Instagram Content Analysis: Cole Sprouse
Written by Bianca Smith
Cole Sprouse, 23, first started working as an actor in 1992. He was one year old. His career started with “Grace Under Fire,” built speed with “Just For Kicks,” and peaked with Disney Channel’s “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody.” Now an NYU graduate and self-titled photographer, Sprouse’s Instagram feed (1.4m followers) is a prime example as to how one works within an intersection of privileges— in his case, benefitting from his race, gender, class and looks privilege.
Within a 10 week period, Sprouse posted photos with many different subjects, backgrounds, and bloated captions. Between the sprinkling of selfies, there was one consistent theme that prevailed throughout the research period— that being the inclusion of nature, or subjects interacting with nature. 41 out of his most recent 72 photographs — or approximately 56 percent — fit within this category. The scenes where people are photographed are mostly serene and include little to any housing, prompting the viewer to feel a sort of loneliness or isolation. These images follow standard nature photography guidelines: There is a distinct horizon line, detailing in the background and foreground as well as some sort of leading line— in the cases below, that leading line being the water and a winding road.
These photographs are supplemented with what followers assume to be anecdotes by Sprouse. Generally, they’re introspective, prompting readers to ask themselves whether or not “[they] were just ashamed of the realization that [their] own work wasn’t immediately groundbreaking,” and telling readers that “[they] too can become a gem if only [they] have the confidence for the plunge.” There are the underpinnings of these captions pertaining to Sprouse himself, but they involve the reader as if he is encouraging them to have a deep, philosophical discussion with him. What these captions and considerably beautiful images fail to include is why Sprouse has the ability to take these trips and formulate these inspirational ideas. Sometimes, though, like the first example (98.1K likes) below, Sprouse doesn’t conceal his intentions.
When Instagram revealed that they would be letting an algorithm decide what’s most relevant to show instead of a time-ordered selection from the people you’ve chosen to follow, Sprouse — like many other celebrity Instagrammers — was unhappy. He stated in contrast to his nautical seascape that the update was a “real blow to more undiscovered artists.” In urging his followers to be conscious of the update and to turn on post notifications for their favorite accounts, he was asking them to do the same for his account— a place that he felt like real, undiscovered art was shared. This action, both visual and textual, displayed his intentional neglect of how he benefits from class and looks privilege.
Packaged within that theme is the is Sprouse’s emphasis on young, white, thin and mostly make-up-less women in nature who are posed in seemingly vulnerable positions. He knows some of these models personally, or he finds them via Instagram. The way these women are posed could be perceived by the masses as “high fashion” or, just not at all thought about. Bell Hooks’s Cultural Criticism & Transformation and Jean Kilbourne's Killing Us Softly 4 outlines, though, how the imagery of women in vulnerable positions promotes sexual violence towards them as well as how those images perpetuate the negative constructs concerning women’s ability and power.
So by photographing them sprawled out on the concrete, bending and contorting in a vineyard or making themselves look smaller my slumping their shoulders and knees towards their core in a cave, Sprouse is asserting his dominance over them (he has the ability to do so thanks to his gender and class) and he is emphasizing and reinforcing our skewed beauty standard (due to his race, class and looks privilege, he is either ignorant to his exclusion of another race, class, looks and gender representation or he is actively not representing them).
This intersection of privilege is apparent in Sprouse’s appearance management — what he does to his body visually, as well as how he plans and organizes those actions — versus his appearance perception — how he observes and evaluates or draws inferences based on how people look, (Kaiser, 1991). Whether it is him photographed or the models described above and pictured below, the overwhelming majority of subjects are clothed in muted-colored and a mix of tight/structured garments. They are in many ways “perfectly undone,” displayed without traces of photoshopped hairs or unwrinkled shirts.
These belted trench coats and sleek trousers are exhibited in a counter-appearance perception display: Sprouse and his photo subjects are “modest” in their dress choices, but because of their race and class privilege, one who looks past the image itself can infer that these garments are not as inexpensive as they’re intended to be perceived. “Competitive class emulation is thus the engine of fashion. Bourdieu (1984) refined the account with analysis of the role of clothing as a marker of class distinction in which dress is an aspect of cultural capital, part of how elites establish, maintain and reproduce positions of power, reinforcing relation of dominance and subordination…Fashion thus helps to reproduce gender as a form of body style, producing a complex interplay between sexed bodies and gendered identities. ...Clothing and identity have also been theorised in terms performativity, emphasising its role in processes of self-realization and presentation...” (Twigg, 2009).
