“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Following Jimmy Fallon’s sketch on hashtags from 2013, I wanna talk hashtags in this post.
This blog is dedicated to the intersections of hashtag Black History Month in February (#BHM), hashtag International Women’s Day (#IWD) and hashtag Women’s History Month (#WmnHist) both in this month of March. Black women and girls get to celebrate for two months in a row about inequality and accomplishments! Hashtag #BlackGirlMagic! Hashtag #BlackWomenMatter. Hashtag let’s get in #Formation.
I am using hashtags as the focus of my political sociology course. I have 28 students in this upper-level course using Storify to explore the discipline and issues that interest them in the end of the Obama administration and in the midst of a fascist-sounding GOP presidential election campaign. Professor Deva Woodly joined us a few weeks ago to talk about hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.
Speaking Truth to Power … for Girls
This is the third time I’ve taught a political sociology class. You might ask: What is an ethnomusicologist by training doing teaching political sociology. I was invited to teach this course by my department and now political sociology is really starting to speak to my own research interests in YouTube, music, and the marginalization of black girls. This is primarily due to a fabulous textbook by Devita Glasberg and Deric Shannon titled Political Sociology: Oppression, Resistance, and the State (2011). Hashtag on point!
Black music has always been political but from teaching political sociology I am learning invaluable discourse–the words and ideas used to express meaning as Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary defines it–that allows me write about black music in a sophisticated way. I can really grasp and grapple with issues of power and the social structures that lay beyond our personal tastes for one artist or genre versus another. As an ethnomusicologist, my specific training socialized me to think about music as sound and as people, which IS political in and of itself. But because I had focused on the micro-subjective thoughts and feelings of black girls I never fully grasped the macro social structures shaping meaning and power. “Language shapes thought“, as cognitive psychologist Lera Boroditsky demonstrates in her research. “What researchers have been calling “thinking” this whole time actually appears to be a collection of both linguistic and nonlinguistic processes. As a result, there may not be a lot of adult human thinking where language does not play a role” (Boroditsky 2011, 65). It is the language of power that lives in political sociology’s discourse and methodology and the symbolic worlds of trends in social media and online video today are important arenas for the study of people, music, and power.
In this post, I will try to introduce some of the discourse of political sociology into my thinking and research about the unintended consequences of online black girls’ interest-driven participation with twerking music and artists in their self-produced YouTube videos.
A Rose By Any Other Name…
“We can rape, but we can also sing.”
― A.R. Braunmuller
If you follow my blog, you know I’ve been toying with titles over the last 6 months. It was “Digital Seduction”. Today, it’s “Girls & Hidden Digital Labor of Video Screens.” I’d love your reactions or suggestions as I search for a title that fits.
Currently, I am writing about the unpaid digital labor of marginalized daughters on YouTube, thanks to Dorothy Howard, a brilliant feminist millennial scholar who helped me learn about the topic from her research and activism on Wikipedia.
Because I write primarily about the marginalization of black girls at the moment, one title I considered was “The Dark Digital Labor of Daughters.” But Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi’s TED Talk on the dangers of a single story popped into my mind. I realized I needed to speculate beyond the stereotypical, one-note racial thinking about black or “dark skin” to avoid perpetuating the usual stigmas. Given the Times Square image of jumbo video screens which I chose from a limited set of WordPress options as the background for my blog’s header, I quickly imagined readers associating the “The Dark Digital Labor of Daughters” with the culture this image replaced before Guilani and others cleaned up the porn shops and Kung Fu movie theaters of Times Square.
The “dark” digital labor of social media looks like lots of fun to most users. It’s not a red-light district, hookers, peep shows, and adult or child porn. Social media, like YouTube’s music spaces and YouTube Red, are both free and subscription services accessed anywhere, anytime, built on a complex political economy of state structures and privatized electricity, privatized phone service, and a capitalist system of profit and patriarchy masked by viral videos of kittens, Korean pop stars, and Justin Bieber.
YouTube is a structural online system of power and participatory culture where kids and especially the most vulnerable and marginalized girl childs are seduced into “selling” images of their sexy, dancing bodies for the fun of it to targeted advertisers. Girls will do this free advertising to networked publics for media companies, as bell hooks stated in a public dialogue at the New School in 2014, because more and more adult women won’t do it anymore.
