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Identitäten und Social Media

Performing Parisian. Gender Performances, Elite Discourse and Multimodality on Instagram

Jouer les parisiennes. Performances de genre, discours d’élite et multimodalité sur Instagram
Erin McInerney


Cet article s’appuie sur les dimensions thématiques du genre, du tourisme et de la multimodalité pour explorer la construction des représentations parisiennes au géotag « Café de Flore » sur Instagram. À l’aide d’un cadre théorique sociolinguistique et sociosémiotique, la présente étude mène l’analyse d’un corpus de 75 posts tagués au Café de Flore entre le 1er et le 31 janvier 2022. Deux problématiques ont été identifiées à cette fin. La première explore la manière dont les notions de « parisien » et « parisienne », en tant que noms et adjectifs, sont représentées linguistiquement par les utilisateurs d’Instagram au géotag. La deuxième question de recherche examine comment les représentations parisiennes établies linguistiquement sont élaborées sémiotiquement grâce à l’utilisation de ressources multimodales. Les analyses conduites sur le corpus suggèrent que les mots « parisien » et « parisienne » en tant que noms et adjectifs, sont déployés comme une source de capital social sur Instagram. Nous concluons que les utilisateurs d’Instagram développent davantage ces représentations linguistiques dans leurs posts en sélectionnant et en mobilisant des ressources sémiotiques associées aux stéréotypes culturels de la France. Le langage genré et les performances féminines de ces individus figurent parmi les ressources les plus saillantes observées. Ces pratiques discursives aident les utilisateurs d’Instagram à se dépeindre comme des narrateurs experts et féminins dans un contexte socioculturel élitiste. Enfin, les données présentées dans cette étude suggèreraient que les utilisateurs d’Instagram présentent le Café de Flore comme un lieu typiquement parisien (plutôt que français) ainsi qu’une ressource physique pour la génération de capital social sur la plateforme.

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1. Introduction

1This paper examines the interplay between digital discourse and dimensions of Parisian identity as represented on Instagram. We provide a sociolinguistic, social-semiotic analysis of our data guided by three orienting themes which have been featured prominently in recent sociolinguistic literature: (i) tourism/mobility, (ii) elitism, and (iii) gender display. Social media websites have attracted interest in recent years as sites that offer new potential for the study of these and other sociological processes. In spite of this, the online platform Instagram has traditionally been less favoured by sociolinguists investigating computer-mediated discourse, particularly when compared to other Web 2.0 sites boasting large amounts of web traffic. Instagram’s affordances offer users of social media unique opportunities to interweave their semiotic and linguistic repertoires in virtual space, providing “an important window into the forms of political, cultural and social change characteristic of the contemporary era” (Heller, Jaworski & Thurlow, 2014: 427). The study of these practices has flourished in contemporary sociolinguistics and they continue to be a keen source of interest for ongoing work in the discipline. We therefore suggest that by examining the language practices of Instagram users, language scholars have the potential to make contributions toward a greater sociolinguistic understanding of social media, and of the Internet more broadly, particularly as these areas of focus continue to garner significant attention.

2This paper explores how the notion of “Parisian”, as both a noun and an adjective, is represented linguistically by Instagram users at the Café de Flore geotag. As a secondary line of inquiry, we examine how the Parisian themes established in the captions and hashtags of these posts are further elaborated semiotically through the use of multimodal resources. We then consider how these multimodal discourses interact with the guiding dimensions of tourism, elitism, and gender outlined above.

3We begin this discussion by critically examining some of the literature that has identified tourism, mobility and elitism as salient themes in mediated discourse online. In Section 3, we review a brief selection of literature that has aided in constructing the enduring myth of the Parisienne, a product of both ideological and commercial processes that have spanned the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries and a construct with which we are confronted in the data. Within this framework, we dedicate a portion of our discussion to the gendered grammar of the French language and its implications for this study. Following a discussion of our data and findings, we conclude with perspectives on the various iterations of “Parisian”, their representations, and most significantly, what still remains unpictured and unspoken.

2. Elite tourism, mobility, and place-based discourse on Instagram

4Tourism and mobility have been popular themes of focus in recent sociolinguistic studies of online media. Similarly, sociolinguistic frameworks previously developed and applied to “offline” places have contributed to our understanding of how performances of travel are materialising online. Nonetheless, studies of this genre must grapple with a number of quandaries, such as which elements of language in situ are collected as data and how these are later analysed in relation to their environment These questions recall “the complexity of social, spatial, linguistic, cultural and semiotic relations” that exist in the discursive production of mobility (Hua, Otsuji & Pennycook, 2017: 383). Consequently, studies of place-based discursive practices, even when conducted under the umbrella of sociolinguistics, are not united by a single conceptual frame. Some have taken cues from work in Linguistic Landscape (Jaworski & Thurlow, 2011; Pennycook, 2018; Thurlow & Jaworski, 2014), others have highlighted the commercial and commodified processes that underpin the tourism industry (Heller, Jaworski & Thurlow, 2014; Heller, Pujolar & Duchêne, 2014), while others still have examined language and specific places through multiple lenses, including multilingualism, marketing and forms of capital (Jaworski, 2015; Blackwood, 2018; Hult & Kelly-Holmes, 2019; Blackwood, 2021; Smith, 2021a, 2021b).

