Perverse Media: How Instagram limits the potential of feminist art
This essay starts from the censorship of an Instagram post. The post is a photo of Arab women bathing together in a hammam, taken by Egyptian-Yemeni-American photographer Yumna Al-Arashi. Al-Arashi intended for her photo to portray these women in an empowering way and thereby challenge the sexist and Orientalist stereotypes that tend to structure their representation. Yet when she uploaded it to the social media platform, all that remained were nude female bodies which could be reported as inappropriate. How did the message of Al-Arashi’s Instagram post become so perverted? In my essay, I use the gaze theory of Laura Mulvey and the medium theory of Marshall McLuhan to trace back this perverted message to a conflict between the content of her photo and the medium in which she uploaded it. Her post then, shows that the patriarchal structures inherent to Instagram limit the radical potential of feminist art. It begs the question: should artists continue to share their body of work on the social media platform? Al-Arashi chose to repost the censored photo in order to protest the arbitrariness of Instagram’s guidelines. Thus, she marked the (digital) patriarchy and allowed us to think about ways to change it. Her example then, underlines the importance of sharing feminist art online, even in the face of censorship.
Yumna Al-Arashi’s image of Arab1 women bathing together in a hammam has “a tactile quality” (Benjamin, 1969, p. 17). With the softest touch, the Egyptian-Yemeni-American photographer and filmmaker draws the spectator into this private space where the female body is in her natural state, naked2 and free, outside of the meanings imposed upon her by capitalism, Orientalism and the patriarchy (Lendrum, 2017). Here, the Arab woman contains multitudes. She is just herself, vulnerable as well as resilient, connected as well as autonomous, and every kind of sensual – but not for the pleasure of men.
The image is part of a larger project by Al-Arashi. Under the title Shedding Skin, she shot a series of photos of and made a short film about womanhood in the hammam (Imbert, 2017). These were to represent Arab women from the perspective of one of their own, thereby challenging the one-dimensional view they have suffered at the hands of the dominant social order since time immemorial, both in the East and the West (Al-Arashi, 2019a). Or, as Al-Arashi describes it herself in the film, speaking over the soothing sounds of the hammam: “we are shedding you off of us, we are looking for our skin so rich underneath all of which you lazily plastered on” (Al-Arashi, 2017).
Yet when looking closely at the image on Instagram, one notices that something is still plastered on. A line covers the nipples of the woman sitting in the far-right corner. In the description underneath the post, Al-Arashi (2019b) explains that the original photo was removed from the social media platform after it had been reported as inappropriate content. She now reposts the censored photo in protest, because somehow, “with a black cross across one of the bodies”, it is within Instagram’s guidelines (Al-Arashi, 2019b).
The black cross is like a visual trace of the many ways in which this particular medium continues to shape what content is uploaded. Power relations are inscribed in the format of Instagram, and they pervert the message of the posted photos (Megarry, 2018, p. 1072). As such, the freedom and multifacetedness that Al-Arashi’s image was meant to express, become reduced to a 1080-pixel square of inappropriately nude women. Once again, meaning is imposed on the body of the Arab woman. The post thus exemplifies the tense relation
between Instagram and feminist art; it shows that the social media platform limits the potential of subversive, feminist aesthetics and even facilitates the extension of male dominance.
In my essay, I will give insight into how exactly the platform does so by studying the post of Al-Arashi in more detail. My analysis focuses on the patriarchal structures inherent to Instagram out of necessity, as untangling the intersections between its gendered and other forms of oppression would require a book’s worth of words, at the least. This essay then, reveals but one of many power relations which Al-Arashi struggles against with her image. To study the image, I return to the foundational concepts of Laura Mulvey and Marshall McLuhan. Using Mulvey’s (1999) gaze theory and McLuhan’s (1964) medium theory, I will trace back the perverted message of Al-Arashi’s Instagram post to the conflict between the content of her photo and the medium in which she uploaded it (p. 837; p. 1). For it is only when we understand Instagram as it extends us, that we can make an informed decision about if and how we want to engage with the social media platform, especially as artists (McLuhan, 1964, p. 7).
The Content: Female Bodies of Resistance
Al-Arashi intends for her body of work to create space for a large group of women: “I represent the American woman, I represent the Arab woman, the Muslim woman, the first-generation immigrant woman, the brown woman” (Lendrum, 2017). She translates her own experiences as a woman of colour born in the United States yet to an Egyptian mother and Yemeni father, and therefore always having had to straddle three cultures, into powerful imagery that portrays the female body “outside of being oppressed” (Imbert, 2017). In her photos and short films, this body comes to be a medium of expression as well as a site of resistance (Al-Arashi, 2019a).
