Dr Amy Shields Dobson is a lecturer in the Centre for Women’s and Gender Studies Research at Monash University, Melbourne. She recently completed her PhD on representations of femininity on MySpace, and the implications of this for contemporary feminist politics and performance studies. She completed her honours degree in Performing Arts at Monash University in 2004, for which she researched and wrote her thesis on internet cam girl communities.
In this article, I offer a categorisation of ‘hetero-sexy’ material found on a sample of MySpace profiles maintained by young Australian women, aged between 18 and 21. By ‘hetero-sexy’ (a term discussed below) material I mean imagery, iconography, and decorations on the profiles that appear, in terms of aesthetics and the visual appearance of bodies, to reinforce current notions of feminine gender performativity as ‘sexualised’, and seem to be appealing to a similar gaze economy as that produced in conventional heterosexual pornography. Social network site profiles have been theorised as a kind of identity performance (boyd, 2007; Liu, 2007; Buckingham, 2008; Westlake, 2008; Zhao, 2008; Pearson, 2009). The premise of Do-It-Yourself social media such as MySpace currently appears to be one of an implicit understanding between viewers and viewed: first, that the representations are self-produced and fashioned to express the identities of their creators; and second, that the subjects of representation are themselves making choices about, actively participating in, and controlling their own representations. I refer to this as the premise of ‘self-production’ on social network sites. The purpose of this article is to open up some questions about the ways in which this viewing premise of self-production and choice in one’s own mediated representation could, and perhaps should, affect feminist interpretations of these hetero-sexy (new) media representations. I offer a textual analysis of hetero-sexy material from MySpace profiles that draws from feminist performance theory and explores the meaning of hetero-sexy icons as visual representations of women.
Feminist performance theory provides some tools with which to unpack the possible political meanings and implications of hetero-sexy iconography, while also taking into account the premise under which it is viewed as representation made or used by women themselves in the context of public self expression. In this article, I engage primarily with Rebecca Schneider’s (1997) analyses of female-created ‘explicit body’ performance art. In proceeding in my analysis of hetero-sexy representations on MySpace from a ‘premise of self-production’, my intention is not to disregard important debates about the actual degree of agentic ‘choice’ available to young women in performing hetero-sexy identities. However, my questioning here is of hetero-sexy self-representation in the given context of widespread female use of MySpace, rather than young women’s actual experiences of participation in hetero-sexy culture. New theoretical tools of analysis may help to illuminate some underlying assumptions, as well as some new possibilities, regarding the meaning of female hetero-sexy self-representation. But importantly, I concur with Gonick, Renold, Ringrose and Weems that ‘multiple and concomitant strategies of analysis are required in a time of dense convolution’ (2009, p. 4). Thus, analysis at the level of representation, such as this, needs to happen in conjunction with research about girls’ own experiences of participating in this culture, such as Ringrose’s (2010).
My intention is to make sense of some of the kinds of images found on these sites that appear as if they might be most immediately problematic, contentious, or puzzling for feminists as part of young women’s self-representation. I group hetero-sexy images and iconography displayed by young women into four ‘typologies of hetero-sexiness’, and offer detailed readings of some images as examples of each of these four typologies. I do not provide a full outline of any individual profiles or individual performances of hetero-sexiness by the profile owners. This would be a fruitful avenue for future research. However, my primary purpose here is to make sense of young women’s deployment of hetero-sexy material in their own identity performances through a reading and categorisation of the various kinds of hetero-sexy images and iconography found. After a brief summation of the issue of young women’s ‘agency’ in hetero-sexy self-production, and some notes on methodology, I discuss four different types of hetero-sexy representations found on the profiles. First, I discuss ‘dreamgirl icons’; second, images of heterosexual fornication; third, I discuss images of Paris Hilton; and fourth, I discuss hetero-sexy self-imagery. Lastly, in thinking through the question of how feminists should interpret young women’s deployment of hetero-sexy material in their self-representation, I suggest that Schneider’s concept of citing the object’s eye in women’s explicit-body performance (1997) may be useful. I argue that there is a need to complicate straightforward readings of hetero-sexy material as ‘harmful’, ‘oppressive’ and so on when viewed in the context of female self-production. Schneider’s ideas on the potential object/subject binary disruption caused by female explicit-body performers who are themselves also known to viewers as creative ‘eyes’/producers helps towards this end. However, at the same time, employing her theories in this new context of social network site self-presentation forces the question of how useful performative object/subject binary disruption is as a tool for feminists.
