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!