5While a variety of approaches exist to examining the relationships between language and place, whether digital or physical, an undercurrent of consensus is perceptible in the literature. Thurlow and Jaworski suggest that although “language is obviously everywhere in tourism”, the “isolation of a single communicative dimension of tourism […] always runs the risk of missing the point” (2014: 460). This perspective is mirrored by a larger shift in the sociolinguistic study of digital spaces—one that accounts for the full range of communicative elements, particularly the semiotic features, that are used and ordered by speakers within an online space. Furthermore, a fairly clear and consistent posture has been adopted by language scholars in regard to the boundaries between the physical and the offline worlds. As these lines continue to bend and blend, an array of different methodologies, data sets and analyses have suggested that the two spheres are best understood as dynamic, mutually-influential environments (Dovchin & Pennycook, 2018; Thurlow, 2019; Blommaert & Maly, 2019; Jandrić et al., 2019; Kallen, Ní Dhonnacha & Wade, 2020). There also seems to be some unanimity that social media have offered individuals and businesses new opportunities to capitalise on the “vast transcultural practice” of tourism, particularly as the use of these media has evolved to represent an equally vast, equally transcultural phenomenon (Thurlow & Jaworski, 2014: 460). In turn, social media have also provided more connected and globalised outlets for the commodification of mobility discourses and a new market for the exchange of these goods (Heller, Pujolar & Duchêne, 2014; Blackwood, 2018; Smith, 2021b).

6Elitism is one prominent dimension that has been clearly identified and developed in recent sociolinguistic work on digital mobilities (Blackwood, 2018; Lyons, 2019; Leaver, Highfield & Abidin, 2020; Smith, 2021b; Blackwood, 2021). The semiotically-driven architecture of Instagram, the website’s affordances of geotagging and searchability, its aesthetics, its facilitation of commercial transactions and its series of networked communities all render Instagram an ideal platform for elitist performances. As outlined by Thurlow and Jaworski (2017) and emphasized by Smith (2021a), the sheer ability to travel presupposes a certain privilege enjoyed by the traveller. This sense of privilege is further augmented when mobility is played out by the traveller for consumption by others online. Furthermore, the decision to craft and share these travel narratives, even those which may fall under the umbrella of “cheap-and-cheerful” because they do not represent the apex of lavish travel, suggests a certain process of stancetaking on the part of the individual (Blackwood, 2018: 19). Smith (2021a) situates social media users’ “stance of disavowal” within an elitist prism by describing how a rejection of social media use in tourist locations demonstrates the stratification of social capital in use. While all those present at Smith’s research site in Burma may trade in the social capital of their mobility, a presumably smaller, more exclusive group is aware of the value afforded by an outright rejection of social media. It is, as the author underlines, a clear and contemporary example of the implications of Bourdieu’s (1982) work and his assertion that capital is not homologous with competence (Smith, 2021a). Further work is required to understand how the enactment of certain forms of capital functions on the Instagram market and within different communities of practice.

7We seek to contribute some context to this area of interest by examining the multimodal “Parisian” representations observable at Café de Flore. As a social media platform, Instagram encapsulates a series of tiered processes, both individual commercial, which are integral to the makeup of our research site. On Instagram, platform users lean on its infrastructure to ascertain, create, construct, or even undo the aesthetics of the specific online setting. The Instagram platform serves as a site of engagement for mediated discourse and the “embodied performances” tied to this discourse (Thurlow & Jaworski, 2014). The networked setting of the Café de Flore geotag can be described as a composite entity, one which has drawn its identity from the interconnected social elements that ground it: “the physical setting, human activities, and human social and psychological processes rooted in the setting” (Stedman, 2002: 562). We must therefore turn our attention not only to the Instagram platform, but also to the plot of pavement occupied by the physical café and the larger fabric into which it is sewn: on the boulevard St Germain, in one of the wealthiest districts of one of the most romanticised cities in the world.

