Popular Religion and Participatory Culture (Round 4): Tisha Dejamanee and Deborah Whitehead (Part 1)




I’m grateful to Henry Jenkins, Diane Winston, and Sarah McFarland Taylor for organizing this series of exchanges and inviting me to be part of it.  I’m grateful too, Tisha, for the opportunity to learn more about your work; we definitely have many overlapping areas of interest!  I want to focus on three in particular here:  (1) the idea of food preparation as “women’s work” and the ways that female food bloggers both are constrained by this, as you note, but also play with it; (2) the intimacy and sense of community found in blogging, both of which play into the notion of authenticity that is so valued, and commodified, in the blogosphere; and (3) how the concept of participatory culture has been helpful in our work, and how it relates to the study of religion – a thread running through the other conversations so far that I’ll also weave into my thoughts here.  In my own work, I’ve found the concept of participatory culture enormously helpful for thinking about the ways that communities are formed, and unformed, around personal religious blogs, and the values and practices that underlie these processes.   


I’m intrigued by your focus on the intricate relationships between gender, labor, and community in a postfeminist context – one feature of the “ambivalence” you describe. In my own work on food storage blogs, which exist at the busy intersection of food blogs and mommy/parenting blogs, I have written about the idea of food preparation for an emergency situation as “women’s work,” specifically as maternal labor.  “Survival is a mom’s job,” proclaims blogger Lisa Bedford, a natural extension of maternal care for one’s family both now and in the future.  These self-proclaimed “survival moms,” mostly U.S. working and middle class white women, are on the one hand constrained by a sense of pervasive anxiety about contemporary conditions over which they have no control – prepper culture has exploded in the aftermath of 9/11 and the 2008 economic recession and housing crisis – and to which they feel they have no choice but to respond to protect their families and preserve their lifestyle by learning to prepare and store massive quantities of food to have on hand in the event of an emergency.  One could argue that political and economic instability has caused these women to “lean in” to traditional gender roles as a means of survival, generating an idealization of and nostalgia for “women’s work” and for the specific skills of their grandmothers and great-grandmothers who scrimped and saved and gardened and canned massive quantities of food to get their families through the deprivations of the Great Depression and World War II.  Many of these survival moms also turn to the practices of food storage and emergency preparedness that have been part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from its beginnings, not by converting but by consulting LDS (popularly known as “Mormon”) mommy blogs and church resources to gain this specialized knowledge.  On the other hand, this retrieval and romanticization of the past, of the LDS pioneer ethic, and of food preparation and storage as maternal labor is often celebrated in (post)feminist terms that the survival moms’ grandmothers would not recognize – food storage provides “confidence” and “empowerment” and “expertise,” enabling women to “worry less and enjoy life more,” as Bedford puts it.  I definitely see a set of ambivalences there as well, and I am wondering if you can say more about what you see as the “ambivalence that more broadly characterizes postfeminist popular culture” and how it relates to the “political potential of food blogs” that you seek to theorize.  


