The rise of the internet has brought about a number of changes to our society and the way in which we interact and make meaning of ourselves and each other, however the virtual world is not a neutral equal space. With over half the world’s population having access to the internet there are a number of ways this global tool is being controlled by different entities including governments and transnational corporations (Why Do Some Countries Censor the Internet, 2019). While there are a number of authoritarian governments who censor their states internet use for political purposes this essay will be analysing the censorship of the female body and sexuality which I argue seeks to uphold the patriarchal values in which women are subordinated by men. I will begin with a brief history of censorship and Foucault’s concept of disciplinary power, then the essay will move to a focus on the social media platform Instagram and the censorship on women’s body’s and bodily functions. Linking back to Foucault and disciplinary power, Althusser’s theory on ideology and ideological (state) apparatuses will also be discussed in relation to the way in which we have come to use and understand social media. Two specific forms of censorship will be analysed throughout; female nipples and menstruation blood. The end of the essay will bring these discussions together from the perspective of de Beuvoir.
The idea of censorship is not a new or modern concept; throughout history different forms of censorship have played a crucial role in upholding social and moral codes. The term censor originates back to ancient Greek times where the ideology of good governance was promoted through censorship of the community in the name of the good of the public (Newth, 2010). Although censorship originated in Europe, different forms of censorship have been found to be employed in different parts of the world across different times highlighting the importance of context. Prior to the rise of the internet, censorship of information was a lot more concentrated, with the State holding power to regulate what is acceptable and allowable using morality for grounds of censorship. The dominance of the internet beginning at the start of the 21st century brought about a number of hurdles in regards to censoring accessible public content. Given the immaterial nature of the internet; the transcendence across national borders; and the level of accessibility to its users, censorship of the internet remains a delicate topic with the power to regulate often falling outside of State powers and more commonly in the hands of private enterprises. Although some media corporations may serve as sovereign powers, the transnational nature of them makes it difficult to enforce their rules and regulations. The shift away from this sovereign power in the 21st century is what Foucault would argue as disciplinary power;
“It is a type of power which is constantly exercised by means of surveillance rather than in a discontinuous manner by means of a system of levies or obligations distributed over time. It presupposes a tightly knit grid of material coercions rather than the physical existence of a sovereign.. This non-sovereign power, which lies outside the form of sovereignty, is disciplinary power”
–Foucault (cited in Boyle, 1997, pg. 177)
Foucault used the example of Bentham’s ‘Panopticon’ structure to elucidate his theory of disciplinary power. He argued that the central figure within the panopticon formation was hidden and the threat of being seen by this authoritive figure was enough for the subjects to self-regulate and abide by the rules. From this perspective we can see that the panopticon is an individualising and totalising form of power. The internet as a domain however, operates remarkably different to that of our material society, which is why many theorists towards the end of the 20th century believed that the internet would be “immune from (state) regulation” (Boyle, 1997, pg. 178), more so due to the fact that it would be extremely difficult to do, rather than an unwillingness to do so. If we view the internet, or more specifically social media, as panoptic models all users agree to participate in this Big Brother type surveillance, as you must agree to the company’s terms and conditions while creating your access profile. Once ‘inside’ the panopticon individuals self-regulate and enforce their own oppression onto themselves often conforming to the hegemony of the system in the process. Given the nature of social media, the way in which subjects are able to (re)produce themselves to the world is highly curated and the awareness of the audience is always considered. While social media company’s outline their own specific ‘community guidelines’ in regards to what is deemed appropriate, the images deemed acceptable are still dictated by social norms rather than a specific legislation or law.
