the public and private become increasingly indistinguishable. This blurring of public and private occurs as work permeates into many aspects of life and where people are progressively encouraged to



think of themselves through the language of branding and marketing (Banet-Weiser, 2012; Gill & Pratt, 2008). As we suggested in Chap. 2, these changes in labour practices are globally unequally distributed. The growth of customer and service sectors in the Global North was matched with a shift in industrialisation and mass production to the Global South, including China, but also geopolitical spaces that were once the colonies of Britain and France. Uneven global working conditions often means cheaper labour for manufacturing in the Global South and weaker labour protection laws. With the intensification of digital industries at the turn of the century, a ‘cyber-proletariat’ developed, who, as Dyer-Witherford (2015) argues, often experience poor pay and work conditions for the production and destruction of these technologies. Examples of cyber-proletariat labour are the development of ‘digital sweatshops’, including the physical assembly line, call-centre employees and the immaterial labour of gamer-workers and others; and those working in the e-waste dumps where electrical equipment is disposed of, with a significant amount shipped to India, China and Western Africa, including Ghana’s Agbogbloshie area, the largest e-waste dump in the world (Fuchs, 2014; Graham & Dittus, 2022; Lisdero, 2019; Nakamura, 2009). Another example is Foxconn, who has large city-like factories across China producing items for Apple, Sony and Microsoft, and whose workers have committed suicide so regularly that the company has installed suicide nets on their buildings, rather than change their employment practices (Linchuan Qiu et al., 2014). These material conditions are masked in the phrase ‘Designed in California. Assembled in China’ that appears on Apple products (although see also Pun et  al. (2019) for an account of the commonalities of Chinese and Eastern European Foxconn employment practices). ‘Designed in California. Assembled in China’ also contrasts a generalised ‘China’ with the state-specific coolness of tech-culture Californian design. This is a tech-culture that celebrates entrepreneurialism, individualism and innovation, and which, Little and Winch (2021) argue, is underpinned by what they term ‘the patriarchs of digital culture’ (e.g. Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook), producing a new economic order dominated by White men. At the same time that this new economic order changed labour practices in the Global South, they also created new forms of work in the Global North, ones that are defined by



their flexible, agile working patterns and short-term, often zero-hour, contracts. Such ‘flexible’ working has been explored through the lens of precarity, broadly understood as the affective, emotional and material context of uncertainty (Berlant, 2011), and as a condition of reality for a number of citizens, including creative workers (de Peuter, 2011; Gill & Pratt, 2008), migrants (Anderson, 2010) and those in low wage and unpaid work (Leonard et al., 2016). More recently, discussions of precarity have focused on labour in the gig economy, shaped by outsourced infrastructural apps and a form of on-­ demand, contract-less labour of the workers, embodied by companies such as Uber, Deliveroo, Airbnb and TaskRabbit (Woodcock & Graham, 2020). In Malin and Chander’s (2017) analysis of Uber and Lyft drivers in two US cities, for example, they “highlight multiple and often conflicting ways that individuals negotiate the precarious economics of digital labor” (p.388). These negotiations were highly affective, related to pleasure in feelings related to self-determination, autonomy, sociality and even gamification, that flexible, choiceful working offered them, and that collapsed distinctions between work and leisure. But the drivers were also left exhausted from responding to customers’ needs that curtailed choices about when to work or how to sociable to be; left them beholden to customer ratings but without full control of the environment that affected these ratings; and which required them to negotiate risks of male sexual aggression, misogyny and/or racism, without employer support. Like those in the precarious gig economy, beauty influencers also share in the experience of precarious digital economy working. Beauty influencers’ work is positioned within an “optimistic and hopeful affective register that associates work on the body as pleasurable, empowering, and a pathway to self-mastery and being recognised—by oneself and by others—as living a good life” (Riley et al., 2022, p.52). But the discourses of pleasure, freedom, autonomy and choice are countered with their need to rely on followers, likes and shares that are shaped by wider social and infrastructural contexts not of their own making, and which reinforce wider social inequities (Bishop, 2018a). Central to the beauty influencers’ context is a postfeminist sensibility that produces a particular form of affective or emotional labour. In the section that follows, we explore this further, through an analysis of the affective flows of emotional labour and DWYL work ethic.



Smiling, Happy People Emotional labour has been a key concept in making sense of post-Fordist economic relations. From a sociological perspective, many accounts draw on Hochschild’s (1983) influential discussion of the ‘managed heart’, where she explored the way female flight attendants1 were trained to participate in forms of emotional presentation to customers and passengers, with gendered implications that to be ‘nice’ and to ‘smile’ is often undertaken by women workers. As part of a broader service sector imperative to ‘keep the customer happy’, the managed heart enacts post-Fordist labour by selling a feeling, or creating an atmosphere, rather than a physical item or manual work. Drawing on ethnographic material, Hochschild (1983, p.19) recalls one attendee at a flight attendant’s training session making a note, “Important to smile. Don’t forget to smile.” The centrality of the smile to the service sector has been further developed by other researchers. For example, Negeshi (2012) documents the technological measurement of the smile by ‘Smile Scan’, a facial recognition device that analyses worker’s faces, gives a score of the worker’s smile (from 0 to 100) and offers tips to the user to help them smile better. This technology was used by the Tokyo railway system as a way to train their public facing staff, allowing them to learn how to create an affective state in their customers, with staff being required to check their smiles as they began work and use their best scoring smile reports as part of their professional development and as a reminder to keep smiling. As a form of employee surveillance, Negeshi (2012) suggests that the Smile Scan creates a reflexive self-awareness of the smile, such that “transit workers are able to direct these [passenger] bodies with an improved efficacy in an encounter that ideally generates trust, happiness and contentment” (p.12). The concern is, however, that performing smiling to facilitate commerce produces a self-estrangement, since workers have to split the practice (smiling) from the feeling it usually comes from (e.g. happiness and sincere affection). In his analysis of Argentinian call-centre workers for example, Lisdero (2019) highlights how workers are required to maintain a non-visible ‘telephone smile’ regardless of how they might feel when talking to customers. This enforcement of a particular happy and friendly emotional disposition, Lisdero (2019) argues, is part of digital work that 1  Hochschild (1983) contrasts this with the work of parking fine collectors, whose emotional labour is one of withholding emotional connection, managing their own experiences of sympathy and performing anger they do not necessarily feel.



connects precarious working, bodies, subjectivity and sensorial capabilities that are experienced by workers as the “slavery of the souls” (p.118). Although not writing about digitalised work, Hochschild’s account of how emotions are navigated in service sector labour would suggest increased self-estrangement because digital technologies increasingly blur public and private selves. This is because her study identified how more experienced and successful workers were able to separate out the private self from the public performance. In doing so, Hochschild suggested that working in public-facing roles requires a form of ‘deep acting’, and that this deep acting has a different set of ‘feeling rules’ from the more personal affective work and emotional management done with family and significant others. That is, successful service sector workers could distinguish between performing emotions for work and those that were underpinned by a desire to feel that way, what we might call more ‘authentic’ expressions of emotion. But as others have noted, the introduction of digital culture to these forms of labour makes distinctions between private and public harder to maintain, because in the factory without walls, home and work, friendships and professional connections, private feelings and public persona are increasingly indissoluble (Gregg, 2010; Kanai, 2019; Negeshi, 2012; Terranova, 2000). In feminist labour theory, there are also issues with proposing that there is truly a distinction to be made between public labour and the private domestic sphere, because an important feature of economic and capitalist relations includes the labour that women undertake in the home, as either low-paid or unpaid work (Federici, 2019; Jarrett, 2016). For example, in the UK, industrial home-working was an option for working-class women in the Victorian ear, including forms of sewing and stitching that could be taken into the private sphere and returned to the factory (McCarthy, 2022). For women then, new labour practices in the post-­ Fordist economy arguably represent an historical continuity with labour practices that were already considered ‘women’s work’—both in relation to a blurring of public/private work and because the performance of pleasantness and service are culturally coded as feminine and thus linked to a ‘feminisation’ of the workforce (Banet-Weiser, 2012; Evans & Riley, 2017; Gregg, 2008; Harris, 2004; Scharff, 2016). Above, we have outlined research that shows how the post-Fordist economy engenders an emotionalising of labour that collapses distinctions between work and leisure, and public and private, and orients to emotional repertoires (e.g. being nice, smiling) and historical working



practices that are coded as feminine. To this, we add two further elements of a deindustrialised work-life, namely a structuring and emotional ethos of ‘Do What You Love’ (DWYL), and an enterprising of this DWYL ideology, so that the self becomes the brand. In discussing DWYL below, we suggest that the post-Fordist economy is also shaped by a postfeminist sensibility that structures labour in particular gendered ways. While in the corporate sphere, this takes on forms of postfeminist and neoliberal feminism, such as in Sheryl Sandberg’s manifesto that to succeed in the boardroom and in leadership positions, women should “lean in” (Rottenberg, 2018), it also shapes the more precarious, flexible and creative labour that we see in TikTok beauty influencers and their GRWM video content. Do What You Love DWYL has become a recognisable trope of creative forms of labour—a phrase that echoes and adapts Apple founder Steve Job’s statement “love what you do” to Stanford University’s Commencement ceremony, and which has since become an internet meme and self-motivational mantra (Tokumitsu, 2014). DWYL ideology suggests a romantic attachment to work (McRobbie, 2016), one that is deeply shaped by a postfeminist sentiment that ties an emotionalising of work to entrepreneurialism, discourses of ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’, aspirational glamour, and feminised pleasure and aesthetics (Duffy, 2016). For example, in a recent article for Business Daily News titled ‘Life’s Too Short: 4 Reasons to Do What You Love for a Living’,2 the author argues that people who engage in DWYL ways of working attain more happiness and a better quality of life than those on big salaries, and equally those that are happier earn more. Listing the reasons to engage in this kind of work, the article considers increased productivity, fulfilment, acting as inspiration for others (especially daughters) and that the reader will succeed because they won’t need someone else to monitor or motivate their labour, along with the advice that a career should “make you feel good emotionally, both in and out of the office”. In contrast to the smile in emotional labour, where this is seen as a mechanism to make the customer feel good, here there is an imperative that the worker should have an ‘authentic’ feeling of happiness the way Hochschild’s successful service workers might have felt in their private 2



world. In the Business Daily News article, it frames the ‘authentic’ expense of happiness as central to work, positioning happiness as both more valuable than money and as the route to money since being happy in work is constructed as an emotional essence that will lead to productivity. The article also describes questions the reader should ask themselves as they consider a DWYL career, including their childhood dreams, suggesting that looking back to these should help identify deeper drives that will enable the connection between self-employment and happiness to be made. As such, this article draws on a therapeutic and psychoanalytic narrative that structures discussions of flexible, precarious labour and DWYL ideology (Cabanas & Illouz, 2017). The language of happiness in work-life as a marker of ‘living the dream’ pulls together neoliberal economics, positive psychology and subjectivity, offering a highly individualised route to happiness that creates an investment in work that is both economic and affective (Cabanas & Illouz, 2017; Cockayne, 2016; Winch & Hakim, 2016). It directs desires towards particular forms of precarious work as happiness objects (since DWYL is constructed as fulfilling on many levels), but finding happiness in work also offers the promise of resilience in uncertain times. The need to be more ‘resilient’ by meeting flexible labour contexts, uncertainty and change with happy or positive emotions is “becoming an essential aspect of economic behaviour” (Cabanas & Illouz, 2017, p.30; Orgad & Gill, 2022). Such positive affect has a particular postfeminist feel to it, seen, for example, in range of advertising, government, corporate practices calling for and celebrating women’s confidence and inviting girls and women to learn to be more resilient and ‘bounce back’ in the context of a withdrawal of state support and increased pressures on women to find individual solutions to broader economic problems (Orgad & Gill, 2022; Riley et al., 2022). Worker’s accounts of DWYL labour in flexible, creative and digital industries also reproduce expectations for resilience. For example, Duffy’s (2016) research with women fashion bloggers shows the ways her interviewees spoke of themselves as individually responsible for the risks of their labour. And, in contrast to the Business Daily News article’s suggestion that being happy increases earning, Duffy’s participants spoke of having to accept that much of their romanticised labour would be low paid, unpaid or come in the form of ‘gifts’ from companies. Thus, Duffy (2017) argues that DWYL “is a seductive ideology that pairs passion with (worker) profit to glamorize labor conditions that are far less remunerative and gratifying than hyped” (p.11). She identifies this labour as ‘aspirational’,



where a significant amount of labour is future-oriented—often done for free and with the intention that future work will be better compensated. This future-orientation has led others to recognise such forms of creative labour as a cruel optimism, where the fantasy of creative labour is an “attachment to a significantly problematic object”, either toxic or impossible (Berlant, 2011, p.24, cited in Cockayne, 2016; see Chap. 3 for our previous discussion of cruel optimism). Through her analysis, Duffy (2016, 2017) also identifies the way the gendered labour of DWYL intersects with the inequalities of class and economic status. For example, her participants spoke about the importance of authenticity, and of producing content for their audiences that appeared real, relatable and ‘everyday’, and of the affective relationships that they built with their communities to increase followers, likes and shares (see also Kanai (2019) for an analysis of femininity and relatability in Tumblr blogs). These practices, however, often require sufficient time, money and energy. Thus, two of her participants spoke of having to wait to acquire the right computer and camera equipment before they could begin their blogs. Others spoke of the importance of attending conferences, networking opportunities, training sessions and significant events (e.g. New York Fashion Week), with these forming a “compulsory sociality” (Gregg, 2010, p. 253) that dissolves distinctions between work and socialising. However, other participants noted that the reliance on networking excluded them from participating, where days off from other better paid or salaried work, childcare, or simply the unaffordability of such activities prevented them from fully participating (Duffy, 2016). As Duffy (2017) and others have suggested, the creative industries in which DWYL operates also rely on an entrepreneurialism that understands the self in line with a marketing discourse, where identity is constructed in market terms and through the language of branding, self-promotion and enterprise (Banet-Weiser, 2012; McRobbie, 2016). For Rose (1998), this enterprising self “is both an active self and a calculating self, a self that calculates about itself and that acts upon itself in order to better itself” (p.154). What we draw attention to here is the way an entrepreneurialism intersects with notions of self-reliance and choiceful femininity that aligns with postfeminist sensibility. Women have been key subjects of individualistic entrepreneurialism, where women’s entry into a labour market shaped by the flexible, precarious and affective labour that is both customer-­ oriented and that transforms subjectivity through exhortations to happiness.



For Banet-Weiser (2012), the neoliberal moral framework that mandates a self-branded feminine subject is particularly evident in digital culture because it creates a gendered economy of visibility (see Chap. 1 for a discussion of an economy of visibility in relation to popular feminism). In theorising how self-branding marks this feminine subject, Banet-Weiser (2012) explores examples from YouTube and ‘lifecasting’, where young women in particular became public figures and celebrities through sharing intimate lives online, often monetising these through subscription. These practices engage in a form of marketing of the self whereby the lifecaster is “‘putting herself out there’, capitalizing on the visibility of global online sites for display, the camera’s optic focusing on her body” (p.77). Banet-­ Weiser (2012) notes that, alongside making money from these forms of labour, the branding practices in these spaces include building a following, gaining audience feedback, comments and likes, through which the subject of such self-branding is evaluated, judged and ranked alongside others within a marketplace. This also points towards the changing relationship between ‘product’ and ‘brand’. Through this shift, the product becomes more than the physical item, but an ephemeral and affective relationship. For example, Banet-­ Weiser (2012) notes how Dove, through their Campaign for Real Beauty, have transformed the buying of a physical deodorant or bottle of body wash into an intangible purchase of empowerment, body positivity, self-­ care and self-love, as well as one that supports a notion of compassionate feminine quasi-feminist homosociality. The same logic comes to apply to subjectivity. In this way, it becomes the digital worker’s responsibility to create an emotional relationship with their viewer on social media, and, in line with DWYL’s positivity, a need for this to be framed within the realms of happiness, joy and passion. As suggested by Forbes magazine, one of the ‘golden rules’ of self-branding is to “create a positive impact”; “you are your brand … always keep in mind the impact you leave on others and remember all we have is our own reputation and that’s our brand, so be awesome to each other!”3




Influence Me! Above, we have argued that a changing labour landscape has shaped the way we think about, engage in and feel emotional attachments to the kinds of work we perform, as well as the kind of affective performances within that labour. This is particularly evident in the creative and digital industries that speak to a notion of entrepreneurial femininity that is presented as enacting freedom and pleasure, while concealing structural inequality (Duffy, 2017; Jarrett, 2016; McRobbie, 2016; Riley et  al., 2022). We include the growing industry of influencers and ‘influencer culture’ in these industries, where consumer culture entwines with social media, with the influencer becoming their own self-as-brand, promoting and advertising commercial brands and products (Abidin, 2018; Arriagada & Bishop, 2021; Bishop, 2021). As influencers, these mostly young women provide authenticity to a brand by showing how a product—be it holidays, fashion, food or make-up—fits in with an ‘everyday’ life that is also aspirational for the viewers. Returning to our first example, milliemacmakeup has followers because she can do something extraordinary with make-up while also presenting it as available to any other ‘ordinary’ girl. (See Evans and Riley (2017) and Riley et al. (2022) for further discussion of the extraordinary-ordinary dynamic of the make-up tutorial.) The significance of the influencer and her ability to generate sales through her authenticity as a brand ‘ambassador’ rather than commercial advertiser is evident in reports such as that by Forbes which states that 86% of companies are including user-generated content on social media in their marketing strategies, and that such content receives 28% higher engagement than brand’s own adverts on social media (Wertz, 2020). The importance of the influencer has also been recognised by social media providers, who have developed routes to mediate the relationship between influencer and brand (Bishop, 2021), for example in Instagram’s Branded Content Partnerships and Instagram Collabs tools. The outcome is, according to The State of Influencer Marketing 2022: Benchmark Report, that the market for influencers is set to grow to $16.4 billion in 2022, and the report cites the biggest sector as Fashion and Beauty, followed by Health and Fitness and Travel and Lifestyle. Fashion and beauty have been central to women’s participation in entrepreneurial social media. Preceding the figure of the influencer, gendered consumer culture was already shaping digital content—and vice versa—through practices such as haul and unboxing videos, which both



engage in sharing the affect of consumer culture with others. Haul videos, which are still a popular format on TikTok, consist of (mostly) young women revealing items of clothing and make-up that they have bought, often starting with big bags of shopping from recognisable brands including Sephora, Primark, Zara and H&M, and with the hauler revealing each item and sharing their excitement. In Jeffries’ (2011) analyses of haul videos on YouTube, she identifies the framing of hauls in “nice girl” positivity, with haul video content and comments on haul videos (and responses from the hauler) including repetitive use of words such as ‘cute’, ‘sweet’ and ‘love’. Similarly, in her analysis of YouTube make-up tutorials Banet-­ Weiser (2018, p. 277) identifies a nice “girl next door banality” associated with achieving a conventional, feminine appearance. In these young women’s self-presentations on haul videos, we see an emotional sentiment that aligns itself with a smiling, service sector labour force (Hochschild, 1983), except here it is the customer themselves who is taking on the role of keeping other, potential and vicarious, customers happy. This framing of consumption in only positive terms is maintained even when products fail to meet desires. For example, in the less-often posted “Products I Regret Buying” hauls, haulers frame their ‘regrets’ as their own faulty consumption behaviours, and not an issue with the actual product or company (Jeffries, 2011). A similar orientation to happy consumerism is evident in unboxing videos. For example, Mowlabocus’ (2020) analysis of newly released technological products such as mobile phones and computers highlights the affective tactile intensities of unboxing and the objects within. Following Ahmed (2010), Mowlabocus (2020) understands these videos as creating happy objects, “a specific orientation towards both that which is unboxed and the act of unboxing itself” (p.571). During the COVID-19 pandemic, both the haul and the unboxing videos merged, as people moved to online shopping so that hauls were often received in boxes rather than shopping bags, and, on TikTok, also often coalesce with OOTD (Outfit of the Day) videos. The influencer has emerged out of the combining of consumer and digital culture to become not only a significant feature of a new marketing and advertising landscape but also an important affective shift in how we feel, act and relate to the world around us, and especially in our engagements in and with social media content. We identify three of these affective shifts below, namely the feelings generated by (1) a therapeutic suffering, (2) bodily sensations and (3) how these emotional elements of influencers’ culture work alongside an aesthetic labour.