The issue of ‘sexualisation’ surfaces repeatedly in recent commentaries on popular culture and media culture, particularly as it relates to female children, young women’s cultural practices and also to media representations of young women (Levy, 2005; Attwood, 2006, 2009; Rush and La Nauze, 2006; Souter, 2006; Totaro, 2006; Wells, 2006; American Psychological Association Task Force (APA Task Force), 2007; Levine and Kilbourne, 2008; Oppliger, 2008; Durham, 2009; Evans, Riley and Shankar, 2010). Rush and La Nauze define the term ‘sexualisation’ as follows: ‘the sexualisation of children documented in this paper captures the slowly developing sexuality of children and moulds it into stereotypical forms of adult sexuality. When we use the term “sexualisation”, it is this capturing and moulding process to which we refer’ (Rush and La Nauze, 2006, p. 1). I use the term ‘hetero-sexy’ instead of ‘sexualised’ or ‘sexualisation’, to draw attention to the fact that it is a specific type of sexualisation to which most people refer when they describe young feminine representations and feminine performativity itself in contemporary culture as ‘sexualised’. The limited way in which ‘sexiness’ is currently presented, meaning that slim, young, appropriately groomed (Pitcher, 2006), white, able bodies continue to be fetishised, is a central critique of cultural ‘sexualisation’ made by authors such as Rosalind Gill, Angela McRobbie, and Ariel Levy. Thus, it is not just that femininity is ‘sexualised’, but that it is aligned with a specific gendered and heterosexual aesthetic, derivative of both ‘traditional’ femininity — pink, delicate, decorative cutesy, and so on (Brownmiller, 1984) and mainstream heterosexual pornography — overly large artificial looking breasts, high heels, excessive make-up, revealing clothing or clothing which draws attention to sexual and erogenous zones (Levy, 2005). For example, the body of a Barbie Doll is not merely ‘sexualised’, it is hetero-sexy. The phenomenon of marketing padded bras to eight year old girls (Cook and Kaiser, 2004; Totaro, 2006; Wells, 2006) does not simply or automatically ‘sexualise’ young girls, but rather, serves to construct their bodies in a specific, hetero-sexy way.
Another problem with the term ‘sexualisation’ and the above definition of it ties into the issue of female agency. I concur with Egan and Hawkes (2008) that the notion that any sexual expression by girls and young women indicates that they have been subject to an artificial or external form of ‘sexualisation’ is problematic. Although the ‘process’ of sexualisation described by Rush and La Nauze refers specifically to children, much of the debate around sexual display, culture, and older girls and women can be boiled down to similar concerns about the degree to which women choose to partake in hetero-sexy culture or are structurally and culturally obliged to participate (Duits and Van Zoonan, 2006, 2007; Pitcher, 2006; Gill, 2007b; McRobbie, 2007, 2008; O’Connor, 2007; Henderson, 2008; Ringrose, 2008, 2010; Evans, Riley and Shankar, 2010). Women’s historical place in Western culture as sexual objects has been well documented (Greer, 1970; Hess and Nochlin, 1973; Mulvey, 1975; Haug, 1987), and as Gill (2003, 2009) argues, it may be that in recent times women are invited to actively participate in their own sexual ‘objectification’ or rather, ‘subjectification’ in ways that are no less limiting and sexist than earlier forms of ‘objectification’, but in many ways, as McRobbie has noted (2007), take the focus off masculine forms of hegemony. As Ringrose (2010) argues in her study of teen girls’ negotiations of sexiness on social network sites, in engaging in ‘sexy’ performativity girls still walk a very fine line between getting it ‘right’ and getting it ‘wrong’, and consequently being labelled a ‘slut’ by peers.