3. Parlez-vous parisienne ? Femininity and gender in France and French

8Who and what is said to be “from Paris” represents a case study in indexical presupposition. Meanings of “Parisian” are fluctuating and individually constructed; yet, they are somewhat universal in that the Parisian fait social has been consistently shaped by globalised commercial processes. Much of this myth-making has been articulated through the lens of the feminine “Parisienne”, whose dominance as both a noun and an adjective continues to fan the flames of ongoing debates about her contemporary makeup (Pfeiffer, 2019; Tramuta, 2020). The pageantries around the notion of “Parisienne” fit squarely within what Goffman (1979) has described as “the function of ceremony”: they attempt an “affirmation of basic social arrangements” and “a presentation of ultimate doctrines about man and the world” (1979: 69). Our goal is not to pick apart this trope entirely and in doing so, divert the focus of this paper. Instead, we seek to provide a loose context which will subsequently be developed in Section 5 in conjunction with the data. To accomplish this, the present section builds on a small amount of interdisciplinary scholarship that has centred on the myths surrounding Parisians and contributed to their social deconstruction.

  • 1 “Parisienne”, in Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, Springfield, MA: G (...)

9Lexical and ideological overlap exists in the French and English iterations of Parisian-Parisienne, rendering it difficult to identify clear, differentiating qualities that distinguish one from the other. In French, the initial rise of la parisienne has often been associated with the success garnered by Rousseau’s Julie ou la nouvelle Héloïse following its publication in 1761. In English, the Parisienne’s path to renown is somewhat more opaque. While the French nouns le parisien and la parisienne are supposed to have first appeared in the 15th century, the feminine form is believed to have made its way into English most prominently from the mid-19th century: it appeared in the first edition of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) and as an entry in Webster’s dictionary1 in 1913. A year prior, the term had gained greater notoriety with the publication of The Modern Parisienne, an English-language edition of a previously published French book by Octave Uzanne. The book is a study of the Parisienne in what is ostensibly a diversity of forms: fifteen different categories of women are outlined by Uzanne in a supposed effort to shed light on “the Parisienne of all classes” (p. xiv). The result is somewhat less successful. Uzanne’s methods of cut-and-dry categorisation further support a one-dimensional picture of women, one which ignores sociological theories that were already well-established in Europe, such as those of Marx, Weber or Durkheim. Uzanne’s predecessors, from Rousseau and Balzac to Houssaye and Delorde had previously traced similarly ambiguous shapes around the Parisienne. However, translated literature offered greater potential for the consumption of these myths by a wider audience. Uzanne’s book was ideally poised to position the “adorably feminine” Parisienne as an ideological export for a specific cross-section of anglophone society: those who possessed the means to procure literature and those with the education to read it (Uzanne, 1912: 2).

10Chaplin has described the Parisienne as constituting “what Panofsky calls a ‘type’ because it possesses both a fixed and fluid iconography, the fixed aspects being those necessary for any preliminary identification of the type, the fluid referring to the variations the type undergoes during its development” (2017: 7). Chaplin conveys one-half of the paradox that has been so paramount to the survival of this trope and its representation of a particular social order. The fluidity and ambiguity of the Parisienne has ensured her continued vitality, as any description that is too specific jeopardises the viability of the archetype. It is the underdevelopment of the Parisienne that promises the longevity of her social capital. Conflictingly, the rigidity of this figure—as a cisgender, heteronormative white woman—and its geographical gatekeeping are critical to its success on social and commercial markets. Lexically, the borrowing of “Parisienne” initially positioned the figure in English as a type of commodity unequivocally bound to France. Today, corporations such as LVMH have extended this export to a global audience and established it as one of the most enduring, profitable lifestyles in recent memory. Nonetheless, there remains an enduring belief that one “only becomes Parisian in Paris” and this ideology is crucial to the larger sociological setting that frames this paper and its problématique parisienne (Montorgueil, 1897: v).

  • 2 The logic of the language.

11Up to this point, we have devoted little attention to the masculine form of Parisian/parisien, as this requires that we first examine larger questions of gendered language in French as a conceptual frame. For sociolinguists, the mere word “P/parisienne” evokes a dizzying number of questions about the many dimensions of identity that can be tied to pronouns, gendered morphemes, and other facets of gendered language. With only two noun classes (feminine and masculine), French is among those languages whose conventions stipulate that any noun—and most modifiers—must be funnelled through a gendered prism in order to be employed in step with “les logiques de la langue2 (Viennot, 2014: 105–6). The pattern of gendered grammatical inflexions in French and the “masculinisation” of adjectives and pronouns for mixed-gender groups offer little flexibility for individuals whose gender identity falls outside the traditional male/female gender binary (Viennot, 2014: 66; Hord, 2016; Ashley, 2019; Kaplan, 2022). In all of their forms, “Parisian” and “Parisienne” carry a heavy ideological load, evoking stereotypes of gender, culture and class, which can quickly unravel upon close examination. The posture that we adopt in this paper is similar to the position espoused by Butler (1988), Goffman (1979) and other scholars who have sought to analyse gender from a post-structuralist or social-constructionist perspective. To this end, we consider that gender is best understood as a mosaic of representations rather than as a single, continuing narrative and that gender relationships are socially embedded and consequently, socially constructed (Cameron, 2005; Butler, 1988; Goffman, 1979; West & Zimmerman, 1987). From an interactional perspective, we adopt the position that gender plays a role in the social ordering of our relationships and that these relationships should be positioned as a function of the power structures in which they are embedded. These critical stances provide greater theoretical depth to our ongoing discussion of “Parisian” and how its genders are communicatively embodied at Café de Flore.

