Month: December 2013

A woman’s place


Another category of images relates to the proper ‘place’ for a women: in the kitchen,  performing a service function through cleaning and cooking. The errant female who ‘forgets how to woman’ may claim to be comedic, but it still reiterates a persistent message relating to what women’s nature, and role, should be. Women-olympics

These expectations are even mapped onto women who are otherwise exhibiting skills and experience outside of the domestic arena, such as the hockey players photoshopped to be vacuuming. A woman wearing a Google Glass headset, currently a marker of being within a dunno-if-posted-already-or-not_o_1493051quite limited range of users who have been able to test the device, is robbed of her elite status by being presented as using the headset to locate her true domain, the kitchen. This suggests that women’s position in society is so fixed that even the potentially liberating properties of new technologies must be directed towards this limited goal.

true-woman-482x375The dominant meme relating to a woman’s ‘place’ uses the demand to ‘make me a sandwich’ as a shorthand for woman performing the required role. Making a sandwich is joking associated with a woman’s strength, and even appears in an adjusted version of the popular image of Rosie the Riveter. This re-appropriation of a feminist icon demonstrates the confidence of the speaker – not only can they make demands, but they also have the ability to re-imagine what constitutes a strong or liberated woman. Such a move serves to put the imagined feminist viewer in her place, having been corrected and made submissive. This is a double coup for the male voice, as it not only attains its objective, but Make_73d37b_390512also demonstrates its superiority over others.

The ‘make me a sandwich’ meme suggests an aggressive form of nostalgia, for a system – perceived to be lost or threatened, and in need of re-asserting – where the position and role of men and women were clearly defined. But beyond the flimsy comic element of ‘forgetting how to woman’ lies a threat, that if women do not comply with demands made of them, there will be consequences. “Make me a sandwich” becomes shorthand for “do as I say”, backed up by images of those who dared to disobey.

A couple of examples below demonstrate the overlap between the ‘sandwich’ demand, and the threat of violence. The victim is positioned as problematic – she didn’t do as she was asked – and therefore worthy of attack. Images of women who have been hit or abused are used with alarming regularity in order to promote a ‘comic’ message. In a future post I will look at how women’s use of the ‘duckface’ expression provides a further justification for threats and proscription, demonstrating how regulation is enacted not just in relation to a woman’s behaviour, but also onto her body.


A scale of women

RotKAs I mentioned in my post about the women of the Democratic and Republican parties, the sorting of women into good or bad, rather than tell us anything about the women concerned, instead reveals how the authority of the male viewer is maintained. By manifesting through a system of evaluation and comparison, the male voice takes a position of invisible dominance. The target of this assessment is therefore automatically positioned as dependent upon, and inferior to, this voice, with even those that are found to be of merit still vulnerable to this approval being removed at any point. A woman’s worth in this hierarchy is not a quality she possesses, but one that is conveyed upon her, with her own sense of self being entirely ignored in favour of the judgement that is placed upon her.

The chart I have included here is from the site Return of Kings, which positions itself as being for ‘masculine men’[i]. Crucial to the manifestation of this masculinity is the classification of women, as it establishes the dominance of the male viewer over the female viewed. The considerable detail of this chart, grading women from 1-10, demonstrates the level of commitment to this principle of organisation – multiple examples of each ‘grade’ are included, along with a description of certain criteria. Some examples of descriptive text for the grades follow here:

1 includes those who have been in an accident, or had serious medical issues, both which render them “un-mate-with-able”.

2 is classed as “humorously unattractive… so ugly you can’t help but laugh at their misfortune.”

4 and below, “hygiene is not taken into account, as it is automatically assumed to be appallingly bad. If the female matches the criteria for 1-4, they are automatically that level, regardless of ability to dress, hygiene etc.”

5 (misspelt ‘nuetral’) contains those who are not ‘ugly’ but neither are they attractive. They are held to be “either clueless about fashion / looking good, or is so lazy they put no effort into it…Possible B. O. Often poor social skills.”

6 “has at least one nice body feature (nice ass, boobs, legs etc.)”

8 “very few minimally exaggerated facial features – you really have to nit-pick, but they are not imagined flaws.”

A few points in particular stand out from these statements, relating to objectification, authority, ownership, subjectivity and the malleability of photography. Firstly, the voice is assessing in terms of what use value these women have for them, and whether they are “mate-with-able”. This viewing of others as a tool for one’s own gratification is one of the criteria for objectification, as is the focus on body parts to the detriment of seeing a person as a whole.