At the same time, several authors have emphasised that the meanings girls and young women give to their own choices in consumption, pop culture and behaviour may be quite distinct from the way in which adults view their choices (Duits and Van Zoonan, 2006; Egan and Hawkes, 2008; Duits and Van Romondt Vis, 2009; Pilcher, 2009; Ringrose, 2010). For example, Ringrose finds that often girls dismiss the normative meanings of sexualised symbols such as Playboy bunnies, despite their articulated knowledge of the associations most adults might have with the Playboy bunny symbol (Ringrose, 2010, p. 178). One participant in Ringrose’s interviews insisted that such meanings held by others do not concern her because she simply likes the cute look of the bunny (p. 178). Egan and Hawkes argue, ‘Conflating message and reception, sexualising media or “pressures” are configured in a hypodermic fashion — making all reception of said images uniform and dangerous’ in much of the discourse on girls and sexualisation (Egan and Hawkes, 2008, p. 297). A central matter in girlhood studies, and work on female participation in raunch culture may then be summarised as follows: How to acknowledge young women’s own pleasure and not simply impose adult meanings onto their cultural lives and values? How to critique the limiting gender discourses in popular and visual culture without dismissing girls’ and women’s agency, intelligence and pleasure (Evans, Riley and Shankar, 2010)? These questions have informed key scholarship on popular culture consumed by women and girls for more than twenty years (McRobbie, 1976, 1991; Radway, 1984; Ang, 1985).
As several scholars have noted, feminists remain in somewhat of a stalemate over issues of female agency and the structural and sexual differences that continue to limit or prescribe certain female experiences (Driscoll, 2008; Evans, Riley and Shankar, 2010). In their suggestion of a ‘technologies of sexiness’ framework for understanding women’s engagement with cultural ‘sexualisation’, Evans, Riley and Shankar (2010) come closer to a position that allows a kind of middle ground. They suggest a framework in which the historical ties of certain images and performances of female bodies to notions of objectification and service to a male gaze are acknowledged, but so too are the possibilities for women to locate pleasure and power within some forms of sexy performativity. They explore the subversive potential of some sexualised icons such as ‘porn star’ t-shirts depending on the specificities of the body of the wearer. For example, porn star t-shirts on large female bodies, they suggest, are likely to be read as subversive statements, whereas the same t-shirt on Paris Hilton is likely not to be read that way (2010, p. 124). Thus, following Butler, the authors suggest that it is more than just the gender of the body that affects readings of such acts as potentially subversive gender performances (1990). This line of inquiry deserves more attention, especially in light of the art/porn (subversive/repetitive) binary questioning that feminist performance theorists and artists such as Annie Sprinkle, a more conventionally ‘sexy’ and feminine female artist/sex worker, have engaged in. Further, often on social network site profiles, the visibility of ‘real-life’ body and identity variables may be quite limited or hard to immediately distinguish, depending on the self-images posted. However, I would suggest that the colour schemes, names, and graphics used on MySpace profiles most often immediately connote ‘femininity’ or ‘masculinity’. I therefore pursue further the question of how gender itself and the premise of agentic female self-production may affect readings of hetero-sexy performances on MySpace. (A more detailed exploration than I have space for here of how further ‘body variables’, such as race and size, affect interpretation presents a fruitful area for future analysis.)
The MySpace profiles examined in this study were selected from a viewing of over 300 public profiles between September 2007 and February 2008. The search criteria were limited to public profiles located in Australia and maintained by women aged between 18 and 21. Studies suggest that women aged 18-21 are within the demographic that use MySpace the most (Thelwall, 2008; Lenhart, 2009). As implied above, however, in a textual study of online material such as this it is impossible to know with certainty that profiles owners are who they claim or appear to be. However, my primary concern is with the performed identities and premise of the performance, rather than the ‘real life’ validity of these identities. The 45 profiles examined were included in the study based on the richness of expressive data they contained, and also, because of the way femininity was performed on the chosen profiles within current conventional models of hetero-normative gender display in Western popular culture. A selection criterion was employed during profile searches and the selected profiles clearly employed a kind femininity similar in terms of aesthetics and self-presentation to that briefly described above in my description of current feminine ‘hetero-sexiness’. That is, this study examines publicly visible ‘mainstream’ contemporary representations of femininity rather than sub-cultural or more alternative representations of gender identity. All profile owners were contacted via their profiles and informed about the purpose of the study, asking for their implicit consent. Profile owners were asked to voice any objections to discussion in a de-identified manner for this research, and no objections were received. The pseudonyms I use in citing certain images discussed have been constructed to give readers a sense of the kind of names chosen by profile creators without revealing any individual’s MySpace alias.