4. Methodology

12We now turn to a presentation of our data collection process and of the analytical frameworks applied in this study. We were guided by three platform-specific factors that come to bear on nearly any qualitative study conducted on Instagram. The first of these dimensions was ethical, an aspect which we sought to negotiate not only in line with the platform’s Terms of Use, but also in line with the community norms identified during data analysis. The second of these dimensions was practical, as the scope of our project involved a changing, rather than a static data set. The final dimension was experimental, as certain steps of the methodological process were left open-ended, however, space restrictions preclude us from elaborating further on this practice. Ultimately, many aspects of these dimensions came to overlap and complement one another during data collection. This paper situates its analysis in line with the literature reviewed in Sections 2 and 3, adopting an approach informed by sociolinguistics and social semiotics. We borrow practices from multimodal discourse analysis and other genres of visual discourse analysis (Kress & Van Leeuwen, 2001; Norris & Jones, 2005; Kress, 2010; Thurlow, Durscheid & Diémoz, 2020) to more effectively position this data in its multi-layered contexts and open it to a slightly wider range of theoretical perspectives. Below, we briefly expand on our choices and on the decision to limit the scope of our study to the Café de Flore geotag.

13Geotagging is one of the most salient affordances on the Instagram platform but one that remains somewhat underrepresented as a feature of study in the literature. The geotag function on Instagram allows users of the platform to associate an Instagram post with a given physical place by “tagging” it to their location. These Instagram “Places” are visible to the public, even to those without an Instagram account, and display the posts tagged by users to the institution, place or address in question. Tourism, mobility, elitism and social media having been areas of sociolinguistic interest in the years leading up to this study, we were keen to examine a digital place whose physical counterpart had maintained its status among a city’s residents as an institution of notoriety and importance, but one which was not, at first glance, a “traditional” tourist destination. We were also interested in exploring a place which had attracted some attention on the Instagram platform and which was attracting a new type of digitally-motivated or, at the very least, digitally-informed visitor to the location in question. In essence, we sought to examine a place which could be marketed as a “local destination” and which had the potential to bring together residents of the city and travellers in search of a more “authentic’ Parisian experience. Authenticity is a prism which has prompted significant discussion in social media research (Marwick & Boyd, 2010; Abidin, 2016) and it is one that contributed to our decision to select Café de Flore as a research site. As a regular fixture on lists of the most “Instagrammable” spots in Paris, Café de Flore corresponded in nearly every way to the criteria we had identified at the onset of the study. Furthermore, the business’s interaction with users vis-à-vis its own Instagram account poised it as an ideal site for a sociolinguistic study of this genre.

14Unlike some other social media websites, Instagram and its parent company, Meta, lay out a clear policy in the website’s Terms of Use with regard to the use of automatic methods for data collection (Instagram, 2023). Barring explicit approval from the platform, Instagram does not allow for data to be collected using the platform’s application programming interface (API), and this is one likely reason for which Instagram research has been less prevalent in sociolinguistic circles, particularly those which favour quantitative methods and analysis. While means of procuring quantitative data and associated metadata on Instagram do exist, these were not consistent with the scope of our study. Consequently, manual methods for data collection were employed for this paper. In addition to fitting in line with the platform’s restrictions, the use of manual methods allowed for the data set’s changes to be more closely monitored during the collection period.

15Data for this study were gathered from the Café de Flore Instagram geotag from 1st January 2022 through 31st December 2022. Adopting a grounded approach to collection and analysis (i.e., Charmaz, 2014), data were first gathered and manually coded in stages to account for possible changes to the dataset while it was housed on the Instagram platform. Following the end of the collection period, data were re-coded and stored using NVivo. The final corpus for the project totalled 415 posts. This paper’s corpus was selected from the open, selective and theoretical coding that was performed manually and in NVivo, during which seventy-five Instagram posts containing the words “Parisian”, “Parisienne”, “parisien” or “parisienne”, in noun and in adjective form, were identified. While the themes of tourism, elitism and gender were perceptible in other posts, restricting the data set provided an opportunity to successfully examine the Parisian archetype through these specific thematic dimensions. Moreover, this decision allowed conclusions to be drawn with greater clarity and focus following analysis. Language was not considered an exclusionary factor for posts in the project’s corpus. Posts in a language unfamiliar to the author were translated using Instagram’s in‑house translation feature. The decision to rely on Instagram’s translation was made in an effort to incorporate an additional affordance of this platform into the study. Furthermore, as language mixing is a common practice on social media (Androutsopoulos, 2015; Dovchin & Pennycook, 2018; Leppänen & Peuronen, 2012) it was considered important to incorporate as large a variety of discursive practices as possible in the corpus. Nonetheless, the terms “Parisian”, “Parisienne”, “parisien” and “parisienne” were overwhelmingly employed in French or in English, and on occasion, in a manner that made it impossible to clearly identify the language of use. Finally, in line with this study’s ethical dimension, informed content was received from the individuals whose posts appear in this article. Post authors were given the option to remain anonymous, however, the persons contacted for this study requested in large part that their usernames remain visible when their content was reproduced.

