This week’s column looks at the point of sharing videos of the Bengaluru assault, Kim Kardashian’s calculated return to social media and emotional work.
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On sharing videos of assault
Did you, like so many others, find yourself viewing the new year’s eve CCTV footage from Bengaluru, or at least stills from it? It had very little to do with whether you sought it out, here was “concrete” proof that needed to be shared far and wide and so obviously you encountered it on news sites as well as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube.
Writing for The Ladies Finger, Maya Palit questioned the sharing of the video in the first place in a piece titled, ‘What’s the Point of Sharing Videos of Assault? Is there One?’
On one hand, these videos didn’t achieve much in terms of police or administrative action – they definitely didn’t stop politicians from dismissing the seriousness of sexual assault – on the other, as Palit acknowledges, the footage perhaps helped to revive a vital issue in the public domain.
Ultimately, Palit would rather have such footage in the public domain than entirely absent because its existence contributes to people’s awareness that such things do happen and they are as terrifying and violent as they appear on screen. By comparing this instance to issues regarding police brutality against black men in the US – well documented on video yet unacted upon – Palit concludes that such videos are not just valuable because they provide a “bastion of proof” but also “because they help to provide and strengthen an alternative narrative.”
It is telling though that we need this alternative narrative – of actual, violent assault – to prove that it is a problem begging for more attention. The fact that women have to go through an emotionally draining check list to simply venture out of the house is not enough to warrant a safer environment.
Consider the number of things most women do on a daily basis: many women are uncomfortable being in public spaces without men, or even with them; feel the need to carry pepper spray, take defensive classes, put their bags in front of their chests as they walk, keep someone on the phone while travelling at night, call or text their parents/significant others to inform them of their whereabouts.
The emotional toll of just being is unaccounted for in the narratives that are currently prevalent, and the video breaking into the public domain helped a little with that, by showing the physical aspect of what women dread and navigate on a daily basis.
So when it comes to the video, I don’t disagree with Palit; even though there is inherent discomfort involved in viewing such things and also processing the fact that these videos are disseminated in other contexts – “it’s not a myth that rape videos are widely circulated and voyeuristically appreciated in parts of the country”.
The article also raises another good point about how we approach videos themselves. Palit notes, “The legal value of visual evidence involving assault is a complex issue fraught with contradiction (for instance, there is substantial research to indicate that video testimony in cases of domestic violence can monopolise the narrative because of its perceived veracity, and end up sidelining the victim’s testimony).”
The example Palit cites actually goes to the heart of the problem – why is video always taken as absolutely truthful as if it reflects how things really happened? – even though we are aware that everything outside the frame in unknown to us; context is partially, if not entirely, eroded; and how easy it is to blur performance as reality – Keeping up With the Kardashians is the example that comes to mind.
Kim Kardashian’s return to social media
On one hand this perception of videos can actively hamper and seriously limit a survivor’s ability to take control of her own narrative and on the other, it can elevate a woman to worldwide fame. Yes, I’m back to the Kardashians, specifically Kim.
A recent article in the New York Times broke down Kardashian’s return to social media, three months after she fell victim to armed robbers in Paris. In the article, Vanessa Friedman analyses the aesthetic differences in Kardashian’s online presence now and then.
Gone are the extravagant jewels and clothes, replaced by “soft-focus normalcy”. As Friedman puts it, “Instead of Kim emerging from a Town Car in thigh-high stiletto boots and a bodysuit, we get Kim in sweats, cooking. Instead of Kanye ranting on a stage, we get Kanye holding his son up to some Christmas lights and marveling along with him. Instead of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” we get Cuddling the Kids.”
Given that the entire Kardashian business is built on constantly being in the public eye – I won’t say ‘living’ because the show and everything else the family does is heavily edited and curated to only create the illusion of actual living – it is no surprise that Kardashian is back on our newsfeeds. But it is easy to see that there is a careful effort to do it on her own terms, there’s no chance of the media getting an actual interview or quote from her to explain what happened in Paris.
