Essays

The Teen-Girl Tumblr Aesthetic*

by Alicia Eler and Kate Durbin on March 1, 2013

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Frida Kahlo with sparkling eyebrows (via champagnemanagement.tumblr.com, h/t womenasobjects.tumblr.com)

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of commissioned essays for The World’s First Tumblr Art Symposium on Saturday, March 9, 2013.

Twenty-one-year-old Elisa Lam made national news when her body was uncovered in a water tank on the roof of the infamous Cecil Hotel, near Skid Row in Los Angeles. Not long before that, she was just a barely-no-longer-adolescent girl visiting the United States from Canada, exploring the city of angels whilst on spring break. In the Internet land of immediate responses, reactions, and reprimands via text chatter, reblogs, deleted comments, likes, and unlikes, hearts, and de-hearted emotional Tumblr affirmations, Elisa Lam’s 19-year-old friend Jialin began Tumblr blogging about her friend’s death. Was she a bad friend? How could this have happened to Elisa?

“She’s a real person. Stop it. The autopsy results were inconclusive. I have anger issues,” she writes on the portion of her tumblelog tagged “Elisa Lam.” She poured her emotions out through Tumblr, the simple instant blogging platform founded by young entrepreneur David Karp in 2007 for exactly that purpose. Forbes dubbed it Karp’s $800 million art project, and it does indeed exist for personal expression: “Tumblr experience can be boiled down to people expressing themselves publicly. Like those other two networks, Tumblr is organized in the form of streams of posts,” writes Jeff Bercovici. And like most art projects, money wasn’t the first thing on Karp’s mind when he started it.

Yet as Elisa Lam lay floating in a hotel water tank, decomposing without the preservative assistance of the formaldehyde in Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” guests at the hotel drank her fluids. Like the Tumblr teen-girl aesthetic that is currently making its way through the veins and channels of culture, Lam is everywhere, seeping into the pores of the Internet’s most hidden corners. The media sensation that her death became, along with the teen-girl online social universe she embodied, has metastasized.

Elisa Lam herself had a Tumblr. Elisa’s best friend is blogging in reaction to Elisa’s death on Tumblr, from moment to moment, documenting her feelings in real time. Through these inroads, we get a brief look into the minds of the honest, intelligent teenage girls who are experiencing surfeits of emotion, yet are not nervous at all.

In the case of Elisa Lam’s body, the online/real life (IRL) overlap becomes fraught. Critique around James Bridle’s coinage of the New Aesthetic revolves around the loss of the physicality of the art object. But in the case of the teen-girl Tumblr aesthetic, the art “object” extends to the bodies of girls both on and offline; the fetish is not contained in a static image. Even the images themselves are constantly moving and perpetuating themeselves on Tumblr, breathing and existing in time and space as a living body.

The teen-girl Tumblr aesthetic differentiates itself from the prevalent nostalgia-induced reimagining of the archetypal lusty teenage dream. Rip-offs of that aesthetic are familiar staples of bubble-gum-pop culture. They hijack the notion of adolescence, attempting to reinstall it into adults who have already experienced it — the heightened emotions, the epic breakups, the popularity contests, the self-actualizing, the loss of virginity, the sugar-sweet feeling of falling in love again for the first time. American pop culture idealizes the adolescent experience, recreating it through nostalgia, hypersexualized female bodies and fleeting, sugary feelings.

COTTONCANDYKATYWEB-e1351320654871

Will Cotton, “Cotton Candy Katy,” (2010) (Image from Willcotton.com)

Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” video, directed by art-world celebrity Will Cotton, who is best known for his paintings of women and candy. He made the leap from art-world big shot to pop-star character through indulging in the teenage dream. His imagining of Katy Perry floating in a pink cotton candy cloud is the essence of the teenage dream — for adults, that is.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Cotton says that Katy was just the pop star he had imagined working with:

The reason I chose Katy and nobody else — I had torn pictures of her out of magazines, because she was just the kind of character that I wanted to paint. She’s very over-the-top, she’s very sugary, saccharine. As sweet as can be. By painting the [“Teenage Dream” single] cover and working on [the “California Gurls” video], it disseminated this imagery in a way that the art world just never can.

Elle Fanning (via teenidols4you.com)

Elle Fanning (via teenidols4you.com)

Cotton’s reach extended far beyond just the art world and American pop culture, however. His imagery spread across the Internet, to South America and Europe. Teenagers and pre-teens, who are familiar with developing part of their sense of self through the mirror of social networks, began emailing Cotton about his Katy Perry paintings and pop art. Though it’s not something he says he’s ever wanted, it surely has gained him recognition beyond what even advertising could do — not to mention a ton more Facebook friends.

“It’s a totally different scale. The video had 100 million hits on YouTube. That’s just way beyond art-world scale. And now, I can get an email from a 12-year-old girl in Brazil who knows my imagery because of the Katy Perry album cover and video,” Cotton told The Daily Beast.