5. Tourism, elitism and femininity: the Parisians of Café de Flore

16The lexical construction of “Parisian/Parisienne” and its multimodal elaboration were identified as two principal components of our analysis. The present section has been structured to reflect these prisms. Nonetheless, we would ask the reader to bear in mind that an Instagram post is best understood as one unit whose discreet parts function to produce a greater whole. Each aspect of a post aids in providing layers of meaning to the other elements, and for this reason, none of these represents a clear and obvious starting point. Instead, we submit that starting points should always be established in line with a study’s specific research questions, rather than taken for granted or used as a blueprint for future work.

5.1. The linguistic construction of “Parisian”

5.1.1. “Parisian/Parisienne” as profitable labels

17“Parisian”, “Parisienne”, “parisien” and “parisienne” appeared in numerous different arrangements in the corpus. In 61 of the 75 posts, these terms figured as hashtags, both individually (presumably, employed as nouns) and as adjectives in conjunction with other nouns (such as #parisianstyle). Furthermore, hashtags of this type were often employed in succession (see Figure 1). We wish to draw the reader’s attention to this trend, as Parisian-type hashtags have not been analysed in this paper according to the number of instances in which they appear. Rather, we have chosen to analyse a post in conjunction with the Parisian dimension regardless of the number of ways it might recapitulate these terms. That is not to say that we do not find the transformation and use of these terms to be significant, but that we did not set out to count the number of occurrences of each possible combination. Instead, we prefer to consider what the Instagram hashtag offers to its users in terms of affordances and how this might orient the choices of users to employ Parisian-type hashtags in their posts at Café de Flore.

Figure 1. – Hashtags from posts collected in January, February and March 2022.

Figure 1. – Hashtags from posts collected in January, February and March 2022.

18Linguistically, Instagram hashtags function as cursory labels, allowing the individuals in our corpus to represent themselves and their habitus as “Parisian”. Little is enigmatic about this presentation: the post authors offer clear assertions that their content is coherent with specific aspects of a purportedly Parisian “lifestyle” and everything that accompanies it. The act of labelling illustrates how Instagram users actively construct themselves and Café de Flore within a Parisian frame. There is a striking use of Parisian-type hashtags in the three examples above: as a lexical resource, “Parisian” is used as both a noun and a modifier and deployed in succession. The use of the French #parisienne, particularly as an isolated instance (observable in the example from February) adds a performative, feminine element to the discourse when grounded by a series of largely English-language captions. The prevalence of Parisian-type hashtags suggests that users associate specific affordances with these resources. Furthermore, their repetition and similarity would suggest that the perceived value of these hashtags is augmented, rather than diminished, with their increased use.

19Parisian hashtags have amassed an ample following on Instagram. While the many variants of “Parisian” visible on the platform could be attributed to the lexical and grammatical differences that ground how they are most often used, the widespread practice of Parisian-type hashtagging would suggest that these elements confer a certain status upon those who employ them. Consequently, individuals who wield these hashtags in their post are most likely aware of the social capital attached to the Parisian archetype in the Instagram economy (Leaver, Highfield & Abidin, 2020). As of February 2022, #parisian has been tagged on over 3 million posts and #parisianstyle on over 5.3 million associated posts. However, #parisienne ranks as the most salient of these, with over 5.5 million associated posts. Similar hashtags also figure in our corpus, such as #paraisianlifestyle, #parisianvibes and #parisianchic, each of which has been tagged on over 1 million posts.

