Media Exposure as Harmful Cultural Practice
Having worked on this project for nearly a year now, I have come to understand clearly how television and all media imagery functions as political patriarchal propaganda and have tried to demonstrate how this works. I believe this project has been successful in its aims, which were to articulate the facets and mechanisms of the patriarchal propaganda machine (via “The Gears“) and to fill an existing gap in online publishing, where there exists plenty of liberal (non)analysis and no dedicated space for radical feminist analysis of media imagery.
But what does the future hold for a radical feminist media-critical project, once its author realizes that exposure to this propaganda itself, for any reason — even to critique it — is actually a harmful cultural practice that’s best avoided?
We previously discussed a study conducted by researcher Ann Becker (the “Fiji study“) where television programming was “naturally” introduced into a population for the first time, and within 3 short years, (between 1995-1998) nearly 70% of the female population were dieting to lose weight, and nearly 75% “felt too fat.” A critical observer, after reading the study and its methodology would notice that this gynocidal, misogynistic effect was surely anticipated: why else would American researchers — well-versed in the effects of media exposure themselves — have swooped into the area just weeks after television was introduced to make their baseline observations, and come back 3 years later to see what had changed?
The researchers knew what was going to happen, and importantly, they did nothing to stop it. If gynocide were taken as seriously as other genocides, and if parallels were made between destroying the health and lives of girls and women and destroying the health and lives of human beings, this method of data collection would be seen as problematic, and similar to studying the known-effects of politicized torture on an oppressed people in real time, as it’s happening, instead of activating against it.
And indeed, American researchers have done this before — in the Tuskegee experiment, between 1932 and 1972, researchers observed the progress of syphilis in 399 rural American black men who had contracted the disease elsewhere, but who were never told they had syphilis and were never treated for it. The differences in the public and academic perception of these experiments are obvious: the Tuskegee experiment is an example of a harmful practice stemming from racism and classism against poor black men (and necrophilia) and the experiments are now an embarrassing blight on medical science, demonstrating the reprehensible ethical shortcoming in obtaining data via observing the destruction of non-consenting human subjects producing tainted “research” from which legal and ethical changes were rightly forthcoming.
Meanwhile, the Fiji study — experimenting on non-American black girls and women, and relatively recently at that — is seen and treated as something else entirely.
In fact, media exposure for girls and women functions as politicized torture from which there are known negative outcomes for the victims that are very serious indeed — we know this, and we have known this for a long time. Interestingly, unlike the Tuskegee experiment, where the progression of a disease-state functioned as the politicized torture of an oppressed group, in the case of media exposure, it is politicized torture that functions as politicized torture — media imagery does not exist outside its political purpose and function. In other words, unlike a disease-state which would exist regardless of oppressive social structures or unethical researchers being jerks, patriarchal media does not exist in nature and has no other function but to harm and politically oppress girls and women and to support male power.
Indeed, because it is not a natural process or a disease-state, observing the effects of media exposure is more akin to and as scientifically valid as objectively “observing” non-medicalized torture of political prisoners — causing pain and damage for the sake of causing pain and damage, with absolutely no pretense made, for example of its medical or scientific value — than it is akin to Tuskegee or even the medical or quasi-medical experiments of the Nazis who tested, for example, the effects of extreme heat and cold, albeit (obviously) in an unethical and politically oppressive way. Like torturing political prisoners for the sake of physically, psychologically and politically damaging them, exposing girls and women to media imagery (or objectively observing it without intervening) should be dispositively adjudged to be unethical on its face, but of course it generally isn’t.
Which brings us to the task at hand: identifying and examining the intent and effect of media imagery to further feminist understanding of patriarchy and oppressive social structures that benefit men at women’s expense — with the endgame being women’s liberation from male dominance.
If media imagery really does function as politicized torture — and I think there is excellent evidence that it does — then it is harmful and serves its political purpose well whenever girls and women are exposed to it. There is no safe level of exposure, and no way to “observe” it objectively without being harmed by it — so a project such as Radfem-ological Images might serve its media-critical purpose, but it also serves another purpose, which is to further expose its audience to harmful political propaganda that is actually damaging to girls and women in real time.
Radical feminists have long struggled with this in fact, and at one point a deliberate decision was made, for example in anti-pornography work, to show women actual pornographic imagery in order that women would really know what we were up against — what men were producing and how they imagined and viewed us, and what they were doing *to us* in the pornography industry. The idea was that what men are doing is so awful, so brutal and so woman-hating that it is literally incomprehensible and unimaginable to most women, who simply do not imagine the same things men imagine, for whatever reason. The idea was to take the blinders off, so that we could understand men for what they are and what they do, and male culture for what it is and what it does.
The idea was to get real about men, and to know the truth about women’s lives and the truth about what men do to us. So now that we know, what do we do with that knowledge? Are we just supposed to keep viewing this imagery endlessly, even though we know what it does and (therefore) what it’s for? Or is there an actual point to all of this that goes beyond “understanding” it intellectually — where we start to implement what we know, and make real changes in our lives and in the lives of other girls and women?
That is the question isn’t it? To take radical feminist thought to its logical ends is to make the leap from radical feminism to female separatism, if not in practice (yet) then in theory. Isn’t it? In the case of critically examining media exposure, our logical ends is to understand that there is no safe way to interact with media imagery as it currently stands, and very little chance that we will be able to successfully change the imagery in a fundamental way; in fact it would be reasonable to conclude that despite our best efforts, the gynocidal intent and effect of media imagery has gotten worse, not better — for example, both pornography and advertising have become increasingly violent and degrading over time.
We can and should thank the women who came before for proving, with their female blood, sweat and tears, that reforming the patriarchal media so that it does not harm girls and women cannot be done, or that it is so unlikely to be successful as to be an unreasonable goal — and then respect their contributions (and our own) by using this knowledge constructively.
Under patriarchy, “constructively” means grounded in reality (unwinding and discarding reversals, including unclear and wishful thinking about boys and men) and acting in a way that is supportive of girls and women, and/or undermining to male power. In the case of media imagery, because exposure actually, actively harms us, including traumatizing us which creates known chemical and physical changes in the mind and body including trauma-bonding us to men, reducing exposure rather than viewing it with a critical eye will likely move us toward success and will be endemic to our female-only safe space.
Instead of engaging in media criticism, even radical feminist media criticism, it might be more constructive to turn off the TV; at the very least, now that we understand how and why *men* use this imagery, we could spend that time examining how and why girls and women (apparently) voluntarily use politicized torture as recreation, or as relatively-benign material with which to unwind after an average day. Now that’s interesting, isn’t it?
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