At a conference on Gender, Sexuality and Hip-hop sponsored by Melissa Harris-Perry in December of 2014 at Tulane University, a college-age black women recalled her relationship to hip-hop:
Being very familiar with the “Tip Drill” …um … video and coming into my feminism on the campus of Spelman College, I I grew to not just be a consumer of hip-hop but realize I was being consumed by it. So it was important for me to develop a sense of… a consciousness so that I can navigate that..space.
The space she meant was whole network of spaces where misogynist hip-hop music dominates the public sphere. Now that sphere is not just online, it’s in your hand 24-7. The younger the girl, the more free music videos on YouTube and other platforms are teaching them to “Keep that ass jumpin” for free in a media ecology that is hashtag for-profit–by-everyone-but-the-girl.
“Keep that ass jumpin'” is the hook from a popular YouTube music video for the song “Booty Hopscotch by Memphis artist Kstylis (pronounced K-styles). His twerk songs appear more often than any others in my dataset of over 1000 YouTube. This media is part of the “oppression socialization” defined as “a process whereby individuals develop understandings of power and political structure, particularly as these inform perceptions of identity, power, and opportunity relative to gender, racialized group membership, and sexuality” (Glasberg and Shannon 2011, 47).
YouTube has become one of the significant agents of oppression and political socialization as media, as a form of free schooling, and as digital labor or work from one’s bedroom as people attempt to monetize their fun online. YouTube is where politics are increasingly mediated through comedy sketches, music and award shows featuring celebrities, and online real and entertainment news stories.
So how and what it this new media ecology of sharing and trending teaching our daughters? What illusions of power and ownership do they learn and what kinds of hegemonies are being taught that empowers and simultaneously disempowers their voice and image? Hashtag #Babymamas, hashtag #ReaganWelfareQueens, and hashtag #videovixens whose body trumps their voice on screen and perhaps even more so off.
“Prospero, you are the master of illusion.
Lying is your trademark.
And you have lied so much to me
(Lied about the world, lied about me)
That you have ended by imposing on me
An image of myself.
Underdeveloped, you brand me, inferior,
That s the way you have forced me to see myself
I detest that image! What’s more, it’s a lie!
But now I know you, you old cancer,
And I know myself as well.”
― Aimé Césaire,
I didn’t want to recreate the victim blaming and slut shaming of young and black girls in my blog title. Using seduction or darkness is that same old single story again. And this is the immaterial, affective and emotional labor of digital labor. It serves to symbolically and socially reproduce what political sociologists call a “mobilization of bias” (Schattschneider 1975 quoted in Glasberg and Shannon 2011, 37) that affects decision-making at the state level as we say with welfare queens during the election of President Reagan.
This mobilization of bias is ironically done by our personalized use of mobile devices and personally-accessed video screens. The 4th screen that was the first personalized, mobile, always-on, mass media. It is not a form of mass self- communication in an age where racism and sexism have not ended but perhaps become more pernicious because it lives in our hand-held realities. Discrimination and oppression are no longer visible or legible in the ways they once were–as a function of a state controlled or monitored television or radio or big corporate run companies. They are now hidden in online pleasures and play which we self-produce based on what radio and television already taught us and continue to feed us — now they feed us supposedly ourselves. Hashtag #GiveThePeopleWhatTheyWant. And if you check out what girls are doing, what they want is to keep that ass jumpin, right?
What’s really hidden here is that those same video screens we use to self-produce, focus other people’s attention on some generalized black girl on a video screen rather than on the distributors of social media and online video platforms big and small such whether that’s YouTube or UMG’s VEVO or artists like Kystlis, Juicy J, or Nicki Minaj and Rihanna. Hashtag #HegemonicMasculinityandFemininity
“I Do My Thang / On the Video Screen” (from a girls’ game song)
She is a tiny cog in the supply chain of explicit music videos. And yet, she is seen as driving the attention economy, if you know the numbers for engagement on YouTube by age and sex, behind the culture of what’s popular in music and behind the trends in social media rants. Her behind is butt of the joke, too. Visit YouTube’s Dashboard and Trends map for more details.
This phenomena reminds me of when news outlets focused the nightly news on the criminalization of the small-time dealer found on ghetto street corners rather than on the big time distributor of illegal drugs or narcotics in the supply chain. It also reminds me of how local black folk desperate to be seen would mug for the crime scene camera–hashtag #photobombing before there was a dictionary name for it.
