Back in the 20th century, novelist C. S. Forester described an 18th century sailor entertaining his crew members by killing rats with his teeth, his hands tied behind his back. I think of this story often during my daily drift through the endless seas of social media. With no wind in the sails and no destination on the horizon, each day online might have its excitements, but is ultimately the same as yesterday and the next day. I sometimes wish for a rat pit, if for no other reason than to feel alive.
Instead, we have challenges, customarily a task that must be completed within 24 hours before we forget about it entirely. In keeping with the disorienting nature of the internet, challenges can’t actually be challenging, or else we wouldn’t do them. (We can post a reading list of dense texts, for instance, but only if no one checks that we read them.) And so we have #challengeaccepted: the ultimate challenge which you can repeat ad infinitum in the name of uplifting women.
The trending Twitter topic, which spread throughout celebrity Instagram over the weekend, makes for content as bland as it sounds: nominate a woman to post a photo of herself in black-and-white—this is key, differentiating #challengeaccepted selfies from apolitical GPOY—and she tags the post #challengeaccepted as well as #WomenSupportingWomen.
An influencer marketing manager told the New York Times that the challenge may have been spurred on by the wave of woman-positive messaging that followed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez boldly quoting, on the House floor, Florida Congressman Ted Yoho calling her a “fucking bitch.” The challenge, however, feels more like pulling out a photo you already had on deck for Insta. A few #challengeaccepted posters mention Breonna Taylor in their captions, but celebrities have primarily devoted their images to all women everywhere. Most of them simply urged us to lift each other up. The stakes for taking a stand have never been lower.
Like most internet challenges, anyone can rise to it, even Ivanka Trump, a woman whose silence was deafening when her father tore children away from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, only publicly denouncing the policy when he decided to end it. Here she is #acceptingthechallenge while pregnant in a saintly robe, celebrating “ALL mothers.”
Across the ideological spectrum, prominent women dropped similarly dazzling portraits. Perhaps you, like Nicole Kidman, had something just lying around from a fashion photoshoot. “Oh,” Katie Holmes’ post seems to ask, “this old thing?”
For many, the challenge has morphed into a generic hot photo contest. One seemingly confused (male) actor simply posted a sepia headshot on Twitter.
“This is what sisterhood is all about,” Reese Witherspoon’s own entry declared. Maybe she’s right. This is the internet, where a #challenge isn’t actually a “challenge,” sisterhood is all about ourselves, and nobody’s beholden to the bygone laws of the land, like not sticking rats in our mouths.