“What are the effects of the uninterrupted digital gaze on living, breathing humans in scroll culture?”
The Effects of Social Media on Women
Portable Laptop, invented 1989. Wikipedia, founded 2001.
World Wide Web, invented 1990. Facebook, founded 2004.
Sally Oh, born 1991. iPhone, invented 2007.
SMS Messaging, invented 1992. Keeping Up With the Kardashians, 2007.
Google, founded 1998. Instagram, founded 2010.
Growing up, there was one desktop computer in my home, only to be used by my mother or with proof that it was vital for homework. During this monitored homework time, I snuck onto the Internet and quickly X’ed out of browsers and chat boxes when I heard footsteps approaching. Needless to say, AOL Instant Messaging was a luxury. I went by xOhlikewhOa. Flip phones contained three to four letters per number . . . requiring four heavy clicks just to arrive at a single ‘e.’ These stolen Internet glances, AIM chats, and flip phone texts shaped my adolescence. I ferociously unwrapped my Christmas present the winter of 2007 and found my first, eagerly anticipated iPhone. It replaced my pink Motorola flip phone along with life as I knew it, and the shaping of my virtual identity began.
By focusing on the current digital age in America, specifically after the emergence of Facebook in 2004, I intend to critically analyze what social media requires of us. In Professor Elena Wang’s Fall 2017 Graduate Elective, “Bodies at Work: Gender and Labor in Contemporary Visual Culture,” we extensively studied the effects of societal norms on the working gendered body by reading and researching actors, models, and fashion bloggers. I’d like to insert social media stars to the top of this lineup of cultural influencers and propose that our obligatory participation in virtual reality via social media places all who live in this digital age into the same problematic positions celebrities find themselves in. What are the effects of the uninterrupted digital gaze on living, breathing humans in scroll culture? Further, how does the masculine gaze on women in patriarchal society compound this virtual experience for women? By first inserting ourselves into narratives and theoretical studies with the replacement of terms pertaining to “celebrity” with “people, person, them, I, we, us,” we will assess the enforced labor and effects of social media on the consuming public.
Alarming Instagram statistics graced the web August of 2017 reporting that there are over 800 million active monthly users, 400 million daily users, 95 million posts per day, and 4.2 billion likes per day. Sixty-eight percent of users are female, and 59 percent of internet users between ages eighteen and twenty-nine use Instagram. 1 Founded only seven years ago, in October of 2010, and purchased by Facebook just two years later, Instagram has quickly become the globally preferred social media platform. Of 800 million Instagrammers, today the ten most followed people read: Selena Gomez, 134m: Ariana Grande, 118m: Taylor Swift, 106m: Beyoncé 112m: Kim Kardashian, 109m: Cristiano Ronaldo, 122m; Kylie Jenner, 105m: Justin Bieber, 98m; Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, 101m; and Kendall Jenner 88m. If Merriam-Webster’s definition of “role model”—“a person whose behavior in a particular role is imitated by others”—rings true, how much power do these Instagram socialites hold over 800 million Instagrammers’ behavior in the cyber world and the tangible world, culturally, societally, personally, and politically?
In a past life, role models were compartmentalized into specific trades. I want to play like Michael Jordan, I want to sing like Whitney Houston, I want to dream like Martin Luther King Junior, I want to wife like Eleanor Roosevelt, I want to be etched into history as an icon like Kate Moss, like sex symbol Marilyn Monroe . . . Rappers like Kanye West and Jay Z admire more abstract values like influence, evident in their nods to Ralph Lauren’s timelessness in multiple songs and interviews. Though the list of top-ten Instagram influencers consists of five singers, two athletes, and three reality TV star-models, Instagram simplifies their layered skill sets and personalities to two-dimensional images and videos, sixty seconds maximum, paired with one caption, 2200 characters maximum. For example, Beyoncé’s Instagram is somewhat unrelated to her identity as a singer-songwriter—hardly any posts with audio of her music grace her profile. This blogger-esque Instagram-woman is not the Beyoncé we sing along to or watch take over the stage. Instead, she is one of us. A woman, dressed up, dressed down, alone, with her family and friends, living in tiles. Social media has blurred the lines between the professional persona and private personality as well as the distinction between the personal and political. In turn, the sentiment of wanting to master specific crafts has shifted to wanting to live like [insert starlet], or wanting to be like Selena Gomez, according to 134 million people.
