Who gets looked at, Who gets seen: public violence and the optics of bodies

PART 1: SETTING THE STAGE (Edited: Yeah–but no. I really need to give myself a break from this issue.)

[Content Note: police brutality, intimate partner violence, sexual assault.]


In what follows, I discuss several different stories that have captured public attention in recent weeks.

I juxtapose them here not to elide their differences or to posit any simplistic equivalences, either in the issues or in potential remedies. Certainly not to assert particular hierarchies of damage. But a certain thread running through them all–beyond the obvious violence–keeps troubling me in each of these stories; I lay them out together here in an effort to tease apart and (hopefully) articulate what that thread is.

One question these three stories–the extrajudicial killing of Michael “Mike” Brown in Ferguson, the Internet hacking and unauthorized release of hundreds of intimate photos of female celebrities, and the NFL’s profoundly botched response to the violence committed by Ray Rice against the woman who shares his life–all raise: what significance do we give the images of these victims of violence?

Put another way:

  • Which bodies render which kinds of violence visible?
  • What implications do these embodied codes of violence have for the human beings who walk around in such bodies? 

Like the vast majority of us, I encountered and am engaging with these stories solely through the Internet. (I am referring to the specific events themselves–not the broad social issues manifested through these events.) The ever image-hungry Internet. Let me tell you how each story first found me:

The day after Mike Brown was shot, Prison Culture posted an image of Brown’s stepfather holding a sign that reads, “Ferguson police just executed my unarmed son!” Little information was widely known that morning of Aug. 10, and the link her blog post first provided [since updated] was to a local press report–one accompanied by a picture that included, in the background behind cops and cop cars and cop tape, the visible legs of Mike Brown, still laying in the street. I posted a copy of the stepfather’s image to my own Facebook page, commenting:

I’m not linking to the story I just read–in hopes of more details to come, and as a rejection of that photo as the defining image of this young man’s life–and leave you with this picture instead. 

Later I learned police left Mike Brown’s body laying in the street for four hours, an act reminiscent of the public displaying of the bodies of black Americans killed by lynch mobs.

In the days after the celebrity photo hacking scandal broke, my Facebook feeds and my blog reader filled with alerts and headlines urging people not to seek out these photos and equating their viewing with acts of sexual assault. From Feministe pointing out that the hacked photos are “not a scandal, this is a crime” to the Daily Life telling me “why [I] shouldn’t click on pictures of Jennifer Lawrence” to The Guardian reminding readers “If you click on Jennifer Lawrence’s naked pictures, you’re perpetuating her abuse” to Feministing’s recent reminder: “Don’t look!”, I encountered this story primarily as a prohibition against viewing these images. I didn’t play close attention or feel like writing about it myself; news about pop culture figures isn’t one of my particular areas, and by the time I heard about it, others were already saying all the things I’d have wanted to be said. (h/t to my friend MezzoSherri, who does work in this arena, and who was my prime source for  quality mullings on the issue.)

A point to note: While many, many women (and some men) had their private, intimate photos suddenly become widely available, Jennifer Lawrence–a young, thin, white, blond woman–has featured centrally in every story I’ve seen so far. This makes sense, given the high number of leaked photos of confirmed to be of Lawrence (for others, only a picture or two may be circulation; also, some of the photos are fakes). This also makes sense, given that focusing on Lawrence allows publications to run their story accompanied by a (fully authorized) photo of this young, thin, white, blond woman. “Don’t look at her there, but by all means, click to look at her here!” (More on this in Part 3.)

Early in the morning of September 9, I noticed something strange in my blog stats: a post on domestic violence committed by an NFL player that I wrote over a month ago was getting an immense amount of traffic (more on that here). By midday–with already more visitors than my blog had previously gotten in its most viewed month, and image searches using the survivor’s name from unexpected places like Brazil, Sweden, and Tobago–I realized something new must have happened and did some Internet searching of my own, discovering that TMZ had just released video showing the abuse as it occurred inside the elevator. Again I took to Facebook:

If you saw the violation–and the gendered violence–inherent in any act of seeking out and viewing the recently hacked/leaked naked photos of celebrity women, I hope you will feel equally troubled by the leaking of this video, which enables an internet’s worth of people to participate in the (re)victimizing of yet another woman. Who, as far as I can tell, was neither consulted in, nor consented to, its release. 

I accompanied this comment with a link to Dave Zirin’s excellent article (Zirin was the first commentator I saw to raise the issue of revicimizing the woman involved, though I found others speaking out soon after, including Hannah Giorgis and Ravens player Chris Canty.) For many days, however, media outlets with far greater journalistic cache than TMZ(!) played this video again, and again, and again–despite the fact that the video itself added no information (other than the visual) to what was already known and widely reported to have occurred.

Three stories. Three forms of power abused.

Three victims, each of whom can be seen to represent many other victims of similar violence.

Also: a black man, a white woman, a black woman. Both in how events occurred and in what stories are getting told: intersecting permutations too numerous to count of violence, racism, toxic masculinity, and misogyny.

Again, to be clear, I am not equating the violence experienced–or the harm suffered–in these separate events. Nothing compares to the loss of one’s life, and the degree of trauma any individual undergoes is for that individual alone to determine. Still, when I put these stories together–what is being said and not said, what is being seen and not seen–I am haunted by a particular absence in the conversation: What role does race, and racism, play in what we [choose to] see happening in that elevator?

…If what happened to Mike Brown helped to render visible the violence of state power and the white supremacy it protects–and the public displaying of his (black male) body was seen as an assault by that power…

…If what happened to Jennifer Lawrence helped to render visible the violence of toxic masculinity and the purview its adherents claim over digital space–and the public displaying of her (white female) image was seen as an assault by those adherents…

What structures of violence are we looking at when we view a videotape of a brutal assault on a woman’s (black female) body–and are we truly seeing those structures, when we look?

Part 2: Asking the Other Questions and Part 3: Your Liberation Is Bound up with Mine to follow

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