It ended up in my feed, retweeted by my business partner, (whose grandmother just so happens to own a bookstore), but I’d wager , at 2,200+ retweets, this may be among the most popular things Kleon has written.
Because, on January 2nd, Mark Zuckerberg announced that his annual challenge for 2015 is to read a new book every other week. Every year Zukerberg takes on a new challenge to broaden his perspective and learn something about the world beyond Facebook. Last year’s challenge was writing a daily thank-you note, and the year before it was meeting someone new every day. This year’s challenge was crowd-sourced, and resulted in something bigger than just Zuckerberg’s own personal growth — an open challenge to anyone interested in reading 26 books in 2015, and discussing them in the Facebook community A Year Of Books.
At the same time, before the new year was even a week old, Céline launched their Spring 2015 campaign with Joan Didion as its poster girl:
Let’s talk about Céline’s just-debuted ad campaign featuring none other than immortal intellectual-and-otherwise dream girl Joan Didion. Did you just feel the collective intake of breath shared by every cool girl you know? Did you feel the pulse-quickening vibrations of every recent college grad and literature fan? Did you sense the earth trembling beneath your feet? Do you have two eyes and a heart?
Of all the celebrity fashion campaign appearances, who better to represent Philo’s ideals—a certain ease of wear, simplicity of line, clothes that are assured, structured yet fluid, decidedly for the woman on the move—than Didion, the original chronicler of heartfelt experience, both her own and others’? One whose perpetually Tumblr’d and tweeted packing list famously includes “2 skirts, 2 jerseys or leotards [and] 1 pullover sweater,” (an ethos Philo, who proudly advertises her own reliance on a personal “uniform,” would clearly understand); who understood fashion while relying on clothes that didn’t draw attention as much as prepare her for the task at hand.
We’ll be buying whatever Joan’s wearing.
In this unusual twist, Facebook found a 15th-century medium to champion, and Vogue breathlessly embraced an 80-year old literary icon as the new fashion It girl — all as part of the same trend.
See also: Ikea’s 2015 catalog campaign extolling the virtues of an analog, “bookbook” (TM) like it’s the next breakthrough in touch technology:
Maybe it’s something we’re learning about our new reality — books are the last, tangible refuge in a hypermediated world. In an age when everything is accessible, books are the most exclusive place you can go: it’s un-Instagrammable. Outside of a dog, as Groucho Marx said, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read — or selfie, or tweet, or anything. Inside of a book, you are absolved of the ever-escalating rat race for self-individualization through self-broadcast. You’re on another planet. Beyond GPS. You’re unfindable, unreachable. And yet, we read to know we are not alone.
“Somewhere in between normcore, cyberpunk, goth, and sportswear chic exists the possibly real trend known as “Health Goth,” wrote Allison P Davis in New York Magazine’s The Cut blog back in October. “It’s been kicking around since spring, actually, but it seems to have entered the mainstream this week.”
After which “came the inevitable cavalcade of follow-on articles,” wrote Jay Owens in the Hautepop post, The Week That Health Goth Broke. “Rather poetically,” Owens added, “many trend pieces are declaring it stillborn, dead before it arrived”:
Ushered in by appropriately uncertain headlines like, “Are you a Lumbersexual?” (Gawker); “Are you dating a Lumbersexual?” (Cosmopolitan); “Who Is the Lumbersexual and Is Anything About Him Real?” (Jezebel), another possibly-real trend arrived in November. As Tom Puzak explained in Gear Junkie:
Today, the metrosexual is a disappearing breed being quickly replaced by men more concerned with existing in the outdoors, or the pseudo-outdoors, than meticulous grooming habits.
He is bar-hopping, but he looks like he could fell a Norway Pine.
Seen in New York, LA and everywhere in between, the Lumbersexual is bringing the outdoor industry’s clothing and accessories into the mainstream.
Whether the roots of the lumbersexual are a cultural shift toward environmentalism, rebellion against the grind of 9-5 office jobs, or simply recognition that outdoor gear is just more comfortable, functional and durable, the Lumbersexual is on the rise.
“20 years ago, Mark Simpson coined the term ‘metrosexual,'” reads the Telegraph headline from June 2014. “But now a new, more extreme, sex- and body-obsessed version has emerged.” Simpson calls it the “Spornosexual.”
The term is a portmanteau to describe “these pumped-up offspring of those Ronaldo and Beckham lunch-box ads, where sport got into bed with porn while Mr Armani took pictures,” Simpson explains. “But unlike Beckham’s metrosexual ads of old, in which his attributes were possibly artificially enhanced, today’s spornosexuals have photoshopped themselves in real life. Glossy magazines cultivated early metrosexuality. Celebrity culture then sent it into orbit. But for today’s generation, social media, selfies and porn are the major vectors of the male desire to be desired. They want to be wanted for their bodies, not their wardrobe. And certainly not their minds.”
“Spornosexual” didn’t take off in the zeitgeist quite the way Lumbersexual has. Perhaps for being a little bit too foreign-sounding. And perhaps for being a little bit way too real to be possibly-real.
