Reconstructing Gendered Narratives Online: Nudity for Popularity on Digital Platforms

Version of Record: Lynete Mukhongo, Lusike (2014). Reconstructing gendered narratives online: Nudity for popularity on digital platforms. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No.5. doi:10.7264/N3K64GB3

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1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Lusike Lynete Mukhongo
Moi University

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 *** In concern for the load time for commentpress, YouTube video links in this essay are represented as click throughs. In the final draft, videos will be embedded with the appropriate reference queued up. The web team apologizes for the inconvenience.

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4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 3 The focus of this paper is on the how young female users in Africa, with emphasis on Kenya, are constructing their own gendered narratives online. The emphasis is on how they are appropriating social media by posting controversial and often nude pictures of themselves online which is a major shift in the production and consumption of such images in a patriarchal culture, which is driven by mainstream discourse that often assumes that the patriarchal culture exploits the female body in mainstream visual cultures. Today, we are witnessing female users carefully manipulating social media whether in a bid to feed into the patriarchal dominated culture that exploits the female body, or as a method to exploit that very patriarchal culture that draws its life from visuals that exploit the female body.

Regional framework

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 1 In Kenya, most young people access the internet widely for social activities more than academic, entertainment and any other activity (Kendagor, 2013). Today, people are constantly logging into online sites to meet new people or reconnect with old friends; chat with friends and keep in touch with family; or access information on issues such as fashion, health, finances and politics. Consequently, interaction with the internet in Kenya is now a daily affair for most Kenyans, especially the young people, with 62% of its users using it for up to 5 times a day (Kariuki, 2010). Statistics show that 50% of Kenyans who own a mobile phone, access the internet through it. This is because of its portability; therefore most people can access the internet wherever they are (Wachira, 2010).

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Research conducted by Kariuki (2010) showed that among social media users in Kenya, 89% use it for messenger chats, 85% visit social network sites, 72% for uploading and downloading of photos, 65% become a member of an online group, 58% visit a blog, 48% post comments in other peoples blogs, 47% meet someone new via the internet, 47% make or receive an internet phone call, 36% visit dating sites and 33% play online games. However, a look at the social media use in Kenya reveals that Facebook is one of the leading social media sites used by the young people in Kenya, and among the users of social media, it also emerged that women use social media more than men (Kendagor, 2013).

Theoretical framework

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 2 The paper is based on a theoretical framework of social capital and its relevance as a resource for online users in a postmodern setting. The first systematic contemporary analysis of social capital was by Pierre Bourdieu who defines social capital as the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalised relationships of mutual acquaintance (Portes, 1998; Bourdieu, 1985). The core intuition guiding social capital research is that the goodwill that others have toward us is a valuable resource and an actor’s network of social ties creates opportunities for social capital transactions, however, like physical and human capital, social capital also requires maintenance, and social bonds have to be periodically renewed and reaffirmed or else they lose efficacy (Adler and Kwon, 2002). Individuals use the internet to create a lot of networks and that has been enhanced through social media which is today one of the global medium of communication. This has been promoted through social media contributions like quick feedback, its level of openness, the two- way conversations; it allows quick formation of communities and its level of connectedness by making use of links to other sites, resources and people (Kendagor, 2013).

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 2 The concept of social capital focuses attention on the positive consequences of sociability while putting aside its less attractive features (Portes, 1998). Social capital is a long lived asset into which other resources can be invested, with the expectation of a future flow of benefits (Adler and Kwon, 2002). Social capital is the goodwill available to individuals or groups. Its source lies in the structure and content of the actor’s social relations. Women therefore tend to have more social capital on social media. This has been explained by the fact that it was also found that women spend more time on Facebook than men (Kendagor, 2013). However, often, it has been exploited but for good or bad intentions. Often, the female users uploading nude photographs of themselves get? negative press from the media. See here.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 1 However in many cases, this negative publicity also serves to increase individual’s fame and therefore, the publicity from the media is a key resource for their social capital. Its effects flow from the information, influence, and solidarity it makes available to the actor (Adler and Kwon, 2002:23). Negative publicity places positive consequences in a framework of a broader discussion of capital and calls attention to how such nonmonetary forms can be important sources of power and influence (Portes, 1998). However, while it takes mutual commitment and cooperation from both parties to build social capital, a defection by one party will destroy it (Adler and Kwon, 2002).