The MySpace profiles examined are commonly decorated with what I call dreamgirl icons, after Rebecca Schneider’s (1997) conceptualisation of the ‘commodity dreamgirl’ seen so often in advertising and other forms of visual culture. In regards to MySpace hetero-sexy visual imagery, I am using the term dreamgirl ‘icons’ to refer to cartoons, animations, and digitally rendered or digitally altered imagery; a common type of hetero-sexy material employed by young women. These dreamgirl icons are generic depictions of a hetero-sexy feminine form or feminised body parts, unreal and unidentifiable. ‘The dreamgirl’ herself is one and many simultaneously, in that she represents a notion of the one, essential, idealised ‘woman’ (Schneider, 1997, p. 125) at the same time as her possibilities for transformation and replication are endless. Graphic icons such as Images 1-5 are often referred to in MySpace culture as ‘bling’ or ‘glitter’ for one’s profile, and are often procured from web sites specialising in providing graphic code to paste into social network site profiles. Such icons are used in the same way as stickers might be used on a paper scrapbook or letter. That is, they are posted in between different sections of text to punctuate and decorate. For example, sometimes icons such as those shown sit next to lists of likes and dislikes, or above or below textual descriptions of self on young women’s profiles. In this way, images of women’s bodies are commodified and traded on MySpace, just as they have long been in the mass media. Such images can be endlessly circulated around MySpace via code sites and peers, providing sources of page decoration and re-decoration.
Images 1 and 2 exemplify the kind of digitally animated image of the female body often seen on the profiles examined. These icons evoke the aesthetics and conventions of mainstream heterosexual pornography through the sinuous body poses and the legs-in-air exposure of the genital region, the slim-but-curvaceous body types, and the scant apparel displayed. They also depict a performance of feminine sexuality that has become conventional in visual culture. Some vague signifiers of sexual arousal are present in, for example, the clutching of hair (Image 1) and the finger in mouth (Image 2), however at the same time the expressions depicted may be described as somewhat indifferent, blank or ‘vacant’. A vacant gaze is typical of the quintessential ‘commodity dreamgirl’ used in much advertising, as described by Schneider (1997, pp. 92-93). These are decorative, disinterested vixens, not dissimilar to the female-body silhouettes sometimes painted on the side of road trucks.
Images 3, 4 and 5 are from a profile which is decorated almost exclusively with small, close-up, digitised mouths such as these, with lips made-up in a variety of different ways and signifying a variety of expressions. These digitised, detached mouths may be said to exemplify visual fetishisation. This singular part of the body has been separated from all else, and elevated above all else making it the centre for desire and fantasy. Through visual repetition, these kinds of mouths become commodified and objectified. On this profile, the mouths are presented as would be products in a display case or shop window. They come in a range of colours and shapes. The variety of different styles, colours and poses eludes any notion of which is the ‘real’ or ‘original’, and rather, all are foregrounded as artifice, play and ‘simulacra’ (Baudrillard, 1983). But at the same time as these lips and mouths suggest artifice, masquerade, and variety, they construct a generalised, idealised femininity. That is, these lips produce both an excess of possible malleable feminine masks, as well as a kind of ‘mono-femininity’, because of the sense of commodification and typical generic assortment they suggest. These images might be said to function similarly to the way in which Mulvey (1975/1989) describes ‘fetishistic’ spectacles of the female body in film; that is, these are fantasised dreamgirls posing as such, for the enjoyment of viewers.
