Most people who have used dating apps have stories about the funny, offensive or disturbing messages they’ve received. Lillian Sun, a senior majoring in political science and art history, and creator of Instagram account LILLIAN x TINDER (@thefleshlightchronicles), decided to make art out of those messages instead of letting them just sit in her inbox. The account currently has approximately 14.8k followers.
A typical post features a picture of Sun with Tinder message bubbles creatively edited into the picture. Dripping with sarcasm and cutting wit, the captions are centered around themes that Sun feels are worth addressing, like sexism, racism, fetishization and abuse, among others. In one post from November 2017, you’ll see Sun holding a sign at a protest, but instead of a catchy slogan, the sign featured a Tinder message from a man who made an appeal to Sun’s love of activism that fell very flat.
The account username, @thefleshlightchronicles, originated from the first post that Sun made on the account in November 2016 — a screenshot from a Tinder profile of a man with a cigarette in his mouth, holding a Fleshlight sex toy with a cigarette in it as well.
“How to get a girl: Step 1, show her your fleshlight. Step 2, put a cigarette in your fleshlight,” the caption reads.
Sun shared that she initially joined Tinder for purely personal reasons; she had not originally set out to uncover the dark underbelly of the dating app. She truly just wanted to meet people.
“I had just broken up with my ex-boyfriend and I had never used it before. I wanted to try it as a way to at least meet some new people,” she said. “It was so exciting at first, that’s the sort of draw of it. You feel very wanted when these people who maybe wouldn’t have approached you in real life are talking to you.”
Soon, Sun grew sick of receiving degrading, inappropriate messages on Tinder from men and did what many people in the age of social media do: She posted about it. It began as an account for the enjoyment of herself and her friends. It was never supposed to be the artistic, social commentary platform that it has since evolved into, she added.
“I just got a lot of really terrible messages from men on Tinder and I made a finsta for it. It really began as a finsta and as it got to be more popular, I realized that this touched upon my own issues as a woman of color and I could talk about that,” Sun said.
Sun described the transition of the account, from being mainly for venting and entertainment to one that seriously addressed social issues, as both “organic” and “conscious.” She has focused on racial fetishization in particular, because it is a common problem that affects her when using dating apps.
“I realized that fetishization is an issue that we don’t really talk about and that most people don’t really understand,” Sun said. “I wanted to first clarify that [fetishization] for people that were confused and provide a space for a woman of color who had experienced fetishization.”
Being a rising star in the “activist meme community” requires a large amount of work and dedication by Sun. She explained the thought process and effort behind each post.
“There’s a method to the madness, I usually conceive of these ideas beforehand. I usually do a mad swipe on Tinder and check back on it later, and I’ll browse all the messages and see if any of them are funny enough or terrible enough,” Sun said.
“Then I’ll conceptualize how I want to translate that visually,” she said. “Then, I’ll have my friends who also do photography to help me out with that.”
Sun actively tries to provide a platform for people of color, especially women. Her account has featured poems and photography created by female artists of color, many of whom are Tufts students.
“A lot of my friends are women of color and they are really talented at what they do, so I wanted to use it to showcase their stuff as well,” Sun said.
Sun’s recent posts have had a slight edge that clearly developed over time as you scroll through the account’s feed.
“As I was doing this and was getting more involved in the activist meme community on Instagram, it brought me a lot of insight into my own willingness to let things slide,” Sun said. “In that sense my account just got more aggressive.”
Sun’s followers seem to adore her content: On every post, there are upwards of 1,000 likes and up to hundreds of comments complimenting her on various elements of her photos and captions. She added that her followers also frequently send her direct messages. While she enjoys getting to know the people who follow her, the sheer quantity of messages she receives is overwhelming.
“Usually I’m pretty consistent with answering DMs … I don’t get to everything obviously because a lot of people send me long, long paragraphs of their own life stories and it takes a lot of emotional labor to answer them, but I try to answer as many as I can,” she said.
However, where there are admirers, critics are usually quick to follow.
“I have gotten harassed by strangers [and by] people I know in real life, online. Luckily never in real life physically. Fearing for my own safety is definitely something that’s constantly on my mind,” Sun said.
Despite the potential dangers and disparagement that comes with running an account of such an opinionated nature, Sun said that she loves what she does and wants to keep @thefleshlightchronicles going.
“I can see myself continuing to do this. As of now I don’t really know, it’s sort of hazy because honestly social media and making it an integral part of your professional life is such new territory that I can’t say for sure how I’m going to navigate that,” she said. “But it is something that I’m passionate about and that I hope to continue in the future.”
Right in keeping with everything her account stands for, Sun also would encourage anyone who wants to be involved in art-based activism on social media to not hesitate.
“By all means, go for it,” she said.