While I was writing this post, “Highsexual” happened. “What spawned the new psuedo-identity,” Michael D’Alimonte writes on MTL Blog, “was a slightly scandalous question posed to the reddit community, which basically can be summed up by a guy asking: I’m straight when I’m sober, but when I’m super high, I wanna bang guys, is this normal? And that is the crux of “highsexual,” a guy (or girl) that only ponders/enacts in gay sexual activity when stoned.”
While it’s true, as D’Alimonte notes, “You can apparently tack on -sexual to any word and create a new stratum of society,” (Goth too, evidently), in this particular case, the term pertains to sexuality directly rather than a fashion or aesthetic trend. Nevertheless, it’s still worth asking, as D’Alimonte does, “Is being a highsexual a real thing?” The answer? “Well, now that it’s an internet-used term, it kind of is.”
Perhaps the most notorious of 2014’s possibly-real trends, and no longer an anomaly so much as a harbinger, is Normcore. I wrote about it at the beginning of last year. The jury never really came back on whether Normcore is a real fashion movement or an Internet meme that the mass media fell for and self-fulfilled into becoming real. As Alex Williams put it in The New York Times:
A style revolution? A giant in-joke? At this point, it hardly seems to matter. After a month-plus blizzard of commentary, normcore may be a hypothetical movement that turns into a real movement through the power of sheer momentum.
Even so, the fundamental question — is normcore real? — remains a matter of debate, even among the people who foisted the term upon the world.
The catchy neologism was coined by K-Hole, a New York-based group of theoretically minded brand consultants in their 20s, as part of a recent trend-forecasting report, “Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom.” Written in the academic language of an art manifesto, the report was conceived in part as a work of conceptual art produced for a London gallery, not a corporate client.
As envisioned by its creators, “normcore” was not a fashion trend, but a broader sociological attitude. The basic idea is that young alternative types had devoted so much energy to trying to define themselves as individuals, through ever-quirkier style flourishes like handlebar mustaches or esoteric pursuits like artisanal pickling, that they had lost the joy of belonging that comes with being part of the group. Normcore was about dropping the pretense and learning to throw themselves into, without detachment, whatever subcultures or activities they stumbled into, even if they were mainstream. “You might not understand the rules of football, but you can still get a thrill from the roar of the crowd at the World Cup,” the report read. The term remained little more than a conversation starter for art-world cocktail parties until New York magazine published a splashy trend story on Feb. 24 titled “Normcore: Fashion for Those Who Realize They’re One in 7 Billion.” The writer, Fiona Duncan, chronicled the emergence of “the kind of dad-brand non-style you might have once associated with Jerry Seinfeld, but transposed on a Cooper Union student with William Gibson glasses.” An accompanying fashion spread dug up real-life L-train denizens rocking mall-ready Nike baseball caps and stonewashed boyfriend jeans without apparent shame.
Even so, it was difficult to tell if anyone actually believed the hype. For one thing, the normcore brain trust started to circle the wagons. Christopher Glazek, a journalist and friend of the K-Hole founders took to Facebook to blow holes in the “trend.” “It doesn’t really make sense to identify normcore as a fashion trend,” he wrote. “The point of normcore is that you could dress like a Nascar mascot for a big race and then switch to raver ware for a long druggie night at the club.”
The Trends They Are A-changin’.
Last year, some friends of mine accidentally became health goths. They didn’t mean to. It just happened. They were goths who grew up and got too old to keep going out to clubs the way they once had, so they got into crossfit, and that was that. Unbeknownst to them, they’d become classified into a whole new, possibly-real style.
This is something that didn’t used to happen. You didn’t just accidentally become hiphop. You didn’t one day trip over yourself to discover you were unwittingly wearing 30-inch bottom raver pants. Your clothes weren’t punked out and ripped to shreds for no particular reason that you were aware of until you read a New York Magazine trend piece about it. Now, a lifestyle neologism goes viral and you discover you’ve contracted a trend.
Alternative fashion trends used to be representative of a larger lifestyle or subculture emergence. The fashion brands that defined these aesthetics were often overtly and inextricably linked to these cultures.
The Kikwear brand’s history reads: In 1993, one of our key accounts in San Francisco asked us to make them a 23″ bottom for their store because the Rave scene was beginning to emerge in Northern California and the kids were walking into the store with their homemade “wide leg” pants. We moved on this tip and sure enough those denim pant sold out immediately! We quickly realized that this Rave Movement was starting to come on strong throughout Southern California and we started launching wider leg pants known today as “phatties.”
Meanwhile, aggregating the de riguer health goth brands for the requisite The New York Times article on the subject, Meirav Devash listed: “Mainstream brands like Nike, Adidas and Under Armour, or gothic streetwear from Hood by Air, Cottweiler, Whatever 21, Nvrmnd Clothing, Adyn and Skingraft.”
When I asked Jonny Cota, the owner of Skingraft, about health goth, last year, his response was skeptical amusement. Like everyone else’s.
