A social semiotic approach to multimodality in the Vagina Varsity YouTube campaign series
Roux, Shanleigh Dannica
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This study investigated the semiotic resources used by Vagina Varsity, a campaign by sanitary towel brand Libresse on the social media platform YouTube to construct meanings around the female body. Vagina Varsity is a South African online advertising campaign on YouTube which marketed their sanitary products, whilst educating, as well as breaking the social stigma, around the black female body. In this study, YouTube was utilized as a space in which to analyze online identities and communication. The study was located within the field of linguistic landscape (LL) studies, including the sub-field virtual linguistic landscapes (VLL), later reformulated as virtual semioscapes. The conceptual framework was undergirded by multimodality/multisemioticity and feminist theory. The study used a mixed methods approach to data collection, and used a virtual linguistic ethnography (VLE) framework to collect the data sources, which included YouTube videos, YouTube comments, and emails. A focus group interview was also conducted, where the Vagina Varsity videos were shown to a group of diverse youth at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa. The embodied discourses which emerged, as well as the discourse strategies of the commentators, were multimodally analysed. The study found that the Vagina Varsity course makes use of multiple modes, including embodied semiotics such as gestures and stylizations of voice, visual modes such as cartoon figures, as well as the strategic use of sound. In addition, the study found that educational content and marketing strategies are both embedded in this campaign, with the educational content overshadowing the advertising aspect. It is for this reason that the YouTube comments and focus group interview were centered on the program itself and not the advertisement. Furthermore, when looking at the medium this campaign used, one sees that the virtual space allows for the teaching of taboo topics, which would not be allowed in traditional educational domains. The virtual space is not only bridging the knowledge gap in the topic of sex education, it also bridges the gap between different communities, as the YouTube comment section allows for people to interact across regional, national and even cultural boundaries. This study also found that Vagina Varsity not only recontextualized the educational genre, but they have also recontextualized the production and consumption of a topic which would otherwise be considered taboo. In terms of the implications for the study, one finds that the stigma that is attached to this subject is removed from this content. Although one cannot say for certain that this type of education will take over the African traditional initiation ceremonies for girls, for example, it can be used to complement some of the content that traditional counselors and social workers use to teach young African women. The fact that the program is formalized in a curriculum that can be found online opens up possibilities for open dialogue across cultures and nations in terms of feminine hygiene. This study contributes to the field of Linguistic Landscapes studies, with specific focus on virtual linguistic landscapes. The study also illustrates that the affordances of the online space allows for a hybrid edutainment space where people can learn about topics which are considered taboo in the domain of formal education. This study also extends the concept of multimodality, by including notions such as semiotic remediation and resemiotization, as well as immediacy and hypermediacy, as tools of multimodal analysis. This study also contributes to studies on gender and sexuality.