June 7, 2012
Tumblr Versus Google Images

There’s been a lot of talk on Tumblr being a haven for feminists of all spectrums, and the checking of privileges, and I realise now that I’m not the best person to be talking about feminist issues if I’m not a woman or a person of colour with experience in those related issues. So why am I making a post like this if I’ve been worried about being yelled at for being right or wrong about issues such as these?

Well, there’s certainly an exciting idea to be shared that may not be directly related to the male gaze and feminism, but while I don’t have any direct experience with being a feminist aside from the time I was personally yelled at by Germaine Greer, I do have experience as a third year Photomedia student who looks at images on the internet all the time, as well as offline printed photo books in the library.

What I’m about to say, I’m confident enough to admit, is what I think that people will find interesting to read regardless of cultural background or gender, for it concerns the nerdiest of all Photomedia ethical debates… HASHTAGS APPLIED TO IMAGES OF NUDITY!

"But surely you jest, images of women in media can’t be reduced to a simple Tumblr hashtag!" I hear you cry. Well, here’s the thing, I’m going to lay this theory bare, and I hope it provokes discussion of what I believe might turn into a far more developed PhD thesis than what I’m about to provide, and it’s something I don’t see mentioned in many posts about images of nudity on the internet at all.

How much do hashtags applied to images of nudity, male or female, affect how we might imagine that nude person’s identity to be like?

It’s the game the whole family of internet nerds and activists can play, since rather than looking at the broader issues of why images of nudity are taken in the first place, we’re looking at how hashtags like Tumblr or Google Images has to help you find related images might shape how you might see the person in the nude photos as a person or a sexual entity or whatever.

Has anybody else noticed this, some of you must have, where Google Images when you try to search for images of female or male nudity mostly turns up porn movie stills whereas if you look on Tumblr, you get much different depictions of nudity that may or may not be divorced from a sexual context whatsoever?

And have you noticed that the stills from the porno movies on Google Images have much more slut shaming hashtags than the ones on Tumblr? Why is this?

Well, pornographic imagery is intended to stimulate sexual response, hence hashtags on Google Images claiming a woman in that image is “horny” or a “slut” is meant to appeal to a male gaze (I think, when you search for lesbian imagery it’s really hard to tell where to find stuff made for actual lesbians) of somebody who wants to fantasise about relations of a sexual nature with that person in the image.

Tumblr on the other hand has plenty of nudity, but look down in the hashtags and you’ll notice that a lot of the time the words “slut” or “horny” are nowhere to be found. And as a result, the people who heart the images on their Tumblrs or reblog it don’t really comment with remarks of slut shaming or body image dissing, but praise for the woman in the picture being confident in their body image or whatever?

It makes me start to wonder if there’s a Venn Diagram of people wanting to see nudity that’s sex positive, people who want to see pornographic imagery, and people who want to see naked people on the internet without the hashtags judging the people in the images for, well, being in the images as presented.

You get into all sorts of interesting situations like how pornographic stills on Google Images gets into racial fetishising territory with Asian women and African American women, but if you look into photographic artists like Nobuyoshi Araki you get weird overlap between smut and art where Araki’s clearly enjoying his job taking pictures of women in various bondage poses but you look at the images and there’s no hashtag telling you if the Japanese women Araki photographs are horny or slutty, visually it might seem like Araki’s a dirty old man, which there is evidence pointing towards, but from interviews I’ve read he seems to be the kind of dirty old man more concerned with taking pictures of women in bondage but he’s not really trying to depict them as slutty sex objects as pornography understands it.

For a photographer sometimes decried as pornographic, Araki’s deal is kind of an interesting case study of where smutty art photos are actually less degrading on some level than the pornography you’d find on the internet. In interviews Araki states that he finds these women sexy but I’ve never in my life heard him say that they’re slutty or used up because they’ve had pictures taken of them by him, he equates photography TO fucking, but I’ve certainly never heard him imply the women he photographs are slutty or used goods at all, he seems to just be interested in taking bondage photos, and not because he’s trying to appeal to an internet pornography audience.

When you keep this in mind, certain ideas spread further and you start contemplating whether an image is sexist and objectifying because it contains nudity in a sexual context… or whether the image is mostly innocuous but the porn site it came from that is linked through Google Images is making assumptions about the women in the photo stills that, to be honest… I’m not sure every man out there thinks those women are like on their own. The hashtags might be objectifying these women more than men trying to see naked people on the internet want to objectify them, if at all, since if a person looking for images didn’t make those hashtags themselves, you’re assuming that they think women in porno stills are like that all the time due to hashtags they never wanted to be there to begin with. As decried as obscene like Araki can be… he’s never put hashtags or titles of his images that decry the women his photographs as sluts or whores to be used as sexual objects in the same way actual pornography seems to.

That’s what’s fascinating about Photomedia as an art school degree. I could have gone and done a sociology or English Lit degree and studied ideas of a more abstract nature, but studying Photography rather than just gender theory or sociology on its own opens up new adventures in “Did men throughout history deliberately set out to objectify women in the arts humanity produced, or did some of them just want to see some breasts or buttocks without really trying to judge the subject of the image too much for being there to be looked at?” and “What if images of women’s bodies aren’t sexist because they’re nude… but they’re sexist because of what we project onto that nudity that the woman depicted certainly wasn’t thinking back then?”.

The study of female and male interactions in the scope of sociology and feminism certainly needs to be explored and Tumblr communities help that along very nicely. But if I spent this long in a Photomedia degree learning about not just how to take photographs, but also what they might mean… is it wrong to suggest that studying images beyond just surface value by either men or women is an invalid expression of activism, or criticism of media, because of their backgrounds rather than the downright fascinating ideas brought to the table?

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