‘Challenge Accepted’ social media trend draws criticism for overshadowing Turkish femicide campaign

Instagram has recently been filled with black and white photos of women. They’re often selfies of friends and celebrities, all with captions that read “challenge accepted.” But what is the challenge? As it turns out, what’s become an opportunity to share a grayscale selfie didn’t begin that way.

KCRW talks about the trend and its origins with Rae Alexandra, who reported on this for KQED Arts and Culture.

KCRW: What is this challenge women are accepting?

Rae Alexandra: “The black and white selfie campaign that has emerged in the last week purports to be about female unity and solidarity. … On first looking at it, this looks like a very positive thing. And then a few days into this taking off in the U.S., there were millions of posts within 48 hours. 

And then yesterday morning, some voices emerged in Turkey from female human rights campaigners saying that actually this was a campaign that had started at first in order to battle soaring rates of femicide in the country.”

How did posting a black and white photo go to talking about femicide in Turkey?

Alexandra: “On July 16 in Turkey, a student named Pinar Gültekin disappeared. And five days later, her ex-boyfriend confessed to her murder. And this sparked a wave of outrage across Turkey. Women hit the streets in protest. And then that also turned into a social media campaign to raise awareness about the number of women being murdered in the country. And the way that they did that was by posting black and white photos and nominating their friends to also join them in doing this. And the reason those photos were in black and white was symbolic of seeing murdered women in newspapers every day. And the selfies were supposed to basically help other people confront the fact that these are your sisters and your friends and your mothers. And it could just as easily be one of them on the front page tomorrow.”

How did that trend morph into glamorous and flattering looking photos?

Alexandra: “Initially, I was confused about what the challenge was because it seemed like a lot of people [were] trying to boost their own social media platform, or perhaps become influencers. Those are the kinds of pictures I was seeing on my Instagram feed if I clicked the hashtags. And the main hashtags were women supporting women and women empowerment. And it was difficult to see what exactly was empowering about these images a lot of the time. 

And I'm not entirely sure how this morphed from being a campaign in Turkey to reaching America. It's almost impossible to draw the line from one to the other. It's just the nature of the internet and social media. But the social media campaign in Turkey, one of the hashtags was women empowerment. And it seems to have been that one that was most carried over into the U.S. campaign.”

The New York Times writer Taylor Lorenz says that the #ChallengeAccepted trend resurfaces every few years and did not originate in Turkey. Is it possible that there are multiple origins for this?

Alexandra: “There are multiple origins. And I am aware of the breast cancer campaign ‘Challenge Accepted’ with black and white photos that did the rounds in 2016. It is true that this has happened more than once.

But I think at the moment, with so many millions of women in America posting these selfies, with the hashtags ‘women empowerment’ and ‘women supporting women,’ it's not that important who did it first or how far back this goes. 

What is important is to listen to the women in Turkey who are saying, ‘Listen, we were trying to do something important here, and our voices are being drowned out.’ And I think it's okay for women in America to have posted a black and white selfie in solidarity with their friends to also then say, ‘Wow, I didn't know this. Let's also draw some light back on them.’”

Does this trend’s existence in America, without the reference to Turkey, dilute what’s happening there? 

Alexandra: “The ‘women supporting women’ hashtag on Instagram, last time I checked was nearing 7 million. The hashtag ‘women empowerment’ was almost 12 million. And I think if [there are] 20 million posts in this country about looking nice in a photo, and Turkish women are saying, ‘Hey, can you also shine a light back on us because we were doing this first?’ — I think that's okay.”

This seems to happen often on social media: There's viral excitement for a few days, then there's the backlash, then that fizzles out. This happened with the black squares on #BlackoutTuesday.

Alexandra: “I think what we're seeing in this case is extremely similar to the black squares from a few weeks ago, which also had a lot of backlash. …  Showing solidarity on social media is great and everything, but if your showing solidarity is preventing other people from doing more constructive social justice work because you're using the same hashtags, then we're in a problem situation.”

— Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Rosalie Atkinson