Even if Sprouse plans and organizes his appearance to be casual, relatively minimalistic and, most importantly, not gaudy, he isn’t being completely truthful. He fails to acknowledge that he, in fact, has the ability to look this way due to the large sums of money he can spend on his appearance and further, that he has the ability to be financially stable because he is a white cisgender heterosexual male. Symbolic interaction, or the “perspective [that] focuses on social processes related to how meanings are constructed and reconstructed in everyday life...how personal appearances have meaning,” (Kaiser, 1991), is why this is so crucial in a following based social media platform like Instagram. Sprouse’s almost two million followers consumer these images at face value — not thinking about his intersection of privileges but rather how he manages his appearance and why it is worth replicating — and then they, too, create images with similar underpinnings of class, race, gender and looks privileges.
The representation of women in Sprouse’s feed perpetuates an unrealistic standard of beauty and, in the worst-case scenario, a subconscious violence towards women. These are due to unrealized privileges he holds as race/class/gender/looks-privileges media influencer who embodies our cultural standard of beauty. He performs as a “beauty-standard-changer,” but completely neglects other races, classes, sizes and abilities. “...Fuller women are viewed is a Catch-21. They’re seen as both sexy and overweight.
Model Elizabeth Hurley stated in an interview that ‘I’ve always thought Marilyn Monroe looked fabulous in clothes and she was sexy, but I’d kill myself if I was that fat.’ Fat? She was 5’5 and weighed 134 pounds. Hardly fat,” (Houghton, 2011). Sprouse doesn’t face setbacks from the politics of comfort due to his intersectionality of privilege. His female subjects do, though. “...At one level, then, comfort can be taken to embody resistance to the hegemonic discourses of ‘proper’ feminine or masculine behaviour and attire...Comfort also signifies the comfort one might feel from the degree of fit between the outside of one’s body and its inside (the imagined self)...In other words, there is a wish to close the gap between performance (acting) and ontology (being), a desire to be self-present to both oneself and others,” (Holliday, 2001).
Clearly, the gap between Sprouse’s performance and ontology is his intersectional privilege: He is trying to embody the starving artist trope while never having to experience failure, financial distress or a lack of praise. Without fail, his packet of privileges encourages him to skirt responsibility when it comes to explicitly addressing these either in his Instagram captions or photos themselves.
His conspicuous leisure, consumption and waste (Kaiser, 1991), then, doesn’t have to be hidden because of his followers’ aspirations to embody a similar lifestyle outside of the Instagram-sphere— at least to an extent where it can be achieved to share Instagram. Sprouse’s Instagram caters to all of the middle-class contradictions: the aspirational idea that one can function in society solely by sharing their art; that you don’t have to be “dressed up” to be successful or well-liked; and that engaging in theory or philosophy is a clear indication of true intellect. His Instagram is a clear representation of a celebrity media mask— Sprouse’s persona on this platform has become what society knows and believes about him at face-value. But despite what he visually promotes, he is able to perform the above contradictions only because of his upper-class ranking and other privileges.
If Cole Sprouse wasn't a celebrity, his intersection of race, class, gender and looks privilege would probably still exist— the difference would be the magnitude in which it affects others. Say Sprouse was a middle-class white male instead of the upper class white male celebrity that he is— his privilege could still negatively influence his ability to understand or empathize with the systems of oppression that he benefits from. Currently, his privilege manifests and influences others on a global scale and collectively, all of the middle-class white males could do some damage (and, sometimes they do). But this is why, compared to others in society, celebrity social media can directly reinforce dominant societal norms (regardless of how buried their intentions may be).
So, Cole Sprouse: Are you aware of how your textual and visual neglect of your intersection of privilege deepens dangerous societal constructs? Is your follower count more important than equal representation of races, gender and looks as well as class transparency?