“Cyberspace is not the final frontier; it is not a space of liberation; it is not a decolonized zone where gender, nation, and the constraints of culture lose meaning. Existing ‘in the machine’ does not assuage the social, economic, or political conditions that construct both ourselves and our new mechanical habits.” (Rodríguez 117)
In her final chapter of Queer Latinidad, Juana María Rodríguez discusses cyberspace as a self-reproducing and self-negating discursive space, somehow simultaneously achieving levels of intense closeness and impersonality. Within the context of specific chat rooms tailored to limited parts of identities, a participant must perform their identity in strategic ways to either insist upon their legitimacy as a “member” or escape detection by jumping into an alternate self.
This process is always being populated by the projections of other participants, and although we are well into the era of vlogging, photosharing, and other kinds of physical-identity-centric egomania, much of what has made the “second wave” of the internet so virally successful is the potential for widely-broadcasted fame potential coupled with relative anonymity. Once you’ve taken that anonymity and performance and inserted it a much larger audience than one specific chatroom, you have a different beast entirely.
4chan, for example, has been around since the days of AIM and the chatroom, and it was one the first places we were able to witness the kinds of despicable things people were willing to say on anonymous forums that did not require any proof of connection to a highly specific “type” of person. The projection of a white, heterosexual, male norm of identity onto the average 4chan-er, for example, ideologically excludes the possibility for many women and people of color — if you are “outed” as being a woman, many users like to offer their charming traditional greeting, “Tits or GTFO.”
Following in only slightly more accountable suit, a user on Tumblr or Reddit practices their identity strategically: without the confines of a chatroom that demands proof of access, a subject can expand rhizomatically with a bit more freedom – since you provide as much or as little access to your identity IRL, you define the discursive space within which you grow. You follow blogs like yours, subscribe to subreddits selectively. The anxiety of locating and imagining the body is alleviated slightly by the expectation of relative anonymity on these sites.
On the other hand, whoever you imagine yourself to be can be accessed by anyone with an internet connection (althought we would do well to remember the real limits of that access…ahem). Any one Tweet, one comment, or one video can go viral.
So I wonder: What does the anonymity of the internet paired with the huge potential for random, popularity-contest recognition do to subjects’ performances of themselves? What are they more willing to say?
The added distance of standardized social media anonymity compounds with the preexisting nature of potential liberation that Rodríguez says inherently comes with “[sitting] at a computer screen alone.” She continues, “It is perhaps the privacy of this solitude that encourages exchanges that are less guarded…Ironically, the enigmatic aspects of words flying through space can often allow us to image a more intimate connection” (Rodríguez 121).
So when we see people online typing out unapologetically racist/sexist/homophobic/ableist/otherwise ignorant things that they would never attempt to get away with IRL, are we actually seeing the true face of our society?
All signs grudgingly point to “YES.”
This is less a post about calling out internet users for being unsurprisingly racist/sexist/etc. and more an exploration of how discursive spaces are being redefined in 2013’s unique maze of cyberspace: identity performances are for whose benefit, in what context, with how much encouragement or resistance?
With no help from mainstream media or the public education system, I hope we’re all on the same page about the strategic capitalist agenda for the eroticization and devaluing of brown people’s bodies as former and current colonial subjects. These stereotypes did not grow organically: they all accomplish one degree or another of dehumanization for the purpose of denying access to power.
As it happens, I was finishing a very different blog post for this class when I checked my Twitter and saw my first awful Quvenzhané Wallis tweet. On the red carpet of the Oscars, she was carrying a puppy purse, and for some reason, this infuriated the internet.
Here’s a picture of her. She is nine years old. The puppy is wearing a pale purple sequined shirt, and is named Sandy after her own dog. DESPICABLE! THE NERVE!
Here is a girl who is being nominated as Best Actress for a movie she filmed at age six. She also has had the audacity to display positive levels of self esteem in various interviews, and the internet has hated her for that too, with some Jezebel commenters calling her, for example, “uppity” and “vain” and “self-absorbed.” She needs to be “taught some humility,” because “I’m sorry, I just don’t like her” (Jezebel 2013). The usual Jezebel crowd has a tendency to suck for many reasons, and these semi-anonymous commenters in highly public places are bizarre specimens indeed: Many admit to being unsure about why Quvenzhané bothers them so much (hint hint: racism!), attempt to sound well-reasoned about their incredibly cruel judgments, and yet say those things anyway. The treatment of the young, brown starlet’s puppy purse alone could fill a blog.
But in their distaste for – or at least puzzlement about – her happiness and success (But she’s young! And black! And her name is so “ghetto!” There must be something wrong here!), we have observed how the internet has managed to hypersexualize and demonize this talented girl.
Seth MacFarlane, the foot-in-mouth host of the Oscars (moment of silence for the Rihanna/Chris Brown joke…and every other joke…), decided to showcase the achievement of being an Oscar nominee at such a young age by saying that she’d be “too old for [George] Clooney in another nine years!”