For his next exploration into the teenage dream, Cotton went straight to the source, rendering actress Elle Fanning in a candy-inspired editorial for New York Magazine. The younger sister of Dakota Fanning, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Candyland princess Elle is only 15 years old. Hers is a younger, more closely threaded connection to the teenage girl aesthetic as created by people who are no longer in their adolescence.

Yet Cotton’s project is closer to Rineke Djekstra’s portraits of adolescent girls attempting to pose in a sexy way, awkwardly beautiful in her vulnerability, or Tracey Emin, a grown woman expressing herself through confessional text, site-specific installation and a raw, adolescent voice. These artists create adult renderings of the adolescent girl sensibility.

Left, Rineke Dijkstra. "Kolobrzeg, Poland, July 26, 1992." Chromogenic print, 117 x 94 cm. Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris. © Rineke Dijkstra, and right,  Tracey Emin, Hellter Fucking Skelter, 2001 Courtesy White Cube, London.

Left, Rineke Dijkstra. “Kolobrzeg, Poland, July 26, 1992.” Chromogenic print, 117 x 94 cm. (Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris. © Rineke Dijkstra, via), and right, Tracey Emin, “Hellter Fucking Skelter” (2001) (image courtesy White Cube, London, via)

These are grown-ups, so to speak, channeling or connecting in some way with a constructed idea of the teenage girl aesthetic and adolescence. The teen girl Tumblr aesthetic of Marie Calloway, Molly Soda, Elisa Lam and her best friend, Emma Orlow of The Do Not Enter Diaries, PlasticPony, and Onlinebabe is something entirely different: immediate, hyper-embodied, raw and vulnerable. The stakes are higher, too. As in the case of Lam and her friend, they are a matter of IRL life and death, with Lam’s friend reporting Lam’s Tumblr posts to the cops as they searched for answers to the riddle of her disappearance.

* * *

The field of Tumblr art is relatively new, and most of the projects that the art world has championed in this vein thus far take their cue from digital art, GIFs, glitch art, and net art. The New Aesthetic, as defined and championed by James Bridle, Bruce Sterling and debated on The Creators Project, is a far cry from the teen girl tumblr aesthetic.

In Kyle Chayka’s response piece — an essay titled “The New Aesthetic: Going Native” — he questioned how it could have taken aesthetes so long to recognize the New Aesthetic’s pervasive nature:

NA is part meme, part techno-ethnography and part Tumblr serendipity. Its art is juxtaposition: If we put this next to that and this other thing, surely a new understanding will emerge.

Julia Kaganskiy writes that, surely, this essay does help articulate the idea of blurring the ‘digital’ and the ‘real,’ something that we Internet migrators are aware of but perhaps haven’t properly discussed. A few months after these seminal posts on The Creators Project, an Art F City article chronicles the healthy, ongoing debate around the New Aesthetic, discussing how it has thus far been presented as a mostly robotic, architectural, futuristic sphere consisting “of images, mainly of satellite photos and colorful design objects which look like they’ve been run through a computer (have obvious pixels), alongside emerging trends which humanize robots.”

If bodies do appear in the new aesthetic artworks (at least those presented at art conferences or in art magazines) they usually are remote bodies, as in these cases of humanized robots or architecture. The majority of examples are, mysteriously, free of direct references to lived bodies, and in particular absent of women’s bodies. The female nude seems to have vanished from the new aesthetic. But this is not an accurate representation of the content on Tumblr, which is generally presented as synonymous with the new aesthetic. Instead, Tumblr is so thick with nudes as to cause problems for the site in its attempt to gain advertisers. Nudity on Tumblr ranges from well-curated porn to art historical nudes turned into GIFs, or, in the case of the teen-girl Tumblr aesthetic, those same things (porn and art historical GIFs) scrawled with notepad comments and jokes, decorated with glitter and cakes.

tumblr_miclbtrinv1rhkv2xo1_r1_250The teen-girl Tumblr aesthetic is bloated with more bodies than a porn video warehouse — the girls’ own bodies, and the bodies of other girls, from celebrities like Kim Kardashian to former porn star Sasha Grey to other Tumblr girls and the above-mentioned art history nudes. Kate Durbin, a co-author of this essay, has created the projects “Girls, Online” and “Women as Objects,” which curate teen-girl Tumblr aesthetic images in Blogspot and Tumblr spaces. The collected artifacts reference the objectification that women and girls experience daily, both on and offline, but in a cheeky manner that nods toward the radical self-objectification that the girls practice on their own Tumblr blogs.