Perhaps that is what makes possibly-real trends so dubious: the lack of intentionality. Fashion choices used to have specific and unironic meanings. Hippies, punks, ravers, goths — these were cultural philosophies that spread through adoption, not (solely) aesthetic replication. Now, we don’t claim participation, we are simply colonized by memes, unwitting bystanders, just sort of swept up in cultural trend redistricting.
In the days of slow-moving, 20th century media, emergent cultural expressions had time to incubate below the radar before they tipped into mass awareness. Pre-Tumblr, the only way to find out about a new cultural emergence was through the unassailably real channel of one of its actual practitioners. There was no need to wonder about veracity. Now, a nascent trend doesn’t really have the time to mature into something legitimate before the trendhunting hyenas descend upon it, exposing it to a sudden burst of scrutiny. What remains becomes neither niche enough to be authentic nor mass enough to be indisputable. Maybe no new trend seems quite real because it hasn’t had the chance to become real before we’re looking it up on urban dictionary and just as swiftly are click-baited on to the next dubious dopamine hit of meme culture.
Much like any other “It” girl, pizza’s popularity was ignited by internet fascination and possibly endorsed by the Illuminati.
Tumblr and Twitter memes dedicated to pizza’s power appeared, among them the Twitter account Pizzaminati.
Loyal followers still carry on the work via usage of #Pizzaminati on Twitter and Instagram. As such, “pizza” quickly took on new meaning — for example, pizza as a substitute in romantic relationship.The phrase “touch her butt and give her pizza” became a widely accepted way to keep your bae happy and “Pizza Is My Boyfriend” the new “Single Ladies” rally cry.
Then came the various pithy pizza message tees at clothing retailers like Forever 21 and Asos and Urban Outfitters.
However, almost as quickly as the Pizzaminati emerged, it disappeared. This, a screenshot of a funny tweet — “shots fired in the club over the last slice of pizza” — is all that remains. Where did you go, Pizzaminati? Were you really a sect of the Illuminati, destroyed once the pizza takeover was initiated? Yes, probably.
If you live in LA, you should go to the Modern Millennial exhibit. As soon as you possibly can, too, cuz it’s over in 6 days. I’ll explain where and how to find it in a minute, but first I want to tell you what it is.
Modern Millennial is an art installation / existential performance art piece / media experiment in the spirt of Exit Through The Gift Shop / I’m Still Here, except the theme is about being a person going through the modern experience.
The project was funded, and the exhibit installed, so now what’s happening is during the month of September a dude named Moses Storm is living inside an art exhibit in an industrial loft in #DTLA. The loft is filled throughout with installations that comprise the Modern Millennial exhibit, and Storm, the eponymous modern millennial, living life in said loft, is himself an interactive installation as well. It’s funny and weird and smart and awesome.
Modern Millennial seems, at first, like it will be a lampoon of millennial clichés — and it is definitely that — but it’s also something so much more interesting and introspective and sincere in the process.
“The Modern Millennial,” proclaims the Kickstarer, “Is a game-changing form of immersive performance art in which roaming audiences experience epic insights into a generation.”
Of course, that’s part of the point. The art and the artist are both keenly aware they are the results of the same generational forces they are ridiculing.
Or maybe not ridiculing at all.
There are, in a sense, three phases to the Modern Millennial exhibit. First, there is the digital precursor that you encounter before the physical space of the show. Then there is the in-person experience of the exhibit itself. And finally there is the digital afterlife of the exhibit, living on through shared photo content and hashtag feeds. Each of these three aspects comes with its own distinct tone and role in the narrative arc of the Modern Millennial experience, and likewise, the modern millennial experience.
Google “Modern Millennial” and the first thing you’ll find is the Kickstarter.
A typical cocktail of narcissism, hype, and jargon, it’s also unmistakably meta: taking its absurd premise seriously while also mocking itself, Millennials, (Kickstarer campaigns), everything:
Our goal with this piece is to show a different side of Millennials. And prove that not all of us are lazy narcissist who are just looking for a handout.
Some cool stuff happens if we hit our stretch goals.
If reached, we will tour with the exhibit. I am thinking Paris!
But in the physical space of the exhibit, the the mood is notably different. It’s exposed, honest, intimate. The way things look online is not how they feel in person.
The cynicism and detachment of digital distance break down into vulnerability and sincerity in physical space. So many of the pieces are an exploration of existential yearning for meaning and connection.
The Wall of Activism, for example, is a usual suspects lineup of viral sincerity eruptions.
It’s impossible not to view a LiveStrong Bracelet, a Stop Kony poster, a bucket full of ice water (among others), with a cynical side-eye. But when you see them displayed this way, all cataloged together, they are also inescapably earnest. These recurring, massive social hysterias of optimism and the dream of collective empowerment; this ceaseless desire to care.
The most popular piece in the show (based on frequency of Instagram appearances) is also the most inscrutable.
Is it a comment about being unafraid to come out as an artist? To claim a sincere artist identity in the midst of a storm of irony?
Or is it a jab at the pretentiousness of the concept? An ironic joke about such an analog anachronism?
Does such a thing as a “serious artist” still even exist, or is the popularity of the piece akin to that of an endangered animal on display at the zoo?
Is it for real, or is it a joke?