Secondly, the judgements are assumed to be so authoritative that inclusion within a certain group is viewed as “automatic” and unquestionable. Thirdly, enormous assumptions are made regarding the subject’s hygiene and social skills. This shows the degree to which photographs are used as a heavily subjective tool for discipline, depicting whatever the viewer wishes in order to fit their narrative.

Lastly, the position of ’10′ is left empty, as this male-created scale removes the right of women to achieve this high-status position. Instead, this gap remains tacitly the domain of the both the creator and the viewer, whose own status and perspective is unchallenged. This classification process, as well as conveying authority also suggests ownership, as the women surveyed have the mute status of things, which can be positioned and rearranged as their ‘owner’ desires. Interestingly, it is only when considering the possibility of a ‘10’ that subjective choice is acknowledged: “there are no outright, true 10s. A 10 is really a 9 that is filling a niche for someone.” Up until this point, the idea of personal choice has not been entertained at all, in favour of some sort of universal, faux-scientific system of classification.

By enabling an evaluation that is both detailed (subject “lacks hygiene and social skills”) and authoritative (subject is “automatically” at a certain level), the photograph’s claim to veracity is here referenced and distorted in order to fulfil a specific, divisive purpose. When used to support a hierarchy, in which some are positioned in opposition to others, but where all are subordinate to the organising principle, the image becomes a tool of oppression. The types of comparisons and scales we have seen in this section are commonplace on social media, which collectively legitimise the hierarchy as a means for social organisation, and reinforce the principle of both judging on appearances, and determining worth on that basis. In this context, the photograph both presents and restricts one’s identity to what can be seen or interpreted by the voice of assessment. The political implications of this process become clear when one considers the broad categorisation and organisation of large numbers of women taking place in this way, the limited and biased opinions which are expressed, and the assured logic of scales and tables that seeks to justify what is being asserted. This process, presented as a combination of information and entertainment, is an explicit example of hegemony in practice, where gender stereotypes are not just being reiterated, but also somehow validated, by naturalising connections made between a certain standard of femininity and other personal qualities.

There are no ugly women only “…”

991585_700b‘There are no ugly women’ proclaim these examples, in large, bold lettering – except that of course the intended message is exactly the opposite of the empowering claim it seems to be making. By referencing such language, these images are mocking the very notion of women’s empowerment, before moving on to proclaim their own message of women’s worth. demotivation.us_There-are-no-ugly-women-Just-poor-husbands

Ugliness, we learn here, is the marker of lazy or poor women. This connection between unattractiveness and the identity of the woman who is poor or perceived to be ‘lazy’, serves to doubly discipline the viewer. Not only would a woman wish to avoid being ugly, but also to escape the associated and problematic connotations. This upholds a very old notion that ugliness is a marker of some other personal quality – the practice of physiognomy, now discredited, claimed to make definitive links between a certain cranial shape and facial features with criminal tendancies or mental illnesses. Photographs of criminals were taken and analysed for the ‘characteristic’ signs of deviance – signs which could then be read in the faces of others.

demotivation.us_THERE-ARE-NO-UGLY-WOMEN-only-slackers_13672658753Maintaining this idea, that appearance indicates the personality or subjectivity of the person, serves specific social purposes. The connection between poverty and ugliness serves to maintain the hierarchy of entitlement, which separates the poor and devalued from the wealthy and superior. By connecting the perceived worth of a person with their economic status, the perception of meritocracy is unchallenged. Furthermore, the connection between ‘ugly women’ and the lack of a rich husband perpetuates the sense of dependency of women on men for their social standing, and for even their own personal, physical, worth.

The connection between ugliness and laziness demotivation-us_there-are-no-ugly-women-only-lazy-ones-_134468564544serves to discipline the (female) viewer in a different way – here, to avoid being perceived as ugly, she must embrace the work ethic, not in terms of her career, but in terms of the styling and appearance of her body. To be perceived as ugly is not an accident of birth, circumstance, or merely the result of not being to someone’s taste – it is the fault of the individual, and a result of their lack of having done ‘enough’ to mitigate it.

This double-blow, associating ugliness with either poverty or laziness, demonstrates the degree to which images of women are used to coerce viewers, and encourage complicity with an organising principle that naturalises certain qualities as ‘better’ than others, whilst simultaneously perpetuating and legitimating a system of social stratification.

Politics and the Beauty Hierarchy

945640_507526312662938_1896119513_nHierarchies of women are going to be a prevalent theme on this blog. I see them pretty frequently during my research, and their purpose is always the same – not as one might suspect, to convey value on those who are sorted and graded – but rather to reaffirm the authority of whoever is doing the assessing.

