Developing the Self in the Digital Space

Developing the Self in the Digital Space


Digital space has become a place for individuals to construct and display their identity. With the rise and evolution of different social media platforms, users are able to try on different identities by being exposed to new interests, points of view, and aesthetics. Teenagers have been particularly influential on social media platforms, often dictating trends and forming online subcultures with other members of the site’s community. The internet has not only allowed teens to form and express their identity, it is also a place for contemporary teenagers to expose themselves to different views and interests as well as form bonds with other teenagers who share the same interests. Social media platforms like Tumblr (in the early to mid 2010s) and TikTok (in the late 2010s and 2020) have allowed teenagers to connect with people they may not know in real life and engage with different points of view they might not have otherwise encountered. Tumblr and TikTok have been particularly formative for teenage subcultures in the twenty-first century as each became a centralized online space for different subcultures to exist. Because of this, teenagers are able to discover, construct, and experiment with their identities online, and then carry them into the real world. Teen girls, in particular, have used these platforms to express alternative music and style choices apart from the dominant culture. These alternative style and music choices are often linked to online subcultures and identities that oppose mainstream politics or cultural norms. In this essay, I will look at how teen girls develop a sense of self and identity online by being exposed to and participating in alternative modes of dress and taste in music. Through the use of platforms like Tumblr, teenage girls in the late 2010s and early 2020s have been able to relate with others who do not conform to the normal expectations of a teenage American girl, what Heather Mooney might call the “can-do girl,” or, as Angela McRobbie coined, the “post-feminist masquerade.” Instead, these girls use similar tastes in music and distinct clothing styles to separate themselves from the mainstream American teenage culture and express their despondence towards contemporary culture as well as their oppositions to hegemonic femininity and compulsory heterosexuality. In this essay, I will explore how young girls often use the internet as a means of finding an identity and subculture when they do not fit into the mainstream culture they are surrounded by outside of the digital space.

In 1979, Dick Hebdige published Subculture: The Meaning of Style, the first book to look at youth subcultures critically and theoretically. Hebdige looked at how subcultures were a form of resistance to mainstream culture, politics, and ideals while illustrating the ways in which the people who belonged to these groups (primarily teens and young adults) defined themselves against the mainstream culture, primarily through clothing style and musical taste but also political beliefs and attitudes. A continuous thread through the different subcultures Hebdige analyzes through the book is that they all stem from a specific location. Therefore, the subculture existed in opposition to and outside of the primary culture, yet to be a part of a subculture, one had to not only be in a specific location but be participating in particular alternative practices, such as dressing against the norm and listening to specific musicians. However, with the rise and evolution of the internet, subcultures have become less distinguishable from the mainstream culture as “traditional forms of culture and politics are being resurrected, imploded into and combined with entirely new cultural and political modes in a global media culture.”1 As the internet and social networks have grown and evolved, they have become platforms for which young “individuals can try out different roles, identities, and ways of acting.”2 In contemporary American society, an individual does not need to live in a specific location or era to be part of a subculture. Multiple different subcultures can exist simultaneously on the internet, often blending with each other and with the mainstream cultural consciousness. However, they remain avenues through which young individuals can develop a sense of identity and affiliation to a group that exists outside of the cultural norms of their households and hometowns.

The internet and social media can provide vastly different outlets and perspectives that can help teens to form their own identities early in their youth and interact with others who are like them or have the same interests as them. Social media platforms like Tumblr and TikTok in particular have opened teens up to new perspectives, as they are not networks in which the user needs to interact with people they know in real life in order to have the experience the app was designed to provide. Unlike Facebook or Instagram, which are social media platforms that expect an individual to interact primarily with their real-life friends and acquaintances, Tumblr and TikTok’s algorithm allows for individuals to find people who have similar interests or experiences to them that they might not know in real life. When a user first joins TikTok, the algorithm will show them random videos from different areas of the platform, if a user watches the whole video, TikTok will assume they like the content and show them similar videos based on the captions and tags attached to the video. TikTok and Tumblr’s algorithms allow for particularly intriguing digital spaces in which teen subcultures can emerge and flourish. Despite their differences in design and purpose, both have been used by teens as a mode to develop and present the self as a unique identity and sense of individuality rather than presenting the self as having an ideal appearance or ideal life. Part of this is likely because it is easier to interact with strangers on these platforms and have meaningful discourses with them than on a platform like Instagram. As a result, Tumblr in the 2010s and TikTtok currently have produced rather recognizable internet subcultures, such as the Sad Girl and Lolita on Tumblr in the early-to-mid 2010s and E-girls on Tiktok in the last 2010s. Teen girls have particularly succeeded on these social media platforms in creating and participating in distinct subcultures. I use the word ‘subculture’ because it is through these social networks that teenage girls are able to construct a unique identity through style and music but also demonstrate “significant forms of resistance to mainstream gendered discourses.”3 The online subcultures like the Sad Girls on Tumblr or E-girls on TikTok often use the clothing they were to resist mainstream gendered discourses by not always dressing correctly feminine. This can most clearly be seen through E-girls who often wear layers and baggy clothes in dark, grungy colors and patterns. Additionally, as explained by Heather Mooney in “Sad Girls and Carefree Black Girls,” the subcultural online identity of ‘sad girls’ can “address the effects of sexism and patriarchy,” in a way the mainstream “can-do girl” can not because ‘Sad Girls’ do conform to the expectations American society has for them as teenage girls.4 Unlike the ‘can-do’ girls who are happy, easygoing, and often involved in a plethora of activities at their high schools, ‘Sadd Girls’ are more moody and dark and usually detached from their high school lives but commemorate online with others who share their cynical beliefs about society, listen to Lana Del Rey, and dress in a similar manner. Many online subcultures have a distinct way of defying sexism and the patriarchy that are usually linked to the music and style of dress that subculture enjoys.

