Thursday, October 7, 2010

Risqué Without Risk: On Gendering Disease, Sexy Status Updates, and Pseudo-Activism

I like it on the floor.

I like it on the couch.

I like it on the kitchen counter, and sometimes on the bed.

If you're on facebook, you probably saw a slew of these cryptic, provocative status updates this week. You may have felt intrigued by the clearly sexualized styling of the phrase, or perhaps you wondered about the mysterious "it" to which these statuses referred. Or perhaps you received a message in your inbox, like I did, encouraging you to participate in this "silly, funny" game created with the purpose of "leaving men in the dark."

What you maybe didn't get was that the "I like it on the floor" game was an unofficial promotional campaign to raise breast cancer awareness. The idea is that women post a status update filling in the blank of this sentence: "I like it on ___," with "it" being the place where women prefer to drop their purse at the end of the day. These statuses were meant to prompt discussion about breast cancer, this year's version of the "bra-color game" that circulated on facebook last year for the same breast cancer awareness-raising reason.

That's right. These updates, in all their feigned exhibitionism and sexual suggestiveness, were actually meant to inform and educate people about breast cancer awareness month. Never mind that these updates didn't actually contain the words "breast" or "cancer" or "awareness." Or anything that could remotely associate the updates with the actual cause.

Never mind that these updates were anything but clear and informative tools of awareness-raising. Intentionally elusive and obliquely intended to arouse, perhaps, but effective communications regarding this terrible, life-threatening and all-too-real disease? Definitely not.

And never mind that, despite the fact that this unofficial B.C.A campaign has "gone viral" (a phrase the Internet seems to use as an analogue to "going platinum:" you've made it now, baby!), its intentional evasiveness accomplishes very little in terms of actually helping people with breast cancer. Oh, but it's only facebook, right? It's just a silly and fun game, a harmless little chance to be sexy and risqué, right? And, as we all know, silly and fun and harmless and sexy are all words we commonly associate with breast canc...oh, wait.

Now, as other critics of the "I like it on the floor" phenomena have noted, criticizing this stunt is not tantamount to criticizing promotion of breast cancer awareness in general. Indeed, the awareness-raising campaign through the pink ribbon marketing motif has successfully culled millions of dollars for breast cancer research, and that work should be, needs to be, applauded.

But facebook status promotional campaigns such as this not only do little in terms of helping the cause. They actually illustrate, even as they perpetrate, at least three things that are very, very wrong with American society:
  • The gendering, reifying, and branding of disease;
  • The oversexualization (and consequently, the trivialization) of women's issues and bodies;
  • The disinterested, low-risk, low-engagement psuedo-activism made all too easy (and commonplace) by social media.

The gendering, reifying, and branding of disease

Breast cancer, though by no means a gender-exclusive disease, has nonetheless been branded as a woman's disease in the United States. What about the men who have breast cancer? That's what I kept asking myself as I googled the "I like it on the floor" phenomena for this blog post. While numerous breast cancer support and research organizations came up, they were all explicitly cisgendered as female, their sites emblazoned with pink ribbons, pink fonts, and, well, pink everything, from flowers to little high heels. I've never seen an issue so clearly branded as "female," and outside of maternity stores, I don't think I've ever seen so compulsory an assertion that female equals pink. Which is great and all for the cisgender, stereotypically-feminine women who identify with such gendered iconography and find support or comfort in rallying under a pink ribbon. But what about male patients and survivors, for whom the experience of the disease can't be boiled down into a pair of pink heels? What about women who have breast cancer, or support their survivor friends and relations, but who don't carry purses?

The issue becomes more pronounced when you consider what would happen if you switched genders. Take, say, prostate cancer, a lethal and unfortunately almost-unstoppable disease that affects only men. Can you honestly imagine what a comparable prostate-cancer-awareness campaign would look like? Can you imagine a marketing push where the little pink heels are replaced with...what, exactly? Little blue hammers? Little blue footballs? A facebook campaign where men suggestively, coquettishly post about...the color of their boxers? Not quite the same, is it? And men speaking in riddles doesn't mean quite the same thing to mainstream society as does, say, mysterious women speaking in a secret, indecipherable women's code?

