Ignorance is Bliss

Not until after walking through the deSouza and Syed exhibit did I notice the biographical plaque that explains that deSouza’s photographs are a contemporary response to Jacob Lawrence’s 1941 The Migration Series Granted, just being aware of this fact wouldn’t have enlightened my stroll through the exhibit much, since I know nothing about Lawrence or his 1941 piece. Without knowledge of its inspiration – or even that it had an inspiration – my time with the deSouza collection was a bit like watching the new Star Wars without having seen any of the others. The references were there, and in plain sight, but I was oblivious.

To some extent – I would even argue to a large extent – this doesn’t matter. Despite my ignorance of their place in a greater historical context, I was still able to enjoy and think critically on deSouza’s photographs. I still pondered, for example, the deliberate arrangement and grouping of the images, and still admired deSouza’s decision to position a cluster of nautical and natural images adjacent to a series of ones taken in the city, constructing a beautiful contrast between real and concrete jungles.

Still, these issues of authorial intent and subsurface historical contexts have consistently orbited near the center of this course, and they came up yet again in Martha Sandweiss’ preface to a collection of essays on photographs as historical and digital artifacts. Here, she offers that “the historian must be mindful of photographic intent, not because it provides the only way of interpreting an image, but because it provides one possible starting point for a more complicated reading.” (194). I agree, but I do think there is value to ‘blind’ readings, like mine today at the VAC, where the reader has little to no prior knowledge of a text’s creators and histories. In this blissfully ignorant state, we can read artifacts in isolation from the historical shadows they cast or sit beneath. As soon as we acquire context for a text, however, the two become inseparable, for better or for worse. It becomes difficult (maybe even impossible) to consider Alan Turing’s contributions to computer science or the war effort without also considering his celebrity, sexuality, and personal hardships. Likewise, I could not complete a second reading of deSouza’s photographs without now reflecting on how they pay homage to or critique The Migration Series. It’s up for debate, of course, whether or not this separation of artifact and context is even a worthwhile exercise. For now, I’ll just invert Sandweiss’ argument to suggest that even if it’s not the most informed or best way to interpret a text, it’s one possible (and possibly valuable) starting point.

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Throwing Stones at Glass Ceilings

Though I felt that Goyal’s alignment of gender stereotypes with the glass ceilings she describes was the weakest part of her article (“women tend to be more tender and nurturing [users] while men tend to be more abrasive users” [41] – huh?), I’m glad J.P. focused on this in his own post.  I agree with JP that “media identity” has both shaped and reinforced the so-called glass ceiling that sets an upper limit on women’s advancement in computing occupations. In fact, a suitable extension of Goyal’s article might be to look at other glass ceilings besides the ones within corporations, and how these work in tandem with the variety that Goyal focuses on.

For example, what are the glass ceilings looming over media representations of women in STEM fields? We’ve already looked at least one in class: the Barbie computer scientist book offers a rare portrait of a female programmer, but one with strict limitations on her skills and independence. Similarly, I can think of a handful of space movies and TV shows with female astronauts onboard, but hardly any with them in positions of leadership. A recent and much-needed exception to that trend would be last year’s The Martian, which had Jessica Chastain as Ares III’s mission commander.  In any case, it seems that just as we must work to shatter glass ceilings barring women’s advancement to top positions in computing and STEM fields, so too must we throw stones at the same barriers placed before fictional female scientists in the media.

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Creative Project Identification: Sexism in Hip Hop

I’m a pretty avid hip hop listener, but it can be difficult to justify my fandom when so many rap songs feature misogynist and sexist lyrics. A recent notable example is Kanye West’s new track “Famous,” in which he boldly declares:

“I feel like me and Taylor [Swift] might still have sex. Why? I made that bitch famous.”

I can think of a few songs that paint women in a better light (Tupac’s “Keep Ya Head Up” or Lupe Fiasco’s “Bitch Bad”), but these are typically one-offs, diamonds in the rough in a rapper’s repertoire.