Back when I was a teenager in my black community, there was a vernacular critique of this media trend that coordinated action with Reagan’s conservative “get tough on crime” state policies. I remember my mom asking how drugs got into our communities. Communities that lacked social mobility to bring cocaine of marijuana across national borders and into the hood. “Black people don’t own planes!” I remember someone arguing. Where was the focus on the international cartels and drug enforcement and border patrol officers who had to be looking the other way? It was harder for the state to catch the big guys and must easier to criminalize the little ones with nightly news reports that made black people increasingly look like the real menace to society, the imagined Enemy No. 1. Hashtag #decolonizingthemind
Free your mind, and your ass will follow
What I am trying to show in my research and scholarship is how black girls sells sex for the industry and catch all the hell for it, too. They are being exploited for their unpaid digital labor on the very video screens we all use as networked individuals to upload and self-produce our interest-driven activities for the fun of it. But this “fun” is a new kind of digital labor that will recreate the very inequalities that the #BlackLivesMatter campaign is successfully bringing to international attention with its online and off-line protests in Ferguson and at the University of Missouri. Just do a Google or Twitter search on hashtag #MikeBrown and Hashtag #Mizzou.
Unpaid digital labor refers to the affective, emotional, and immaterial labor of social media audiences as owners of the distribution platforms of social media profit from this audience labor. The mechanisms used to propagate that profit has changed. The owners look younger but are still primarily white and male. And a primary result, whether intended or not, of this digital immaterial work or labor is that is reproduces the “oppression socialization” of differences ordered around class (the political economy), race (racism), gendered oppression (patriarchal socialization), and gender (or heteronormativity).
It makes me think of Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony. In The Social Science Jargon Buster, Zina O’Leary defines the term as:
How the political, economic, cultural and ideological systems of those in power come to be accepted, legitimated and even celebrated by the masses at the expense of alternative ways of thinking and doing (O’Leary 2007).
When it comes to kids, especially minors or children on YouTube, there is no need to have formal systems of discrimination against females. Individual networked girls will self-brand within the logics of capitalism, patriarchy, and white superiority. Video screens that are unregulated by only other individuals socialize girls; they quickly learn, adapt to, and adopt the paradigms of music videos and YouTube’s attention economy. They structure themselves into it through user-generated content where they try on these identities and markers of self expression. They imitate and embody them and many will simultaneously try to resist them. Oppression socialization is the digital immaterial werk or labor of twerking songs and twerking self-produced videos, hegemonically speaking. Hashtag #CanIWerkIt
The Blues of “The Changing Same” (hashtag Amiri Baraka)
Change may seem like it’s happening but the shapeshifting of the order of things tends to remain the same more or less or so it seems. The mainstreams of culture on the web now freely feature and spread the exploitation of girls primarily propagated by self-produced video content broadcast from “privately public” and “publicly private” often domestic spaces or bedrooms (Lange 2007).
Meanwhile, online harassment and sexploitation goes viral across the social web. And it justifies itself (as if there is no perpetrator or distributor) on the backs of girls’ self-produced content. No matter what minor and teen girls produce for fun and/or as a critique of the system, it still can be argued that social media platforms are exploiting minor girls for profit to their greatest gain or capital accumulation while girls will be blamed for the demise of their own reputation and future net worth. And this too will be privatized — the discrimination that is since all that girls are doing online lives in a networked publics that are searchable, shareable, and persistent. We don’t own the Internet or the web, just as you don’t really own the technology or data produced on your device while you lay claim to ownership of the device. In actuality, you don’t own, you pay for calling it that
All this–the unintended consequences of social media and self-presentation online and the profit from unpaid digital labor–is a particularly insidious and pernicious ethical gap for marginalized groups like young black girls. And that’s this work interests me so much. It lies at the heart of issues of inequality on the web. Hashtag #YesAllWomen, hashtag #Privacymatters and hashtag #SomeofUsareBrave
So to close my free written thoughts, I offer the First Lady in honor of hashtag Women’s History month and its intersections with race, gender, class, and power. Hashtag #TeamMichelle and hashtag #ThanksMichelleObama.
Happy Black Women’s History Months!!