It's not quite the same, of course, because men and women, masculinity and femininity, are not treated with equality in American society. Not historically, when women's voices were dismissed because they challenged patriarchal discourse and were dismissed as an unknowable, elusive "other" tongue incomprehensible (and therefore dismissable) to men. Not in psychological terms, where society perceives women/femininity to be reducible to gendered objects while men/masculinity are perceived to transcend such confinement. Not in terms of actual behavior, where the general populace encourages women to post about their bra colors but does not comparably fetishize men posting about their undergarments. Sexism is alive and well in America, folks, and this whole breast-cancer-status-update phenomenon, while perhaps well-intentioned, nevertheless is indicative of the problem. Which brings me to...

The oversexualization (and consequently, the trivialization) of women's issues and bodies

So what are you actually promoting when you post one of these updates? Well, for one thing, you're supporting a subtle but insidious process whereby:

a) the actual, awful medical facts of breast cancer get erased and replaced by vague sloganeering,

b) said slogans intentionally, purposefully obscure the causes for which they stand, again omitting actual information and replacing it by rephrasing the cause in terms of sexual suggestiveness, which at once trivializes the struggle of breast cancer survivors and hypersexualizes breast cancer activism (which in turn totally ignores the huge economic and ethnic disparity of who gets, and who survives, breast cancer, not to mention buys into the idea that issues are only worth hearing if they're made out to be sexy),

c) this rhetorical omission takes on sexual undertones, and as it is constructed to be elusively performed for the purported reason of leaving men in the dark, it steals the momentum of the breast cancer awareness movement and re-purposes it for the male gaze. I like it on the floor! Teehee, clueless men, you'll think I'm talking about sex! Sure, to some, it's just a fun, silly game, but it invites trivialization, which in turn enables exactly that sort of dismissive mentality to be applied to breast cancer itself. It co-opts the rhetoric of bodily empowerment that feminism has worked so hard to achieve into an arena that prompts people to perform hetero-normative, cisgender sexuality in the guise of a "progressive" cause that affects small actual real-world change. It's the appearance of being risqué without any actual risks being posed or undertaken. Which brings me to...

The disinterested, low-risk, low-engagement pseudo-activism made all too easy (and commonplace) by facebook.

In one of the latest issues of The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell writes about how the Internet and social networking sites have altered conceptions of "activist" practices. Gladwell contrasts social-networking-sites activism with the grassroots civil rights activism of the 1960s, noting how some seventy thousand demonstrators congregated around an anti-segregation protest at a diner in Greensboro, NC without the help of sites like facebook and Twitter in 1960. Since many facebook sites promoting causes boast far greater number of members than this--the Save Darfur Coalition, Gladwell reports, has over one million members--it may at first appear that the digital revolution has indeed arrived, that social networking sites have improved activism overall. But Gladwell convincingly challenges this appearance. Whereas activists in previous generations had to actually travel to sit-ins, had to actually physically perform their resistance, had to actually risk their reputations and/or lives to demonstrate their protests, nowadays all an aspiring activist need do is hit "like" on a facebook page, or re-tweet something someone else wrote, or, you guessed it, type in a seductive little status update, and presto, you've engaged in "activist" activities without leaving your house or sacrificing anything other than a few seconds' time. Or, as Gladwell puts it, "facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice," i.e. giving you a much more passive and effortless way of pretending you're doing something for a cause.

The "I Like it on the floor" phenomena strikes me as a prefect example of what Gladwell's talking about. You undertake an action that implicitly aligns you with breast cancer awareness, yet you obfuscate your activism, and instead of your words attaching you to any attendant implications of activism or breast cancer, your words mask the activist impulse in innuendo, equating the gender-essentialized, reified-yet-unmentioned "purse" with breast cancer even as you subtly sexualize yourself for the sake of piquing the curiosity of those people your words evade and exclude. The irony here is that while "I like it on the floor" style activism may not do much to advance the cause it supports, it goes a long way in participating in and perpetuating the harmful American cultural narratives wherein women and women's issues = cute and silly, all purses and pink, speaking a language men just don't understand.

End rant. Again, this is not to belittle breast cancer awareness, or to demonize the people who participated in the "I like it on the floor" phenomenon (some of whom are very dear friends of mine). Just encouraging you to critically reflect on what these facebook statuses are actually saying. Please feel free to disagree with or challenge my thinking here. I welcome your thoughts.

And if you're interested in doing something for breast cancer, breast cancer survivors, or breast cancer awareness beyond updating on facebook, please consider visiting some websites, learning about the disease and its effect on the world, and supporting research organizations and hospitals. Here are a few starters:

Edited 8:09pm to add explicitly what "it" is -- thanks, Squeakymouse!