X.Pose and the Regulation of Women in Public Space

X.pose is “a wearable data-driven sculpture that exposes a person’s skin as a real-time reflection of the data that the wearer is producing”.

I read that sentence the other day regarding a recent art project by Xuedi Chen working in collaboration with Pedro G. C. Oliveira, and a number of lights turn on in my head. (Also, Whitney Erin Boesel wrote an excellent piece on this artwork which I urge you read!) The x.pose ticked all the boxes of social media discipline – the proscription against ‘oversharing’, the governance of women’s entry into the public sphere, and the shaming of women in relation to their exposure, whether bodily or through information.

That this garment becomes transparent according to the information the wearer shares online is not as worthy of note as the fact that the artists chose to reveal a woman’s body to make their point. The equation between sharing on social media sharing and sexual impropriety persists as a means for controlling the online behaviours of women. A particularly vehement example of this discourse is Ben Agger’s Oversharing: Presentations of Self in the Internet Age. Agger’s rules for technological usage relate primarily to limitation and the ability to rein in one’s “penchant for texting, tweeting, and Facebooking” (2012: 48). This prohibition against certain activities becomes especially problematic when it takes on a gendered dimension, in that Agger’s devalued and oversharing subject is exclusively discussed using female pronouns. For him ‘oversharing’ “has a distinctly sexual dimension” (Agger, 2012: 7), in which the lack of a boundary between private and public creates a “pornographic public sphere” (2012: 9). Texting too frequently is labelled as “an orgy of sharing” (2012: 14), and online participation is likened to shaved genitalia in that “there are no more private parts; everything is on view (2012: 34). We should at least be thankful that the x.pose creators did not use Agger’s genital analogy in their work.

Discourses of online privacy are a thinly-veiled means for regulating the behaviours of ‘others’, and are often used to victim-blame individuals who have entered the public sphere in ways that made them vulnerable to criticism and attack (but who hasn’t?). A major theme of the online privacy discourse is that privacy no longer exists, because sharing any information with anyone contravenes the “secrecy paradigm” (Solove, 2012: 20). Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems, displays the lack of industry sympathy regarding Internet users privacy, by stating that “you have zero privacy anyway. Get over it” (quoted in Sprenger, 1999). Similarly Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, stated that “if you have something you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place” (in a clip which I never tire of watching):

What these opinions serve to do is promote a sense in which individuals should enter public space assuming that they can neither control it, nor complain once their (apparently non-existent) privacy has been compromised by others. Public space is therefore marked as being for those who ‘have nothing to hide’, and unsafe for those whose identity, lifestyle and so on might be subject to criticism. Turkle proposes that perhaps the best way to deal with being monitored “is to just be good” (2011: 263), demonstrating the panoptic characteristic of the online environment, where subjects internalise their supervisor.

The gendered quality of this privacy discourse becomes apparent in discussions that share the bourgeois public sphere’s stance in assuming all subjects are equal. Rodrigues describes a situation of mutual disincentives to share private information, in which “any given user is generally just as vulnerable to abuse as any other (2010: 238). He neglects to consider how subjects might be placed within unequal power relations, with consequences of privacy violations resulting in very different outcomes, depending on their gender, sexuality and so on. This false sense of equality, and the accusation that users themselves let the “genie out of a bottle” when they share information, both act to support the victim-blaming logic which I am currently researching in relation to involuntary pornography (Stone, 2010). Furthermore, these warnings are similar to those given to young women prior to the availability of contraception and legal abortion, in that “your sins will never be forgiven” and that every action can have grave consequences (Penny, 2013).

Particularly salient here is the association of women with the private sphere, in that the demarcations of public and private are used to “delegitimize some interests, views, and topics and to valorize others” (Fraser, 1990: 73). The naturalisation of women as private (Dillon, 2004: 5) also serves to legitimise the punishment of women who seek to make their voices public, as a “woman who wants attention, never mind respect, cannot be tolerated” (Penny, 2013). Fillipovic identifies the blame attributed to victims of harassment or violence as correcting women who have made themselves public, as “public space has traditionally been reserved for men, and women are supposed to be quiet” (quoted in Valenti, 2010: 159).

A central component to the discourses which identify women as private relate to the avoidance of shame. As a mark of being not respectable, and without “little social value or legitimacy” (Skeggs, 1997: 3), shame is “symbolically encoded with established meanings of femininity” (Cornell, 1990: 12). Women are particularly vulnerable to the destructive effects of shame, in relation to the perceived transgressions of their bodies, their sexualities and their identities as a whole (Spence, 1995). As a tool for perpetuating unequal power relations, shame is “profoundly disempowering” (Bartky 1990: 85) and isolating, in that it prompts the subject to retreat and conceal the source of their stigma (Goffman, 1959; Beloff, 2001). Penny identifies how the use and avoidance of shame persists in relation to women’s use of the Internet, as an example of a long-standing device for social control being transferred to a new technology (2013). Theories of shame explain how a threat, in relation to social media practice,  and that is especially pertinent to women, is used to discipline the subject’s behaviour.

So, in a way, the x.pose tells us nothing new about how public discourse conceives of women’s use of social media, as it is merely a rehash of pre-existing assumptions regarding women’s public visibility more generally. But it is interesting how is makes these discourses so very visible (pun intended).

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One comment

  1. Female form as a shaming device in media is nothing new just shocking because it impacts and incenses a lot of people……which is used by advertisers to generate controversy and humiliate women at the same time.

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