Friday, October 31, 2014

Show and Tell: The Use of Visual Media to Document, Describe, and Discourage Gender Equality

By Lesley Wexler

Women and men are increasingly taking to social media to challenge street harassment, domestic violence, and sexual assault. In addition to the forms noted in Martha Davis’ earlier post,  I offer some additional examples and the varied purposes they serve.

In one creative tumblr, an anonymous man has solicited pictures of men taking up too much space on trains. The creator keeps the commentary to a minimum letting the pictures speak for themselves. While the assertion of space on a train need not be identified as a human rights violation, the tumblr is subtitled “A classic assertion of privilege” for a reason. The pictures aptly identify one form of everyday microaggressions women face in public spaces and visually display the seemingly unquestioned authority to ignore the interests of others. The author does respond to write-ins justifying the biological need for men to take up more space and in so doing offers a humorous and relatable approach to the need for equality on issues both big and small.

Moving on to the visual documentation of women, several blogs and twitter conversations use pictures to challenge the idea that women’s clothing creates consent for street harassment and sexual assaults. The Stop the Catcall tumblr asks women to submit pictures of what they were wearing along with the story of how they were cat called. By showing herself in varied outfits and locations, the author demonstrates that the constant is the male belief in their authority to speak to her body rather than the nature of the clothing. A tumbler website, "What I Was Wearing When I Was Raped" does just that. The site collects and displays women protesting their rape while wearing the outfit they were raped in. And twitter hosted a conversation in which women wrote in descriptions of their outfits when raped (many accompanied by pictures). Such campaigns document the pervasiveness of aggressions, big and small, as well as effectively debunking the idea that women who dress provocatively are asking for it. None of these women were asking for it and for many, the effort to cover their bodies seems as likely to garner street harassment as the decision to uncover parts. Perhaps equally important, these visual displays allow women a public opportunity to reclaim their stories. They provide voice for women to emphasize what they found important about these events to a generally hospitable audience.  

At Columbia, Emma Sulkowicz has been carrying her mattress all over campus as a protest of the University’s treatment of her alleged rapist.  Her performance piece has stood as an important piece of a growing movement at Columbia with the mattress serving as a key piece of symbolism in organized protests. Her piece has also invited visible demonstrations of support with other students helping to carry her mattress.  Her performance piece is part of a larger strategy to bring accountability to a University charged with chronic mismanagement of rape allegations and she is one of 23 students to file a federal complaint.

Quite recently, Hollaback! released a video of a woman walking New York as a camera crew documented her street harassment. Meanwhile, group Funny or Die reimagines the same walk through new york by a white man and comically identifies his privileges.  Viewed together, they capture the imagination and help create understanding in a way that speeches and statistics alone are unlikely to do.

Of course, such challenges are not without personal costs such as reporters’ violations of Emma Sulkowicz’s personal space and the death threats to the actress of the street harassment video.  But identifying women as subjects of human rights and documenting their violations and expressing how such violations make them feel goes beyond simple creation of and enforcement of law. Social media campaigns seem poised to play an important part in this ongoing struggle.

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Violence against women and girls is on going and epidemic: in #Iran women are attacked by pouring acid on their faces, in India and Pakistan they are raped, burnt, and stoned, and in the US they face all sorts of stealth and raw acts of aggression. Question to ask of women around the world is: Are you going to stand up and nip it in the butt, or are you going to let it keep fester like a virus? Fighting for our rights is an everyday job no matter where you live on this globe.

Posted by: Gigi Nikpour | Nov 1, 2014 10:21:03 AM

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