There’s a moment in Eddie Murphy’s legendary 1983 standup special, “Delirious,” when Murphy scans the front row of the crowd and asks if anybody has a camera.
A hand reaches up to the stage to offer a quintessential 1980s point-and-shoot, one of those flattened rectangles that masks the photographer’s eyes like a censorship bar. Murphy proceeds to snap two photos of the audience. He then points the camera at himself, drops his arms to his sides, and takes a close-up of his fire-engine red-leather-clad crotch.
“Let’s see you explain the last one to the guys at Fotomat,” Murphy jokes as he hands the camera back to its owner. The audience roars.
Thirty years later, Fotomat kiosks are but a distant memory and the mere question of whether someone in a 3,000-person audience might have a camera is dated to the point of surreality.
Most American adults own smartphones, which means a staggering number of people have high-quality cameras with them at any given time. Oh, and just about anyone can publish photos instantly to mass audiences online. These days phones aren’t just phones or even just cameras. They’re tiny pocket-sized printing presses.
We even have a pejorative for the kind of self-portraiture that’s widely panned as pure narcissism: the selfie. But the ability to self-publish (see also: Instagram, Snapchat, the entire Internet, etc., etc.) has also turned selfies, and more broadly the way people present themselves online, into something that can be more meaningful.
When anyone has the power to publish, the balance of power shifts toward the individual. For groups of people who have been long marginalized, misrepresented, or objectified, this shift represents an opportunity to reclaim control, especially at a time when society is increasingly visually oriented.
Technologies like smartphones and Internet publishing platforms are empowering women, in particular, to take charge of representations of their bodies in a world that’s still very much interested in contextualizing and commodifying them. And while larger culture remains comfortable dictating how women should look and act, emerging technologies and platforms are fostering online communities that encourage women to push back.
Here’s a recent example of the status-quo: The music video for the wildly popular song “Blurred Lines” features three fully clothed men singing, “I know you want it, I know you want it, I know you want it,” to topless women striding around them.
And here’s how technology empowered a small group to recontextualize this representation of women: A Seattle-based boylesque troupe recorded a gender-swapped parody of the “Blurred Lines” video to underscore the absurdity of how women are portrayed. This message went out to more than 3 million YouTube viewers, or about one-quarter of the original video’s views:
“We made this video specifically to show a spectrum of sexuality as well as present both women and men in a positive light, one where objectifying men is more than alright and where women can be strong and sexy without negative repercussions.”
The Internet also gives victims a platform to speak out.
Poet Hollie McNish’s spoken-word piece about the hypocrisy of shaming breastfeeding mothers into hiding as women’s breasts are otherwise openly sexualized got nearly 1 million views on YouTube in a matter of weeks.
Earlier this summer British tabloid The Daily Mail published a photo of singer Amanda Palmer’s nipple, and described the “fashion mistake” that “escaped” from her bra during a music festival performance. Palmer responded by performing onstage a melodic waltz of an open-letter to the Daily Mail, removing her robe halfway through to perform the song naked. An excerpt:
“Dear daily mail,
You misogynist pile of twats. I’m tired of these baby bumps, vag flashes, muffintops— where are the newsworthy cocks?
When Iggy or Jagger or Bowie go shirtless, the news barely causes a ripple.
Blah blah blah, feminist, blah blah blah, gender shit, blah blah blah…
Oh my God, nipple!”
The video of Palmer’s song has racked up well over a million views to date. And across the Internet, there are growing communities of people who push back against the culture of shaming, degrading, and objectifying women.
On the hugely popular website Reddit, for example, GoneWild is a niche community of women who publish sexually explicit photos of themselves. To prevent “revenge porn” — explicit photos published without the subject’s consent — a group of moderators urge participants to go through a verification process. (Those who publish photos are asked though not required to submit three photos of themselves holding up a piece of paper handwritten with the person’s username, the date of submission, and a specific mention of the Gone Wild subreddit.)
“We hate even the THOUGHT of people being exploited and take steps to prevent it!” said Redditor xs51, who declined to provide a full name, citing the Reddit community’s propensity for harassment. “Posts that mention an ex are removed, posts that look like revenge are removed, posts that just don’t sit well with us are often removed.”
The idea is to create a community where women have autonomy over their bodies, and the ability to explore exhibitionism on their own terms.
