Johns Hopkins University Press

In 2012 I wrote Authentic™: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture, where I thought through what it means to organize our lives—politically, culturally, socially—in an age of branding and commodity activism that centered on a concept of the “authentic.”1 I argued that in contemporary capitalism, corporate marketing efforts are about building an affective relationship with a consumer, one based on a set of memories, emotions, personal narratives, and expectations that resonate in a felt, “organic” way. Throughout the book I focused on the branding of authenticity in these cultural realms, where brands become the setting around which individuals weave their own “authentic” stories, where individuals position themselves as the authentic characters in the narrative of their constructed self-brand. In recent years, this imperative to build an authentic relationship as part of a brand has shifted from a product-based corporate sensibility, where corporations craft relationships with consumers, to a more personalized—though no less corporate—sensibility, where social media and the rise of the “influencer” create an intensified version of authenticity in the production of culture. In many ways, influencers on social media now exemplify the most developed form of brand authenticity (for themselves as brands).

Though of course social media was around in 2012, some of the major platforms like Instagram had not yet achieved the heightened visibility they enjoy today, and the imperative to present oneself and to produce a self-brand on social media was not nearly as normative as it is in 2020. Instagram, which launched in 2010, is a site where one posts photos and videos of oneself; its original mission was “to capture and share the world’s moments.” But rather than capturing the world’s moments, Instagram is much more about carefully and strategically curating individual lives; along with YouTube, it has become the key place for “influencers” to launch their careers, as people who are “paid to use their personal magnetism to promote specific agendas online.”2 Instagram influencers craft their self-brand around discourses of “authenticity,” where they are more commercially successful the more relatable, intimate, and vulnerable [End Page 141] their self-presentation. Yet at the same time, to be “authentic” for influencers also means to strictly conform to dominant white, cis-gender norms.

Indeed, authenticity has a heightened, and complex, significance in the context of social media. In this era of fake news, deepfakes, and the wide circulation of misinformation, where particular concepts of the “truth” are questioned, authenticity means both more and less: the mandate to present as “authentic” has become more urgent, even as we increasingly no longer believe in the concept of the authentic. Of course, authenticity has always been a messy concept, and one that is deeply contextual, contingent, and cultural. Yet even within these contingencies, authenticity has always depended on the actors who are presenting themselves as authentic.

Thus, positioning oneself as authentic has been a necessity for successful influencers on social media. Influencers promise their followers authenticity, where their selves are mediated apparently by us rather than by content-producing media institutions. Social media assures users that what they are seeing is, somehow, unmediated and authentic. Yet of course, all representations are mediated, and perhaps even more so on social media, where programs and apps enable us to create an “authentic” yet fabricated identity. Social media, in other words, makes this production of a contrived authenticity easy.

Importantly, the stakes are higher for women to create an authentic persona. Obviously there is no “authentic self” circulating in social media, but the price women pay for not being authentic is high. Women have been historically told (through all sorts of media and institutions) that their “real” selves are not good enough, and certainly not to be trusted. So within institutions (such as politics, media, and the law) women are routinely not believed, and on social media, the media platforms continually authorize how to “fake” one’s identity to make it, ironically, more believable—and more profitable.

The role of professional influencer has been particularly profitable for women (especially white, cis-gendered women), but this success is dependent on a particular curation of the self, one enhanced by technology. As Ana Sofia Elias and Rosalind Gill have argued, there has been an explosion of digital beauty apps for women in recent years, which offer opportunities to continually change one’s appearance digitally, increasing not only self-monitoring of the body but also “an hitherto unprecedented regulatory gaze upon women, which is marked by the intensification, extensification and psychologization of surveillance.”3 This regulatory gaze functions as a disciplinary mechanism for women, a constant striving for a particular version of (white, cis-gendered) perfection. Along with beauty apps, we also see this in the heightened visibility [End Page 142] on social media of young women who construct online selves that are pointedly “not real,” using fake accounts, fake sponsorships, deepfakes, and so on. Thus, making oneself more “authentic” means, paradoxically, conforming one’s visual representation to dominant white beauty norms.