In terms of influencer culture’s therapeutic narrative, Lehto’s (2022) interviews with mother influencers in Finland shows how emotional registers such as anxiety have become capital in influencer spaces. For Lehto (2022), these create a form of neuroliberal governance, where expectations are produced for work on the self through therapy or where positive experiences were tempered with stores of distress, as part of the labour of influencing. For Lehto’s (2022) interviewees, this meant that “To be able to write that I have had a really good time, there need to be a couple of posts that say I’ve had it horrible” (p.210) in order to give their social media content authenticity and a sense of relatability (see also Bishop (2018b) in relation to anxiety and YouTube influencers Zoella and Gabriella Rose). Such accounts demonstrate a changing and evolving affective fabric of recognisable figures on social media. Where an earlier focus of influencer and influencer-like social media users focused on the “the perfect” (McRobbie, 2016), there has been a shift, towards a carefully curated suffering alongside success and happiness, signalling a more authentic performance, where “[t]he ‘staging’ of an ‘Instagrammable’ lifestyle that was aspirational and pristine, seem[s] to give way to the ‘crafting’ of a relatable performance that was entertaining and accessible” (Abidin, 2020, p.83; Elias et al., 2017). Elsewhere, drawing on Illouz (2007), we have argued such authenticity draws on a ‘narrative of suffering’, within which influencers construct a life narrative of transformation from previous suffering as the route to happiness (Riley et al., 2022). For example, in Chap. 3, we introduced fitness influencer Alice Liveing’s narrative, as a figure of vulnerable yet survivor-strong femininity, where her muscular strength comes to signify so much more than physical fitness, or even mental strength, but also hope and the possibility of overcoming adversity to live a good life characterised by health, wealth, beauty and recognition. In these influencer accounts, mental distress is normalised but structural explanations for mental distress, including anxiety, are ignored, and instead individual responsibility discourses for working on the self are foregrounded so that anxiety is used as a tactic to create a personal brand. Another emotional component of influencer culture is the focus on having and creating a bodily sensation. For example, in Lisdero and Duperré’s (2021) analyses of the profiles and interviews with ‘fit-­fluencers’ in Argentina, they suggest the idea of the ‘factory without walls’ is intensified in such labour, where body/time/space merge. In this form of labour, Lisdero and Duperré (2021) suggest a ‘feeling fit’ economy does not only



promote the consumer items that allow a body to become fit, but also how that body should feel such fitness. While in Hurley’s (2022) analysis of Middle Eastern TikTok influencers, it is suggested that they engage with a “postdigital entanglement of bodies, voices, languages, clothing, music, material spaces and technologies” (p.747), for example through the affordances that allow TikTok users to adapt audio in new, transnational ways. Likewise, there is an affective bodily sensation identified in Mowlabocus’ (2020) account of unboxing. Relating the unboxing video to the pseudo-­ pornographic, Mowlabocus (2020) shows how the tactility and sensuality of undressing the product creates an affective intensity intended to produce a sensation in the body of the viewer. The final emotional element we want to consider in relation to influencer cultures is aesthetic labour, and how this labour shapes both a therapeutic narrative and influencer affects working through the body. In addition to the emotional, self-branded post-Fordist labour discussed earlier in this chapter, aesthetic labour defines a context where beauty and appearance are no longer limited to those in the fashion and beauty industries. Elias et al. (2017) describe such aesthetic labour as shaping all aspects of life, where “the injunctions to look good require not only physical labours and transformations but also the makeover of psychic life” (p.5). In this context, we see an intensification of beauty practices, forms of surveillance, both in looking at others and comparing the self (Gill,  2023; Riley et al., 2016), and through self-surveillance, such as labouring on the self through beauty apps (Elias & Gill, 2018). Attractiveness, generated through working on the self, becomes itself a sign of a successful life, in working contexts and in other aspects of life (Elias et al., 2017). In our own contribution to these discussions, we analysed the Ukrainian ‘living doll’ Anastasiya Shpagina, who produces spectacular transformations drawing on East Asian—and especially kawaii—culture, such that she has earned the moniker ‘Anime girl’ (Evans & Riley, 2017). In our analysis, we showed how Shpagina merges her private life, work, appearance and performance of feminine girlie cuteness, stating that “My interest turned into my hobby and then from hobby transformed into work” (p.138). We argued that her DWYL ethic performed on and through the body generates moments of ‘intimate transaction’, where a community celebrates her skill, artistry and technique, as appearance work, but also how this becomes uncanny, being neither true doll nor appearing human-like (p.144), and generating hate because it doesn’t fit with Western ideals of authenticity and its associated need for a therapeutic narrative.



In the analysis below, we bring together these accounts of the changing practices of post-Fordist labour and the emotional and aesthetic labours of influencer culture. Like our previous analysis (Evans & Riley, 2017; Riley et  al., 2022), we focus on make-up influencers, but here we turn our attention to TikTok.

TikTok Beauty and GRWM Beauty influencers may work on a range of social media platforms, including YouTube and Instagram, and most recently on TikTok. More often than not, they post across these platforms, making use of the different affordances of each. In this chapter, we locate our discussion of beauty influencers on TikTok as a particular form of affective or emotional labour, and one that is deeply intertwined with a postfeminist sensibility. We take beauty influencers to be any TikTok profile that predominantly shares beauty products and techniques with others. Amongst those videos that feature beauty influencers, GRWM offers a unique format, since it is not specifically geared to product review, there is a sense of intimacy that comes with them being chattier and often bedroom-based (see Kennedy (2020) for an analysis of TikTok as a transformation of ‘bedroom culture’), and the format automatically assumes transformation as a process rather than an outcome. They are structured to give an immediate sense of authenticity and relatability, as though part of a normal routine of getting ready and addressing the viewer as if they were sharing in the process of getting ready (i.e. it’s less instructive than if they were titled ‘how I get ready’). Although some GRWMs feature on other platforms, the format is popular on TikTok. While a lot of the GRWM videos that we talk about in this chapter feature people who include in their profiles a reference to agency representation, not all of them do—and some of them do so on their Instagram accounts and not on their TikTok accounts, suggesting a professionalisation of the latter. This aligns with the observation that Instagram is the space to present faultless perfection, while TikTok is more about the craft (Abidin, 2020). Our examples below feature people who present as women, and the overwhelming majority of GRWM video makers are young, often White, and often American or British4. However, like others, 4  We recognise that this demographic is likely due to the algorithms of TikTok presenting us with a limited subset of GRWM videos.



we see an adaptability in postfeminism (Butler, 2013), for example where gay male-identified influencers present post-queer beauty through postfeminist registers of empowerment (Chen & Kanai, 2022), such as when Mitchell Halliday (madebymitchell), a make-up artist and owner of the brand Made By Mitchell and who appeared on as a contestant on the reality shows X Factor and American Beauty Star, also produces (a small number of) GRWM videos. Below we discuss three themes in relation to the entrepreneurial labour of TikTok GRWM videos. We first explore the presentation of product and how this becomes shared tactile knowledge and expertise, but also about the newness of product, with both shifting the emotional register of the GRWM. We then identify a dominant emotional entrepreneurialism through the regulation of niceness and positivity, where this positivity incorporates self- and brand-promotion; blends the everyday with a sense of industry connectedness; and is shaped by the technical affordances of TikTok that shift praise from beauty to the ability to make use of the video format and overlay of music, as well as make-up skills. Finally, we show how such positivity remains in place in the comments, even when GRWM videos are seen to fail in terms of classy femininity. We conclude by thinking through what these performances of femininity mean for the post-­ Fordist labour context. “It doesn’t smudge, it doesn’t budge” One instantly evident pattern in GRWM make-up videos are the number of brands mentioned and the repetition of certain brands. These include Charlotte Tilbury, Nars Cosmetics, Smashbox, Beauty Crop and Beauty Pie. Specific products are also used repeatedly, for instance L’Oréal’s True Match serum and Maybelline’s Fit Me powder. The regularity of specific brands used in specific ways creates a repetition also in the way make-up is applied throughout the transformation of the face, a rhythm that includes various creams and lotions to “prep” the skin; shaping eyebrows; application of foundation, concealer, bronzer and typically multiple shades of blush; painted on freckles; and eye make-up and lipstick. There is thus a particular resulting ‘look’ to such aesthetic labour, and usually, this process does not change much, expect in the case of humorous ‘challenges’ or attempts at different make-up trends. For example, mmaddiehill and christineabrahamm regularly produce videos in a similar style to GRWM,



but with challenges such as “only use the colour pink for a full face” or “full face using the opposite hand”. The GRWM format offers the viewer an intimate and embodied account of the feel, texture and tone of particular beauty products as they are applied to the face and how they feel on the skin. However, there is a distinction in GRWM videos between those that talk through their regular make-up routine and others who are sent products by beauty brands and incorporate these as part of the GRWM.  One example is rachelrigler, a high-profile social media influencer and make-up reviewer with nearly 1 million followers on TikTok, whose content often includes the GRWM format. Her videos also differ from others in that they include self-­branding with the constant reference to the phrase “what do we think?”, both as a way to end each video and in the backdrop of videos, with a pink neon sign in the background repeating these words, suggesting a professionalism and position as reviewer of products that is different to the bedroom culture of other GRWM content creators. That rachelrigler uses new products alongside her favourites indicates her success, often using newly released make-up lines. These often-emotional accounts of excitement, joy and amazement relay the feel of the new product on the skin. For example, applying a Sigma setting powder to one side of her face, she asks “How does it feel? Oh … Wait … It literally feels like velvet.” For others, talk of the tactility of favourite, known products also generates embodied feeling. For example, another regular GRWM video maker is amilia0liver, whose TikTok content also includes advice, reviews, OOTD and make-up giveaways. In one GRWM, amilia0liver applies Lancôme all over concealer and she states, “[I]t’s just a creamy, buttery dream and you need to try it”, while in other videos the viewer is asked to look at the glow, shimmer or hues of particular products on the skin, especially on the cheekbone, as an indication of their quality. For the majority of GRWM TikTok creators, products are given a familiarity and sense of knowingness, and thus their legitimacy to talk about the quality of certain products. For example, applying Charlotte Tilbury Flawless Filter, yazmooremakeup states that “this is by far my favourite product for glowy skin, I wear this every day and even on no make-up days, it’s just the best”. “So stinking cute, go look at my Instagram” As we have already discussed in relation to the haul video and make-up tutorial, there is an emotional register of positivity that performs a girly



femininity and niceness (Banet-Weiser, 2018; Jeffries, 2011), and one that also shapes GRWM. GRWM videos do not challenge their viewer, or create or share negative feelings, neither do they engage with wider hostilities noted elsewhere online (e.g. trolling). Content creators often, and cheerfully, exclaim “let’s get ready together!” to the camera and declare their “love, love, love” of a particular brand or product. In amilia0liver’s ‘Natural GRWM’, the caption states she forgot to post the video, with the inclusion of “hehe” (similarly to milliemacmakeup’s video with which we introduced this chapter). As she takes us through her GRWM, amilia0liver tells us she’s going to her boyfriend’s house, and they may go for food—explaining the need for the GRWM—and she finishes the video by saying “fresh, cute, off I go!”. Attesting to the performance of the service sector smile in digital culture, amilia0liver responds to every one of the 188 comments on her Natural GRWM, often with a string of or kisses (xx). Comments on this video share this emotional orientation to positivity, making it a sharing of positive affect within the GRWM video—“you’re so cute ”. ‘Vibes’ are regularly mentioned; for example, one commenter states, “You just give off the best vibes I can’t describe”. Vibes suggest an affective atmosphere, a sensation that it passed on to others in an assemblage of feeling (Lupton, 2017), while the indescribability of these vibes suggests this sensation is beyond the realms of language. Both on this specific GRWM video and across beauty and make­up videos on TikTok, such vibes are regularly invoked as a shared positivity and uncontainable happiness. However, the functionality of TikTok means that, in contrast to the textual cuteness identified by Jeffries (2011), there are important shifts— even while niceness remains in place. One of the prevalent features of TikTok is the focus on the video content rather than on the text, often with the overlaying of audio onto video. This has driven the uptake of TikTok by social media users, with opportunities for lip-synching, music and dancing (Abidin, 2020), alongside direct-to-camera content, which until recently were produced in relatively short amounts of time. We see three important shifts emerging from these elements of how the platform works. First, the focus on the video rather than text means there is a complete merging of niceness as an aesthetic and affective labour with the influencer’s labour-orientation. For example, TikTok users will emphasise a product’s cuteness while at the same time directing viewers to their other accounts and social media content, for example “So stinking cute, go look at my Instagram” (rachelrigler), or to Linktree pages with links to the



products they use, or Spotify playlists they listen to when getting ready. This pattern is also evident on Instagram posts, where an assessment on the feelings associated with a product, often stated in the caption to an image, is followed up with the textual statement “link in bio”. However, with Instagram, promotional activity stays within the platform; what is new here is the layers of social media, suggesting a linking up and networked labour across multiple platforms. Second, videos often merge a sense of everyday routine and the glamour and aspiration of influencer lifestyles based on beauty. Especially with notable GRWM video creators, content often begins with news that they are meeting with beauty brands, getting their make-up or hair done by a make-up artist or hair stylist, and filming or attending a photo shoot. While these might suggest engagements with the beauty industry that are professional and markers of success, GRWM employs styles and aesthetics that suggest normality and informality, for example appearing in videos with no make-up, filming often taking place in bedrooms, reference to misapplication of products or mistakes (e.g. mascara hitting the bridge of their noses) and a general low-fi, DIY, and speedily made quality to the videos. For example, in one of elise388’s GRWM videos, she talks quickly about having to get ready for an industry event, while also complaining that she has just woken up and cannot find her deodorant. Although editing is clearly happening, with cuts away to the next stage of make-up application, garbled wording and errors in filming often remain. This allows GRWM to maintain an aura of feminine niceness that is unthreatening, relatable and appropriately girly, while signalling influencer standing, in a similar way to other influencer labour (Duffy, 2016). However, the functionality of TikTok also challenges ‘nice girl’ as the prime affect of GRWM. Thus, a third feature is that overlaid audio creates opportunities for various elements of the GRWM to be done while lip-­ synching, often using stylised movements to the beat of the music where elements of the transformational GRWM are revealed. What these audio elements bring with them is an often-sassy performance of femininity, in keeping with the lyrics of R’n’B, hip hop and pop music. In such videos, the comments shift away from positive assessments of beauty and towards praise of the skill and effort involved. One notable example is mmaddiehill whose videos often employ a combination of technical talents in video editing and make-up technique. Songs are often lip synced to, and musical transitions are timed with camera spins, a flip of the head and other movements, in which additional layers of make-up are added in between cuts.



This means that, while remaining positive, the comments focus just as much on transitions, music choices and editing skill, for example, “Can I just say I love your videos and you are so good at makeup !!!! ” and “Omggggg u went 10000% effort also I love ur vids ”, while mmaddiehill’s video content often shifts between goofy humour and heterosexy performance. “Just the way you are” We also see evidence that the affective atmosphere of positivity is used to regulate the boundaries of beauty and to maintain this positivity against a perceived hostility, especially where videos draw on discourses of body positivity as a popular feminist sensibility (Banet-Weiser, 2018; Orgad & Gill, 2022; Riley et al., 2022). For example, a number of GRWM videos feature young women with acne, using the GRWM format to normalise acne and as a form of body/skin positivity. One content creator using TikTok in this way is beccyihx, who has cystic acne and posts using the hashtag #skinpositivity. Her most popular GRWM has had 5.7 million views. A number of comments on this video react to the perception of negativity, for example, “Your beautiful just the way you are, tell the haters to back off they are just jealous of your Beauty”. However, very few comments actually critique her appearance, while only a small number suggest that wearing make-up might make acne worse—a statement corrected by many other commenters who state acne is hormonal. Many more use words like “beautiful”, and comment that she is attractive both with and without make-up, mimicking affirmative advertising’s appropriation of body positivity and diversity5 (Gill & Kanai, 2019; Riley et al., 2022). Such a response to this kind of video suggests a supportive culture, one where diverse skin types are celebrated as equally beautiful. However, while GRWM creators like beccyihx are praised for their beauty, others are deemed to fall outside the markers of taste. For example, one of 444millyriley’s GRWMs (with 5.6 million views) features her getting ready with exaggerated false eyelashes, large lips and a tanned foundation. Differing from others in the GRWM style, she does not engage the camera, lip-­ synch or share what products are being used. In contrast to the lack of 5  See for instance the razor brand Gillette Venus’ ‘My Body. My Way’ campaign for an example of how skin positivity is used in advertising watch?v=RxbZsZ5mOQM



negativity on #skinpositivity GRWM videos and defences against such negativity, a number of comments here do make critical appraisals of 444millyriley appearance. Some post emojis of fish (a reference to her lips), and others simply state, “Trump”, invoking to ex-US president and his notorious orange tan. Another repeat comment references the internet meme “tell me you’re British without telling me you’re British”, which mixes disgust and humour based around constructs of an abject White working class, often featuring images of people smoking, bad teeth or drunk women (see Bailey et al. (2015) and Nicholls (2019) for analysis of the latter, and see Tyler (2008) for a discussion of disgust and the figure of the ‘chav’). Alongside those comments that mock 444millyriley appearance and her transformation, however, a significant number of comments also show concern or offer advice. For example, comments state, “why??? you are beautyful” and “sweetheart you’re gorgeous without make up ! if I can give u an advice, try to use a lighter foundation for your skin ! ”. Such comments engage with the positivity noted earlier and yet also reveal a cultural capital that suggests 444millyriley is ‘getting it wrong’, such that her perceived imperfection falls outside of triad of perfect-­ imperfect-­ resilience (Evans & Riley, 2014; McRobbie, 2020). 444millyriley ‘gets it wrong’ since her make-up application is not deemed entrepreneurial, and she fails at influence, aspiration and relatability, requiring guidance rather than evoking success. Thus, the sharing of positive feeling is maintained, even when that positivity (e.g. telling people they are beautiful or gorgeous) is based around pity (see our discussion of pity in relation to humanitarianism in Chap. 2). In research on pro-anorexia forums, Boero and Pascoe (2012) suggest that the boundaries of these communities are policed, testing people’s legitimacy in belonging to forums through terms like ‘wannarexic’. TikTok beauty and GRWM videos are far more porous and fleeting in terms of membership. However, we would suggest that, in similar ways, GRWM polices a feeling, structured on being nice and based on the performance of a particular construct of entrepreneurial femininity and aesthetic labour, one that is appropriately middle class, and girly, and also one that has a particular set of knowledges about make-up and appearance that fits with a market-orientation of influencer culture.



