Watching You Watching Me
I am reading Kate Zambreno’s “Green Girl” now and it is making me sad. I went to the gym and thought about what a place that is for me to love being watched. I love to put my headphones in to block out one of my senses. That way I am free to focus only on being seen and how I look. I thought this transaction gave me power. Today, after reading, it felt different. I believe it’s important to know, to be aware. I felt more aware of the truth of the transaction today.
A lot of female empowerment is sold to us (women) through Instagram. There is no shortage of women selling their own personal brand of empowerment, achieved, one surmises, through mimicking her habits (“ate pizza today because fuck it!” Implying she’s eaten healthfully every other day, and eating pizza once is cute), personal style, way of speaking, and on and on. It is natural for the brain to search for a way out of itself.
When I think about the phrase “the male gaze”, coined by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey, I am astonished it was created before Instagram. The pleasures of being seen are all too accessible today. Algorithms reward the thinnest, the whitest, the sexiest content. So that’s what we create, because the green girl loves the thrill of imagining her followers scrolling through their feeds and coming across her face, and wondering how that face makes them feel, and checking her likes and refreshing and checking again.
The Algorithm has infiltrated all subgroups of women on the internet, not just the fitness model, who may be the most abundant archetype of woman selling empowerment through submitting to a patriarchal view of womanhood and sexiness. I’m from Richmond, Virginia, home of hardcore, tattoos, and craft beer. Many (not all, of course) of these women who live so counterculturally (for lack of a better word) in their clothing, tattoos, hairstyles, lifestyles, and even politics, are so terribly voyeuristic on social media. In our feminism, our journey in ownership of ourselves, how have we so forgotten the value of eschewing our watchedness? Of denying men their evil pleasure in watching us, in making us look watchable?
I don’t want to say that there is never any value in posting pictures of yourself on the internet: for feminism, for self love in the face of racism or targeted harassment, and so on. My Instagram has a lot of selfies. I’m trying to figure out why I personally post pictures of myself, which is intertwined with why we all post pictures of ourselves.
I’ve checked both my Instagram and Twitter while writing this. I don’t ever want to divulge myself from the internet. I got my taste in music, humor, style from the internet. I also learned about Black Lives Matter, institutional racism, trans and nonbinary rights, disability activism, my own privilege, and so much more. The internet and social media have helped myself and others unlearn things we’ve taught and find a place we belong. I’ve experienced wealth of art that has changed the way I think about the world and creativity that I probably never would have had access to otherwise.
I’m wary, though, like I think a lot of us are who remember their lives before social media and before looking at phones became a compulsion. I think it’s safe to say that more women now than ever are feminists, which is, I believe, largely thanks to the internet, and is something to celebrate. But I care less and less about being surveilled, and less and less about how good likes on my posts make me feel. I wonder about the deeper happiness that lies outside of my social media compulsion. And beyond that, the happiness that lies outside of living with an imagined pair of male eyes in my head, always making sure I live inside the lines.
I try to combat the Algorithm and its perpetuation of the patriarchy by supporting people who aren’t white, thin, cis, able-bodied, and/or straight in their careers on social media. Does this support counteract the evil of the male gaze on Instagram? I know it does not and nobody’s body is an answer to America’s terrors. The onus of fixing should never be on a woman, a black person, or any marginalized person. I just want to know how to move forward, how to minimize the pain for myself and our future and current generations. Likes on Instagram and a full-body once-over from a fit guy at the gym while I squat always feel good. It’s only dopamine. But short term goods can rewire your brain and produce a lot of long-term evils. I don’t know what the answer is. I only want to ask a question.