Often, radio edits of explicit rap songs will “blank” out explicit words, or else replace the offending word with a different (and typically nonsensical) one. For example, the radio edit of Kendrick Lamar’s “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” censors the eponymous lyric to “Trick, don’t kill my vibe.” But in the case of more complicated lyrics, like the Kanye one above, a simple word swap or erasure won’t fix much. The rest of the lyric will remain intact, and the message is unchanged. What’s a radio censor to do?

For my project, I want to try my hand at editing a handful of these more complexly sexist lyrics to clean up their contents. For example, Kanye has another song from the same album titled “Real Friends,” so I might use bits from that track to alter the above lyric to:

“I feel like me and Taylor might still be friends. Why? We real famous.”

I’m still toying with how exactly this project will take shape, and which and how many songs I’ll edit, but I imagine that the final product will allow readers/users to compare the original with the “clean” versions. My project will thus be an exploration not just of sexism in hip hop, but also of the possibilities (and dangers) of digital censorship and remixing.

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Mister Mom

I seriously appreciated Hollows’ articulation of the rivalry we’ve constructed between ‘the feminist’ and ‘the housewife’, as I’ve long been troubled by (some, #notall) feminists who set up similar oppositions by advocating for certain expansions of womanhood yet alienate or ignoring other groups in the process. The most common example I see involves pushing for acceptance of larger body sizes while failing to assure thinner women that their frame is just as welcome. In any case, I think Hollows speaks to an issue that is all-too-often swept under the rug and/or dismissed as a non-issue, and though I found her prose a bit tough to follow at times, I agree wholeheartedly with her concluding point that feminism needs to both re-evaluate and complicate its conception of domesticity.

An expansion to her essay might explore the ways in which popular ideals of masculinity also exclude domesticity and the role of the housewife – er, househusband. I’ll never forget when I watched the 1955 classic Rebel Without a Cause for the first time in high school, and my film teacher explained to our class that the depiction of the father as a weak, apron-clad househusband served as a larger social scapegoat for fifties moviegoers – i.e., that we wouldn’t have so many unruly teens running about if fathers were still strong and authoritative enough to knock some sense into ’em.

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Clearly, no matter your gender, the stay-at-home parent isn’t the most welcomed vocation. Why is this? Did our disapproval of the stay-at-home dad come about simply because housework is traditionally a ‘woman’s job’, and because tend to think of male and female attributes as always mutually exclusive, and always in opposition? Or is it part of a deeper-seated conception of housework as essentially unproductive? I’m sure the answer is a mix of both. In any case, it’s a tricky problem to dissect, and an even harder one to solve, even as we slowly edge toward greater acceptance of the choice to work at home – no matter who makes it.

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“Siri, Be a Bro.”: A Close Reading of BroApp

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One of the less expected gifts delivered by the advent of the internet and artificial intelligence has been the ability to outsource work to strangers – both human and AI. “Work” in this case deserves a broad definition, since vendors on outsourcing sites like Fiverr.com offer services with tangibledigital, and entirely indescribable products. Meanwhile, BreakupShop.com divides its work between machine and human employees: the cheapest breakup is simply an automated text message, while a deluxe version promises a one-minute phone conversation with a professional. A common thread amongst these and other outsourcing services is that the work tends to be both brief and straightforward. After all, trusting unknown people or programs with complex tasks – especially tasks that involve communicating with other people – can be a risky endeavor.

BroApp bucks this trend entirely. Rather than end your relationship, like its breakup-outsourcing brethren, BroApp promises the impossible: to maintain it. The Android-only mobile app uses some basic information supplied by the user, like his schedule, favorite WiFi networks, and of course, his girlfriend’s digits to intelligently send said girlfriend loving text messages throughout the day. In the developer’s own words, the app is the culmination of “many man years perfecting the recipe of love communication.” Despite its humorous (and arguably satirical) presentation, BroApp says a great deal about modern masculinity, and accordingly there is a great deal to say about BroApp. I will begin my reading of BroApp with a discussion of its intended audience, followed by an investigation into its place within histories of gender, technology, and masculinity. Finally, I will attempt a deeper analysis of the processes at work within the app, in order to draw out some of its less-visible meanings.