So it is also in Al-Arashi’s image of Arab women bathing together in a hammam. The hammam towels are loosely draped about them, leaving their dewy skin bare, a nakedness which conveys vulnerability whilst at the same time defying the patriarchal repression of the erotic (Lorde, 2007, p.53). They do not look into the lens. Rather, they look at one another, seemingly inhabiting a community of their own, away from spectators that would fetishize them. Each woman holds her body differently, back bend forward or lazily leaning against a wall, hands wrapped tightly around knees or placed under a chin, yet all postures are similar in the sense of freedom they convey. These Arab women are free to give (multiple) meaning(s) to their bodies, for they exist neither as an object of pleasure nor as an object of knowledge.
Golden light illuminating their bodies, the Arab women in the hammam appear like subjects of a Renaissance painting. Al-Arashi made the image resemble the Renaissance paintings on purpose, for the Arab woman was never represented in those times, or if she was, “it was something Orientalist where a white man had come into a brown space and depict[ed] it” (Arshad & Elfaki, 2018). As such, the photo may assail spectators with a feeling of strangeness – the strangeness of seeing Arab women portrayed in a way that has traditionally been reserved for white people. It thus forces them to confront the exclusionary nature of Western art history and of the Renaissance period as its pinnacle. Al-Arashi then, has carefully constructed the content of her image to reveal and resist the sexist and Orientalist stereotypes that tend to structure the representation of Arab women. In doing so, she also challenges what Mulvey (1999) has named the male gaze (p. 842).
The male gaze refers to a specific mode of looking that Mulvey observed in most classical Hollywood films. She found that the films were composed in such a way that the spectator, both male and female, would be moved to take pleasure in seeing passive women “with their appearance coded for strong (…) erotic impact” (p.837) from the perspective of active men (Mulvey, 1999; Sassatelli, 2011, p.124). Though Mulvey primarily applied her concept to cinema, I would argue that the male gaze can prove useful to understanding the content of Al-Arashi’s image, because it is exactly this male gaze which her photo resists.
The image reacts against the traditional display of the female body as an object to be looked at by men, and in the act, produces a new mode of seeing (Mulvey, 2004, p.1287). With her portrayal of womanhood in the hammam, Al-Arashi envelopes the spectator in a private space where Arab women are just themselves, away from the determining male gaze (Mulvey, 1999, p.834-835). They are neither hypersexualised nor exoticised, instead exhibiting a total autonomy over their naked bodies, the “skin so rich underneath all of which you lazily plastered on” (Al-Arashi, 2017). Thus, Al-Arashi’s image dares “to break with normal pleasurable expectations” (Mulvey, 1999, p.835). Its content is an example of the subversive, feminist aesthetics that, according to Mulvey, must exist as a counterpoint to the male gaze in mainstream media (Sassatelli, 2011, p.128).
The Medium: To Post Is to Be Objectified
According to McLuhan (2005), the content of a medium does not constitute its message (p.9). Instead, it is the nature of the medium itself that determines what meaning becomes conveyed to us. Here, the medium is understood as any extension of the sensory system (McLuhan, 1964, p.1). McLuhan argued that by extending our senses in a particular way, media regulate the manner in which we perceive society and thereby shape the scale, pace and/or pattern of our relations and actions. If we apply his theory to Al-Arashi’s Instagram post, we understand that its message does not depend on how she portrayed Arab women, but rather on how Instagram3 mediates users’ relation to the female body and what this does to the Arab women on the posted photo. That is why we have to analyse the structures of the social media platform in more detail.
Instagram has a distinct technological format which affords distinct usages; it constrains as well as enables specific modes of posting, liking, commenting, and looking (Bucher & Helmond, 2018, p.11). In new media studies, these affordances help to explain “the technological shaping of sociality” (Hutchby, 2001, p.441). On Instagram, the actions and relations of users are most visibly shaped by its guidelines (Megarry, 2018, p.1079). If someone posts a photo that does not comply with one or more of the guidelines, others can report this to the help centre and it will be removed from the social media platform. So, Instagram acts “as a self- and community-censored panopticon” (Olszanowski, 2014, p.87).
