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  • Writer's pictureMorana Lukač

And that's a wrap! The #GenderChallenge Conference (18-20 July 2021)

Updated: Jul 26, 2021

As some of you may know, the past year has been quite eventful for me as I moved countries and took a new position as a postdoctoral research and teaching fellow at the University of Greifswald. Not to mention that the added factor of the pandemic has made this a strange time for most. Because of all this, I am grateful that the academic year ended on such a positive note.

Earlier this week, together with my colleague Dr Susan Reichelt (University of Konstanz), I organised the online conference #GenderChallenge — Exploring Gender Identities Online, the aim of which was to facilitate a conversation on the role of social media in advancing our understanding of the linguistic performances of gender. We were very privileged to have some great scholars whose research focuses on the intersection between social media and gender — you can see the full programme over here. The conference was funded by Greifswald’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Gender Studies or IZfG (Interdisziplinäres Zentrum für Geschlechterforschung), and the Advanced Data and Information Literacy Track (ADILT) of the University of Konstanz. Our organising team included Alice Cesbron (University of Greifswald / University of Paris), who moderated two of our panels (“Multimodality” and “Acts of Violence”), as well as Luisa Grabiger (University of Greifswald) and Professor Theresa Heyd (University of Greifswald), who helped us get this event off the ground.

The conference was preceded by two workshops (18 July), designed around helping early-career researchers as well as those embarking on a new research project navigate research design issues. The morning workshop “Exploring the Online Seduction Industry – Methodological and Ethical Aspects” was organised and led by Dr Sofia Rüdiger (University of Bayreuth) and Dr Daria Dayter (University of Basel), who presented their ongoing work on pick-up artists (PUAs) and the seduction industry. If you are not familiar with their work or this online community, visit their page on Google Sites for a quick introduction. We discussed issues relating to data collection and transcribing spoken language. YouTube, for example, offers very useful video transcripts, which can be real time-savers, but often cannot be used for linguistic analysis without the intervention of researchers and adding information relevant for the type of analysis conducted. The participants also attempted to create their own categories for linguistic strategies used by the PUAs. Finally, we talked about online research ethics, anonymising data, and following the regulations laid out in the EU law on data protection and privacy — General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Dr Jai Mackenzie (University of Notthingham) gave the afternoon workshop “From inception to impact: Developing a study of gender identities online,” which aimed to answer the question: How to research identities online? She led us on a virtual journey starting from the inception of a research idea in response to wider social issues and concerns. We went on to discuss research design, ethics, and data collection before concluding with impact and exploring routes to real-world engagement beyond academia. Dr Mackenzie included examples from her own work on the role of digital media for single and LGB parents. For an excellent example of how to present your own research to the public and stakeholders outside academia, take a look at Dr Mackenzie’s film about her work and the community with which she has been involved. The session had the added value of exchanging thoughts and experiences with colleagues and thinking of concrete action plans that we would attempt to realise after the workshop. Dr Mackenzie concluded by saying that

collaboration is key as is reaching out to other researchers and stakeholders.

Our pre-conference roundtable “Rethinking Gender”, which took place on the same day, was envisaged as a bridge between the workshop and the two conference days. The main theme of this discussion was the dynamic nature of both social media spaces and gender, and the implications this had for research. We started off this conversation, led by Dr Susan Reichelt, with a moment of introspection regarding the issues arising when dealing with distressing data. The researchers working on the manosphere were particularly vocal on the topic, with Alexandra Krendel (Lancaster University) highlighting the importance of self-care and recognising our own triggers as researchers, and Dr Frazer Heritage (Birmingham City University) making a small plug for the buddy-system network, which offers support for those dealing with difficult data.

For those not familiar with the term, manosphere is a loosely connected online community promoting masculinity, strong opposition to feminism, and misogyny.

With many of the researchers present engaging with online data, the discussion about ethics, legality, and consent, naturally followed. Finally (and my account here is far from complete — I’ve left out some interesting discussion strands on the importance of employing different methods, multimodality, and researcher positionality), we asked what our duty was to the public when dealing with controversial communities, such as those represented within the manosphere.

Professor Veronika Koller (Lancaster University) suggested rephrasing our research when aiming to reach the public, whereas Dr Daria Dayter suggested that we need to expose (manipulative) techniques promoted by communities such as PUAs for what they are, namely, incapable of delivering what they promise: help their members develop intimate relationships.

