Kim Kardashian: reality television personality; social media influencer; author of “Selfish” (2015) (featuring 445 pages of selfies) rose to fame after her “leaked” sex tape in 2007 entered the public imagination. Kim is now arguably the most famous woman alive. A hyper-object: rendered, filtered, photoshopped and surgically enhanced for the social media age. In 2022, she wore a crystal-embellished gown, last worn by Marilyn Monroe six decades ago at the Met Gala. This dress was an apt costume for the gala’s theme of “gilded glamor”, which many have called “out of touch” (Yang, 2022). But in a social media war of eyeballs, Kim attracts attention as a replay of the feminine icon: a collage of contracted and inflated body parts.
The digital (re-)mediatization of gender, particularly womanhood, changes not only social representations of but also academic discourses on gender. This technological recontextualization presents both dangers and opportunities. An important opportunity that the digitalization of society brings is that by enabling a plurality of voices to participate to public discourses, it may challenge popular stereotypes. Something as important as gender becoming differently construed publicly also affects academic discourses.
Last year’s gala also spurred controversy, as the Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wore a white gown that said “Tax the Rich”. The dress sparked backlash across the political spectrum, with critics condemning the move as both hypocritical and performative (Villarreal, 2021). Ocasio-Cortez defended her actions on Instagram, via a caption stating: “The medium is the message” which is a phrase coined by Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan (1964). But this is one of the most misused phrases in media history. The repetition of gender – as a disabling discourse – endures throughout the centuries, no matter the medium. This brings us to the central question of this blog entry, and my research agenda more generally, confronting the issue of how digital technology may enable (or not) certain gender discourses?
Zoe Hurley is an assistant professor at Zayed University, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Originally from the United Kingdom, she earned her PhD from Lancaster University, United Kingdom. She has spent her adult professional life working in Malaysia, Brunei, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Zoe currently teaches undergraduate courses in social media and her research develops feminist theorising of the postdigital condition. She has published articles in leading academic journals including Feminist Media Studies; Social Media + Society; Information Communication & Society; Postdigital Science and Education; Visual Communication and New Media + Society, in addition to several chapters, commentaries and blogs.
These matters precede the digital age. British feminist and anti-establishment polemist, Mary Wollstonecraft (1792), argued that decorative femininity kept middle-class women imprisoned in a “gilt cage.” Marilyn Monroe’s disintegration into misery, prescription drugs and alcohol, indicate the confines of being a celluloid star. In Toni Morrison’s (1987) novel Beloved, it is the monstrous baby-woman ghost – a symbol of racist-misogynist suffering – who restricts the protagonist within hideous memories of her days in slavery. Each of these media convey that when women are objects, they are a pawn in the tussles of power. Muslim women have also been constrained by debates in the west, concerning whether they should wear a veil. However, just as the shayla (head scarf) and niqab (face covering) are versatile but misunderstood garments of identity, women’s uses of digital media are fraught with an ambivalence that underscores the discourses of gender. Girls everywhere continue to be chastised for wearing too little; covering up; being overweight; too skinny; loud or quiet; not enough and too much (Dworkin, 1974). No wonder they are suffering from a self-esteem crisis; body dysmorphia; depression and are more susceptible to the negative effects of social media (Campbell, 2019).
But the #metoo hashtag movement on Twitter, which was started by African American activist, Tarana Burke in 2006, called-out sexual assault and offered hope that social media would fight sexism (Hurley, 2019a). A decade later, in 2017, it raised awareness of the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse cases. But with people spending more time online, the Covid-19 pandemic was an epidemic of internet porn; online sexual harassment; digital child abuse and domestic violence (Shearing, 2022). We have shifted to the mainstreaming of women selling nudes via subscription sites like OnlyFans (Garland, 2021). Meanwhile, people are turning away from feminism in its various forms (Gill, 2007).
On YouTube, Somalian-Canadian stand-up comedian, Hoodo Hersi, tells hijab jokes and makes digs at intersectional feminism (Hersi -YouTube 2020). During her set, she claims not to identify as a feminist due to the fatigue of already “climbing the mountains” of black and Muslim identity. Moreover, she tells audiences, “There’s nothing interesting happening at the top of the female mountain…it is just a bunch of white women skiing!” (Hersi, 2020). This is a swipe at second wave feminism’s Caucasian privilege. White western feminists have become folk devils: others are trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFS). In popular culture, the “Debbie Downer” figure endures and has morphed into a racist, suburban “Karen.” The only thing that everyone seems to agree on is that the Kardashians are overrated. Yet, their popularity prevails, and the billion-dollar brand prospers.
The Kardashians remain nonchalant: “Whatever.”
