Introduction: The online performance of gender provides a unique glimpse at how individuals manipulate digital settings to reflect their engagement with their own gender performance and the gender performance of others. The majority of gender performance occurs subconsciously and is learned through repeated engagement with gendered expectations. However, the performativity of gender is brought to individuals’ consciousness when they are confronted with individuals who perform in a way that contrasts with previously held gender expectations. Transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals face frequent and often harsh gender policing that attacks them for their deviation from performances that are socially “acceptable.”

Methods: An ethnographic research project was conducted by recording observations of individuals’ interaction with, and response to, gender performances on the NBC News Instagram feed. Particular instances where the performativity of gender becomes a conscious engagement for users were detailed, and their reactions to different performances of gender were analyzed.

Results and Conclusion: Eleven posts with a collective 2,331 comments were analyzed throughout this research. An overwhelming majority of the comments observed implemented one of the three gender policing strategies outlined above. In the three comment sections with the least instances of gender policing, the rate of gender policing in the comments hovered around 50%, with roughly half of the comments utilizing one of the strategies of gender policing and the other half affirming the messages communicated by the post. For the other eight comment sections analyzed, comments that utilized gender policing strategies constituted roughly 75-80% of the comments. Across all eleven posts, 51 comments were utilized for a deeper analysis of the dynamics of gender policing online. While the three strategies of gender policing that will be discussed in this paper are by no means the only forms of gender policing observed on the NBC News Instagram feed, these strategies encompass a wide range of comments and appear the most frequently.

Gender policing occurs as a defensive response to gender performances that subvert expectations and draw prominence to the performativity that gender is. When trying to attack someone for contrasting gendered expectations, there are three main ways to accomplish this: try to make them feel bad about their gender performance, warrant harm towards them as a consequence of the “offensiveness” of their gender performance, or label their gender performance as invalid. These three defense mechanisms translate into the shame strategy, the dehumanization strategy, and the dismissal strategy. Future studies should investigate how gender is policed and if these strategies are consistent across news platforms, regardless of political leaning. Additionally, future studies evaluate how gender policing on the Instagram pages of news sites compares to gender policing on personal Instagram pages.