In the case of these teen girls, their own bodies are canvases upon which they interface with the world, an audience with a gaze that is constantly watching and appraising. Like Cotton’s images of Katy Perry, there is still plenty of nostalgia present in the teen-girl Tumblr aesthetic — for example, references to Japanese kawaii culture and ‘90s nostalgia — but there is a darker edge, an undermining of the heterosexual male gaze, as well as an ever-present extreme vulnerability. It’s important to note too that it’s not possible to experience the complex effect of the teen-girl Tumblr aesthetic fully without actually scrolling through Tumblr, taking in the images as they slip over each other in the moving stream, intersecting with other girls’ images and aesthetic worlds. In isolation they are static — less alive than Elisa Lam’s body decomposing in a water tank.

Ben Valentine has pointed out that a problem Tumblr poses for artists has to do with the anonymity of the individual art piece, since so many images get reblogged, yet the wide audiences they attract rarely return to the original source of the image. This makes it difficult for Tumblr artists to succeed in the art world. When it comes to the teen-girl Tumblr aesthetic, this critique of anonymity is beside the point. The teen girls, while they are no less artists in their creation of profound and innovative content, seem ambivalent in regards to the importance of an original source (perhaps their bodies are the source; they are certainly the filter), and have little interest in gaining a name in any larger art world.

When Molly Soda, a Tumblr-famous teen girl whose work has been discussed in Rhizome and is featured prominently on “Women as Objects,” was asked by the authors of this piece what she thought of the art world, she replied, “I’m pretty sure you don’t have to answer this question after you’ve graduated from art school… right? ;)”

Plasticpony, another “Women as Objects” participant, said in response to the same question, “I like art. But I’m not in the ‘art world.’ I don’t have a direct connection with it and I don’t know how it is. I have a vague idea of what it might be like…”

It’s helpful to discuss the issue of anonymity Valentine brings up, however, because in the case of Elisa Lam’s friend and the teen-girl Tumblr aesthetic in general, Tumblr has become a space to create a personal aesthetic against anonymity. In Lam’s friend’s case, she is battling against the voices on the real-life school bus as well as the peanut gallery of internet comment boards that tried to hijack her friend’s body as it lay in the water tank:

Now vehemently defending Elisa from stupid ass trolls online … reddit needs to know that she is not a fucking junkie. she isn’t. wasn’t. she was a kind, intelligent girl, who did not do drugs. you got that, internet world? … i heard high school kids on the skytrain talking about her since it was on the front page. i want to punch them all … she’s a real person. stop it … the autopsy was inconclusive.

In the psychic moving stream of Tumblr, teen girls build and perform their individual aesthetics, which are not anonymous, even if individual images are not interacted with in the same reverent (or highly art-critical) way with which one might encounter a Monet in a museum. The teen-girl Tumblr aesthetic is less about an individual image that might be dissected and praised or excellence in a specific medium, and more about, as Lena Dunham articulated in a recent interview with Miranda July in Interview magazine discussing her generation of artists, “articulating a point of view.”

In the case of teen girls, the expressions of their points of view include visual art, altered self-portraits, and writing that is personal and vulnerable. Francesca Woodman, the young artist whose intimate self-portraits of her body fusing with her environment would have thrived on Tumblr (feeling unappreciated by the art world, she committed suicide at the age of 22, though her work posthumously came into high regard). Her work appears on Tumblr constantly, echoing on the blogs of teen girls.

FrancescaWoodman

It’s perhaps best to let these teen girls speak for themselves about what makes Tumblr such a unique platform for their self-expression. Plasticpony says:

People often ask me ‘What’s Tumblr? Why are you so obsessed with it?’ and they mistake it for a social network. A social network, like Facebook, exists only for the purpose to connect you with other people. People that you probably already know in real life, and people that you might want to know. If you think about it, it’s limiting. There are some things you can do, and some you can’t do. Tumblr is a totally different thing. In most cases it’s used as a blog. But it can also become your website. It can be a project. You can become famous through it and it can change you. I know for sure that it changed me. It helped me in deciding to be strong and dye my hair, it helped my taste in fashion, art, photography change and evolve, it made me interested in feminism and social rights. I have more interests and a more peculiar taste now. I feel that in some way my life would be different without Tumblr.

And you can post almost everything you want on Tumblr. I’m not saying that nobody is going to judge you, but it’s A LOT more forgiving than every other website I can think of, and of course, real life. When I’m on Tumblr, I feel that I can do what I want and be who I want to be without the fear of the stigma that I would otherwise certainly experience.

If someone can take a look at my Tumblr and say ‘I like it,’ I feel happy. Because looking at my blog is very similar to looking directly inside my brain. If I can be accepted on Tumblr, maybe I can also accept myself.

The confessional poet Sylvia Plath would have thrived on Tumblr, too. She actually does thrive and live there now, with lines from her diary and her poems frequently blogged by teen girls, sometimes in hand-scrawled notes, other times in ‘90s style notepad art.