Instead, we get a leaked recording of Kim’s statement on what happened – conveniently timed with her return to the public sphere. Friedman notes that this is actually Beyonce’s strategy – the pop star has simply stopped giving personal interviews, relying only on her own social media – visuals, not words or statements – and cover shoots et cetera but no unscripted time.
On the surface, it is heartening to see these women so unapologetically control their own narratives, it is not a choice commonly available to women. However, on deeper inspection, it’s also easy to argue that Kardashian’s new image is a response to the unsympathetic reactions she had to endure after Paris. Some people felt she had it coming for flaunting her wealth the way she did – as absurd as any other justification that hinges on “she had it coming”.
But Kardashian’s new pictures depict a decidedly unglamorous backdrop, she is clad in t-shirts, face with minimal makeup on, her kids or husband in most frames.
Kardashian seems to be saying, ‘look, I’m an average woman with a husband and family that I care for’ in a bid to generate the empathy that she deserves anyway but won’t get.
Trying to assert this fact through an interview would risk Kardashian slipping up somewhere, saying something or another that indicates her actual stature which is so far removed from the people she is currently trying to establish a connection with. So this faux-private footage is the way to go. It helps her deliver her message just the way she wanted to, minimising any room for engagement and so, deviation.
Notably, US President-elect Donald Trump is no different. As Friedman also notes, Trump too prefers social media, specifically Twitter, where he can post opinions and ignore reactions if he chooses, to traditional press conferences where he is forced to engage with reporters and their questions.
Friedman thinks the emergence of such behaviour has been a while coming: “I am saying it is exactly what we deserve, for agreeing to trade reality for the perception of reality. And what it is saying, aside from, “Oh, look, we are really happy together and you should stop writing that we are about to break up” (without, in fact, deigning to address the rumors overtly in any way) is: business as usual, folks. This is the reel world in 2017.”
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Is social media emotional labour? And is emotional labour actual work?
Those who say Kardashian is famous for doing nothing are either ignoring or ignorant of the fact that social media itself is a laborious activity that is not only draining on time but also on emotions. In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Alice Bolin writes about Moira Weigel’s new book, Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating and how it traces the trajectory of how women’s work came to be discarded as ‘emotional’, unquantifiable and outside the realm of money and production.
Social networking, too, is a form of emotional labor, and it is now a 24-7 activity for the creative class, especially women and people of color, for whom barriers to entry are greater. Men are relatively terrible at social media because it rewards attributes that have been socialized in women: to be cute, to be friendly, to be enthusiastic, to be diplomatic, to show interest in things and people they have no interest in, to be always available.”
She continues to note how differently men use Twitter, demonstrating how men are allowed to compartmentalise different aspects of their lives. There’s the job, there’s emotions, those two don’t mix, one doesn’t require the other.
“Men who join Twitter in order to network are obvious: they have their job, like “writer,” in their screen name. They use hashtags. They retweet a lot, not posts they found amusing, but posts from official outlets in their fields. They tweet infrequently.”
In other words, “They can sell their work, not themselves.” This is not an option available to women, they have to rely on ‘personality’ the undefinable personal characteristics that also came about as an identifier when dating became a thing in American society.
Talking about how Shopgirls channeled this, Bolin writes, “Although it was often seen as charisma, unselfconsciousness, or animal magnetism, personality has always been a performance. “A Shopgirl knew that the personality she expressed […] was not something she was born with,” Weigel writes. “Personality consisted of myriad effects that she had to work hard to produce.””
Now think about Kim Kardashian, her Instagram and Snapchat and Twitter and app and game all help her create a certain personality, making social media participation a creative, taxing endeavour that requires time and attention on a consistent basis – sounds like a job, no?
“A woman in our culture cannot separate her personality from her process: the roles of mother, wife, lover, and victim are ever-present and haunting.”
Friedman seems to think that this emphasis on turning the personal narrative into a public one is a reel phenomena and a product of the times we live in, but Weigel and Bolin’s work seems to imply that for women, it has been this way since the industrial revolution, which is when these gendered understandings of work were cemented.
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