Exploring the relationship between form, media and content in narratives of digital culture – Bobbie-Ann Jones

Bobbie-Ann Jones is a third year English Literature with Creative Writing student at the University of Birmingham. She has a special interest in works surrounding digital culture and science, and wishes that the gulf between the humanities and the sciences were not so wide. She is a student playwright and stand-up comic, and she wishes to become a proper playwright and stand-up comic. For her Creative Writing dissertation she wrote a play entitled November Years, and an accompanying essay exploring the butch/femme dynamic in twentieth century lesbian theatre. She wishes to study a Masters in Playwriting at either Leeds or Edinburgh. Until then she will be working in a gadget shop.



Nev composites a picture of himself and ‘Megan’ together. Catfish, image credit: Rogue Pictures.


Exploring the relationship between form, media and content in narratives of digital culture

This essay will explore the manipulation of the female image through the analysis of two vastly different forms: film and meme. I will analyse why and how this particular type of content is manipulated and appropriated. In all situations, this manipulation and appropriation is enabled through social media platforms and other digital technology: without these platforms, these images would not get circulated, and treated as they do. The objectification of women is an unfortunate component of society, and the nature of the internet can facilitate these types of attitude through allowing instantaneous access to the aforementioned content, and its allowance of anonymity, which conceals the culprit, resulting in little to no repercussion for their actions. Film and meme convey the narrative behind these images differently: meme as a static end result, the final page of its own narrative, whereas film conveys the journey behind the image, the motivation behind the manipulation. Yet film is itself a manipulator of image, delivering certain messages and echoing in verbatim the ideology that first spurred on the manipulation of content within the film.

Benson-Allot questions film’s ability to convey a narrative that is centred on Facebook, as it ‘offers no fixed organisation of all the material it stores; it is a boundless online sprawl with none of the predetermined orderliness of narrative’, leading her to pose this problematic question: ‘how do you tell a story about this online world where storytelling itself is withering away?’[1] I do not agree with the premise of this question. Storytelling is not threatened by social media platforms, but simply changed by it. Narratives must evolve as we evolve in our increasingly digitised culture, and so these narratives should address the way we interact with others online, how their content influences the way we interact with them, and how certain content is featured. In making a film about Facebook, the director must choose which sections of this ‘boundless online sprawl’ to display, and how to display them in order to give across a certain message. In this respect, the director is no different to the omniscient narrator of a novel, who emphasises certain information to produce a similar effect. Although Catfish and The Social Network feature Facebook from different perspectives – one an exploration of the use of Facebook and the other an origin story – the directors of both films use the female image as a catalyst to fuel the narrative, the manipulation of which serves to enthral the audience.

The narrative of Catfish is powered by Aimee’s images, as the film follows Nev’s online relationship with ‘Megan’ and his later decision to uncover the culprit behind the fake profile. The nature of Facebook enables Angela to create ‘Megan’, as ‘Web 2.0 platforms are active mediators between users, technologies and content’, therefore the user is able to bend the technology to their will based on the content that they produce, or in Angela’s case, the content that she appropriates for her own use.[2] Angela uses Facebook to conceal herself, wearing Aimee’s image like a mask. Du Preez and Lombard argue that Angela is a ‘performer’ who ‘creates multiple front stages’ to ‘represent different aspects of her identity’.[3] This is confirmed by the final interview with Angela, as the documentary style of the film allows the audience an insight into Angela’s motivations: ‘the personalities that came out were just fragments of myself. Fragments of things I used to be, wanted to be, never could be’.[4] ‘Megan’s’ profile thus allows Angela to make these unfulfilled wishes a reality, an escape from her difficult home circumstances, and a way of transcending her own physical form.