An instructive starting point in analyzing any piece of technology is to consider its target audience, as well as its intended use by that audience. From its initial set-up screens, BroApp makes abundantly clear that it is an app designed and tailored for heterosexual men. Every prompt in the tutorial addresses the user as “Bro,” and the app consistently refers to the messages’ target as “your girlfriend.” The app’s obsession with the term “bro” – a word freighted with connotations of heteronormative masculinity – further limits its user-base from all straight males to specifically masculine ones. This is reinforced by nods to typical pillars of masculinity, from an icon of a pint of beer to symbolize the weekend, to a scale that ranks users based on how many automated messages they select: 0 or 1 is “Weak”, while 5 is “Strong” and anything higher is “BRO POWERED.”

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Clearly, BroApp has a highly specific audience in mind. But why this particular audience, and why should this app appeal to them? The answer lies, at least partly, in the Western social expectation that young men prioritize their time and attention to favor male companions (‘bros’) while simultaneously distancing themselves from female companions (‘hos’). This expectation, popularly summarized as ‘bros before hos’, sets the scene for an app that alleviates the demands of maintaining a romantic relationship, thus freeing up time that would be better spent strengthening fraternal bonds. Gender studies scholar Michael Kimmel argues in his book Guyland that the ‘bros before hos’ dynamic fosters a “culture of silence” wherein “one remains steadfastly loyal to your guy friends, your bros … to whom your primary allegiance must always be offered, and for many that may even extend to abetting a crime.” (67).  I would extend Kimmel’s “culture of silence” theory to accommodate the exhibitions of masculinity that often occur in all-male spaces and, consequently, the incredible value that men place on maintaining the integrity of these spaces.

Exclusively male spaces have long been magical ones, as John F. Kasson points out in “The Manly Art of Escape”, an exploration of Harry Houdini’s public performance of masculinity. Kasson notes that Houdini’s exhibition of his own nude figure was in no way hampered by an all-male audience, such as the Harvard men who “readily accepted” his offer to perform nude at the university in 1908 (115). And while Kasson comments only briefly on the gendered implications of Houdini’s performances for and with the police, a historically male-dominated force, I would argue that their frustration at Houdini’s subversion of their “manly prowess” (104) and typical “mastery over the criminal’s body” (104) demonstrates the contestations of masculinity that often occur in predominantly- or all-male spaces. Certainly an investigation of the factors that construct and perpetuate this formative arena is beyond the scope of this paper. However, it seems reasonable to conclude that the ‘bros before hos’ mantra that BroApp promotes and sustains is one especially valuable to social performances of masculinity.

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Though this context of masculinity offers a useful portrait of BroApp’s intended audience and usage, a close reading also necessitates a background for the app itself as a gendered piece of technology. In the first chapter of her book Technofeminism, Judy Wajcman establishes the existence of a male monopoly over technology (11-12). The nature of this monopoly, however, remains a source of contention for feminists, and Wajcman identifies two main lines of argument in this debate. The first, espoused by liberal feminists, holds that “the problem [is] one of equality of access and opportunity,” (12) while socialist and radical feminists argue that “technology itself is inherently patriarchal.” (12). Wajcman aligns herself nearer the former, positing that technology is “socially shaped, but shaped by men to the exclusion of women.” (30). Clearly, BroApp fits easily under this umbrella: the app is intended for use by (straight) men and (straight) men only. Yet a nuanced analysis of the app must look beyond the surface-level presentation and into the processes at work underneath.

Wajcman, at least in her first chapter, treats technology as a monolithic and single-layered entity, able to be neatly labelled as either masculine or feminine. Such an approach may prove adequate for some technologies, but it fails to encompass the intricacies of computer programs and other digital creations, which typically contain both front-end (visible to the user) and back-end (hidden from the user) data. Contrary to the popular narrative of computers as objective and ungendered things, the underlying processes and algorithms in digital technologies often bubble up and manifest themselves as gendered characteristics. Adrienne Massanari underscores this very fact in her article on social news site Reddit’s involvement in #GamerGate and The Fappening, two online controversies with anti-feminist and misogynist undercurrents. Massanari points to Reddit’s algorithmic bias toward new and popular content as a procedural structure that “can implicitly suppress certain types of content and highlight others and also serves as an unintentional barrier to participation.” (9). This bias, she argues, works alongside a number of other policies and mechanisms to “encourage the continued presence of toxic technocultures” (11) such as #GamerGate and The Fappening, thus underscoring the ways that processes can create meaning. A reading of BroApp would do well to investigate the processes at work within this particular technology, too.