Depictions of heterosexual couples engaged in acts of fornication constitute another kind of hetero-sexy representation used by young women to decorate their profiles. Unlike many of the images found which reference the presence of the camera, the images of fornication are more illusory and mimetic in the same way as narrative cinema conventionally is. In other words, rather than constructed specifically as poses, these images are meant to look as if the couples are actually engaged in, and enjoying the sexual acts depicted. Images 6, 7, and 8 may be said to produce a kind of ‘voyeuristic’ gaze. It is as if the camera/viewers do not exist or are not there, so that viewers become a voyeurs, seeing moments of ‘private’, ‘real’ sexual pleasure. There is nothing remarkable about such ‘soft pornographic’ imagery itself. These images may be read simply as typical depictions of ‘over-sexed’ female bodies, performing sexual desire for a ‘masculinised’ gaze (Mulvey, 1975/89). But as profile decoration, it is not necessarily apparent that such imagery is meant primarily for male consumption.
Different meanings are possible to read in imagery such as that discussed so far, depending on whether one interprets the female bodies in this material as standing in for the profile owners themselves, or as imagery consumed and liked by profile owners — as a display of identity through taste and/or desire. In the former interpretation, the profile owners are perhaps then seen as gazed upon objects of desire, yet with the complicating factor that they have put themselves in this position and thus, may be presumed to take some pleasure and power from it (Dobson, 2008; Evans, Riley and Shankar, 2010). In the later interpretation, more tributaries of meaning are opened up. The display of such images, when read as connoting taste or interest, may indicate complicity and self-alignment with a historically male, heterosexual gazing subject position (Mulvey, 1981/89). Put another way, they may signal a deferral to ‘phallic’ masculine desires and behaviours (McRobbie, 2007). The display of ‘lovemaking’ images may also suggest the kind of ‘reciprocity’ with a (heterosexual, male) viewer’s supposed desire that Thornham sees as necessary in visual images of women gesturing towards any kind of sexuality (2007, p. 37). All of these perspectives invariably suggest a degree of ‘false consciousness’ on the part of the profile owners which, given the cultural climate of commodified ‘raunch’, is understandable. However, display of such imagery may equally be said to signal the desire and interest in sex of the profile owners themselves.
There is nothing particularly subversive about all of these images themselves or the way in which they construct femininity and female bodies. However, in the context of self-presentation by young women, dreamgirl icons and soft-pornographic imagery, at the very least, open up a series of questions that a feminist analysis should consider. Are these images to be read as ‘self-representation’, as fantasised, or idealised constructions of self? If they are read as ‘profile decoration’ does this indicate a display of personal taste or pleasure in female-body iconography? Do such images on young women’s profiles, be they idealisations, fantasies or tastes, necessarily suggest the ‘hypodermic’ effect of media, or are less ‘uniform and dangerous’ meanings possible (Egan and Hawkes, 2008, p. 297)? Can feminists interpret such self-representation as the ‘false consciousness’ of young women, seduced by popular raunch culture, or/and at the same time, as a more radical display of desire, taste, or self-expression? How can feminists acknowledge young women as cultural producers and creators of media representation in their own right without ignoring the cultural and historical conditions that limit their representations?
As well as ‘unidentified’ dreamgirls, Paris Hilton figures prominently on many of the profiles examined. On one profile in particular Paris Hilton imagery appears to constitute the main visual theme. This profile is decorated with pink diamonds background ‘wallpaper’, and numerous pictures of Paris, who is listed as of one the owner’s interests, along with ‘smokes, money, sex, music’, her boyfriend, her friends, shopping, shoes, make-up, and specified expensive fashion brands. Similarities in style and feminine appearance (long, blow-waved blonde hair, heavy make-up, and cocktail dresses) between Paris and the profile owner and her friends as displayed in her profile pictures are also evident. Whether this level of engagement suggests admiration, fandom, parody, or a complex combination of these elements is open to interpretation. In the series of images displayed on this profile, Paris appears in several different costumes and settings, again foregrounding masquerade and artifice. There is no one, real Paris, only Paris posing for the camera in a variety of different sets and costumes. There is Paris posed sucking a popsicle stick, overt in its phallic implication; Paris as ‘pool cleaner’; Paris as angelic naked figure surrounded by white, with her chin lowered bashfully and her long blonde hair covering her bare breasts; Paris as bondage vixen/‘victim’ naked and tied up in cord; and Paris dressed in negligee and stripper-heels. In these images of Paris there is no pretention of ‘truth’, and no attempt at portraying a convincing notion of ‘self’, but rather a clear framing of mask, costume and construction. For example, in Image 9, Paris wears black stiletto boots, and appears naked and tied up in black cord that, on closer inspection, appears to be electrical lead with a microphone on the end of it. Rather than implying distress or submission, in this image Paris still looks as if she has a degree of control over the situation, and over her representation. The microphone is, after all, pointing at her mouth and the brick wall and curtains behind her suggest that she is on a stage. Her expression is one of calmness, even pleasure, as she gazes seductively and flirtatiously at the camera. The markers of constructedness in these images may serve as reminders to viewers that ultimately, Paris is in control.