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 1 Audio conversation available here. Audio will be embedded in final version. 

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 2 Social capital is appropriable and convertible. It is appropriable because an actor’s network of friends, for instance, can be used for other purposes such as information gathering or advice, while it is convertible in the sense that it can be converted to other forms of capital, such as the advantages conferred by one’s position in a social network can be converted to economic or other advantages (Adler and Kwon, 2002; Coleman, 1988; Bourdieu 1985). For instance, Huddah Monroe is quick to point out that depending on an individual’s connections, one can make a decent amount of money by being paid to attend events. However, while social capital sources lie in the social structure within which the actor is located (Adler and Kwon, 2002), the acquisition of social capital requires deliberate investment of both economic and cultural resources (Portes, 1998). For example, through investment in building their network of external relations, users can augment their social capital and thereby gain benefits in the form of superior access to information, power, and solidarity (Adler and Kwon, 2002).

Reconstructing postmodern narratives

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 3 What we are witnessing today is a trend towards female African social media users appropriating social networks to reconstruct their own narratives online by carefully creating an online identity or persona that they can strategically use to achieve their needs. This has been witnessed among young female users who aspire to be like Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton. However, it is important to note that African cultural settings are still patriarchal and the general gender constructions are therefore in conflict with the emerging gender constructions as construed in online settings. While in “offline settings” women often behave in ways that they interpret as being determined by the gender constructions as dictated by the patriarchal culture, in contrast, “online settings” afford them an opportunity to adopt varied identities in virtual environments.  See here.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 2 However, differences in norms and contexts of interactions in virtual and physical space remain and these variations affect the multi-dimensional nature of identity construction and reconstruction (Agunbiade, Obiyan and Sogbaike, 2013). For example, not all women use social media the same way. Online female users are driven by varied needs and preferences. In addition, their uses are determined by the fact that African cultures and communities have various expectations from girls and women with regard to decency, modesty and ethos of hard work, yet the postmodern is centered on leisure time, appearance, image, and consumerism and is based on producing an image (Damean, 2006) that is hinged on commodification of the human self. For instance, a look at the top three social media users in Kenya who often upload nude photographs of themselves on social media and consequently have risen to fame also reveals that they have achieved quite a lot economically. See here. For example, Huddah Monroe on an Alfajiri, K24 interview indicates that she gets paid around Ksh. 160,000 ($1,860) to attend an event and she stays “as long as her moods will allow her.”