If Angela had used an image of herself for ‘Megan’s’ profile, Nev would not have reciprocated her flirtations, and there would be no narrative. In fact after meeting Angela for the first time, he says, quite bemusedly, ‘I’ve been texting and having this weird affair with this strange 40 year old woman’, a statement that incites mocking laughter from Ariel and Henry.[5] As Nev is effectively the film’s protagonist, we are encouraged to sympathise with him and judge Angela for misleading Nev in regards to her physicality. Angela’s body becomes the great reveal of the film, established by the almost eerie suspense present in the drive-by scene prior to her first appearance, as well as the unnecessarily suspenseful trailer which lacks Angela entirely.[6] Even when she is revealed, we initially cannot properly see what she looks like, as the directors intentionally show a clip of them meeting from a distance, the view of Angela intercepted by a tree. This manufactured suspense would make the audience associate Angela with a monster from a horror film, thus implying that she is hideous and undesirable. While the film explores the manipulation of the female image through social media platforms, the film itself manipulates Angela’s images through choosing to portray her in this way. What is more, ‘Nev’s World’, the website inspired by the film, perpetuates this degradation, as the visitor is invited to witness a lewd chat conversation between ‘Megan’ and Nev.[7] What was originally Angela’s expression of desire has been transformed into the website’s novelty feature, trivialising Angela’s feelings and capitalising on her misfortune in order to generate further interest in the film.

However, Angela does objectify Aimee, as she uses her images without her consent in order to begin a romantic and sexual discourse with Nev. Hiding behind these images allows Angela ‘one of the deep pleasures of Internet life’, ‘feeling secure as an object of desire because the other is able to imagine you as the perfect embodiment of his desire’.[8] Angela uses Aimee’s image as a signifier to arouse Nev’s attention, so that he can imagine her as the ‘perfect embodiment’ of his desire. Yet, Angela is not the sole perpetrator in this film: Nev is also guilty. In his anticipation of seeing ‘Megan’, he photoshops a nude image of her onto a nude image of himself, and sends it to her. This scene in the film encapsulates his obsession with her appearance, as he meticulously cuts her body out of the image in order to embellish his own: a photograph which we must assume was taken for the sole purpose of forming the unified image, as he is standing topless, staring lustfully into the camera lens while leaving enough space on the right side of the image to accommodate ‘Megan’s’ body. His desire for ‘Megan’ has already been made apparent through a clip prior to this scene, which shows Nev lying on his bed – again topless – discussing the probability of him ‘taking her virginity’. The quick succession of the photoshop scene thus exacerbates Nev’s desire, a forceful desire as he butchers her original image in order to fill the gap in his own. Instead of taking her virginity, he takes her image.[9] As renowned feminist and film critic Laura Mulvey states, the woman is ‘bound by symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through […] imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer, not maker, of meaning’.[10] Aimee’s ‘silent’ image is simply a bearer of meaning for Nev’s perfect fantasy of ‘Megan’, an obsession facilitated through her attractive appearance, and not her real personality.  Both Angela and Nev use Aimee’s image as a tool to appease themselves and fulfil their desires.

In the The Social Network, Mark’s creation of ‘facesmash’ is presented as the catalyst for the events to come, a sort of proto-Facebook originating from his anger and disappointment at breaking up with Erica. Using his enhanced skills to hack into Harvard’s Facebook network, Zuckerberg extracts images of female students, and in doing so, leaves their names behind; allocating the images into a new location to change their meaning. On the facesmash website, the only meaning of the image is the woman’s attractiveness, whereas originally the images were a visual representation of their identity. Much like the stolen images of Aimee in Catfish, the removal of identity strips the image of its true meaning, objectifying the woman in the image through making her ‘the bearer, not maker’.[11] As a website operated by scopophilia – pleasure obtained from looking – the determining visitor has all of the power, the power to choose which image pleases him the most, and the power to transfer his fantasies onto the woman of his choosing. As Mulvey states, ‘In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female’.[12] Indeed, the women in the images are rendered helpless while the men are actively exploitative, exemplified through the many clips of the boisterous men who take delight in ‘ranking girls’, contrasted against the single clip of the women staring despondently at the computer screen, one of whom states, quietly, that the website is ‘pathetic’.[13]

