I first discovered May Waver’s work on Twitter, which makes sense. She’s an online persona, IRL online avatar, and interdisciplinary artist. Her work earnestly explores the consumption and practice of personal intimacy, femininity, and self-fashioning in the digital age. A co-creator of The Cybertwee Manifesto, Waver intervenes in the devaluation of femininity in a culture where, in the artist’s words, toxic masculinity is rewarded.
Sam Wisneski: Your work has been featured in the Girls of the Internet Museum, whose tagline is “~we’re into sincerity.” How does sincerity guide your work?
May Waver: I’ve talked with Gabriella Hileman and Violet Forest [the co-creators of The Cybertwee Manifesto] about this moment we’re in, where irony is at its peak, its saturation point. There’s this idea that, on the one hand, you can be ironic or, on the other hand, you can be pure, true, genuine, authentic—a self I don’t think exists.
For me, sincerity means accepting that you’re constantly creating and negotiating [the self] in all these different contexts and environments, with different people. Realizing that was freeing for me. It’s all a weird charade, especially with our online personas. Whether you have an intentional persona or brand that you’re trying to project or if you just post on Facebook, your public self is still curated or mediated.
SW: I consider myself an avid autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) enthusiast, and I really want to talk about it with you, since you’ve done some exploration of ASMR. What draws you to ASMR?
MW: ASMR is a really intimate feeling. That’s what I’m drawn to, especially when I’ve been anxious or just lonely. It feels like you’re really close to someone, because it’s a physical thing, like someone’s touching you.
However, I try to distinguish between things that feel intimate and the actual intimacy that you might have with another person. My criteria for intimacy are vulnerability and trust. There have to be elements of that in, for example, the relationship between an ASMR artist and a viewer.
SW: I like that both your work and a lot of ASMR content empowers and redeems femininity. Femininity is often construed as fake or artificial while masculinity is considered a sincere form of gender expression. How does your work intervene in the devaluation of femininity?
MW: Femininity isn’t strictly talking about women or females. So, when I’m advocating for the value of stereotypically feminine traits, I think it’s important for men to feel that they can embody those traits, too. I’m not reinforcing that this is how women are or should be. I’m saying that it’s OK to be this way, and no one should feel that they have to conform to whatever gender they were assigned or way they think they have to perform in order to be valued by our society, as a worker or as a lover.
Choosing to embody certain feminine traits is often seen as a weakness: you don’t have the same ability or intelligence as someone who’s more androgynous, masculine, or macho. Yet, I think the frivolity that’s associated with femininity can be both self-indulgent and subversive; femininity is performed, and one can use artificial elements to confuse or obscure it.
SW: Recently, you’ve expressed that your approach to your work has evolved, especially as it relates to whiteness and femininity. Can you tell me more about that?
MW: I realized some of the ways I was contributing to a problem that I don’t want to be a part of. Everything that I’ve ever made has always come from a cathartic place, but I’ve realized that when I’m making something public, it can have real consequences for other people and identities. I’m more aware of the power that I have, especially as my audience grows, and I have more influence.
In the past, I used more images of myself in my work. Now, I appear in the videos, but it’s different than baring my body, playing into certain tropes of white femininity. Originally I did this to be critical, but I realized that this type of irony—embodying something as a way of criticizing it—doesn’t work. It’s not effective, and it’s hurtful.
SW: Can you tell me more about Audioselfies?
MW: My friend Silvia Abelson and I created Audioselfies as an end-of-year project in a new-media and identities class. We came up with the concept: What would an imageless selfie sound like? We took submissions and also made some of our own. I wouldn’t say that an audio selfie is more sincere or more authentic than an image selfie, but I think it allows a different freedom. By removing the image from the product, it opens other possibilities for expression. Audio has its own kinds of baggage and history, but, for me, Audioselfies removes the baggage associated with images. We’ve removed that weight but still have something that fits into the same form of sharing that we’re accustomed to: a short, little snippet—10 to 30 seconds, not even the length of a song.