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.
A 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.