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First personOpinion

When a ‘challenge’ isn’t a challenge at all

By August 2, 2020No Comments

Is the ‘Challenge Accepted’ Instagram trend and its accompanying hashtags ultimately meaningless? Aisling Keenan asks the question…

I was tagged multiple times last week in the admittedly vague female empowerment ‘movement’ that is the #womensupportingwomen Challenge Accepted trend on Instagram. My first instinct was to ignore: I graduated from both primary school and chain letters around the same time in 1999. But the people who tagged me?


Invariably, they were women I massively respected. Women who, to be frank, were the very last people I would expect to send on a chain message. I had a quick glance around the hashtag – it seemed innocuous enough. Ostensibly, a way to show support for other women, there didn’t seem to be an obvious call to action, a ‘donate to’ or a well defined reason for the activity. Not at that time anyway.

The black and white element, I figured, was there to inject gravitas. I cynically assessed that just plain-old selfie posting wasn’t painfully earnest enough, and more seriousness was needed. I saw celebrities like Victoria Beckham, Kerry Washington, Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon getting on board – it was very much a viral phenomenon already. I was a little confused that this exercise in wishy-washy armchair activism took off in the way that it did given, oh, I don’t know? The global pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement and the social and ideological chaos that’s consuming the world at the minute. Actual challenges, you might say?

So let’s be clear: Posting a picture of yourself on social media shouldn’t ever be considered a challenge. It is not one. And writing a long, rambling caption like the one I was about to pen? Not challenging in the least. My decision, reluctant as it was, was that I would post the requisite monotone picture but make better use of the caption than to simply write, as instructed, ‘challenge accepted’. I went on for a couple of hundred words about the lip service often paid to the concept of #womensupportingwomen and how seeking praise for it on social media is not why I ever do it. I almost instantly regretted the post.

All at once, the likes came in, I was further ‘nominated’ and I started to feel like I was in an Instagram popularity contest. Some kind of deranged pageant, where the more people of note who you could ‘thank’ for nominating you, the more social capital you accrued. I found myself, suddenly, a fully-blown derider.

A friend of mine wrote on Twitter the day after the posting took off: “There are many things about this black and white photo challenge that I don’t like, but one of them is that it is inherently exclusionary. So what? If you’re not nominated you’re not an empowered woman? This is popularity politics at its worst.” And she is right.

In the moment I posted the picture, I was following the herd. I was afraid by not posting, I would appear somehow unsupportive of my peers and colleagues, which I know is not the case. I didn’t stop for a second, and employ the cop on I know I have, to realise that posting the black and white image allowed me (and most other people posting) to feel like I was taking a stand while doing very little.

Posting to Instagram, as we all know, doesn’t require any actual advocacy or activism. I equally didn’t stop to consider that not posting wouldn’t actually cause harm, it wouldn’t be used as ‘proof’ that I wasn’t a supportive person.

The Challenge Accepted concept is not the first movement Instagram users have leveraged in support of a perennially indeterminate cause. Nor is it the first to take off massively, go viral, only to be picked apart soon after, leaving those who posted feeling stupid, guilty or both.

It’s still unclear as to whether the challenge circulated because of Alexandria Ocasio- Cortez speaking out against sexist remarks made by a fellow US congressional representative, or whether it was started in Brazil by journalist Ana Paula Padrão, or whether it was designed to draw much-needed attention to the increasingly devastating levels of domestic violence against women in Turkey (Pinar Gultekin in particular, who died after being strangled and burned to death by her ex-boyfriend).

Whatever the reason, those three focal points are now being written about worldwide, up and down the media spectrum. People in Ireland are now donating €4 to Safe Ireland (by texting SAFE to 50300) to help those in domestic violence situations. AOC’s latest speech is raking in the views (#deserved) and – hopefully – there are a few of us rethinking the meaning behind our next viral ‘challenge’ before it even arrives into our DMs.

And as for those among us who speculate that this is another way for The Internet Overlords to gather facial recognition software data on us all? I’ll leave that for another day’s posting.