The Body and the Screen: Theories of Internet Spectatorship
Author: Michele White
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006
Review Published: January 2008
I appreciate the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies' and the reviewers' detailed and supportive engagement with my book. In writing this response, I hope to implicitly acknowledge their positive reviews and think about how my current research engages with their thoughtful questions and comments.
In the early 1990s, I began hearing accounts about how conceptions of age, gender, race, and sexuality were challenged by Internet technologies and practices. Reconfigured identities are currently related to web 2.0 and Internet social networking sites. As a feminist with postmodernist leanings, I was initially thrilled at indications that Internet settings facilitated alternative identity positions. However, I quickly noticed that age, gender, race, and sexuality still had stable meanings because some individuals and institutions reinstituted traditional aspects of identity through programming, design, and site usage. Internet settings often promise individuals radically different and always shifting identities while instituting the most normative and stable roles. In this response, I want to consider how ideas about fluid identities are managed, the ways the interface renders white users, and a few instances where empowered roles fail and embodied and critical positions become visible in different ways.
At the beginning of The Body and the Screen: Theories of Internet Spectatorship, I suggest how the arrow shaped cursor, or pointer, and hand are key aspects of Internet and computer interfaces. The arrow usually turns into a white pointing and clicking hand when "mousing" over web links and a white grasping hand when programs or images can be changed. With many operating systems and settings, these white hands, including hands that hold writing and drawing implements, also demarcate computer work. The hand moves when the spectator manipulates the mouse, relates the embodied individual who is in front of the screen to representations of bodies, locates the individual in the setting, and suggests that documents and links can be controlled, grasped, and touched. Individuals become attached to these hands and empowered by them because they chronicle actions and options within the setting. However, these hands do not equally represent all individuals. They tend to be white, or white and gloved, and provide spectators with constant messages about what individuals who use the Internet and computer look like.
The spectator's skin color will never correspond exactly to the white and pink colors of the interface hand but these depictions still reference whiteness, articulate what users look like, and enforce a racial inside and outside in Internet and computer settings. White gloved interface hands, which are occasionally associated with Mickey Mouse, too easily reference vaudeville and blackface -- where gloves helped produce evaluative distinctions between blacks and whites. Richard Dyer indicates that individuals "may not literally be white, yet a colour term, white, is the primary means by which" these individuals are identified (42). Whiteness is the default in computer and Internet settings even when the hand can be modified. Operating systems like Windows XP offer such changeable suites of pointer images as "Hands 1," "Hands 2," and "Windows Black" but all of them include a white "Link Select" hand. Desktop icons also include representations of white hands. Some individuals argue that the hand-pointer needs to be white so that it can be easily seen but there are system schemes for Windows XP that deploy black arrows and OS X provides a black arrow that is outlined in white. All of these representations are easily noted, perhaps even more easily located than the white hand-pointer, since the edges of windows and background of documents tend to be white or a very pale color.
Technology companies also feature white bodies in their advertising, particularly when these technologies are purported to enable the individual to produce rather than "just" listen and view. These representations get conflated and attached to representations of white interface hands. For instance, the white hands that are manipulating mice, pens, and other pointing devices mimic the positions of white hand-pointers. Adesso, which sells input devices, collapses the individual's hand with the hand-pointer in a number of advertisements. It also uses a series of three images to associate white familial relationships and unions with consumerism, input technologies, hand-pointers, and the computer and Internet.
In Adesso's middle and central image, a young white couple is dressed in a white wedding gown and tuxedo and getting married. Since a typical phrase for such unions is to give one's "hand in marriage," this image symbolically features the hand, attachments, and economic exchanges. White couples and hands are also emphasized in the bracketing images. Such white heteronormative engagements and weddings are key moments in the consolidation and production of whiteness since family is articulated at the ceremony and white children, as depicted in the bracketing images, are an expected outcome. These images remind us how gender, race, sexuality, and other identity positions are interlocked. Weddings, and their deployment of traditional identity markers, are important sites of asserting power and should therefore encourage critical investigation because, as Ramona Faith Oswald argues, "society privileges heterosexual marriages, and thus weddings also link the personal decision to marry with an institutional heterosexual privilege carrying profound social, legal, financial, and religious benefits" (108). White heteronormative marriages can also be moments of crisis and people that verbally or conceptually challenge these structures -- queer family members for instance -- may not be invited to participate or are not represented in the wedding pictures.