I absolutely agree with your point about how in the enterprise of blogging about domestic spaces, “intimacy becomes a lucrative commodity that is used to connote trustworthiness and authenticity by corporate advertisers.”  In my own work on mommy bloggers, I’ve explored how authenticity is a “symbolic construct” central to self-branding (Banet-Weiser) as well as to the creation of new forms of community based on a blogger’s gradual self-revelation.  I’ve also been influenced by the work of several scholars (Heidi Campbell, Pauline Cheong, Mia Lovheim, Paul Teusner, Lori Kido Lopez, May Friedmann, and others) in exploring how blogging generates new notions of religious authority, religious practice, community, gender identity, motherhood, self-branding, and so on.  But I’ve also been very interested in the dark side of this dynamic, and in what happens when bloggers are exposed as frauds or as having been less than fully forthcoming about their domestic lives. When a blogger’s credibility and readership is based on a presumption of honest self-disclosure, and that trust is called into question or shattered by new revelations, a variety of consequences ensue. In some cases, the result is very much like a religious deconversion process:  readers tell stories following a familiar narrative arc, establishing initial strong commitment and devotion followed by gradual loss of faith, that resemble evangelical deconversion narratives in striking ways.  Though practice is certainly a key part of their devotion (online and offline participation), these narratives, like evangelical deconversion narratives, tend to emphasize the centrality of belief:a reader initially “believed in” a particular blogger but now they do not, and they are left to process the shame, guilt, anger and sadness that result from this loss of faith.  I think a similar narrative arc is evident in the “Get a Life!” SNL sketch that Sarah McFarland Taylor and Henry Jenkins discussed in an earlier post, which portrays the dramatic threat to fan devotion that occurs when the object of that devotion turns out to be all too human.  As Henry has pointed out, the sketch also repeats a familiar narrative of caricaturing fans; I saw the same kinds of critiques leveled at my disillusioned blog readers. Critics called them gullible, pathetic losers; “how could you believe so strongly in someone you didn’t even know?, they scornfully asked.  “I drank the Kool-Aid,” came the woeful response, a direct reference to the 1979 Jonestown tragedy.  Parallels between religious devotion and fan devotion abound in the stories we tell about them and the ones they tell about themselves. In such situations it becomes difficult to disentangle the moral and religious dimensions of authenticity, or even to maintain that such a distinction is a meaningful one:  which is the greater offense, lying to one’s public or being a false prophet (or deity)?  Charles Taylor (1992; 2007) has called authenticity the “moral ideal behind self-fulfillment,” giving rise to a new sense of the self as both private and public and to a new form of “expressive individualism” in which each of us inhabits spaces of “mutual display,” not only consuming but also creating to and for others.  This seems directly related to the elements of participatory culture as Jenkins has developed it:  the awareness of new publics, new forms of networking, identity creation and play, and community.  I’m curious to hear more about how you find the concept of authenticity helpful in your own work.  




When I first moved to the United States seven years ago, a simple online search for a recipe launched me into the world of food blogs – texts that combine personal narratives with recipes and high-quality food images. They are often created by individuals who blog from their households and narrate the mundane details of daily life to their unseen audience as though they are dear friends. In my research, I focus particularly on female bloggers – who comprise the majority of food bloggers – to analyze the ways this media genre illuminates ideas about labor, pleasure, and community. 

The creative and technical skills that are nurtured within the food blogosphere are apparent in tangible cultural goods such as cake pops, food porn and the extensive homewares line produced by The Pioneer Woman and Walmart. However, I also view the creative potential of food blogs as situated in their performance of postfeminist subjectivities that acknowledge both the pleasures of this idealized femininity as well as its internal contradictions. On the one hand, food blogs often exaggerate a girlie femininity that is sweet, infantile and down-to-earth. This takes place through a relentlessly cheerful narrative tone that Amanda Fortini (2011) describes as containing “no serious conflict, no controversy, no cynicism, no snark”; an aesthetic preference that has yielded trends such as unicorn food and gourmet sprinkles; and, the centrality of being a wife and mother, as food blogs glamorize these traditional identities. It is this performance of effortless and innate girlie femininity that leads bloggers to insist that their multi-layered cakes and meticulously photographed meals are amateur creative projects. On the other hand, I see this exaggerated performance of sweet femininity as strategic. It is, after all, an appropriation of the aspirational language that lifestyle media has long directed toward women. Now women are using food blogs to re-deploy these commercialized tropes to attract advertisers that have increasingly begun to partner with bloggers to mine the ever-growing audience of the lifestyle blogosphere. 

This dynamic raises two issues that I think are relevant to participatory culture here. The first is the question of access to participation. In my above generalizations of food blogs, and my descriptions of the determined normativity cultivated by the blogosphere, I do not wish to suggest that examples of rich subversive, radical and alternative food blogs do not exist but, rather, that such examples are rarely rewarded within the hierarchies of visibility and profit within the blogosphere. Although it is true that there is some diversity within the food blogosphere, these user-generated texts remain much more homogenous than might be expected. The second is how to respond critically to an example of participatory culture that so faithfully reproduces, and is often seamlessly reabsorbed into, the high-production quality and commercially-oriented values of mainstream lifestyle media. 