At the same time, as in the other iconography discussed so far, these images of Paris Hilton do not depict a feminine performativity that is particularly original or any different to the kind of raunchy and sometimes ‘powerful’ femininity that has been prevalent in various ways, if not hegemonic, in popular culture for at least the last ten years (McRobbie, 1999; Winship, 2000; Hopkins, 2002; Inness, 2004; Gill, 2007a). Paris’s performativity may in some ways foreground gender artifice, but the degree of ‘subversion’ in such performativity is questionable. However, unlike many of the other hetero-sexy dreamgirl images found on young women’s MySpace profiles, Paris is identifiable. She may represent feminine artifice, masquerade and hyper-femininity itself, yet unlike in the images of the mouths, for example, her performance of malleability and idealisation is at least tempered by the reference to her material, specific body. It is hard not to recognise her as ‘Paris’, with all the specific connotations that such identification brings. In other words, Paris is hardly an ‘empty vessel’, and her image/identity may be useful to young women because it holds specific meanings for them.
Several of the profiles examined contain images of the profile owners themselves, most often alone, and posed for the camera in typically hetero-sexy poses similar to those described so far. The young women’s eyes are directed towards viewers in the majority of these shots. Their gazes suggest ‘camera seduction’ and reciprocity of a viewer’s potential desire in the way that Thornham has suggested images of women do in much advertising and pin-up girl photography (2007, p. 37). Other conventions of advertisements and pornography are also visible. The lips and mouths are often emphasised, posed pouted, slightly open, or puckered in a kiss shape. Some young women photograph their torso and midriff in swimwear or flesh-revealing clothes, and some pose in Playboy bunny clothes or wearing bunny ears. In one series of images, a profile owner poses kneeling on what appear to be her bedroom floor, her Playboy singlet rolled up to her chest, with her knees apart, pulling at, and then unzipping the fly of her short denim shorts — a common sequence of photo shots seen in soft pornography magazines.
Many fears have been raised by journalists and scholars about the Internet as a ‘paradise’ for stalkers and would-be sexual criminals, and about young women’s employment of social network sites for this kind of ‘sexualised’ self-presentation and display of sexual behaviour. Sexual representations on social network sites are often framed by commentators in the press as risky, licentious or ‘deviant’, as Thiel-Stern documents (2007). In encountering this kind of self-representation by young women, we then need to remember that linking sexual self-presentation to a risk of sexual or violent crime a priori is perhaps a little too akin to blaming a rape victim for her assault because of the way she dresses. Future research may fruitfully seek to examine why some young women display hetero-sexy self-imagery and what their experience of posting this kind of material is. My purpose here is to unpack the meaning of such imagery as representation, as I go on to do next. I ask if feminist performance theory on explicit body performance by women offers us ways of understanding any possibilities for political power in such self-produced hetero-sexy representations.
Schneider describes the ‘commodity dreamgirls’ seen so often in advertisements as out-of-reach objects which have come to hold and symbolise all of the most potent displaced desires of viewers (Schneider, 1997, p. 92). Schneider has argued that this kind of distancing and fetishisation of the female body in representation relies on constructing the female object as metaphorically ‘blind’: that is, unable to see out of her dreamscape and into the realm of viewers, and seemingly unaware that she is being seen, as well as desired
According to Schneider, feminist representation should not just be about creating different, diverse kinds of ‘more real’ female ‘subjectivities’. Rather, a central project of feminist representation should involve a more fundamental disrupting of object/subject binaries themselves. The ‘problem’ of female objectification, Schneider notes, cannot simply be fixed by attempts to ‘de-objectify’ the subject (Schneider, 1997, p. 57) and make her known as a ‘real person’. This is because the creation or representation of a ‘real woman’ is a concept so fraught with possibilities of fixity, exclusion, and essentialism that many feminists have abandoned such a notion in favour of a disruption of these very binaries of object/subject, real/unreal themselves (Case, 1988; de Lauretis, 1989; Schneider, 1997; Coleman, 2008).