On the first day of the conference (Monday, 19 July), Professor Veronika Koller gave the opening plenary and presented on behalf of the MANTRaP team (short for Misogyny ANd The Red Pill), Jessica Aiston (Lancaster University), Alexandra Krendel, and Dr Mark McGlashan (Birmingham City University). The project investigates discourse found within the manosphere, including communities related to men’s separatism 'Men's Rights Activism' (MRA), ‘Men Going Their Own Way’ (MGTOW), 'involuntary celibacy' (incel), and 'pick-up artistry' (PUA). Professor Koller presented the findings of three studies conducted by the Mantrappers. The first was based on the forthcoming paper

Krendel, A., McGlashan, M., & Koller, V. (forthcoming, 2022). The presentation of gendered social actors in five manosphere communities on Reddit. Corpora, 17(2). Preprint here.

The analysis of the 11-million-word corpus comprising data from five different Reddit manosphere threads (TheRedPill, MensRights, MGTOW, seduction, and braincells), paints a grim picture of the world discursively constructed by these communities. It’s one populated by two homogenous groups of people, men and women, who are innately different. Women are passive and judged only on their “sexual market value”, but they enjoy social privileges and sexual power over men. Men, although by their very nature, sexually, professionally, and economically successful, are passivized by women, feminists, and “society”.

The second study zoomed in on one community within the manosphere, MGTOW, and it foreshadowed the contents of the upcoming paper

Krendel, A, Koller, V., & Aiston, J. (In preparation). Comparing the language of lesbian separatists and Men Going Their Own Way manifestos.

Professor Koller talked about the overlaps and the differences between the manifestos written by lesbian separatists and MGTOW. Interestingly, lesbian separatists positively represented their in-group, whereas MGTOW see their own members as powerless. They also interdiscursively draw on different fields, namely, socialist political theories (lesbian separatists), and individualist neo-liberalism (MGTOW). The many overlaps between the two groups, which they arguably share with other controversial online communities, included negative out-group representation and the attempt to create an in-out group dichotomy.

The final part of Professor Koller’s plenary focused on the community of incels (involuntary celibates), and it reported on the results of the published study:

Heritage, F. & Koller, V. (2020). Incels, in-groups, and ideologies: The representation of gendered social actors in a sexuality-based online community. Journal of Language and Sexuality, 9(2), 152-178.

The analysis of a specialised corpus made up of threads created or commented on by incels showed that incels positioned themselves in a hierarchy in which conventionally attractive men (Chads) occupy the top position. Women in this discourse are seen as immoral, dishonest, and capable of hurting men.

After combing all of the findings presented by Professor Koller, it becomes quite clear that the manosphere communities, which attempt to normalise misogyny and present a terribly skewed worldview, lead to social harm.

That is why the MANTRaP group intends to cover more ground in describing the manosphere by focusing on Instagram, investigate the practices of mainstreaming this discourse from the margin to a more central position in the UK press, and develop tools for countering the manospheres' activities.

The conference included four panel discussions spread out across two conference days. Our first group of panellists, although focusing on quite different online communities, MGTOW, incels, and trad wives, respectively, were united in their work on “Misogyny and online communities”

  • Jessica Aiston (Lancaster University): Men don’t marry, simps do: Strategies of self-presentation in an online community of male separatists

  • Natascha Rohde (Aston University Birmingham): “It is impossible for a women to be an incel”: Collective identity construction and ideology in computer-mediated discourse and what do sex and gender have to do with it?

  • Catherine Tebaldi (University of Massachusetts / University College London): Metapolitical seduction: White nationalist women’s language and far-right metapolitics.

In this panel, moderated by Dr Reichelt, we reflected on interdiscursivity in misogynist communities by pointing out the common threads found in the manosphere, as well as among alt-right, white nationalism, tradfems and cottagecore enthusiasts. We asked: How are people seduced into these controversial communities? One tentative answer is that they normalise misogyny and recruit new members by pulling on the fundamental human need to be loved and belong.

In the second panel, “Corpus-based approaches”, which I moderated, we discussed the work of

  • Marie Flesch (Université de Lorraine): Gendering the self and the others through vocatives: a mixed-method study of “dude” in a corpus of Reddit comments

  • Frazer Heritage (Birmingham City University): “Not bigoted, but…REEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE”: Challenges in looking at how videogame players react to the inclusion of a transgender character in World of Warcraft online fora, and

  • Patricia Palomino-Manjón (University of Valencia): The discursive construction of victim-perpetrator identities during Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation process.