Does it matter?
For an exhibit titled, #ModernMillennial, the show itself is remarkably, unremarkably lo-fi. The Modern Millennial is less infatuated with technology than with humanity. And yet the experience is inherently hybridized with digital DNA.
In 2014, our digital technology is increasingly hurtling towards pervasive invisibility, insinuating itself into our every waking moment with the banal inevitability of electricity. And yet, it’s the human interactions with the art pieces, through the lens of digital media, that turn them on like a switch. Without Instagram, or at the very least the vernacular of Instagram, much of Modern Millennial wouldn’t really make any sense.
“Stand Here Do Nothing” is built to basically only really work once it’s in a photo you’ve posted up somewhere:
Likewise, “Like This So I know You Still Exist.”
Taking and posting these photos is at once a cliché and an act of participating in a piece of art about a cliché.
But it’s ok. Don’t worry. You can’t help it. This stereotypical experience — it’s universal.
Modern Millennial sincerely delivers on what its ironic (or not) Kickstarter promised: it captures the truths our contemporary condition. And it does so with humor and humanity. There’s certainly plenty to mock about the times we live in, but we’ve got to have compassion for our predicament, too.
How to get to the Modern Millennial Exhibit.
In a time where basically everything is accessible online, the show is almost stringently unfindable. You stumble into it like a niche forum from the ’90s. We used to discover things online. Now the only way to access a real sense of discovery is through things hidden offline. So go:
But it’s the selfies — mirrored or otherwise — that have been on my mind a lot lately.
Right now, there are 50 million images on Instagram with the hashtag #selfie, and nearly 140 million tagged #me.
“Selfies,” Elizabeth Day reports in the Guardian, “Have become a global phenomenon. Images tagged as #selfie began appearing on the photo-sharing website Flickr as early as 2004. But it was the introduction of smartphones – most crucially the iPhone 4, which came along in 2010 with a front-facing camera – that made the selfie go viral.”
A recent survey of more than 800 American teenagers by the Pew Research Centre found that 91% posted photos of themselves online – up from 79% in 2006.
But the selfie isn’t just a self-portrait, it is a self-object.
“Again and again, you offer yourself up for public consumption,” Day writes. “Your image is retweeted and tagged and shared. Your screen fills with thumbs-up signs and heart-shaped emoticons. Soon, you repeat the whole process, trying out a different pose.”
“The selfie is about continuously rewriting yourself,” says Dr. Mariann Hardey, a lecturer in marketing at Durham University who specializes in digital social networks. “It’s an extension of our natural construction of self.”
But what is it we are constructing our selves into?
Before we go any further, let’s get this out of the way: unless you are a teenager right now, you do not understand what it means to grow up in a world where porn and Facebook are equidistant — in case you don’t know, that proximity is one click away, and apart. If you’re curious to understand what, in fact, this experience is like — in teenagers’ own words — you should read Nancy Jo Sales’ recent Vanity Fair article, “Friends Without Benefits.” But not until after you’ve finished reading this one because I’ll be drawing on it quite a bit.
If you are, at this moment, older than at least your mid-20s, whatever it is that you think you can draw on to relate to 2013 from an analog adolescence frame of reference, just put that away, because it is not a parallel to what is happening right now. What is, according to Gail Dines, the author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, is “a massive social experiment.” Here are some results from that experiment so far:
93% of boys and 62% of girls have seen internet porn
83% of boys and 57% of girls have seen group sex online
18% of boys and 10% of girls have seen rape or sexual violence
But that was five iPhone versions ago at this point, so, you do the math.
“In the absence of credible, long-term research, we simply don’t know where the age of insta-porn is taking us,” writes Peggy Drexler on TheDailyBeast, but that we are in it, and that it is pervasive, is undeniable.
“What does this do to teenagers,” Sales asks in Vanity Fair. “And to children? How does it affect boys’ attitudes toward girls? How does it affect girls’ self-esteem and feeling of well-being? And how is this affecting the way that children and teenagers are communicating on these new technologies?”
In the the Guardian, Day describes one typical answer to that last question: “The pouting mouth, the pressed-together cleavage, the rumpled bedclothes in the background hinting at opportunity — a lot of female selfie aficionados take their visual vernacular directly from pornography (unwittingly or otherwise).”
“Because of porn culture,” says Dines, “Women have internalised that image of themselves. They self-objectify.”
“The girls I interviewed,” says Sales, “Even if they’re not doing it themselves, it’s in their faces: their friends posting really provocative pictures of themselves on Facebook and Instagram, sending nude pictures on Snapchat. Why are they doing this? Is this sexual liberation? Is it good for them? Girls know the issues, and yet some of them still can’t resist objectifying themselves, as they even talk about [themselves]. As the girl I call ‘Greta’ says, ‘more provocative equals more likes.’ To be popular, which is what high school is all about, you have to get ‘likes’ on your social-media pics.”
Flattening the hierarchies that separate trash from art, porn from erotica, and moral justice from exploitation by any means necessary, Spring Breakers… embraces and elaborates upon the prevalent suspicion that nobody lives on the stable side of reality any more.