But Instagram not only censors posts, it also controls what content is uploaded to begin with. For to enter a photo into its digital space, the photo must be fitted to the small size of a polaroid (Dubrofsky & Wood, 2015, p. 93). The 1080-pixel square accommodates certain aesthetics more than others, causing users to style their images accordingly. This means the social media platform is both inhibiting and productive; its constraints construct new modes of displaying ourselves and of looking at others, or in other words, new relationalities. Therefore, Instagram can be said to form a governmentality – agovernmentality which governs our behaviour by delineating the conceptions of self and others according to which we behave (Brown, 2005, p. 43).
The affordances of Instagram serve particular interests. Men developed and still own the social media platform, with the result that a male bias has been encoded into it (Megarry, 2018, p.1074). Its technologies of control enforce a male gaze, compelling users to create images that display their bodies as objects to be looked at and censored by other users. The male gaze on Instagram thus differs from the concept outlined by Mulvey (1999) in two very pernicious ways (p.842). It ‘empowers’ women to actively exhibit themselves and authorises spectators to directly code the female appearance by reporting inappropriate content (Dubrofsky & Wood, 2015, p.97-98). Even if artists such as Al-Arashi intend to use their Instagram posts to portray subversive, feminist aesthetics, this aesthetics will be reduced to pleasurable objects, by definition. Because such is the character of the medium of Instagram (McLuhan, 1964, p.2).
A Perverted Message: Women Invite the Male Gaze
There is a conflict between the empowering content of feminist images and the objectifying nature of the medium of Instagram. Consequently, when Al-Arashi’s image entered into this medium, it no longer represented the rich multiplicity of Arab women but merely presented nude female bodies to the male gaze (Mulvey, 1999, p.834-835). Her message became perverted: private space was invaded by public scrutiny, nakedness translated into nudity, and the nipple transformed into a fetish object necessitating immediate censorship (Berger, 1972, p.53-54). Though the body may symbolise a medium of expression as well as a site of resistance for Al-Arashi, on Instagram it is neither. Rather, this body exists within the 1080-pixel square as a subject of surveillance (Baer, 2016, p.19).
Before Al-Arashi uploaded her photo to Instagram, the image was put on view in spaces in New York and Los Angeles as part of the Shedding Skin exhibition (Al-Arashi, 2019a). Many visitors, especially Arab-American women, would get emotional upon seeing the exhibition, for its photos and short film expressed feelings that they (had) experienced too. “That reaction is what is most important to me”, Al-Arashi would reflect afterwards (Lendrum, 2017). Yet the radical potential which her body of work had in the exhibition spaces, does not hold within the digital space of Instagram. As an Instagram post, its message becomes limited by the patriarchal structures inherent to the social media platform (Megarry, 2018, p.1074).
Al-Arashi’s image then, reveals the limitations of using Instagram for feminist art. One could even say that Instagram facilitates the extension of male dominance, both online and within society (Megarry, 2018, p.1072). It allows men intimate access to photos of women, providing them with a means to anonymously watch and censor the female body. This is justified by the fact that women are the ones posting the photos; they display their own bodies and thereby willingly invite the male gaze. So, Instagram naturalises the objectification of women by men, and with it, the patriarchy (Dubrofsky & Wood, 2015, p.104). Whilst social media does give marginalised groups a platform for self-expression and self-representation, we must question whom visibility benefits, and on what terms it is offered. Maybe “being visible or accessible to others is not necessarily liberating and having the ability to say ‘no’ and deny others access to one’s image, words, or creative output can be a requirement for liberation” (Mann, 2014, p.293).
Body Politics: Baring the Digital Patriarchy
In conclusion, by applying the gaze theory of Mulvey (1999) and the medium theory of McLuhan (1964) to Al-Arashi’s Instagram post, we come to understand that the content of her photo – its free, multifaceted and empowered Arab women – is in conflict with a medium which subjects women to the male gaze by nature (p. 837; p.1). This conflict perverts the message of the image, reducing naked bodies of resistance to nude subjects of surveillance. For the latter is all that the small size of the 1080-pixel square affords. Thus, the famous words by McLuhan (1964) hold true: “the medium is the message” (p.2).
Instagram limits the potential of the subversive, feminist aesthetics produced by artists such as Al-Arashi. What is more, the social media platform allows male dominance to extend into digital spaces as well as society by implicating women in their own objectification (Dubrofsky & Wood, 2015, p.104). Its governmentality compels female users to post images that display their bodies, thereby making it seem as if they invite the male gaze. In this way, Instagram naturalises the unequal gender relations of the patriarchy (Megarry, 2018, p.1072). It makes me question its supposed value to intersectional feminism; should artists continue to share their body of work on Instagram? Should they bare it all online?
