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New Research Summary: How are masculine identities visually constructed on Instagram?

Updated: Jun 30, 2022

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

We sat down with Keiko McCullough (Indiana University Bloomington) to discuss their new contribution to our flagship journal, The Psychology of Men and Masculinities. In the article, entitled Masculinities Made Visible: A Critical Discursive Psychology Study of Instagram Photos, McCullough and Lester explore the ways in which masculine identities are visually constructed on Instagram. This important work enhances understanding of the ways in which masculinity is routinely performed through popular visual social media spaces, and we encourage readers to check it out!

McCullough, K. M., & Lester, J. N. (2021). Masculinities made visible: A critical discursive psychology study of Instagram photos. Psychology of Men & Masculinities, 22(4), 639–648.

What were the research questions you were answering with this study?

As many researchers within the psychology of men and masculinities have historically adopted a quantitative approach, I became interested in expanding the ways in which we understand masculinities to include more qualitative approaches including visual methods. Gendered imagery is pervasive on social media platforms such as Instagram, but few masculinities researchers have attended to the visual construction of masculine identities. Thus, my co-author and I set out to answer the question: what are some of the ways people “do gender” on social media? More specifically, how are masculine identities made visible in photos posted to Instagram?

What are some of the key findings of this study?

Our study focused on analyzing how individuals evoke masculine identities through appearance and imagery. We examined the Instagram photos of two celebrities and identified three common ways of presenting that were used to appear physically and psychologically “masculine.” These common ways of presenting, described in detail in our study, were used to assemble identities associated with toughness, strength, masculine interests, and affluent, leisurely lifestyles that were mirrored by seemingly masculine, naturalized bodies. In particular, these representations were more commonly depicted in cover photos, or photos that would be prominently displayed on one’s Instagram account. Non-cover photos, or photos that would need to be clicked on to be seen, often showed more variable gender presentations, including the adoption of feminine features and qualities. We interpreted this flexibility in gender presentation as largely functioning to reproduce power and privilege overall, as opposed to suggesting trends toward more progressive societal values.

What are some key implications of your findings for research or practice?

Our study fills a gap in the psychology of men and masculinities literature by investigating contemporary constructions of gender in the visual realm. By studying how people visually present in photos, we can better understand how gender is routinely “done” or fashioned in everyday life including in popular social media spaces. The pervasiveness of gendered imagery in modern society warrants increased interest in visual representations of masculinities.

Where do you see this line of research heading in the future (i.e., what's next)?

I plan to continue studying visual representations of masculinities in varying contexts. I foresee myself looking at the Korean Pop (K-Pop) world in the future, as many men in the industry defy traditional expectations of Western masculinities but remain to be wildly popular in Western contexts. I am interested in how K-Pop idols visually and verbally construct masculinities in ways that are made appealing to Western audiences.

How did you become interested in this line of inquiry?

This study bridges many of my interests. I originally became interested in the psychology of men and masculinities when I was introduced to the field by Dr. Ronald Levant at the University of Akron as an undergraduate. I have always held an interest in media, and eventually became fascinated with visual research methods as a graduate student. Upon working with Dr. Jessica Lester (second author on this study), I became deeply interested in the field of Discourse Analysis and the subfield of Critical Discursive Psychology. She and I developed a visually informed approach to Critical Discursive Psychology which we used for this study. This study represents the meeting of my empirical interests with my methodological ones. I am very grateful to Dr. Levant for introducing me to the field, to Dr. Joel Wong for deepening my knowledge of masculinities during my graduate studies, and to Dr. Lester for enhancing my understanding of diverse research methodologies.

Keiko McCullough, M.S.Ed

Doctoral Candidate, Counseling Psychology

Indiana University Bloomington

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