Tuesday, December 4, 2007

suicidegirls.com

This is the second posting of mass communication study critiques. I hope you like it!



Review of "Feminist sexualities, race and the internet: an investigation of suicidegirls.com"
1) The research topic and researcher(s):
The title of the article that I will be critiquing in the following paper is "Feminist sexualities, race and the internet: an investigation of suicidegirls.com." The article was researched and written by Shoshana Magnet of the University of Illinois, Uraba-Champaign. The article was published in the August 2007 issue (volume 9, issue 4) of the New Media and Society journal.
2) Rationale of the study:
The rationale of this article is to analyze the website suicidegirls.com through the feminist, queer theory, and cultural materialist lenses as well as to make a conclusion on whether or not the website is falsely advertising itself as a feminist text solely for the sake of profit. As the author states in her article, the site has become quite popular since it has been reviewed by several major underground magazines and is thus deserving of some critical attention. It seems as though the author's main rationale, however, is to '"see through" the hype and pseudo-intellectualism of the site's content as well as from the commenting members of the site (since it claims to foster more than just raw, countercultural beauty, but "brains" also).
In the abstract of the article, the author also seems keen on pointing out that suicidegirls.com as well as cybersex in general have many negative racial implications due to the under-representation, exoticism, and subsequent reinforcement of "racialized hierarchies of sexual subordination" of "women of colour." In doing so, the author is correlatively interested in educating her readers to see past the apparent intellectual and countercultural facade and see the website for what it is: a for-profit site that, through the commodification of female countercultural sexuality, and serving only to exoticize women from diverse backgrounds, rather than give them a means of truly interrupting the "male gaze," is contradictory to the founding principles of feminism. At the risk of oversimplifying: this article is bashing/deconstructing suicidegirls.com to reveal how it negatively impacts society's views towards women (especially women of colour).
3) Literature review: Identify theories the researcher uses to underlie his/her study. Summarize some key studies previously done, as cited by the researcher. This can be done in four-to-five paragraphs.
In her paper, Shashona Magnet utilizes a trove of different theories and past research to solidify her argument. One important theoretical that she cites is the notion of exoticizing and treating women of colour as "the other," which is exactly what Edward Said talks about in his book Orientalism. She also cites Razack and other critical race feminists when attempting to further explain the issue of racism and cyber racism, saying that the forces of oppression that lead to this negative aspect of Suicide Girls is interlocked with other indirect forms of oppression, and thus is not easily curable (though very easily critique-able).
She also brings up the vocabulary of utopian and dystopian cyberfeminism, which is discussed in research done by Millar (1998), Hawthorne and Klein (1999), and Hughes (1999). She does not going into great detail during this section on the exact arguments and conclusions of each researcher, but certainly makes her case with the sheer number of researchers that have studied the topics.
Lastly, she borrows a leaf from Kaplan's and Mulvey's arguments on the role of the male gaze in determining media content, including how women are represented (and what they represent). I have studied Kaplan and Mulvey in past film classes, so I am already somewhat familiar with their arguments. They argue that women are so objectified in male-produced cinema (and apparently photography) that they only become "the bearer of meaning, not the maker of meaning." As aforementioned, these are film researchers, so I am a little skeptical that this necessarily applies to nude photos on a pseudo-feminist porn site.
4) Research method (methodology):
The form of research method as described by the author for this article was mainly content analysis. This entailed examining pictures and text from the website. More specifically, she is looking at the pictures and text from the site's models as well as from the members. She mentioned how she was going to critique the images and comments on the website based on what several past researchers have done, though she did not go into as much detail on this part. Rather, she briefly mentioned who the researchers were and that they were the ones she was going to use – she did not justify using their methodologies and telling her audience why mimicking their ways of deconstructing the content is superior. All in all, her method was strictly content analysis tempered with the views and perspectives and methodologies of several past researchers.
5) Subject of the study:
The subjects of the study were the models from the website and the members who frequent it (and post on discussion boards, threads, etc). More specifically, the models are generally white women that do not look like "plastic, blonde, fake-breasted women" that are mainstream representations of women in pornography. They also have the signifiers of "deviant femininity" such as "piercings, tattoos, and dyed hair" to accentuate their countercultural physical, intellectual, and social identities. However, since the author does not go into very much detail on too many of the models themselves, we as readers of this article are left with only a general view of the models. The members are equally as anonymous – there are few if any mentions of the demographics of the members, the amount of members, the average age of members, and so forth. Thus, the subjects (both the models and the members) are a nearly anonymous group of people online – the producers and the users of the website suicidegirls.com.
6) Research finding:
The author's discussion and conclusions about Suicide Girls are mixed. She acknowledges that there are utopian (optimistic) and dystopian (pessimistic) ways to deconstruct the website – in other words, it is a double-edged sword. Either the website is a source of free expression and outlet to the male-gaze-dominated world of pornography, or it simply a way for vulnerable women to become exploited and dependent on the low income. In either view, there is still not enough accountability in the realm of ethnicity on the website. The author claims that the bodies of women of colour are "framed by racist stereotypes which results in their objectification, or they are simply excluded altogether." In other words, there are significant examples in the member comments as well as the model profiles that suggest that the website racist. Lastly, the author accuses the website of exploiting difference as a way of generating money, not of truly exploring its feminist potential. What can be learned from this study is that websites and other forms of mass media that project an image of enlightenment, feminine empowerment, and sexual liberation are perhaps not all that they appear to be, especially in their representation of different ethnicities.
7) My own thoughts about this research:
The article has several strengths, including the writer's confident "voice" and the balanced thoroughness of the explanation of the problems and benefits of Suicide Girls. The voice of the writer is confident and convincing – even though I sometimes got lost in some of the explanations throughout the paper, I still felt the author knew what she was talking about based on her word choice and attention to details. She maintains this confident throughout the article, despite the myriad of subpoints and literary reviews. Her conclusion about the issue of the website (why it is positive and negative, but overridingly negative) was very thorough and was well supported by her evidence. I after reading the entire article, I felt as though each side of the utopian/dystopian debate (of whether suicidegirls.com is liberating or not) was well represented in her paper and conclusion. In other words, the article makes good sense.
However, the article was very long and verbose and I got lost in it more than a few times. The confident word choice was sometimes clouded by confusing words and overly intricate sentence, paragraph, and the overall argument structure. By the end of the essay, I know what she is talking about – it is just that I would like to follow her arguments more easily in the body of the paper. Some of the points seemed to come out of nowhere, with no apparent connection to her argument. As aforementioned, it makes sense by the end, but when I am in the midst of reading it, I have a lot of trouble keeping track of all of her major points. For example, why focus on the utopian and dystopian views when the main thrust of the argument is about race? It seems the overt racism of the website and cybersex in general is a fruitful enough argument – why even look at the feminism aspect? It does make the argument deeper and more thorough, but also more boring and long. A study on the lack of diversity as well as the number of racist depictions and comments would have been just as effective in discounting the website – the rest of the arguments and points just seemed like putting on way too much extra academic baggage. Still, I enjoyed learning a lot from the paper as well as learning about something new – I have never heard about suicidegirls.com and found this critique of the website relevant and educational!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Gaps

