Media Identitopias: The Long History of Pleasure and Injury in (Social) Media

In 2020, the news media reported that Facebook’s internal studies had revealed what numerous scholars had already argued—adolescent girls have experienced depression and other mental health challenges because of extensive exposure to Instagram and other social media. At the same time, other scholars have explored how social media has been a positive force in people’s lives as a means of finding community, identity formation, and building social movements (Moya Bailey, Jillian M. Baez, Catherine Steele, Raven Maragh-Lloyd, Laura Horak).

But social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are not the first examples of communities and identities organized around mediated texts and technologies. Young women connected over novel reading and the fantasies in their pages were considered “infectious” and dangerous, from Charlotte Temple to the rise of Harlequin and historical romance novels in the late twentieth-century (Cathy Davidson, Janice Radway). Psychiatrist Frederic Wertham fretted over the raced and gendered harms of comic books, even as the content and the communities that can form around comics often model new just worlds and offer a sense of belonging to the socially marginalized (Qiana Whitted, Ramzi Fawaz). The fan cultures from comics and other “geek cultures” like gaming and science fiction have notoriously been marked by misogyny, racism, and homophobia (Suzanne Scott, Rukmini Pande), even as the same groups marginalized by white supremacy and toxic masculinity have built their own affirming and pleasurable communities. How do we place the current conversation about social media in historical context to think about a longer history of social interaction through media? Can we learn from scholarship about the ways that prior communities organized through media interaction and consumption balanced or failed to balance affinities and difference amongst their members?

In other words, there is a long history of people negotiating what we might term /media identitopias/—the space of consumption and community that offers the promise of utopian community while dystopian harms threaten or overtake the pleasurable political possibilities of connections made between people through media. The popular always holds the ideal and suffering in the same place because of identity—people’s ideal worlds are shaped by ideas of belonging and exclusion. Political economy is also key to media identitopias because it naturalizes exclusions in the name of marketability, resource scarcity, and property. This special issue rejects approaches that are purely celebratory or completely censorious of (social) media, instead looking at the space between that shapes the quotidian negotiations that take place in the identitopias we inhabit.

This special issue of /Feminist Media Histories/ invites essays that look at the tendentious space of the media identitopia, exploring a longer history of media as social. It invites the work of scholars who work in psychology, feminist science studies, sociology, law, media history, communication studies, fan studies, game studies, and industry to facilitate conversations about fundamental concepts that drive analyses of (social) media writ large. What do the histories of cinema, comics, video games, television, radio, fandom, and social media tell us about the inescapable tension between the utopian and dystopian? Have the conflicting evaluations of media communities in the past played out along consistent disciplinary divisions? By looking at how different disciplines have interpreted or responded to mediated communities in the past, can we gain greater insight into how ideals about social connection and community are constructed? How have social support systems been forged in relation to and across (social) media and how might both regulation and new modes of habitus be encouraged that change the relationship girls, women, woman-identified, two-spirit, trans* and other populations constructed as “vulnerable,” “underrepresented,” or “disenfranchised” have to media more broadly? How does employing an intersectional lens highlight how race, gender, indigeneity, class, disability, and queerness are the grounds on which pleasure is defined as present or absent in media spaces? How might we explore how identity, platform, genre, and medium interact to forge utopian or dystopian experiences?

The disconnect between these interpretations of (social) media—a tension between causing harm and building life-sustaining community—opens up a rich space for interdisciplinary discussions that can transform our shared approaches to the urgent issues raised by popular media.

The co-editors, Rebecca Wanzo and Reem Hilu, invite abstracts of 300 words by November 15, 2022 to ((mediaidentitopias /at/ ) as well as a short bio. Scholars with accepted abstracts will be invited to a symposium at Washington University in St. Louis in April 2023 to present full drafts. All domestic travel will be covered and a small honorarium will be provided. Options for virtual participation in the symposium will be considered for those unable to attend in person. Final essays will be sent out for blind peer review by May 15, 2023.