Commentary | Get out of my DM’s

Social media: a source of empowerment or disenfranchisement?

In today’s world, social networking mediums like Instagram have emerged as platforms of self-representation, empowerment and autonomy — but along with this comes the burden of self-surveillance, particularly toward the bodies of women and femmes. These platforms seem to be under the constant gaze of the dominant patriarchal eye, especially through the act of direct messaging in which heterosexual cismen sexualize, demean, and claim ownership of women and femme bodies. Direct messaging culture is becoming more and more prevalent throughout various social media platforms, whether it be on Instagram, Twitter or Tumblr. The openness and searchability that make social media so popular simultaneously serves as a tool men use to seek their ‘targets’ online.

DMs are saturated with various practices of objectification and disregard for women and femmes in social and cultural contexts, and feed into damaging beauty ideals and stereotypes. In order to further understand this direct and pervasive messaging culture, it is important to understand the contextualization of women and femme bodies as subjects in modern society. Exposure to any form of mass media will prove that the bodies of women and femmes have been presented as an object of lust and desire, catering predominantly to, and for the consumption of, heterosexual cismen. Popular media, through images of hyper-sexualization, has thus effectively conceptualized the ‘ideal’ feminine self. This conceptualization results in a process of sexualization whereby young women and femmes — as young as teens and pre-teens — experience themselves as objectified, disempowered and de-autonomised. Moreover, the media has forcibly monopolized conventional beauty standards to emphasize the Eurocentric, thin, white, able bodies of women and femmes. Because of these ideals, instances of racialization and marginalization are rampant. Dominant, mass mediated images of Western and Eurocentric beauty furthers white supremacy and conventional white beauty, disabling the social mobility of women of colour and other, marginalized bodies that do not intersect with the ‘norm’. These boundaries of the physical self have construed Western society’s conventional understanding of femininity and create damaging effects on all women and femmes.

However, women and femme’s bodies, especially those largely misrepresented and marginalized in mass media, find empowerment within forms of self-identification and the cultivation of a persona online. Social networks allow women and femmes to assert their feminist politics through labour, eitheir emotional or material, and often monetary, towards a self-brand. This dynamic process of empowerment through, for example, the selfie and personal Instagram curation, often results in the re-sexualization and commodification of the bodies of women and femmes — this time at the consent and effort of the subject, the woman — whereby the subject engages Instagram to produce content as the empowered Other.

Instagram can be seen as an active agent in rejecting patriarchal, white supremacist dominance through its enabling of marginalized women and femmes to contribute labour in dictating their self-brand. Rather than being presented as passive objects of the male gaze, young women and femmes on Instagram frequently depict themselves as active, independent, and sexually empowered. These platforms exist as a mode of furthering autonomy and bodily agency within a larger construction of the online self. Some could argue that this is a moral obligation: women and femmes on Instagram take up online space through the subject position in response to the sexist societal norms and unattainable beauty ideals forced upon them by the patriarchal hegemony of society, and actively work against these impositions. Despite traditional criticisms of selfies as vain and narcissistic, it is through this medium that many women and femmes actually gain the agency to control this online medium to present their own powerful messages of identification. This concept of women and femme’s empowerment is furthered through the practice of immaterial labour— that being the affective and cognitive commodities produced by work that exist outside the traditional wage-based consideration of labor as a material-commodity-producing activity, as well as the activity of producing this new form of commodity, through the production of content by and for the self.

Unfortunately, through these ‘empowered’ platforms, women and femmes are still viewed as fetishized commodities in dominant patriarchal, heteronormative, consumer capitalism. Men take up a significant portion of online spaces explicitly to objectify women and femmes, in commenting on their bodies and appearance in selfies publicly and through the act of direct messaging. Conversely, the fear of being marginalized for being outside of patriarchal norms inhibits aesthetic expression for women and femmes. These objectifying discourses are part of a culture of male entitlement, dominance, and ownership. These messages engage women and femmes in a non-consensual sexual manner, which is often explicitly violent, emblematic of patriarchal culture in which men have been conditioned and socialized to appropriate and comment on women and femme’s bodies in order to fulfill their heterosexual fantasies and desires. Under patriarchy, men engage these bodies as a form of ownership, thus appropriating their bodies for their own fulfillment. Intrusive, predatory commentary and messages such as these exists as a form of online ‘cat-calling’ and harassment, and normalize rape culture and sexual violence enacted by heterosexual cis men upon women and femmes.

The instant accessibility and availability of women and femme’s bodies in a mediated online sphere becomes an opportunity for sexual harassment in the digital age – this concept of ownership and entitlement is both an archaic and autocratic one purporting to heteronormative interests of power and dominance. Furthermore, the position of heterosexual cis men on Instagram and through these forms of communication is that of the voyeur. Self-documentation, surveillance, and regulation, allows heterosexual cis men access to visual representations of the bodies of women and femmes. Within the process of direct messaging, this openness and availability emphasizes the position of the male as a voyeur: his own self-brand, and presence outside the role of voyeur, is largely invisible, while simultaneously taking up online space to objectify and hyper-sexualize women and femmes.

Thus surveillance happens through women and femmes self-policing, and through the intrusion of the male gaze. This creates a paradox within representational discourses in which women are taught to be themselves, empower themselves, and properly produce their labour within online spaces, while not resisting or rebelling against men’s reinforcement of ideal femininity through direct messaging. This paradox echoes gender norms which position men as dominant and women and femmes as the passive ‘other.’ Women and femmes of all identities, whether heterosexual, LGBT, or people of colour, are being fetishized as the other: however, each of these fetishizations takes place in different ways, concurrent with ideas of intersectionality in which varying forms of identity overlap to create unique lived experiences. For example, a cis, heterosexual woman would not be fetishized in the same manner as an openly queer woman or femme, nor would an able bodied woman or femme in the same ways a disabled woman or femme would, and more.

The consumption and fetishization of the marginalized body as the Other work together to create a pervasive, predatory DM culture. Consequently, men viewing the Instagrams of women and femmes tend to project stereotypical feminine qualities onto the bodies of these women and femmes in selfies and other online curatorial portrayals of the self. The men are, in this way, also socialised to hold specific conceptualizations of the ways women and femmes should respond the advances of men —specifically, passively and without resistance. This is what leads to the unabashedly violent and cruel reactions men have when women and femmes reject them.

A question thus presents itself, are these online mediated networks really able to exist within frames of empowerment, surveillance, and self-labour? Are they simply platforms for the subjugation of women and femmes by heterosexual cismen in a heteronormative context? I believe it is an interesting and condemnable paradox, whereby women and femmes are expected to successfully perform empowered and autonomous acts of self representation while simultaneously falling under the scrutiny and violence of dominance by the gaze of heterosexual cismen.


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