When viewers are aware of the female object’s own role in orchestrating, writing, directing or producing the scenario in question, rather than just providing her ‘body for hire’, they can no longer as easily ‘pretend’ that she actually is the ‘commodity dreamgirl’ and sexual object she pretends to be. According to Schneider, when viewers are aware that the object has a perspective of her own on her own desirability, and an ability to see herself being seen, possibilities for binary disruption open up (Schneider, 1997, p. 100). Schneider refers to this as citing the object’s eye in performance. When the objects of visual representation can literally or metaphorically be seen as gazing out of their own dreamscapes and taking pleasure from seeing their viewers see them, the object/subject binary is thrown into confusion. Schneider writes about performative scenarios created by artists such as Annie Sprinkle, Carolee Schneeman, and Karen Finley in which:
The ‘seen’ takes on an agency of her own and wields the unnerving potential of a subversive reciprocity of vision, an explicit complicity, or mutual recognition between seer and seen, who become seer and seer, subject and subject, object and object in the scene of viewing. Such reciprocity threatens in that it suggests a disavowal of the terror and anxiety that demarcates subject from object in Western cultural habits of knowing. (Schneider, 1997, p. 86)
I am not suggesting that these producers of hetero-sexy representation on MySpace should be considered ‘feminist performance artists’. However, my point in employing Schneider’s work in this context, and thus, to some degree, implying a comparison, is to suggest the brevity of the cultural shift that has occurred with new media technologies, whereby we can, and in many ways need to, position large groups of young women as cultural producers themselves. In many ways these MySpace representations force the question of where and how to draw up the boundary lines between ‘disruptive, subversive’ and ‘politically productive’ ‘art’, and re-productive, repetitive, or possibly regressive gender performance. This is not a new question. Williams (1993), for example, suggests this question in her analysis of Annie Sprinkle’s performances. New technologies do, however, force us to ask the question in a whole new context.
As has been discussed, young women often present their identities through images and icons that can be described as hetero-sexy, and hold connotations of objectification and complicity with a masculinised gaze. However, they do so in a context of self-authorship, and such representations are viewed through a premise of self-production. Could this representation then function as a way of ‘gazing back’, in Schneider’s sense, and communicating pleasure in being seen? In other words, could these young women be seen as both ‘subjects and objects’ and does this then allow us to read their hetero-sexy self-presentation in more radical, transgressive ways? The textual analysis provided in this article cannot answer such a question, which ventures into the domain of performer intention and audience reception. Nonetheless, posing this question, and thus suggesting the possibility of some binary disruptions occurring here, is the primary contribution I wish to make to current discussions centring on young women and ‘sexualisation’. In offering this possibility, my intention is not to celebrate but to complicate hetero-sexy self-production by young women and analyses of it.
Schneider writes of some of the performance work she examines in which artists ‘take on’ or ‘do’ stereotyped or iconographic feminine personae:
[A]re these performance artists putting themselves forward as ‘real’ women in opposition to the representations they wield? To present themselves as ‘real’ would be to recapitulate the very naturalised separation between dream and reality, phantom and true, that these artists are interrogating. […] Instead of denying dreamgirls validity, these artists provoke a binary terror: their embrace suggests a collapse of the space between phantomic appearance and literal reality, interrogating the habitual ease of our cultural distinctions. (Schneider, 1997, p. 99)
Is it possible that through a presentation of self employing a hetero-sexy gaze, porn-shoot sequences, or images of Paris Hilton, for example, these young women ‘do’ various dreamgirl personae in a similar way, underscoring for viewers a ‘fakeness’ and artifice, such that the complex problem of what a more ‘real’ self-representation might look like is raised by such representation? When viewed in this context of online identity representation, the profile creators who produce performances of hetero-sexiness may be seen as negotiating similarly complex spaces between ‘real’, ‘unreal’, ‘playful’ and ‘parodic’ identities.