I was reading the BBC online newspaper and came across this article:


In case you do not have time to read it, the article is about the move toward providing $99 computers to students in Africa in hopes of closing the digital divide between industrialized and non-industrialized countries.
Initially, I thought this was a great idea. Even if it does not help close the knowledge gap, it would be good for students in non-industrialized countries to have laptops as opposed to not having laptops. It does have an effect on closing the digital divide, doesn't it? Something is better than nothing, yes?
Well, not if that something leads toward big-time companies like intel and other computer and software makers to rip them off. This is what I mean - if these companies were simply donating the computers, I would be fine with that. But what is the incentive to make those computers last? The pace of technology is too quick to mass produce this stuff - it will all end up in dumpsters that are already piled high with old technology (less than 5 years old, in some cases) in the very countries these companies are shipping these computers too! Seems kind of wasteful.
I do not mean we (western society) should not do anything. In the immortal words of Martin Luther King Jr., we should not be simply good samaritans (though it's better than being a bad samaritan) giving to those in need on the Jericho Road - we need to FIX the Jericho Road. In other words, if we really wanted to make a difference for those in non-industrialized countries, we should stop giving them cheap technology and start helping them build an infrastructure and a way of sustaining themselves. We can do this by donating to them, canceling their debts (we are already in their debt by exploiting their ancestors during slavery, who unwillingly left their lands to build this nation we are so proud of), and a host of other ways. It is hard, but it is not impossible. Why else to we have such big brains? To make and play video games? To make as much money as we can before we die? To win at Jeopardy? Or is it to create a sustainable environment for our species (and since we ((all life on Earth)) are all dependent on each other, ALL species)? I guess I can't claim to know for sure, but I hope it isn't all for Jeopardy.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Personal Response to 'Game Over' film

First off, I play lots of video games. However, I do not prefer to play "violent video games" such as first person shooters and games like Grand Theft Auto. I find it repulsive and depressing that one can derive pleasure from the repetitious virtual slaughter of hundreds if not thousands of computer characters in a single day of gameplay. I have this vision of someone sitting there, slackjawed, unblinking, and using up precious electricity while contributing nothing substantial to their own lives, let alone society, by moving through virtual environments (that are increasingly becoming more realistic) and systematically killing everything in their path knee-jerk (or, more appropriately, thumb-jerk) style.

