In a previous post, I looked at the site People of Walmart and how photographs are used to shame people. Another website which uses images to identify and label spoiled identities, is The Dirty. Started in 2007, this gossip site forms an outlet for readers and webhost Nik Richie to vent their anger and derision at a range of targets, from local party goers and flashy high-spenders, to women with cosmetic surgery and hedonistic lifestyles. A principle component of the discussion concerns imposing shame upon female subjects, in relation to their (alleged) behaviour or their appearance, or both.
The discussion of women’s bodies on the site is so pervasive and specific that a new set of terms has been coined, which can be accessed on the site’s ‘dirty dictionary’[i]. These terms reveal the objectifying principle lying behind the display and assessment of women through photographs – a thin woman is called an ITG or Inner Thigh Gap and a woman’s fake breasts are +2s, as they “increase her value two points on a ten point scale”. A typical comment using such terms appeared beneath a collection of images, of a woman smiling, standing in a bar, wearing a silver dress; in a bikini; and posing with a man:
[name’s] ass is fake, her face is huge, she needs a major +2’s job, and to stop getting so trashed.
Not only do such comments reveal a sense of disgust at the woman’s body, but also a generalised disapproval of her behaviour. This condemnation of a woman’s life choices is a prevalent theme in the case studies I have examined, particularly in relation to involuntary porn, where the woman’s choice to be photographed naked is then used to legitimise her abuse. Here, the anonymous source who submitted these images and this commentary does so with a specific wish to discipline the woman concerned:
[name] needs to know not everybody thinks she’s as hot as she pretends
Given that the commenter suggests that her target “needs to know” something, their chosen method of making this known is revealing. Rather than approach the woman directly, a more spectacular and public method is selected, in which group disapproval and recognition as devalued is conceived of as a more effective punishment than an individual’s condemnation.
The importance of the photograph in this context is due to its ability to act both as evidence (showing a woman drinking from a champagne bottle, say) and as a claim for ownership over the meaning of the image, and the woman depicted. This second principle can be demonstrated in relation to another image, of three women in bikinis on a beach. All three look and smile at the camera. The person submitting the image, who importantly has had access to the image in the first place, asks who they are, and notes:
I’ve seen them out and about and think they are beautiful but I’ve heard some not so good things about them.
In one sentence, the commenter both commends the women depicted, and shifts the significance of the image to depict their own perspective. Rather than ‘just’ three women, they are now marked as problematic. This ability to not only show but also define subjects is a dominant component of practices of photographic discipline: besides being shown something perceivable as problematic, we can also be presented with anything or anyone and told that ‘this is problematic’. Showing and labelling are interlinked activities, and as we shall see in the examples below, can be used in the service of widespread slander and abuse.
A prime concern of The Dirty’s readers is the sexual behaviour of women, primarily young women. Such is the level of interest, new terms have been coined here as well, to identify specific types of devalued subject. A woman who is viewed as both a slut and a whore is called a ‘slore’, and a ‘shougar’ is a woman who is both a cougar (an older woman looking for sex with younger men) and a ‘shim’ (a woman who looks like a man). These terms are revealing of the worldview presented by the site, as they provide specific recriminations for instances of perceived deviance of female sexuality, relating to age, appearance and behaviour.
A dominant theme relates to ‘exposing’ women whom the submitter alleges are sex workers. This accusation appears to be the most severe insult that can be labelled at their targets, and descriptions are supplied with great relish and detail. The purpose of uploading and sharing such information is to publicly shame the individuals depicted, and enable the submitter to define reality according to their own perspective. Under two separate images of women, both taken by the subjects themselves, appear the following comments:
I met this girl on plenty of fish and it ends up she’s trying to sell her body and she is so nasty and fat and she wears like a pound of makeup.
This is [name]…She is escorting which is no secret… [name] you are on the wrong side of 30 please get a grip on life… Stop selling your body and get a real job…she is a dirty sl*t and needs to be exposed (sic).
I had to post up these two teasing little twins…rumor is that if you’ve got $2k you can take both of them home.
The notion of subjects ‘needing to be exposed’ illustrates the connection between power and knowledge, in which power is claimed over others by virtue of knowing something (especially something personal and private) about them. Additionally, the commenter hints at the perceived injustice of bad behaviour being kept secret, positioning their act as performing some sort of public service. Gossip is therefore reframed as having a positive disciplinary effect, by conveying social disapproval about certain behaviours, and fostering an environment where certain subjects are logically perceived as requiring correction.
Additionally, the second commenter’s referencing of “the wrong side of 30” demonstrates the degree to which age plays a part in these narratives. Notions of age appropriate behaviour are enforced, restricting participation within the visible sexual economy to those within a narrow demographic. The idea of the ‘cougar’, as a predatory older woman, is used to chastise and regulate subjects, and serves to retain the marker of being ‘desirable’ for a select, privileged group. But even the sexual activity of younger women is subject to scrutiny, primarily in relation to who they choose to sleep with:
Both of these teenage slores are sleeping with dudes in their 30s.
[name] had her ex buy her all kinds of sh*t … Meanwhile she was banging me and like 3 other guys. I also learned she screwed this super fat kid, just shows what levels she’s on.
The behaviours of the women themselves are questioned because they deviate from what the commenter expects of normative feminine sexuality. In this context, young women who have relationships with older men are characterised as ‘slores’, and another woman’s infidelity is criticised despite the commenter claiming to have participated in this wrongdoing. This comment assumes that the reader will interpret her activity as not reflecting negatively on him, and is so confident in this separation that he can further devalue her by critiquing her alleged relations with a “super fat kid”. On this site, photographs and comments serve to creative a narrative of female subjects in which the double standard is not just sustained, but actively promoted. In combination, social media’s reach and photography’s illustrative capacity create a potent vehicle for enacting gender discipline, repackaged as fun and legitimate.