photographs

Photographs and Threats: Emma Watson and the Allure of the Non-Consensual

The recent threats against actress Emma Watson demonstrate several interesting things about photography and the humiliation of women:

1. This case make absolutely explicit how intimate images (even the idea of intimate images) are used as a weapon to control and silence women. At no point did the media coverage question why anyone would respond to Watson’s address to the UN with a threat to reveal photographs. Why? Because the connection between “woman gives feminist speech” (or in fact, woman does anything at all) and “people threaten her with images” has become absorbed and normalised by a society that implicitly blames women for whatever happens to them.

Despite the widespread outrage at this threat, and at the earlier celebrity photo leaks, a study of the comments beneath the line on social media demonstrates that there is still a strong tendency in popular discourse to just shrug, and say that she should have expected it. And you can be certain that had photographs emerged, we would have again seen numerous voices chiding her for taking such pictures in the first place.

As I have observed extensively in my research, this knee-jerk response is voiced by good and rational people as well as misogynistic trolls, demonstrating that explaining away the abuse of women, or denying it through making it seem rational and normal, is something that people feel a very strong need to do. Presumably, otherwise one would find it simply too difficult to function within society. This brings to mind Sherry Turkle’s description of people’s attitudes to privacy violations online, in which “people simply behave as though it were not happening” (2011: 261).

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2. As Valenti points out, despite the story turning out to be a hoax, it nevertheless reinforces a connection between outspoken women and humiliation. The use of the countdown clock and the website name “emmayouarenext” seem drawn from either the playground or a spy novel. But this use of a prolonged and unspecified threat nevertheless demonstrate the effectiveness of psychological forms of harassment, in which the mere prospect of something happening is enough to alarm and coerce. The countdown clock here performs a similar role to the warden in the Panopticon – he might be there, he might be watching, punishment might be about to happen, therefore the conditioned response is to assume that this is the case. Although none of Watson’s images were leaked in the end, it would be ludicrous to assume that she has not been affected by these threats. The effect of her wonderful speech has been overshadowed by the spectre of her humiliation.

3. The (unreliable) figure of 48 million page views of the site Emmayouarenext.com speaks for itself. It might be inflated, but its also believable that this website received huge volumes of traffic. The media’s eagerness to report on the story, even with very limited amounts of information, is both depressing and unsurprising – the humuliaition of women is news and entertainment at the same time. As with the earlier celebrity photo leaks, there are large audiences for these types of private images. Audiences that are actively seeking out photographs that have caused their subjects pain and humiliation. Audiences who understand the value and the thrill of obtaining non-consensual materials, in comparison with conventional forms of pornography. And it’s the audiences that really make this story possible: if there wasn’t this enormous hunger to access people’s private lives, then photographs of women could not be used in this way. If women’s nude photography wasn’t a source of shame, outrage and most of all prurient fascination, then they couldn’t be punished for, or with, such images. If this process of humiliation and punishment is ever going to be addressed, it needs to start with the audience, which is why the prevalence of articles calling on people not to look at private images was particularly heartening.

Lastly, it seems that photography, for women especially, is a dangerous business. The only way to protect oneself from this kind of threat is not to take pictures, and add this precaution to the enormous list already given to women: don’t go out alone / wear a short skirt / get drunk etc etc. But what I find particularly sad about this, is that the proscription against photographing oneself – such a harmless piece of fun in itself – is just another way in which women are denied a full social presence. Because what these threats and leaks and warnings to women suggest is that as society, we believe that being kept hidden – off the streets, away from the camera and certainly away from the UN – is apparently the only way to stay safe.

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Rating the Unworthy

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’.

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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. 81sG5Yzq+xL._SL1500_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.

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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.