But do these games actually increase a person's propensity for violence outside the virtual realm? I do not believe so in almost all cases for a lot of reasons. I will not get into all of these reasons at this time, but perhaps one of the main reasons why young people are not all running up and down the streets imitating their favorite virtual criminal/soldier/secret agent in a delusional ritual is that, though young people are spending on average more and more time in playing violent video games, there is still a larger and more critical amount of time spent in the actual world. I believe that if young people spent a majority of their waking hours in a very realistic and violent setting (as many children actually do due to where they live, such as in the slums of Jamaica and other places) and shut away from a more ordered, peaceful setting, then perhaps there could be a noticeable change in their behavior. As gamers, both young and old, we are able to choose our reality. Unfortunately, young people in Sierra Leone during the recent devastating civil war could not, and some were indoctrinated to be vicious child soldiers (see A Long Way Gone: memoirs from a child soldier). They could not turn off their violent world, as violent video game players almost always can.
Thus, the player is still ultimately in control of the situation. He or she turns the system on and chooses the game. The virtual world is still framed by the edge of the TV screen. There is always a way out. Though they are momentarily mesmerized by the flashing screen, every game eventually becomes predictable and boring - the player trades the old game in for the new one (that has waaay cooler graphics, dude...!) and the cycle continues.

Though I believe violent video games do not directly cause violent behavior, I would like to see the video game industry try something new - violence is getting old. Can't we be more creative, inventive, interesting, peaceful, and loving? These are more societally-sustainable characteristics of a video game. This desire of mine also reflects my attitude toward violence and war as a solution. I am critical of violent video games, but I am much more critical of our violent society. To me, the cycle of wars resembles the cycle of trading in old violent video games for new ones. The overly simplistic paradigm characterized by notions of good versus evil, defeating an enemy through ultra-violence as the only means to achieve prosperity, exoticized and incorrect (and damaging) representations of "the Other," and other such notions is pandemic in video games, but, more importantly, also in the dominant culture of this country. It may be overly naive, but in order to make changes in the video game industry, there will need to be changes in how this society behaves. Going to war as a solution and portraying the enemy as "evil" reinforces the idea to its citizens (ESPECIALLY young people) that violence against humanity is an acceptable and permanant path to prosperity (which in our country is defined more specifically as ECONOMIC prosperity as opposed to humanistic, natural, peaceful, intellectual, and other important yet often ignored types of prosperity). This, of course, is a false idea - how many more wars are we going to fight before we realize that winning a war means someone loses, becomes embittered, and strikes again later in the future to start a whole new war? It can end with this very militaristic, aggressive, and short-sighted country's decision to take a non-violent approach to solving conflict and encourage other nations to do the same.

Disclaimer: I do not want to give the impression that the future needs to be completely without violence - obviously, violence is a part of nature. There are many instances where there is violent competition as a force to stabilize parts of ecosystems and ensure the survival of a species, predator and prey alike (see wolf/deer relationship). However, there are also many instances of peaceful cooperation in nature (see symbiotic relationships between bees, flowers, trees, etc). Since humanity, with its uncanny (and in some cases, newfound) abilities to physically change the environment, move across the globe, and other amazing traits, has (presumably) risen to the top of any other competing species, it seems as though we are just competing against ourselves. To me, this is stupid. It's as if we've gotten so smart, that we have become too smart for our own good. We could stand to learn from examples of peaceful cooperation in nature and among other (more little-known) cultures, such as Native American, Aborigine, and others as a way of counteracting the many years of violence, fear, and death brought about by violent competition among our own species.

