Thoughts on the use and misuse of images for the pornography of righteousness
But first, my definition of pornography
Pornography is the use of images for a commercial, social or political effect, when those images:
1. are not of the one using the image
2. are used for goal or gain of the image maker, not that of the person/people in the image
3. are intentionally framed or manipulated to create a desired effect in the viewer
4. are used to produce social, political, or economic capital
In short, what I mean by pornography has nothing to do with explicit (or implicit) sexual acts and everything to do with exploitation
1. The Pornography of Righteousness, a Case Study
On Mother’s Day in 1988 in Madison, Wisconsin, we decided to take direct action against Mall Books, a porn and peep show store on State Street. All of us had been in there, many times, leading Tours of Pornography for women, to try to break through the mental barrier of “Playboy, just sex, no victims, you prudes” by showing what the materials in the store actually were, including photos of bound women submitted without their consent by husbands or boyfriends, women who were obviously way too high or strung out to be giving consent, dildos with spikes that popped out, and on and on and on. We decided to push this point by taking a photo from a “pregnant and bound” photo spread and reproducing it on flyers with the text “Happy Mother’s Day from Mall Books.”
We put these on poles and other signs all around Madison’s large Farmer’s Market on the Saturday before Mother’s Day, then watched. As we expected, women, especially pregnant women or women with kids, would draw close to the image to see what was being sold/promoted, then turn in horror, usually to the man with them—the man who would be unable to meet their eyes, or to answer the question “what the hell is this?” and would hurry the women away. Consciousness Raised! Go Activists.
And then, later, a sick feeling in my stomach—who was that woman whose picture I had used utterly without her consent in order to push my agenda? That I felt I was acting righteously on her behalf was pointless; the patriarchy was always claiming to be acting to protect the interests of “women and the family.” I had made myself a participant in the marketplace of porn by profiting in some way from that image.
2. Fat Girl, Watching Local News, Dreams of Class-Action Lawsuit
You know those news stories, the ones that come on nearly every day, in between commercial for high-calorie, no nutritive-value, processed foods? The ones where a skinny young thing reporter begins to reveal the results of the “latest study” about weight loss or obesity, and the video cuts to a street scene where fat people are walking—usually women, and usually women who are clearly poor or working class. The camera zooms in to close-ups of their bellies and breasts, seeking a place where a roll of fat is obvious or even revealed by a loose shirt or poorly-fitting elastic waist pants. The video feed is always careful not to show the faces, so that they don’t have to get consent to use the footage.
That is, the video is shot in such a way that it can be used, without the consent of those people in front of the camera, in order to make economic or political gain for the people behind the camera. And the smugness of the camera crew, the video editor, the reporter—they are so righteousness, so pleased at sitting in judgment, at making a point, at putting The Bad People on display in all their sloth and wickedness.
Watching, I want to see the faces. I want the names. I want a class-action lawsuit on behalf of every fat woman whose body has been photographed or filmed and then exhibited without her consent to prove that she is bad or horrid or nearly unthinkable. I want the Pornography of Righteousness to be illegal, for without consent it is abuse. And just walking down the street is NOT consent. Consent is the saying of “yes,” not being denied the right to say “no.”
3. Dr. Sally Ride
I assume most anyone who reads my blog has followed the controversy about how and when Sally Ride came out as a lesbian, and has seen this image:
About the former controversy, I’ll say only this: while I strongly believe in outing people who are actively prosecuting any minority or oppressed group, I also believe in the right to privacy. My wish that my heroes would be open, would embrace the rich tradition of lesbian culture, is exactly that—my wish, not someone else’s agenda. And do you actually remember the 1980’s? What it would have meant for a female astronaut to have come out? Or for a male astronaut to have come out? When you ask, “why didn’t she come out?” you are essentially asking, “why wasn’t she willing to flush her career?”
But this image is another matter entirely, for it has nothing to do with privacy and everything to do with exploitation. Do you think Sally Ride gave her permission to have her photo used, her name used, her relationship leveraged to meet the agenda of the Courage Campaign? Have you yet stopped to ask, “Hey, who’s behind this? What is The Courage Campaign? What do they hope to gain from this?”
Why haven’t you asked this? My theory—because one of the main ways that pornography functions is by avoiding the part of our brain that asks questions. The images porn creates goes right to our lizard brain, both the fear and the pleasure centers. This image does both, by triggering our fear of having our relationships not counted and our pleasure at seeing a familiar face with all kinds of positive emotions adhered to it. The image isn’t even logical—the party being harmed in the argument the text makes isn’t Dr. Sally Ride, but her partner Dr. Tam O’Shaughnessy, the one is now being denied benefits. Or at least that’s the claim of the poster, a claim made on Dr. O’Shaughnessy’s behalf with NO evidence that she played in role in the creation of the image nor that she had absolutely anything to do with this. For goddess sake, her partner of 27 years just died, and now they are both expected to be poster children for other people’s agendas?
Consider the full obscenity of this—less than a week after Dr. Ride’s death and her life and her partner are being used for political/economic gain without their consent. Feel that, then ask yourself, “Why are people so upset at her for not coming out sooner?” Honestly, would you want your life splashed across the internet for someone else’s purposes?
Then ask this—what exactly is “The Courage Campaign”? Who are these people? What do they want? I spent a little time on their web site this morning; they are “an online organizing network that empowers more than 750,000 grassroots and netroots activists to push for progressive change and full equality in California and across the country.” Which makes them the good guys, right? Guys being an operative word here; less than 20% of the staff listed on the web site are women. And, no surprise to me, the staff leadership all have backgrounds in film, which matters because of a decision made when photography was invented that the pictures, and later the film footage, belong to the people behind the camera rather than the people in front of it.
Don’t get me wrong—I love a good movie, and I deeply appreciate the power of an image or film to tell a truth, reveal a story, create beauty, and be profoundly important art. But there is nonetheless something disturbing about that the fact that I can take a photo of you and own the image the and right to the image—in a very real sense, I am “taking” your image. And that sense of “owning” an image creates the groundwork for both the pornography of sexual violence and the pornography of righteousness. Once Dr. Ride was outed, the people at this “equality campaign” felt they had the RIGHT to use her image for their purposes. No need for her consent, no need to consult her partner, just grab a stock image and open up InDesign and slap on some text and let viral marketing do the rest.
Do you feel the obscenity of that assumption? How this group used Dr. Ride’s life, our pride in her, and our fear about right-wing assaults on our lives to market their agenda? They hit our pleasure center and our fear center simultaneously, and wow did we ever respond, “sharing” their creation over and over and over and feeling SO righteous about how “they” would dare deny anything to Dr. Ride.
But the Courage Campaign denied her right to privacy, her right to self-determination, her right to control how and when her image, which represents her life’s work, is used.
So that image doesn’t make me feel righteous. It makes me feel sick, in that place that opened inside me when I realized how I had used another woman’s image to make myself feel Righteous. The same place where I feel sick when The Huffington Post makes millions of dollars in advertising by flaunting photos of famous women drunk or high and/or in mental/emotional breakdown . The same place where I felt sick upon learning that the Murdoch clan had hacked the voice mail of a girl who had been murdered in order to sell more papers.
There’s no real difference between the pornography of profit and the pornography of political righteousness, not when understood from the point-of-view of the person being used without their consent.
When you see an image and don’t see consent for the image to be used. you are witnessing exploitation. Every time. Even in the service of what you say you believe.