The film itself becomes an echo of the facesmash website, just as Benson-Allot noted, Facebook-related films are ‘a new kind of user-generated content’ as it puts the audience in the position of a facesmash user.[14] The clips of Zuckerberg hacking the Harvard Facebook to steal these images are intermixed with clips of the Phoenix Club party, which feature, and focus on a disproportionate number of attractive women. Before the ranking has begun, the film has already begun to champion women who adhere to Western beauty standards. Then, as soon as the website is completed and the ranking officially begins, seedy rock music begins to play in the background and the women at the party are revealed in compromising positions or various stages of undress. The women in the clips are always presented in twos, as though the director is encouraging the audience to choose which one is the ‘hottest.’ The men featured in the clips are in the background, out of focus, egging on the women, just as the willing visitors of facesmash are in the film’s background, egging each other to choose which woman is the hottest. The film also sexualises the competition between the two women; the clip featuring two women kissing show one of them pushed against the wall by the other, who establishes her dominance as though somebody had clicked on her beforehand.[15] Within the context of the film, Mark objectifies the women by taking their images to make a highly questionable, misogynistic website, but the film perpetuates this behaviour further through objectifying the women and manipulating their image. Both The Social Network and Catfish have two layers, in that the social media within the narrative functions to manipulate images of women and objectify them, but also the film harbouring the narrative is compiled in a way that also manipulates the female image.

While films are able to show us the process of, and motivation behind the manipulation of the female image through social media platforms, image-based internet memes embody the finished product of this manipulation. In his seminal work, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins created the term ‘meme’, defining it as a ‘small cultural unit of transmission, analogous to genes which are spread by copying or imitation’ and stating that they ‘propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain’.[16] A meme is therefore the internet equivalent of a verbal joke, a joke that often uses women as a punchline: a subject to be ridiculed, objectified or sexualised. Dawkins’ assertion that memes are ‘analogous to genes’ suggests that these types of attitudes constitute the DNA of our culture, and as the memes leap from ‘brain to brain’, the misogynistic messages delivered by these types of meme serve to encourage these types of attitude. It is a self-perpetuating force.



Figure 1.

These types of memes are created by first extracting the image of the woman from its original location on social media platforms, and then altering it through superimposing text onto the image to change its meaning. Figure 1 is a well- known and current example of this.[17]The intention of the original image was to show fellow acne sufferers the effectiveness of makeup, reassuring those who are self-conscious about their skin by providing an example of how seamlessly imperfections can be covered. The caption completely changes the meaning of this image, insulting the image of the woman before and after the makeup has been applied to imply that she is too unattractive to date without makeup, but with makeup on her appearance is deceptive. According to an online news article, only one twitter follower had made the image into a meme, but this was then utilised by many parody accounts, who shared the meme thousands of times through various social media platforms.[18] Social media users are heavily encouraged to share content that resonates with them; as John points out in his article on this subject, images are more likely to be shared because they are ‘concrete’, in that ‘we immediately know what is being shared’.[19] As memes contain text as well as an image, the recognition of what is being shared would be more immediate, and as this insulting and misogynistic meme managed to circulate so quickly, it serves as a reflection on the attitudes existing within our culture, as ‘only memes suited to their socio-cultural environment will spread successfully; the others will become extinct’ – this meme managed to survive, and reproduce rapidly.[20]



Figure 2. 



Figure 3.