Many women across otherwise divisive barriers like location, culture, and time share a feeling of disunion between their inner, layered selves and their outer, legible bodies. Considering the history of female bodies as subjects of gaze, property, and transaction, it is no surprise that seven of ten of today’s most looked-at humans are cis-women. There is much to unpack here. During the designated “coming-of-age stage” and the broader lifelong search for self-maturity we all withstand, we look to role models. Who better to look to than celebrities—the top 1 percent of us; the products of our very own time and culture—who have attained everlasting stardom along with financial and earthly success? In Autumn Whitefield-Madrano’s 2015 article “Watching Women Want,” she applauds elite female athletes and addresses the absence of women physically, viscerally, visibly wanting in other public arenas. She explains,
“we see women legislating, creating, speaking, protesting—But we still don’t often see women in the act of wanting. We need to see this, because when you’re in the act of wanting something badly enough, there isn’t room for self-consciousness. How you look . . . whether you appear pretty, your sex appeal: all of these things that coalesce in my brain, and maybe yours, to form a hum so low and so constant that I take it as a state of being—they disappear. When you want, the want goes to the fore. The you can take a backseat.”2
She goes on to say, “the more that we watch women want in this particular way, the more we’ll get used to seeing beautiful women, odd-looking women—look not-pretty, even ugly sometimes, without apology. There is a power in that—a power that I find transcendental.”3
In this particular analysis, it is evident that the solution does not lie in eliminating the presence and importance of the body, but rather in exposing powers and possibilities that lay within bodies of various visual characteristics beyond societally-constructed, inanimate “beauty.” Whitefield-Madrano concluded her article with the vulnerable statement,
“I was desperately afraid of looking stupid. What killed any curiosity I might have had about how my body moved was my own self-consciousness . . . I wish I’d had some sort of template that could have earlier taught me the joys of inhabiting my body. I wish I’d seen more women be so focused on physical exertion that it silenced whatever hum of self-consciousness . . . I wish I’d had more visible proof that there were so many women out there who had the ability to not care how they looked . . . I wish I’d seen more women want.”4
Instead of seeing women want, then and now, we see women performing constantly by playing with the presence and absence of their bodies. I wonder how much of white American writer born in 1994 Autumn Whitefield-Madrano’s bodily experience mirrors mine, and how her experience might differ from Carolyn Martin Shaw’s; a woman of color who predominantly lived before this digital age.
Women of Color
How might people of color begin to deconstruct and describe the impact of seeing nine out of ten white-passing bodies on the list of most-followed, most-globally-valued people? The concept of white-passing bodies was first introduced in 1857 when the fifteen-year-old runaway slave Jane Alexina Morrison, who was “of fair complexion, blue eyes, and flaxen hair,” won her freedom in the famous Louisiana case, Morrison v. White.
“Both parties, (Alexina) Morrison and (James) White, made claims about Morrison’s ancestry but could offer no hard evidence besides judgments of Morrison’s outward appearance . . . both parties were left to prove Morrison’s origin through her appearance and the ‘speculative’ opinions of physicians and others. In his attempt to prove Morrison’s ‘blackness,’ White pointed to facial features like her high cheekbones. This logic, as Morrison’s lawyers pointed out, made even the white men in the room seem like they had ‘black’ features. Merely the thought of this logic had the power to shatter several existing power dynamics of the antebellum South.”5
To the rhetoric that “whiteness was perpetuated by the outward appearance of white people—mainly their pale skin,” it is fair to render Selena, Ariana, Taylor, Kim, Cristiano, Kylie, Justin, Dwayne, and Kendall “white.” Leaving only one person of color on this roster of ten, Beyoncé.
The intersectional, intercultural perspectives of queer-minded, radical women of color like Carolyn Martin Shaw’s are worth hearing. As Shaw undergoes a “process of selection, reinterpretation, remembering, and forgetting” while retelling her history to define her present as a self-proclaimed black feminist anthropologist, she explains that “management of the black female body was at the core of my identity . . . racism based on the abnegation of the black body. From outside my community, my body was racialized in pernicious ways. Inside the black community, it is again the body that defined me—this time in terms of gender and sexuality”6
Shaw, a woman who was “a disaster on a playground . . . and an ‘A’ student,” who acknowledged “the body was important, but I could not win with it,” felt disconnected to her body.7 As she developed into a woman, she wondered,
“Could I be smart and sexy? To answer that question, I had all the images and representation of women around me. The image of Marilyn Monroe was everywhere, sporting a soft pink come-hitherness that I knew was out of my reach but fantasized about. What I wanted to know as a young black girl was whether I had to trade the side of myself as soft and vulnerable for the hard-edged raunchiness that the popular mainstream media and we ourselves often associated with black women.”8
Just as “all the images and representation of women around me” shaped Shaw’s understanding of womanhood and just as “the image of Marilyn Monroe was everywhere,” the Kardashians are everywhere today, pervasive to the minds of every woman.
