The Viral is Political: Sexual Identity, Sexual Violence, Social Media
That viral culture transforms embodied political lives is, at this point, incontestable. From the live action videos of the Egyptian uprising to the surreptitious videos of Mitt Romney’s notorious “47%” comments, viral images shift the political terrain, an expected result of a media culture instantaneous, portable, and transmittable with the touch of a finger. Scholars researching social media have asked numerous questions of virality: why do some YouTube videos become viral and others slip into obscurity? To what extent is virality a deliberate production of social media gatekeepers and to what extent is it the result of substantive “consumer choice” and collective agency? For some, such as Henry Jenkins, the language of virality is itself problematic, “a kind of smallpox-soaked blanket theory of media circulation, in which people become unknowing carriers of powerful and contagious ideas which they bring back to their homes and work place, infecting their friends and family.” (Nikki Usher, interview with Henry Jenkins, Neiman Journalism Lab 11/10). Instead, Jenkins offers up a theory of what he calls “spreadable media” that insists upon the role of active human agency in the transmission of content.
This project attempts to investigate virality from a somewhat different angle that stresses historical and comparative dimensions, and focuses less on adjudicating intent and more on ascertaining larger cultural and political “effects.” Here I examine virality in relation to two “sites” in which both “the body” and identity itself is at issue: sexual violence and sexual identity. Both sexual violence and sexual identity are understood to be phenomena deeply intimate and profoundly social at the same time. And both have prompted political movements and singular narrative strategies (consciousness-raising and “telling truth” confessionals, the coming out story).
Fundamentally, I am concerned with two issues. First, how does the very mode of the viral (the instantaneous and recombinant transmission of images and meanings) shape a “topic” and, second, to what extent does virality enable new and transforming responses to these “topics?” I am particularly interested in examining how the mode of virality does or does not change the narrative arc of stories of sexual identity and sexual violence. I intend to examine signal viral “moments” such as coming out and anti-bullying video testimonies, and viral transmissions of sexual assault. Examples of both are legion, but I will focus on two sites in the initial stage of this study: the “It Gets Better” project and the Steubenville rape case.
The “The It Gets Better Project” project – initiated in 2010 by gay writer Dan Savage in response to a wave of teen suicides – promptly became a national meme and set off competing sites (e.g. “We’ve Got Your Back”) and fierce blog debates. More recently – following what appeared to be a lack of prosecution around the alleged gang rape of a 16-year-old girl by high school football boys in Steubenville, Ohio – a group of “hacktivists” broke into emails and websites of coaches and players in order to circulate information about the abuse and alleged cover-up. Both phenomena iterated wildly across multiple media and both relied on an underlying logic that presumes virality and visibility can make things better, provoke justice, and challenge violence.
Given that secrecy and shame and abjection have so often marked these phenomena (the fear that constructs the closet, the shame that sexual assault provokes), what happens when circulation publicizes that which has been hidden? How do our normative and hegemonic narratives of sexual identity and sexual assault shift in an era of virality? Are earlier stories (found in films, memoirs, or collections of first-person accounts) markedly different in tone and address? Do these new circulations differ from those of earlier generations, both in their narrative structures and the political and social responses of citizens and state actors? Does watching boys brag about rape while the seemingly unconscious victim is displayed change the national discourse, even at a moment in which the Violence Against Women Act is being defunded? How does the recirculation of these images (and their reconfiguration in tweets and blogs) shape the discourse? How does the tangibility of violence (sexual violence, the violence of homophobia and anti-gay bullying) upon the (gendered, raced, classed) body play out when it becomes a viral repetition?
Viral Culture Lecture
Suzanna Danuta Walters is Director of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Professor of Sociology at Northeastern University. She has written extensively on popular culture, sexuality and gender in the US. Her most recent book is The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay Equality (NYU Press, 2014), where she explores how notions of tolerance limit the possibilities for real liberation and deep social belonging.
Walters’ previous book, All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America (University of Chicago Press, 2001), examined the explosion of gay visibility in culture and politics over the past 15 years and raised pressing questions concerning the politics of visibility around sexual identity. Her other works include books on feminist cultural theory (Material Girls: Making Sense of Feminist Cultural Theory), mothers and daughters in popular culture (Lives Together/Worlds Apart: Mothers and Daughters in Popular Culture) and numerous articles and book chapters on feminist theory, queer theory and LGBT studies, and popular culture.
Belair-Gagnon, Valerie and Smeeta Mishra Colin Agur. 2013. “Reconstructing the Indian Public Sphere: Newswork and social Media in the Delhi gang rape case” Journalism. Vol. 20(10).
Ahmed, Saifuddin and Kokil Jaidka. 2013. “The Common Man: An Examination of Content Creation and Information Dissemination on Twitter during the 2012 New Delhi Gang-Rape Protest” Digital Libraries: Social Media and Community Networks 82(79):117-126.
Shakuntala, Rao. 2013. “Covering Rape: The Changing Nature of society and Indian Journalism.” UW – Center for Journalism Ethics.
Doyle, Sady. “Does ‘It Gets Better’ Make Life Better for Gay Teens?” The Atlantic. October 7, 2010.
Muller, Amber. 2011. “Virtual communities and translation into physical reality in the ‘It Gets Better’ project” Journal of Media Practice. Vol. 12(3): 269.
Tseng, Jason. “Does It Really Get Better?: A Conscientious Critique” The Bilerico Project. October 03, 2010
Cosslett, Rhiannon Lucy. “Steubenville trial is over, but what drove a group of teenagers to “live-blog” a rape?” The New Statesman. March 22, 2013.
Salter, Micheal. 2013. “Justice and revenge in online counter-publics.” Crime Media Culture. Vol.9(3):225-242.
Cohen, Adam “Steubenville Rape Guilty Verdict: The Case that social media won.” Time Magazine. March 17, 2013.
Davidson, Amy. “Life After Steubenville.” The New Yorker. March 18, 2013.