Excellent. Let’s imply that George Clooney is a pedophile, glorify and normalize that pedophilia, and ponder the hypothetical sex life of a nine year old girl.
Question: Would this have happened if she were white?
Before the chorus of “Why, Bertuch…you’re a reverse racist!” gets its witchburning kindling together, it gets better.
Later, the Onion tweeted:
Okay. What? Is this supposed to be good satire? Wrapped in the incredibly brutal attack on a CHILD is the use of “cunt” as a slur – so once again, let’s reduce this nine-year-old girl to her vagina.
After a speedy social media outcry, this tweet has been deleted.
But so what? After all, Rodríguez is keen to observe that “[cyberspace], like the theatrical stage, implicates the real outside the machine, as it produces its own real inside the machine. [It serves] as a catalyst for the radical reconceptualization of reality, its representation, and its reproduction” (Rodríguez 119).
So what does it say about the climate of this society that a huge publication like the Onion thought it could get away with posting this online? They didn’t invent using sexualized language to insult a child of color; they inherited a precedent backed both by history and the unique atmosphere of making intentionally hyperbolic statements for shock value on the internet.
I ask again: Would the Onion have tweeted this about a white child?
I did a quick Google search of “cunt” and “Honey Boo Boo,” who, as a white child, has achieved a level of fame that pretty much opens the internet playing field for the whole spectrum of awful comments. It yielded nothing substantive. No one is calling her a cunt. No one is even calling her “uppity” or wishing she would “learn some humility.” She is a joke, perhaps, but a well paid and much beloved one.
I did another search for the 11-year-old Latina girl who was gang raped by ~20 men in Cleveland, Texas with the word “cunt.” Bingo.
This girl has faced outrageous backlash from rape apologists and victim blamers all over the world, ranging from the New York Times to Tumblr bloggers to anonymous forums on 4chan. They, too, operate from a mode of thought that casually hypersexualizes the Latina body, especially those who are poor. Community members were quoted as saying, “Well, that girl dresses provocatively and likes the attention.” So who can blame the 20 men between the ages of 17 and 27 who took her to an abandoned trailer, gang raped her, and took video footage? The trial’s Texas defense attorney, Steve Taylor, said to a police officer on the stand, “Wasn’t she saying, ‘Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly?’”
To his credit, Officer Langdon responded, “I wouldn’t call her a spider. I’d say she was just an 11-year-old girl” (Huffington Post 2012).
This case was highly racialized – this Latina girl who pretended to be 17 was raped in a poor neighborhood by “all black men.” Not coincidentally, it didn’t garner a significant amount of mainstream national media attention except in the form of comment/post debates about whether or not she “deserved it,” about how “all black men are savages,” and so on.
The vast anonymity of the internet seems to be harboring a safe space for subjects of all kinds to project their racial imaginariums onto RL girls and women of color in RL moments and geographic locations.
This is a puzzling inversion of the kind of identity-creating agency that Rodríguez, in her “Performing Mujer” subsection, calls “disorienting”:
“Many times questions were directed at my racial makeup, that is, am I the hypersexualized mulata of their racialized dreams? Although at times I would consciously take pleasure in the stereotypes I constructed, at other times I was offended and alarmed by the pejorative and racist associations I encountered.” (Rodríguez 140)
In these one-on-one cybersexual interactions, her identity-creation process receives pushback from her partner’s own projections of identity and desire. We see this outsider’s projection of self and expectation onto the sexualized brown subject in the cases of Quvenzhané and Cleveland, Texas. But these subjects don’t have the one-on-one agency to speak back and react to the other party’s comments. This isn’t a two-way constitutive process anymore.
And no matter how rich you are or what society you keep, that hypersexualization of the Latina body doesn’t go away:
Disney-bred Selena Gomez had just turned 20 when PornHub tweeted this. Although legally an adult, her primary audience remains very young, and any pornographic likeness of her would crossover and fall into the “barely legal” section. This corroborates nicely with the willingness of folks, particularly under the protection of relative cyberspace anonymity, to openly see even very young bodies of color as hyper-erotic.
I keep stumbling across articles about roleplay blogs that fetishize white supremacy – racial minorities are forever the submissive sex slaves in a wide network of cybersexual roleplay. Even these most secret and “deviant” dark corners of the internet are performing their identities through their kinks. A racial fetish is never a harmless kink when it blatantly feeds upon hundreds of years of systemic historical context, helping a huge network of factors create the space to speculate about colonizing Quvenzhané Wallis’ vagina. Where does IRL begin and end? It all looks collapsible to me…
- Contact the Onion’s offices at 312-751-0503, firstname.lastname@example.org, Chairman David Schafer (email@example.com), President and CEO Steve Hannah (firstname.lastname@example.org), and COO Mike McAvoy (email@example.com). As of Monday afternoon, an apology has been issued, but they still need to be heavily berated. Fools.