“Pretend you’re in a videogame,” says one of the film’s female anti-heroines as they begin their spree of rampant self-abuse and crime. That’s what Miley Cyrus does, trying on new aspects of performance and sexual self-expression in her new persona. It’s also how the vulnerable models that Robin Thicke ogles [in the music video for his song, Blurred Lines] make it through the gauntlet that the video’s scene creates.
The childlike goofiness Katy Perry expressed with California Gurlz in 2010, or the sweet hope of Carly Rae Jepsen’s smash of last year, Call Me Maybe, have intensified into something more unsettling. In this strange summer of too much heat, so many precariously excessive songs and videos now play on that line between healthy catharsis and chaos.
The summer would get stranger still. Punctuated in its final days by what may just be the most controversial MTV Video Music Awards performance of all time, featuring a duet by Cyrus and Thicke.
From its very first steps, Cyrus’s performance felt, unmistakably, like watching a GIF happen in real-time. The act was speaking the native tongue — stuck all the way out — of the digital age, its direct appeal to meme culture as blatant and aggressive as the display of sexuality. The source material and its inevitable meme-ification appeared to be happening simultaneously. The Internet was inherently integrated within the performance. It was no longer a “second” screen; it was the same damn screen. All the performances before it had been made for TV. This show changed that.
What I learned from the 2013 VMAs is that owning your sexuality is passé, but owning meme culture by exploiting your sexuality is now. Whatever you think of it, Cyrus’s performance was a deliberate reflection of where we are as culture.
A burner had been left blindly on. Something invisible and pervasive had accumulated. Watching the VMAs, a giant fireball exploded in our faces.
“Titstare” was the first presentation of the TechCrunch Disrupt 2013 hackathon. Created by Australians Jethro Batts and David Boulton, the joke app is based on the “science” of how sneaking a peek at cleavage helps men live healthier lives.
The opening salvo cast an ugly shadow over the event, reminding attendees that, just like at PyCon and other technology conferences, “brogrammer” culture is still the norm.
Perhaps most disconcerting is the fact that Batts and Boulton presented immediately before Adria Richards, a programmer who rose to the national spotlight after she witnessed sexist jokes at PyCon 2013. Her gall to disapprove of the offensive jokes earned her death threats.
In the wake of the VMA article, I kept tweeting over and over, “Everything is changing….but into whatttttt?” By the early days of Fall, the culture had undeniably shifted. I kept kept seeing an escalating, atavistic gender warfare. Why is this happening, I thought.
That week I was approached to speak at a women’s startup conference and felt, reflexively, offended. The idea that there should be segregated events seemed insulting and damaging — to everyone. I began to feel self-conscious that I had an app startup with a male business partner. I texted him, “What is happening???” and “Can’t we all just get along?” We laughed, but we began to feel like an anomaly.
Pretend you’re in a videogame.
“When we listeners find ourselves taking pleasure in these familiar but enticingly refreshed acts of transgression,” Powers writes, “Echoing the Michael Jackson-style whoops that Pharrell makes in Blurred Lines, or nodding along to the stoned, melancholy chorus of Cyrus’s arrestingly sad party anthem, We Can’t Stop, are we compromising ourselves? Or is it okay, because after all, it’s just pretend?”
And when the technology that I, you, and everyone we know use on a daily basis gets developed to the sound of this same, blurry, pop culture soundtrack (figuratively or literally), what happens then? How are the creators of objectifying technology supposed to know it isn’t cool — if all of our technology is used for objectification?
In Vanity Fair, Sales talks to Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus co-directors of Sexy Baby, a documentary about girls and women in the age of porn. “We saw these girls embracing this idea that ‘If I want to be like a porn star, it’s so liberating,’” Gradus said. “We were skeptical. But it was such a broad concept. We asked, ‘What is this shift in our sexual attitudes, and how do we define this?’ I guess the common thread we saw that is creating this is technology. Technology being so available made every girl or woman capable of being a porn star, or thinking they’re a porn star. They’re objectifying themselves. The thinking is: ‘If I’m in control of it, then I’m not objectified.’”
In October, Sinead O’Connor — whose video for Nothing Compares 2 U inspired Cyrus’s look in her video for Wrecking Ball — wrote an “open letter” to Cyrus, beautifully capturing, “in the spirit of motherliness and with love,” the generational disconnect at the heart of the cultural shift. “The message you keep sending is that it’s somehow cool to be prostituted.. it’s so not cool Miley. Don’t let the music business make a prostitute out of you,” O’Connor wrote, not getting it.
The familiar, analog, 20th century relationship in between objectification and commercialization has eroded. In its place, a new, post-Empire dynamic has arrived, built on a natively digital experience that O’Connor and an entire population still able to remember and relate to a world before the internet and mobile technology, can’t wrap their heads around.
“The blurred messages Thicke, Cyrus and others are now sending fit a time when people think of themselves as products, more than ever before,” Powers writes.
In the attention economy, self-exploitation is self-empowerment. We are all objects. We are all products. We are all selfies.
And we can’t stop.
“Social media is destroying our lives,” Sales quotes a girl in Vanity Fair.
