Aesthetic Politics Pt. 4: The Broken Promise of Cyber Feminism

It seems almost a joke now, but there was a time when the possibilities created by the internet seemed like the dawning of a new feminist era. The idea was simple: by connecting people like never before, the internet could serve as a way for women to collectivize their power and liberate themselves from patriarchy. The internet also had a transhumanist appeal, especially for feminists in marginalized groups with oppression closely tied to physical appearance, such as fat women and transgender people. It seemed like physicality would be abandoned and instead people would meet bare humanity to bare humanity.

Donna Haraway is perhaps the most well-known example of seeing feminist liberation in a digital future.

But instead, the internet and particularly social media has opened a Pandora’s box of misogyny. Rather than women uniting through the internet, they have used it to tear each other down, whether on Twitter, in “hot take” articles and blog posts, or even in the dreaded comment sections of any number of websites. Women reacted in this way because it was corporations, from Amazon to Facebook, that won control of the internet from the starry-eyed idealists. These corporations saw that they could have the abandonment of physicality be the ascension of the aesthetic rather than revealing the humanity inherent in all of us. Capitalizing on the misogynist insecurities already present in society, the corporations encouraged people to craft internet images of themselves in idealized forms. These aesthetics, made up of Facetune’d selfies, quickly Wiki’ed political factoids, and dubious “transformation” pics, have made the internet an unwelcoming place for women in a more subtle but just as insidious way as horrors like revenge porn. The individual crafting of these aesthetics makes them seem undeniably real despite the obvious alterations. Thus women log on not to a diverse loving collective sisterhood on the internet, but instead to seemingly unlimited individuals who are prettier, having more fun, saying funnier jokes, giving more impressive analysis, making more money, sleeping around more, sleeping around less, and so on. This result was an ideal one for the corporations: they could not only continue to peddle the traditional remedies (clothes, makeup, etc.) but could monetize the feelings themselves through “aspirational consumerism.”

We are nearing the end of our journey through the history of feminism, following the crashing of the second wave and subsequent adoption of individual self-presentation as politics, what I have called aesthetic politics. While aesthetic politics in feminism began in a small fringe, with groups like WITCH, the intellectual foundation in queer theory would be distorted by corporations and neoliberal politicians like Hillary Clinton until it was palatable enough for mainstream appeal. But before we go into the final chapter, we should first turn to how the internet and particularly social media monetized the burgeoning feminist aesthetic politics years before Hillary Clinton ever said the word “intersectionality.”

The maximization of internalized misogyny is practically guaranteed by the algorithmic (and sometimes direct) set up of social media. It is not just that pretty girls will get more likes and retweets and shares. Women of all kinds will be pitted against women of all kinds. Transgender women will see the “transformation” pics of women who went from Hagrid-looking to totally passing. Disabled women will see the “inspiration porn” of other disabled women because media by actual disabled people is drowned out by the interests of able bodied people.

Media has always been an agent of what the Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács termed “reification.” Lukács took Marx’s ideas of alienation and labor under capitalism and drew out a general phenomenology. Reification is the process by which something introduced to a society becomes considered natural or even part of people’s own inherent sense of self. Capitalism was so bizarre and dissonant to the various feudal and indigenous societies it was introduced to that it took hundreds of years of genocide and war to establish its global dominance. But now it is treated like a natural part of human life, despite every person daily taking the actions that create it.

*looks at camera*

It is important to note that reification is not just the introduction of completely new ideas. After all, as Lukács notes, many of the horrors within capitalism predate it — its only their capitalism-ness that has recently become considered natural. Similarly, the internet did not invent misogyny, but years of concerted harassment have led us to believe in a natural state of misogyny on the internet. “That’s what happens when you’re a woman online” you vent to your friends, subconsciously assuming this is the only way it ever has been and thus the only way it ever could be.

But this post isn’t about the obvious misogyny. Victim blaming and internalized misogyny are common enough in the feminist vocabulary that I don’t think we need to go into that here. But what I do want to go into are webcomics on Instagram.

Heteronormativity, the normative idea of romantic and sexual relationships being between masculine men and feminine women, is not natural or inherent to society. But despite social media providing important access for feminists to find others in their community, it still largely is reifying the dominant social relation of heteronormativity. This reification is not necessarily intentional and is most often innocuous.

Take the webcomic Catana Comics.

Most of the comics are like this: humorous foibles and quirks of life as a heterosexual couple. Or is it? Are the comics portraying being in a heterosexual couple, or are they prescribing how to be in a heterosexual couple? To be clear I am not saying the author is intentionally trying to prescribe anything, and I myself love the comic because it feels so relatable. I have a boyfriend with a beard. He has asked me why I don’t send him unfiltered selfies and my self-perception is very similar to the author’s. But where did this relation come from? Did I engage in these interactions with my boyfriend because it is how I as an individual interact or rather is it that I have internalized all this social media telling me, directly or just by example, how to be a heterosexual woman?

What makes social media particularly pernicious as an agent of reification though isn’t the content — it’s the comments. Social media allows you to both receive the message (women feel self conscious about their appearance) and to immediately rebroadcast it as part of a constant collective rebroadcasting. And it is the “doing” of a social relation that allows for it to seem inherent or natural. The comments on this comic are instructive: “ive been called out 😂” says sld1108, tagging a guy who I’m going to guess is her boyfriend. littlec.92 tags a guy as well with the message “know you know why.” And laura.bert tagged a guy with the message “this explains everything.”

