report-photo-640

CHICAGO — Every mother will attest to the fact that once you become responsible for a child’s life, your own life completely changes. And with that shift comes a new way to both see and question your relationship to society, your body, and your own sexuality. In the realm of American pop culture, womens’ bodies tend to be either sexualized and thus championed, or seen as somehow “gross” or “wrong,” oozing canisters dripping with fluids. Add the label of “mother” to that, and the stakes are raised. Is a woman a “good” or “bad” mother? Asinine judgements like these make their way to tabloid-esque sites such as Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post, where we see selfies of “bad” mothers, who are seen as such because they are still sexual beings, and the equation of “good” motherhood with images of wild animals feeding their tiny charges.

There is, in short, a set of culturally acceptable ways for mothers to be and behave in the world. Mothers aren’t allowed to have their own lives or be sexual; in essence, they’re not allowed to be human beings. When an artist who’s also a mother crosses these lines, people often react in ways that are predictable yet simultaneously a grim reflection on where we still stand culturally in regards to women and feminism.

One such artist is Ellen Greene, whose paintings on womens’ hand gloves focus on the personal experience of motherhood through the lens of a hypermasculine American tattoo culture. Greene, who has shown internationally and has upcoming exhibitions in France and Milwaukee, transforms that macho imagery into her own vocabulary of feminist, female-centric power symbols. And her latest Facebook/censorship fiasco began one morning when she opened her laptop to log in and found her account blocked. Someone had reported her for posting a photo that was “offensive.”

“It was something that I had posted before, on Valentine’s Day, so I don’t know if this report came late,” said Greene when I reached her by phone during her daily errands.

Ellen Greene, “Scar Belt Momma” (2010), acrylic and ink on vintage gloves, wood and steel frame, 10.5 x 13 in (image via artbyellengreene.com)

The image in question is from her work “Scar Belt Mama” (2010), a painting on hand gloves depicting a nude woman with star-shaped pasties on her nipples, a tiger mask for a head, and red star over her vagina with a ribbon that reads “I Love You” fluttering out of it. For Greene, this work describes the experience of the transformation of her body through childbirth; she cites as inspiration ancient artworks such as Egyptian sculptures depicting women with giant, gaping vaginas open and ready to release a newborn while surrounded by goddesses.

Says Greene: “My body, in the act of birth, was timeless and connected to all other women/men before me … I was powerful, transcendent.”

But apparently, such an image was vulgar to some user, somewhere on the world’s largest social network.

In Facebook’s official “Community Standards,” nudity is grouped alongside pornography:

Facebook has a strict policy against the sharing of pornographic content and any explicitly sexual content where a minor is involved. We also impose limitations on the display of nudity. We aspire to respect people’s right to share content of personal importance, whether those are photos of a sculpture like Michelangelo’s David or family photos of a child breastfeeding.

As we’ve discussed on Hyperallergic before, these standards are confused. It’s curious to note how Facebook suggests that artworks depicting male nudity and photos that show a woman breastfeeding may or may not be examples of nudity, pornography, or both. Why wouldn’t pornography be categorized under a different section, and why won’t Facebook note any key misogynistic pornographic images as examples? There’s also no context for images or direct mention of artists who may be living and making current work; Michaelangelo, though a great artist, is long dead.

The actual Facebook photo removal process begins with a user reporting a photo. After that, Facebook responds, determining whether or not the image is offensive. The procedure is explained in a post on the Houston Chronicle:

Reporting Photos: As Facebook is largely self-regulated by its members, anyone can report inappropriate content to Facebook’s staff. Registered and unregistered users alike can click the “Report This Photo” link under any photograph. A prompt will open to collect additional information about your report. A Facebook staffer will review the report and determine the appropriate action to take.

Photo Removal: Facebook’s staff reviews a reported photo to determine if the photo violates Facebook’s Terms of Use. If Facebook’s staff deems an image inappropriate or contrary to the Terms of Use, it will be removed. The user who uploaded the image will receive a warning.

We reached out to Facebook about the case of Greene’s artwork; while they did take the time to look through her Facebook page, the statement they issued is non-specific and typical of the social network’s closed attitude:

Our dedicated User Operations Team reviews millions of pieces of content a day to help keep Facebook safe for our nearly billion users. There is a great deal of complexity when applying policies that attempt to account for every single image across the spectrum of depiction of nudity. To protect our users, we don’t have a blanket amnesty for all digital images, as some can be incredibly pornographic and inappropriate.