Marie Calloway, a young writer who could be seen as a LiveJournal-era version of Plath, had this say about Tumblr:

To me something feels very intimate about Tumblr which is strange considering that it has less privacy controls than other blogging platforms (e.g. there’s no “friends only” option like there was on live journal.) i am vaguely connected to the literary world in nyc, which i find to have a lot intelligent and interesting people in it, but it is also very aggressive and sexist at times. for instance i went to two parties around christmas time for different big literary publications and it was a lot of middle aged men buying drinks for girls in their 20′s and aggressively hitting on them. i felt uncomfortable. i think Tumblr provides girls with a community to interact in a female oriented space. i find it important because working in spaces with men i feel like there’s a lot of compromises that have to be made and a lot of uncomfortable and toxic feelings.

The tension Calloway mentions regarding real-world dangers that haunt young women should be noted. It is very possible that these same dangers are what took the life of Elisa Lam.

If a project like “Women as Objects” is a catalogue of the teen-girl Tumblr aesthetic, then it is a catalogue of the future, a future that is freer, where the lines between online and IRL are less rigid. Plasticpony, when asked what she wanted the world to know about Tumblr, said: “I would like the world to know what it feels like to be able to do whatever you want freely and to let everyone else do whatever they want.” In discussing the New Aesthetic project, the professor and artist Carla Gannis writes, “A movement cannot merely catalogue what currently exists, it is defined by the future(s) it envisions.”

In the case of Elisa Lam, a young woman who was described as friendly and kind to everyone she met IRL, a young woman whose living, moving Tumblr stream was filled with images of a life of adventure and joy, a young woman whose body ended up static in a sealed-off water tank, this vision of the future cannot come soon enough.

Hyperallergic would like to thank Pernod Absinthe for their support of the World’s First Tumblr Art Symposium essay series.

*The authors would like to clarify that the teen girl tumblr aesthetic is just that, an aesthetic movement. While the majority of of it’s practitioners are “literal” teen girls, not everyone who is working in this vein is a born a ciswoman, or is currently between the ages of twelve and nineteen. We realize this may seem like a contradiction to some, as the core of the aesthetic seems to center around vulnerability and telling ones own narrative (as opposed to the projection of an idyllic youth onto an “other”). But “teenagehood” is a social construct, an idea, which exists in the cultural consciousness. It has never been mostly literal. The teen girl tumblr aesthetic is also an idea, an attempt to articulate an exciting cultural movement that has emerged recently on the Internet, where one’s identity is more fluid.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/pancho.panoptes Pancho Panoptes

    Wonderful piece.

    Plasticpony offers many relevant insights. Among them, the illusion of freedom in the inhabiting space provided by Tumblr. An illusion not because Tumblr does not offer the ability, as she mentions, “to be able to do whatever you want freely and to let everyone else do whatever they want,” but because her statement implies that IRL that freedom, for her, does not seem to exist.
    In fact, it does exist: she can do/be whatever/whomever she wants and let everyone else do whatever they want. Or at least, we’d like to think so. I mean, out of all the teen-girls in the world, one would think that American teen-girls have the most freedoms, right?

    But Plasticpony’s implied lack of freedom IRL might not be her individual case but instead point towards the general limits of being a girl as a teen–An age crowded with first times and rites of passage. Tumblr seems to offer a space in which a teen-girl can reaffirm herself, who she is and who she wants to be, through the simultaneous exposure and vulnerability. And the reaffirmation of the self is a road that leads to maturity.

    When Platicpony finally realizes that she– not only in Tumblr but also IRL– is able to do whatever she wants freely, she will no longer be a teen-girl.

    Her story reminds me of a lone immigrant, any lone immigrant, who finds that in a new land/space he/she can be whomever he wants to be since there is nobody within that space to remind him who he/she once was.

    • http://www.aliciaeler.com Alicia Eler

      Beautifully put! I love this line you write: “When Platicpony finally realizes that she– not only in Tumblr but also IRL– is able to do whatever she wants freely, she will no longer be a teen-girl.” It leaves me wondering: What does it mean to grow up and no longer be a girl? Thank you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/charlieklein Charles Klein

    This is disgusting. How could you use the recent death of a defenseless woman to make some sort of high-brow academic point? You should be ashamed of your lack of journalistic standards as well as basic human compassion.

    Elisa was a friend of mine and it disgusts me so to read you using her in this way.

    • http://www.aliciaeler.com Alicia Eler

      Hey Charles, thank you for your comment. I am sorry that you took this as a literal attack on the death of your friend. That is absolutely not how Kate and I meant for this to read. We are so sorry for your loss. We began the essay with Elisa because this is a way to draw attention to the real lives and passions of these girls, of Elisa, and the attention of how sad this tragedy is—and how much it is indicative of a loss of control over the image. We are not doing this to exploit Elisa in any way. In discussing Elisa’s death, we want to honor the sort of loss of impossibility of ownership over the image that all teenage girls who share personal information online do—they all become subject to the endless stream of the Internet, to the eyes of anonymous viewers. When one mourns on the Internet, there is no such thing as a boundary. Everything is public. There is no privacy. Tumblr provides an illusion of intimacy that makes one feel like it is literally a corporeal part of the body, but it is not. It is outside, exterior, and you never know who sees. Our condolences to you, your friends and family. To loss someone is tragic, and to do experience this loss through a mediated interface such as the Internet is difficult, to say the very least.