Perhaps the best way to highlight BroApp’s processes is through comparison with the processes of another, similar artifact: namely, Christopher Strachey’s love letter generator. Strachey, a twentieth century British computer scientist and colleague of Alan Turing, built a program for the Manchester Mark I computer in 1952 that is now considered “the first known experiment in digital literature and perhaps … the first digital art of any kind.” (Wardrip-Fruin 302-303). Strachey’s program used a simple sentence structure algorithm to pick out and arrange words from a limited bank, producing awkwardly-worded declarations of love with lines like “you are my avid fellow feeling” and “you are my wistful sympathy” (Wardrip-Fruin 306). Computational media scholar Noah Wardrip-Fruin, whose own process-centric analysis of Strachey’s generator serves as the inspiration for my approach to BroApp, writes that it was “a process designed to fail.” The significance of the generator, he continues, is “not as a process for producing parodies, but as itself of a parody of a process.” (316). In other words, we ought not look to the generator’s letters as parodies of love letters, but instead to its procedures as parody of how people write love letters.

Whether or not BroApp is intended to function as parody or satire is less clear. However, much like Strachey’s love letter generator, BroApp is almost certainly set up for failure. A series of automated text messages, especially including ones as hokey and inhuman as “Hi darl, how did you go today?” and “I love you more than Jimmy Fallon”, probably won’t support any real relationship for long. No, BroApp’s real significance comes from not from the shortcomings of an AI-powered “relationship wingman” but from its necessity. As I have already discussed, men experience tremendous pressure to keep time with the ‘bros’ strictly separate from and prioritized above time with ‘hos.’ So, for a man to spend ‘bro time’ texting and attending to his girlfriend would be read as an outright betrayal of a core tenet of masculine culture. Likewise, for a man to ask a human companion for help managing his romantic life would be an astonishing admission of incompetence in an area over which men are expected to have complete mastery. The solution, then, is a non-judgmental, non-human assistant. The solution is BroApp.

Works Cited

Kasson, John F. “The Manly Art of Escape.” Houdini, Tarzan, and the perfect man: the white male body and the challenge of modernity in America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001. Print.

Kimmel, Michael S. Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. New York: Harper, 2008. Print.

Massanari, Adrienne. “#Gamergate and The Fappening: How Reddit’s algorithm, governance, and culture support toxic technocultures.” New Media & Society (2015). Web. 18 February, 2016.

Wajcman, Judy. “Male Designs on Technology.” Technofeminism. Cambridge, UK; Oxford: Polity Press, 2004. Print.

Wardrip-Fruin, Noah. “Digital Media Archaeology: Interpreting Computational Processes.” Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications. Eds. Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka. Berkeley, CA: University of California, 2011. Print.

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Two Sides of a Gendered Coin

Megan’s reflection on the difficulties of escaping feminine stereotypes without being labeled masculine (and vice versa) was well-timed, as I’d just been thinking on that myself. In a recent reading for another of my classes, the author compared a group of early MIT hackers getting to check out a high-end computer to nuns being offered the opportunity to meet the Pope (Levy 12). Yeah. It’s a bizarre metaphor, even before considering how it contributes to the stereotype of geeky men as unmasculine and feminine. The comparison also highlighted, for me, the synonymity we’ve constructed between those two categories. The same characteristics that mark a man as ‘unmanly’ are also those which mark him as feminine – it’s impossible to be one or the other.

And as Megan brings up in her own post, the very same is true for women: to attempt to escape characteristically feminine traits like meekness or social poise bears the almost-certain risk of being labelled masculine. It’s an adversarial, exclusionary, and unfortunate dichotomy. Hopefully recent pushes to understand gender (and sex and sexual orientation) as a wide spectrum, rather than two battling factions, will help to subvert this division, but we still have a long ways to go.