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 1 In contemporary societies, identity is strongly mediated by images provided by the mass culture, and the scenes, stories and cultural texts provided by the media are meant to offer individuals a variety of attitudes that can shape their personality (Damean, 2006). For instance, social media offers young people both mainstream and alternative cultures. Young people are thus able to appropriate alternative expressions and images to mainstream discourse. For instance, western personalities such as Kim Kardashian have become role models for young female users who are keen to embrace their lifestyles and create a brand for them locally. A case is Kenyan “socialite” Huddah Monroe whose real name is Huddah Njoroge but she adopted the Monroe name in a bid to emulate Marilyn Monroe. Consequently, users in emerging economies are also embracing social networks and emulating the lifestyles of western personalities such as Kim Kardashian who have a huge following on social media and are always updating their social media profiles with their “selfies,” often controversial and nude. For example, Kenyan “socialite,” Huddah Monroe is often known for uploading nude controversial photographs of her.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 2 Monroe is unapologetic about her self-construction even though the photographs in an African setting raise questions from other Africans about the appropriateness of sexually graphic images in public spaces. When asked by a host on Kenya Television Network (KTN) during a show why she poses nude, because she is comfortable with her body. Another case in point is when a twitter user asked her why she always posts naked photographs of herself. Her response was an insult to the twitter use. In addition when Jeff Omondi, a Kenyan journalist wrote in the mainstream Nation Newspaper about what it takes to be a socialite and how they rise to fame and Huddah Monroe responded to the journalist.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Another case is Vera Sidika, currently a university student who rose to fame after being featured on a video by a local music group. The video became a hit because of the visuals which were construed to emphasize her body and the size of her posterior. Consequently, she became a subject of discussion and was propelled into fame. She is now a common face at various entertainment spots and is often paid an appearance fee. This has led to her leading a lifestyle characterised by flashy cars and her experiences in the leafy suburbs of Nairobi. She is often referred to as the Kenyan Kim Kardashian. See here.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 1 These images provide social role models for female users, appropriate and inappropriate patterns of behaviour, style and fashion and a subtle impulse that the way to succeed as a woman is by imitating and identifying with certain identities (which?). However, individuals may choose whatever model they wish, be it a dominant or an alternative one (which will often be less popular) (Damean, 2006). An example is Monroe who has used social media to create an alternative brand. Monroe rose to fame through uploading nude photos of her on social media. See the screen shot below from her Facebook page.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Monroe

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 1 Later Monroe gained international recognition when she was selected to represent Kenya on the Big Brother Africa platform based in South Africa. On the Big Brother Africa show, Monroe’s brand was legitimised. She was no longer “that girl who uploads nudes” but became an ambassador for Kenya on a global platform. Her stink on Big Brother was short lived as she was voted out after one week, and Kenyans were photographed celebrating as she was evicted. While Sidika and Monroe may raise a lot of controversy with their narratives online, mainstream media has also helped to shape their image. Major media houses such as K24, Nation Media Group and the Standard Group have constantly featured them on prime time news and on various shows

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 1 While a socially-mediated postmodern identities tend to be constructed mainly of images of entertainment and consumerism, the overarching assumption is that identity can be reconstructed and the human being can be changed and modelled according to personal choice (Damean, 2006). For instance, despite the negative comments from Kenyans, Monroe went on to expand her brand as she got more followers from the African continent. Many fans created Facebook pages in support of Monroe and this then legitimised her place as a Kenyan “socialite.” However, she is quick to point out that she is not a socialite, because Kenyans consider socialites to be “girls with questionable reputation” but is instead aspiring to be a business women. As she rose to fame, due to her stint on Big Brother, she also experienced the harsh side of fame. Fraudsters created duplicate pages of Monroe and Sidika, and consequently exploited Kenyans and event promoters who were keen on having the real Monroe or Sidika make an appearance at social events at a fee. This was due to the fact that the more famous they become, the more money they charge event organisers, to appear at a social event. Consequently, they are able to make quiet a decent sum of money by making appearances at events.

 Negotiating the new media platforms and emerging digital communities

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 In an era of “prosumers,” the socially-mediated self-produced postmodern self is a multiple one and is more open to changes. Creation of online identities becomes a game, a theatrical presentation of the self, allowing individuals to present themselves to others in a variety of postures, roles, images, and activities (Damean, 2006). While Monroe is often known to have risen to fame by uploading nude photographs of herself, she describes herself on her official page for Big Brother as a fashion icon and entrepreneur. The page has more than 60,000 likes. After her stint on Big Bother, Monroe is also gradually distancing herself from other emerging “socialites” keen to follow in her footsteps such as Sidika and VeeBaby. Of interest is her Twitter page where she describes herself as “bird girl gone good” as seen in the screen shot below that was last accessed on 14 January 2014.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Monroe2

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 1 However, it is necessary to point out that social media does not so much construct a subject, as it offers ready-made identities to move into, inviting individuals to identify themselves with certain figures, images or positions and imitate their practices (Damean, 2006). Social media users are able to select personalities that they identify with and emulate their behaviours. In this case, image is more important than experience or knowledge. Since online users will judge the famous personalities by their outfits and products they own, the personalities adopt an over the top, theatrical view of their own online presence or what can be described as “performance” (Damean, 2006:90). Monroe often posted pictures of her expensive designer jewellery and shoes, as evidenced in the screen shot below where she describes her Christian Louboutin white pumps and Louis Vuitton bag. Last accessed on 24 January 2014.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Screen Shot 2014-03-31 at 8.18.26 PM