Critique of Online Gambling Article

The title of the article that will be critiqued in the following paper is "Problem gambling on the internet: implications for internet gambling policy in North America." Robert T. Wood and Robert J. Williams of the University of Lethbridge in Canada carried out the research. The article was published in the journal titled New Media and Society in the month of June in the year 2007.
According to the abstract of the article, the rationale for this particular study was to see whether or not the increasing use of internet gambling was comprised of a significant percentage of problem gamblers. The authors focused on North American gamblers, though they administered their online survey to "1,920 American, Canadian, and international internet gamblers" (520). They claim that past research has predicted that a significant portion of internet gamblers are at risk for developing a gambling problem and another significant portion of them already exhibit symptoms of problem gambling. Though the purpose for the article is to identify what percentage of online gamblers are identified as having a gambling problem, the end rationale for this study is to provide empirical data for lawmakers and governments to consider while they are creating internet gambling policies. In other words, the authors want to make sure that proper considerations are made concerning problem gambling when governments generate policies for internet gambling.
The authors of this article cite a great deal of past research on this topic in their introduction and literature review sections. They open with the claim that, though many people in the North American society still consider gambling to be a vice, it is still an important part of the economy. They cite the National Gambling Impact Study Commission of 1999 and the Canadian Partnership for Responsible Gambling of 2004 when they claim that over half of US residents have access to gambling and even more have access to gambling in Canada (521). The authors also cite a study by Korn and Schaffer (2002) that found an increase of almost 20% in the percentage of gambling among the US adult population from 1975 to 1999. The authors use this increase to posit that gambling, especially internet gambling, will continue to increase among the North American population over time.
The authors then go on to solidify their argument that gambling has a firm niche in the economy with past research. With the increase in gambling activity over the last 30 years, there has also been an increase in the revenues from legal wagers of 1600%, according to the National Gambling Impact Study. The authors also cite the 2001 text The Wager when they claim that a legalized and regulated online gambling infrastructure could generate a significant amount of tax revenue for the government. According to the text, revenues are expected to be over $10 billion every year by the end of the decade. Clearly, research shows there is a strong incentive to funnel this revenue into the mainstream economy with the legalization and regulation of internet gambling in order to boost economic success.
However, despite the positive economic possibilities associated with legalizing and regulating internet gambling, the authors also cite several previous studies that indicate possible negative outcomes on the social level due to problem gambling. With the help of Smith and Wynne's study of 2002, the authors define problem gambling as "gambling behavior that creates negative consequences for the gambler, others in their social network, or the gamblers' community." The proportion of North Americans that fit this description is very small, only 4% according to Shaffer and Hall in 2001.
When taking into account the impact of internet gambling sites, the authors highlight many recent studies that found them to increase the likelihood of aiding online gamblers in developing a gambling problem due to the interface, the lack of promotion of responsible gambling, the ease associated with gambling from home, greater frequency of play, and the overall experience (Griffiths, 2003; Griffiths and Parke, 2000; Griffiths and Smeaton, 2004; Griffiths and Wood, 2000; LaRose et al., 2001). However, despite these studies, the authors cited other studies that showed a very low prevalence of internet gambling activity among adults in the US and Canada, less than 1%. The authors do suggest that this is changing quickly with the advent of hundreds more internet gambling sites being created every year. These studies lead back to the fundamental hypothesis of this study – does the increase internet gambling lead to an increase in problem gamblers?
The research methodology employed by the researchers in this study was an online survey directed by a banner ad and a pop-up window at three internet gambling portals for a period of 5 months. To increase the incentive for internet gamblers to complete the survey, the researchers sent them a small gift after they completed it. They were able to accumulate 1,920 usable surveys by the end of the study. The online survey itself was in English, anonymous, and comprised of 46 closed and/or open questions. 2% of the respondents had submitted multiple entries to capitalize on the free gifts, which throws off the results by that percentage. The first portion of the questions were about the respondent's age, gender, and general background while the second portion was taken from the Canadian Problem Gambling Index, or CPGI, which is a reliable method of determining who is a problem gambler and who is not, according to the authors.
The subjects for this study, if it is not clear already, are those who used at least one of the three internet portals and submitted their surveys during the 5-month period of the study. The average age of respondents was 34 years old, and was made up of 56% men and 44% women. For more details on the actual subjects of the study, see the demographic characteristics listed on page 530 of the journal. The authors note that not all online surveys are trustworthy, including this one. The researchers are not able to completely affirm that the subjects of this study are truly representative of the entire online gambling population. They do affirm, however, that the respondents were "highly diverse" in their "demographic characteristics, internet use and gambling activity." Thus, the authors believe that the study was relatively valid in its conclusions about correlations between internet gambling and problem gambling.
The results of the study showed that 42.7% of the respondents scored in the moderate or severe problem gambling category, which is 10 times higher than the national average of gamblers as a whole. The authors boasted about the size and accuracy of the study in their conclusions, but also highlight the need for more insight on this complicated relationship between internet gambling and problem gambling. They concluded that two possible relationships exist – problem gamblers gravitate towards online gambling because of the ease and accessibility, or that internet gambling is creating an entirely new problem where none existed before. In order to shed more light on these relationships, the authors suggest more research is needed, especially among specific populations of internet gamblers. They also contain in their conclusion of this study many recommendations for governmental policies, including heightening controls to regulate access, use, promotion and advertising of internet gambling, and a method for providing feedback to the gamblers "about their problem gambling status."
My thoughts on this study are as wide-ranging as the demographics of the respondents in their study. Though the researchers seemed well pleased by the size of their sample and the accuracy of their data, I am still skeptical that these are definitive results. 1,920 people does not seem to be an adequate size of a sample population of online gamblers. This could be due to the fact that they only used a survey-linking banner in 3 out of the many online gambling portals. Where these particular portals the most popular? Most easily accessed? The authors do no elaborate enough on where exactly they were "fishing" for their data – it was 3 "reefs" out of an "ocean full of fishing spots," to extend the metaphor. Other than the sample size, the study was also weak in their definition of what problem gambling is. I want to know precisely what damages can occur from problem gambling other than the gambler losing all of his or her money. What are the other correlated disadvantages to problem gambling? They even cite a positive aspect to problem gambling (that it leads to a great percentage of the total revenues) without fully explaining the exact negative social implications of internet gambling and problem gambling.
On the other hand, I believed the study was strong in the diversity of the demographics of the respondents, despite the small sample size. The wide range of types of people involved in studies such as this one is often overlooked, and entire populations are left unaccounted for. However, this study covers a very wide range of demographics. The article was also well written and clear in its intentions and results. I was able to follow the rationale for the study as well as the past literature on the subject (which is often too dense for me). Another strength was the subject of the article itself, which I find quite relevant in my own life. As the authors mentioned in the study, university students make up a significant portion of online gamblers. In fact, I have several friends that frequently gamble online, and I have seen them lose and win significant amounts of money at a time. I wonder if they would be considered problem gamblers or not by the definition of problem gambling, but it is difficult to say due to the vagueness of the definition itself. The last strength I will identify in this article is the fact that they included provisions and steps for a government to take to ensure problem gambling will not result from the legalization and regulation of internet gambling sites and that I also agree with the authors that these are necessary steps to keep online gambling from getting out of control.