The following part of the essay will focus specifically on the social media site Instagram which is an image and video sharing social networking website with over 1 billion users worldwide (Carman, 2018). Instagram claims their aim is to have “a world more connected through photos” (Instagram, 2019), however many of their ‘terms of service’ contradict this and I will be focusing specifically on the gendered bias Instagram employs in order to control and mediate user’s content. Although users may post any type of image to their feed such as art, landscapes etc, the majority of images on the site are photos of people, many of which are ‘selfies’. This ‘self-imaging’ technique in which the user is posting themselves is particular to social media in that the user or artist is both subject and object, directly challenging “our conceived social order of image production” (Faust, 2017, pg. 160) within our patriarchal visual based culture. Female artists are especially challenging the order in regards to the image production veering away from the domination of the male gaze and into the hands of historically-written marginalised people.
The community guidelines of the online platform Instagram states a number of rules that their members must adhere to in order to freely use the media. The following statement is the description under the rule “Post photos and videos that are appropriate for a diverse audience”:
“We know that there are times when people might want to share nude images that are artistic or creative in nature, but for a variety of reasons, we don’t allow nudity on Instagram. This includes photos, videos, and some digitally created content that show sexual intercourse, genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks. It also includes some photos of female nipples but photos of post mastectomy scarring and women actively breastfeeding are allowed. Nudity in photos of painting and sculptures are ok”
Although the terms ‘nudity’ and ‘sexual’ appear to be self-explanatory terms, the definition of what actually constitutes as nudity and/or sexual content is highly contested in the online world. The community guidelines outlined by Instagram are representative of social and political norms within our society and upon closer inspection the sexism inherent in these guidelines becomes apparent. Both real world and online nudity are understood differently between the genders and the nipple exemplifies this perfectly. While cultural norms of what is deemed appropriate/inappropriate parts of the body to be shown in public evolve and change over time, the restriction of the female nipple has persisted till today. The notion that the nipple is too sexual to be seen is highly contradictory, especially given the fact that it is the only part of the breast that must be censored. We do not have the same censorship on the male body and even though the female nipple serves a bodily function (unlike the male nipple) the female nipple in online spaces is automatically seen as sexual and therefore prohibited. By hiding the female nipple specifically, society is telling women that their breasts are sexual and may only be seen from that perspective. The gendered bias teaches young women that they must police their bodies, in a way that men do not, and that we must hide parts of our body to ensure we do not arouse the opposite sex. The way in which women subjugate and oppress themselves; both in the real world and online, is an example of biopower in play. The purpose of biopower, according to Foucault, is “to optimize the life of the population as a whole” (Inda, 2005, pg. 5). He also suggests that the use of biopower is a positive force of power, rather than the classic understanding of punishment enforced negative power. The Panopticon concept employs this biopower and subjects are left to self-regulate on their own accord. Within a capitalist, patriarchal society where men hold all the power and economics hold privilege over everything, biopower represents the ideologies of men, and the reproduction of labour power is enforced through social norms. This includes pushing heteronormative ideologies in which women exist for the consumption of men.
Women have learnt through media, family, and educational institutions the correct way to carry and dress their bodies in order to conform to the expectations of society. According to Althusser these institutions function ‘by ideology’ rather than through physical violence enforced from above. It is the production of scientific knowledge functioning through ‘knowledge and desire’ which dictate our societal norms to which we all unconsciously agree to conform to (Pylypa, 1998, pg. 21). In line with Foucault’s concept of biopower, Althusser’s theory on Ideological State apparatuses function positively (through ideology) as opposed to the Repressive State apparatuses which function through violence. In other words, Althusser understood subjects to be confined to specific ideologies of existence, constrained and interpellated into our own existence within society. While this theory relies on the existence of the imaginary, Althusser does clarify the existence of materiality within this concept. He argues that
“the ideology of ideology thus recognizes, despite its imaginary distortion, that the ‘ideas’ of a human subject exist in his actions, or ought to exist in his actions, and if that is not the case, it lends him other ideas corresponding to the action (however perverse) that he does perform” (Althusser, 1971, pg. 103)
In the context of social media, what we present online is how we ‘perform’ and our ideas are only being realised in the way in which we present ourselves to the world; it disregards all that has not been posted online.