      • http://www.facebook.com/emilyschinske Emily Schinske

        “Sorry you took this as a literal attack. We only meant it to be a figurative one.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/emilyd.howell Emily Howell

    Honestly, I think this is incredibly rude. Elisa has just passed away and her family and friends are still grieving and you describe her in a way that tries to get a reaction out of people. Do you not have any compassion? How can you not be sensitive to the friends and family of Elisa who are reading how you are trying to gain writing popularity by writing insensitively about their loved one? You quote her friend who is pouring out her heart to her community for support and compassion as if you are some great detective for discovering her blog. Seriously? She is talking to her friends and followers and you treat her just as poorly as you are respecting Elisa’s memory. Have some compassion. Think about it. This was someone’s someone and you used it for yourself. Look at your wording and whose privacy you failed to respect. Your next article should be an apology letter.

    • http://www.aliciaeler.com Alicia Eler

      Dear Emily, thank you for your comment. The topic of grieving in public spaces such as social media sites is a strange experience. It doesn’t discredit the feelings, but it of course makes very, very public what is normally a private experience. The Internet changes the way we interact with others, form emotional relationships, and feel. We began the essay with Elisa because this is a way to draw attention to the real lives and passions of these girls, of Elisa, and the attention of how sad this tragedy is—and how much it is indicative of a loss of control over the image. We are not doing this to exploit Elisa in any way. In discussing Elisa’s death, we want to honor the sort of loss of impossibility of ownership over the image that all teenage girls who share personal information online do—they all become subject to the endless stream of the Internet, to the eyes of anonymous viewers. When one mourns on the Internet, there is no such thing as a boundary. Everything is public. There is no privacy. Tumblr provides an illusion of intimacy that makes one feel like it is literally a corporeal part of the body, but it is not. It is outside, exterior, and you never know who sees. Our condolences to you, your friends and family. To loss someone is tragic, and to do experience this loss through a mediated interface such as the Internet is difficult, to say the very least.

      • http://www.facebook.com/emilyd.howell Emily Howell

        I’m confused. Isn’t this the problem? You “began the essay with Elisa because this is a way to draw attention.” Her story is recent and this would gain your article more attention. Regardless of that, it’s not just exploiting her story for attention of yours, it’s the way you described her: “Yet as Elisa Lam lay floating in a hotel water tank, decomposing without the preservative assistance of the formaldehyde in Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” guests at the hotel drank her fluids.” How is this eloquent? How are you “honouring” Elisa and respecting her friends and family in ANY way with that quote? If you ever met Elisa’s parents face to face, what would you say to them about this quote? I’m sure they would love to hear you talk about people drinking their daughter’s fluids and her decay, because it gets a reaction out of your readers and gains you attention, right? Would you read this article to them and be absolutely okay with every word of it? You should know that these words are disrespectful, and instead of defending your article and the point you were trying to prove, admit that you failed to do so tactfully and either the article should be changed or removed.

  • linda ravenswood

    with respect for the lost, and with respect for your grieving, I offer sincere empathy –

    I thought that a word or two on the continuing, unfolding nature of the story, the history of these specific stories within an archetypal story context, might be alright. …

    Reading the article, new comments come in, people are
    moved to speak out, to be against you, the writers, the explorers, the people left to make sense of events … There is an ownership, a trend to misunderstand you, you are
    alone … It is disturbing not to be able to hold the duality of the story
    pieces with the writers story / women’s history / and the attempt to place the story of Elisa ( though she is not solely defined by tragedy ) in that history … The events are attached, not disembodied. We
    are connected …. We walk the land that was theirs, we drink
    in their air, drink in their detritus, their remnant, we become their voice … in a sense, we carry their cause,
    and their memory, and their advent and ambition .. It’s still a tale of separation .. of women being told off .. abandoned, cut
    out, dis-engaged …. you can’t claim this, you can’t talk about this,’
    have some compassion ‘ …. I think holding the Elisa Lam story and promulgating
    her quest pays her respect, and invites us to engage with the
    disengaged, the lost, in a passionate, evolving manner … Elisa Lam and her Friend jialin are being held in the context of other brave adventurers, pioneers, witnesses and craftspeople of their history. Elisa and Jialin set out. Set out to do something, to affect something, to see, to create. This is something. In some cases, this is all we have.