Teen girls are often at the forefront of alternative subcultures online because “the teen years are a critical time for the development of identity.”5 Teenage girls often develop an alternative style and music that conforms to a specific online subculture. The subculture will grow online but will also be recognizable in real life. Online subcultures allow teenage girls to develop a sense of self that is different from the mainstream cultural expectations of a teenage girl. Online subcultures allow girls to create an identity by organizing their interests and tastes on the social feed; on Tumblr, it is usually posts that have been reblogged by accounts teens would follow, and on TikTok, a user’s interests culminate on the “For You”page. On these sites, different subcultures usually form when teens who like the same music and share the same political or social opinions begin to interact with each other, or merely follow one another, and often create a coherent visual aesthetic. Take the Tumblr Lolita subculture as an example, or TikTok’s E-girls. Members of these subcultures usually confirm their affiliation with it through dress as it becomes a visual marker that they are not only part of this online subculture but also that it is a part of their personal identity and an extension of themselves. Dress becomes a way for alternative teenage girls to express their identity and interests when they are away from the digital space. In “‘I Dress the way I Feel’: Image, Agency, and Power,” Shauna Pomerantz writes “a girl’s image makes her ‘readable’ within the social word,” of high school, therefore, style becomes “an extension of everything inside of you.”6Therefore, style becomes an important part in constructing and conveying one’s identity. These online subcultures usually create a distinct style (such as babydoll dresses for Tumblr Lolita girls or graphic t-shirts layered over stripped undershirts for E-girls) so that others can perceive them in a certain way, as Pomerantz explains, style is “a serious consideration as girls actively work to make sure they wore the right this in order to not be recognized as that.”7