There is nothing objective about these hierarchies of women, although the discourse of the practice suggests that there is, and that such subjective ordering can then be held as evidence for some wider aim. Usually this aim relates to maintaining and promoting the male gaze, in which women are encouraged to internalize an acceptance of being looked at and graded, as a way of eliciting compliance with a range of related gender norms. As long as the subject who is being assessed concentrates on where on the scale they might be positioned, their attention is directed away from challenging the legitimacy of the assessor, and from questioning their motives.

The sorting of female representatives and supporters of the Republican and Democrat parties demonstrates the political motivation behind classifying women.3155353576_liberal_women_xlarge

The photograph here acts as evidence for the political message of the assessor. By virtue of what the women look like, the (non)validity of their message is held to be obvious. “But just look at them!” the compiler seems to be saying, “isn’t it clear who you should want to align yourself with?” Republican women, with their smiles and staged portraits, are presented as naturally superior to their Democratic counterparts, the ‘dogs’ whose unflattering photographs are used to suggest their ugly agendas.

People of Walmart

The site People of Walmart[i], started in 2009, collects together user-submitted images of Walmart customers whose appearance is found to be amusing, strange or in some way unacceptable. Although directly disciplining the subjects by virtue of labelling them as deviant, I argue that another important function of these candid images is to regulate their viewers. By isolating certain types of outfits and behaviours as unacceptable, the fears and concerns of the site’s users and moderators are made visible. Laughing at the bodies of others contains a sense of relief that at least it wasn’t me: at least I’m normal. In order to retain this privileged position of normality, the viewer must learn from what they view – what to avoid, what not to be – and to accept the truth presented by this website: that these people are wrong, visibly wrong, and that as a viewer you must distance yourself from them.

Three main penalties stand out in particular on this site, relating to the transgression of gender norms, the regulation of bodies, and the perception of class.

Transgression of Gender Norms

The site favours images of subjects who are in some way outside of the typical demarcations of gender presentation. Bodies that, for example, feature both beards and breasts, or a combination of masculine bodies and feminine clothing, render subjects as ‘unclassifiable’ to the viewer. This position outside of gender norms acts to both legitimate mockery, and to reinforce the viewer’s commitment to their own gender presentation, to avoid being classed as ‘it’ or as a ‘featured creature’. Underneath one such photograph, depicting a person of indeterminate gender wearing a revealing dress with long blonde hair, appear the following comments:

I don’t know what I am more upset by. My lack of identifying the gender, the over bleached hair or the socks/sneakers with a dress?

We need to enact christian values laws to arrest these freaks of nature and we need to bring back the gas chamber.

The first comment plays on making a comparison between the ‘trivial’ issues of fashion, such as the socks and sneakers, and the tacitly understood ‘greater problem’ of being unable to identify the subject’s gender. The second comment, whether meant seriously or not, also relies on this implied understanding of the ‘problem’ of non-normal gender presentation. Rather than using mockery to eradicate the problem, a more violent solution is suggested, although the general sentiment, of outrage and rejection, remains largely the same.

Regulation of Bodies

Special attention is directed towards the body that is found to be insufficiently regulated, through being ‘improperly’ clothed, overweight, aged, unruly, or all of these qualities. Bodies that are regarded as being on display, but are of the ‘wrong’ type (too old, too large etc.) are vigorously criticised. The subject who (intentionally or inadvertently) reveals a body that is deemed unacceptable is punished, through being made yet more visible online. Visibility, therefore, is a prime component of discipline, being both the target (when connoting a certain arrogance or ignorance on the part of the subject), and the means of correction (where making another visible is both a hostile act in itself, as well as opening the subject up to the hostility of others). Ultimately, the site’s logic suggests that the right to make bodies visible remains in the hands of those who take or host such images. The subject, on the other hand, must self-police, ensuring to hide and regulate the body, and abide by the rules of normative presentation, lest the viewer find it objectionable, and show it to others in order to elicit agreement and amusement.

Although some images relate to the body’s boundaries being breached, in terms of visible stains from sweat or other bodily fluids, the predominant theme of regulation relates to body shape and size. A perceived clash between body shape and dress is chastised in these following comments, appearing underneath an image of an overweight woman wearing shorts and a vest:

Put some clothes on you effin’ pig.

I just threw up in my mouth.

Walmart door greeters should never ever let people in the door that look like this, it is evident she has no brain so someone else should tell her how horrible she looks.

Underneath another image, of a woman wearing jeans, over which her buttocks are visible, appears the comment:

Fat chicks should not leave the house unless they are well covered. Please wear a poncho or something similar. And only go out after dark.

