Updated: Dec 10, 2020
Sarah Fuller kicked off the second half of the Vanderbilt v Missouri game last Saturday as the first woman to play in a Power 5 conference football game. As she made history while repping a “Play Like a Girl” sticker on the back of her helmet, her social media presence over the past few days encouraged female athletes not to take no for an answer.
Vanderbilt’s football field, where this fated kickoff took place, happens to be ten minutes from my high school. My grandfather was a professor there. I see a doctor at Vanderbilt hospital. My high school crush graduated from there two years ago. It’s practically in my backyard, making it odd to see its extent of national recognition.
Even though the final score showed another abysmal afternoon for Vanderbilt football, I saw Fuller’s smiling roster photo on social media accounts all over the globe, celebrating another type of victory.
Maybe I’ve been conditioned by my forward-thinking, liberal school environment. Maybe I’m biased because I am a female who, at one point, dreamed of playing on a football team myself. As friends from my school on the other side of the country, as well as political spectrum, cheered for my backyard university, I admittedly felt a bit of territorial, hometown pride. Seeing sorority girls from my school posting Instagram stories of Fuller's photo, accompanied with “So Proud” and “Girl Power!” stickers, made me cringe a little. I'm all for women supporting women, but this is my backyard.
I also saw the social media activity of people who did share the same backyard as me, but who had a different response to Fuller's achievement: stories making fun of Vanderbilt’s decision, with captions like “As if Vanderbilt didn’t play like girls already” and "I hope she gets clocked by a linebacker" and rolling eye emojis were sprinkled in with the rest of the supportive posts. There weren’t many, but the few that appeared on my feed really stuck with me. I can’t imagine what Sarah thinks when she sees those posts. Her victory of making the team outshines those jealous boys who never even had a shot of walking onto that field. But like any celebrity admits, when dealing with hate, it’s always the negative voices we listen to louder than the positive ones. I immediately thought of which of my more fiery friends would respond to those misogynistic posts to hold these SEC frat boys (a breed of their own) accountable. And I wondered, why don’t I? Am I a bad person for not?
In a time when fighting back and calling people out is heralded and respected, who holds the real victory here: is it those arguing over DM’s, or is it Sarah?
It’s Sarah Fuller. First female kicker for Vanderbilt University. Ever.
She made her statement by stepping onto that field. She’s had her victory, and now she gets to celebrate it. There will always be people to rain on her parade, and these stories, now come and gone, are no exception. But though these Instagram stories have since disappeared, certain ones stick with us, and that’s what is concerning.
I remember almost every person I follow who reposted that photo, positive reaction or negative. And whether we realize it or not, it further defines the person posting. The things we post show what we care about, and they further the digital presence we try to emulate. So through posting about Sarah Fuller, I theoretically should have learned which of my friends support her “Girl Power” statement, and which ones do not.
Should a short lived Instagram story really define somebody’s level of activism or influence our opinions of them to this extent? Does every single opinion or cause you care about belong on the internet for exactly 24 hours, just to say you care enough to click a few buttons to repost it?
During this past summer’s Black Lives Matter movement, the surge of social media activism carried the weight of young people ‘doing their part’. The black square and reposting other moving images from marches and protests and everything in between defined which side you were on; Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, All Lives Matter, etc. But how much are you really taking on if clicking a few buttons to repost someone else's image is the extent of your activism?
Here is a conversation I overheard this summer from some friends of mine:
“I’ve been annoyed with her for a while. And when she didn’t post the black square, it was over.”
“Yeah she’s honestly so selfish.”
“Like she doesn’t care about anyone else. She’s literally a racist”
The purpose of Instagram activism, posting or reposting something, shouldn’t be to further define your profile, or what others think of you. It should be about the content itself. Maybe you’re making a difference by sharing information, maybe the viewers have seen the same post a million times and group you in with the others who posted the same. Whether a unifying force or an educational one, we should be more focused on the message we are actually posting, not how it makes us look. We need to keep in mind our intentions, and keep them pure. Are you posting just to post and maintain your ‘woke’ reputation? Or is it a cause you really care about and hope to share with others?
We may never know how much, if any, difference we truly make by pressing a few buttons to upload an image that our followers may have seen before. But it doesn’t matter. The possibility of sharing with just one person, forcing them to make their own opinion about the cause at hand, should be enough. We have to define our reason for utilizing our platform, and we have to remember our 'why.'
A lot of Black Lives Matter posts have educated and piqued interest, causing so many to learn more and educate themselves, have important conversations, and therefore sparked a movement. Sarah Fuller’s surplus of roster photos could have a similar effect in advocating for greater gender equality in sports. Or it could remain a way for girls to prove they’re woke enough to support “Playing like a girl.” If Instagram posts are where Sarah Fuller or BLM activism starts and finishes, we will have made no progress at all. But if posting helps start conversations or even educates others, real change can happen. Social media activism has the potential to bolster social movements; but if there’s no other action offline, reposting an Instagram story just remains a clout booster. There’s no denying social media’s influence on us, but we can use that to our advantage as an agent for growth and education.
It’s all in intention, and we must keep that in mind if social media remains a tool for driving change.