Conclusion In this chapter, we have explored a structure of feeling in labour that shapes the production of new feminine entrepreneurial subjectivities in digital culture. In doing so, we have suggested that there has been a shift from a service sector worker who performs an emotion and expends emotional labour to sell a product, and towards a much deeper subjectivisation and commodification of the self, private life and orientation to the world. These forms of labour heighten emotion, where the promise of doing what you love is presented as a form of working that generates freedom and choice, happiness, and satisfying productivity. However, DWYL is also precarious, often low paid and fits into neoliberal demands for an enterprising, competitive, economically active citizens who are not dependent on the state. Influencer culture is a significant part of the post-Fordist labour context, based on a culture of recognition, including likes, shares and follows. We have suggested that the digital feelings embodied by the influencer are wrapped up in producing accounts of therapeutic suffering, a neuroliberal governance (Lehto, 2022) where one must be seen to overcome a range of emotional experiences (low body confidence, challenges with weight, self-esteem etc.); creating bodily emotions in others through the feelings and sensations of different commercial and embodied experiences; and through an aesthetic labour that generates emotion by extending beauty and body work outside of the beauty and fashion industries and engaging in DWYL ethics that makes-over body and mind. We then turned to the entrepreneurial practices of a subset of influencers on TikTok, who produce make-up content on the platform through GRWM videos, a format that appears to engage in a collaborative, shared getting-ready-ness and a low-fi bedroom culture girlification of what could otherwise be ‘tutorial’. In these videos, a largely young, female-identified group of TikTok users demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of make-up brands and products, or else express their legitimacy and success through being sent high-end make-up to try out in their content. An affective atmosphere of positivity is generated, performed with skill and style, which is praised by others. However, this affective atmosphere also reveals those outside of ideal constructs of entrepreneurial femininity, where positivity is used to other and demean those not given legitimacy.



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Hot Men on the Commute is a website that features unsolicited pictures of attractive men on the London Underground, with content from the website also available across social media on TubeCrush’s Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. One photograph on the TubeCrush website shows a man standing up and holding onto the rail inside the Tube carriage. He is wearing headphones and looking down at his phone. On TubeCrush, his image is titled Gorgeous Gym Guy (24 January 2018), and the caption reads “Wowzers this handsome chap is looking super sexy in all black. With his headphones on and clearly zoned into his phone he really does appear to be unaware of the pleasure he is bringing to his fellow passengers.” In a different post, Thigh High Hot Guy (10 August 2018), another man sits on the Tube in shorts. This photograph is captioned, “Do we really have to say anything about this hottie? Look at those thick legs—legs you want to build a treehouse in and move in forever!” While the image titled Rugger Stud (20 July 2017) similarly features a man in shorts, with the caption “We just can’t get enough of this sexy guys tattoos on his thighs. So yummy that if they were in a KFC bucket we would eat them up—bone and all!!” TubeCrush was created in the early 2010s by a group of friends in London. In our interview with the co-founder and majority shareholder, Steve Motion, the idea for the website emerged when a female friend in the group had talked about a man that she saw regularly on her way to work. Rather than speaking to him, she took his picture. Steve said of this:

© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2023 A. Evans, S. Riley, Digital Feeling,




[S]he’d taken this photo and we were like, “wow that’s such a, like such a brave thing to do”. And so that’s what, so we came up with the name and we bought the domain that day. I think that within a few weeks, it was the Evening Standard I think that reached out to us.

The 2011 Evening Standard piece, titled ‘Who is your Tube Crush?’, then increased awareness of TubeCrush, sparking other newspaper articles and opinion pieces. In recent years, shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic, activity on the website has slowed, as people’s use of public transport dropped significantly. Alongside this, changes to the social media landscape have determined content on different platforms; for example, in 2021, Twitter banned photographs of people that they had not consented to. Although TubeCrush still Tweets from its account, Twitter’s new policy has meant a move onto Instagram. According to the website, TubeCrush’s remit is to pay “‘Homage to the Hommes’ on our infamous transportation infrastructure”, where attractive men are “going about their daily lives often not knowing the joy they bring to their fellow passenger admirers”. The images collected on TubeCrush are taken by members of the public. For the person submitting an image to TubeCrush, this means taking an unsolicited photograph on the London Underground. Both the “sneaky pic” and the location of the Tube are elements of the photo-taking-moment that TubeCrush makes specific in their guidelines. Of unsolicited photographs, they state, “We won’t use any photo that looks like it’s a setup, so don’t cheekily try and get your friends on here boys and girls”. There is also moral and ethical guidance on photo submission; for example, TubeCrush will not post any photograph of a man who appears under the age of 18. While on the location of the attractive man, they state that it must be an identifiable line on the London Underground: “Sorry guys, but if they’re on a bus or a metro train in another city, we can’t use it. This includes people on the platform before they get on the train.” This locates TubeCrush firmly in the geographic space of London1, and more specifically, in the Tube carriage. In our previous work on TubeCrush, we have explored the ways TubeCrush acts as a postfeminist intimate public (Evans & Riley, 2018a; 1  Since Motion has relocated to New York, he has initiated a New York version of the site, SubwayCrush, although noted cultural differences that were conducive to TubeCrush’s success in the UK, including the London Underground being more “reserved”.



see also Chap. 6 for a full discussion of the intimate public), in relation to workplace affects extended beyond the office cubicle (Evans & Riley, 2018b) and in relation to discussions of men’s body image (Riley et al., 2022). In these works, we have considered how the visual archive of “hotties” on TubeCrush directs desire onto the bodies of particular men, especially those that are White, muscular and wealthy. We have also discussed TubeCrush in relation to the anger that it provokes for a ‘reverse’ sexism and the outrage that our own feminist research about TubeCrush has engendered (Evans & Riley, 2022). Our previous work suggested that TubeCrush should be seen as an assemblage, a crisscrossing of human and non-human elements, including people, events, places, spaces, feelings and histories, that, much like the complex overlapping lines of the London Underground map,2 intersect and cut across the platform TubeCrush. In this chapter, we want to highlight the importance of geographies and spaces in the affective flows of digital feeling. To do so, we develop our analysis of the TubeCrush assemblage by turning to the spaces of the city, the commute and the Tube carriage. As we do this, we consider the interaction of the human and the non-human elements of TubeCrush and how these physical elements interact with subjectivity and desire to generate a digital archive of attractive Tube travellers. Below we begin by providing more context to the current cultural significance of unsolicited photographs and the politicisation of public space, a context that we argue makes exploring interaction between the digital and the non-digital in the geographies of TubeCrush important. We then explore the notion of the alienation of the city, and how this is shaped by emotion and the physical closeness and proximity to strangers. We then read TubeCrush through the geography of the city, the commute and the Tube carriage, before turning to how these environmental elements shaped the accounts given to us by three people: Steve, the TubeCrush co-founder; Jacob, who had taken photographs and sent them to TubeCrush; and Preston, who had found himself featured on the site.

Sneaky Pics and the Politics of Public Space TubeCrush emerges at an interesting cultural intersection where the unsolicited image is easier to take and share, given the proliferation of accessible mobile technology and the speadability and hashtagged nature of 2



digital culture, which we read as highly gendered. This is evident in other spaces online that work in a similar way to TubeCrush. For example, on Instagram, the account Hot Dudes Reading (@hotdudesreading) calls for submissions of attractive men reading in public spaces in New  York— “Send us your nudes dudes!”. Hot Dudes Reading has over a million followers on Instagram and has passed over into material and commercial products, producing a calendar, t-shirts and a coffee-table book. With both TubeCrush and Hot Dudes Reading, the content—both in text and in image—is produced with the intention to flatter and praise the men in the images for their good looks, physique and sexual prowess. As TubeCrush state, “we celebrate the attractiveness of any subjects in photos that we receive and publish online”. By contrast, unsolicited images of women online tend to be much more judgemental. One example of this was Women Who Eat On Tubes (WWEOTs), run as a Facebook group that has now been renamed People Who Eat on Tubes after a petition in 2018 by feminist group Level Up. WWEOTs drew criticism in 2014 when journalist Sophie Wilkinson wrote an article for Grazia in which she described being photographed eating on the Tube and having her image posted to the group. Asking for the image to be removed resulted in her facing fierce retaliation,3 while other photographs of women drew comments comparing them to pigs or alluding to their skills at fellatio (Wilkinson, 2014). Wilkinson’s article then led to Tony Burke, the owner of the group, being interviewed on BBC Radio 4 and by The Telegraph, drawing more attention to WWEOTs. Burke’s logic in this press coverage seemed to reconfirm the sexism that underlined WWEOTs, with his reasoning being that unsolicited images of women eating were ‘high art’, akin to wildlife photography. In response, feminist groups held a protest, located on the London Underground, organised through the Facebook group Women Who Eat Wherever the Fuck they Want! (see Bound Alberti (2021) for more discussion of WWEOTs, its cultural relevance and the feminist activism it inspired). Since both TubeCrush and WWEOTs feature unsolicited images of people on the London Underground, they drew comparison, creating an equivalence without necessarily questioning the unequal power relations in how images of differently gendered bodies have been used historically, or the differences between the desire expressed on TubeCrush and the 3



(often sexual) disgust expressed on WWEOTs (Evans & Riley, 2018a). Such equivalence is captured, for example, in an article in the Daily Mail in the UK, in which it is claimed that the controversy surrounding WWEOTs demonstrated the “double-standard reaction”, one that “shows exactly how hypocritical—and humourless—feminism can be” (Lloyd, 2014). The article defines the practices of WWEOTs as “fun”, and at the same time suggests that TubeCrush elicits the question, “how desperate were these sad women?”, while also claiming that TubeCrush creates a risk in a context where female teachers are sleeping with students, a claim made by tying TubeCrush to other (unrelated) news stories and making such a link through assumptions that the people featured on TubeCrush are minors (and assuming those on WWEOTs are not). Thus, the piece fits into moral panics, while also heteronormalising TubeCrush by overlooking the conjoining of gay men’s and straight women’s desire through the platform (Evans & Riley, 2018a). These accounts of TubeCrush make sense in a wider context of a heightened awareness about the exclusions and risks of public space for women and marginalised groups, alongside a growing hostility to ‘woke’ culture. In the UK in 2017, London Mayor Sadiq Khan initiated changes which recognised the London Underground as a gendered space, including the rewording of the announcement “good morning ladies and gentlemen” to the more gender inclusive “good morning everyone”. He also launched The Women We See, a campaign responding to the lack of diversity in advertising in London (Ringrose & Regehr, 2018), partly provoked through Khan’s banning of Protein World’s body-shaming advertisement that asked London Underground travellers: “[A]re you beach body ready?”. These changes take place alongside growing recognition of non-­ consensual images of women in public space in the UK. For example, in 2018, MP Christopher Chope objected to a parliament bill proposing to make the taking of photographs from underneath women’s skirts and dresses (‘upskirting’) illegal, following a campaign by journalist Gina Martin. Martin’s own experience of upskirting provoked the campaign, since, when she was the victim of upskirting at a festive, police told her it was not deemed illegal. Following Chope’s objection, the bill sparked by her campaign became newsworthy. The recent politicisation of public space in the UK is also borne out of anti-racist and feminist activism embodied by Black Lives Matter and anti-­ street harassment movements, as well as a reactive, resistant response to these efforts, seen for example in claims that #alllivesmatter, or in repeated



laments that feminists should “let men be men”, to mis-contextualise and paraphrase Piers Morgan’s retort to the Gillette’s ‘woke’ advertising (Riley et al., 2022). In 2021, a vigil in the UK highlighted women’s fear in public space in the shadow of the rape and murder of Sarah Everard, who was “just walking home”,4 by police officer Wayne Couzens. Police engaged in a forceful closing down of the vigil, while a photograph of student Patsy Stevenson being arrested became iconic of the violence and also provoked a vitriolic attack on her legitimacy and authenticity, with claims she was a crisis actor and that the photograph had been staged. Thus, gendered uses of public space have been a topic of significant tension and struggle. Against this context, we explore the use of #manspreading below, as a politicisation of public space that often happens on public transport. The concept of manspreading refers to the physical taking up of space, usually by sitting with legs open wide, on the seats of train carriages, buses and other public spaces. Often a bodily pose associated with men, it restricts others’ ability to use that space, and has been interpreted as a physical representation of power, men’s assumed right to space, and an ‘everyday’ sexism that works to make women feel small (Jane, 2017). As the term for this bodily posture gained prominence in the 2010s, it was also often used in conjunction with images of men—taken without their knowledge—sitting with their legs apart and taking up more room than was necessary. Several websites appeared, including Tumblr sites Men Taking Up Too Much Space on the Train and Saving Room for Cats, as well as a number of images posted from individual social media accounts that included the hashtag #manspreading. In response, in places like Madrid, New York and others, campaigns and posters have requested passengers be mindful of space, with slogans including “Dude, stop the spread” and “Dude, it’s rude. … Two seats—really?”, and images indicating a cross over the body of a manspreading stick figure.5 For Jane (2017), the practice of taking a photograph of a person manspreading and posting it online constitutes a form of digilantism, in which the techniques of trolls are employed (e.g. shaming) alongside 4  This phrase became recognisable through its use on a number of the placards at the vigil. The vigil also raised questions about how we recognise violence against women in public space as an intersectional concern, with the murders of Black and Brown women often not receiving the same visibility or outcry. 5  Although seen as a response to #manspreading, there is also historical precedence for such campaigns, see manspreading-in-pictures



humour and activist practices, as the means to advance social justice causes. The Tumblr feed, Saving Room for Cats, for example, pastes a cat image into the space between men’s manspread legs. For Ringrose and Lawrence (2018), the humour of Saving Room for Cats challenges men’s spatial dominance and privilege, and acts to intensify the affect of #manspreading by employing absurdity, and thereby engaging in the ‘cute cat theory of political activism’, where cuteness is used as a subversive tool to engage in (feminist) activism while appearing unthreatening and therefore avoiding censorship (see Chap. 6 for a detailed discussion of this theory). However, Jane (2017) notes that such practices have the capacity to be re-­ appropriated, acting as both critical and celebratory commentaries on the sight of men occupying too much space. For example, the language of manspreading also makes its way onto TubeCrush as an awareness and rejection of the politics of bodies: “Goodness isn’t this a sight for sore thighs? This sporty hottie may be guilty of #manspreading but at least he is giving us a treat at the same time” (The Mile Thigh Cub, 1 June 2015). Furthermore, Jane (2017) identifies counter-responses from men’s rights activists, including claims that giving testicles room when sitting is medically beneficial, and through false equivalences, similar to the resistance we experienced in our research about TubeCrush, which argue challenging men’s use of space through using the hashtag #manspreading constitutes a sexist double standard, where women are able to breastfeed or take up space with baby buggies on public transport (see Evans and Riley et al. (2022) for a discussion on accusations of a sexual double standard in relation to TubeCrush). TubeCrush thus exists in a contested landscape that includes a growth in the awareness of urban space as unequal, shaped by the intersections of sexuality, race and gender, but also one where this is challenged by a populist politic in which White, heterosexual, cisgendered men claim injury from the politicisation of public space (Carroll, 2011; Evans & Riley, 2022). It also includes a context in which there is a grappling with the meaning of the unsolicited photograph, since the mobile phone gives us permission to take such pictures, but where the subjects of such photographs are not equally positioned in terms of their power. This cultural landscape is important and is a useful starting point to make sense of the emergence of a platform like TubeCrush. However, we would also argue that a ‘fuller picture’ of the digital feelings of TubeCrush requires understanding the city and the organisation of bodies on its public transport



systems. We do this below, by starting with an account of the intimate alienation of large urban, capitalist spaces like London and how emotion is central to these spaces.

