Tuesday, August 21, 2007

On Exhibitionism

Recently, I was looking at the Facebook page for a friend's movie about eating disorders and found myself bothered by the kinds of exhibitionistic body-consciousness on display among those who identified with the protagonists in the film. If they didn't look like bland blonde beauty queens, many of the 97 members of the group posted pictures of themselves ostentatiously eating junk food or ghoulishly vamping for the camera in ways that showed off their skeletal frames. I'd consider THIN a feminist film, broadly speaking, but I suppose that Lauren Greenfield's bleak portrait of the lives of anorexics and bulimics, which features cinematography from fellow VP friend Amanda Micheli, can also be seen as unintentionally reinforcing patriarchal norms because it still objectifies the bodies of women.

Then, today, in The Los Angeles Times, the opinion page ran an essay about "The false modesty movement," which criticized how conservative websites and marketers were urging young women to remove themselves from the public sphere. At the same time these modesty advocates were not insisting that the same caution be exercised by young men who were encouraged to be "dangerous" and embrace "manliness."

After reading this editorial, I visited some of the websites that the author mentioned. The Catholic Church's Pure fashion, which is devoted to "guiding young women ages 14 to 18 to become confident, competent leaders who live the virtues of modesty and purity in their schools and communities," promises that graduates of its "eight month Model Training Program" will attain mastery of "public speaking" and "hair and make up artistry," which are presented as equally weighted capabilities. I'm a rhetorician, but I don't think beauty queen speeches count. Furthermore, they entirely ignore how teens must present themselves publicly through digital networks and caution against "solicitations of certain media that go too far in the exhibition of intimate things."

When I visited the "DM Community" message boards of DressModestly.com, which was also mentioned in the modesty movement editorial, I was amused to see that their signature "Jewel Top" had generated complaints from customers about the fact that its design revealed undergarments. The system administrators ask that customers tell them "about your success stories, as well as any problems you have had," but their user-generated content comes with carefully articulated rules about decorum: "Do not be vulgar or mean, but honest and open." Consequently, with such a coercively modest audience, there appears to be very little posting on the message boards.

Of course, in the case of my own children, my main anxiety about their public exposure through the message channels of online communities is that they both are abysmal spellers. And I don't want their peers or people in authority who might view their pages to think less of them as a result. Although I have boys, I like to think that if I had daughters I would still be more worried about their production of competent prose (preferably with correct orthography) than about potential "immodesty" in their presentation of their electronic personal images to the public.

Nonetheless, I suspect that the exhibitionism of many practices in digital culture is one of the factors that makes otherwise thinking parents pause when it comes to letting their children develop online lives without hovering supervision. As I've argued before, I think "stranger danger" is a false issue and that it represents a kind of projection of parental fears to external sources. When it comes to parenting, it's often not what others might do to your child that makes parents with kids of a certain age anxious, but the conduct of the children themselves in cyberspace or anywhere else. And thus exhibitionism might be a substantive issue while predator panic is probably a dodge.

As a parent myself, I have to deal with the difficult task of teaching children meaningful Internet values without the hypocrisy of relegating them to an entirely separate child-safe sphere. This quest has produced a few other occasional short essays in the "On Values" series, such as "On Transgression" or "On Dissimulation." As in the case of the other two essays, I'm going to argue that there is a positive value for the title subject, and in this case that teen exhibitionism isn't all bad and that the Internet is a logical site of its expression.

Naturally, whenever I hear other parents moan and gossip about the things they've spied near their children's online profiles, I wonder why they assume that exhibitionism wouldn't be possible without distributed electronic networks.

"Have you ever heard of print?" I feel like asking them some time.

Certainly, as a young person, I spent a lot of time trying to get attention through various publishing ventures involving ink and paper. In high school, these efforts produced both "literary" and "humor" self-published or collectively published periodicals, which required only a xerox machine and some editorial skill to deliver. As someone terrible at sports and lacking in the social graces, showing off in print allowed me to acquire cultural capital that I would otherwise never have had the opportunity to garner using other means. I would guess that the zines of the Riot Grrrl movement served a similar purpose for some of my younger friends, although these had the built-in advantages of a recognizable genre and a trans-community audience.

In college, I wrote for both The Harvard Advocate and The Harvard Lampoon. The former seemed to discourage an exhibitionistic ethos, even though a number of confessional poets began their careers there, while the latter celebrated it and often illustrated stories with photographs of Lampy's writing staff. As the exuberant picture below shows, in which I appear between a present-day best-selling author and a late night talk show host, exhibitionism in this print publication represented a successful social strategy, in which both men and women could participate. (Click to enlarge.)

That's not to say that these displays in print were always gender neutral. When I look at pages like the one below, in which I appear in my nightie in a tasteless item that I wrote about necrophilia (and which -- in fact -- caused the magazine to lose several of its advertisers), I don't recognize many of the features of the public persona that I maintain today. Indeed, if anything, college print publications have gotten worse in this particular area. Witness the sleazy Harvard H-Bomb as an example. Ironically, given fears about the Internet and exhibitionism, part of its cachet was that its titilating pictures and stories existed only on glossy traditional pages rather than seemingly more ephemeral bits on a URL.

So what's the alternative to "modesty" if a teen is supposed to avoid excessively individualistic exhibitionism? Perhaps it's the anonymous manufacture of code, texts, or artifacts as part of a collective endeavor. But unless we expect young people to spend their time selflessly tinkering with open source or editing Wikipedia entries without recognition, the times may have passed this anti-exhibitionistic lifestyle by. In other words, from a broader historical perspective, tell-all or show-all exhibitionism has a long history, and in many ways it is a phenomenon of the Enlightenment, from which many of our current ideas about information culture come.

In Hackers & Painters, former Yahoo executive Paul Graham opines that it is the absence of an apprenticeship system in the modern era that causes the lives of teenagers to be stripped of the economic and cultural value that they would have had as craftsmen in guilds. Without a system that integrates their labor into the real world of adult sociality, Graham argues, students in middle school and high school can only exist in a virtual reality environment based on the cult of popularity in which students who actually make things are shunned as nerds.

I'm not sure Graham is right that young people should be embracing the hacker ethic rather than the YouTube fifteen minutes of fame, although there is certainly a big difference between a failure like Aleksey Vayner and an obvious success like James Kotecki. The skills of teens and twenty-somethings at digital rhetoric will be extremely important for their future job prospects and to their abilities to participate in social networks, and cognizance of certain aspects of public performance will only enhance their opportunities.

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Blogger Lupton said...

As the mother of three daughters and a son, I can relate to the modesty issues. My kids go to a Jewish school, which observes a modesty dress codes. We get occasional emails reminding the trophy moms not to show their belly buttons in the parking lot when their daughters to dress that way in school. (Boys have to cover their heads, so they have a code, too.) I like the fact of the dress code. We don't enforce it at home, where the kids can wear spaghetti straps and t-shirts with the word "fart," but they know there's a difference between home and school, and this in itself is a training in visual rhetoric and competing communities.

The kids' favorite on-line community is Club Penguin. Recently my oldest daughter was "banned for life" because she used obscenities on line. I ended up getting her reinstated, but I found the whole affair an extremely useful "teaching moment" for understanding the limits and proprieties of speech in distinct contexts. And on Club Penguin, she won't get a Second Life if she breaks the rules again.

As for my son, I just wish he'd change his shirt more often. With or without spaghetti straps.

8:29 AM  
Blogger bob c said...

what? Kids not obeying the rules! Needing lessons in life's realities! Suddenly I feel the twinge of restimulated pain in my soul, AND on my butt!

7:38 AM  

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