Like the girls in Sales’ article, who tell her that “presenting themselves in this way is making them anxious and depressed,” but continue to do it anyway, we do not self-objectify because we’re in control. We self-objectify because it is the norm.
We self-objectify to rationalize, to placebo-ize that we had control in the first place.
We Can’t Stop.
“Both young women and young men are seriously unhappy with the way things are,” says, Donna Freitas, a former professor at Hofstra and Boston Universities, who studies hook-up culture on college campuses in her new book, The End of Sex (which Sales suggests, “might as well be called The End of Love.”)
Much has been written about hook-up culture lately, notably Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men(2012) and a July New York Times article, “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game Too,” both of which attributed the trend to feminism and ambitious young women’s desire not to be tied down by relationships.
But Freitas’s research, conducted over a year on seven college campuses, tells a different story.
She describes the sex life of the average college kid as “Mad Men sex, boring and ambivalent. Sex is something you’re not to care about. They drink to drown out what is really going on with them. The reason for hooking up is less about pleasure and fun than performance and gossip—it’s being able to update [on social media] about it. Social media is fostering a very unthinking and unfeeling culture.”
College kids, both male and female, also routinely rate each other’s sexual performance on social media, often derisively, causing anxiety for everyone.
And researchers are now seeing an increase in erectile dysfunction among college-age men—related, Freitas believes, to their performance anxiety from watching pornography: “The mainstreaming of porn is tremendously affecting what’s expected of them.”
Porn has killed our imaginations. We sit and try to fantasize. We shut our eyes tight and think, ‘Wait, what did I used to masturbate about before porn? What image is going to turn me on right now?” But your brain gets tired and your genitalia isn’t used to working this hard so you open your reliable go-to porno and get off in two minutes. Later, you have trouble maintaing an erection during actual sex because your partner doesn’t look like a blow up doll from the Valley.
Our sex lives are having less and less to do with actual sex. Intimacy has morphed into something entirely more narcissistic. What used to be about making each other feel good and connecting is now about validation.
When sex does happen, when we finally make it through the endless hoops of text messaging, planning a date and actually sticking to it and you discover that you like this person (or could like them for an evening), it feels like an old faded photograph that’s been sitting in a shoebox at the bottom of your closet. “This orgasm feels like a vintage ball gown! Is this how people used to do it in the olden days?!” It’s terrifying!
In 2013, our phones are getting to have all the fun. They’re getting laid constantly while we lay naked in the dark, rubbing our skin, trying pathetically to get turned on by the feel of our own touch. We scroll through our camera and see a buffet of anonymous naked photos we’ve collected over the last few months for us to jack off to. Somehow, this has become enough for us. Getting off has become like fast food. It’s accessible, cheap, and most likely going to make us feel like shit after.
We are actively participating in the things that keep us from what we want. Feel good now, feel bad forever later. Stomachache stomachache, junk food junk food.
In a pervasively mediated culture, where porn primes our perception of ourselves and others, and our technology reduces us to selfies, objectification is inevitable.
And the trouble is — it doesn’t matter how you treat objects…. It’s not like they’re people.
What people want today is “to hurt one another” and “get back at the people that hurt them,” Hunter Moore, the founder of IsAnyoneUp.com, told Rolling Stone last October.
And Moore ought to know. He’s one of the pioneers of revenge porn, the practice of posting nude photos to the web of a former lover in an attempt to embarrass, defame, and terrorize.
While minorities and homosexuals are often targeted, experts say no group is more abused online than women. Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland lays out some of the numbers in her upcoming book, Hatred 3.0. The US National Violence Against Women Survey reports 60% of cyberstalking victims are women. A group called Working to Halt Online Abuse studied 3,787 cases of cyberharassment, and found that 72.5% were female, 22.5% were male and 5% unknown. A study of Internet Relay Chat showed male users receive only four abusive or threatening messages for every 100 received by women.
Moore has sold his site but scores of wannabes are cropping up. A check of these sites shows that victims are almost always women. At Myex.com over 1,000 nude photos and new pictures are added nearly every day. Each post typically includes the name of the person photographed, their age, and the city they live in. The posts come with titles like, “Manipulative Bitch,” “Cheater,” “Has genital warts,” “Drunk,” “Meth User,” “This girl slept with so many other guys,” and “Filthy Pig.”
The Verge contacted several women found on some of these sites, including Myex.com. While all of them declined to be interviewed, they did acknowledge that the photos were posted without permission by an ex-boyfriend or lover. One woman said that she was trying to get the pictures pulled down and had successfully removed them from other sites because she was not yet 18 years old when they were taken (if her claim is accurate it would make the snapshots child pornography). She pleaded that we not use her name and asked that we not contact her again.
If the woman was upset and afraid, she has a right to be, says Holly Jacobs, 30, who has started a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending revenge porn and supporting its victims. Jacobs knows firsthand that these sites are killers of reputations and relationships. Three years ago, Jacobs was studying for her PhD in industrial organizational psychology and working as a consultant at a university when a former boyfriend began posting nude photos of her online. The embarrassment and terror was just the beginning. Jacobs’ ex sent copies of the photos to her boss and suggested she was sexually preying on students. Jacobs’ employers, fearing bad press, asked her to prove she didn’t upload the photos herself. She finally felt compelled to change her name (Jacobs is the new name).