An Intimate Alienation TubeCrush works through a particular blend of public/private, digital/ non-digital space, where first, someone privately finds someone attractive; second, this attraction happens in the public space of the Tube; third, this attraction is materialised by someone taking a sneaky picture on their private mobile phone device; which is then, fourth, shared with others in a wider public space online. In this chapter, we work at emphasising this fluidity of public/private and digital/non-digital by attending to how TubeCrush is geographically located. A significant part of the assemblage of TubeCrush is how it is organised spatially, with this spatiality creating contexts in which images of attractive men can be shared. These spatialities, which we explore below, include: London, as a large global, financial and ‘liberal’ capital city; the London Underground as the means of transport on which many move through this city, as consumers and as commuters; and the physical organisation and connectivity of the tube carriage itself. In attending to this spatiality, we aim to explore how “the passage through the complex travel systems of automobility, train and airline networks, determine a manner of moving that is more or less driven in different and subtle ways” (Adey et al., 2012, p.171, emphasis in original). In this, we are interested in how desire itself can be driven, when ‘being-­ driven’ includes a submission to power (Adey et al., 2012). We suggest that this power mediates a tension between alienation and intimacy in a city of strangers, and directs desire in particular ways. We do so below, by thinking through the concept of alienation alongside accounts of emotional capitalism, before turning to the three geographical sites of our assemblage. Previous accounts of the city have been concerned with urban spaces as spaces of alienation (see, e.g., the work of Lefebvre (2003), Harvey (1989) and Madanipour (2003)). In classical Marxist theory, alienation refers to the experience of capitalism when the worker is no longer emotionally attached to what they produce. Before the advancement of capitalism, for example, the basket weaver would have made a commodity by hand, each individually, and where any value was retained by the maker; whereas in factory, and later in accelerated, Fordist modes of mass production, a



person working on an assembly line of baskets may only be involved in a small part of the process. On the assembly line, the worker would not see the profit of their labour in full, with the majority of the profit going to the factory owner. They become alienated from the commodity they are creating, with this profit too further adding to the alienation of labour, since it is not the exchange of one object for what one needs or can use (food, shelter), but in the abstract form of money. This disassociation of the maker and the product, and the labour and product both becoming a commodity, means that the workforce experience an estrangement from the world around them (Fuchs, 2018). Alienation provides us with an interesting framework for making sense of the modern city space, where many note a sense of existential isolation and loneliness in spaces otherwise full of people. There are problems with this view of alienation, however, particularly from a feminist perspective where a romantic view of pre-capitalist societies ignores the asymmetric gender power relations that work alongside the divisions of class. For example, what has traditionally been viewed as women’s labour (e.g. housework, child rearing) has rarely been understood as having value (see our discussion of ‘women’s’ labour in Chap. 4). Meanwhile, the view of women as not full subjects, but as property, extends to before the acceleration of capitalism through industrialisation (Bartky, 1982). Moreover, for many, alienation proposes an unemotional labour and structure of feeling, whereas for Illouz (2007), in her account of emotional capitalism, she suggests the opposite—that the alienation of capitalism is excessively emotional. Illouz (2007) begins her account of emotional capitalism with a reading of Marxist alienation, suggesting that Marx’s own formulation was deeply emotional in terms of its sensations of loss and has been inaccurately distorted, coming to represent emotional numbness. In her account of emotional capitalism, Illouz (2007) argues against the critique of capitalism as simply empty and unemotional. Instead, she suggests that this critique needs to be located in the emotions that capitalism creates. From this perspective, she argues, capitalism creates an abundance of emotion, where “never has the private self been so publicly performed and harnessed to the discourses and values of the economic and political spheres” (p.4). This is evident, for example, in accounts of emotional and affective labour, embodied by the post-Fordist knowledge and influencer industries, gig economy and the service sector that we discussed in the previous chapter, which emphasise ‘service with a smile’ and ‘Do What You Love’



ethic (see Chap. 4). While for Illouz (2007) it is embedded in the capitalist structures that shape online dating, where finding love means marketing the self as a commodity in competition with others. We would also suggest that emotional capitalism is at work in the daily commute, for example on public transport. Such an argument is made by Fujii (1999) in his account of what he terms the “intimate alienation” of public transport in Japan. This intimate alienation is captured by the “apparent contradiction” of public transport, where we experience “close physical contact with people whom one does not know, or whom one knows only visually—alienation, in a word—provides a new ‘logic’ of sensual arousal” (p.127). Fujii (1999) analyses this through Japanese novels that include urban railway systems in their narrative, arguing that the urban subject is defined as much through the practice of commuting through large cities such as Tokyo as they are by their work. These create, he argues, new forms of sociality based on anonymity, which are nevertheless grounded in the history of the railway’s development over time, and which in turn comes to define the sensation of the city space of Tokyo. Informed by Fujii’s (1999) account, below we similarly map the subjectivities enabled in the city space of London. The City We highlight two features of London as a city space: its economies and its Underground transport system. London, as a city space, is largely imagined and materially experienced by many as a commercial city, shaped by forms of consumption. But it is also recognisably a financial capital. It is understood as being at the centre of finance in Europe and is significant globally, currently being second place in The Global Financial Centres Index (2022), behind New York, but ahead of Shanghai, Tokyo and Hong Kong. This positioning of London as financial sector shapes the economies of the city. For many, the mental map of London is imagined through the map of the Tube. Designed by Harry Beck, an engineering draftsman in charge of the signalling, it was designed to appear in a similar way to an electrical circuits diagram and to be graphically simpler rather than geographically realistic. Concurrently, this map is based on materialities and historical geo-politics of how the London Underground system was built. Officials in the mid-1800s saw the development of an underground transportation system as a reason to remove large areas of slum housing. Areas like Field



Lane, which was included in Dickens’ Oliver Twist as full of people “positively wallowing in filth” (Dickens, 1838, p.152), and the self-built and makeshift houses of Agar Town (now the location of St Pancras Station), were cleared to allow space to excavate the first underground railway lines connecting Paddington and Farringdon. At the same time, the Tube allowed the more affluent to relocate to spaces further away from Victorian London’s pollution and poverty, whilst being connected to the finance and commerce of the city. Both the location of London as a financial capital and the history of the London Underground, including its map, leave a trace in the functionality of TubeCrush and the kind of masculinities that dominate its archive. The map serves an important function within the way content is organised on TubeCrush. A tag cloud, for example, allows content to be grouped together, and reveals how these images of attractive men are categorised. This includes groups of generic words that appraise attractiveness, such as “cute”, “fit”—as well as body parts such as “arms” and “legs”—but also features particular Tube lines, such as Central and District Lines, which connect up some of the most affluent areas (Chelsea, Kensington, Belgravia) with the financial quarter of The City (or the ‘Square Mile’), and most popularly the Northern Line, as the line that crosses London’s gay village, Soho, and also travels through the young, creative, tech savvy spaces of London, such as Camden. These intersections of Tube lines and spaces of the city also mean that a dominant desire on TubeCrush is a masculinity embodied by ‘the suit’,6 a category which also features in TubeCrush’s tag cloud, as a type of masculinity associated with economic wealth and financial extravagance. For example, “Liverpool Street in the city is famous for being in the middle of the financial and banking business, so we thought what better commuter station to apply an ‘In Vest’ policy. All bankers should travel to work in vests with their muscles out and shades on. This sexy guy got the memo—well done hot stuff!” (In Vest Ment, 17 July 2013)

Where such masculinities became objects of critique and protest during the post-2008 recession (McDowell, 2010), TubeCrush becomes a space 6  We discuss the suit more in other work on TubeCrush (Evans & Riley, 2018a, 2018b), alongside that of a gym-based masculinity that is suggestive of physical power.



in which this masculinity is again valorised, alongside the spaces, structured through the intersecting lines of the Tube, in which such performances of masculinity are legible. The prevalence of this masculinity on TubeCrush is also an economy of visibility, which like others (e.g. Banet-­ Weiser, 2018) hides as it reveals. What is not present on TubeCrush and its city space mapped out by Tube lines is London’s multiculturalism, where the city’s wealth was shaped, first, by empire and an imperialist ideology, and then by immigration. Thus, an often White, wealthy masculinity is valorised, located in the space of global financial reputation, while making invisible Black and Brown male bodies as objects of desire (Evans & Riley, 2018a, 2018b). The Commute If *a generic lager brand* made hot commuters … we’d probably buy loads more of that generic lager brand. (16 April 2011)

An important element of the geography of TubeCrush is its reliance on how passengers are using a space that is occupied as part of a move between spaces, the space before they get to their destination. With a network of tracks and lines carrying up to 5 million people a day,7 as tourists, consumers and workers, the Tube is a liminal and in-between space, a timescape where people come together, often as a collection of strangers, who share an intimate space for a short period of time (Koch & Miles, 2021; Morgan, 2009). For Morgan (2009) such forms of transport create the contexts for ‘known strangers’—for example, those people who regularly catch the same train at the same time as work schedules and formal ‘clock time’ regulate where people will be. We witnessed this in our opening quote from Steve, the TubeCrush founder, when he retold the story of how TubeCrush was started, when a friend of his regularly saw a man that she fancied, and eventually took his photograph. However, with so many people passing through the London Underground, even these known strangers are minimal, such that TubeCrush can exist on the assumption that the subjects of desire are photographed in a “chance encounter” (as stated on their About page). In their analysis of different kinds of passengers, including commuters, Adey et al. (2012) put forward the view of this subject as an assemblage, 7



not an individual person but a collection of bodies, machines, technological developments, built environments that together create structures of feeling made of sensual experiences. They suggest such an assemblage reveals “the broader, sensuous, affective and ontological” experiences of passage (p.180). In a different context, Koch and Miles (2021) have developed accounts of the ‘chance encounter’ as an experience also mediated by digital technology. In Koch and Miles’ (2021) discussion of stranger intimacy, they outline a largely urban subject for whom proximity and boundaries with unknown others have to be constantly negotiated and which are changing in the context of digital technology. Thus, they define stranger intimacy as “conditional relations of openness among the unacquainted, however fleeting, through which affective structures of knowing, providing, befriending or even loving are built” (p. 1380). The examples Koch and Miles (2021) give of such stranger intimacies are hook-up and dating apps (e.g. Tinder, Grindr), and the use of technologies in the sharing economy where goods and services are provided (e.g. Airbnb, Uber) that bring strangers together in intimate contexts. While TubeCrush is far more fleeting than these examples, it still builds relationalities between passengers, built on a one-directional attraction. It is also structured on the fantasy that strangers could become significant, known others, for example in captions that imagine, although tongue-in-­ cheek, that longer-lasting relationships between strangers could emerge from their proximity: “This guy has an opening, a spare seat right next to him waiting for the love of his life to jump in and change his world. The only problem is … it’s more difficult to TubeCrush someone you are sat next to!” (The Love Seat, 27 August 2015). As Morgan (2009) suggests, the fellow passenger who is a stranger holds an important space in the cultural imagination as the beginning of an unfolding story. Such a narrative has a filmic romance, such as in Brief Encounter (1945), but has also been a promise at the centre of publicly claiming attraction in the ‘I Saw You’ adverts that were common in urban print-based local newspapers. The nostalgia of the ‘I Saw You’ advert is one of a fantasy and sentimentality of constructs of ‘fleeting moments’, ‘shared looks’ and ‘unrequited attraction’ within the physical pages of location-specific, print-based media, where the stranger could become more-than-stranger. Influenced by TubeCrush, for example, the Metro—a free daily newspaper that is available on public transport in UK cities—has



launched their own version, Rush Hour Crush,8 which more explicitly draws on the forbearers of publicly declared attraction while placing this centrally in the commuter rush hour. The Carriage Two elements of the Tube carriage shape how desirable masculinity becomes visible on TubeCrush. These are (1) the layout of the carriage and (2) its connectivity. An important feature of the geography of TubeCrush is organisation of space within Tube carriage, as the connected and moving vehicle that carries the commuter. London Underground features carriages (or ‘stock’) that were designed with linear, sometimes cantilevered, seating, so that the seats face each other down the length of the tube carriage, rather than facing in or away from the direction of the moving carriage. This design feature was created to allow for easier cleaning, better storage of baggage and a higher standing capacity, where the passenger may only be on the carriage for a short period of time. Meanwhile, internet connectivity is limited on the movement of the carriage between stations (although station platforms often have Wi-Fi). This is again linked to the history of the London Underground, since those spaces of the city that Underground planners and officials designated as in need of slum clearance were not always connected, meaning that Tube lines are often not straight, circumventing around historically wealthier areas in curves, so that Wi-Fi radio waves cannot transmit through them.9 We would argue that these micro-geographies of the Tube carriage shape the functionality of TubeCrush. First, the geography of the Tube carriage creates a context in which there is an intimacy in proximity, different from other forms of public transport, where passengers are directly facing strangers. This makes it easier to photograph another person sat opposite, while the introduction of mobile technology, where a person can appear to be browsing their phone while actually taking a photograph, is also bound up in the practices of unsolicited photography. Also implicated in this organisation of people is a form of ‘post-selfie’, where selfie practices reach beyond the realms of the self-taken headshot used on social media as intentional self-representations (Tiidenberg, 2018; Tiidenberg &  Although tunnel-based Wi-Fi  is scheduled for 2024 8 9



Whelan, 2017). For example, a number of TubeCrush photographs unintentionally feature the reflection of the photograph taker, creating an unsolicited selfie within the image of the unsolicited TubeCrush ‘hottie’ because of the comparative darkness of the Tube tunnel outside of the carriage. This generates further extensions and entanglements, for example where TubeCrush digitally travels beyond its own website. On Twitter, a further post-selfie moment is captured when a person notices themselves being photographed: “Awkward. Some guy is taking pictures of me on the tube. … Mate I can see the reflection behind you […] I hope I’m your #TubeCrush today.” While on TubeCrush itself, there is a recognition that crushes can be reciprocal; “when you glance up from your handset only to find there’s a very sexy suit type that got on at the last station. You fumble to open your camera and then he tilts his phone towards you. TubeCrush to the power of two!” (Who’s Crushing Who? 7 March 2017). The second functionality that is connected to the micro-geography of the Tube carriage is its lack of connectivity. In Mowlabocus’ (2016) analysis of interstitial time, he suggests the mobile phone, with its internet connection, mediates moments of waiting or when nothing seems to be happening, in which the mobile phone becomes a transitional object. Mowlabocus (2016) draws on Winnicott’s psychodynamic account of the transitional object in childhood, such as the teddy bear or comfort blanket, that allows the child to form a connection with the world outside of themselves. Applying this to the idea of the mobile phone, he suggests that “interstitial time marks moments when we become uncertain—about what to do next, about how to occupy our time, about how to ‘be’ in a particular space, perhaps even about our life trajectories” (Mowlabocus, 2016, p.15). However, the interstitial time of the Tube journey is different, since it is uncertain time but also time in which the transitional object (the phone) losses much of its connection to the world outside: a break or pause (Sundén, 2018). What might become more heightened in these moments is the capacity of the mobile phone to take a photograph, a function that works exactly the same way when the phone is either connected or disconnected to the internet. With the sneaky photo, this is especially so when such photo-taking practices, as we suggest above, appear to mimic the distracted scrolling-capabilities of Mowlabocus’ (2016) transitional object.



“See, Snap, Share” To explore these themes further, we draw on interview data from three people, collected as part of the Connected Intimacies project (British Academy Small Grant, SG162199). Each interview reflected different engagements with TubeCrush. Steve Motion, the TubeCrush founder, works predominantly in finance and runs TubeCrush as a personal project. As shown in the extract that we began this chapter with, TubeCrush started as something fun that he and a group of friends wanted to do, and although he is now majority shareholder, the site does not make profit and, because of website hosting charges, has ended up “actually costing a lot of money”. Since he is now based in New York, the interview was conducted over the phone. Jacob, who worked at an NGO, was someone who sent in photographs to TubeCrush. He described using TubeCrush as “a little action you can take” when seeing someone who is a “nine or a ten”, without having to approach them. His interview took place both on the Tube and in a café. While Preston, who was an architect, had someone take an unsolicited picture of him that was later uploaded onto TubeCrush, which he described as “amusing, flattering, and horrifying at the same time”, with him also describing how, had he known he would appear on the site, he would have made more of an effort with his appearance. His interview took place in a café at a Tube station.10 All three interviewees were White, cisgender men, in professional-level jobs: Steve and Jacob identified as gay and Preston as heterosexual. The interviews were unstructured, following a set number of themes, and lasted between one and two hours. With the exception of Steve, who agreed to being named in any accounts of the research, Jacob and Preston have been given aliases and have had all identifying data removed. The project was approved by two University ethics committees. Within the interviews, the cultural character of London was defined by the contradiction of being “constantly surrounded by people but they also provide anonymity” (Jacob), with this being a positive thing about living in the city; “the anonymity of London is fantastic” (Preston). For Steve, this anonymity was also associated with a London/British cultural characteristic that made TubeCrush work in London, where it had not taken off in the same way in the cultural space of New York. He said, 10  We would like to thank Steve, Jacob and Preston for taking the time to speak to us about their different engagements with TubeCrush and the insights that they shared.



