First came the wall paint. ‘Yellow,’ I insisted.
I carefully tore pages from the spines of DOLLY and Girlfriend and covered the backs of them with big, oily blobs of Blu-Tack. Kate Miller-Heidke, Pete Wentz (albeit crinkled and torn at the edges), Panic! At The Disco, and the cast of Juno all witnessed my occasional muffled, irate screams into my pillow.
One evening, with a hunk of my Sapphire Black 1.10 coloured hair worn as a fringe, and my eyelids traced over with black wax, the self-timer on my camera beeped nine times. I thumbed through the resulting snaps to find an appropriate default picture for MySpace. I chose the one where I looked the most despondent. The most moody. The most punk.
2009 rolled in, and Gregory & The Hawk’s ‘Boats & Birds’ was stuck in my head on repeat. My hair was short and curly, I was adorned in oversized knitted jumpers, and my MySpace profile was how I imagine Julia Stone would look if she traded her human form for something with fewer dimensions: basic HTML, and a couple of pixelated graphics, for argument’s sake.
Throughout MyAdolescence, MySpace became MyPerformance: I tried on the outfits of cultural trends to find the perfect fit. The wardrobe I dressed my femininity in was measureless. Every new song, collage, and idea I stumbled across, I found myself embodying. Thus, by the time I was sixteen and social media assumed a different shape – what, with Facebook growing and MySpace losing a lot of its charm – I had loved, lost and outgrown a handful of women, all of whom I had the privilege of publicly expressing myself as.
With cyberspace came the birth of an endless amount of existential concerns – notably in respect to our humanness and how it correlates with any given electronic device. But for women, social media proved even more complex: how do we perform gender, as well as our humanness online? Given that these platforms looks and function the same way for men, is there any right way to accurately record ‘woman-ness’? In ‘Gendering the digital body: women and computers’, Archana and Ananya Barua pose that our definitions of masculinity and femininity might change from here on in, after ‘the re-conceptualisation of human beings in terms of the computer’.
Just now, on Instagram, my housemate photographed her astoundingly large collection of zucchinis she is planning to cook for dinner tonight. Another Insta-mate, Kenly, has come to appreciate the inconsistency of her skin tone after six weeks of not applying foundation – as captured in a selfie. And Kate? She is eager to return to the Cathedral Ranges. In fact, she is itching for a challenge full stop; something that is plainly obvious as she has uploaded a photograph of her climbing a rather magnificent cliff. The sheer number of diverse women narrating their own lives online illustrates, again and again, that the experiences of women are not homogenous. In fact, one woman’s story may differ dramatically to another woman’s, and yet both grace the same newsfeed.
Technology has long been gendered, often culturally positioned as a haven for men and boys to excel both professionally and recreationally. This has resulted in the rejection, dismissal, or mockery of women in online spaces. The gaze of the female viewer isn’t just ignored: it is deemed invalid. A nuisance.
In the summer of 2010, I uploaded a photograph of myself in a lavender two-piece bikini to my MySpace profile. The bathing suit was a gift, and I thought I wore it well. But the image was soon sullied by the knowledge that a sixteen-year-old boy who attended my school – a boy I’d never met – had made it known to his peers that he would often masturbate to it; as if the purpose of my uploading it was to serve him. It became apparent to me that while I had the practical tools to exist online, self-expression and the performing or sharing of ‘woman-ness’ came at a rather humiliating cost.
Because the personal computer has become associated with masculinity (at least in the early 2000s, when the major social media platforms were established), anything that falls outside of ‘man’ is deviant. ‘Female realities are not considered or [instead] relegated to the abnormal,’ write the Baruas. While it would be absurd to claim that women haven’t ever traditionally existed on cyber landscapes, their experiences are often filtered through a masculine lens, or deemed to serve a masculine function. In turn, a woman sharing a photograph of herself in a lavender bikini isn’t just a photo of a woman in a lavender bikini. Her intentions are redundant, her authorship stale and meaningless. Regardless of whether she has consciously constructed her presence online, he has beaten her to the punch – that is, her body is made only sexual; why else would it exist in a space he has demarcated as his own?
Growing up ‘girl’ in the age of ‘pc4pc’, Top 8s, Snapchat, #hashtags and filters has its undeniable complexities. Girlhood, in and of itself, is assumed a messy, feverish time – a ‘time of helplessness and lack of control’, as Shayla Thiel-Stern puts it – at least when it comes to exploring, identifying with, and acknowledging one’s sexuality. Young women are expected to be acutely aware of themselves as sexual conquests, and therefore expected to moderate their behaviours online, whereas the predatory behavior of men is naturalised. Social media has the potential to be an impartial stage where young women can articulate and express their adolescence by themselves, no matter how dishevelled, fluid or unique, even as young men, like the one who declared my body erotic material, abuse it. As such, the social media platform is then portrayed as something evil: a place where adolescent girls are sexual, Thiel-Stern notes, and where ‘sexual predators lurk, and boys commit violence’.
And yet, the more women assume authorship in cyberspace, the more frightened a conservative audience are about what sort of cultural myths said women will dismantle. Social media partially blurs the pecking order between those who create news and those who consume it, making women more able to resist ‘mass culture’s constructions of commercialised femininity and sexuality’. This is particularly important for women whose realities have long been portrayed as shameful, or disregarded in the public sphere altogether. Women of colour, queer women, and trans-women have considerably more ceilings to shatter, making it even more integral that they are granted the power of speech in online spaces, and in turn the power to make sense of themselves.
Today, after having been a social media user for close to ten years, my online presence is a smorgasbord of all of the Madisons I have been. My cover photo is an illustration of a woman lounging; my profile picture is an overly exposed snap of me in a gold sari on the shores of an extravagant hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka. On the surface, one can subtly glean my Asian heritage; take from me what they will about my relationship with a man tagged relentlessly in my photographs, and giggle at my incessant use of dog-related photographs to capture an array of emotions. And again – in ten years time – my woman-ness will assume a different shape, but nonetheless one authored, celebrated and composed entirely by myself.
Image: ‘Myspace mugshot series – dianne.d’ / Kanghee Rhee