CHICAGO — “Even if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re being watched and recorded,” 29-year-old spy Edward Snowden told the Guardian last Sunday, openly identifying himself as the whistleblower on the NSA PRISM program, which he alleged is gathering communications data not just from foreigners, as officials previous said, but on a vast domestic scale. Nine major internet companies, including Google, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo! and Facebook are all named as offering up data, according to DemocracyNow. We are all being watched, and now we know it.
Amidst all of this, there is a growing phenomenon of people — mostly young white girls and women — voluntarily offering up their bodies, their deeper thoughts and dreams, and most of all their faces (selfies) to the internet in a public way, free of charge and always ready to share. In an age of fearing finding out what others have said about you, these people are fearlessly saying look at me, look at myselfie, and objectify me as you would like to. In fact, I welcome your comments, likes, and potentially your reblogs.
In Sianne Ngai’s book Our Aesthetic Categories, she discusses our visibility on the internet, where the performance-driven world of late capitalism plays out, making us both complicit voyeurs of one another and objects of surveillance by our big brother(s) and Big Brother. Perhaps, the theory goes, the answer here is not to self-censor on the internet but to further expose, to use this constant stream of self-captured images as the last weapon in a surveillance society that sees white women (and, it should be noted, all women, but my focus here is on the former) as objects, as aesthetic categories, and most of all as the embodiment of what capitalism attempts to make of them. Throw it up and then swallow it down again, allowing the cycle of binging and purging to continue. Perhaps the only way to truly “take back the night” nowadays is to publish almost soft-porn-esque images of ourselves on the internet. This voluntary self-exposure is an attempt to take back the images of our bodies, by completely reveavling them on our own time and in our own way.
NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills published hundreds of these types of photographs of herself via her blog; the majority of them show her body, face, and form in poses at once sexy, sexual, and athletic, but most of all, she comes across as a girl having fun and doing whatever she wants, not caring who sees her. After Snowden went public about the NSA leak, Mills took down her blog, essentially self-censoring, although the images — many of them selfies — are still available here.
In Danny Orendorff’s essay “Look at Them, Please,” he discusses the performance of the young-girl online through the videos of artist Sarah Lynn Kelly, whose reenactments of adolescence are so nauseatingly annoying that they’re kind of amazing — one stays glued to them as if they were viral videos — and very much a part of the Teen-Girl Tumblr Aesthetic*. In this self-aware performance of the young-girl on the internet, Kelly is creating her own magnified version of a selfie, voluntarily layering on the repulsive adolescent charm. Orendorff writes:
This is what capitalism has “made” of her, and Kelly pushes the artificiality to the fore with her use of glitchy visual effects, Tumblr-style graphic overload, and digital-lingo shorthand. She may appear naive or vulnerable to the lechery of the Internet (aka “the void”), but she is not; this is exactly Kelly’s way of luring us in to her own antagonistic form of media mania.
In a New Yorker blog post about Lindsay Mills, writer Sasha Weiss brushes off Mills’ self-portraiture selfies, misreading and dismissing perhaps the most telling photo of this woman’s entire blog and its reflection of how mass media and the internet have shaped the young-girl (who need not necessarily be a young girl — Mills is 28 — but who represents a category of women, like Kelly, performing a fluid adolescence):
In one of the hundreds of self-portraits that Mills posted on her blog, she stands just to the right of the center of the frame, wearing black lace underwear and a black bra, holding herself tight in a gesture of despondency, a bright yellow Forever 21 bag covering her face in a way that unfortunately recalls the infamous photos of prisoners in Abu Ghraib.
As Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl suggests, and as Orendorff’s essay explains, the young-girl, powerless and subsumed by the capitalist empire, has no other tools at her disposal than a smartphone and an internet connection.
I believe Mills’s posing with the Forever 21 bag covering her face speaks to her involvement in the ongoing objectification of white women on the internet, her own subtle attempt at expressing some sort of political dissent, opinion, or voice through the only means she can — her body. The body, after all, remains a battleground, maybe more so than ever in our current hypernetworked climate, where images speak more than a thousand words and travel even faster, and young girls who want to be seen just need to invest in an iProduct or two.
The teen-girl tumblr aesthetic is decidedly white; according to the NSA PRISM program, however, the real threat stems from the bodies of women of color, from non-normative bodies and genders that diverge from Lindsay Mills’s pure ciswoman pure whiteness. When it comes down to it, the NSA and its online surveillance are after people of color, telling them to “get online already” and perform for the rest of the internet world. As Seeta Peña Gangadharan writes in New America Media:
Despite the Obama Administration’s attempts to define PRISM’s consequences narrowly, it is fair to speculate that the burden will fall unfairly on communities of color. Like domestic surveillance under Ashcroft, PRISM collects electronic communications and also stores information indefinitely, a process which again risks wrongly classifying and targeting communities of color.
The exposure of white girls’ bodies on the internet is perhaps the least of the government’s concerns; the body of Edward Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills is a tool, occupying a performative space in our internet-addled age of late capitalism, but it can never be a weapon.