Images of women on the internet are also targeted in order to discredit or ridicule feminism. These types of anti-feminist attitudes are very prominent on the internet, as exemplified through the common, and inaccurate use of the term ‘feminazi’ online and also through the –  for the most part – misinformed ‘menimist’ movement. Figure 2[21] and figure 3[22] are stock character macros, which utilise the image of the woman to convey common and harmful feminist stereotypes. Figure 2 uses the woman’s angry expression to portray a bigoted feminist stereotype, who values women’s rights and not men’s rights due to an inherent hatred of men, while the flippant pose of the woman in figure 3 is used to convey the opportunistic feminist stereotype, who uses feminism as an excuse to get what she wants, while not actually understanding it – which is ironic as the creator of these memes evidently has a limited and misinformed notion of feminism.

The spreading of these memes would thus propagate an erroneous message and misinform those who come into contact with it. These stock character memes convey stereotypes that undermine and challenge feminism through using an ‘ironic and distancing discursive mode’, which Shifman states, serves to whitewash misogyny ‘by framing them as ‘only joking’.[23] What’s more, he notes how these types of stock character memes ‘tend to reflect the socio-demographic background of meme creators’ who are ‘typically, white privileged young men’.[24] It is interesting that much of the image manipulation in Catfish and The Social Network was also carried out by ‘white privileged young men’, but as, digital culture and social media platforms only reflect attitudes prevalent within society, and white men have traditionally been assigned more power within Western culture, being young and privileged would enable access to this type of technology. Misogyny was, of course, not born on the internet, but it does enable a ‘new articulation of (old) sexualising misogyny’ through the wide circulation of harmful attitudes, and the allowance of anonymity.[25] Like Jane states in her article exploring online misogyny, ‘its cruelty, hostility and misogyny would likely be considered entirely unacceptable if it was present to such an extent in other public domains’.[26]


Figures 4 and 5

Figure 4[27] and figure 5[28] permit us a glance into darker aspects of our society. Both images illustrate the predominance of rape culture on the internet, as the images of the well-known female celebrities have been manipulated to showcase them in a more compromising position, either inviting rape, or becoming subject to it. Fig. 5 not only portrays Kim Kardashian as the victim of sexual assault, but it also features Bill Cosby, a man who inspired a torrent of rape memes due to the numerous sexual assault allegations made toward him. Indeed, his popularity in meme culture as a result of this notoriety uncovers the disturbing attitudes grounded within our culture, and the superimposition of his image onto Kardashian’s seeks to objectify her, and  to provoke humour through the uncanny merging of two popular memes. Again, this ‘ironic and distancing discursive mode’ is used to whitewash, and make a jest of serious topics, such as sexual assault. Revealing images of female celebrities are often misappropriated for the viewer’s gratification.

An extreme case of this was the 2014 iCloud leak, whereby hackers stole revealing images of celebrities from their iCloud accounts and posted them online. They were then circulated viciously throughout the internet. Jennifer Lawrence, one of the most exposed victims of the hacking, rightfully described it as a ‘sex crime’, and that ‘those responsible for the violation of privacy should be prosecuted like sex offenders’.[29] Extracting and sharing these images is equivalent to sexual assault, as the woman’s body is being used to provide gratification without her consent: ‘to possess a woman’s sexuality is to possess the woman; to possess the image of a woman’s sexuality is […] to maintain a degree of control over woman in general’.[30] The circulation of these hacked images allowed thousands of internet users to possess Lawrence’s body, the image of her serving as an object to provoke and fulfil their sexual fantasies, as was the case with the hacked images of the women on facesmash, and with the image of Aimee Gonzales, which Nev hacks out of its original location to possess her and keep her inside his own image.

In exploring this relationship between form, media and content we gain insight into the ways that online platforms allow, and sometimes encourage, the creation and proliferation of these manipulated images. Through this image manipulation, the woman in the image is stripped of her identity in order to accommodate the identity assigned to her by the observer. Whether this identity is imposed out of ridicule, objectification, or sexualisation depends entirely upon their aesthetic: its only true signification within this context. Both film and social media are capable of manipulating the female image, while the female image can likewise determine the film, as there would be no Catfish, and no The Social Network without the misuse of these images. The misuse of the image has the power to instigate whole narratives, as the violation of privacy and the questionable use of these images provides a provocative and enthralling subject matter. Likewise, memes rely on the manipulation of image in order to convey a certain message, a message that often reflects and amplifies attitudes apparent within society through being shared and re-shared throughout cyberspace.




