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Profile Pictures, T-Shirts, and Visibility Campaigns

by Ethan Tussey

by Joel Penney for IN MEDIA RES

In March 2013, during the Supreme Court hearings leading to the overturn of Proposition 8 and DOMA, an estimated two to ten million Facebook users changed their profile pictures to images of red equal signs to show their support for marriage equality. In this clip, Anastasia Khoo of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) explains that her organization created this social media campaign in order to send a message to at-risk LGBT youth that “there’s a community out there that loves and supports you.” The message of this visual activism campaign was thus not reducible to the graphic itself (which simply juxtaposes the standard HRC equality logo with the color red to symbolize love), but rather emerged from the way in which it visually manifests the identities of LGBT supporters. Such acts of conspicuous self-labeling, creating legible public visibility for a particular social group, point to an emergent form of activism stemming from the self-expressive possibilities of contemporary participatory culture. However, Facebook profile pictures are only one way in which communities can collectively announce their presence for social and political purposes. In recent years, LGBT groups at college campuses around the country have used the coordinated wearing of slogan T-shirts to send similar messages of support to those who may be struggling with their sexual identities. Like the graphic T-shirt, the social media profile picture has the capacity to serve as a visual representation of a person’s identity, and activists from a range of constituencies are beginning to realize how this identity-marking power can be utilized for visibility rhetoric. If one’s social media profile amounts to a “digital body,” as internet scholar danah boyd has argued, then the visual image one chooses to represent this body becomes, in a sense, its virtual clothing. This linkage between social media and dress may be a fruitful one moving forward for those who wish to investigate participatory visual campaigns like the red equal signs on Facebook. As scholars who study dress and society have long recognized, the social meaning of clothing cannot be understood by focusing only on the visual material itself. Rather, the analysis must also take into consideration the social identities of the wearers as well as their position in a web of social relations. As the digital body increasingly becomes a site for visibility-centered activism, such an approach can help to unlock the complexity of these performative visual practices.

Visibility Campaigns

AP news report

from AP news report (2013)
Creator: AP
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Ethan Tussey