“The current cultural moment is one whose urgency feels particularly ill-suited to the sort of vapid pageantry that typically constitutes the ‘socially conscious’ arm of a celebrity’s public-relations repertoire,” Jordan Coley wrote in the New Yorker last month. That essay was sparked by a two-minute compilation of white celebrities soberly avowing “I take responsibility” for anti-Black racism. The video was black and white presumably because black and white signifies seriousness. It was a painfully earnest exercise in self-flagellation that advanced no actual cause other than self-promotion. It turned into a PR embarrassment for just about everyone involved.
Little more than a month later, the celebs are at it again. In recent days, many have jumped on the bandwagon of a vague female-empowerment Instagram campaign under the hashtag #ChallengeAccepted. Typically, a participant posts a black-and-white portrait of herself, with a caption gesturing at the idea of women supporting one another. She then tags another handful of women and “challenges” them to post their own portrait, so the cycle of empowerment can continue. There’s no organized call to action and, in the fad’s current iteration, no connection to a larger political cause. Famous people including Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Lopez, and Ivanka Trump have participated. And the phenomenon has now spread like wildfire through the ranks of nonfamous women as well. As of this writing, almost 6 million posts on Instagram bear the hashtag.
As the two-toned portraits cropped up across the feeds of celebrities and ordinary women over the past week or so, criticism arrived right on cue. “Imagine being in the middle of a global pandemic, an economic collapse, and a fight for racial equality while rallying thousands of people to participate in a selfie challenge that doesn’t raise money or awareness for a single cause,” podcast host Allie LeFevere tweeted of the challenge. “Do people not know you can just post a hot selfie for no reason?” TV writer Camilla Blackett asked. “Though the portraits have spread widely, the posts themselves say very little,” Taylor Lorenz observed in the New York Times. “Influencers and celebrities love these types of ‘challenges’ because they don’t require actual advocacy, which might alienate certain factions of their fan base.”
All of this is true! But what these critics miss is that #ChallengeAccepted is, in fact, good, because it is hilarious.
What’s the “challenge” involved in posting a flattering self-portrait to a platform designed for that very action? What is empowering about seeing a photograph of Cindy Crawford looking perfect? If anything, doesn’t scrolling Instagram make us feel worse? How does posting a photo of oneself empower others? And what does any of this have to do with women, exactly?
Sweep these questions from your mind, and enjoy the sheer comedy of these magnificently meaningless images juxtaposed with sober pride of the people posting them:
Bask in the self-seriousness. Admire the filters. Bravely take on the challenge of not cringing at the naked earnestness channeled in the cause of absolutely nothing. It’s the Instagram version of the Onion headline “Female Friends Spend Raucous Night Validating the Living Shit Out of Each Other.”
It’s hard to trace the exact origins of the “challenge.” In 2016, Facebook users posted black-and-white selfies with the hashtag #challengeaccepted in support of cancer awareness. The 2020 iteration of the format apparently started in Turkey recently with a much more pointed political valence. In a country with high rates of violence against women, the portraits are a reference the black-and-white photographs of female murder victims that appear regularly in newspapers and on social media feeds. In response, Turkish women started posting their own photographs in the same palette as a show of solidarity and protest.
Suffice it to say that the current iteration of the trend has been washed clean of even the remotest trace of political significance. Lily Collins: “These posts are a reflection of how strong we are together.” Reese Witherspoon: “May we all continue to shine a light on one another.” Kerry Washington: “I am awed by the power of women loving each other and lifting each other up!!!!!” Jennifer Aniston’s caption admitted, “I don’t really understand this #challengeaccepted thing,” but she made a stab at it by urging followers to register to vote “for the issues that affect women.” She didn’t have any recommendations of whom or what, exactly, to vote for or against.
Critics say that fads like this make participants feel like they have done something concretely charitable when in fact they have not. But what if they have done something meaningful, by allowing the rest of us to laugh at them? These are miniature masterpieces of vacuity, bracing blasts of cringeworthy corniness. There’s no argument to be made against them, because they make no argument on their own behalf. All I can really say, as a woman, is challenge accepted: I will make fun of these posts, and gladly. After all, as J. Lo put it, “When women support each other incredible things happen!”