[1] Caetlin Benson-Allott, ‘The Algorithmic Spectator’, Film Quarterly, 3. 64 (2011), 55- 58, p. 55.

[2] José van Dijck, ‘Facebook and the engineering of connectivity: A multi- layered approach to social media platforms’, Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 2. 19 (2012), 141- 155, p. 142.

[3] Amanda du Preez & Elanie Lombard, ‘The role of memes in the construction of Facebook personae’, Communicatio: South African Journal for Communication Theory and Research, 3. 40 (2014), 253- 270, p. 261.

[4] Henry Joost, and Ariel Schulman, Catfish, (Momentum Pictures, 2010).

[5] Joost, Catfish.

[6] ‘Catfish Trailer’, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BuE98oeL-e0&gt; [accessed 12th January 2016].

[7] ‘Nev’s World’, <http://www.iamrogue.com/catfish/main.html&gt; [accessed 31st December 2015].

[8] Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011), p. 249.

[9] Joost, Catfish.

[10] Laura Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures (Macmillan Press, 1989), p. 15

[11] Ibid.

[12] Mulvey, p. 19.

[13] David Fincher, The Social Network (Columbia Pictures, 2010).

[14] Benson-Allott, p. 55.

[15] Fincher, The Social Network.

[16] Limor Shifman, ‘An anatomy of a YouTube meme’, New Media & Society, 2, 14 (2011), 187- 203, p. 188. And Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 192.

[17] ‘The Reason Why…’ <http://www.dailyedge.ie/make-up-2-2376931-Oct2015/&gt; [accessed 12th January 2016].

[18] Cavan Sieczkowski, ‘When Her Photo Was Turned Into A Cruel Meme, This Woman Fought Back’, Huffington Post, <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/ashley-vanpevenage-meme-how-she-fought-back_561674cfe4b0082030a14700&gt; [accessed 30th December 2015].

[19] Nicholas A. John, ‘Sharing and Web 2.0: The emergence of a keyword’, New Media & Society, 2, 15 (2012), 167- 182, p. 173.

[20] Shifman, 2011, p. 188.

[21]‘Women Should Be…’ < http://www.gurl.com/2012/06/03/girl-meme-anti-feminism/&gt; [accessed 12th January 2016].

[22] ‘Why I Need Feminism?’ <https://www.rooshvforum.com/thread-47679-page-3.html&gt; [accessed 12th January 2016].

[23] Limor Shifman, ‘The Cultural Logic of Photo-Based Meme Genres’, Journal of Visual Culture, 3, 13 (2014), 340- 358, p. 348- 350.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Emma Alice Jane, ‘“Back to the kitchen, cunt”: speaking the unspeakable about online misogyny’, Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, 4, 28 (2014), 558- 570, p. 559 and p. 567.

[26] Ibid.

[27] ‘Just Rape Me However…’ <http://makeameme.org/meme/just-rape-me&gt; [accessed 12th January 2016].

[28] ‘Rape The Internet Bill Cosby’, <https://www.reddit.com/r/funny/comments/2n2eqq/rape_the_internet_bill_cosby/&gt; [accessed 12th January 2016].

[29] Jennifer Pearson and Chris Slack, ‘“It is a sex crime”: Jennifer Lawrence speaks out for the first time about nude photo leak to Vanity Fair’, Mail Online, <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2783719/Jennifer-Lawrence-speaks-time-nude-photo-leak-Vanity-Fair.html&gt; [accessed 30th December 2015].

[30] Annette Kuhn, The Power of The Image: Essays on Representation and Sexuality (Routledge, 1985), p. 11.

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