20The use of Parisian-type hashtags further illustrates how platform vernaculars are shared by post authors at Café de Flore. The term “platform vernaculars” (Gibbs, Meese, Arnold, Nansen & Carter, 2015; Leaver, Highfield & Abidin, 2020) can be used to describe a range of practices on social media. It suggests that community norms differ from one social media platform to another, but also how these practices change and evolve over time on any one platform. Furthermore, platform vernaculars can vary within different communities of practice that are active on the same platform (Leaver, Highfield & Abidin, 2020; Baker & Walsh, 2018). On Instagram, the use of hashtags can be considered a vernacular practice: they serve a range of purposes and are not deployed in a consistent manner across the platform. Nevertheless, trends and changes in hashtagging practices are also perceptible. Since the debut of the platform in 2010, hashtags have aided individuals in linking their posts to those of others within a larger “hashtag conversation” (Gibbs, Meese, Arnold, Nansen & Carter, 2015). The networked function connecting hashtags has since allowed them to take on more profitable features and function as searchable, marketable labels. The number of posts attached to different hashtags—and the sheer fact that a hashtag counter exists on the Instagram platform—would suggest that some hashtags hold greater market value on Instagram than others. These offer users the potential to collect profits that are specific to the Instagram platform (such as saves, likes, follows and comments); however, these platform profits can translate to monetary profits when mobilised under the umbrella of “metrics”, be it offline or on other platforms. As users increasingly associate themselves with Café de Flore and its Parisian lore, they engage in a collective economic process that supports the dominance of this institution both on Instagram and in Paris, on Boulevard Saint-Germain.

5.1.2. Parisians as expert narrators

21We have begun to observe a process of visible branding and labelling, made possible through the mobilisation of linguistic resources in tandem with the networked affordances of Instagram. However, the use of these Parisian-type hashtags is best considered when situated alongside the other series of hashtags in which they are found and the larger narrative being developed by the post authors in their captions. Below another selection of data is presented from samples gathered in April, May and June 2022.

  • 3 Translation: Opened in 1887, this historical Parisian café was habitually frequented by artists and (...)

Figure 2. – Instagram post from 1st April 2022 tagged at Café de Flore.3

Figure 2. – Instagram post from 1st April 2022 tagged at Café de Flore.3

Figure 3. – Instagram post from 1st May 2022 tagged at Café de Flore.

Figure 3. – Instagram post from 1st May 2022 tagged at Café de Flore.

Figure 4. – Instagram post from 1st June 2022 tagged at Café de Flore.

Figure 4. – Instagram post from 1st June 2022 tagged at Café de Flore.

22Figures 1, 2 and 3 demonstrate how the notion of Parisian is actively constructed by the post authors through personal touristic narratives. In these examples, post authors engage directly with Café de Flore as a site of significance or importance. Instagram serves as a mediator for these interactions and for users’ chronicling of their experiences at the physical site. Simultaneously, the authors position their experience with or without knowledge of the café as a commodity in its own right through an act of “expert” sharing. We conceptualise three dimensions of this expertise: narratives of lecture (“Opened in 1887”), narratives of common knowledge (“They don’t take reservations”), and narratives of insider knowledge (“I recommend”; “the lady that owns the newspaper stand”; “your [sic] not missing a whole lot”). A number of observations can be made about these statements. The three dimensions we outline are marked by a gradual change in register, from most formal and instructional (with no first-person pronouns), to casually informative (“There is usually a wait to get a table”), to discourse marked by more “authentic” or “relatable” overtones (marked by a strong affective tone and the use of first-person pronouns). Despite the differences in register, the three categories of narrative sharing are collectively marked by an act of stancetaking. Positioning themselves as purveyors of information, these users situate their knowledge as a commodity of value within their communities. Their close proximity to a Parisian experience represents one layer of social capital which allows for the production of another. As a result of one elite experience (a trip to Paris) post authors are able to generate more elite discourse in the form or narratives and first-hand expertise. Some of these observations may recall Thurlow and Jaworski’s 2014 framework of “knowing and (re)producing cultural heritage” in which the authors observed a “recycling of mediatized resources” which “serves as a verification of the facts and positions [the speaker] as a knowing subject” (2014: 479). Indeed, we can and do observe a stance of elitism adopted by the speakers in their expert discourses on Parisian travel. In conjunction with the hashtags which appear below the post’s caption, “Parisian” is linguistically constructed as an individual who boasts profitable “vibes” or “aesthetics” anchored to a deictic centre. Additionally, these discourses situate the speakers as authoritative voices on Paris in practice, characterizing “Parisian” as representative of not only being known, but being “in the know”.

5.2. The multimodal elaboration of “Parisian”

5.2.1. Parisienne as embodied femininity

23Multimodal discourse is very much intertwined with the semiotic potential offered by new media, and for this reason, both have been an area of particular interest for sociolinguists (Deumert, 2014; McCulloch, 2019; Dovchin & Pennycook, 2018; Leppänen & Peuronen, 2012; Thurlow & Jaworski, 2014; Gawne & McCulloch, 2019). Van Leeuwen (2015) has suggested that “discourse is almost always multimodal”, adopting the position that language is integrated with other semiotic modes to produce different types of discourse. Kress (2010), however, places emphasis on the need to distinguish text from discourse and language from speech and writing. What is common to the broad range of work in the field of multimodality is the shared credence that resources (linguistic and semiotic) for meaning-making are socially produced. The informational load carried by a given mode and the meaningfulness of its ordering with other modes may be understood differently from one community to the next. Modes should therefore be set in this communicative frame—they are “distinct on the basis of their material characteristics and of the shaping of the social-semiotic affordances of that material over (often) long periods of time” (Kress, 2010: 39). Wherever an opportunity for communication exists, communicative modes are available to the speaker. Online and offline, a speaker is always selecting and ordering these resources for use in their social spheres.

