The GIF as a Tool of Rereading, Resistance, and Re-narrativizing in Social Media Spaces

By Jasmine Lee Ehrhardt |

The woman smirks coolly, appraising an unknown subject that is out of the camera’s view. She leans back with disaffected self-satisfaction, and slides her gaze to another target, her smirk widening as she arches her left eyebrow. There is no sound, nor caption, but a haughty “how do you like me now?” seems to linger around this woman’s truncated and repeated action. The lean, cool glance, and eyebrow lift only takes a second, but the loop continues indefinitely, obliging the viewer to relive this cool disdain and the subtle shifts in the woman’s face again and again.


The woman is Anna May Wong, and the moving GIF (Graphics Interchange Format) is taken from her leading role in Shanghai Express (1932). It is odd to see Wong, an early Hollywood and later stage and television actress, contained in this silent, looping image, separated from the filmic original text, but her performance is affecting and hypnotic enough that it really doesn’t matter. This small gesture, preserved in an animated GIF file, can now be mobilized throughout online social media spaces – spaces that mimic the formations, communities, and hierarchies present in the offline world, as well as being spaces for new modes of expression, communication, and signification. This is also where identity formation (especially that of teens and young adults in regards to online affiliation groups centered around racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual identities) can develop and grow.

In the case of Anna May Wong, the early Hollywood star’s image has been taken up by online affiliation groups centered around Asian American, Chinese American, and feminist spaces, in addition to the occasional queer cinema history groups through the digital sharing (retweeting, reblogging, etc) of her glamor photography. In flattening Wong’s legacy to that of a mere fashion icon or beautiful face representative of Asian Americans in early Hollywood, these spaces reify these identity groups to a stasis that Wong consistently exceeds. The multitudes of communities – many of which overlap and enact their own resistance to the reification of identity politics – seem to pull Wong in many different directions, while the accounts/spaces dedicated to Wong specifically do not do her complexities justice. In response to this, I have chosen to use the GIF as a tool of intervention into these glamour discourses to recontextualize and call attention to the wider political implications of Wong’s performances and image.

The GIF is a moving image file that has been widely distributed and used on the internet since the mid-1990s, and as such has become a form of idiomatic and artistic expression. Its history, summarized by Sally McKay, is rooted in political controversy: “Unisys, the patent-holder, unsuccessfully attempted to regulate [GIFs’] use,” which means that their usage “indicate[s] a commitment to the long-standing open-source, anti-copyright activism of online producers.” [1] Because of this lack of patent and therefore ownership, the GIF is not an immediately profitable file format – nobody collects royalties on this image and tool of communication, not even the corporations that employ GIFs in their various social media accounts. However, the use of the GIF as a kind of expression is profitable – the implementation of a GIF keyboard on Twitter, Tumblr, and even Tinder only underscores how these companies know that the GIF is at once a tool for expression and an attractive feature of the internet. Even if the GIF itself does not bring in capital to these companies, it does increase engagement. I therefore situate the GIF within Lisa Nakamura’s exploration of identity formation and  

[t]he ways that race and gender permit differential access to digital visual capital, as well as the distinctive means by which people of color and women create and in some ways redefine it. Women and people of color are both subjects and objects of interactivity; they participate in digital racial formation via acts of technological appropriation, yet are subjected to it as well. [2]

In this way, specific, deliberate uses of the GIF can resist hegemony and exceed reified identity categories in online digital spaces, especially in the way that it can be mobilized towards articulating and problematizing the reification of identity categories and identity essentialism.

eyerollGIF2 [3]

Reaction GIFs are commonly used in social media spaces as a proxy for verbal expressions of feelings and reactions. The reaction GIF depicts an action performed by either human or animal (sometimes the occasional inanimate object appears as well) – with a grimace, a swoon, a shudder, a jaw dropping open in surprise, a figure tripping and falling down, a single eyebrow raise – encapsulated within the singular file and looped for our viewing pleasure. This posture, gesture, grimace, and reaction is, however, always decontextualized from its text of origin, and recontextualized in the post or feeling that the internet user wishes to express, often with a user-generated caption. In this way, the internet’s remixing and constant de- and re-contextualization of images and narratives also allows a multitude of marginalized identities and expressions-based subcultures to create and enrich their own online experience.