However, unlicensed recruitment agencies have set up as marketplaces on Instagram and Facebook (both owned by Meta) to prey on women who can be hired as sex workers, domestic servants and trafficked into human slavery (Guetta, 2021). But we must overcome the binary of feminist discourse, which portrays women from the Global South as needing to be empowered by western technology, while reinforcing assumptions that they cannot engage in leisurely use of technologies within everyday contexts (Gajjala, 2014). Apps like TikTok, owned by the Chinese internet company ByteDance, provide affordances to dispense with images of female objectification (Hurley, 2019b; Hurley, 2022). Audio-dubbing features enable users to inhabit the bodies, genders, races and positionalities of the other – at the touch of a screen. This is not gender fishing or cultural appropriation but indicative of the fluid discourses of identity, class, race and sexuality. For instance, @miyhang40, originally from the Philippines and working in the Middle East with 31.9k followers on TikTok, wears a domestic worker’s uniform (overalls) and cleans the toilet with a plastic toilet brush. In her video, the brush then becomes a make-shift microphone as she lip-syncs and dances to an edgy reggae tune in mock defiance. In another skit, she uses a broom to play air-guitar with affected masculinity.
These vignettes indicate how patriarchy presents varying actors with distinct ‘rules.’ Deniz Kandiyoti (1988, p. 275) refers to this as the “patriarchal bargain.” Digital affordances, for active or passive resistance in the face of oppression, differ according to the intersectional situation of the subject. But the routines of how digital technology may enable (or not) certain gender discourses – a bit like the Kardashians – plays on via an endless algorithmic loop of misogyny: cut, paste, repeat…cut, paste, repeat…cut, paste, repeat…Yet, despite gendered limitations of social media, some women are using it to bring down the fourth wall of fiction and speak directly with their audiences in varying pronouns, vernaculars and multimodalities (Hurley, 2021).
Collectively, these messages against popular misogyny might transcend the media.
Campbell, D. (2019). Depression in girls linked to higher use of social media. The Guardian. Retrieved 4 May 2022, from: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jan/04/depression-in-girls-linked-to-higher-use-of-social-media
Dworkin, A. (1974). Woman hating. London: Penguin.
Gajjala, R. (2014). Woman and other women: Implicit binaries in cyberfeminisms. Communication And Critical/Cultural Studies, 11(3), 288-292. doi: 10.1080/14791420.2014.926241.
Garland, E. (2021). ‘Where else can I make a month’s rent in two days?’: the unlikely stars of OnlyFans. The Guardian. Retrieved 4 May 2022, from: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2021/jul/10/where-else-can-i-make-a-months-rent-in-two-days-the-unlikely-stars-of-onlyfans
Gill, R. (2007). Postfeminist media culture. European Journal Of Cultural Studies, 10(2), 147-166. doi: 10.1177/1367549407075898.
Guetta, J. (2021). Is Facebook about to become THE marketplace for human trafficking?. Retrieved 29 April 2022, from: https://blog.redcompasslabs.com/is-facebook-about-to-become-the-marketplace-for-human-trafficking
Hersi, H. (2020). Hoodo Hersi – The Reason she’s not a feminist. Retrieved 4 May 2022, from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LLhy2FKv6jg
Hurley, Z. (2019a). Why I no longer believe social media is cool . . . Social Media + Society, 5(3). doi: 10.1177/2056305119849495.
Hurley, Z. (2019b). Imagined affordances of Instagram and the fantastical authenticity of Gulf-Arab social media influencers. Social Media + Society, 5 (1).
Hurley, Z. (2021). #reimagining Arab women’s social media empowerment and the postdigital condition. Social Media + Society, 7(2), 205630512110101. doi: 10.1177/20563051211010169.
Hurley, Z. (2022). Middle Eastern women influencers’ interdependent/independent subjectification on Tiktok: feminist postdigital transnational inquiry. Information, Communication &Amp; Society, 1-18. doi: 10.1080/1369118x.2022.2044500.
Kandiyoti, D. (1988). Bargaining with patriarchy. Gender & Society, 2(3), 274-290. doi: 10.1177/089124388002003004.
Kardashian, K. (2015). Selfish. Bloomington: Universe Publishing.
McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media. Oxfordshire: Routledge.
Morrison, T. (1987). Beloved. London: Penguin.
Villarreal, A. (2021). ‘Medium is the message’: AOC defends ‘tax the rich’ dress worn to Met Gala. The Guardian. Retrieved 4 May 2022, from: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/sep/14/aoc-defends-tax-the-rich-dress-met-gala
Wollstonecraft, M. (1792). A vindication of the rights of woman. Rutland, Vt.: J.M. Dent.
Yang, M. (2022). Met Gala organizers face criticism for ‘Gilded Glamor’ theme amid inflation. The Guardian. Retrieved 4 May 2022, from: https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2022/may/02/met-gala-theme-gilded-glamor-criticism-inflation
Featured image: Russian doll, CC BY SA 2.0.