“There is a lot of really sexual and touchy stuff online, but what actually seems to be seen as truly grotesque and offensive in some way is when it is from a woman’s perspective,” says Greene. “There are a lot of pin-up artists and cutesy, nipple-y stuff that goes up online, but when it is from a feminist perspective or a woman’s perspective of her own body, it is seen as foul in some way.”

Although Greene’s artwork often depicts imagery of the nude female form as she sees it, this is the first time she has been blocked from Facebook.

“I think it is subconscious; I don’t think people realize why they are reacting that way,” she says. “It could have [even] been another woman’s self-hatred that caused them to have that impulse to report me.”

A photo from Emma Kwasnica’s unassisted birth of her daughter this past fall. It’s part of an album that she has on Google+ but is afraid to post on Facebook for fear of censorship. (click to enlarge) (courtesy Kwasnica)

For breastfeeding activist Emma Kwasnica, however, the experience of being blocked for posting images of either breastfeeding or natural birth has been a routine occurrence on Facebook since 2008. Apparently, these types of images are even more threatening than an artist’s depictions of her own experience of childbirth.

“I’ve probably lost my account somewhere between seven and ten times,” said Kwasnica when we reached her by phone. “There was one big one with no communication back in 2009 — I thought I would never get it back. I run a mothering discussion group with thousands of members in it, and I was concerned that all my text would be lost.”

Since Kwasnica went to the media about a year and a half ago, however, Facebook has started responding. After a conference call with the company, they agreed to change their wording around breastfeeding photos, from allowing only pictures of infants breastfeeding to those of 3-to-5-year-old children.

“Boobs are fine when they are sex toys of men,” says Kwasnica, “but when women are using their bodies for power and nourishing their infants, it’s no longer okay to post.” Greene, whose account was eventually restored after she agreed to remove the image that Facebook deemed “naughty,” also sees this as a larger problem of what is deemed culturally “acceptable” online.

But as the adage goes: don’t get mad, get even.

Instead of just responding through silent takedown compliance, Greene crafted an image clarifying her influences for this work of art, why she created it, and why it was important to her oeuvre as an artist, mother, and woman. Greene’s art centers around cultural ideas of femininity, using demure women’s hand gloves as a second skin for the body. She turns outward internally driven female mythologies. As a mother of two young girls and head of the household — her husband, Dave Greene, also an artist — she’s found Facebook to be an important space for dissemination of her work and discussion, a way for people to get a sneak peek of what she’s working on, especially since she can’t make it out to openings and community gatherings as often as she would like.

Ellen Greene’s explanation of the image that was censored (via Facebook)

Yet unlike past “controversial” artworks by mothers, which were hung in a gallery and later appeared in online conversations, many artists today release images of their work on Facebook first and in the gallery second. And peoples’ responses to images can become intensely emotional online even more quickly than IRL.

“There is something lost in translation [online] that really dehumanizes everything,” says Greene. “It’s no longer a conversation, or a hard image … ”

Unfortunately, Facebook’s removal policy, which happens directly after a user flags something, does not give the offender in question a chance to defend or comment on the image.

“We are at the mercy of Facebook employees across the world, who are going to pull the plug based on their own cultural biases,” notes Kwasnica. “Facebook needs to be upfront and say that they can’t police the site.”

After all, every person on this planet comes from a woman’s — a mother’s — giant, gaping vagina. The world’s largest social network is most definitely for moms. 

The Latest

Required Reading

This week, the Getty Museum is returning ancient terracottas to Italy, parsing an antisemitic mural at Documenta, an ancient gold find in Denmark, a new puritanism, slavery in early Christianity, and much more.

Alicia Eler

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED...

15 replies on “Facebook Is for Moms”

  1. I sympathize with this artist… but I think we are all pouring way too much time and
    energy into Facebook.

  2. You miss the point Maximus.

    Facebook happens to be how people connect these days. If it weren’t Facebook it would be some other on-line site that you would probably say exactly the same thing about.

    So forget the fact that it’s Facebook. Facebook is just a name, a place holder. And realise how ridiculous the statement is.

    What you said essentially is “We are all pouring way too much time and energy into each other.”