Reports from Senegal - Pt. 1

Prior to my own visit to Dakar and Saint Louis in Senegal, West Africa, I received several reports from my fiancee (who is studying in Dakar all semester) that she has been actively pursued by many local (and nonlocal alike) men. These men believe that she is as equally interested in them as they are in her, despite the fact that she does not intend to give them this impression. Some of these eager men have even asked her to marry them! It is true that she is an attractive woman and that there are many factors in how men and women become attracted to one another, but almost all of the other young American women in her program are having the same experience.

What is going on here? Are the men these women are encountering 'wearing their hearts on their sleeves?' Are they eager to get married so they can be one step closer to having a ticket to live in the United States? Is it the result of cultural differences regarding male and female relations?

Certainly, some if not all of these hypotheses are true, but what else could be cause of this phenomenon? Could there be a more specific reason for this?

I would speculate that another main factor for this flood of attraction toward young American women by the men in other countries like Senegal could be due to the cultural exports of the United States (movies, games, tv shows, internet sites, etc.). More specifically, the way in which women are represented in these examples of mass media. Though I need to double check on the scholarly materials on this subject, I have heard that the stereotypical American woman is thought to be promiscuous, interested in foreign men, easy to manipulate, and an object of beauty and grandeur. This limiting perception of American women is not only degrading, but potentially dangerous if taken too seriously.

I do not subscribe to the hypodermic needle theory - in other words, that each of the men my fiancee encountered saw an American movie with a stereotypical American woman portrayed within it and instantly then believed that all American women must be just like her. Rather, I do believe that the sheer amount of output of such cultural exports from the United States over time has had at least some negative effect to the rest of the world's perception of American women, making men such as those in Dakar feel a powerful attraction towards them. The consequence of this being a large number of marriage proposals and offers of courtship to American female students on a staggering scale, at the very least. Perhaps more serious are the numbers of instances of sexual harassment and rape on American women while they work and study in other countries due to this unfair, untrue, and insensitive notion that actual women from the United States, or anywhere in the world for that matter, are just like characters in our films.

Needless to say, this hyperattraction toward American women from men in other countries is a complex issue dependant on a host of variables, including culture, geography, access to technology, and others. However, I do feel that mass media and our own cultural exports do have at least a somewhat significant role to play in how women from the United States are treated while studying abroad.