    21 minutes ago

  • linda ravenswood

    with respect for the lost, and with respect for your grieving, I offer sincere empathy –

    I thought that a word or two on the continuing, unfolding nature of the story, the history of these specific stories within an archetypal story context, might be alright. …

    Reading the article, new comments come in, people are moved to speak out, to be against you, the writers, the explorers, the people left to make sense of events … There is an ownership, a trend to misunderstand you, you are alone … It is disturbing not to be able to hold the duality of the story pieces with the writers story / women’s history / and the attempt to place the story of Elisa ( though she is not solely defined by tragedy ) in that history … The events are attached, not disembodied. We are connected …. We walk the land that was theirs, we drink in their air, drink in their detritus, their remnant, we become their voice … in a sense, we carry their cause, and their memory, and their advent and ambition .. It’s still a tale of separation .. of women being told off .. abandoned, cut out, dis-engaged …. you can’t claim this, you can’t talk about this,’ have some compassion ‘ …. I think holding the Elisa Lam story and promulgating her quest pays her respect, and invites us to engage with the disengaged, the lost, in a passionate, evolving manner … Elisa Lam and her Friend jialin are being held in the context of other brave adventurers, pioneers, witnesses and craftspeople of their history. Elisa and Jialin set out. Set out to do something, to affect something, to see, to create. This is something. In some cases, this is all we have.

  • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

    Done.

  • Amara Quincetti

    I find that how Elisa is mentioned is very rude and insensitive. I can’t imagine having known her and then finding this article.

  • Darcy

    Of course there’s a problem of readership here – some people who are reaching this article through search engines are (perhaps even understandably, in some cases) uncomfortable with its wide lens. But it’s a fantastic and thoughtful article. Thanks.

    • http://www.aliciaeler.com Alicia Eler

      Thank you, Darcy!

    • http://www.aliciaeler.com Alicia Eler

      And yes, you never know how people will arrive at a story online.

    • http://www.facebook.com/annajoy.springer Anna Joy Springer

      As a queer feminist researching and performing re the femme abject and counter-co-optive strategies for 25 years, I’d like to argue that this is not at all a thoughtful article. It misses an enormous trajectory of many many discussions that would have informed it more thoroughly.

      • http://www.aliciaeler.com Alicia Eler

        Hmmm oh, do share! I mean, this story is a starting point for larger conversations around the teen-girl tumblr aesthetic. What future discussions are you interested in, @facebook-100000299958263:disqus?

  • Therese

    It is both disheartening and disturbing that you chose to shoehorn in salacious descriptions of the tragic death of a young woman who sadly, gained notoriety through the strange manner of the discovery of her death. You are capitalizing on her tragedy for the sheer purpose of using a high profile news item to draw attention to your (tenuous) art school thesis project. You could have used any number of bloggers or teen girls to illustrate your theory but knew you’d get more attention if it were somehow linked to Elisa’s untimely and terrible passing. Simply because she and her friends use tumblr does not make it appropriate for you to exploit her.

  • emdub1985

    “Elisa’s best friend is blogging in reaction to Elisa’s death on Tumblr, from moment to moment, documenting her feelings in real time. Through these inroads, we get a brief look into the minds of the honest, intelligent teenage girls who are experiencing surfeits of emotion, yet are not nervous at all.”

    This is key in this discussion…what is being discussed here (tumblr) IS a component of “the media”.. but it’s created BY these women, and is their voice, independent of sensationalism. This article is calling attention to this medium of self-expression, not exploiting anyone to make an “intellectual arguement”. Thank you for writing this, Kate and Alicia.

    • http://www.aliciaeler.com Alicia Eler

      Yes! You understand what we are trying to say! THANK YOU!!!

  • linda ravenswood

    hi .. could you please remove my earlier anonymous guest reply to the Hyperallergic essay on Teen Girl Tumblr Aesthet. ? I tried to leave the comment as me linda, but it showed up as guest … then i left the comment as linda … could you take the anon comment away please ? thank you

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=28124954 Jennifer Chan

    It was good to note that Molly Soda and Marie Calloway are young adults/no longer in their teens but portray an honest and teenage manner of self-representing on tumblr. I also think I don’t have to face being in my twenties on tumblr if I don’t want to.

    Not-getting-famous-in-the-”Art world” might not be due to reblogs enforcing anonymity, but perhaps the appearance of youth and agelessness on these tumblrs.It’s hard for the “art world” and even academics to take young people seriously; afterall phD-ers want to write about people whose work will continue to be around in 10 years, and not possibly gone in 5 months just by changing tumblr name.

  • http://alagarconniere.wordpress.com/ julia

    I found this article equal parts baffling, incredibly important and way too intense. It took me 3 tries to make it to the end, and I can’t get past the fact that you used the still mysterious death of a young woman as the déclencheur for this conversation.