In this way social media reifies heteronormative social relations. A woman sees the depiction of heteronormativity, sees other women liking it and commenting about it, sees other women tagging their male partners, and so on. It is a reification that occurs through participation, engagement, call-and-response. Heteronormativity perpetually recreating itself, and not with edicts by some malicious patriarch but with internet points.

And there is one form of social media where reification is particularly interesting to me because of how corporations have utilized it: Pinterest. Pinterest operates on the premise of what the advertising world calls “aspirational consumerism” — providing a person the ability to create their consumer fantasies of all the commodities they want, and thus feeling like they own something before they have even purchased it. But commodities are not merely a vehicle for profit or the transubstantiation of M-C-M’. Commodities are a social relation, and thus they inform the ways we think about and identify ourselves and others, especially when it comes to gender. One of the most popular uses of Pinterest is wedding “boards” where users “pin” images of the various trappings that they one day hope to have at their weddings (and yes, I have one). The more images are pinned, the more likely they are to pop up in the feeds of others. People are not unaware of this effect, in fact it is their faith in this effect that allows for a deeper level of exploitation. Because Pinterest is home to a great deal of “native advertising,” subliminal marketing, and so forth, where corporations mask promotion of their products as ordinary people like you simply expressing their consumer preferences. First as artificial corporate promotion, it will be seen in the feed of others and will influence their own preferences until the popularity of the product becomes real rather than a facade.

However no amount of slick corporate user-interface, wholesome animals, or funny memes can change the reality that social media is fundamentally looking at a screen. So in addition to the reification, or more accurately in tandem with the reification, is a profound sense of alienation. While you relate to a comic about not wanting to send a selfie to your boyfriend when you look gross, you cannot escape the reality that this did not come up in a face-to-face conversation with a friend but rather from you looking at a screen. Some try to dismiss what kind of effect this has on people, noting that historically similar worries of alienation have come about from technology as obviously harmless as the newspaper. What these hot takes usually miss is that things like the newspaper and the TV were always definitively non-social. You had no problem discerning whether or not you were communicating with a person when you read a newspaper — you’re clearly not (letter to the editor section notwithstanding). It is not that people are not looking at reality; it is that it is becoming more and more difficult for people to discern what reality is. There is an Uncanny Valley effect where even when you’re communicating with someone you know online, you cannot see a crucial element of human communication — their face.

There is an unfortunately widespread lack of substantive engagement between feminists who disagree. Social media did not create this lack of engagement (after all, social media did not create alienation), but it has entrenched it. Social media has grouped us into even more insular circles, and so when at a conference or organization meeting we hear a difference of opinion it is often alien and shocking. The worst human tendency to create “us vs. them” paradigms is exacerbated by the insular groupings that have been entrenched or even created whole-cloth by social media.

Social media however is not the only culprit. Obioma Nnaemeka sounded the alarm about this problem back in 2003, long before social media would dominate but just when the internet was rapidly accelerating the pace of globalization. Nnaemeka pointed out an “evolving double apartheid of social and epistemological exclusions.” She writes:

[These are] disjunctures festering among diverse constituencies within and between nations in a globalizing world. Globalization, with its incessant shifts and turns, has produced anxieties not only in the academy where disciplinary certitudes are disrupted but also outside the academy where different worries abound…[feminists need] a modulated shift in focus of the intersectionality of race, gender, class, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, culture, national origin, and so forth from ontological considerations (being there) to functional imperatives (doing what there)

Unfortunately Nnaemeka had only seen the beginning of the dominance of intersectionality as an ontological consideration. Ontology is the metaphysical study of “being.” The amazing and disturbing element of the internet and especially social media is that it blurred the already difficult to discern line between aesthetic and being. While the recent hype around this is the existential concerns of “fake news,” the fundamental warping of reality through aesthetic really takes place in the realm of identity.

Years before Donald Trump would utter his first lies on the 2016 campaign trail, Tom MacMaster transformed himself into A Gay Girl In Damascus. Around that time, scammers realized that they did not need to hack actual hardware or programming when they could “phish” sensitive information by impersonating others with information gleaned from social media. Constructing an aesthetic to shift the reality of someone’s being was not new of course — the Roman emperor Augustus was one of many ancient figures to do so. But what was jarring about this new manipulation was that it was a complete betrayal of the implicit promise of the internet to empower people by making things accessible and transparent. The hope of being able to reach people all around the world was dashed by the realization that there was little way to be certain of whether those people were who they claimed to be.

Enter Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton was, to put it in the blunt words of a colleague of mine, “never a feminist.” Her career, from corporate attorney to First Lady to New York Senator to Secretary of State, was even more a paradigm of Third Way politics than her husband (aside from her short-lived advocacy for universal healthcare). Clinton’s fascination was always with the colossal power of the state (which is why no one was surprised when she took the Secretary of State position as a consolation prize for losing to Obama). Feminism was just one of many cudgels by which to attack nations in the Global South (despite them actually having women presidents, far more women legislators, etc.). And when she began her presidential campaign, Clinton was poised to run as this candidate, a sequel to President Obama which would continue to eliminate facial discrimination while privatizing Social Security and bombing even more predominantly Muslim countries in our totally-not-a-religious War On Terror.

But something happened which led Clinton’s team to leverage the new aesthetic politics of feminism, particularly with the use of social media. And that was the contest in the Democratic primary with the wholly un-aesthetic Bernie Sanders. And that will be the last post of this series.

Sad to say that no one has yet been prosecuted for this crime against humanity.