It would be easy to answer that question with a resounding no, to declare Instagram a hostile place where intersectional feminists should not venture. And yet I cannot. There is one sentence, written by Judith Butler (2011), that keeps on coming back to me: “for politics to take place, the body must appear”. She argues that we need the female body in order to expose the gendered realities to which it is confined as constructed and open to transformation (Butler, 2004, p.217). Returning to the image of Al-Arashi, her reposting the censored photo makes visible how arbitrary the distinction is that Instagram enforces between appropriate and inappropriate content. The “black cross across one of the bodies” clearly marks, like a visual trace, the patriarchal structures inherent to the social media platform (Al-Arashi, 2019b). It is by baring themselves, where baring does not refer to getting naked but rather to the subversive act of making one’s body seen on one’s own terms, that the Arab women photographed by Al-Arashi bare the (digital) patriarchy and empower us to think about ways to change it (Baer, 2016, p. 30).
So to all the artists amongst us – seek to understand why and how Instagram (and other social media and/or digital platforms) pervert(s) your message; use that understanding to reflect on your work online, especially on whether its constant visibility costs you and others too much; deny users access to it when necessary; but please, keep sharing your ￼subversive, feminist aesthetics.
The Question of My Own Perversion
There were many limits that I came up against as I wrote my essay, limits which I wish to reflect upon now, in the epilogue. Let us begin with the most personal – painful – struggle: my unconscious attachments to Orientalism. Growing up white in the Netherlands, I have internalised the racist biases that privilege me over people of colour. These biases slip into my writing without me willing it to. That is why I, together with the editors of ESAJ, have spent much time revising the language of this essay, so that I do consider it a valid attempt at writing about Arab women from a non-repressive perspective. Yet I also wonder if such an attempt is even possible within the methodological framework of visual analysis. The visual analyst looks at and interprets the images of others, presumably from a place of neutrality. In my case, it means that, once again, a white person is the free subject who imposes meaning on (the bodies of) Arab women as objects of knowledge. I could have implicated myself, to disclose my subjectivity, but I found it difficult to do so in the limited space the visual analysis provided.
What I struggled with as well, was the choice to limit my analysis to the patriarchal structures of Instagram. I felt that a 3.000-word essay would not allow me to explore the ways in which different forms of oppression intersect in the lives of Arab women, and therefore, decided to describe the effects of sexism only. However, gender cannot contain the experiences of an Arab woman. This is also evident in my essay, where sentences on hypersexualisation slide into sentences on exoticisation. It leads me to wonder: do I reduce the Arab women photographed by Al-Arashi to their gender identity? The question is related to a second question, one that has haunted me ever since I heard ESAJ had accepted my essay: does my analysis of Al-Arashi’s image pervert its content even more than Instagram already did? I am still unsure, not sure if this essay is more destructive than productive, not sure if it should be published at all. Yet here it is, in your hands, on your screen, available for you to read. I turn the discussion over to you then – do you think my essay is perverted? I hope my writing can at the least serve as a starting point of discussion, because we need critical dialogue if we are to find alternative ways of relating across differences within academia (Ahmed, 2000, p. 72).
1‘Arab’ cannot cover the many roots of the women that Al-Arashi has portrayed in her image. Some are Arab, some Middle Eastern, some Muslim, whilst others are all three. For the sake of brevity however, I will only use the adjective ‘Arab’. Yet I do not use this adjective to describe the ‘true’ authentic Arab woman as she has been represented in the West. Doing so would render her an object of knowledge rather than a free subject of action and thereby reinforce the Orientalist discourse that Al-Arashi is actually challenging with her imagery. Instead, I use the adjective ‘Arab’ to refer to a group of people who are confronted with “the web of racism, cultural stereotypes, political imperialism, dehumanizing ideology holding in” (p. 27) their particular geographical and cultural identity (Said, 2003). I do not intend it to mark them, but rather to mark the tropes of Orientalism that they come up against. Such is my – a white, Dutch, young, middleclass woman’s – attempt at writing about Arab women from a non-repressive perspective.
2 John Berger (1972) finds there is a distinction between the naked and the nude: “To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised by oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude” (p.54). I make that same distinction in this essay.
3Al-Arashi’s Instagram post is mediated by two media: firstly, the camera, which translates the encounter between herself and the Arab women in the hammam into a photo, and secondly, Instagram, which transforms this photo into a digital image fit for its social media platform. Though my analysis is limited to the effects of the latter, it is important to remember that photography is not a neutral practice but also frames subjects in ways that reflect power relations (Sontag, 2008, p. 106).
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