“You can’t get the porn off the internet, but you can make better porn,” xs51 wrote in a message through the site. “We’re not producers, but we give people a place to exhibit themselves where no one gets hurt and people are in it purely for the fun of it! … But since there’s no financial incentive, I think our posters are far less likely to post something they aren’t comfortable with.”
Other online communities have developed around the idea of making better, more empowering pornography. MakeLoveNotPorn.TV is a site that bills itself “Pro-sex. Pro-porn. Pro-knowing the difference,” and runs on a profit-sharing model that gives money from rentals back to people who upload their own sex videos.
“I think there’s a real relationship between what happens offline and what happens online,” said the site’s curator, Sarah Beall. “Real world sex in a way that isn’t usually celebrated and showcased; consensual, free of porn cliches.”
Beall knows porn cliches well. She previously worked as a script writer in the pornography industry, a gig that she said quickly became boring because of it’s distant relationship with the real world.
“I felt like the industry had taken some things that had at one point been hot and boiled them down into these niches to the point where nothing spontaneous could happen in a porn scene,” she said. “It just didn’t leave much room for what actually happens in the real world.”
A question of what’s real comes up again and again and again in trying to find the line between exploitation and empowerment. And that’s because individuals are fighting against false representations of themselves with authentic ones. Palmer’s response to the tabloid that suggested she should be ashamed of letting a breast “escape” onstage was to perform completely naked.
Technology makes it easier for real people to share all kinds of aspects of their real lives. But it also gives widespread access to tools that distort what’s actually there.
“Things like Photoshop, video-editing software, these aren’t only available to people who work in professional arenas,” said Beall. “We understand more and more the artifice is sort of lifted. It becomes boring.”
The idea that fake is dull and real is compelling isn’t just a byproduct of the Internet age, yet the overwhelming exchange of information that takes place online seems at times to heighten the tension between what’s authentic and what’s phony.
“One of the things we see a lot now is sort of like constant war between authenticity and co-opting the appearance of authenticity,” said Judith Donath, a professor at MIT who focuses on the social economics underlying communication. “The earliest reality TV was pretty real and then people said, ‘Oh, if we make it look even more real we’ll do better,’ until we see something [that bills itself “real”] that’s completely staged. Now we look for some other authenticity.”
The result is a culture that ratchets up “continuous gamesmanship between authenticity and very well-funded reproductions of authenticity,” she said.
“We live in a world that operates in information,” Donath said. “You’re not out foraging for berries. You’re foraging for what is actually real, what’s authentic.”
Even those who find ways to feel empowered by technologies are up against expectations laid out by multibillion-dollar industries like advertising, porn, fashion — not to mention pressure to select the most flattering Facebook profile photo, craft the pithiest Twitter bio, and so on.
Not all online micro-communities that spring up to recast representations of women’s bodies are fundamentally positive, nor are they all controlled by well-meaning supporters of women’s rights. For instance, there has been much debate over pro-anorexia forums, sites where people swap “thinspiration” photos and tips on how to starve themselves. (Those who defend such groups argue that they are a safe place for people to gather and discuss body-image issues without judgment.)
The same technologies that serve to empower can also be used to exploit. Some of the crueler corners of the Internet are littered with revenge porn. A camera and publishing platform in every back pocket creates plenty of opportunities for people to empower themselves and just as many chances to take advantage of one another.
Recent technologies have skewed our expectations about the information we encounter, largely because we have access to a massive and ever-growing kaleidoscope of competing views and ideas.
It’s easier than ever to publicly challenge institutions with the loudest voices, and to be rewarded for questioning, rejecting, and remixing what they say about the world around us. Individuals are able to influence widely shared narratives — a position of power once exclusive to newsmakers and major media outlets.
In a blog post after her “Dear Daily Mail” song went viral, Palmer characterized the overwhelming response: “are we the media? it would appear so.”
Consider this: every two minutes, humans take as many photos as all that existed across humanity in the 19th century, according to 1000 Memories founder Jonathan Good. As of last year, humans had taken nearly 4 trillion photographs.
We’re photographing everything. And we’re doing it every second of every day.
Little of what we’re capturing actually matters in and of itself. Many of these trillions of photographs will never be seen by an audience of more than a handful individuals in any given network. And yet our perceptions of the world are increasingly shaped by those same individuals.
What matters most is that we are the ones behind the camera.