Teenage girls usually use clothing as a mode of visual communication, expressing their alternative identity or affiliation with a particular subculture in everyday life when they are not on a digital platform. For these online subcultures allow teens to shape their identities in the digital space and effectively display it in the real world. Style is a primary mode through which members of a specific subculture express an alternative identity, but style is also expressive of other common interests and opinions that shape a particular subculture. Often, subcultures emerge out of liking a specific genre of music that sets forth a specific attitude towards life and visual aesthetic. In “If You Dress Like This, Then You’re Like That: Positions and Recognitions,” Pomerantz interviews girls who dress “alternatively” at an American High School. One girl, Ratch, who defines herself as a punk is quoted saying “I found the music and then went with the dress.”8 For Ratch, her style and assimilation into the punk subculture started with an interest in the punk genre of music. Eventually, she started dressing like others who enjoyed punk music and adopted similar attitudes and opinions to other teenagers in the punk subculture. Similarly, on Tumblr and Tiktok subcultures usually emerge from specific alternative artists and genres, who often convey a certain attitude and visual aesthetic along with their music. In “Sad Girls and Carefree Black Girls,” Heather Mooney writes that the growing popularity of Lana Del Rey’s music on Tumblr marked “a turn in popular culture.”9 Mooney writes that the popularity of Lana Del Rey led to a community of “sad girls” on Tumblr that were defined by “sadness and extended/eternal youth/girlhood.”10 I contend that the popularity of Del Rey’s music inspired not only the sad girl subculture on Tumblr but also the Lolita subculture, and both subcultures aimed to resist hegemonic femininity through the distinct style and representation of the members of these subcultures. The Lolita subculture that emerged on Tumblr in the mid-2010s was partially inspired by the novel Lolita (and particularly the 1962 film of the same name) as well as Lana Del Rey’s music of this time as it often glamourized being with older men and being youthful. Within the Lolita subculture, girls would often reject hegemonic femininity by embracing a childlike hyper-femininity by wearing items like babydoll dresses and heart-shaped sunglasses. The Lolita subculture also opposed hegemonic femininity by embracing and displaying their sexuality. The ‘sad girl’ subculture had less of a distinct style but often mirrored Del Rey’s own style and appreciation for vintage or vintage-looking pieces. Both subcultures reflected attitudes and ideals that can often be found in Del Rey’s music in the early to mid-2010s.
While style in subculture is often connected to a specific genre of music or artist, it can also be a way to express certain alternative politics or beliefs. As Catherine Connell writes in “Fashionable Resistance,” online subcultures and “online fashion communities might be an especially promising venue for assessing fashion’s potential as a tool of resistance and social justice.”11 Connell argues that fashion can do this by “challenging gender and sexuality expectations.”12 This can be seen clearly in the E-girl subculture that gained popularity on Tiktok in 2018 and 2019. E-girls often sport a style that is reminiscent of emo and scene kids, often layering band tees over long-sleeved lace or striped shirts with short skirts and hyper-feminine makeup (such as drawing hearts on cheeks with blush or wearing bright colored eyeshadows). The style of E-girls is similar to the style of singer Billie Eilish, who much like Del Rey, often sings about depression and dating older men. What Lana Del Rey did for teens on Tumblr in the early to mid-2010s, Billie Eilish is doing for teens on TikTok in the late 2010s. The E-girl style, much like the style of Lolitas, is hyper-feminine and therefore not the way teenage girls are expected to dress. However, E-girl style is distinctly more queer. While both subcultural styles use fashion to challenge gender and sexuality expectations, as Connell argues, E-girls are not heterosexual and use style to convey alternative sexual identities as well as challenge correct feminity. Therefore, these online subcultures not only reflect groups of teens who have different taste in music and interests but also teens who oppose contemporary societal norms, these interests and ideas are often expressed visually through dress as a way for teens to express their alternative identities when they are away from their online communities.

A common thread across the online subcultures teenage girls participate in is an attempt to represent hegemonic femininity through a unique style of dress. Their aesthetic choices often reveal girls’ cynical attitudes towards mainstream culture and rejection of cultural norms through their interests and tastes in music. With the rise of the social media platform TikTok, it becomes harder for subcultures to exist in the online space as “traditional forms of culture and politics are being resurrected, imploded into and combined with entirely new cultural and political modes in a global media culture.”13 This is not only because of the platform’s algorithm which exposes users to alternative eras of the app without them having to seek it out but also because of how fast fashion, entertainment, and general cultural moments move in the 21st century. With platforms like TikTok, it is easier to be exposed to alternative online subcultures but it also becomes easier for the mainstream culture to appropriate fashion trends from these cultures, and eventually it is harder to differentiate between an online subculture and the mainstream. So online subcultures begin to move faster if they even are ever able to establish themselves at all. Nevertheless, the internet remains a prime and important place for teen girls to carve out their own identities and experiment with their style as well as understand themselves and relate to others.

  1. Richard Kahn and Douglas Kellner, “Internet Subcultures and Oppositional Politics,” in D. Muggleton (ed), The Post-subcultures Reader (London: Berg, 2003).
  2. Patrick J. Williams, “Authentic Identities: Straightedge Subculture, Music, and the Internet, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 35, no. 2 (April 2006): 173–200.
  3. Akane Kanai, “Thinking Beyond the Internet as a Tool: Girls’ online spaces as postfeminist structures of surveillance” in EGirls, ECitiziens, edited by Jane Bailey and Valerie Steeves (Ottawa Canada : University of Ottawa Press, 2015), 83-106.
  4. Heather Mooney, “Sad Girls and Carefree Black Girls,” in Women’s Studies Quarterly, 175-194. The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2018.
  5. Morrison, Connie “Creating and Regulating Identity in Online Spaces: Girlhood, Social Networking, and Avatars” In Girlhood and the Politics of Place. (New York: Berghahn Books, 2016) 244-258.
  6. Shauna Pomerantz, Girls, Style, and School Identities (Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2008).
  7. Pomerantz, Girls, Style, and School Identities, 91.
  8. Pomerantz, Girls, Style, and School Identities, 109.
  9. Mooney, “Sad Girls and Carefree Black Girls, 178.
  10. Mooney, “Sad Girls and Carefree Black Girls, 178.
  11. Catherine Connell, “Fashionable Resistance: Queer ‘Fa(t)shion’ Blogging as Counterdiscourse,” in Women’s Studies Quarterly, The Feminist Press at the City University of New York (2018), 209-224.
  12. Connell, “Fashionable Resistance,” 212
  13. Kahn and Keller, “Internet Subcultures and Oppositional Politics.”
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