24Embodied performances are one form of multimodal display on Instagram that is currently understood to be a salient resource for self-representation. In particular, feminine gender display and embodied performances of femininity have also been observed as a profitable form of social capital on Instagram (Abidin, 2016; Baker & Walsh, 2018; Butkowski, Dixon, Weeks & Smith, 2020; Leaver, Highfield & Abidin, 2020). Rife with gender presentations that align with the work of Goffman (1979) (such as “feminine touch” and “relative size”) and with more recent work on gender display in social media, such as “faceless portrayal” (Döring, Reif & Poeschl, 2016), “glamour shot” and “advertisements” (Baker & Walsh, 2018) and “body display” (Butkowski, Dixon, Weeks & Smith, 2020), our data support contemporary perspectives that multimodal, gendered and embodied resources hold significant potential for vernacular meaning-making on Instagram. The data samples in our corpus fit squarely within a larger framework of templatability or “repeatable aesthetics” outlined by Leaver, Highfield and Abidin (2020: 205). While less directly concerned with specifically feminine embodied actions, the broader resources observed by Thurlow and Jaworski (2014), particularly “posing and placing” and “prosthetic embodiements” and Blackwood’s (2019) conception of “props” aid us in situating the gendered expressions of “Parisian” in our corpus.

Figure 5. – Instagram post by @thisisyules from 1st February 2022.

Figure 5. – Instagram post by @thisisyules from 1st February 2022.

Figure 6. – Instagram post by @morgan_guillon from 1st March 2022.

Figure 6. – Instagram post by @morgan_guillon from 1st March 2022.

25The concluding examples we offer in this section were drawn from the months of February and March. Of the 75 posts that composed this paper’s corpus, 38 were identified as containing elements of physically embodied gender display. These 38 posts included any element of the post author’s body, whether photographed in part or in whole, and whether depicted as obscured, unobscured or as a central focal element. There were no clear instances in which an author’s body figured as an unintentional element in their photo or video. Rather, in line with other research on Instagram (Abidin, 2016; Leaver, Highfield & Abidin, 2020; Baker & Walsh, 2018) body display was found to be highly aesthetic in nature, both when gender was overtly enacted and when gendered elements of the body were more subtly mobilised in the photo.

2635 of these 38 posts reflected clear instances of feminine gender display. Figure 6 serves as one example of these instances. In her post, creator @morganguillon deploys an array of semiotic devices in her characterisation of her experience at Café de Flore and herself as #parisienne. To this end, the photo in Figure 6 functions as a type of guidebook for #howtobeparisian. Invoking concrete objects, such as croissants, aids in reinforcing cultural tropes, while more intangible constructs, such as flânerie, often associated with Parisian lifestyle and café culture; and effortlessness, often associated with the archetype of the Parisienne, are perceptible through body placement and the “candid”-type nature of the photo. Furthermore, the author offers a performance of multilingual competence by way of a mixed-fragmentary display, wherein the whole of her message is first delivered in French and modified to exclude certain elements in English. As the primary featured element in the photo, Morgan comes to represent the themes that she weaves within the discreet parts of her post, contributing a structured display of Parisian femininity to the greater corpus of photos at the Instagram geotag.

27Figure 5 offers an example of the body as a gendered embodied prop. In her photo, post author @thisisyules acts out a tabletop “flatlay”, one of the most common visual arrangements that figured in our corpus. A flatlay is a popular stylistic template on Instagram composed of modular parts. In a flatlay, the subject or subjects of the photo are placed on a flat surface and captured from a bird’s-eye-view. Objects are arranged aesthetically, at the photographer’s discretion; however, flatlays tend to include an arrange of different textures (or similar textures in different states). While cafés are often seen as ideal sites for crafting these scenes, the flatlay has also been recognised for its omnipresence as a successful and economic form of presentation on Instagram (Leaver, Highfield & Abidin, 2020). Unsurprisingly, flatlays at Café de Flore are widely popular devices for multimodal storytelling. However, the ubiquity of branding at Café de Flore is unique in that it serves not only to distinguish clear props in the photo or video, but it additionally functions as a consistent plot device to emphasize the photo’s Parisian setting. Flatlays further demonstrate how Goffman’s (1979) “feminine touch” can be revitalised as a “template within a template” type of platform vernacular. This supertemplate, which we term the “feminine touch flatlay” also offers users a means to explore subdued presentations of femininity through details such as jewellery, nail polish, lipstick marks on cups, or by way of other feminine props layered in the photo. While less overt than larger body displays or glamour shots, these elements contribute more finite examples of how idealized gender and Parisian stereotypes are developed and recapitulated at Café de Flore.