I suggest that in addressing these issues, as well as in making sense of the political potential of food blogs, it becomes necessary to embrace the ambivalence that more broadly characterizes postfeminist popular culture. For example, food blogs draw on the cultural trend romanticizing traditionalism and DIY culture (Matchar, 2013) to showcase and circulate gendered, domestic foodwork that has long been devalued and rendered invisible. At the same time, the professionalization of the food blogosphere has led to the normalization of time-, labor-, and skill-intensive meals that are often portrayed as everyday domestic fare. As another example, these texts can be understood as an archival practice, as they are forms of women’s autobiographical life-writing that are told through the materiality and rhythms of food. Yet, this personal life-writing is often co-written through the networked participation of readers in forms that run the gamut from supportive comments to hate blogs to the whims of digital platform design. 

Ultimately, I turn to the spirit of networked community that is so important to both food and food blogs as a way of clearing a path through this ambivalence. It is true that the particular way that food blogs encourage individuals to provide personal testimony of the lived, gendered experiences of domestic life is intertwined with a “neoliberal moralframework, where each of us has a duty … to cultivate a self-brand” (Banet-Weiser, 2012, p. 56), and that within this framework intimacy becomes a lucrative commodity that is used to connote trustworthiness and authenticity by corporate advertisers. While we have long grappled with a sense that corporate messages are manipulative in the ways that they are explicitly designed to be persuasive, I am nevertheless struck by moments in the blogosphere where the depth of ties within this community are made salient. This has taken place at moments of tragedy within the lives of bloggers, as when blogger Jenni Perillo unexpectedly becomes a widower with two young children or blogger Lindsay Ostrom experiences the loss of her premature baby at 23 weeks of pregnancy. The community support at these moments has been material and emotional, and demonstrated the ways that the virtual friend-audience is mobilized in times of crisis. On a more everyday level, I think about the value of recipes to support special needs such as hypoallergenic and specialty diets that are now made freely available, and digitally indexed and searchable thanks to the knowledge-exchange practices of the blogosphere.

It is clear that food blogs are not utopian digital spaces. Successful food bloggers are often privileged and require substantial existing resources to be influential within the increasingly competitive blogosphere. The generic conventions of the genre do not support explicit political discussion. However, in the same ways that cultural studies scholars advocated for the ability of the audience to critically read popular culture texts, I support the notion that bloggers and blog readers can engage in pleasurable and meaningful, food-centered dialogue and identity play without losing sight of the ways that corporate logics underwrite the spaces and values of the blogosphere. 

I have to admit that I am another media scholar that has not spent a significant amount of time thinking about how religious studies intersects with and could build on my work – although I have noted that a significant proportion of bloggers share their religious affiliations, I have tended to subsume this information within the broader secular terms traditionalism and conservatism in my analysis of the blogosphere. Debbie, I’m very much looking forward to hearing more about your research interests and seeing how you approach similar themes! 

 Dr. Tisha Dejmanee is an Assistant Professor in Communication at Central Michigan University. She has authored several journal articles on issues where the fields of gender studies, popular culture, politics, new media and food intersect. Published work relating to the themes discuss in these posts include "‘Food Porn’ as Postfeminist Play” (http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1527476415615944)  and “Consumption in the City: The Turn to Interiority in Contemporary Postfeminist Television” 

Deborah Whitehead is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where she teaches courses on religions in the United States, Christianity, and critical-theoretical approaches to the study of religion, gender, and culture. Her research interests are centered in Christianity and U.S. culture from the late nineteenth century to the present. She is currently preparing a book on the American pragmatist tradition as well as participating in a Ford-funded project called "Finding Religion in the Media" through CU's Center for Media, Religion, and Culture, focusing on U.S. evangelicals' uses of new media. Her current work focuses on issues of historicity, narrative, identity, the visual, and authenticity in new media.