You might have noticed Instagram being flooded with striking black and white selfies of women, tagged with the popular ‘challengeaccepted’ hashtag. With almost 6 million women participating in the trend, there exists an alternative section of women hesitant to partake as they’re left scratching their heads over what is ‘challenging’ about posting a selfie on social media? Based on people’s captions and choice of hashtags, the black and white photo challenge seemed to merely be a women’s appreciation trend. And most women seem to be joining the trend as they don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to uplift important women in their lives, secondarily, I think we can all agree that the opportunity to post quaint black and white photographs of oneself is hard to pass.
Most women have included the hashtag #womenempowerment or #womensupportwomen in their posts. Among other celebrities, Indian actress, Urmila Matondkar had posted her picture with the caption, “So glad that through this trend we all are acknowledging the need to support n strengthen each other. I’ve always maintained that the first step to #womenempowerment is women supporting n standing up for each other..so Bravo”
The challenge has been circulating very quickly with women taking this as an opportunity to support women in their community, however, many columnists and feminists have questioned the movement. Lorenz writes her critique in the New York Times, “Though the portraits have spread widely, the posts themselves say very little, the black-and-white selfie allows users to feel as if they’re taking a stand while saying almost nothing.” She continues, “Influencers and celebrities love these types of “challenges” because they don’t require actual advocacy, which might alienate certain factions of their fan base.”
Her questions are a valid criticism of the trend as the way it is progressing, there seems to be no deeper meaning to it. However, the trend definitely has an origin, even though the meaning has been lost like in a game of Chinese whispers; reports say that the challenge had begun for a far more novel cause.
The link of black and white photo challenge to Alexandria Ocasio and femicides in Turkey
Christine Abram, a public relations and influencer marketing manager for Later, a social media marketing firm tells the New York Times that a video of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s speech on sexism addressing Representative Ted Yoho’s derogatory remarks against her, is one reason for the popularity of the black and white challenge and more conversations about feminism and female empowerment.
She explains how that laid a base for similar female empowerment hashtags to increase exponentially as the algorithm had already become familiar with the hashtag. So, this movement, that was also using similar hashtags quickly blew up on everyone’s feed globally.
Other people like travel reporter Tariro Mzezewa, have attributed the reason for this trend to the protests in Turkey against femicide and domestic violence and to grieve the violent death of Pinar Gültekin, a student that was reportedly murdered by her ex-boyfriend in July.
A Turkish woman explains the origin of the challenge to educate the trend-hoppers, she says, “Turkish people wake up every day to see a black and white photo of a woman who has been murdered on their Instagram feed, on their newspapers and on their TV screens.” She writes about the rationale behind the movement, “The black and white photo challenge started to stand in solidarity with the women we have lost. To show that one day, it could be their picture plastered across news outlets with a black and white filter on top.”
Another Turkish woman had taken to Instagram, to explain to her international peers about the origin of the black and white challenge.
Turkey has been witnessing a rise in femicide currently. According to the We Will Stop Femicide online platform, in 2020, 27 women were murdered by their significant others due to motives ranging from jealousy to rage.
According to DW, women in Turkey's cities, particularly in the country's west, have taken to the streets to protest these gruesome crimes against women. The Turkish government on paper seems responsive, as the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan tweeted his concern for crimes against women, “Yesterday, we were overwhelmed with pain when we had to learn that Pinar Gültekin was murdered by a villain. I despise all crimes committed against women" However, protestors claim his words ring hollow as no real action has been taken by the Turkish government.
Is the trend merely performative activism?
Women that have refused to hop on to this trend have criticised it for digressing from the original cause and overshadowing the voice of Turkish women who actually began the campaign. It’s become into a glamorised, slightly elitist type of feminism and while it is great to support feminism and women empowerment, we can’t let other women’s voices be buried. Twitter users have expressed their disapproval and although some appreciated their criticism, they have received strong backlash as well.
Alana Levinson, a writer tweeted on Monday, “Ladies, instead of posting that hot black-and-white selfie, why don’t we ease into feminism with something low stakes, like cutting off your friend who’s an abuser?”Another woman tweeted, “#ChallengeAccepted has been misinterpreted and is losing the message behind it. It's important to know the truth behind it so we can use it for that much power!!!!”
Women have also spoken about the backlash they received for having divergent views on the trend, “Currently getting hate mail on Instagram from complete strangers because I said black and white selfies aren’t a cause,” tweeted the podcast host Ali Segel. “Apparently I hate women and don’t love myself!!!!!! I’m minding my own business for the rest of my life!!!!!!,” she further wrote.
It seems there is a disagreement on how activism must be practised on social media but instead of starting petty conflicts, some women are suggesting alternative and more substantial ways to empower women instead of merely posting a black and white photo of themselves and calling it a ‘challenge’.
Critics suggest alternatives such as educating people on women’s issues
Segel, the podcast host shares an alternative, “I think that if this ‘movement’ featured trans women or differently-abled women, or showcased female businesses or accomplishments or women in history, it would make more sense.” Other women on twitter suggested that, instead of a selfie, women should photos of books on feminism, share links to articles, products charities that benefit women in their community.
Camilla Blackett, a TV writer, suggested that the campaign was little more than a vehicle for attractive photos. “What is the point of this #ChallengeAccepted thing?” she tweeted on Monday. “Do people not know you can just post a hot selfie for no reason?”
This trend, though good-intentioned, falls under the purview of performative activism, it’s the same type of activism the ‘black square’ fell under; in early June, people were posting black squares to express their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Again, a well-intentioned move but how can a blank screen ensure the progression of a movement that demands large systemic reforms?
People usually criticise this brand of superficial activism for creating almost no difference to the movement and claim it overshadows the crux of movements. In the context of the ‘black square’ trend, people castigated it for drowning information-laden posts in a sea of meaningless black squares and interfering with the algorithm. It would be a shame if that happened to the Turkish women’s movement to fight against domestic violence and crimes against women.
While it is clear that women who posted their selfies as part of the challenge don’t harbour any ill-will towards the women empowerment movement, many of them probably weren’t even aware of the origin of the movement. So, ladies let’s not put each other down because when women hate on other women, everybody loses. However, once we’ve educated ourselves, we must break the chain of misinformation and rise above performative activism.