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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.