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Clearing Away the Debris?: Webcamming in the Context of Feminist Tensions over Pornography, Privacy and Identity
By: Jane Bailey

May 30, 2006


Pornography, privacy and identity are three of the many unresolved tensions within feminist communities. Digital technologies, such as webcamming, offer us the opportunity to think not only about the impact of technical change on the meaning of these concepts, but also on the rightness of prior positions taken in relation to them.

In the 1980s and 1990s, feminists like Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin argued that pornography undermined women’s ability to be recognized as the social equals of men by objectifying women as commodities for male consumption. The law worked to reinforce these and many other aspects of patriarchy by, among other things, constituting pornography as the constitutionally protected free expression of the members of the male-dominated industry and by strenuously protecting men’s right to consume pornography in the privacy of their own homes. In these and other ways, the law colluded with market forces to enable the stereotyping of women as submissive sexual objects for the use and abuse of men. MacKinnon, Dworkin and others called for an end to that collusion through creation of a civil ordinance that would allow women to call pornographers to account for their sexually discriminatory conduct. Law could then be used as a tool to redress, rather than reinforce, the harmful stereotype of “woman” socially constructed through pornography.

Much water has flowed under the bridge since the failed attempt to bring the civil ordinance to fruition. Critical race scholars and post modern thinkers such as bell hooks, Audre Lorde and Judith Butler have launched provocative criticisms of the situatedness and limited emancipatory potential of a movement premised exclusively, or at least predominantly, on a category such as “sex” or “gender”. Postmodern thinking pushes toward destabilizing categories, like “sex” and “gender” that have acted as historical bases for discrimination. From this perspective, individual political action is critical, as it is through consciously “performing” gender that we might work to upset the stereotypical definitions that have historically confined us. Postmodern performativity theory promotes a sense of individual power to make change. Championing the possibility of collective change through individual action sits well with many in the current generation who, Baumgardner and Richards have explained, understand anti-pornography feminism to be laced with dictatorial anti-sex and anti-pleasure sentiment.

Enter the Internet and webcams …

Ongoing or regular streaming of one’s perspective, existence, latest break-up (or break-out) seems to have become de rigueur online. Webcamming and vlogging seem to fit quite well in two arenas. First, the two mesh with what seems to be a current voyeuristic cultural fascination with the notoriety of the mundane. The analysis, however, does not stop there. Webcamming has been argued to be a potential source of empowerment for women in at least two senses.

First, Kimberlianne Podlas has argued that webcamming may empower women to take directorial control over pornography by reducing the financial resources necessary to produce and broadly distribute content. Moreover, as suggested in the film Webcam Girls, webcam technology provides a much safer, more controlled space for women engaged in the sex trade.

Second, Terri Senft has argued that autobiographical webcamming by women may actually serve to destabilize both the public/private divide and stereotypical constructions of femininity and domesticity that have historically confined women. One of the examples Senft discusses is the Jennicam, through which aspects of the day to day life of Jenni Riley were, for some seven years, filmed and distributed on the web. Jenni characterized her efforts as a “social experiment” in which she sought “to show people that what we see on TV- people with perfect hair, perfect friends and perfect lives--is not reality.” In postmodern language, one might say that Jenni sought, through online exposure of everything from the most mundane to the most intimate aspects of her life, to explode the myth of the “perfect”, feminine stereotype woman. In so doing, she might be said to have been negotiating new boundaries between the public and the private by making exceedingly “public” some of the most “private” details of her life in that historic bastion of privacy - her own home.

Without wishing to wholly dismiss, with a single sweep of my dictatorial broom, the subversive “potential” of new technologies in giving women greater control over representations of sex, gender and sexuality, I must confess tremendous skepticism about webcamming “experiments” such as the Jennicam as a means for doing so.

What is it exactly that is being subverted here in terms of the public/private divide? While historically discrimination has isolated women in the private sphere by foreclosing their participation in the public sphere, there is also a long and complicated history that involves treating the bodies and images of women as public – from the thousands of scantily clad women monotonously presented in mainstream media to the strange idea that anyone can touch the abdomen of a pregnant woman to legal restrictions on women’s rights to obtain medical services such as abortions. The Jennicam and other webcams set up to monitor women in their homes may push the boundaries of the geographic locations that we consider to be public and those we consider to be private. Cams of this nature would also work toward suggesting that it is women who should what aspects of their lives are public and private. However, the focal point of the webcam gaze remains the very familiar public domain of the woman’s body.

Further, even if one believed that one could reclaim control over the projection of the image of woman by taking control of the means of projecting it, how much control do Jenni and other “webcam girls” actually have? Jenni carried on her daily life as the object of the gaze of a fixed camera that she set up – and she from time to time posed for it in pin-up girl fashion. Once disseminated, she lost control over the compilation and use of her image. As a result, collectors (some with permission and others seemingly without it) clipped and pasted together versions of her life for their own private consumption, as well as making them available to others. In some instances, Jenni has been pornified through her audience’s collection of nude and partially-clad clips that otherwise constituted only fleeting moments in seven years worth of video of her life.

Regardless of whether one believes that women’s emancipation is best served by some or all of legal regulation of certain kinds of pornographic content; encouraging alternative performances of gender and sex; or empowering women’s control over these representations, one observation seems unavoidable. Patriarchal constructions of “woman” continue to clutter the spaces in which women seek to build their own identities. On its face, webcamming seems to offer the possibility for women to take a degree of control over those spaces. Even someone prepared to accept that increased individual control is enough, webcamming’s control-limiting features suggest it is unlikely to play a significant role in clearing away the debris.

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