Cited

Levy, Steven. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Garden City, NY: Anchor/Doubleday, 1984. Print.

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Performing Masculinity — On- and Off-stage

Though the entirety of Kasson’s account of Houdini’s career was pretty captivating, I found myself most intrigued by his exploration of how performance and the social arena of “the stage” allowed for Houdini and other performers to engage in activities that would have otherwise been deemed inappropriate and un-masculine. And it wasn’t just a cold welcome from the audience, either – Julian Eltinge, for example, found incredible success  in his cross-dressing act. Kasson is quick to point out, though, that Eltinge’s gender-bending, however popular, was only permissible in the limited space of the theater: “[his] power could only be accepted if his stage illusions were anchored in a thoroughly masculine demeanor offstage.” (95). It’s a pretty absurd phenomenon, considering that the stage/theater is more public than off-stage life. I recognize, though, that there is some invisible and magic line that divides the stage from the “real world,” and that the rules governing one realm often don’t apply to the other. Implicit in any type of performance is the assurance that the performer is, in fact, performing – that once the performance is over, the illusion ends and ‘real’ societal rules resume. And as I was reminded during the Super Bowl this weekend, the transgressive powers of the stage are still in full effect: football, after all, involves some pretty explicit displays of homoeroticism (it’s a game where men in tights throw a ball between their legs and then pile atop each other – need I say more?) yet is still heralded as the manliest of sports. How did that happen?

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In Search of a Balanced History

Julia brings up a great point at the end of her post regarding Dyson’s treatment of his book’s principal characters, and the narrative that this creates. She writes: “Turing’s sexuality was barely mentioned in contrast to the biopic, which wouldn’t have been an issue if the author hadn’t gone so in depth with the personal life of every other person (man) involved.”

For me, this is a tricky aspect to consider, and one that underscores the difficulty of writing history that offers a fair (whatever “fair” means) treatment of its subject. In class on Tuesday and in the blog posts for that day, many of us were critical of the biopic’s almost-exclusive focus on Turing’s sexuality – and, consequently, the movie’s neglect of his actual work. Now we have from Dyson an entirely opposite approach to Turing, one which makes scant mention of his sexuality. And somehow, this seems inadequate too, especially since, as Julia mentions, Dyson certainly doesn’t gloss over the personal lives of his other subjects.

I guess the easy question at this point would be, “where is this middle ground?” Where is that portrait of Turing that neither centralizes nor belittles his sexuality, instead positioning it somewhere in the foreground as an important (but not the important) part of his life? That question, though, assumes that such a balanced middle-of-the-road history would be the definitive one, better than Dyson’s or the film’s or any other’s. Perhaps I’m too lax of a judge, but I’d take issue with that perspective. The film and Turing’s Cathedral are valuable both for and despite their biases – they both tell unbalanced histories, but the asymmetry reveals a great deal about author and audience of each work.

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Does Wikipedia Generate Knowledge?

One point that I feel the article on the Wikipedia edit-a-thon might have done well to explore more thoroughly was what kinds of sources the editors used to support their hundreds of changes. As I was reading up on Wikipedia’s involvement in Gamergate, I learned that the site has a strict policy against citing original work – even when the editor is an author fixing errors in the page about his/her own book. Thus to stay ‘live’ on the site, each of the Art+Feminism editing team’s changes and submissions would have needed a pre-existing secondary source. I have to wonder, then, how much of Wikipedia’s silence on female artists is due to a lack of authoritative writing about these artists. Since Wikipedia acts more as an aggregator of existing knowledge rather than a knowledge producer, a dearth of research in a particular topic will of course lead to a corresponding hole in the site’s coverage of that topic.

Though Mabey primarily points to a disproportionate number of female Wikipedia editors as the root of female artists’ underrepresentation on the site, she does mention that a lack of interest (and consequently, a lack of writings and research) could also be to blame, stating that “in America, anyway, we don’t really have a culture that values art, and space issues.” It seems to me then that a useful outreach of the of Edit-a-Thon might be an effort to spark interest in the arts and inspire more historians to research and write about female artists, thus generating the secondary-source knowledge that Wikipedia’s editors need in order to fill in the gaps.

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