Bois of Isolation – Queering Gender Binaries in the Confines of Pandemic

By Dawn Woolley (she/her) and AC Davidson (she/they).

Do we experience and express our gender identities differently in pandemic lockdown? Can sharing selfies via Instagram be a way to collectively queer the gender binary? These questions and our own experiences of lockdown led us to set up Bois of Isolation (BOI) – a platform on Instagram for people of marginalised genders to share selfies of queering gender. We (artist and research fellow at Leeds Arts University, Dawn Woolley, and AC Davidson, lecturer in human geography at the University of Huddersfield) initiated BOI as part of: “Making Spaces: Feminist Responses and Survival Strategies in the COVID-19 Pandemic” funded by the University of Huddersfield. BOI is an artistic-activist intervention and research project, creating an online collaborative space during the pandemic to queer the gender binary with selfies.

A photo of the Instagram Page for Bois of Isolation. Text reads:

Bois of Isolation
Share selfies of queering binaries in the pandemic. Art-activist-research project by Dawn Woolley (Leeds Arts) and AC Davidson (Huddersfield)
Bois of Isolation Instagram Page

Selfies are an important social phenomenon in increasingly visual online public spheres. In many respects, selfies offer expansive possibilities for creative self-expression, but there are pressures to conform to body types, gestures and expressions within ‘acceptable’ norms and social body ideals. Able-bodied, white or light, young, wealthy, healthy and gender-stereotyped bodies tend to be valorised and bodies deemed ‘other’ risk hostility and censorship. These hierarchies of value within cultures are reinforced on social media through the flow of positive social feedback (e.g. ‘likes’ and ‘shares’). In 2015 research by Nicola Döring and colleagues found that selfies on Instagram are more gender-stereotypical than magazine adverts from the 70s.

Instagram pages and hashtags such as @girlsofisolation and #bodypositivity look to expand their reach to include people who deviate from beauty standards, but they rarely explicitly challenge or attempt to dismantle those standards. Through @boisofisolation we want to create an aesthetic space to queer the gender binary and to question hierarchies of beauty. We are not an exclusive space only for those who openly identify as queer, genderfluid or nonbinary, but an invitation to anyone who has faced marginalisation for their gender, to question the gender binary through the medium of selfies.

Taking a feminist approach, we felt it was important to be participants as well as facilitators and initiators of this project. One of the first series of posts we produced using our own selfies were spoof ‘instructional’ photos. We wanted to deconstruct how images are often used to portray and reinforce differences in power (e.g. between people seen as femme and masculine).

Picture shows model posing in front of a bright green screen. 

Top row reads: Subject on left, object on right = subject has power over passive object. Emphasis on musculature = strong and fit. Jaw is set = determination, seriousness. 

Bottom row: Legs and feet crossed and unstable = small and vulnerable. 
Gaze averted = 'licensed withdrawal', wrapped up in own emotions. 
Hand covers open mouth = emotional 'out of control'.

We designed our photographs to include multiple signifiers of power or lack of power and posted the annotated images on the Instagram account. In many ways these spoof images are forms of drag performance, they mimic the very binary gender performances that we hope to disrupt in the wider project.

Picture shows a model putting on a black, heeled shoe. 

Text reads: unstable pose = reduced power. Touching a gendered/sexualised object = 'feminine touch'/

At times we have reflected on these instructional photos and realised they might represent the ‘bad art’ stage that creative projects sometimes go through. From time to time when making art we have to get an idea out of our system, despite it being cliched or terrible. There is a need to learn by doing the thing we wish to avoid. This is one of the benefits of embodied research – it helps us to move forward with our thinking and practice, and more fully appreciate what thought processes and feelings go into constructing a selfie – and what effects it has out ‘in the world’.

Picture shows model looking into the camera with arms folded. 
Text reads: looking down at camera = more powerful than viewer. 
Direct confrontational eye contact = in control. 
Background = assumptions about work, gender and class.

We are now in the second part of our project, where we are asking for submissions of selfies. Contributors are asked to provide a textual comment with their selfies explaining their choices (e.g. places, gestures, outfits, objects) and reflecting on how they experience gender expression during the pandemic lockdown.

Rather than ask for a single selfie or two (risking a binary or linear ‘before’ and ‘after’ shot) we ask for three or four, as we want people to be able to represent gender as fluid and in-process. Similarly, Son Vivienne, when writing about gender fluid selfies, writes that these ‘frequently appear as pairs or collections in order to document performances of gender over time’ (pp. 133–4). In Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto, Legacy Russell describes queer gender presentation as a ‘continuous range of multitudinous selves […] the masculine, the feminine, and everything in-between – as being part of a continuous narrative, rather than existing as polar points’ (p. 64).

The selfies contributed so far reflect on the gendered expectation to appear smiling, and the transgression of refusing. Others reflected on both the difficulties of pandemic lockdown, the wanting to ‘climb the walls’ or become one with the carpet, but also what it means for gender expression to be away from ‘public consumption’. One contributor wrote:

“I noticed that the clothes I was choosing to wear, were more androgynous. For me they are my comfy clothes, what I feel at ease in when in my own space. It got me thinking about how I unconsciously select clothes that tether me to my assigned gender when I know my body is being viewed for public consumption. But in my own space I am most myself feelings betwixed and between. […] I wonder when I return to full time office work, my gender presentation again for public consumption, if I will also return to my past habit of genderising myself or if the sports bras, and boyish comfort will go with me (Instagram post, 2020).”

(Instagram post, 2020).

We continue to be open to submissions and are keen to foster an ongoing collaborative conversation in which contributors share their selfies, reflect on their process and collectively work through recurring themes. We are also beginning to experiment with what could be considered queer visual techniques, identifying the visual tropes of superimposition, montage, mirroring, image degradation, and the digital glitch as visual methods through which we can express some of these ideas.

A photo of the Instagram Page for Bois of Isolation. Photo shows a model wearing a blank vest top, covered by a glitch affect which distorts the image.

Russell writes that a glitch is a movement toward something unexpected and also an obstacle that prevents from seeing or doing. It can make ‘our factual fragments […] scrambled, rendered unreadable’ (p. 68). When uploading some of our selfies our phones produced new images – glitches. In many ways these unexpected images do exactly what we want our own photographs to do: through multiplication, montage, visual obstruction and ghosting, they represent our bodies in ways that are ambiguous and difficult to decode.

To further explore these visual motifs, we will run a series of online workshops in the new year. In the workshops, we will collaboratively examine visual codes of power, experiment with different modes of gender performance and come up with visual strategies for queering selfies through a series of exercises and activities. We’ll focus especially on how gender is expressed and queered in pandemic contexts through ideas of in-between places and spaces, glitches, multiples and fragments.

If you are interested in contributing to the project, you can submit images here.

You can also follow us and look out for workshops at @boisofisolation

Finally, if you would like to find out more, or ask a question, we will be chatting about the project on Instagram Live on @boisofisolation at 12 noon on Tuesday 8th December.

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