In 2015, Canadian poet and artist Rupi Kaur posted an image of a fully clothed woman laying in bed on Instagram. In the image the woman is laying on her side with menstruation blood both on her pants and the bed. The image was quickly removed due breaching the ‘community guidelines’ even though there was no nudity or sexual connotations present in the image. But instead of accepting the removal, Rupi and her (thousands of) followers fought back, making a public statement directed at Instagram:
“I will not apologise for not feeding the ego and pride of misogynist society that will have my body in an underwear but not be ok with a small leak when your pages are filled with countless photos/accounts where women (so many who are underage) are objectified, pornified, and treated less than human” (Kaur cited in Sanghani, 2015)
Instagram eventually restored then deleted, and once again restored the image to Rupi’s account and asserted that the removal was ‘an accident’ (Livingstone-Lang, 2016, pg. 17). This particular incident sparked a global discussion around menstruation and made it very apparent that menstruation blood still induces disgust in many people with some comments going as far as “being a woman is honestly disgusting.. I would do anything to kms [kill myself]” (cited in Livingstone-Lang, 2016, pg. 17). While this comment was quite extreme, many people were outraged and disgusted at the sight of a normal (yet unseen) bodily fluid in a normal bodily process. The notion of disgust is linked to abjection; “the human reaction (horror, vomit) to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object or between self and other” (Kristeva cited in Smith, 2017). As well as this breakdown of understanding, the abject is something that disrespects borders, rules and positions. Menstrual blood on social media provoking this sort of outrage is hardly surprising when we still treat the act of monthly bleeding as a taboo topic. Douglas suggests that taboos are important in regards to social control, much like Foucault’s ideas about disciplinary power; taboos seek to control the behaviour of the population by socially out-casting those who do not conform, rather than punishment coming from a sovereign power (Douglas, 1984). The continuation of menstruation as taboo is hardly going to be changing when the leading photo-sharing platform is censoring these sorts of images.
In the 1940’s Simone de Beauvoir wrote an influential book called The Second Sex. In it she outlines how throughout history patriarchal rule has resulted in man having been deemed the default of humans, sidelining women as ‘the other’. She discusses how this patriarchal notion has shaped gender roles and understanding of what it means to be ‘man’ or ‘woman’. Given that man is the default, de Beauvoir argues that due to this dynamic, women can only ever position themselves in opposition to the Subject (man), and the way in which she produces her femininity is key to being accepted by society. Although de Beauvoir was writing in the 1940’s, unfortunately not much has changed. Women are still seen from the male gaze, and are expected to conform to a certain level of femininity, which includes the understanding that their bodies are sexual and are for the consumption of men. In 2019, this is very much still the case. Women are expected to be sexual beings and must conform to that should they wish to avoid being socially outcast or denied access to participate in particular online spaces such as Instagram. Both the female nipple and menstruation blood highlight the extra scrutiny women face in today’s society, especially in regards to the way in which they present their bodies, both in the real world and online spaces.
Within the social media realm, especially Instagram, the gender bias that exists is so pervasive of our current society, people often are not even aware of the sexism we all agree to participate in when clicking ‘I agree’ to the terms and conditions of the site. It is interesting to note that violence within society these days is generally accepted and normalised more so than sexuality and nudity. While Instagram is explicit in outlining that sexual content will not be tolerated, which as I have argued is extremely sexist, the presence of violence on the platform is generally allowed. The community guidelines do state: “Because so many different people and age groups use Instagram, we may remove videos of intense, graphic violence to make sure Instagram stays appropriate for everyone” (Instagram, 2019). I fail to recognise how a female nipple in a non-sexualised context, or some blood on the pants of a girl laying in bed could be more offensive than the glorification of weapons and violence, but that just highlights how much further we have to go before we are rid of gendered understandings of the role that men and women play in society.
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