    Personally, I can’t help but wonder how distorted my own visions of these topics are since I’ve only been using Tumblr since the age of 22. Was I, as you describe Elisa, a barely-no-longer-adolescent girl at the time? I would have hardly described myself as such. That said, at the time and still today five years later I was struck by the fact that Tumblr was predominately populated by young women, much like my prior experiences with Livejournal. This merits conversation and analysis, most definitely.

    As other commentors have noted, it feels trite and misplaced to continually laud Molly Soda as representative of this so-called “Teen-Girl Tumblr Aesthetic.” “Tumblr-famous teen?” She’s 23. She was on Livejournal just like the rest of us, never used Tumblr as a diary or a tumblelog in the traditional sense – as you describe Elisa & Jialin using it – but as a hyper-parodic art school experiment exploring notions of girlhood. Ironic hers, with a fake persona (her real name is Amalia Soto) garners far more media attention and online hits than those belonging to actual teen girls, writing about their actual lives. The more people talk about her, the more they convince themselves she is some sort of elected representative of every teen girl on tumblr ever? When in fact, she’s mocking it in a certain sense? Yes, it is perhaps appropriate to use her in this conversation centered around art & online performativity but at least clarify she is even older than a “barely-no-longer adolescent girl.”

    All of this points to many of the criticisms other commentors have made – you chose to use Elisa and Jialin as the starting point of your article, which you say was to “to draw attention to the real lives and passions of these girls” – but I don’t feel you succeeded. I never saw Elisa’s tumblr, but I don’t get the Frida Kahlo-Sasha Grey-Katy Perry-Tracey Emin sense from Jialin’s tumblr at all. Far more pictures of cute animals, political quotes and pop culture gif sets than self-portraits and feminist art.

    Last but not least, the absence of discussions around race in this piece were really quite striking to me… Elisa and her friend Jialin are Asian, but that is not addressed at all. As I mentionned earlier, visiting Jialin’s tumble-log, I was surprised at how different it is from the aesthetic presented her. This is compounded by the fact that all of the images and examples used are very much centered around whiteness and white privilege (save for Frida Kahlo, of course, who referred to white people as boring as “unbaked rolls”). There have been countless important discussions – on Tumblr! – challenging the way white young women in these online spaces react in knee-jerk ways to being challenged to address these dynamics. Not to mention, more importantly, how many POC resist those dominant scripts by creating and sharing their own images, giving voice to “girls like them” in a way that hadn’t been nearly as accessible/widespread a few short years ago.

    In the end, the article feels muddled, misguided, and that explains why so many are interpreting this article as ill-intentioned.

    • http://www.aliciaeler.com Alicia Eler

      Julia- thank you for taking the time to write this. Your comment really helped clarify a lot of the things I found confusing about the responses to this piece. See my apology up top. All best, Alicia

  • http://www.facebook.com/meryl.pataky Meryl Pataky

    I think this is an interesting, yet hard to read, article that definitely bring up some concepts to ponder. That’s always good. However, I agree with most that you did not succeed in honoring this young girl or her family with such descriptive language on the state of her body. It went a little too far and not in a good, it’s art, kind of way. You basically compared her dead (murdered) body to a dead animal in formaldehyde on display for the world to see. Tsk Tsk. I think most people read that quote and made the :/ face where they suck air in from the side of their mouth, teeth clenched. Yikes. You write about teenage/adolescent sexuality while talking about a murdered young girl. Wow.

    On a separate note, I am an artist that uses Tumblr. I support other emerging artists on the internet and find it incredibly frustrating how artist credits get lost in the impulsive act of reblogging. Young girls (which I assume is the majority demographic on Tumblr) click click click and reblog this and that mindlessly. Their Tumblrs, as you express, are an outward expression of themselves, their aesthetic, experiences and feelings. I hate the thought that these young girls see an image of a beautiful work of art (famous or emerging) and it resonates with them but they never have the opportunity to discover more work from that artist, or the story behind the work because captions are allowed to be deleted during reblogging. Tumblr being a big traffic center, some artists’ images come up in search results through Tumblr before their websites and with image sharing being done on Tumblr on such a massive scale, these artists and their hard work and process get lost in the internet, never to be known.

    I find it interesting and almost funny that TumblrArt touts itself as so important for young artists but doesn’t do anything about copyrighting artists imagery. There are plenty of artists who aren’t even on Tumblr that have their images ripped by a 13 yr old girl for her blog, reblogged 14k times and the artist isn’t mentioned once. Stop letting people delete captions OR put in an artist credit field that cannot be erased by rebloggers for those people who actually think it’s important to add a title and artist to the work they post. Support an artists’ copyright friendly blogging platform. It’s wrong for 13k (or more) people to identify with a work of art without every knowing the artists.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sjuliettelee Sueyeun Juliette Lee

    “We began the essay with Elisa because this is a way to draw attention to the real lives and passions of these girls, of Elisa, and the attention of how sad this tragedy is—and how much it is indicative of a loss of control over the image. We are not doing this to exploit Elisa in any way. In discussing Elisa’s death, we want to honor the sort of loss of impossibility of ownership over the image that all teenage girls who share personal information online do—they all become subject to the endless stream of the Internet, to the eyes of anonymous viewers.”

