Despite the majority of this blog being about selfies, that’s really not all I study! My thesis is about how discourses of photography are used to discipline people. The popular discourse about selfies is just such an excellent example of this, in that it identifies selfie-takers as having certain characteristics, which then is used to excuse a sort of free-for-all of condemnation, criticism and humiliation. But selfie-discourse is far from being the only example which does this.
I recently saw a version of the Top Trumps card game, in which the topic was ‘mingers’.
For anyone not familiar with the term, ‘minger’ is a word used to identify a subject who is regarded by the viewer as excessively, almost comically unattractive. Besides the construction of a product which labelled individuals in this way, and used their (presumably unauthorised) personal photographs, I was struck by the sense in which judging people has been explicitly turned into a game. And as an example I discussed previously demonstrates (in which photographs of women were arranged into a hierarchy and scored from 1-10), photographs are an integral component of this process. The prevalent assumption that the photograph provides access to the ‘truth’ of a person’s nature is here used to excuse a range of insults, relating to the subject’s style and smell.
The purpose of a game of Top Trumps is to deploy the ratings on one’s cards in a way that betters those of your opponent. By encouraging the players to think about strategy and competition, the game normalises the categories it is using, so by using the odour score on the card, players are accepting the legitimacy of a connection made between a series of undesirable characteristics – all linked back to the image itself. Furthermore, the deeply unpleasant prejudices expressed through this game, against certain body types and gender performances, are both obscured and cemeted by the system of numerical scoring. As number values have been assigned to each subject prior to the game commencing, players can assume they are only deploying judgements that have already been made. But through the act of comparing scores, and doing so in a way which depicts one as the ‘winner’, players act to reify wider social processes of hierarchical ordering and marginalisation. The score is also used as a means to convert subjective opinion into objective ‘fact’, in which the assessment and grading of subjects is presented as producing a definitive and truthful valuation. The ‘ugly-o-meter’ in particular references this sense of objective measurement. The final score allotted to each subject, according to their ‘minger power’, reinforces the sense in which people – especially people of low status – can be feasibly assigned numbers.
Whilst we are encouraged to accept that these people, who look like this, are legitimate targets for mockery, through accusations of poor style or bodily hygiene, the viewer is kept safe from similar judgements. By making comparisons, sorting and ordering, players are placed in a viewing position that separates them from the people they are judging. The inequality reinforced by this distinction, between judge and judged, was conceptualised by Tagg, who noted the separation between those who have “the power and privilege of producing and possessing” meaning, and those who were reduced to merely “being meaning” (1988: 6, original emphasis). Through their reproduction on these cards, their valuation, and their use within a game of social ordering, these subjects are in the unempowered position of “being meaning”. Players, in contrast, produce meaning through accepting the assessments made by these cards, and through using them as a form of entertainment.
This last factor – entertainment – is most important, as it is evident across the range of examples of photographic discipline I have been researching, from duckfaces to involuntary pornography. It is not enough to grade subjects, or to share their images against their will – humiliation of others must now constitute a form of leisure, in which we are encouraged to enjoy mocking others through viewing galleries of ‘ugliest selfies’, or visiting sites such as People of Walmart. I am not going to suggest that enjoying laughing at other people is in any way new, but the affordances of social media make the process of collating and sharing images in order to do this much more straightforward. And perhaps most interestingly, is the degree to which the disdain for certain types of people, and certain types of photography, have been normalised online, to the point where the expression of prejudice seems little more than a game.