Renderings of white normative unions and families are also included, along with images of white technology workers, in other advertisements for computer technologies and peripherals. AOpen's Flash sequence includes images of a white hand balancing a tray that displays its technology products, a white child holding his finger to his lips to indicate that the products are silent, a white woman and man at a conference table, and a white couple leaning against each other in a home. They snuggle against each other, the woman's head and arm resting in a submissive gesture on the man's shoulder. In these representations, not only is the technology user coded as white but the computer is also imagined to be part of the white reproductive nuclear family. These corporations and designers provide assurances that technologies rebuild rather than rend local community and white heteronormative families.
eBay deploys similar devices, as I suggest in my current book project Buy It Now: Lessons from eBay. The company promises that "you can get it on eBay" and the site fulfills all desires, delivers any object, acknowledges a multitude of consumer identities, and connects all people. Despite assurances of an accepting and diverse community, eBay produces normative gender, racial, and sexuality positions -- particularly wedding engagements and marriages between a woman and a man. In doing this, eBay controls the messy and queer aspects of collecting and institutes a normalizing structure that gets individuals to follow eBay's directives, meet its traditional values, and provide assurances about their transactional reliability.
eBay's apocryphal and often repeated origin story, which indicates that Pierre Omidyar started the site so that his then fiancee Pam Wesley could trade Pez dispensers, makes heterosexual unions an implicit part of the site and facilitates a founding story about family and community work. In most versions, the story indicates that Wesley was engaged to Omidyar but never mentions her name, describes Omidyar's production of eBay as a way of assisting her in collecting, hints that he resolved her problem and that eBay is thereby about helping people and doing good rather than making money, and notes that they are "now" married and that his programming facilitated not only a very successful Internet business but her sexual and collecting "frustration" and their marriage.
A variety of newspapers support the purported connection between eBay and wedding engagements when quoting promotional material and indicating how many "diamond rings," which become associated with engagement rings, are sold on the site every hour. Jim Griffith, an early eBay employee, indicates in a list of five trading statistics that a "diamond ring is purchased every two minutes" even though the site has higher sales statistics (7). eBay highlights engagement rings in its main website advertising, lists of featured items, and in the "Jewelry & Watches" category. For instance, eBay's pink "banner" advertisements for engagement rings address women by using a gender-specific color, which may also reference blushing and skin color. The advertisements indicate that eBay can resolve women's fears they will "be single forever" by enabling couples to reasonably acquire the accoutrements of heteronormative relationships. Through such narratives, eBay facilitates conventional conceptions of identity and desire and indicates that women's fulfillment can only be achieved through heterosexual engagements, marriages, and consumerism. During the 2004 eBay Live! convention, Maggie Wolfe and Brad Aspling -- a white couple who used the site to get engaged -- were featured in the company's announcements and married during the event.
eBay uses the term "it," which appears in many of the company's advertising campaigns, to connect the erotic and passionate aspects of collecting to sexual activity and manage buying, selling, viewing, and collecting. Some of eBay's "Whatever it is, you can get it on eBay" television spots, frame the promise of bountiful objects and collections with unions between white heterosexuals. This is a necessary part of eBay's assertion of norms because, as Michael Camille indicates, the boundlessness of collectors' desires, their interest in possessing an ever increasing web of desirable things, "strain the limits of the heterosexual matrix" and "problematize the logic of oppositions structuring it" (164). Collecting can be identified as queer because its structures and boundaries are constantly changing, it is based on an eroticism that is not about binary opposites, it is associated with shopping activities and culturally coded as feminine even when performed by men, and the "model of the collection was the closet" or cabinet or curiosities. Collecting can trouble such binary racial thinking as black and white and render everything as collectible so that the processes of looking at and collecting the "other" are institutionalized.
In one of eBay's television ads, a blonde woman wearing a diamond engagement ring, in which the traditionally shaped diamond has been replaced by one that spells out the word "it," mistakenly drops her ring down the drain as her white male partner watches. The viewer hears the sound of the ring hitting varied parts of the drainpipe and sees the apartments that the ring falls through; each one of them populated by varied "it" shaped items. In its "fall," and this term may have a resonance in this narrative, the ring also courses through the lives of people with varied racial backgrounds and sexualities. In the final sequence, the white heterosexual couple is eating an "it" shaped fish. When the woman puts a bite of fish into her mouth and pulls out the ring, her male partner is delighted. The ring and their looks of wonder connect the couple into a kind of second engagement proposal. The fish and the white Easter lilies on their table reference Christianity, the beginning and the end, and unions. In this advertisement, the many desires, racial positions, and sexualities, visually articulated as being available through eBay, which the viewer sees as the ring drops through the apartment drainpipes, are prefaced by and returned to a normative and sanctified white heterosexual union.
Adesso's, AOpen's, and eBay's connection of their sites, companies, and products to white heterosexual marriages has social and economic significance for the ways individuals, who use computer technologies, are structured and acknowledged. Weddings are moments where family and community are constituted as consumers. Cele Otnes and Tina M. Lowrey describe weddings as "significant consumption rituals within American culture" (8). These companies produce consumers and support and verify already empowered subjects. They deploy narratives about heteronormative white weddings, with clearly demarcated male and female positions, as ways of eliding unverifiable Internet subjects and the disturbances that are rendered by Internet settings, including scams and other forms of failed consumerism, being constituted through conflicting viewing or embodied positions, not being able to deploy the technology, and discovering that personal information has been leaked to varied individuals and settings.