This manifests in what has been coined as “Instagram face”: the visual representation of women who use selfie filters and FaceTune to create what Jia Tolentino has called the “aesthetic language” of Instagram, one marked by a “generic sameness.”4 The feminist media scholar Sophie Bishop argues that Instagram influencers “are beautiful in a specific way that aligns with dominant, mostly white/European beauty ideals.”5 The body, especially the body that identifies with dominant norms of white femininity, is “an unusual sort of Instagram subject: it can be adjusted, with the right kind of effort, to perform better and better over time.”6

Yet, as Bishop, Simone Browne, and Safiya Noble have argued, these beauty ideals based in whiteness and colonial histories are not created simply by technological choices made by individual users. Rather, dominant norms of white femininity are “baked” into the technology itself.7 As Bishop says, “This should make us think about practices within influencer marketing, and how cultivating a certain appearance is an accepted and essential way to stratify position within the industry.”8 In other words, there are only some influencers who can even access authenticity in the first place.

At the same time, being “authentic” on Instagram is demanded if individuals want to actually profit from their online identities. After all, crafting an authentic self is also about who buys it and buys into it: social media is about capitalizing on social interaction and making it a domain of profit. Social media has been lauded as a utopian space for ordinary users outside the greedy hands of corporate gatekeepers, as it simultaneously has been vilified as the height of narcissistic self-branding. Authenticity on social media, then, is framed by a profound tension: for female influencers on Instagram, being authentic is often about constantly adjusting yourself to correspond with dominant white ideals of femininity. Yet authenticity is also about failure, pressure, depression, tears, vulnerability. This is the labor of authenticity; in the current moment this labor is now more visible and becomes part of the narrative, if not brand, of influencers. The more effort women make in crafting themselves according to a particular version of apparently effortless authenticity, the more authentic their self-presentation. It is an endless feedback loop.

It is telling that many Instagram users have established a “finsta” account. A portmanteau of “fake” and “Instagram,” finstas are Instagram accounts with a [End Page 143] small group of trusted followers where users can post unfiltered images. Finstas are most popular with young girls, which speaks to the relentless judgment and evaluation of women on Instagram—finstas are considered a “safe space” for young women to just be themselves, or, well, authentic. The labor of authenticity exposes this profound contradiction: female influencers on Instagram are expected to be authentic, which can only be achieved by a performance of idealized white cis-gendered identity. Only in their fake accounts can they escape, if even for a moment, the disciplinary practice of authenticity.

Sarah Banet-Weiser

Sarah Banet-Weiser is professor and head of department in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics. She is the author of The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity (University of California Press, 1999), Kids Rule! Nickelodeon and Consumer Citizenship (Duke University Press, 2007), Authentic™: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture (NYU Press, 2012), and Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny (Duke University Press, 2018). She is co-editor of Cable Visions: Television beyond Broadcasting (NYU Press, 2007), Commodity Activism: Cultural Resistance in Neoliberal Times (NYU Press, 2012), and Racism Postrace (Duke University Press, 2019), and has published in journals such as Social Media and Society, International Journal of Communication, American Quarterly, Critical Studies in Media Communication, Feminist Theory, and Cultural Studies.

Notes

1. S. Banet-Weiser, Authentic™: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2012).

2. A. Quinn, “Everyone Wants to ‘Influence’ You,” New York Times, November 20, 2018.

3. A. S. Elias and R. Gill, “Beauty Surveillance: The Digital Self-Monitoring Cultures of Neoliberalism,” European Journal of Cultural Studies 21.1 (2018): 59–77.

4. J. Tolentino, “The Age of Instagram Face,” New Yorker, December 12, 2019.

5. S. Bishop, “Why the Ideal Influencer Looks Like. . . That,” Paper Magazine, August 12, 2019.

6. Tolentino, “Age of Instagram Face.”

7. Bishop, “Why the Ideal Influencer Looks Like. . . That”; S. Noble, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (New York: New York University Press, 2018); S. Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015).

8. Bishop, “Why the Ideal Influencer Looks Like. . . That.”

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6490
Print ISSN
0003-0678
Pages
141-144
Launched on MUSE
2021-03-31
Open Access
No
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