The Kardashian Decade
The first episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians aired in 2007 and ever since, their presence has seemingly multiplied by the minute. Three of ten most-followed people stemming from one family, amidst a sea of eight hundred million virtually accessible humans, is astonishing. The sum of these three: Kim, Kylie, and Kendall results in 320.5 million followers, while the sum of the Kardashian women: Kris (19.5m) + Kourtney (61.6m) + Kim (109m) + Khloe (73.8m) + Kendall (88.5m) + Kylie (105m) results in a whopping 457.4 million followers (without eliminating overlap). Is it a coincidence that #shameless #nude #selfie, overlaid with FaceTune distortion and commonplace plastic surgery, emerged in The Kardashian Decade, nearly synchronous with seven-year-old Instagram? Former NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar held the most recent interview with Kris Jenner and accompanied it with a thought-provoking article. He posed the question:
“Do the daughters promote a destructive image of women, perpetuating the boobs-over-brains ideology? In terms of role models, for the millions of girls who watch their shows and follow them on social media, there is a lack of emphasis on education . . . [they are] content to trade degrees for dollars. When they fall out of Vogue, they will have plenty of money to see them through—but the young women following in their footsteps won’t.”9
Here, Abdul-Jabbar touches on education, gendered beauty, and privilege. Rather than publicly valuing their bodies as vessels for intellect or compassion, the Kardashian brand places a premium on their bodies as objects to be looked at with the sole purpose of holding gaze. Where anthropologists like Shaw, Mears, and Whitefield-Madrano address the common disconnect between body and soul that so many experience, the Kardashian-Jenners undress.
Through the transformation of their bodily aesthetics via plastic surgery and their evolution of fashion sense, both costing millions of dollars, they have defied the obstacles of time and trend that frequently end the careers of many talented celebrities. The Kardashian expression of bodily liberation generates new compounded bodily, emotional, and mental forms of oppression for other women. Ashley Mears’ book Pricing Beauty examines the invisible ways in which gender, race, and class shape worth in the marketplace and how this packaged “worth” affects the individual. Mears explains:
“One can’t speak of either emotions or bodies in labor, because emotional labor enlists the body, just as body work requires the mind. Working on the aesthetic surface requires mental and emotional engagement. Crafting this stylish aesthetic self is easier for some than others. [People] from middle-class urban backgrounds . . . are better suited to assess and switch between fashionable styles and demeanors, having already entered the field with an internalized set of class competences.”10
Rather than assessing the privileges of their fortune, the Kardashians revel in it. Devoted fans may point to this very fortune as proof of success, monetary success acquired by countless endorsements and products, without asking “What is the message?” Shall we admire their business acumen that fuels the evils of gendered labor, oiling the engines of capitalism and consumerism? Shall we praise their “sex positive” bodies crafted with plastic surgery in emulation of the unjustly condemned, black “Hottentot Venus,” Sarah Baartman? Does current visual pleasure trump the fact that the Kardashian brand profits off of Sarah Baartman’s culturally appropriated body––the same body that was once exploited to “scientifically prove” the black female body as subhuman two centuries ago? Shall we quantify the emotional, mental, bodily damages this brand has on women? As global influencers and role models to many, what does the Kardashian brand teach us about human value?