    1. while I can’t speak for Maximus, it’s clear that FB is not just a name or placeholder; it is a corporate entity in which we voluntarily pour ourselves into without much thought. J Redman’s post is more to the point: it’s a free service, and we accept that cost by obeying their rules in their game.

      If we don’t like FB’s censorship, why do we get so upset? Why not just move on and start your own group elsewhere? why the outright dependence on FB?

      (oh, and I wholly dig Ms Greene’s subject! this is a bigger cultural issue and shouldn’t be lost solely on FB.)

      1. blackops23, you take my point. FB is not just 1 of a number of interchangeable online platforms. It is among the most privacy-intrusive and also one of the most censored.

        Yes, Brian, it is also popular, and obviously people go there to connect. Note that in my original comment I said “we”… I include myself as someone who pours too much time and energy into FB. But essentially FB is parasitic. Rather than create (or in some cases pirate) content for Mark Zuckerberg to data-mine, we should all consider using other online platforms, including self-hosted websites.

        As I said, I sympathize with the artist profiled above, but I think it is quixotic to battle FB and try to get it to be something it’s not — a truly open, transparent, democratic forum for expression. It exists for its own enrichment, not ours. We, FB users, are the product.

      2. Sure you could just go get a blog or your own website. But Facebook is the largest social network (and one of the largest websites) on earth. Many people are just not interested in using other sites because only a small handful of friends use them too.

        But that aside, what is FB for? It’s a site where you are encouraged to share your pictures, your life events, your thoughts & experiences. So I don’t see anything wrong with questioning why it’s ok to post pictures of some life events (like a wedding) but not others (like giving birth) why it’s ok to post a million pictures of you picking your nose, standing on your head, planking or any number of useless brainless activities if you want, but 1 picture of you nursing your baby, helping nourish our next generation, you can lose your account.

        It’s good to ask questions. Good to ask the largest social media site to stop discriminating against mothers.

  3. I like to root for the artist but when you’re using a free platform like FB, twitter, tumblr, etsy, deviant etc., you are at the mercy of the company (and sometimes terms of use). Whether or not the images are in violation of their policy is immaterial, the policy only exists to make something seem less arbitrary. The reality is the company can pull, wipe, and ban a user on whim. If you don’t pay for the service you don’t really have any rights or recourse.

      1. you are also at the mercy of the whole culture of FB which is not unlike the greater culture of America. And when the company culture allows others to make money and have a voice but not so the artist, then we are in trouble.

    1. Yes, but the bigger point is that once again women are dismissed unless their bodies are sexualized. It doesn’t matter the platform; this is where we are at culturally, and it is still not acceptable. We need some femininism up in heeeeerrrreee GIRL.

      1. There are a lot of statements here about how these images are being censored because they show women as powerful agents rather than sexual objects. But I’m not convinced that FB allows traditionally pornographic images of women -either-. It’s not a double standard — just a consistently conservative standard.

  4. There is a huge double standard in our society and a complete blindness to how women’s bodies are used in advertising vs. personal image making. A victoria secret add, while not showing nipples and vagaina I would argue is more damaging to the psyche of both our male and female children of our culture by distorting their view of what real women look like and what our values are as humans (not just sexual toys). To be an American is to be shown images of hyper violence and hyper sexuality to manipulate us to consume. We do not question that, we accept it. FB is a reflection of our society and our complacency with the images that corporations use vs. the images artist make. We shame any woman who does not follow the “norm” via shaming her expression of her authentic experience with her own body. To shrug shoulders and say “oh this is just FB” or “oh go to another site to promote your work” is missing the point.

    1. Yes, fortunately FB is only a somewhat distorted reflection of our society and not the totality of our society. There are double, triple, maybe even four standards. Perhaps each person represents their own standard. Can a male be a feminist? It would seem to me that the image sighted in this article (Tiger head and “I Love You” banner) would be seen as a rather offensive tattoo on a male, but tattooed on a woman’s arm could represent something much more political, lofty and artistic. Intention vs. perception, Prono vs. Art, Feminism vs. exploitation, Society vs, personal experience; these are all very rich topics which artists should be able to explore freely (if not for free.) Now we just have to work out who is an artist and issue the membership cards and decoder rings. Which would be as lame as what “FB standards” attempt to achieve. Perhaps the answer would be to block the person who complains from viewing what they report as offensive. The problem is not just that they don’t want to see it, but that they don’t want anyone else to either.

Comments are closed.