    And yet the way that you describe Elisa’s death and her friend’s loss objectified these two young women even further. You instrumentalized their actual suffering into a gestural shoehorn for your arguments. Where is Elisa ever an actual person? The graphic descriptions of Elisa’s dead body were sensationalist, cold, and in my mind, cynical. When does she have any agency or voice in your piece? Her blog is never quoted. She and her friend are silenced. You’ve animated her into a zombie to do your bidding. She became “A WAY to draw attention…” You turned her body, her being, her friend’s suffering, into a rhetorical gesture.

    I have to also question the racial logic at work here–that the *actual murder* of a young, non-white woman and the *actual mourning* of her non-white friend are referenced to discuss what, from the article’s presentation at least, seem to me performances of white female hyper-gilrliness. You **took ownership** of Elisa’s death and her friend’s mourning to advance claims about the performance of a seemingly white, tween, hyper-femininity. SOME teenage girls experience MORE loss of ownership over themselves than others, clearly. This is racial logic at work.

    That you felt and continue to feel justified in Elisa’s use suggests that you are impervious to the implications that there was anything at fault in what you did. Therese and Charles’s complaints were well founded. They come from *real lives and passions.* An apology is required. Not the sort where you apologize for the other person’s feelings, but you apologize for a fault you committed. Let Elisa and her friends have some measure of peace.

    • http://www.aliciaeler.com Alicia Eler

      Thank you for your comment, Sueyeun. You are absolutely right, and I have apologized up top.

  • http://www.facebook.com/annajoy.springer Anna Joy Springer

    Alicia and Kate: there’s some learning you need to do, and I’d be happy to talk with you about making this sort of dire mistake, in writing, in public. An apology, after a bit of dialogue with your friends, and perhaps some reading, will be in order. You’ve presented a viewpoint that’s insensitive, ignorant, and dumb, not to mention predictably and boringly provocative with its product placement. “Product,” for them being a recently dead woman young woman of color, not a concept.

    • http://www.aliciaeler.com Alicia Eler

      Right, it is a conversation about young-girls as objects. . . the way that this is used over and over again in the media, pop culture, etc., which is totally problematic. I agree with you, Anna Joy Springer. But, I don’t think that writing this piece is a mistake though. As you can see from the last paragraph, we were using this piece as a starting point about the teen-girl tumblr aesthetic, and how it could possibly EVOLVE as a vision for the future. What is the future? Why are womens’ bodies sexualized, demoralized, objectified in this way STILL today? It’s also a curious look into the ways that the adolescents and young women who post this type of thing *do* perpetuate the type of mediated performance in this space, of their bodies, of this cultural narrative, of misogyny. Yet there is a dramatized, nearly hyperreal and fictionalized component to all of this since it is self-created and located in the context of the internet, a performance-driven space taking place now, in late capitalism. How do you see the vision for the future that we get to by the end, that we are talking about as an evolution? Because this, my friend, is what we came across on Tumblr—these are the images that were presented to us. They are problematic, but they are the visual evidence of what is going on. You cannot deny what exists as proof.

  • Mary

    It
    is sad to think that a life of a young woman is used for the sake of
    making a point about social network communication. The responses from
    the author reflect a lack of empathy and obliviousness to how
    insensitive it is to sensationalize Lam’s death. I agree with many others here that Lam’s story was pointless and dehumanizing to not only Lam but to those who are grieving for her loss. As a sociologists and Asian Americanists I find this type of journalistic sensationalism problematic and urge the authors to consider a retraction and apology. Such narratives are systematic of an indemic problem of dehumanizing women and characterizing their lives and deaths as mere bodies to be discussed.

    • http://www.aliciaeler.com Alicia Eler

      Thanks for your comment, Mary. See above.

  • http://twitter.com/imbobswaget Kyrell

    100% creeped out by this article also the authors might be sociopaths

  • http://www.aliciaeler.com Alicia Eler

    Hello everyone! It has been many months since this was written, and I have processed a lot of the feedback I received. I can only speak for myself here, but I want to publicly apologize to Elisa Lam, her friends and family. Her death was an awful and tragic one. I can honestly say that I did not mean any harm toward her or her spirit, but I can see how it was interpreted as such through this essay. To be clear, this piece was a writing experiment. Elisa’s death was real. I sincerely apologize for hurting her, her spirit and anyone associated with her. I have never been to Los Angeles, and I do not know Elisa Lam. May she RIP in the City of Angels. Sincerely, Alicia Eler

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