Out-of-reach body images often result in the abandonment of the gendered body altogether. According to Judith Thurman, fashion pioneer Rei “Kawakubo’s silhouette had nothing to do with packaging a woman’s body for seduction . . . [it was] a tactic for liberating female dress from an ‘omniscient male narrator.’”11 Kawakubo famously declared, “I make clothes for a woman who is not swayed by what her husband thinks.” Analogous to this principle, Naomi Fry of the New York Times labeled “aggressively non-provocative dressing” a “puzzling phenomenon [that] evokes virginal drabness and cult-style patriarchal oppression” deducing that “figure-obscuring clothing serves as a kind of armor, as well as a retort to a reality-TV-inured culture apparently intent on exposing any private, any intimate body part, for public consumption.”12 She goes on to mention privilege:
“Modest fashion might come across as a humblebrag: You have to be a pretty stylish, pretty good-looking woman to claim ownership of such radical dowdiness . . . It can also sometimes seem like an elitist project of sociocultural self-positioning: By embracing the covered-up look, you declare yourself part of a particular psychographic tribe––for a particular subset of other women—those who get it, who are sophisticated enough to understand that opting out of conventional beauty standards makes for its own kind of conceptual, better-than-thou fashion.”13
Implying that covering the body in this way does not promote inclusivity but rather adds to the list of elitist trends for thin, wealthy “women who get it.” So what can be done if neither stripping it all nor covering it up solves issues pertaining to bodies—the holders of race, gender, and class?
Dismantling the Gaze
Society teaches us that the masculine gaze is acceptable, harmless, and an accolade of value that women should treasure. Bruce Springsteen’s 1980 song “You Can Look but You Better Not Touch” affirmed this notion and catapulted many other songs with iterations of this phraseology. To name another, the Black Eyed Peas’ 2005 hit single “My Humps” sings, “I drive these brothers crazy, I do it on the daily. Trying to feel my hump hump, looking at my lump lump. You can look but you can’t touch it.”14 We internalize the message of lyrics and cultural innuendos while our bodies withhold the projected lust in every physical and digital gaze. How significant is the gaze and its measure of desire? Ashley Mears explains,
“Michel Foucault has suggested that a gaze can be a more powerful mechanism of control than direct force. The anticipation of being watched could render anyone a self-policing subject, a self-monitoring docile body, one that willingly surrenders to be improved, worked on, and used. The gaze is a superb formula for controlling bodies: There is no need for arms, physical violence, material constraints. Just a gaze. Constantly on display, [we] end up constantly thinking about [our] bodies on display, internalizing the gaze and remaining body conscious even off the clock.”15
If merely a gaze is perhaps the most powerful mechanism of control and if our undeletable, virtual identities are under constant virtual gaze—we can deduce that each of us are self-policing subjects who willingly surrender our “authentic” selves every time we participate in social media. To opt out of social media’s current hegemonic, white, patriarchal way of calculating human value, we must fight this gaze by placing less value on inanimate “beauty” in our own posts as well as the posts we engage with. We must ask, “Whose footsteps do I wish to follow in, individually and societally?” Then, we must reevaluate who we nominate to grace the highest podiums of global, cultural influence every time we Click, Play, Like, and Follow.
- Salman Aslam, “Instagram by the Numbers: Stats, Demographics & Fun Facts,” August 24, 2017, www.omnicoreagency.com/instagram-statistics/.
- Autumn Whitefield-Madran, “Watching Women Want,” The New Inquiry, June 8, 2017, thenewinquiry.com/blog/watching-women-want/.
- Walter Johnson, Walter Johnson, “The Slave Trader, the White Slave, and the Politics of Racial Determination,” The Journal of American History, Volume 87 (2000).
- Carolyn Martin Shaw and Irma McClaurin, Black Feminist Anthropology: Theory, Politics, Praxis, and Poetics, “Disciplining the Black Female Body: Learning Feminism in Africa and the United States,” (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001), 102, 107
- Ibid., 108
- Ibid., 109-110.
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on Kris Jenner: Role-Model Businesswoman or Queen of Exploitation?,” The Hollywood Reporter, August 16 2017, www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/kareem-abdul-jabbar-kris-jenner-role-model-businesswoman-queen-exploitation-1029594.
- Ashley Mears, Pricing Beauty, “Becoming a Look,” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 106-110.
- Judith Thurman, “The Unsettling Vision of Rei Kawakubo,” The New Yorker, July 10 2017, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/07/04/the-misfit-3.
- Naomi Fry, “Modest Dressing, as a Virtue,” The New York Times, November 2, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/02/t-magazine/modest-fashion-clothes.html.
- “My Humps,” track five on Black Eyed Peas, Monkey Business, Interscope, 2005.
- Ashley Mears, “Becoming a Look,” 99.