6. Conclusion: Parisian as a place-based elite

  • 4 In the full 2022 corpus, French-type hashtags (such as #French #française and #frenchbreakfast) app (...)

28In this paper, we have sought to explore the construct of “Parisian” and its many iterations on Instagram, employing three dimensions of sociolinguistic and social-semiotic interest evoked in recent literature on social media. Elitism, gender and tourism/mobility were identified as prominent themes in our data, which frame the Parisians of Café de Flore as expert feminine narrators whose lifestyle and aesthetics lean on cultural tropes to enact or embody a new kind of digital #parisienne. Our data suggest that posts tagged at Café de Flore weave a strong narrative of specifically Parisian, rather than French4 identity. While “Parisian” and “Parisienne” discursive practices are products of individualised experience, many of these displays took similar approaches in their representations of self and experience. Parisian-type hashtags were found to be a salient element in constructing this archetype at our research site. These elements were often deployed in succession and were visible either in the caption space below the post’s photo or as a comment made by the author, and obscured from view. We understand Parisian-type hashtags as profitable labels which can be selected and mobilised by the author for the purposes of profit. However, the pattern of obfuscating hashtags from view raises questions about some users’ desire to distance themselves from the request for these profits, echoing the elitist practices of rejection seen in Smith (2021a).

29Linguistically, captions and hashtags allowed the Instagram users in our corpus to concretely establish themselves as Parisians and to develop this presentation multimodally through props and embodied actions. While we chose only to elaborate on the gender displays of users whose bodies appeared in their photos, the contributors to both corpora overwhelmingly presented as white females whose posts fell within the frameworks of elitism we have previously outlined. This would suggest that while #parisienne appeared in our corpus less frequently than #parisian and Parisian-type hashtags, there remains a strong semantic association between the word “Parisian” and a fairly narrow construct of femininity for our contributors. Further research would be required to ascertain whether this trend exists on a larger scale on the Instagram platform. Studies in this direction would contribute a more thorough understanding of how “place-based discourse” is used on Instagram, as well as its association with cultural tropes and their profitability on the platform.

30Despite remaining a place of great cultural significance for many Parisians, the multimodal discourses at Café de Flore do little to represent the interculturality of its reach nor the multiculturalism visible in Paris today. Instead, Parisians on Instagram are often flattened out into a “condensed and idealized version” of the construct that echoes its “mythic” and “historic” beginnings which remain anchored to Paris but globally commodified (Goffman, 1979: 69). To conclude, we submit that enactments of “Parisian” on Instagram can be understood as a greater personification of the places depicted in the posts. Through processes of labelling, narrative and embodiment, they mirror the elitism and hegemony that continues to imbue contemporary touristic visions of Paris. The analysis we have conducted on our corpus can thus be seen as a commentary on Café de Flore itself, which functions as a deictic centre for thematic leitmotifs, and which represents only one of many other personified Parisian geotags on Instagram.

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1 “Parisienne”, in Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, Springfield, MA: G. & C. Merriam Company.

2 The logic of the language.

3 Translation: Opened in 1887, this historical Parisian café was habitually frequented by artists and intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir… (Now by influencers and tourists 🤪 but it hasn’t lost its charm).

4 In the full 2022 corpus, French-type hashtags (such as #French #française and #frenchbreakfast) appeared in a total of 25 posts.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. – Hashtags from posts collected in January, February and March 2022.
Fichier image/jpeg, 330k
Titre Figure 2. – Instagram post from 1st April 2022 tagged at Café de Flore.3
Fichier image/jpeg, 98k
Titre Figure 3. – Instagram post from 1st May 2022 tagged at Café de Flore.
Fichier image/jpeg, 337k
Titre Figure 4. – Instagram post from 1st June 2022 tagged at Café de Flore.
Fichier image/jpeg, 337k
Titre Figure 5. – Instagram post by @thisisyules from 1st February 2022.
Fichier image/jpeg, 455k
Titre Figure 6. – Instagram post by @morgan_guillon from 1st March 2022.
Fichier image/jpeg, 268k
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Erin McInerney, « Performing Parisian. Gender Performances, Elite Discourse and Multimodality on Instagram »ILCEA [En ligne], 51 | 2023, mis en ligne le 12 juin 2023, consulté le 26 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Erin McInerney

Université de Strasbourg, University of Glasgow

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Creative Commons - Attribution - Partage dans les Mêmes Conditions 4.0 International - CC BY-SA 4.0

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