I will continue to study the intersection between Christianity and gender, with a focus on masculinity. I am curious to learn how gender and religious identities interact and are articulated through Instagram.
The Instagram app first came out when I was in high school, and quickly gained momentum among my peers and acquaintances, becoming one of the most popular social media sites. Like other social media sites, there were, of course, a host of conflicts between my teenage peers that originated online and ended up bleeding into offline life, usually taking stage in the high school hallway or classroom.
At a similar moment in my high school career, the YoungLife Christian youth group also became popular. It seemed that if you weren’t headed to the weekly YoungLife meeting then you might as well not have existed, kind of in the same way that not having an Instagram destined you for social non-relevance. In college some years later, lying on my back scrolling through Instagram, I encountered YoungLife again, through 612 by 612 pixelated eye candy. Images of smiling, beautiful, majority white, self-proclaimed Christians dazzled my smart phone screen. As I continued to scroll on, memories of high school came to mind, but then I started noticing stark similarities, and peculiarities, about the images – which led me to pursue my Honors Thesis.
For my thesis project, I analyzed over three hundred Instagram pictures that are linked to digital geotags from the YoungLife Christian youth camps. Geotags are a feature on Instagram that indicate the geographic location where the photo being posted was originally taken. Over a period of two days in the spring of 2017, I took screenshots of images from eight different YoungLife camp geotags. I selected only single image posts, excluding videos, moving images, or multi-image posts. I chose images chronologically, in the order that they were tagged to the geotag, to randomize my data. After coding the images for variables like gender, number of individuals in the picture, and religious references in the captions, I noticed that 40% of all images with people depicted people of just one gender. In some geotags, over half of the images depicted people of the same gender. While the girls’ pictures seemed to reinforce standard gender behaviors, like emphasizing female friendship and femininity in Instagram caption tributes (see Image 1.1), the boys seemed to express an alternative brand of masculinity.
I will continue to study the intersection between Christianity and gender, with a focus on masculinity. I am curious to learn how gender and religious identities interact and are articulated through Instagram. At first glance, the gender concentrations might have just reflected the gendering of the youth camps; it could have been that there were activities and spaces separately designated for girls and boys. But after careful analysis of image and caption content, I noticed several tendencies: boys in images seemed to be using Instagram to negotiate unfavorable or socially risky gender performances, like physically expressing affect towards friends. Male performance requires that subjects repress and control certain unfavorable emotions. Many of the images depicting only boys were accompanied with captions that acknowledged the gender of the subjects in the picture. For example, below in Image 1.2, the caption reads: “…to this stud who rocks jean shorts like no other…Love you dude.” Although the image does not appear to be centered around the subjects’ genders, the Instagram account holder decided to accentuate and confirm his and his friend’s gender in the caption.
While the image invites the audience to speculate the boys’ sexuality, relations, and genders, the caption negates any possibility of sexual, or romantic pretense by qualifying the interaction as a “friendship,” and by affirming the subjects as heterosexual. Moreover, the caption is transformed into a space where the male Instagram account holder can self-disclose, and even express love for his friend. This is an important finding because it shows that the image-caption social media interface offers space to simultaneously affirm and negate controversial gender performance.
Captions that make claims on a religious Christian identity, while also acknowledging individuals of the same gender in the image, could be a way that these young Christians negotiate their own gender performance while qualifying their same gender interactions as strictly platonic. It could be that this combination is indicative of over-compensatory behavior in which expression of commitment to a Christian identity precludes any possible unacceptable or questionable same-gender behavior.
The gender-centric captioning and the homoerotic undertones of the image were deliberately selected to convey, challenge, or invoke a type of masculinity. Whether the image was posted to generate laughs, or as a more serious homage to a male companion, this image and images like it within my sample, deserve further consideration. Exploring why people post what they do to social media sites, like Instagram, will expand knowledge on social media, and how accurately social media allows people to reflect or distort offline life.
About the author: Mackenzie Teek is part of the Social Science Scholars class of 2018, majoring in Sociology
*The feature picture was retrieved from YoungLife’s website.