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 The contemporary, highly-mediated world pays a great deal of attention to superficial images and impressions, to such extent that the individuals become almost impossible to distinguish from their surface (Damean, 2006). For example, when Monroe posts images of herself with performers such as Prezzo, a Kenyan artist and a former contestant on Big Brother All Stars, it serves to legitimise her place as a celebrity. On an interview on Alfajiri, K24 Television Network, Huddah is quick to point out that she does not want to be termed as a socialite because in Kenya, the term socialite has negative connotations, yet ironically that is how she rose to fame. A look at her interview reveals a deliberate attempt to create an almost professional outlook to her identity and what she does to earn a living by referring to it as modelling. For example, she is quick to dispute her association to famous international superstars and how it impacts on her.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 1 However, the constant pressure to promote one’s brand comes with a lot of questionable acts as was witnessed when Monroe posted a picture saying she sells gold, only for someone else to post the same picture showing the gold was Monroe’s and the picture was taken at an earlier time. See the following link. Munroe also posts images of herself with famous and renowned political figures. For instance, when she posted a picture of herself with one of Kenya’s legendary and most respected political personalities, Raila Odinga, there was uproar. While some users felt it was not in good taste for Munroe to associate with such a powerful political figure, other users envied how her fame accorded her the right to meet one of Kenya’s powerful political figures.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Monroe4

Beyond binary oppositions in online gender construction

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 2 Looking at patterns on social media use in Kenya challenges previous assumptions that the inherently patriarchal media exploits women and portrays them as sexual objects; what we witness is some female users going online and uploading their own nude images.

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 While we might assume that such users are victims of a patriarchal society that is male dominated and treats images of female users in a sexual nature, it is also important to note that female users who expose themselves in a sexual nature online would argue that they are reclaiming their power from a patriarchal visual culture by flaunting their bodies for their own benefit. In this case, the victim is not the female user as previously assumed, but the male audience. Consequently, the female users become predators, who target the prey, which are the male users. However, it would be naïve to assume that only male users become the prey. Today, with a shift in binary oppositions in gender roles and responsibilities, even female audiences are part of the prey because they too are targeted to consume these images by either making them envy the bodies of other women or their fashion and style. Consequently, we witness young women who are part of a generation that is very adept at creating a brand out of their online presence. For instance, Monroe in an interview on KTN, describes herself as a freelance model. This is a generation of young people who are using their femininity and pushing boundaries between what is acceptable and unacceptable in societies by attempting to create “professional tags” such as models, artists, and brands. The same case can also be seen in an interview that she has on Alfajiri, K24 Television Network where she argues that she is a model, gets paid to attend events and is planning on launching a clothing line so that she can be known as a businesswoman and not a socialite.


30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 1 While web 2.0 has offered social media users the opportunity to reconstruct their narratives online, it has also afforded them the power to use social media for their personal benefit on a public and transnational platform. Instead of conforming to a patriarchal system and the gender roles defined for them by the society, female social media users can choose what to post online and what not to post online in an effort to create an online brand that fits their aspirations. While female users have the chance to generate their own content in ways they find appealing, we are witnessing a generation that is technologically savvy, and one that understands how to manipulate new media platforms for their own benefit. Consequently, what we are observing today in Africa are narratives illustrated with sexually suggestive images and nudity. While one might argue that it is an attempt by women to embrace their bodies and reclaim their feminine power, this then raises questions about whether it is still exploitation when we have females users commercialise their own bodies in a sexual nature to create a brand? Given this new vision of female power, s there a need for us to move to a discourse that considers female users not just as an emerging but as a dominant force in the visually dominated culture that characterises online communications?


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