Twitter, Tumblr, and many messaging and even mobile dating apps have responded to this form of idiomatic and emotional expression by implementing a GIF keyboard in the very structure and function of their interface – a search function that allows users to find the perfect GIF to express their feelings to the masses that will encounter their post. Though often times, reaction GIFs can be hyperbolic and crude, Anna May Wong’s subtle eyerolls and pursed lips can convey emotive and affective responses that are appropriate to an event, action, or conversation. A sliver of her performance is isolated in a short, looping image format, forcing the user to examine and re-narrativize this physical expression. This is not to say that subtle reaction GIFs are inherently more valuable than those that are hyperbolic and outrageous, but rather, the care and close-reading that these GIFs demand in their creation and distribution allows us to reread Wong’s performances and therefore her legacy in a different (yet still resistant) way.   


In the case of Anna May Wong, it is not enough to simply argue that her films resist racism, sexism, and xenophobia simply by virtue of her identity and positioning in American hierarchical structures; nor is it enough to read into the resistance she brought to her stereotypical, sexist, and racist roles. Instead, we as spectators, fans, audience members, and internet users have the opportunity to repurpose Wong’s image and performance for our own contexts. Peter Feng summarizes this in his article “Recuperating Suzie Wong: A Fan’s Nancy Kwan-dary”:

When we speak of resistance in texts, we are speaking about moments that work against our sense of the text’s dominant ideology… But when we speak of resistance within spectators, we speak of the mobilization of those moments into a new narrative space, one that transcends the narrative logic of the movies. [5]

Instead of simply writing about or writing back to Wong’s films as the primary modes of resistance (for example, Jessica Hagedorn and David Henry Hwang’s poems and plays about Anna May Wong, or Yunah Hong’s documentary project on Wong’s life), the internet user (avid cinephile or otherwise) is allowed to de- and recontextualize Wong’s performances in ways that both emphasize individual and collective expression, while underscoring Wong’s relevance to current audiences. Literary refunctionings of Anna May Wong have been canonized in Asian American literary studies, and are, in this sense, distanced from contemporary re-narrativizations of Wong – especially in cacophonous, polyvalent, complex social media spaces.

To demonstrate and experiment with the potential of the GIF, I chose to rework GIFs of Wong’s performances to situations specific to my own experiences. I used my own Twitter account to do this. This GIF of Wong glancing skeptically off-camera, eyes slightly widened in muted shock, was taken out of Shanghai Express and turned into “that feeling when you’re listening to someone dig themselves deeper into an ideological hole in class discussion [sic].” 


Another GIF from Shanghai Express was captioned “that feeling when someone says something racist and you have to put your book away to politely but firmly correct them [sic].”


In these two instances, I chose to use GIFs that already existed online and simply provided new captions in my own tweets. In the first example, I merely used an expression of skepticism and mild detachment to discuss a situation I often found myself observing in my own life, but in the second, I rewrote the situation of the film itself to an anti-racist narrative I had made up in my head. In this scene, Wong does no such “polite but firm” correction of a racist remark, nor is she “allowed” a full and complete space to do so in this film. However, I still chose to mobilize the looped gestures of Wong’s performances into this narrative, in the hopes that the small community of anti-racist activists, educators, and friends that I interact with on my Twitter would understand and appreciate the reference. Of course, this can be seen as me complaining about a classroom discussion, but it also served as my own personal cataloguing of the many micro and macroaggressions I witnessed as an undergraduate university student. Oftentimes, Wong’s performances and gestures embodied more of my irritation or my frustrations with stifling classroom environments, more succinctly than I could do in a 140-character tweet. My own knowledge of Wong’s positioning within the Hollywood industry as a Chinese-American woman and non-citizen forced to take only stereotypically racist and sexist roles, and knowledge of Wong’s resistance to those forms of oppression as well, underscores the (sometimes flippant, sometimes goofy, sometimes somber) decontextualization of both the original filmic text and Wong’s performance.