We addressed the nature of the three different communities analysed by the panellists (Reddit, World of Warcraft, and Twitter respectively) as well as different methodological challenges in building corpora comprising social media data.

The first day ended with a social on Wonder where we managed to get together for a group photo and strike a pose!

The second day of the conference (Tuesday, 20 July), started off with the “Multimodality” panel, which included two papers:

  • Carmen Aguilera-Carnerero (University of Granada) and Megara Tegal (Independent researcher): Gendered islamophobia in digital culture

  • Adrian Yip (Queen Mary University of London): Multimodality and gender representations: The hyperreal female athletic body on Instagram

Seeing that multimodality is one of the most exciting areas for future research, we focused on, among other things, the ethical issues when dealing with multimodal data and on the notion of authorship and what it means online.

During our last panel “Acts of Violence”, three researchers introduced their work:

  • Federica Formato (University of Brighton) and Laura Torre (Independent researcher): Public patriarchy in reporting femminicidio: The gendered crime on Facebook pre and during the Covid-19 pandemic

  • Anne Grand d'Esnon (Université de Bourgogne): Who cares about calling non-consensual sex “rape” in summaries of fictional narratives on Wikipedia? From a gender identity hypothesis to recurrent activist discursive practices.

In this session, led by Alice Cesbron, we problematised the role of media and their reporting on cases of femminicidio. We also talked about the discursive construction of sexual violence in fictional narratives among Wikipedians.

The arguably most dynamic part of the conference included lightning-talk presentations by six early-career researchers.

All of them were given the rather tricky task of presenting their ongoing research in only three minutes and on three slides. They were all up to the task, and Rachel McCullough (Old Dominion University) won the best presentation prize for “Wahmenz speech: the misappropriation of women's speech patterns in digital misogyny.” Her slides are available over here. The other, all very thought-provoking, three-minute presentations included:

  • Sasha Barish (Rutgers University): The language ideology of neologism in Tumblr’s MOGAI community

  • Nancy Henaku (University of Ghana): Debating afroqueer sexuality in digital Ghana: some critical methodological implications for discourse and gender research

  • Anna Metreveli (Stockholm University): Digital blackface in online linguistic landscapes

  • Eloise Parr (University of Birmingham): “I feel like I’m letting my new employer down”: An analysis of sexism and ableism in pregnancy discourse on Mumsnet talk

  • Sara Rafael (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid): Twitter as discursive space for anti-feminist rhetoric in Spain.

The conference closed with a plenary by Dr Christian Ilbury, who spoke on “Gender, sexuality, and the digital commodification of linguistic style”. Dr Ilbury’s work looks into how people stylise aspects of linguistic varieties and linguistic features in digitally mediated communication. In asking how “offline” sociolinguistic variables (gender, sexuality, ethnicity) come to the fore in communication online, Dr Ilbury problematises the online-offline identity dichotomy, which, he argues, is dated and no longer tenable in digital scholarship. The sociolinguistic notions of style and stylisation are central to Dr Ilbury’s work, so much so that he claims that “if we want to examine social media interaction, we need to understand stylisation.”

The first part of Dr Ilbury’s talk included some insights from his research published in the Journal of Sociolinguistics on variant spellings on Twitter reflecting features of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) deployed by ten gay British men aged between 18 and 25 in the attempt to develop the persona of a “Sassy Queen.” Dr Ilbury rightfully asks: Why are they doing this? The men aren’t trying to pass as black women, he argues, instead, they are appropriating “fierce” and “sassy” stance associated with this community.

The second part of Dr Ilbury’s talk focused on his ongoing research on Instagram hun memes, which he describes as “intensely British, intensely camp, intensely steeped in British class relations.” Among them is this re-contextualised "diva" meme with Naomi Campbell, who, while making a court appearance, tells the judge "This is a big inconvenience for me."

What does it all mean? In the process of forging hun style, Dr Ilbury argues, gender, class, and sexuality intersect. The style includes features stereotypically associated with females (babe, hun, xoxo), working-class British people (Labrini, fank, and partehh), and British LGBT stance (EastEnders, Grindr, RuPaul's Drag Race, r-lessness). This stylisation evokes a relatable figure of a “hun”, an English, working-class woman. One of the concluding remarks made by Dr Ilbury was very fitting:

we can learn much about the complexities of gendered identity construction from our online interactions.

And as a final, personal note, I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to engage with this wonderful community of researchers. Dr Reichelt and I hope to be able to assemble some of this great work in a publication. We are looking into different, preferably open-access, publication options, and I will keep you all updated about our progress!

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