In July The Washington Post published a story about men who post phony ads to make it appear as if their ex-wives or girlfriends are soliciting sex. One man, Michael Johnson II of Hyattsville, Maryland, published an ad titled “Rape Me and My Daughters” and included his ex-wife’s home address. More than 50 men showed up to the victim’s house. One man tried to break in and another tried to undress her daughter. Johnson was sentenced to 85 years in prison. His victim was physically unharmed but these ads can be lethal. In December 2009, a Wyoming woman was raped with a knife sharpener in her home after an ex-boyfriend assumed her identity and posted a Craigslist ad that read, “Need an aggressive man with no concern or regard for women.” Her ex and the man who raped her are both serving long prison sentences.
While people, trapped as we are by our digital avatars, are increasingly being reduced to objects, our technology seems to be benefitting from a transference of humanity.
Spike Jonze’s new movie, Her, due out in December, is being called “science fiction,” but the “future” depicted in the trailer looks essentially indistinguishable from the reality we all find ourselves in today. In it, a melancholy man, played by Joaquin Phoenix, and a Turing test-approved virtual assistant program, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, fall in love.
“Unlike the science fiction of yesteryear,” writes David Plumb on Salon.com, “Her is not about the evolving relationship between humans and artificial intelligence. Instead, Samantha appears to be essentially a human being trapped in a computer. Her thus appears to be about programming the perfect woman who fits in your pocket, manages your life, doesn’t have a body (and thus free will), and has an off switch.”
Here is what I can tell you. When I was in New York a month ago and one night someone suggested we go to an MTV party, the first thought I had was — wait, MTV still exists?
But I guess it does because this week I’ve spent a lot of time talking about MTV. Well, not really so much MTV as the MTV Video Music Awards. Well, not even that, so much as Miley Cyrus’s performance. Yeah, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about Miley Cyrus’s performance at the VMAs. And so has the rest of America. Not only was a story about her performance the main event on the CNN homepage the next day, I then saw The Onion’s fictional op-ed, ostensibly written by the managing editor of CNN.com, with the headline, “Let Me Explain Why Miley Cyrus’ VMA Performance Was Our Top Story This Morning” (CNN spoiler alert: ad revenue), retweeted in my feed no less than 9 times in a matter of hours (The Onion spoiler alert: ad revenue).
Anyway, we expect this. We’re practically inured to it at this point. But this show, Cyrus’s show, got under our skin. And not in, like, a good way.
“It seems everyone hated whatever it was Miley Cyrus was doing at last night’s VMAs,” Neetzan Zimmerman wrote on Gawker.
Whatever it was she was doing…. we couldn’t even be sure. The next morning we woke up in turns “stunned,” “shocked,” “outraged,” outraged by the outrage. From the moment Cyrus first stuck out her tongue, things felt weird. We’re so used to performers adhering to a strict code of conduct of media training — gliding through precise sequences of polished, camera-ready choreography. You want this to wind up being the image that follows you around the internet tomorrow, we thought to ourselves watching Cyrus gag.
And that was all before Robin Thicke got onstage and Cyrus snapped out of her teddy-bear teddy, down to a nude, vinyl bikini, to duet Thicke’s own controversial summer hit, “Blurred Lines,” and the REALLY uncomfortable shit happened. The most disconcerting thing about their performance was Thicke’s consistent lack of….. engagement. While Cyrus twerked all over his body, Thicke seemed barely aware she was there. The New York Times described Cyrus’s behavior as a “molesting” of Robin Thicke. Behind his shades you couldn’t be sure whether he was even making eye contact. Of course, what Thicke was doing was reenacting the Blurred Lines video. Directed by Diane Martel, who’s also responsible for the video for We Can’t Stop, the video features basically completely naked women dancing next to, strutting past, facing away from, and engaging in a host of other activities that in general involve pretty much anything except actually acknowledging the presence of Robin Thicke. Or of T.I. or Pharrell Williams. The non-interactions between the fully-dressed men in the video and naked women seem so unaligned and asynchronous and non-sequitured they might as well be SnapChatting them in. “I directed the girls to look into the camera,” Martel explained on Grantland. “This is very intentional and they do it most of the time; they are in the power position. I wanted to deal with the misogynist, funny lyrics in a way where the girls were going to overpower the men. Look at Emily Ratajkowski’s performance; it’s very, very funny and subtly ridiculing. I find [the video] meta and playful.”
Whether the end result really succeeds in its intention is debatable (“Is meta-nudity a thing? Is there such thing as ‘ironic objectification?'” Callie Beusman asks on Jezebel), but this conceit at least makes sense in the context of a music video — and, by the way, subconsciously speaks to all of us and our modern experience of hyper-mediated, asynchronous connection. But you know where it doesn’t actually work? Live, on stage, as a visual to support a 20-year old former child star’s transformation into a woman claiming her sexuality.