[I]f you look at the culture in London, it is quiet. People don’t really interact with one another. … Um, and I’ve noticed that in New York, like living here, there’s interaction. Like there’s a street performer, crazy stuff going on in New York subway, you know it’s not unusual to see, like like a homeless guy like waving his butt on the platform, whereas I think it’s more reserved in London. I thought that was an interesting point. Um. But I do think its political, you know its its. People are judging everyone, I think it’s because it is quiet [Adrienne—mmm, you’ve got a chance to look around] people are just, you’ve got this chatter in your mind, it’s like “oh he’s reading that book”, or “she’s applying her make up, why why is she applying her make up on the Tube?”. Um, or “that person is attractive, that person is good looking”. Or or even negative things, you know. … And I think it’s the fact that it’s silent that there’s this culture of Britishness on the Tube, which allows people’s minds to go and to wander and think about things, whether its sexualized or er a gender specific way. (Steve)

Here, Steve contrasts the carnivalesque of the New York subway with the comparative quiet, less interactive space of the London Underground, and earlier in the interview suggests TubeCrush Boston did not work because the city was “too political”, creating different felt experiences in different separate and distinct liminal city spaces. He links this to a politics of judgement. Without the distractions of regular interaction, the “chatter in your mind” made it more likely that you would see someone, judge them to be attractive and take a photo, when compared with a chaotic New York subway. Silence is not a soundscape that often associated with cities (Mieszkowski et al., 2007), nor the rhythm of busy public transport systems (Nash, 2020), but reference to silence here constructs the city of London in particular ways. Silence generates a distinct characteristic of a city (and a nation), in which strangers remain strangers. This silence is understood as creating the contexts for looking and judging in ways that could be based on attractiveness, and here used to make sense of the success of TubeCrush as a London-centric phenomenon. For Jacob, as a TubeCrush user, the practicalities of taking photographs in such a space were important. As he said during our Tube journey, “[I]f it’s less crowded that’s helpful as well. And if the person’s quite near, that’s also helpful. So, like, you could take a photograph of that chap by the doors over there, but by the time you’ve zoomed in and so on, it’s quite low quality” (Jacob). The focus on the quality of the photographable opportunity, along with the busyness of the Tube, was also discussed in the café:



I think there have probably been a few instances where I’ve like tried to take a photograph of someone on the Tube, but like because they’re not posing, because you can’t quite get the phone to the right angle […] ’Coz you know, with someone slightly in the way, I’ve just aborted it and I’m like “this is not a good photograph. I’m not going to move to take this picture. I’d look extremely suspicious and …” [Adrienne—laughs]. Um so I guess that sort of, like some people look very good taking selfies, right. I know these people who, like, there’s a few people who are just, like, they’re very attractive. Um and they’re still attractive, like one of them’s got quite big teeth, a couple of them have got braces. And like they never have an open mouth smile, if a smile at all, on social media and they’ve mastered that, like, “what I look like on social media” thing. (Jacob)

In the above extract, Jacob links the quality of TubeCrush photos to the ability to take good selfies, despite other features, by a performance of the face so that, in his example, the person with the big teeth or braces will control their image (and smile) on social media to create a “‘what I look like on social media’ thing”. However, the aesthetics and selfie-like attractiveness of the photographed subject are constructed here as not always easy to reproduce in the unsolicited image. The structure of the selfie-like photograph, including the pose, angel and other technical features, could not be reproduced because of other passengers being in the way or where moving might alert the subject to their photograph being taken. Like Tiidenberg’s (2018) post-selfie, Jacob’s talk suggests an extension of the meaning of the selfie in excess of self-representation, and also points to the normativity of photo-taking practices. In Steve’s words, this normativity emerges from youth culture, where asking a young person, “‘oh someone took a picture today [of you], how do you feel about that?’ they’d be like ‘I have like 50 and I’ve taken a picture of myself 20 times a day’” (Steve). Meanwhile, for Preston, and shaped by his profession as an architect, the Tube carriage was a space to be considered through design features. This was especially evident in his discussion of the lighting on the Tube carriage. While the emotions Preston expressed in terms of having been featured on TubeCrush were described as hilarious and embarrassing, he also constructed London’s public transport as romantic and nostalgic, with this accounting for how attraction shaped the Tube experience. I think the lighting on the underground is quite romantic, it’s not as cold as it is on newer transport [Adrienne—mmm] so if you go on a bus it’s very



harsh, it’s a cold white light. Like in the old days, on the thirty-eight, they used to be um filament bulbs, and that was an incredibly romantic bus route, like it was wonderful. So, I think some of these things are being lost and I’d like to bring them back. So, I think there are, there is this lovely, I’ve met lots of uh, uh ladies on the public transport. So, I think it’s a very romantic place because you’re forced into a position with a stranger, to sit next to them or to sit opposite them, and I think it’s really lovely. (Preston)

As we discussed earlier in this chapter, Illouz (2007) suggests that capitalism produces an excess of emotion, and strangers create the promise of longer-lasting romantic relationships (Koch & Miles, 2021; Morgan, 2009). We witness this here in Preston’s talk of how spaces that are typically thought of as carrying consumers and commuters around the city become filled with romance. An affective atmosphere is created by the lighting and where you are “forced into a position with a stranger”, where this atmosphere fills the space with feelings, surrounding people, things and environments (Anderson, 2009; Böhme, 1993; Diaz-Fernandez & Evans, 2020). These elements of the space create a nostalgia in Preston’s account, such that he speaks of the “old days” of filament lighting and wanting “to bring them back”, in contrast to the white “cold” light they have been replaced with. Steve also recognises the lighting shaping the moment of attraction, although in his discussion, romantic stranger intimacy is replaced by the aesthetics of the photograph. For Steve, like Jacob above, the technical aspects of taking a photograph to share online become more important in making TubeCrush’s subject more photogenic. Again, structured through comparison to his location in New York, he says, And it’s very bright, the difference between the UK and the other—actually this is why the photographs come out so well—is that it’s very light on the trains. The lighting is very good on the London Underground. Um, in New York and some of the other metro stations it’s very yellow and very dark light. (Steve)

Finally, as we have suggested above, the lack of connectivity during transit makes the digitally enabled practices of TubeCrush also ones that happen very much offline. Reflecting on this capability based on disconnection, Steve said, I think, you’re there, in a space where you don’t typically have reception on your phone unless you’re like in a train station. So, it’s not really the best



place to be surfing the internet, but. So, people are on their phones. But they are aware of their surroundings. … I think the fact that you don’t have wi-fi underground between the stations means that even if you do, I mean, a lot of the apps these days if you do write a post or take a picture or whatever, um, as you pull into the next station it will reconnect to the wi-fi and it will send and you can have communicated a underground story to the world, before you’ve even got off the train. And I think that that’s really interesting. (Steve)

Building on Steve’s account of how the silence of the Tube creates a focus on the desires and attractions of the immediate space, TubeCrush was, for him, also part of a storytelling that the environment of the Tube created. There is in-betweenness in his construction of Tube travel, such that it creates disconnection, but also a sense of an agency in the technology—that, as the passenger and commuter move around the city space, their technological devices are connecting and disconnecting (and reconnecting) to tell sharable stories, even while the human in this relationship is busy getting off the train.

Conclusion In this chapter, we have explored TubeCrush as reflecting something more broadly about how desire and attraction work in the context of intimate alienation and the emotional capitalism of contemporary, largely urban, life. We began by connecting this to the context of sneaky photo-taking practices and a politicisation of public space, as the background and context in which, culturally, the practices enabled by TubeCrush come to exist and make sense. We have attempted to extend this cultural analysis through an account that pays attention to the geographies of TubeCrush, shaped by the assemblage of the city, the commuter and the Tube carriage, to show the intersections of affect working through the sharing of images of attractive men on the London Underground. Through such an analysis of TubeCrush, digital feeling is enmeshed with non-digital practices that are historical, spatial and physical. Movement and temporality also become central in these digital flows, where the physical body moving around the London Underground, getting into and out of Tube carriages, shapes moments of connection and disconnection in which photographs can be taken and later move online. To understand the feeling of TubeCrush means paying attention to the wider circuits of



urbanity and movement, to understand how desire is directed onto particular forms of masculinity. In the final section of this chapter, we have suggested these assemblages play out in the ways three people made sense of their experiences with TubeCrush. Although very different in their knowledge, use and engagement with TubeCrush and the practices that it encourages (on their About page, “[t]he premise is simple: see, snap, share”), what connects these accounts is a sense of the agency of the space and its other human and nonhuman elements. For Jacob, the busyness of the space and the distance or closeness of strangers effected the technological affordances of the quality of the image. For Preston, the lighting on public transport could create either romantic or unromantic contexts for being in the company of strangers. And, for Steve, the silence, the light and the affordances of internet connectivity on the Tube shaped the dynamics of TubeCrush and the affects of desire and attraction in public space. We develop this more in the next chapter, expanding on our notion of intimacy in postfeminist contexts, by considering digital feeling as a blurred public-private and in relation to our entanglements with non-human others, by turning to the internet cat.

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Dickens, C. (1838). Oliver twist: The Parish boy’s progress. Richard Bentley. Evans, A., & Riley, S. (2018a). “He’s a total TubeCrush”: Post-feminist sensibility as intimate publics. Feminist Media Studies, 18(6), 996–1011. Evans, A., & Riley, S. (2018b). ‘This dapper hottie is working that tweed look’: Extending workplace affects on TubeCrush. In A. S. Dobson, B. Robards, & N.  Carah (Eds.), Digital intimate publics and social media (pp.  129–144). Palgrave Macmillan. Evans, A., & Riley, S. (2022). The righteous outrage of post-truth anti-feminism: An analysis of TubeCrush and feminist research in and of public space. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 25(1), 25–42. Fuchs, C. (2018). Universal alienation, formal and real subsumption of society under capital, ongoing primitive accumulation by dispossession: Reflections on the [email protected] by David Harvey and Michael Hardt/Toni Negri. tripleC, 16(2), 454–467. Fujii, J.A. (1999) Intimate alienation: Japanese urban rail and the commodification of urban subjects. Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, 11(2): 106–133. Harvey, D. (1989). The urban experience. Johns Hopkins University Press. Illouz, E. (2007). Cold intimacies: The making of emotional capitalism. Polity Press. Jane, E.  A. (2017). ‘Dude … stop the spread’: Antagonism, agonism, and #manspreading on social media. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 20(5), 459–475. Koch, R., & Miles, S. (2021). Inviting the stranger in: Intimacy, digital technology and new geographies of encounter. Progress in Human Geography, 45(6), 1379–1401. Lefebvre, H. (2003). The urban revolution. University of Minnesota Press. Madanipour, A. (2003). Public and private spaces of the city. Routledge. McDowell, L. (2010). Capital culture revisited: Sex, testosterone and the city. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 34(3), 652–658. Mieszkowski, S., Smith, J., & de Valch, M. (Eds.). (2007). Sonic interventions. Brill. Morgan, D. (2009). Acquaintances: The space between intimates and strangers. Open University Press. Mowlabocus, S. (2016). The ‘mastery’ of the swipe: Smartphones, transitional objects and interstitial time. First Monday, 21(10). fm.v21i10.6950 Nash, L. (2020). Performing place: A rhythmanalysis of the city of London. Organization Studies, 41(3), 301–321. Riley, S., Evans, A., & Robson, M. (2022). Postfeminism and body image. Routledge.



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Cute! Cats! Intimacies of the Internet

The concept of intimacy has largely been treated as one that occurs in either sexual or familial relationships. For example, research has looked at how intimate relationships are mediated by sex advice and digital technologies such as hook-up and dating apps (e.g. Attwood et  al., 2017; Barker et  al., 2018; Papacharissi, 2018). Our own research on intimacy has also focused on sexual subjectivity, where intimacy is mediated through a range of technologies and consumer items, as well as relationships with other humans and their generational and intergenerational sentiments (Evans & Riley, 2014). In family sociology and studies of cultures of care, intimacy is also a key concept, even while the concept of ‘the family’ is critiqued as heteronormative and couple-focused (Jamieson, 2005; Roseneil & Budgeon, 2004). However, we would also suggest that we can widen the realms of the intimate. Our earlier chapters in this book have started this work, for example, in Chap. 2, we showed how the mock-­ Instagram account Barbie Savior ridiculed the concept of the ‘distant other’ and its associated intimate relationships shaped by pity and compassion. In Chaps. 3 and 4, we discussed how online cultures shape our intimate relationships with our bodies, reflecting back to us how particular technologies of fitness and beauty should feel. And in Chap. 5, we considered how intimacies are created by the spaces we inhabit and are shared on to others as people collectively find attraction in the bodies of unknown commuters. In this final chapter, we draw attention to a more dispersed, extended intimacy by turning to the intimacies of the internet cat. © The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2023 A. Evans, S. Riley, Digital Feeling,




Cat content on the internet is immensely diverse. Many cat videos are ‘amateur’, relying minimally on cultural knowledge or language, meaning that they can be shared internationally (O’Meara, 2014). Cat videos are also a recognisable staple of internet content. In the years following YouTube’s launch in 2006, these included Stalking Cat and Surprised Kitty. In 2008, Stalking Cat (also sometimes known as Stealth Cat) featured a video of a cat that creeps closer to the person recording it, as the camera pans back and forth. The video generated a number of remixes, with music from the Jaws movies and horror films overlaid on top, and has currently been watched over 55 million times. While in Surprised Kitty, a kitten gets its stomach rubbed/tickled while a human voice makes ‘baby’ noises. The kitten then extends its arms and legs in a ‘surprised’ bodily gesture. Uploaded in 2009, Surprise Kitty has nearly 80 million views. Both videos also often feature in cat video compilations on YouTube. Often, such celebrity internet cats come to embody particular feelings, such as Grumpy Cat, whose underbite and feline dwarfism gave an appearance that mixed cuteness with glumness. In another example, Henri Le Chat Noir was the existential cat who ‘retired’ in 2018 to write his book The Old Cat and the Flea (which he said would start after butt scratchings). Henri’s YouTube videos were created as a series, playing with the stylistics of avant-garde film and cultural knowledge about French philosophers and existentialism. Instagram and TikTok have engendered their own forms of cat content, with the cat influencer (or ‘catfluencer’) matching or exceeding the number of follows, likes and shares of those influencers we saw in fitness (Chap. 3) or make-up cultures (Chap. 4). Nala Cat (@nala_cat), for example, holds the Guinness World Record for the most followers on Instagram for a cat (currently at 4.5 million). Through the notoriety of Nala Cat, her owners have set up a premium cat food company, Love, Nala; a clothing line (for humans); cat toys; and the book Living Your Best Life According to Nala Cat. Other cats in the family have also achieved visibility and celebrity through Instagram, including Luna Rosa and White Coffee, while Nala Cat engages in regular ‘collabs’ with other influencer cats, most notably Grumpy Cat. Meanwhile, the video format of Instagram and TikTok creates opportunities to remix and overlay cat content with new intention. For example, in Instagram’s Reels, cat content is overlaid with viral audio. In such videos, Lizzo’s lyrics in the song About Damn Time are reimagined as “inna minute, I’ma needa, half an hour, just to lay here,



and take a nap”. While others mix various baby and children’s talk on top of videos of their cats, for example using the viral video I’m Just a Baby.1 The result is videos that feature cats with audio suggesting that they have taken DNA tests (with words borrowing from another Lizzo song) and are 100% “just a baby”; think they are a lion when they are in fact “just a baby”; or that they were born and identify as a cat, when really the cat’s “mom” knows they are “just a baby”. Meanwhile, internet memes in the form of LOLCats have long been used as a form of visual vernacular across different social media (Miltner, 2014; White, 2020), but especially where they appear on more closed forms of content sharing, such as email, text messages, message boards and forums, and app-based platforms such as WhatsApp and Snapchat.2 In these still images, cats appear with captions on top of images, often for comic effect. Originating from a geek- and techno-subculture, and developed through imageboard website 4chan, the LOLCats’ popularity generated its own form of ‘Lolspeak’, with words like ‘nom’ and ‘lulz’, and phrases such as “I can haz cheezburgr?”. As Miltner (2014) notes, the shift of Lolspeak from a community of technologically knowledgeable people who are “from the Internet” (n.p.) to the language of mainstream internet dialogue has created tensions, shaping identity within and beyond the boundaries of particular online communities. In her interviews with both traditional and mainstream users of LOLCats, traditional users resisted the ‘cuteness’ of more recent mainstream internet representations. The examples we discuss above are part of a broader culture that has generated the phrase (and song) ‘the internet is made of cats’,3 used to describe the banality of internet content. When inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, was asked on a Reddit Q&A what one thing he had never thought the internet would be used for, but is, he replied “kittens”.4 While in another Reddit thread, one user posed a question asking how someone might explain ‘today’ to someone who arrived through time from the 1950s. The most liked answer was, “I possess a device, in  Another popular use of cats through such channels is cat gifs; see Ash (2015) for a discussion of how these forms generate affect. 3 4 1 2



my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man. I use it to look at pictures of cats and get in arguments with strangers.”5 In recognition of the number of internet cat videos, companies such as Friskies have produced their Dear Kitten videos, a series of adverts that mimicked some of the more narrative cat videos on YouTube, in which an older cat sardonically introduces a kitten to its new home and provides product placement for food, litter and cat toys. Mocking this development, the YouTube video Catvertising,6 produced by real advertising agency John St., claimed to be opening a division dedicated to producing cat videos. Hinting at the commercial capacity of using cats, the Creative Director states that “we’re seeing a shift in consumer habits. Everything is moving towards cat videos. And the agencies that don’t realize that will get left behind”, with others in the video claiming projected figures show in the future 90% of all online content will be cats. In turning to cats in this final chapter, we do so with the intention of opening up a key theme in this book around intimacy. We are interested in thinking about the internet cat as capturing a blurring of the public and private, in which intimacies are shared as a form of recognition, an understanding of subject formation where seeing and being seen create a relationality. To develop this thinking, below we first start with Berlant’s (2008) notion of the intimate public, a relationality that provides contexts that both support the norm and allow the same norm to be challenged, changed or provide new consequences or ‘lines of flight’. To this account, we add a new materialist perspective, where such recognition is also imaginable between the human and the non-human, including relationalities between, among others, algorithms, hardware (e.g. computers, phones), events, utterances and of course animals. We then apply this thinking to analysis of the internet cat and its activation across the digital and the non-­ digital. First, we analyse the normative of the intimate public, by exploring how cuteness acts as a technique of control that often reinstates the human/non-human animal hierarchy while hinting at cultural fears around a human sense of powerlessness. But we also discuss how cats often feature in political activism, suggesting that although the cat may be the unintended actor in these political moments, its intimacies with us—as companion species—interrupt dominant narratives and allow us to question the status quo. 5 6



Intimacy: Public-Private and More-than-Human In this chapter, we draw on Berlant (1998, 2008) to conceptualise intimacy as incorporating many elements of “the intimate zones of everyday life” (1998, p.285). This is an intimacy shaped by relationality, intelligibility and recognition, for example in how women’s novels create a sense of collectivity in their readership. Thus, in her formulation of the ‘intimate public’, Berlant (2008) defines the intimate as occurring when it foregrounds affective and emotional attachments in fantasies of the common, the everyday, a sense of ordinariness, a space where the social world is rich with anonymity and local recognitions, and where challenging and banal conditions of life take place in proximity to the attentions of power but also squarely in the radar of a recognition that can be provided by other humans. (p.10)

According to Berlant (2008), intimacy is something that promises a “feeling of belonging”, for example through a common set of shared feelings that are circulated and communicated to create a sense of community. We see this feeling of belonging in TubeCrush, conceptualising this platform as an intimate public, where people connect through a shared practice and collectively solidify what kinds of masculine bodies are considered desirable (Evans & Riley, 2018). Such a concept of intimacy is, for Berlant (1998), “portable”, meaning that it can have ambiguous or even radical outcomes. For Dobson et al. (2018), such portability means that there is ‘excess’ in digital intimate publics, for example when they allow a visibility of marginal and political intimacies. However, conventionality and a redirection to normativity mean that intimate publics are also often involved in maintaining a notion of a ‘good life’ and forms of cruel optimism, where we become attached to notions that prevent us from flourishing (Berlant, 2011), such as in constructs of the thin ideal in fitspo that we saw in Chap. 3. It is evident to us that, seen through this approach to intimacy, the circulation of cat videos maps onto Berlant’s discussion of “mediated fantasies … of mass mediated identity” (Berlant, 2008, p.11), where cat videos speak an emotional language of cuteness, humour, innocence and ordinariness. We develop this account in this chapter. However, before we do, we also want to explore how such a concept of intimacy is folded into the blurring of public and private. We also expand the concept of  the intimate



public by challenging the notion that recognition is always “provided by other humans” (Berlant, 2008, p.10, emphasis added). Thus, in considering digital feeling, we see the recognition and intelligibility of intimacy in a number of spaces, including but also extending beyond those that occur between people. In so doing, we analyse the intimate in our relationships to others, ourselves, non-human others and objects in our environment, for example in many people’s intimate connection to their mobile phone (Diaz-Fernandez & Evans, 2019), and to their non-human companion species, the cat (Haraway, 2003; McKeithen, 2017). Public-Private We locate our understanding of the intimacies of the internet cat in what we see as a dramatic shift in perceptions of public and private worlds, ones that are shaped by digital technologies associated with the internet, connectivity, the network and mobile technology. We would suggest that, increasingly, private worlds are played out in public, changing how we think, feel and act in the world. As Wendy Hui Kong Chun (2016) has noted, the infrastructure of the digital is based on the premise of blurring public and private, such that we share private moments on social media, track intimate bodily functions through data that get shared with large multinational corporations and link up our domestic spheres to ‘smart’ digital technologies. For Chun (2016), and for ourselves, this has profound effects on subjectivity, a reverse gaze in which digital technology reflect back on subjects, who in turn “act publicly in private, or are ‘caught’ in public acting privately” (p.95). Such a blurring of the public and private has significant gendered implications, where the binary of public/private has long maintained a (hetero) normative understanding of intimate relationships (Berlant & Warner, 1998), alongside the binaries of male/female. Historically, publicness has been understood as a masculine construct, related with work, civil life and politics. In cultural and critical theory, Hebermasian notions of an eighteenth-­century ‘public sphere’, in which opinions are formed through dialogue and a democratic politics, are typically imagined to be male. While femininity has associations with domesticity and the intimate, shaping forms of gendered labour (i.e. housework), as well as structuring other forms of social divides: “colonizer and colonized, friend and lover, hetero and homo, ‘unmarked’ personhood versus racial-, ethnic-, and class-­ marked identities” (Berlant & Warner, 1998, p.283).



