May 1, 2013

Sexism, censorship and the internet

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 8:00 am by Susan

 It now seems impossible not to engage with networking sites such as facebook. As more and more family members and friends sign up, facebook offers a way to stay in touch. There are also professional reasons to join. As I discovered recently while working with Moving Stories Theatre on the play of Vanessa and Virginia, networking sites are crucial in spreading the word.

For most of us, posting on our facebook wall or following the activities of those we accept as friends are safe and positive experiences.

But there is another, more alarming side to some of these sites.

The adverse effect facebook can have on teenagers is now well documented. They may be exposed to predatory adults, and there are concerns over the amount of time some spend on virtual relationships at the expense of live social interactions. Photos are frequently posted without permission which an individual might not like but cannot remove. Sometimes these images are edited through facilities such as photoshop with grotesque results. For a novel about the devastating consequences this can have on young people, read Ali Smith’s The Accidental.

There are other problems too. Facebook has content guidelines, but these can be reactionary when it comes to sexuality and gender. Pro-rape facebook groups may form without impunity, but a mother can no longer post pictures of herself breastfeeding her baby. It seems the female body is only acceptable when it is displayed for sexual titillation. Photos of breasts can appear as long as the nipple is hidden by a scrap of bikini. A baby’s suckling mouth will not do. Pictures of gay men kissing with the word ‘censored’ stamped across them are common – even if facebook eventually removes the label in response to protest. The fact that facebook censorship is implemented by poorly-paid workers in cultures where sexism and homophobia abound does not help.

There is a Big Brother quality to the internet. I felt for the actress who tried and failed to prevent amazon from broadcasting her date of birth because of ageist attitudes to women in the media. It seems wrong that such information should be posted without consent when here in Britain employers may not ask a job applicant their age.

A year or so ago I wrote a horrified blog about the lack of women in David Fincher’s film about the creation of facebook, The Social Network. Now, though I still don’t like it, I view it differently. I think it offers insights into some of what is wrong with the internet. The film highlights how facebook was founded by a group of undeniably gifted but immature and socially inept young men. And if one recent survey can be relied upon, that under twenty-six, predominantly male demographic of facebook employees has not significantly changed.

For google, at first glance the maths isn’t too bad. The male/female ratio of those working for the company is purportedly 70:30. What this figure doesn’t indicate is the proportion who wield influence. That percentage is rather different. Only one of the eleven-strong team advising Google leader Larry Page following a reshuffle in August 2012, it seems, is a woman.

Source: The New York Times

April 1, 2011

The Social Network

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , , , , , at 8:00 am by Susan

Allen Jones, Hatstand and Chair, 1969

This month I went to see David Fincher’s film The Social Network. It’s won a number of awards and there is much to admire. I particularly enjoyed the fact that an audience has to work hard to unravel the complex motivations of its main characters. This is a film where there is no obvious good and baddie – and it is all the better for that.

But if the psychological portrayal of the people who started facebook is rounded, the film’s gender politics are not.

I appreciate that part of the film’s strategy is to uncover a world in which boys will be boys –  and to be fair there is some come-uppance for the lamentable attempt to rate women as objects on the first face mash site Mark Zuckerberg creates. There are plenty of fun scenes such as the one where Zuckerberg and chums crash-land, drunk, from a zip-wire into a swimming-pool.

But what are we to make of the scene where the boys are wired in to their computers building facebook, while on a sofa in their midst two young women giggle helplessly in a state of near-undress? As if to re-enforce the gender stereotyping, Zuckerberg asks if the girls are enjoying themselves mindlessly watching television, while in the same breath exhorting the boys to go the extra mile. Women, it seems, are for decoration while the real work is done by the men.

And what abut the scene where two female students latch on to the now famous Zuckerberg and his pal Eduardo Saverin and proceed to initiate sex with them? This might have been liberatory – women making the first moves – except that the editing turns the women into vampires by emphasising the efficiency and ruthlessness with which they carry out out their mission. If we are left in any doubt that these women are anything other than predatory, we only have to wait. One of them turns out to be so possessive her behavior verges on paranoia. She makes Saverin’s life a misery and finally sets fire to his college room.

Then there is the party to celebrate facebook’s millionth client. What is particularly disappointing about this episode is that the only woman programmer in the film is shown snorting drugs from the table-top of another woman’s torso. ‘Shall I take off my bra?’ table-top asks, while Napster creator Shawn Fanning looks on. It might almost be a tableau by Allen Jones (see photo at top of this post).

True, Zuckerberg’s ex-girlfriend reappears to remind him there are alternatives, and there’s an intelligent young woman lawyer at Zuckerberg’s hearing. But these are peripheral figures. For most of the film, it’s as if decades of feminism never happened.

I saw the film one weekend afternoon and the only other people watching were young teenagers. They were attracted, no doubt, by the reference to what (if my young teenage son and his friends are anything to go by) is likely to be their favourite networking site.

I worry about the story these young people were given. I’m sure there was a great deal of sexism in the early days of facebook – and I’m not asking the director to change history. But did Fincher need to pile up all that gratuitous sexist cliché?

As it is, the message those teenagers will take away from watching The Social Network, is that women were only involved in the development of this planet-changing phenomenon in the most regressive of ways: as sex-toys, predators or (at best) the still, small voice of men’s consciences.