What these comments, and the many others like them, serve to do is twofold: they discipline and push the subject to the margins, and bring the viewer / commenter together in opposition. By expressing disgust and issuing orders concerning dress, the commenter directly positions itself in authority over those they survey. Furthermore, by decreeing that “fat chicks” are neither seen outside during daylight, nor let into the store at all, the comments assert that certain subjects are in need of regulation, extending from their appearance, to even their liberty to move around and enter the public sphere.

Equally, visible bodies of an age beyond that which is regarded as ‘acceptable’ are also vigorously criticised. An image of an older woman in a miniskirt and heels is held to indicate only one thing:

The first professional in the oldest profession in the world.

How hard up do you have to be to PAY that to sleep with you? Yikes!

I didnt know they had strippers that old (sic).

These comments make two assertions: firstly, they identify older sexual bodies as being not just inappropriate or undesirable, but as actively devalued, by associating them with the marginalised position of the sex worker. Secondly, by marking and rejecting the subject in this way, the viewer signifies their own superior position, by virtue of not being “hard up” – either in terms of buying sex from someone identified as “that”, or by needing to sell one’s body. This process of differentiation, where some subjects are elevated and others devalued, is the primary means by which the site enacts discipline, as the categories of valued and non-valued rely upon each other for their meaning.

Without the condemnatory voice of the viewer, the subject would not be marginalised and shamed for their misdemeanours. Without an object of ridicule, the viewer would not have a target for offsetting their own social anxieties. Here, the viewing position offers an unproblematic identity by virtue of the contrast it sets up: whoever you might be, by viewing at all – and by viewing these people in particular – you are elevating yourself by rejecting these sources of shame, and by extension, guarding against them in yourself.

Perception of Class

The specific focus on Walmart displays the class dynamic that underpins much of the site’s processes of marginalisation. The subjects displayed might be deemed unusual for a variety of reasons – strange clothing, strange behaviour, strange appearance – but by being photographed in this location, and collected under such a label, they are all associated with the value retailer, and are lumped together to constitute an exotic underclass. The bodies might be large, or old, or non-gender normative, but most of all, under the Walmart label, they are criticised by virtue of being perceived as poor. Certain clothing choices are identified and maligned as being indicative of a particular class position. Under an image of an overweight woman wearing camouflage print shorts, commenters note:

That person, obviously, doesn’t have a mirror in their home (trailer?)

This is Walmart girlfriend, every person in there has seen enough camo print that they can see right through it now. It’s a common genetic adaptation commonly found in the trailer park as well.

The speculation over whether the subject has a mirror constitutes an insult by itself, but when coupled with the suggestion that she lives in a trailer, the element of class-based mockery becomes evident. The trailer park, as the second commenter suggests, is so abject that it is even a site of genetic mutation.

WalmartA series of images sent in from a viewer’s ‘People of Walmart’ fancy dress party makes the enjoyment of expressing class distinction clear, as the outfits proudly worn and shared depict trucker caps, fake gap teeth and ‘pregnant’ women drinking beer. The partygoers smile with pride at their outfits, secure in the knowledge that their impersonation of devalued of others will be recognised and approved within their peer group. The enjoyment of viewing, constructing and disciplining others in this way demonstrates the degree to which active complicity within social regulation exists within social media. As a counterpoint to looking at the self as created and displayed on Facebook, sites such as People of Walmart enable the viewer to develop a sense of identity through the rejection of their “constitutive outside” (see Judith Butler).

These two comments accompanying an image of a woman looking at alcohol, wearing shorts and a vest top, demonstrate the way in which class and gender combine to form certain assumptions regarding a subject’s ability to make clear and informed choices:

Why is she looking at top shelf liquor? She’s too cheap for that stuff!

Because more booze will probably improve your decision making

The woman here, once she is identified as ‘cheap’ (an economic and sexual slur), is restricted not just in terms of what she can buy, but also in relation to her ability to make informed life choices. Although the addition of alcohol is implied as being detrimental to her decision-making, the emphasis is on her being already a devalued subject, who is simply proving and exacerbating her low-status position.

Overall, these subjects are not just characterised as different, as to constitute worthy targets of ridicule, they must be visibly marked as lesser than those who are looking. Their devalued, shameful identity is ‘revealed’ through photographs, and reiterated in relation to gender, body shape and class. These images share similarities with those taken at the zoo, or during anthropological research a century ago, in that one’s peers within the shared environment of the shop are made into animals or curious-looking ‘natives’, whose practices are constructed as strange, amusing, but most importantly other and less than. That this site, and others like it, perpetuate this othering of certain subjects as an amusing pastime, demonstrates again how social media references and legitimises disciplinary practice.