We would therefore suggest that public/private works as a form of power, structuring social life in ways that maintain inequalities. This is even while there have been challenges to public/private as a natural, pre-­ given divide, revealing public/private as a construct. For example, feminist politics has long maintained that the personal is political, tying notions typically relegated to the private sphere, such as housework, motherhood and marriage, as issues of public concern—even while such untying of these issues from the public/private has been critiqued for largely benefiting White, middle-class women (McRobbie, 2009). Historically, a shifting relationship between public and private is evident in Victorian accounts of the home. As decorating the interiors of the home became increasingly available for the ‘middling sort’, the parlour room—the room of the house that directly faced the street—became the room that was most decorated so that people in the public space of the street could see in and judge status. And in Skeggs’ (2014) discussion of the historical developments of political economy as a discipline and the romantic novel as a cultural phenomenon, she shows how concepts of value are created in both, while others have shown that the exchange value in marriage (with women often being the object being exchanged) made marital coupledom a public affair, which again was done in the interests of status and class allegiance (Donzolot, 1977; Skeggs, 2013). Thus, the undoing of the public/private is not always radical but can be a way to confirm power. What these analyses suggest is that new constructs of public and private are important since they impact a range of issues that affect our lives, with the consequences of these constructs needing to be evaluated carefully. A new digital intimate sphere, in which public/private is more permeable, therefore also suggests a reimagining of other binaries. However, the consequences are often ambiguous, and the gender binary has been reformulated in the context of, among other changes, the seismic shifts towards post-Fordist labour markets (Gregg, 2011), the proliferation of identity politics that make private or personal lives a matter of politics (Hekman, 2004), and the increasingly intimate forms of emotional capitalism, in which the intimate is expanded through consumption (Illouz, 2007). Thus, the concept of intimacy in late-modernity conceals the fact that “the inwardness of the intimate is met by a corresponding publicness” (Berlant, 1998, p.281). This, for Berlant (1998), includes the many institutions that we might typically associate with the public realm (e.g. in juridical structures), as well as a proliferation of therapeutic discourses that



increasingly impel us to express or confess our intimate desires through public platforms (Berlant, 2008). One example of this has been a return to the kitchen, and forms of food presented on social media as an idyllically feminine pursuit, for example in wellness cultures (see Chap. 3), but also as ‘domestic goddesses’ in food blogs. Dejmanee (2016) has argued that the designation of some social and digital media images on food blogs as ‘food porn’ is tied up in a postfeminist sensibility in which (hetero)sexy subjectivity is reoriented back to the domestic sphere. By linking femininity to ‘food porn’, this sharing of intimate life in one turn makes private life public, alongside general shifts in women’s wider public visibility. But it also acts as a form of retraditionalisation, relocating women as invested in traditional femininity alongside sex and sexuality (see also Hollows (2003) for further discussion of cooking and postfeminism; Broekhuizen and Evans (2016) for a similar example from contemporary wedding cultures). In the case of the visualisation of our everyday food, the private is thus literally and figuratively consumed, merging the public and private to reinforce traditional gender relations. More-than-Human In addition to the blurring of the public and the private, we also take a view in which intimacy connects, reaches out and is entangled across a range of events, people, objects, feelings, data, algorithms and technologies. This assemblage of intimacies also makes available recognitions that, we would argue, create feelings of belonging and which are—in a postdigital context—framed within fantasies of the common that, in Berlant’s terms, are ordinary and banal. From a feminist new materialist and posthuman perspective, understanding other non-human elements as part of this intimate landscape allows us to challenge the focus on ‘the human’ and calls on us to pay attention to the ‘vibrancy’ of the non-human actors that we engage with, in generating emotion and affect (Bennett, 2010). For Braidotti (2019) and others, to engage with such an approach both means we can recognise the ways we are interconnected and inter-related, where this is always process and becoming, while paying attention to our ‘fractures’ (e.g. gender, sexuality, race, class and able-bodiedness) that structure forms of power, shaping and shaped by human and non-human entanglements. We are



embroiled with these non-humans, with whom we ‘intra-act’7 (Barad, 2007), for example when the mobile phone becomes a key agent in our intimate relationships, as we carry it around with us, often sleeping with it beside us, checking it and engage with its functions to maintain and manage socialites with other humans and their non-human phones, the actions of notification systems of apps or use it to take selfies (Diaz-Fernandez & Evans, 2019; Lupton, 2019, 2020; van Doorn, 2013; Warfield, 2016). Most notably, feminist new materialism has recognised the more-than-­ human intimacies that emerge from intra-actions with non-human animals, and especially pet/domestic animals. Donna Haraway’s (2003) account of companion species has marked an important shift in thinking, as she considers the dog (and her own dog, Cayenne) as a metaphor for a prefigurative politics that supersedes that of the cyborg, the subject of her previous manifesto (Haraway, 1991). She suggests that taking human-­ animal relationships seriously makes us accountable to historical inequalities and power differences, which include our power over the dog, but also those moments when we have used dogs, horses and others to enact human colonialism and racism. However, in considering the dog as a companion species, Haraway (2003) also shows us how through such human-­ non-­human relationships we learn how to cohabit and care with and alongside significant otherness and attend to “the demands of significant otherness at all the scales that making more liveable worlds demands” (p.61). In these accounts, we are warned about the risks of anthropomorphism as a hierarchical strategy, whereby human characteristics are read into non-­ human animals in  ways that re-centre humanness and human agency (Braidotti, 2019). Instead, feminist new materialism encourages us to take different views on the lives of others and change our own practices. In her discussion of political ecologies, Bennett (2010) asks, “can worms be considered members of a public?” (p.94), suggesting that in asking such a question, we are also looking to question democratic processes that have assumed a human centre, so that we can imagine a politics that engenders “new procedures, technologies and regimes of perception that enable us to consult nonhumans more closely, or to listen more carefully to their outbreaks, objections, testimonies, and propositions” (p.108). We would 7  In Barad’s (2007) use of ‘intra-action’ rather than ‘interaction’, she draws attention to the way the human and the non-human do not contain agency of their own that pre-exists their coming together. Instead, their coming together creates a form of agency that is inseparable from that intra-action.



suggest, given the digital pervasiveness of the cat, they are already considered part of a public, even if we have not yet learnt to listen. Relatedly, Probyn (2014) argues that understanding our relationalities with fish and oceans allows us to imagine more sustainable ecologies, creating “affective solidarity and material difference” (Probyn, 2021, p.567 emphasis added) between human and more-than-human, while also seeking to question representational practices (Probyn, 2017). For example, Probyn (2017) questions anthropomorphism when environmentalist strategies have imposed human categories of ‘cuteness’ onto ‘ugly’ but endangered species—such as when the World Wildlife Fund campaign to protect bluefin tuna fish means representing these fish with panda masks, and asking, “Would you care more if I was a panda?” In what follows, we take a similar feminist new materialist approach to cat videos. We understand intimacy as creating shared communities structured on feeling that provide opportunities for belonging, recognition and intelligibility, ones that increasingly blur how we understand the public-­ private. Like Probyn (2017), we do not do away with representation completely, asking instead what representations of the cat can do, while being mindful that non-human-animals (and in our case, the cat) engender feminist concerns about how we come to represent the other. We take up this representational analysis below, showing how women’s relationships with cats throughout history has been both complex and contradictory, while having real material effects. This analysis frames our thinking, as we turn to both normative and political uses of the cat, and its affective, emotional, feely moves, in digital culture.

Feline Femininity For Fox (2006), “pet–human relationships cross understandings of the human–animal divide through the embodied intimacy of their everyday relations, revealing the importance of animals in everyday human social interactions and conceptions of family, kinship and domesticity” (p.532). As we have argued above, we understand current concepts of intimacy as being shaped through a blurring of the public and the private, which we read alongside a postfeminist sensibility. Cats on the internet offer something interesting in relation to this, given the way they are recorded or photographed while located in the private sphere of the home, and its transformation into the digital in turn makes the home a public spectacle.



This revealing of the home is also evident in advertising. In one Sheba cat food advert titled ‘Follow Your Passion’, for example, the actress Eva Longoria shimmies around a luxury-looking apartment to the song Come on-a My House by jazz singer Della Reese. Home here is bathed in warm wood colours, and complete with swimming pool and open fire. As she dances around its warm wooden interior, she takes off clothing to reveal a short cream/beige silky dress, takes her shoes off to tango on the table and drinks from the bottle of an open milk carton. The advert places Longoria as cat like in her movements, with the grey cat typical of Sheba adverts becoming her dancing partner, as it weaves gracefully through her legs as she moves. This Sheba advert is not an internet sensation (although is available to view on YouTube). However, it does point towards a transformation in the discourse of the cat and the woman-cat relationship in contemporary society. The relationship between Longoria and the cat is a postfeminist reimagining of the woman-cat relationship, or even the woman-as-cat: a heterosexy, empowered, independent single woman who becomes animalistic (drinking freely from milk cartons and dancing on tables) in her connection with her companion species. Located within a domestic space and framed by its associations with femininity, the cat is often sexy and sensual, but it has also historically been shaped by negative associations of women’s sexuality, either as highly sexual and dangerous, or as the familiars of witches and desexualised ‘crazy cat ladies’. To unpack these contradictions, we briefly explore the genealogy of the cat-women relationship below. A Very Short Genealogy of Cats and Women Cats and women are intricately tied, as both an ideal sensuous femininity, as seen in the Sheba advert, and one whose sexuality, in the intermingling of cat with woman, is risky or threatening. In art history, for example, the cat was used to signify feminine sexuality. As White (2020) shows, from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century, paintings which featured naked women with a dog in the picture where suggestive of a woman’s fidelity, domesticity and holiness, whereas replications of the same nude paintings that featured a cat were considered scandalous and had to be censored or restricted, since the cat represented dangerous, promiscuous sexuality and devil-like foreboding. Paintings that featured cats around the ankles of women indicated sexual availability, while others saw it as evidence that a woman would use sex for her own pleasure, rather than for



reproduction. As one seventeenth-century author wrote of cats, “this beast is dangerous to soul and body” (Morris, 1987, cited in White, 2020, p.20). Alongside sexuality in art history, cats are also tied to the misogynistic history of witches, as women who were punished for either their independence or their perceived sexual transgressions (Federici, 2018). Cats were regularly seen as the witches’ familiar spirit, linking the cat to diabolical and supernatural powers, and with whom witches would cast spells. This association was generated through pagan belief in the goddess Diana and her image often appearing as a cat, therefore positioning the cat-woman relationship as opposed to Christian belief. In Lawrence’s (2003) discussion of the changing attitudes to cats in veterinary practices, she notes that in the Middle Ages, cats were mutilated since it was believed the same injuries would appear on the suspected witch, thus acting as evidence of her witchery. Cats and women were often tortured, burned or drowned together, part of a doctrine to ensure faith in Christianity and fear of the devil, and by extension, cats and women—with cats in particular being seen as embodying devilry (Lawrence, 2003). These histories are shaped by particular geographical and imperial locations, and different cultures have seen the cat as something sacred, rather than dangerous—for example, in Egypt, cats were idolised (Lawrence, 2003). While, in the twentieth century, although imagery around cats and witches persisted in the cultural imagination (and is still used to punish women globally, see Federici (2018) for a discussion), the growth in pet ownership meant the development of new relationships between human and non-human animals, especially cats and dogs. Developing from this is another figure of women-cat relations, the ‘crazy cat lady’, related to the witch and the misogyny that the witch represents, but more benign and symptomatic of “a shift in the ontologies and intimacies of late capitalism” (McKeithen, 2017, p.123). In popular culture, the crazy cat lady is often an older, single, childless woman, who lives alone except for a large number of cats—with the exact number of cats often being correlated to her ‘craziness’ (McKeithen, 2017). The crazy cat lady has become symbolic of a heteronormativity in which living with cats is representative of an inability to attract and maintain a sexual relationship with a man, either because of ‘craziness’, personal hygiene or the failure to keep a tidy house, and thus the crazy cat lady sits outside of heterosexual attractiveness and notions of feminine domesticity (McKeithen, 2017). Cats therefore become a companion species for women only in as much as they are seen



to exist as conduits for not-present humans—husbands and children—that the crazy cat lady refuses because she is unfit for heterosexual relationships (i.e. she’s too ugly or undomesticated), in a heteropatriarchal culture where loving these non-human animals is positioned as problematic. For McKeithen (2017), however, there is queer resistance in cat lady subjectivity, and we would argue especially in the context of a digital culture. Analysing the hashtag #catladyproblems, McKeithen (2017) notes how Twitter communities reimagine intimacy as more-than-human, creating new queer ecologies of the home. Even so, these resistances exist within normative frameworks that make legitimacy and recognition difficult, and that sometimes generates hostility. For example, White (2020) identifies the first trolling on the internet to have as its target women who owned cats. Preceding social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, the Usenet network consisted largely of message boards. In 1993, members of the message board alt.tasteless decided all their users should collectively join another message board, rec.pets.cats, one on which a largely female-identified community posted advice and news about cats. As White (2020) notes, many on this forum were grieving the loss of their cats, and so being on this message board provided comfort. Into this space, alt.tasteless community members sought advice on killing their girlfriend’s cat, how to cook cats and how to have sex with various cat organs—when rec.pets.cats members retaliated, the trolling became more vicious8 (White, 2020). Genealogies are never linear, but connect up to a range of historical and current ways of thinking and feeling, sometimes producing contradiction and alternative histories (Hook, 2007). Alongside the material and symbolic violence that cats and women have experienced because of their relationships, another kind of feeling also emerges in the cat, especially in the entanglement of cats and technology (Berger, 1980). During the development of film, a 20-second black and white film The Boxing Cats, released in 1894 through Thomas Edison’s film studio, featured two cats in a miniature boxing ring, with both cats wearing boxing gloves and appearing to throw (gentle and imprecise) punches. While in the 1870s, Harry Pointer 8  See White (2020) and Lawrence (2003) for a discussion on Darnton’s (1984) account of the Great Cat Massacre. Darnton (1984) gives an account of the mass murder of cats in a 1730s French print shop, carried out as an act of revenge on the wife of the master printer whose cats were treated better than the workers. White (2020) notes that there are parallels between this event and the violence expressed by the alt.tasteless community towards women cat owners.



used photographs of his own cats in poses that imagined them riding bikes, sitting in bowler hats, drinking tea and taking photographs themselves, which were mass produced to promote his Brighton-based photographic studio in the UK.  Although these anthropomorphic early cat media could be considered gentler, reflecting more recognisable notions of ‘cute’ cats that we see today, we are also invited to consider other kinds of violence at play in these representations, including the power that men hold in the production of these media, and histories of colonial photographic image-taking practices (Page, 2017). We also see here the way contemporary notions of the cat, as something to be sentimental about, intra-acts with the technology of the internet cat through subtler forms of power than the misogyny of early internet trolling. We turn to the contemporary digital moment of cats below.

