Digital Drag and Discerning What’s Real

A review of Chris Stedman’s IRL: Finding Realness, Meaning, and Belonging in Our Digital Lives (Broadleaf Books, 2020).

I was travelling in Germany for three weeks with students while reading Jean Twenge’s book iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us. It seemed like a good idea to read about this generation while spending an extended amount of time living with twelve of them. Among other things, Twenge convinced me that “iGen” was a better name for this cohort than the commonly used moniker Generation Z, which is of course a derivative generational marking – remember when the now-named Millennials were Generation Y? This GenXer does. 

The name comes from the fact that “members of this generation are growing up with smartphones, have an Instagram account before they start high school, and do not remember a time before the internet. … iGen’s oldest members were early adolescents when the iPhone was introduced, in 2007, and high-school students when the iPad entered the scene, in 2010” (Twenge 2017). They have the distinctive experience of being the first to navigate adolescence and now emerging adulthood with a smartphone nearly always in their pocket and social media an ever-present factor of life.

While travelling internationally, many of my students chose to not purchase additional international roaming plans, relying instead on free public wifi when they could get it, as well as the wireless networks in lodgings each night. This led to two tiny tech-realizations, one mine and one from a student. At dinner one evening, a student remarked that because they were all mostly offline during the days when we were out touring and visiting historic sites, they had bonded more as a group than she thought they might have otherwise. (I withheld my older-person impulse to say “I could have told you that!”) 

My tiny realization came from self-imposed anxiety about connecting to public wifi in a town square, or in a shopping center, when I realized that the students had almost no qualms about doing so. They were more fearless than me about joining an unknown network, and most of them had no hesitation at hopping online for a quick check of messages and Instagram posts. They knew the risks, they just took them anyway. They were more comfortable in that space than I was, willing to accept a vulnerability that came with it. 

The necessity of navigating life in this digital sea is a motivating factor behind Chris Stedman’s new book IRL: Finding Realness, Meaning, and Belonging in Our Digital Lives. He isn’t just talking about young people, of course, insofar as digital life, social media, the internet and its influence extends across the generations and across cultures. But his care for this aspect of our life together is particularly relevant to those of us who live a good portion of our lives online. 

What Stedman does with and for our digital lives in IRL is akin to what he does with and for our religious lives in his first book, Faitheist: How An Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. About that work, I wrote in an early review that a “spirit of generosity, curiosity, humility, and compassion pervades Stedman’s book” and the same is true of IRL. Since it came out, I’ve taught Faitheist a handful of times with undergraduates in multiple iterations of a first year seminar. Each time I witness how his narrative of identity-seeking and his twin coming-out stories connect with young people navigating their own complicated and sometimes-messy lives.

It’s this messiness of life that gets even more honest and careful attention in IRL, as Stedman weaves together elements of his own story, recent life-transitions, including personal and professional heights and depths, with the emerging body of research on the facts and consequences of our digital lives today. In it, he offers compelling new ways to think about our own engagement in the digital world, constantly pushing us to consider what is real anyway.

An early provocative idea from the book comes from reflection on an amateur night drag show at a gay bar: “In drag, the concept of ‘realness’ doesn’t necessarily mean what you might think. For many drag artists, realness isn’t about trying to ‘pass’ … but rather about standing out and apart.” Here, Stedman echoes gender theorists like Judith Butler who analyze drag in similar ways. Stedman writes:

The realness of drag is that it heightens, dramatizes, and deviates in order to reveal – it holds up a mirror to us, showing us the gender baggage we inherit and inviting us to discard our conventions. This is what digital pieces of our lives can do, too. … Our digital drag shows us what our culture considers perfection–perfect beauty, perfect relationships, perfect lives–and then asks if we want to discard these things, too. It is a laboratory, a space where we can experiment. A space to try things that might not work, things we’re not good at yet, and see what we learn from them. (IRL p.3) 

This too is what the years of higher education can be for many of our students: a time and a place to try things on, try things out, and see what they can learn. To examine what they’ve been told, taught, and sold, and discern for themselves what to buy, borrow, and discard.

This theme of meaning-making finds an unlikely and fascinating analogue in IRL in a chapter on maps. Stedman considers the similar roles that maps, religion, and social media have insofar as they help people make sense of and find coherence in their experiences. It is important to note, however, that: “No map, book, or social media platform is large enough to capture all of reality” (IRL p.113). While the concept of drag highlights the playful and experimental nature of our digital representations, Stedman’s deep dive into cartography immediately makes clear that whoever has the power to draw the map (literally and figuratively) has the ability to shape perceptions of Reality. 

During their college years, our students are learning to claim the power to engage and shape reality. The digital landscape is a part of this, and we serve them and ourselves well to take it as seriously as we do other parts of life.

Students touching a memorial plaque at Buchenwald..

The image that stays with me the most from that travel course in Germany is this one. I took it during our visit to Buchenwald, as the guide was describing the memorial plaque that now “marks the site where inmate survivors erected a wooden obelisk – the first memorial to the victims of the camp – shortly after liberation.” It is engraved with “the names of fifty nations and victim groups in alphabetical order.” When our guide told us that the middle part of the plate is constantly heated to 98.6 degrees, the temperature of the human body, my students immediately crouched down to touch it.

To feel the warmth of a human body.

These are the “digital natives” that too many of us who are not spend much time fretting about. They know what’s real. They seek, and they achieve, connection. They motivate global movements and understand their role in literally saving their communities and their planet. Reaching out for the warmth of the human body temperature is them reaching out for something Real. Mediated by a steel plate, an iPhone screen, or a Zoom call, it is all very Real.

Ultimately, rather than disdain and discard social media and digital life as not-real or less important, Chris Stedman encourages a type of mindfulness in our approach to it, understanding that it is real even when it seems fleeting and shallow. Instead, “it is better to identify the value of the fickle and fleeting: what they have to teach us, what it is they offer.” (IRL p.55). 

Other blog posts on related themes: See Rachel Mikva’s “Personal Branding,” Douglas Henry on “Smartphones and Vocational Reflection,” and “The Cartography of Vocation” by Erin VanLaningham.


Caryn D. Riswold is Professor of Religion and serves as the Mike and Marge McCoy Family Distinguished Chair in Lutheran Heritage and Mission at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa. Before joining the Wartburg community in 2018, she taught Religion and Gender & Women’s Studies at Illinois College for sixteen years. She is the author of “Vocational Discernment: A Pedagogy of Humanization” in At This Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education (Oxford University Press, 2015) where she considers the intersection of vocational discernment with issues of race, class, and gender identity. She has previously written for blogs like Patheos and you can now find her work at Medium.com. For other blog posts by Caryn, click here.

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