Ringrose has established the difficulties that schoolgirls face in negotiating appropriate performances of sexuality (Ringrose, 2008, 2010). Her research on the presence of young feminine media representations in girls’ social lives (2008) and girls’ negotiations of appropriate sexual self-presentation on social network sites (2010) illuminates the consequences girls face if they fail to get contemporary feminine performativity ‘right’. Such consequences include peer aggression, conflict, ostracising and labelling, especially if they fail to take into account their position as raced and classed subjects, as these differences alter significantly the rules and boundaries around sexualised presentations of self according to Ringrose (2008). In light of these observations, I would not suggest that the hetero-sexy self-construction discussed here necessarily be read as intentionally subversive, in the way Schneider, and others such as Fuchs (1989) and Williams (1993), have celebrated the work of female performance artists who engage in sexual display and question the art/porn binary. At the same time, in light of such feminist interrogation of the art/porn binary in both performance and theory, I am hesitant to denounce such self-representation on MySpace purely on the basis that it is hetero-sexy representation, or representation that engages with the common conventions of mainstream pornography. Hetero-sexy display by young women is a complex area of investigation, and one in which, as Henderson (2008) suggests, we need to be cautiously slow in drawing conclusions. At the same time, the rapid rate of change in popular culture and social network site culture also makes firm conclusions about the meaning of this representation difficult.
In this article I have used aspects of feminist media and performance analysis to take self-production into account, and to complicate young women’s hetero-sexy material on social network sites and problematise clear-cut readings of it. In summary, I contend that hetero-sexy material from social network sites serves two important functions. First, the premise of self-production adds a layer of complexity that feminists need to acknowledge when seeking to understand and critique this material. These young women may be said to create an uncomfortable and disturbing disjuncture between the fantasised dreamgirl and the specificity of the individual suggested by the medium of representation itself, ‘personal social network site profile’. Further, as much as a MySpace profile suggests individuality and specificity, it also suggests artifice, play and performance. Rigid object/subject binary positions are almost certainly complicated in the performative self-representation we see on MySpace, in ways that perhaps could not have been predicted by feminists twenty, or even ten years ago. The premise of self-authorship and production potentially interrupts some historical preconceptions of hetero-sexy female ‘objects’ as ‘blind’, empty vessels. Therefore, I do not think it is intellectually good enough to simply criticise young women, or invest them with ‘false consciousness’ for adopting such stereotyped, sexist images, in light of work on feminist performance art and representation such as that by Schneider. Schneider’s work shows how such sexually invested images can potentially function in politically productive ways for feminism, when handled by women artists themselves, to point to their own, specific identities.
On the other hand, the MySpace imagery and the female self-production phenomenon online also compels us to question the limits of such theory, as we try to apply it to different kinds of female-produced representation, in different cultural and performative contexts. Therefore, the second important function I suggest such self-representation serves is to force a critical re-evaluation of this larger political project of object/subject binary disruption, within contemporary raunch culture. It is difficult to argue that these young women cannot be seen as both ‘objects and subjects’. However, in the current cultural climate of raunch culture, we have to ask: what does this mean? Is this still a politically productive ‘disruption’ (Gill, 2003, 2009)? Further, this phenomenon of hetero-sexy self-construction, no matter the level of self-awareness, pleasure, power or parody involved, cannot necessarily challenge the foundations of hetero-sexy and ‘raunchy’ feminine stereotypes. So, just as I have suggested that the premise of self-production makes it hard to simply dismiss these hetero-sexy performances of self, neither can we conclude that knowledge of female self-authorship and ‘choice’ in MySpace representation is necessarily enough to spur a transformation of the traditional gendered gaze economy in which women’s images have long functioned as commodified objects. On many levels it is deflating to see the continuation of sexist traditions of ‘trading’ women’s images as ‘bling’ on MySpace by young women themselves. But as I have suggested here, we need to find ways of discussing this kind material, and young women’s engagement with it, that takes the premise of female self-production seriously into account in our analyses.
I would like to gratefully acknowledge Professor Denise Cuthbert, who has provided thorough editing, suggestions and comments on several earlier drafts of this work.
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