It is here that I turn to Wendy Chun’s article “Race and/as Technology” to understand the tenuous relationship between race, social media, and the GIF. By invoking Anna May Wong across these spaces and through the medium of the GIF, perhaps there is a way to resist racist imagery, stereotyping, and storytelling not by “[denying] the existence of race, but to make race do different things.” [9] By making race and ethnic difference a point of identification between the subject of the GIF and the identity of the internet user, it underscores the fact that “race is fundamentally a question of encounter, a recognition, that enables certain actions and bars others.” [10] For my own mobilization of GIFs of Anna May Wong and in general, I have found myself drawn to GIFs in which the body and the action that loops is of an East Asian phenotype, with accompanying cultural markers. Perhaps I see Wong’s face as a stand-in for my own, and I make her react to situations that I experience, or that I create for her. What encounter does this pose for other users that interact with me online? In the above examples, how am I using or treating race? If race can be conceived of as a technology, perhaps my own mobilization of these GIFs is a part of what Chun would identify as a “carefully crafted, historically inflected system of tools, of mediation, or of ‘enframing’ that builds history and identity.” [11]

The importance of the reaction GIF as part of an internet vernacular and idiomatic expression is felt in the introduction of contemporary users to historical figures that came in media before them. These GIFs can in fact be seen as a re-narrativization of the archive – or, at the very least, a re-narrativization of what feels like an outdated past, itself capable of “resurrect[ing] the past as much as finally return[ing] to it.” [12] GIFs “focus on a moment, freezing an event while simultaneously trying to keep it living.” This reflects my own desire to use the GIF to rescue Wong from the eroticized and Orientalist glamour photography that is much more prevalent on the internet today. [13] It is my goal with these GIFs and this re-narrativization to shed light on the nuance in her performance as a worker in early Hollywood – instead of just being a pretty Asian face whose significance beyond “she was the first” is next to nothing. Instead, we can take her masterful glares, eyerolls, and seething anger and use it for our own digital lives and expressions.


To be clear, this utopian view of the internet, the GIF, and the user’s ability to magically undo glamour discourses, or even reified notions of identity does not imply advocating for a “post-racial” internet. This view is still a lofty fantasy and limited understanding of the GIF, especially in the fact that it has been commodified, and that the strategies I have outlined above have been taken up by companies’ social media accounts in an effort to “connect with the youth” (read: a section of consumers) . However, what this imagined project of de-reification encourages is the mere fact of internet users, living and participating in these spaces long after Anna May Wong’s passing, while historicizing Wong and the structural conditions she lived under. Though this reading of the GIF does not offer a definitive solution or undoing of reified structures and identities, it still possesses the potential to move towards that, while allowing us the opportunity to reclaim problematic texts and performances. Perhaps the GIF as idiomatic expression and as politically revolutionary file format, implemented on these social media platforms, can offer new ways of understanding identity formation and small moments of resistance in these spaces.


Works Cited

[1] Sally McKay, “The Affect of Animated GIFs (Tom Moody, Petra Cortright, Lorna Mills).” Art & Education, Accessed 9 January 2016.

[2] Lisa Nakamura, Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet. EBook ed., Minneapolis, U of Minnesota, 2008. 16.

[3] lucille-portable.gif. Reaction Gifs, Accessed 26 Mar. 2017.

[4] Anna-May-Wong-GIF. GIPHY, Accessed 26 Mar. 2017.

[5] Peter X. Feng,  “Recuperating Suzie Wong: A Fan’s Nancy Kwan-dary.” Countervisions: Asian American Film Criticism, edited by Darrell Y. Hamamoto and Sandra Liu, Philadelphia, Temple UP, 2000. 48.

[6] @jamminly. “tfw you’re listening to someone dig themselves deeper into an ideological hole in class discussion.” Twitter, 4 Dec. 2015,

[7] @jamminly. “tfw someone says something racist and you have to put your book away to politely but firmly correct them.” Twitter, 4 Dec. 2015,

[8] Maudit. Anna-May-Wong-GIF. GIPHY, Accessed 26 Mar. 2017.

[9]  Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, “Race and/as Technology or How to Do Things to Race.” Race After the Internet, edited by Lisa Nakamura and Peter A. Chow-White, New York, Routledge, 2012. 57.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Chun 38.

[12] Jane Hu, “GIF Typologies and the Heritage of the Moving Image.” Hyperallergic, 28 Sept. 2012, Accessed 9 Jan. 2016.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Warner Archive. Anna-May-Wong. GIPHY, Accessed 26 Mar. 2017.

[15] across-to-singapore-anna-may-wong. Vogue, Accessed 26 Mar. 2017.


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