While wedding narratives proliferate, sellers of "gay" and "gay interest" items regularly wonder about eBay's removal of listings, cancellation of their accounts, and inequitable policies. For instance, romanborn is "EXTREMELY frustrated by the very ambiguous and sometimes seemingly homophobic guidelines." He notes that sellers can list Playboy magazines on the regular site even though they contain images of nude women. However, when he runs "a similar gay-themed vintage 70s era magazine called 'Gayboy'" with an image of "a cropped-at-the-waist image of an adult man," which meets eBay's Mature Audiences' guidelines, he still risks having all his "auctions yanked, facing selling restrictions and possible suspension." romanborn suggests that eBay's allowance of the term "boy" in listings for straight magazines but banning of it in gay magazines is contradictory and homophobic.
Sellers highlight gay identities, desires, and consumerism in their auctions for "gay interest" vintage photography and thereby challenge eBay's production of heteronormativity. Their listings materialize the attributes and sexuality of a body, which they indicate was in front of the camera at one time, and a contemporary gay cultural body that has desires, including desire for a particular past and to acquire things. In using the term, "gay interest" vintage photography sellers render gay pasts and longings, even though some eBay viewers would not identify the portrayed individuals as gay. pisto4's listing of "Materials from the estate of a Professor of Romance Languages," which were "purchased in 1996 from his gay nephew," render gay families and collecting practices. Such "gay photographs" allow sellers to render, in the words of endymian, a "record of gay culture" that remains "a historic part and contemporary component of gay culture." A sexual past and desiring present are also produced when cornstock28 reads images and indicates that it "looks like the top right corner guy is cruising the guy with his tongue out." These gay interest photography sellers integrate gay politics and desires into eBay by making their listings a visible part of the site and by suggesting that vernacular photography -- such as the images in many individual's family albums -- have gay content, fulfill viewers' desires, and depict gay people.
Gay interest listings address heterosexual males and their desires in ways that compromise their notion of self. In The Body and the Screen, I think about the ways men's privileged positions are destabilized by descriptions of their fleshy, folding, and staid bodies. In this response, I want to briefly consider how notions of empowered masculinity, and even the relationship between male subjects and the penis, are challenged by spam advertisements for penis enlargement technologies and erectile dysfunction medications. These emails suggest that all recipients, including women, have a penis and that traditional investments in size, potency, and possession of the phallus are endangered. According to Leonore Tiefer, "Sexual competence is part -- some would say the central part -- of contemporary masculinity" (580). Since erections are a cultural requirement for being a man, and the emails suggest that such achievements are often unobtainable, masculinity is deeply compromised.
Brian McWilliams indicates men's investments in being always hard and ready when noting that an exposed order log for male supplements "revealed that, over a four-week period, some 6,000 people responded to e-mail ads and placed orders," including a number of male executives. Spam emails and men's consumption of untested products from unverified sources depict disabled men, even though many of these men were previously rendered as white empowered subjects, and render normative masculinity as a disability. Given these email claims, most men's Internet-based commentary about penis spam starts with assertions of being large and potent. Nevertheless, attempts to maintain traditional notions of "not me" when confronted by other forms of masculinities, desires, and races may only work to further tie protesting individuals to the positions that they reject. Penis spam and related narratives suggest the psychic pain that men experience and significant breakdowns in normative masculinity. They indicate the conflicted demands that society places on individuals to be always functioning, technologically and medically mediated, and natural. They also offer some critical possibilities for reconstituting the borders between varied binaries. The breakdown of normative male sexuality offers theoretical possibilities for rethinking gender, race, and mobility -- all of which are articulated and used to produce empowered masculinity.
Camille, Michael. Introduction to "Other Objects of Desire," Art History 24, 2 (April 2001): 163-168.
cornstock28. "crusie soldier men group fix engine close up gay photo: looks like one cruises one with tongue out 8x10" press," eBay, 10 Oct. 2004.
Dyer, Richard. White. New York: Routledge, 1997.
endymian. "unique vtg photo male modeling gay int c.1960," eBay, 2 May 2004.
Griffith, Jim. The Official eBay Bible, 2nd ed. New York: Gotham Books, 2005.
McWilliams, Brian. "Swollen Orders Show Spam's Allure," Wired, 6 Aug. 2003, 20 Dec. 2007.
Oswald, Ramona Faith. "A Member of the Wedding? Heterosexism and Family Ritual," In Lesbian Rites: Symbolic Acts and the Power of Community, ed. Ramona Faith Oswald, 107-131. New York: Harrington Park Press, 2003.
Otnes, Cele and Tina M. Lowrey. "'Til Debt Do Us Part: The Selection and Meaning of Artifacts in the American Wedding," Advances in Consumer Research 20 (1993): 325-329.
pisto4. "Karoll of Havana Cuba 1940s Gay Male Nude," eBay, 25 Apr. 2004.
romanborn. "FRUSTRATED MA CATEGORY POWERSELLER REQUESTING HELP/ADVICE," eBay, 18 May 2007.
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