Cats of the Internet Above, we have argued that in an intimate public, a community shares feelings that blur the divides between public and private selves, and which engages in relationalities that are more-than-human, including with companion species such as the cat. We then explored the ways the cat is gendered as feminine, a history that subjugates both cats and women, as highly sexual, not sexual enough, or sexual in the wrong ways. However, as we have shown, an alternative cat history emerges when considered alongside technology, where although instances of trolling still target women-cat relationships, subtler forms of power emerge—especially where the cat is positioned not as dangerous or devilish, but as cute. Cute Cats and Normativity An important function of the intimate public is that it creates a shared community of feeling that mitigates complaint by remaining conventional. In Berlant’s (2008) analysis of the genre of women’s novels, for example, she shows how complaint in the concepts of heterosexual romance is explored, but ultimately deferred, as the protagonist eventually finds true love. Such conventionality is also central to a cruel optimism, since it keeps us attached to the problematic object (Berlant (2011), see also Chap. 3 for a detailed discussion of cruel optimism). Likewise, as we discussed below, we see a conventionality in internet cats and suggest that such deferred



complaint is shaped through the affective and aesthetic feelings created by cuteness. In Sianne Ngai’s (2005, 2012) discussion of cute aesthetics, she identifies how cute holds doubled meaning, with its etymology ‘acute’ meaning sharp and pointed, while ‘cute’ has become attached to a softness that is deeply gendered as feminine. She likens this to the way cuteness as a category often works to generate particular affects, for example of the cute object’s perceived infantile helplessness, pitifulness and diminutiveness. Others identify a grotesqueness in the cute, where consumer culture has produced items with over- or undersized limbs, large heads and uncoordinated movements, seen, for example, in teddy bears that appear stitched together, where such grotesqueness is intended to other, shame and embarrass the cute object (Harris, 1992). While Laforteza (2014) suggests that cuteness and disability seen in celebrity cat Lil Bub, along with other disabled animals, makes disability more visible, but it also gives permission to look and consume the ‘other’, and as such it creates a form of surveillance and a commodification of disability. As Ngai (2005) notes, a recognition of the aggressiveness of children leads to children’s toys being designed in a way that emphasised their cuteness. Changing perceptions of children were deepened through the development of child psychology, which included seeing children as needing toys to channel their aggressiveness, and so children’s toys became less mechanical, realistic and breakable, and more soft, round and tactile. The cute object, for Ngai (2005), Harris (1992) and others (Dale et al., 2017; Lobato & Meese, 2014), creates feelings of human mastery and control, through an objectification of the ‘cute’ object that generates feelings that are violent, for example in exclaiming that “I could eat you up”, or “I could squeeze you to death”. Where, as we explored above, in the history of cat and cat-woman, the violence directed towards the cat was explicit and often physical (e.g. mutilating the cat to convict the woman of witchcraft), a trace of that violence still exists in the cute-ifying of the internet cat, while appearing affectionate since the threat of the cat becomes nullified through cuteness. The complex engagement in forms of affection and threat can be seen, for example, in video compilations. In a 15-minute compilation of cute cat videos on YouTube, titled ‘Cute and Funny Cat Videos to Keep You Smiling! ’,9 a cat held in a sink complains by meowing loudly at having 9



a bath; another jumps at and hits a mounted television, believing the bird on the TV to be real; and in another, a human finger points at a cat and makes gun noises, while the cat attempts to jump away and hide from being pretend-shot. In nearly all videos that make up this popular compilation, there is an element of the domestic, and they all show a connection to companion species that, in the terms of the video, are cute. Yet the object of cuteness shows discomfort, clumsily hurts themselves or is engaging in an imaginary anthropomorphic game in which the human is (albeit pretending) to hurt them. We also see an anthropomorphic infantilisation of the cat in the Instagram Reels’ remixing of the audio I’m Just a Baby over cat video content that we referred to in the introduction to this chapter. In these videos, for example, cats are shown to overestimate their size and ferocity (e.g. think they are lions), when in fact they are infantile—with the ‘mom’/human being in the powerful position of dissuading the cat from their implied (and human) fantasies. Another element of Ngai’s (2005) concept of cute is the way cute often emerges at times of, and thus in response to, violence, for example in the expansion of cute in American consumer culture and Japanese artistic practice at the end of World War II. In relation to cat videos on the internet, we would further argue that these emerge at our moment of violence and crisis that Berlant (2011) has defined as “crisis ordinariness”: of repeat and ongoing crises, specifics of which at the  time of writing include COVID-19, the war in Ukraine, the cost of living, environmental disaster and others, and through which the subject is expected to keep living. In analysing popular culture during COVID-19 lockdowns, for example, Gordon (2020) argues that the NHS in the UK was made cute, for example in clapping for NHS workers or in sticking children’s rainbow pictures in windows. This cute-ification was also evident in other lockdown popular culture, for example in the release of the game Animal Crossing: New Horizons, in which the human player interacts with anthropomorphic animals in a cutesy village (Gordon, 2020). For Gordon (2020), examples such as these constitute a form of disaster aesthetics, one which “transforms us (and our objects of attention) into both literal and metaphorical vessels of babbling baby-speak, perhaps fatally so in a time when critical facilities are more important than ever” (n.p.). Part of this crisis, we would further suggest, is a postfeminist structure of feeling through which we have to make sense of ourselves. Along with others, we recognise this structure of feeling as creating a heightened sense of self-surveillance, self-monitoring and self-disciplining. In this



context, and alongside the cuteness of the cat, the lack of awareness shown by the cat provides a world of intimacy outside of such an ordinary sense of crisis and surveillance. Thus, alongside the implied human power over cute that internet cats enact, we would suggest that the cat video demonstrates a defusal of power, where our own powerlessness either is made to not count or provides a voyeuristic sense of control. O’Meara (2014) suggests that, in a surveillance society, the unselfconsciousness of the cat provides us with pleasures that derive from its associations “with privacy, intimacy, naivety and, increasingly, with impossibility” (n.p.). O’Meara (2014) contrasts this with the internet dog video, where, while often similarly presenting the viewer with a domestic context, the dog’s presence in the video shows it to be actively performing for its human companion. In dog videos that feature shame and guilt, for instance, the dog typically enacts what can be perceived as a human affect through its embodied movements and gestures (head down, ‘puppy’ eyes, whimpering); in other dog videos, dogs perform tricks and demonstrate skills. By contrast, videos and images that attempt to shame the cat or show the cat performing tricks often elicit humour because the cat appears nonchalant, even provoking a repeated cat meme where an uninterested looking cat features next to the text, “no fucks were given”. Thus, “[b]y allowing us to project onto the experience of their protagonists, cat videos invite us to imagine a world where we are not constantly aware of being watched, of being under surveillance by both human beings and technology” (O’Meara, 2014, n.p.). Dale et  al. (2017) link cute to current workplace affects, precarious modes of living and the discrepancies between anticipated lives and actual real lived ones, features of contemporary life that recur throughout this book (see Chap. 4 in particular). They observe that in “neoliberal capitalism, uncertainty and contingency are keynotes of a range of subjectivities, particularly in relation to new technologies” (p.5). Cute thus works because it takes place in a culture that many people find painful, difficult, unequal—a kind of “cruel relief” (Page, 2017, p.76), similar to those we explored in Chap. 5 on TubeCrush and the sense of alienation in the city. In Page’s (2017) research, she analyses the emergence of the cute animal video alongside the development of post-Fordist labour practices, focusing on the way post-Fordism merges work and leisure, so that cute animal videos act as a reprieve and emotional connection in otherwise exhausting environments, becoming like snippets of leisure. Linking this to the extension of work life by technology and internet connectivity, in



which personal devices create an expectation for ‘always on’ productivity, Page (2017) notes how sharing cute animals in this context is often done through the same platforms and devices used for extended labour, for example through work-based email, and passed on to others who are usually other workers. This then becomes part of the circuits of capital, because it can be shared briefly, before returning again to labour. For example, she cites the Huffington Post’s cute animals page, which states, “[i]f you can spare to squeeze a few minutes of procrastination into your day, take a moment to enjoy one of the simple pleasures in this world … cute animals”. Suggesting such animal content constitutes a form of cruel optimism (Berlant, 2011), Page (2017) argues that this shared affect is a form of relief that “is cruel because it is so fleeting and because it normalizes neoliberal capital and work, thus intensifying the subjection of the relieved subject” (p.80). However, like us, Page (2017) also makes moves towards imagining alternatives to neoliberalism, suggesting that events like the Internet Cat Video Festival prioritise togetherness rather than labour. Thinking this further, we also offer possibilities for political engagement, exploring the way cats feature as talismans of activism. Cats as a Political Strategy As we have shown above, cuteness is imbricated in power relations that, while it provides a sense of autonomy for humans, it does so by reaffirming the human-animal hierarchy and othering non-human capabilities. We hold on to this analysis here, while also suggesting a powerfulness in cuteness. Returning to Ngai (2012), she argues that while cute is often a means of control, its power comes from its ability to demand attention. We also see opportunities for other kinds of politics in cute. These politics extend beyond soft power, where authorities use cute objects—often in the form of anthropomorphised animals—to direct, control and manage people and emotions, especially evident in East Asia, in a range of approaches to military and policing (Dale et al., 2017), but also seen in, for example, animal cartoons that might direct children to brush their teeth.10 Instead, we are interested here in the ways that ‘cute cats’ might be used as an activist strategy to challenge inequality and power relations. In Zuckerman’s (2008) discussion of the ‘cute cat theory of digital activism’, he uses the term ‘cute cats’ to refer to mundane content online




that is accessible and enjoyed by many, who do not identify as activists, but where such mundanity can be used by activists in creative ways. As an example, he uses a video created by Tunisian activists that showed the presidential aircraft being used for shopping excursions in Europe, at a time when Tunisia was under a dictatorship. The video was posted onto the French video site Dailymotion, and as a result, Tunisian authorities banned access to the whole of Dailymotion. As Zuckerman (2008) points out, the result was that the banning angered more than just people who were engaged in political activism, since the banning meant that people were also unable to share videos of their cats (and other daily, ordinary and mundane content). Zuckerman (2008) uses this example to demonstrate activism concealed by cuteness, and which challenges forms of censorship. For example, in China, the English words ‘river crab’ [he xie/河蟹] are homophones of ‘harmonise’, which is also the term used when content is censored. Thus, in Chinese social media, the use of images of river crabs becomes a way to share knowledge about censored material and has also been used by artists like Ai Weiwei, whose art instillation of thousands of porcelain crabs reflects the artists’ censorship and imprisonment. Such activist strategies have also been taken up by Chinese feminist and anti-sexual harassment activists. A more recent cute cat activist strategy in China includes the use of the words ‘rice’ and ‘bunny’, which, when pronounced, sound similar to me (mi/米) and too (tu/兔). The words ‘rice bunny’ have thus been taken up by the Chinese #MeToo, or #RiceBunny, movement as a form of camouflage to overcome censorship, often also featuring cute emojis or images of rice bowls and bunnies circulating on the Chinese social media platforms Weibo and WeChat (Zeng, 2020). Within the activism of #RiceBunny there are tensions; for example, a number of high-­ profile Chinese #RiceBunny cases emerge from University and media-­ spheres, suggesting a cultural capital that might not be available to other women, and there have been attempts to disentangle #RiceBunny politics from feminist politics (Jun, 2020). However, in a context where collective action is suppressed by state actors, the use of cute emojis and other tactics allows a form of action that “accrues strength and meaning over time” (Zeng, 2020, p.187). As discussed in the previous chapter (Chap. 5), the cute cat theory of the internet has been used to explore cuteness in relation to censorship, but also in terms of absurdity, for example when cats are used in the Tumblr Saving Room for Cats, where cat images are photoshopped into



images of men ‘manspreading’ (Ringrose & Lawrence, 2018). Another example of such absurdity is the internet meme and hashtag #TrumpYourCat, where people imitated Donald Trump’s hair onto their cat by place a brushed cat’s hair on its head, photographing the cat, and then posting the image online. At the start of Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016, such photographs often reproduced verbatim or played with various Trumpisms—for example, “I will build a great wall—and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me”, or “Make Amewoica Great Again”, and so highlighted the absurdity of Trump’s own political ideologies. The intersection of Trump and cats also produced a Donald Trump cat scratching post (along with other political leaders), created by the group Politikats, to “protest against regimes and governments which deny their citizens of the right to an open and free internet, censorship, consistent destruction of the environment at the detriment of future generations, corruption and the disregard of human rights”.11 The book Cat vs Trump: Is Your Cat Smarter than Donald Trump? (2018) organises its chapters by problem solving, social skills and communication skills to show cats to be more intelligent than the ex-president of the United States. In positioning the cat as the object though which misogyny, sexism and racism can be lampooned, there is also a revisioning of the woman-cat relationship. For example, as we explored in Chap. 1, Trump’s statement that women let him “grab them by the pussy” became a sentiment challenged by the pussy hat. During the 2017 Women’s March, millions of people in America and other countries wore these hats, called ‘pussy hats’ because the corners appears cat-ear-like. Designed to be easy to knit, they combined DIY with a sharable knitting pattern that was distributed through social media, creating a visual spectacle at the protests of a mass of pink, along with placards that read “this pussy grabs back” and “grab them by the patriarchy”. As we suggested in Chap. 1, these hats were not as inclusive as they could have been, and this should be recognised, renegotiated and reimagined. However, what we would argue that they do is make feelings of discontent and anger visible—and there is something valuable doing so, through a revising of women-cat relationships where, in the pussy hat, women reaffirm their human-non-human intimacy with the cat, even becoming cat-like, outside of the realms of the domestic and through a sexual politics.




Conclusion In this chapter, we have linked together accounts of intimacy, understanding this concept through Berlant’s (2008) notion of the intimate public, and bringing this alongside the folding of the public and the private in digital culture, and the vibrancy of more-than-human and non-human animals in new materialist thought. Intimacy thus becomes a concept for making sense of shared communities based on feelings that provide opportunities for belonging, recognition and intelligibility and through forms of relationality that reach out across a range of events, people, objects, feelings, data, algorithms and technologies. This kind of intimacy is central to much of this book. However, in this chapter we have used it to explore the internet cat, as engaged with an intimacy that is often domestic and private, but which has come to represent something of digital culture as a public. The networked public-private of the internet cat is also, for us, distinctly gendered, where women-cat relationalities imply histories of witches and crazy cat ladies who have been used to problematise feminine sexuality and sensuality, as well as relationships that decentre men and masculinity, often through forms of violence and misogyny. Meanwhile, a ‘softer’ form of power emerges from the intra-action of human-cat-technology. Through cuteness, a conventionality is maintained whereby we manage a sense of never-ending crisis, precarity and the anxiety of postfeminism and neoliberalism. For us, the overwhelming dominance of cats on the internet that we discussed at the beginning of this chapter, in which ‘the internet is made of cats’ and the founder of the world wide web could not have predicted all the ‘kittens’, points towards the way the cat is doing emotional work for us, allowing us to manage fear and complexity. The internet cat and its feely moves through digital culture allow us a way to cope through the complexity and contradiction, through both its normative and resistant uses. As with Berlant’s (2008) account of the intimate public, the cat is distilling complaint, a ‘cruel relief’ (Page, 2017) and giving respite from forms of constant (self) surveillance. At the same time, these digital feelings give rise to forms of resistance, where cuteness becomes a tactic, not just of unbearable fear, but of lines of flight. Through the internet cats’ cuteness, we see desires for a life less structured by the violent power dynamics of gender, governance and colonialism, where people can express dissatisfaction and optimism for a materially different alternative future.



References Attwood, F., Hakim, J., & Winch, A. (2017). Mediated intimacies: Bodies, technologies and relationships. Journal of Gender Studies, 26(3), 249–253. Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Duke University Press. Barker, M.  J., Gill, R., & Harvey, L. (2018). Mediated intimacy: Sex advice in media Culture. Polity. Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Duke University Press. Berger, J. (1980). About looking. Writers and Readers. Berlant, L. (1998). Intimacy: A special issue. Critical Inquiry, 24(2), 281–288. Berlant, L. (2008). The female complaint: The unfinished business of sentimentality in American Culture. Duke University Press. Berlant, L. (2011). Cruel optimism. Duke University Press. Berlant, L., & Warner, B. (1998). Sex in public. Critical Inquiry, 24(2), 547–566. Braidotti, R. (2019). A theoretical framework for the critical posthumanities. Theory, Culture and Society, 36(6), 31–61. Broekhuizen, F., & Evans, A. (2016). Pain, pleasure and bridal beauty: Mapping postfeminist bridal perfection. Journal of Gender Studies, 25(3), 335–348. Chun, W.  H. K. (2016). Updating to remain the same: Habitual new media. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dale, J. P., Goggin, J., Leyda, J., McIntyre, P., & Negra, D. (2017). The aesthetics and affects of cuteness. In J.  P. Dale, J.  Goggin, J.  Leyda, P.  McIntyre, & D. Negra (Eds.), The aesthetics and affects of cuteness (pp. 1–34). Routledge. Darnton, R. (1984). The great cat massacre and other episodes in French cultural history. Basic Books. Dejmanee, T. (2016). “Food Porn” as postfeminist play: Digital femininity and the female body on food blogs. New Media and Television, 17(5), 429–448. Diaz-Fernandez, S., & Evans, A. (2019). “Fuck Off to the Tampon Bible”: Misrecognition and researcher intimacy in an online mapping of “Lad Culture”. Qualitative Inquiry, 25(3), 237–247. Dobson, A.  S., Carah, N., & Robards, B. (2018). Digital intimate publics and social media: Towards theorising public lives on private platforms. In A.  S. Dobson, B.  Robards, & N.  Carah (Eds.), Digital intimate publics and social media (pp. 3–28). Palgrave Macmillan. Donzolot, J. (1977). The policing of families. Johns Hopkins University Press. Evans, A., & Riley, S. (2014). Technologies of sexiness: Sex, identity, and consumer culture. Oxford University Press. Evans, A., & Riley, S. (2018). “He’s a total TubeCrush”: Post-feminist sensibility as intimate publics. Feminist Media Studies, 18(6), 996–1011. Federici, S. (2018). Witches, witch-hunting, and women. PM Press.



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McRobbie, A. (2009). The aftermath of feminism: Gender, culture and social change. Polity. Miltner, K. M. (2014). “There’s no place for lulz on LOLCats”: The role of genre, gender, and group identity in the interpretation and enjoyment of an Internet meme. First Monday, 19(8). Morris, D. (1987). Catlore. Crown Publishers. Ngai, S. (2005). The cuteness of the Avant-Garde. Critical Inquiry, 31(4), 811–847. Ngai, S. (2012). Our aesthetic categories: Zany, cute, interesting. Harvard University Press. O’Meara, R. (2014). Do cats know they rule YouTube? Surveillance and the pleasures of cat videos. M/C Journal, 17(2). Page, A. (2017). ‘This baby sloth will inspire you to keep going’: Capital, labour, and the affective power of cute. In J. P. Dale, J. Goggin, J. Leyda, P. McIntyre, & D. Negra (Eds.), The aesthetics and affects of cuteness (pp. 75–94). Routledge. Papacharissi, Z. (Ed.). (2018). A networked self and love. Routledge. Probyn, E. (2014). Women following fish in a more-than-human world. Gender, Place and Culture, 21(5), 589–603. Probyn, E. (2017). How to represent a fish? Cultural Studies Review, 23(1), 36–59. Probyn, E. (2021). Doing cultural studies in rough seas: The COVID-19 ocean multiple. Cultural Studies, 35(2–3), 557–571. Ringrose, J., & Lawrence, E. (2018). Remixing misandry, manspreading, and dick pics: Networked feminist humour on Tumblr. Feminist Media Studies, 18(4), 686–704. Roseneil, S., & Budgeon, S. (2004). Cultures of intimacy and care beyond ‘the family’: Personal life and social change in the early 21st century. Current Sociology, 52(2), 135–159. Skeggs, B. (2013). Class, self, culture. Routledge. Skeggs, B. (2014). Values beyond value? Is anything beyond the logic of capital? British Journal of Sociology, 65(1), 1–20. van Doorn, N. (2013). Assembling the affective field: How smartphone technology impacts ethnographic research practice. Qualitative Inquiry, 19(5), 385–396. Warfield, K. (2016). Making the cut: An agential realist examination of selfies and touch. Social Media + Society, 2(2), 1–10. White, E. J. (2020). A unified theory of cats on the internet. Stanford University Press. Zeng, J. (2020). #MeToo as connective action: A study of the anti-sexual violence and anti-sexual harassment campaign on Chinese Social Media in 2018. Journalism Practice, 14(2), 171–190. Zuckerman, E. (2008). The cute cat theory talk at ETech.­cute-­cat-­theory-­talk-­at-­etech/.