“Performing near-nude on the VMA stage 10 years earlier,” Daniel D’addario writes on Salon.com, “Christina Aguilera was singing an ode to her own empowerment and desire to get sexual satisfaction on her own terms. Last night, Miley was singing a song about how good Robin Thicke is at sex.” And in this context, Thicke’s lack of engagement in the proceedings made Cyrus’s relentless hypersexualization look desperate, or worse yet, depraved. At first Cyrus came across like that girl you knew in college, drunk at a party, looking to fuck for validation. If you happened to stop to factor in the 16 year age difference between Thicke and Cyrus, a whole other kind of psychological issue could, conceivably, have seemed to be spilling itself out all over MTV. But the real cringe-worthy element of the experience was that, in the absence of active participation — and its implicit consent — from anyone sharing the stage with her, Cyrus’s agrosexual zeal very quickly began to look kinda….uhm…. predatory.
In one singular moment, Cyrus appeared to us as victim and predator. The violated, and the violator. No wonder we weren’t sure what we were even looking at. Cognitive dissonance, haaaaaaaay! Miley Cyrus had roofied us all. You could understand why, the next morning, MSNBC’s, Mika Brzezinski would call her “disturbed.”
But it sure did make for some great GIFs tho, amirite?!
From its very first steps, Cyrus’s performance felt, unmistakably, like watching a GIF happen in real-time. On the Atlantic, Nolan Feeney called this “the most GIFable award show ever,” and, indeed, Cyrus’s performance felt like the first one truly made for the age of the Internet. The act was speaking the native tongue — stuck all the way out — of the digital age, its direct appeal to meme culture as blatant and aggressive as the display of sexuality. All the performances before it had been made for TV. This show changed that. The source material and its inevitable meme-ification appeared to be happening simultaneously. The Internet was inherently integrated within the performance. It was no longer a “second” screen; it was the same damn screen. If you go to watch the performance now on MTV.com, a bright pink button, set in stark relief against the site’s black background, blares, “GIF THIS!”
You want this to wind up being the image that follows you around the internet tomorrow?
Yes. That was the whole point.
It’s our party we can do what we want
It’s our party we can say what we want
It’s our party we can love who we want
We can kiss who we want
We can sing what we want
– “We Can’t Stop“
Six years before Cyrus was even born, a trio of dudes demanded you had to fight for your right to party. But that’s not what We Can’t Stop is is about. This song is a rallying cry for the right to be your own person. Something the human collateral of the Disney industrial complex, and the daughter of a Hollywood dad, would know something about, no doubt. (“It’s my mouth; I can say what I want to.”) But it’s also something that any adolescent can relate to, especially now.
Because if you don’t do it on your terms, the Internet meme hive force will do it for you. Here’s a pic that made the Internet meme rounds in the wake of Beyonce’s Super Bowl performance earlier this year:
And here’s Cyrus fucking the shot up on purpose, before you could do it to her:
If you think Cyrus was trying to look good for you, if you think that no one was telling her “no” as she was putting the VMA performance together, that she herself wasn’t scrutinizing each frame of rehearsal video, and keenly understanding just how wrong it all looked, you’re completely missing the point.
The meme hive force is the digestive system of our networked world, capable of gleefully devouring its victims — or at least its objects — alive. Cyrus doing it to herself is “disturbed,” but the violating, exploiting meme hive force doing it to her is just another Tuesday on the Internet? And we’re totally cool with that. But, see, Cyrus thinks this is her song. And she can sing if she wants to. Her performance, crass, lewd, uncomfortable, disturbing, whatever, turned the hive force dynamic on its head. The meme object rolled out of a giant teddy bear, landed on stage and screamed, “GIF THIS!” It stuck its tongue out at all of us and belted, FIRST! at the top of its lungs and memed itself. Before anyone else could. The show got the upper hand by turning itself into the object of its own violation.
Because when we’ve already been titillated in every way imaginable, what else is there left to do? Cyrus basically didn’t do anything on the VMA stage that hasn’t been simulated there in one way or another before. So how else is there for a female pop star to traffic in her own sexuality in any new way, except to make us all feel like she was coercing us into violating her?
It was a new one for me. Was it weird for you, too?
“The Internet is fickle,” Martel said on Grantland, “But if a video is strong and entertaining, it is going to get massive hits, so of course strong work is going to have an effect on record sales. As I said, I’m mega-focused on selling records right now, so I’m doing that. I’m only taking jobs where this is a possibility. There is a new generation of kids that are overstimulated as viewers and you have to address that somehow. I’m just paying attention to the audience and their movements.”
What I learned from the 2013 VMAs is that owning your sexuality is passé, but owning meme culture by exploiting your sexuality is now. After all, in the attention economy, self-exploitation is self-empowerment. (Miley Cyrus spoiler alert: ad revenue).
Whatever you think of it, Cyrus’s performance was a deliberate reflection of where we are as culture. Calling it a “commentary” may be an overstatement, but it’s definitely a comment:
R U NOT ENTERTAINED?????
Oh, and guess what else? MTV, it turns out, still exists.