“Just a girl trying to make it in the world…”
It’s Thursday, and that means Making Media That Matters! Personally, I had a hard day. A hard week, actually. I lumbered into the space, feeling sorry for myself, armed with a coffee as big as my head. I was grumpy. I wanted to curl up in bed and eat my body weight in ice cream. I walked to our room and starting unloading chairs, grumbling and slurping coffee and barely speaking to anyone. “KATIIIIIIEEEEE!” one of the students yelled. I turned around and she hugged me and said, “WHY do you have the cutest outfits? Will you take me shopping?” I laughed. I sat down among a few of the girls and we talked about their weeks. They asked how my week was and I hesitated…did I really need to be honest? I said, “A little rough, actually. But I’m hanging in.” They patted me and said, “Awwww…we’re happy you’re here.” I started feeling happier that I was there, too.
We grabbed some snacks and I wandered around to talk to the staff. Vera is traveling, so we were on our own this week! We solidified the agenda for the night and then called the students in for our opening circle. The story circle we created last week (each person verbally adds a sentence to a collective story we create together) was such a hit, that we decided to do it again. Our stories had mermaids, travel, villains, and a lot of action, but even so, the vibe was considerably lower this time around. We tried one more time, but we struggled. I suppose I wasn’t the only one that had a rough week. We decided to move right into stories and character development with a writing exercise.
One of our storytelling instructors, Noa, came up with a fantastic character expansion exercise. The students got into their production crews, and were asked to think about their main character(s) in terms of Instagram. What would their character’s Insta page look like? What would their handle be? How would their bio read? What would their feed look like? Would they have a ton of followers or only a few? Would they use filters and stickers and hashtags? I wandered around, eavesdropping on groups. One group immediately whipped out their phones and started actually creating a real Instagram for their character – I mean…brilliant! Another drew a sketch of the character’s feed, detailing what each photo would consist of. The other group called me over to help, as they were a bit stuck.
I sat down on a bean bag chair and started asking them questions…is she (their character identifies as a girl) the kind of person that would have a clever handle, or would it just be her name? Would she have a quote in her bio, or just a description of her life? Would she post every day? Would she use the “stories” feature? I think simply asking questions got their brains churning. One participant said, “She would NEVER use emojis!!!” and all the rest agreed vehemently. They decided she was an amateur photographer and that her bio might read something like, “Just a girl trying to make it in the world…” Because of their character’s intense social anxiety, they decided she might not have a lot of followers or comments on her posts. She might post a lot of nature photography shots, with very short 2-3 word captions. I liked how specific they were getting, so I excused myself to let them work.
We called the groups back into the main room to share what they’d come up with. They each explained their characters and the thought process behind their Instagram feeds. I think this exercise is hugely relevant – not only because almost everyone I know at every age uses social media, but because social media is intensely expressive and creative. We put things out there in a curated, specific way. I’ve heard it referred to it as life’s “highlight reel” and for many, I’m sure that’s true. It makes me think of Erving Goffman’s Dramaturgical Theory. Hang in with me here – I’m a college instructor so I can’t help it.
Goffman, a sociologist, describes Dramaturgy as the ultimate human performance. As humans, we’re performing for each other all of the time – carefully crafting a reputation and an image that we hope to impress upon others. We have “costumes” (fashion choices, hair styles, etc.). We have “roles” (the identities we hold, and the way that we represent them). We have “stages” (front stage is when we have an audience and when audience members interact with us, while backstage occurs when we are alone). Goffman maintains that even when we are by ourselves, there is still often an element of performance, such as looking into a mirror and making a face or posing, OR…social media! I’m sure Goffman in 1959 had no idea that his theory would apply to a crazy concept known as the internet, but the theory was all I could think about while the participants shared their character’s Instagram accounts. Dramaturgy is all about impression management - trying to get others to see you in a specific way (that is usually flattering and ego-driven). What could be a more modern-day notion of impression management than social media? After each group shared, we split for a break. Many of the girls and staff (including myself) got on their phones as they chatted and snacked, and I had to laugh at the irony as I “boomeranged” (a type of in-motion picture for Instagram) the girls talking story. When the group came back together, Noa led them in a free-writing activity based off the character exercise. We asked the girls if they wanted music while they wrote and received a loud and enthusiastic “YES!!!!!!” Val (one of our film instructors) put on a 90s R&B station, and within a few minutes, we were all swaying and singing Killing Me Softly by the Fugees. I suddenly realized that I was not grumpy anymore. The students finished their writing activity, and a few girls bravely shared. One shared a diary she wrote from her character’s point of view (how genius is THAT?!?!) and another shared an interaction, complete with a scathing inner dialogue, of the main character and an acquaintance at school. Every time the participants share their work, I’m blown away. I seem to never get over the shock of their creativity.
Next on the agenda was the film portion, which was dedicated to proper lighting, angles, and shot options (wide angle, closeup, extreme closeup, etc.). Because I’m a social worker, I don’t know much about film, so learning about white balance and ISO is fascinating. I’d never been exposed to the world of filmmaking before working with this organization and feel like I’ve learned so much (though do NOT ask me to set up a camera properly!) It’s truly incredible what can be created in only 12 weeks. It helps that the film instructors are so invested and imaginative, and that the students are somehow able to translate their originality into film. We had a few participants demonstrate and practice lighting for the group, and I laughed as they posed in silly ways for the camera. It was almost time to go, and as usual, the 3 hours flew by. We gathered once more for a mahalo circle, and I asked each person to tell the group where they would travel, if they could go ANYWHERE in the world. Hands shot up…they’d obviously thought about this! Japan, Iceland, Italy, France, Aotearoa, and others were mentioned, often spurred by cuisines and foods they wanted to try. Hey – at MMTM, we like our snacks! After the last person answered, we said our goodbyes. Week 5 is pau, and we’re almost halfway through the session. As I helped the rest of the staff clean up the space, I noticed the grumpiness had completely left my body. I am so thankful for this space, this program, and these students. They bring such joy.