Epilogue: Digital Feeling

We began this book by locating a theoretical framework that made sense of our contemporary moment as a context of postfeminist sensibility. This sensibility has changed over time, adapting to, among other things, a digital culture and a new visibility of feminism, while becoming more emotionally oriented. Here we see the emotional landscape of postfeminism shifting towards notions of confidence, happiness, body positivity and self-­ care, joining the claims towards, and focus on, ‘empowerment’ that have always shaped discussions of a postfeminist sensibility (e.g. Evans & Riley, 2014; Gavey, 2012; Gill, 2007). We would suggest that this alignment with good feeling is important, since in Ahmed’s (2010) terms, there is an orientation to happiness, where we try to be in proximity to it, and where good feeling feels good (e.g. Riley et al., 2019; Evans et al., 2020). In locating the book in the research landscape of feminist discussions of a postfeminist sensibility, we have also attempted to extend this thinking, especially in relation to the traces and reference to Williams’ (1977) notion of a structure of feeling in Gill and others’ work (Gill, 2016, 2017; Gill & Donaghue, 2013; Gill et al., 2017; Barker et al., 2018). Thus, we have outlined a structure of feeling that is distinctive but not monolithic, where ideology and emotion are entangled: “[N]ot feeling against thought, but thought as felt and feeling as thought” (Williams, 1977, p. 132). From this perspective, a postfeminist sensibility is a constantly emerging ‘mood’ or sense of the present moment © The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2023 A. Evans, S. Riley, Digital Feeling,




(Barker et  al., 2018, p.  10). In reading postfeminist sensibility as more closely aligned to Williams’ (1977) structure of feeling, we have been able to think about how these structures feel, often in ways that orient to consumption (e.g. of bodies, of goods) and normalcy. From this understanding of a postfeminist sensibility, we made a case for focusing our attention on the examples we have used in this book because they generate particular feelings within themselves. More than that, they connect up to wider emotional discourses that circulate around them, and reach out into the world, intra-acting and shaping how people can act, think, feel and be. The examples we used capture different domains of experience, and they also reflect back to us the ways in which a postfeminist structure of feeling is one that is flexible, permeable, adaptable, while also shaped by ‘fractures’ (Braidotti, 2019) and the intersections of gender, sex, nationality, class, sexuality, race and bodies. As we have moved through the chapters, our analysis of a postdigital structure of feeling has also been one shaped by more-than-human interactions between subjectivity and algorithms, devices, hashtags, industries, environments and non-human animals. Grounded in feminist theory and research, we have been ‘eclectic’ (Wetherell, 2012), drawing from development studies, health, labour studies, human geography and animal studies, among others, to facilitate this analysis. In our chapter on Barbie Savior, we also introduced Berlant’s (1997) concept of the silly archive, where they suggest taking silly things seriously, analysing “the silliest, most banal and erratic logic imaginable to describe important things” (p. 12). We implied that Barbie Savior was such a silly archive, allowing reflections on racist and imperialist logics of humanitarianism and volunteer tourism, showing how gendered constructs of femininity are important in the maintenance of the white saviour industrial complex. Barbie is ‘silly’, but there is a silliness that could also be applied to the other elements of digital culture we explored in this book. Fitspo culture might seem like a minor, trivial hashtag used by those preoccupied with exercise, but it is intertextually related to wider representations of women in sport and exercise that are implicated in understandings of ‘good health’. Our analysis shows it to be not only about health and the body but also the way it closes down other, alternative ways of making sense of the body, a neoliberal technique that makes fitspo an ideal context for the generation of shame. Similarly, Get Ready With Me (GRWM) is part of a beauty influencer culture that is often dismissed as vapid—“aren’t these just young, rich women doing vain things online?” as Abidin (2016,



p. 1) quotes from another scholar at a conference. But, as we have argued in this book, it is a serious process and a serious business, where the practices and sharing of affect through influencer culture is upheld by a huge industry and consumer culture that shapes notions of beauty, influence and entrepreneurialism, structured through a sharing of good feeling (i.e. niceness and positivity) that manages who is considered an influential success. Silliness is also part of our analysis of TubeCrush, a tongue-in-cheek archive of hot men on the London Underground, yet through this silliness, we have shown how feelings of desire and attraction are shaped and experienced within the infrastructures of a large urban space and its public transport systems, emphasising the entanglements of the digital and the non-digital in creating feeling. Finally, in looking at the internet cat, a silly archive emerges that reveals our interconnectedness with our non-human companions, and to a wider natural world, while the cat’s silliness, cuteness and absurdity also open up ways for political activism and resistance to gender norms. We have also shown throughout this book how these digital feelings are structured through a politics that is often engaged in doubled movements, appearing on the surface to be something new, while reasserting conventionality and normative power differences, especially at the intersections of gender, sex, nationality, class, sexuality, race and bodies. Often structured through postfeminism and neoliberalism, these feelings remain at the level of the individual. We have shown, for example, how in GRWM videos, a consumer-oriented niceness extends the service-sector smile to manage and delegitimise people without the cultural capital to ‘get it right’. While in fitspo there is a focus on achieving health that is the result of individual hard work and dedication, drawing on notions of strength and empowerment, while maintaining a normative and limited concept of bodily success. Yet within the framework of ‘perfect-imperfect-resilience’ (McRobbie, 2020), fitspo gives hope and generates desires that one could achieve a ‘good life’. There is a seeming shift away from a thin ideal while creating new expectations. At the same time, fitspo engages with a structure of feeling that is resolute in its rejection of ‘excuses’, including those such as the diverse experiences of bodies, different bodily capabilities and illness, or the time and expense needed to engage in the constant forms of body work, and the safe spaces for people to do so, in contexts where the inequalities experienced through gender, poverty and race often intersect and overlap (Brah & Phoenix, 2004).



In this book, we have shown how conventionality is structured by feeling, but that these feelings do not only emerge from within the self. For example, the experiences and emotions connected to taking a sneaky photograph of an attractive man on the London Underground reaches across times and spaces, taking in the histories of the Tube, the economies of the city of London, the organisation of stranger bodies in transit and even the lighting, alongside the reorganisation of the White, wealthy, ‘fit’ male body as the object of desire, and the intra-action of this with mobile phone technology—including moments when its connectivity to a wider world does not function. While internet cats reach across histories of relationships with non-human animals, femininity and cuteness to create a matrix of powerlessness, through which feeling emerges. As we argued in Chap. 1, these affects are not without ideology, where feelings of superiority, pity, humour, virtue, success, attraction and distraction, among others, are shaped by wider political structures and embedded inequalities including colonialism, sexism, classism and ableism to shape a distinct feeling of being in the world. The feelings we connect with a postfeminist sensibility are important because they have an emotional magnetism, allowing ideology to feel very personal and meaningful. These shape a digital subjectivity because they orient towards emotions and affects that feel good or promise a future good feeling. Drawing on Ahmed’s (2010) work on happiness, we should be suspicious of where our desires are directed, and, as we have suggested here and elsewhere, we need a slow criticality to make sense of postfeminist structures of feeling as they emerge, recognising how they make us feel and asking what that feeling is doing. However, as we have also argued, there are other ways of refiguring feeling, with, through and alongside digital culture, ways that offer new horizontal relationalities that are both more-than-human and more-than-digital. Within each of the examples we have used to think through a postfeminist structure of feeling in this book, there is room for manoeuvre, unfolding change and new ways of defining ourselves.

References Abidin, C. (2016). “Aren’t these just young, rich women doing vain things online?”: Influencer Selfies as subversive frivolity. Social Media + Society, 2(2), 1–17. Ahmed, S. (2010). The promise of happiness. Duke University Press.



Barker, M.  J., Gill, R., & Harvey, L. (2018). Mediated intimacy: Sex advice in media Culture. Polity. Berlant, L. (1997). The queen of America goes to Washington city. Duke University Press. Brah, A., & Phoenix, A. (2004). Ain’t I a woman? Revisiting intersectionality. Journal of International Women’s Studies, 5(3), 75–86. Braidotti, R. (2019). A theoretical framework for the critical posthumanities. Theory Culture & Society, 36(6), 31–61. Evans, A., & Riley, S. (2014). Technologies of sexiness: Sex, identity, and consumer culture. Oxford University Press. Evans, A., Riley, S., & Robson, M. (2020). Postfeminist healthism: Pregnant with anxiety in the time of contradiction. Jura Gentium, 17(1), 95–118. Gavey, N. (2012). Beyond “Empowerment”? Sexuality in a sexist world. Sex Roles, 66, 718–724. Gill, R. (2007). Postfeminist media culture: Elements of a sensibility. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 10(2), 147–166. Gill, R. (2016). Post-postfeminism?: New feminist visibilities in postfeminist times. Feminist Media Studies, 16(4), 610–630. Gill, R. (2017). The affective, cultural and psychic life of postfeminism: A postfeminist sensibility 10 years on. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 20(6), 606–626. Gill, R., & Donaghue, N. (2013). As if postfeminism had come true: The turn to agency in cultural studies of ‘sexualisation’. In S.  Madhok, A.  Phillips, & K.  Wilson (Eds.), Gender, agency and coercion (pp.  240–258). Palgrave Macmillan. Gill, R., Kelan, E. K., & Scharff, C. M. (2017). A postfeminist sensibility at work. Gender, Work and Organization, 24(3), 226–244. McRobbie, A. (2020). Feminism and the politics of resilience: Essays on Gender, Media and the End of Welfare. Polity Press. Riley, S., Evans, A., Anderson, E., & Robson, M. (2019). The gendered nature of self-help. Feminism and Psychology, 29(1), 3–18. Wetherell, M. (2012). Affect and emotion: A new social science understanding. Sage. Williams, R. (1977). Marxism and literature. Oxford University Press.


A Aesthetic labour, 5, 56, 99, 101–103, 108, 109 Affect, 4, 12, 13, 15–20, 27, 62, 70, 75n5, 76, 77, 79, 80, 89, 95, 99, 101, 105, 106, 117, 121, 134, 135, 141n2, 145, 146, 153, 155, 156, 165, 166 Alienation, 89, 117, 122–129, 134, 155 Anthropomorphism, 147, 148 Anti-racist, 36, 39, 119 Apple, 90, 94 B Banality of evil, 30 Barbie doll, 6, 27–29, 31, 38, 39, 41, 47 Beauty, 2, 38, 45, 46, 55, 56, 58, 60, 67n3, 69, 73, 87–89, 91, 94, 98, 100–109, 139, 164, 165

Body positivity/body confidence, 7–9, 20, 57, 60, 69, 97, 107, 109, 163 C Carriage, 115–117, 120, 122, 128–129, 132, 134 Celebrity, 7, 10, 11, 29–33, 35, 37, 38, 42, 43, 45, 46, 49, 65, 66, 97, 140, 153 Charity, 32, 65 City/London, 7, 56, 115–119, 122, 124–126, 128, 130–134, 165, 166 Colonialism, 28–30, 37–50, 147, 159, 166 Commute, 115–135 Companion species, 142, 144, 147, 149, 150, 152, 154 Connectivity, 122, 128, 129, 133, 135, 144, 155, 166 Covid-19, 19, 33, 71, 99, 116, 154

 Note: Page numbers followed by ‘n’ refer to notes.


© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2023 A. Evans, S. Riley, Digital Feeling,




Crazy cat lady, 149–151, 159 Cruel optimism, 64, 70–76, 79, 96, 143, 152, 156 Cute cat theory of digital activism, 156 Cuteness, 101, 105, 121, 140–143, 148, 153–157, 159, 165, 166 D Digital feeling, 6, 20–21, 29, 49, 58, 109, 117, 121, 134, 135, 144, 159, 163–166 Digital sweatshop, 90 Disabilities, 72, 74, 153 Domestic, 2, 56, 93, 144, 146, 147, 149, 154, 155, 158, 159 Do What You Love (DWYL), 89, 91, 94–97, 101, 109, 123 E Emotion, 4, 7, 13, 15–18, 30–32, 36, 45, 47, 57, 62, 76, 77, 79, 89, 93, 95, 109, 117, 122, 123, 132, 133, 146, 156, 163, 166 Emotional capitalism, 35, 37, 67n3, 122–124, 145 Emotionalisation, 57 Emotional labour, 89, 91, 92, 92n1, 94, 102, 109 Empowerment, 1–3, 11, 17, 39, 59, 60, 69, 70, 75, 79, 80, 97, 103, 163, 165 Enterprise/entrepreneurial, 46, 49 Exchange Value, 70, 72 F Feeling rules, 57, 93 Femininity, 1, 4, 5, 9, 29, 38, 39, 43, 55, 56, 58, 60, 67, 69, 79, 89, 96, 98, 100, 103, 105, 106, 108, 109, 144, 146, 149, 164, 166

Feminism/feminist activism, 1, 4, 9–13, 10n1, 20, 21, 59, 94, 97, 118, 119, 121, 163 Feminist new materialism, 147 Fitness, 21, 38, 55–80, 100, 101, 139, 140 Fitspo/fitspiration, 6, 21, 55, 58–71, 68n4, 73–80, 143, 164, 165 Food, 57, 60, 64, 68–70, 78, 98, 105, 123, 140, 142, 146, 149 G Geography, 36, 117, 126, 128, 164 Gig economy, 3, 91, 123 Girly, 38, 104, 106, 108 Global North, 10, 21, 27, 39, 40, 42, 43, 45, 46, 48, 89, 90 Global South, 10, 27, 29, 39–41, 43, 46, 90 Glow, 56, 67, 104 Good feeling/happiness/positivity, 8, 9, 15, 20, 32, 40, 56, 64, 69, 70, 73, 78–80, 92, 94–97, 99, 100, 103–105, 107–109, 107n5, 163, 165, 166 Good life, 48, 49, 56–58, 70–72, 75, 76, 80, 89, 91, 100, 143, 165 H Hashtags, 8, 10, 20, 28, 41–43, 46, 58–62, 65, 66, 107, 120, 121, 151, 158, 164 Haul video, 14, 99, 104 Heteronormativity, 150 Humanitarianism, 27–29, 31–33, 35, 37–41, 43, 45, 46, 49, 108, 164 Human-non-human/more-than-­ human, 143–148, 151, 158, 159, 164, 166 Humour, 9, 10, 37, 41, 49, 50, 107, 108, 121, 143, 155, 166


I Ideology, 3, 4, 14, 16, 17, 20, 94, 95, 126, 158, 163, 166 In/authenticity, 32, 46 Industrial complex, 8, 29–37, 45–50, 164 Inequalities class, 4, 96 gender, 72, 165 race, 4, 165 sexuality, 4 Influencer, 21, 55–59, 62, 87–89, 91, 94, 98–106, 108, 109, 123, 140, 164, 165 Instagram, 3, 5, 21, 27–29, 31, 33, 38, 39, 41, 44–46, 49, 50, 56, 57, 59, 74, 98, 102, 104–107, 115, 116, 118, 140, 151, 154 Intersectionality, 29 Intimacy, 13, 21, 35, 36, 102, 122, 127, 128, 133, 135, 139–159 Intimate public, 9, 116, 117, 142–144, 152, 159 M Manspreading, 120, 120n5, 121, 158 Masculinity, 7, 21, 125, 125n6, 126, 128, 135, 159 Mental health, 57 Mind/body, 73, 75 Motivation, 17, 17n4, 59, 75, 76, 78 N Neoliberalism, 3, 4, 11n2, 34–37, 64, 75, 156, 159, 165 Niceness, 103, 105, 106, 165 Nike, 59, 61 O Orphans, 27, 34, 42–45, 47, 48


P Perfect-imperfect-resilience, 57, 108, 165 Pets, 147, 150, 151 Pity, 31, 32, 45, 46, 48, 49, 108, 139, 166 Popular feminism, 9–12, 20, 59, 97 Postdigital, 19–21, 76, 101, 164 Postfeminism, 2–9, 11–13, 21, 29, 61, 64, 70, 103, 146, 159, 163, 165 Postfeminist healthism, 55, 58, 63–64, 70, 76, 79 Post-Fordist, 89–97, 101–103, 109, 123, 145, 155 Posthuman, 146 Post-selfie, 128, 129, 132 Precarity, 71, 75, 91, 159 Pro-ana, 58, 64–70, 78n7, 80 Public/private, 93, 122, 144, 145 Pussy hats, 10, 158 Q Queer, 17, 18, 62, 151 R Racism, 19, 28, 37, 39, 47, 49, 91, 147, 158 RiceBunny, 157 Romance, 127, 133, 152 Running, exercise, 72, 73 S Self-betterment, 33, 35, 37, 45, 49 Self-branding, 3, 5, 97 Selfie, 5, 27, 40, 41, 46, 48, 56, 60, 128, 129, 132, 147 Selfie humanitarianism, 40, 41 Self-love/self-help/self-care, 3, 7, 8, 57, 63, 69, 78, 97, 163 Self-surveillance, 1, 8, 9, 101, 154



Sentimentality, 9, 30, 31, 37, 44–46, 49, 127 Shame, 58, 62–64, 76–80, 153, 155, 164 Silly archive, 28, 37, 49, 164, 165 Smile, 92, 94, 105, 123, 132, 165 Strangers, 117, 122, 126–128, 131, 133, 135, 142 Structure of feeling, 1–21, 58, 70, 88, 89, 109, 123, 154, 163–166 Subjectivity, 1–4, 6, 10, 12–14, 16, 20, 21, 29, 63, 93, 95–97, 109, 117, 124, 139, 144, 146, 151, 155, 164, 166 T Temporality, 73, 74, 134 Therapeutic suffering, 99, 109 TikTok, 59, 66, 67n3, 74, 87, 88, 94, 99, 101–109, 102n4, 140 Transformation imperative, 57, 58, 61 Trolling, 105, 151, 152 Trump, Donald, 10, 19, 39, 108, 158 Tube map/Tube lines, 125, 126, 128

U Unboxing videos, 98, 99, 101 Unsolicited photographs, 116, 117, 121 Upskirting, 119 V Violence, 15, 19, 30, 31, 42, 72, 120, 120n4, 151–154, 151n8, 159 Visibility, 10, 11, 20, 39, 65, 69, 87, 97, 120n4, 126, 140, 143, 146, 163 Voluntourism, 8, 27–29, 31, 33–41, 43, 45–50 W White privilege, 31 White saviour, 27, 32, 33, 164 Witches, 149, 150, 159 Woman-cat, 149, 158 Women Who Eat on Tubes (WWEOT), 118