This is going to be similar in intent to my recent post on the legal system – a speculative attempt to consider possible ways that a system adapted to patriarchy could be changed to make it fit with sexual equality. In particular, I want to think about the media, in particular pornography, advertising, pornography-as-advertising, etc.
One way to conceptualise ‘oppression’ is in terms of the traits possessed by “the social subject”. (‘Subject’ here is a philosophical term, the opposite of ‘object’) The social subject is the person who thinks what “everyone thinks”, who knows what “everyone knows”, who does what “you do”, who notices what’s “obvious”. When a person is mentioned without any specific features being given, they will tend to be imagined as the social subject. Heidegger talked about ‘das Man’, everyone-and-noone’ (‘Man’ is German for what we would call ‘one’, as in, ‘whatever one does, it’s not enough’).
As is made obvious by our language, the social subject is, by and large, on the whole, in general and overall, a straight man. He also has class and race features but that’s not my focus right now. Because the social subject is a straight man, straight men find it easier to be subjects (to be people, to do person things, like decide, choose, act, take control, learn, be listened to etc.) while other people find it harder. Hence oppression in its various aspects.
Now one of the key things that subjects do is to look and to see. Objects on the other hand do not look – they are looked at. So from the beginning, in considering visual media, there is the basic ideology: men look at women. That’s why women’s magazines are full of pictures of women, while men’s magazines are full of pictures of…women!
Consequently, we should expect to find the way our male-dominated society has evolved to deal with visual media is biased towards the person looking, and against the person being looked at. The way to strike out at things like pornography is, I believe, ultimately not to isolate certain images and ‘ban’ or ‘restrict’ them, but to try to re-orient our relationship to images towards greater recognition of the person pictured.
One obvious way to do that, I think, would be something like an inalienable right to ownership of images of you.
By ‘inalienable’ I mean something like this: we have an inalienable right to life, because if we make a contract saying “if I do X, you can kill me”, and then I do X and you kill me, the contract is not a defense – you are still guilty of murder. Similarly, if I sell myself into slavery, and then decide to leave that slavery, my ‘owner’ cannot do anything to stop me – if they lock me up, they are guilty of kidnap or false imprisonment, because the contract is not a defense. Contracts in which I ‘alienate’ my right to life or liberty are void, because those rights are inalienable.
Of course, those rights can be forfeited – if I attack someone with a knife, and they stab me in self-defense, it is not murder because I forfeited my rights in attacking them. Similarly I forfeit my right to liberty by doing something for which I can be legitimately imprisoned (whatever we might think that is). But alienation and forfeiture are not the same.
Now at the moment, people like porn actresses and nude models typically have to sign “model release forms” by which they give control of images of them, and the right to sell or publish those images, away. The essential point of my proposal is to make forms of this sort void, on the basis that the right to control images of your body, especially its more private parts, is an aspect of self-ownership, and self-ownership is inalienable (which, as I argue here, is one reason why self-ownership bears little relationship to property-ownership).
Now of course there are complexities. There might be differences between nude and clothed images. Things would be tricky when multiple people were shown. At the moment, model release forms are only even necessary for publication, not for owning and selling images – that would have to change. News stories would work differently, as would photos taken in public places (these, note, are I think forfeitures, not alienation). But I don’t think it’s beyond the ability of humans to deal with complexities.
The result of a change like this would be enormous for things like advertising and pornography. A website with photos of 100 different models, which had paid for those photos to be taken, and paid the models to pose in them, would have to constantly be open to the possibility that any one of those models might at any time decide that they no longer want to have strangers wanking to photos of them, and demand that the photos be taken down. And because these models would not be legally able to give away their control, they would not be able to give the website any kind of security against them taking the fee and then removing the photo the next day.
Pornography (including the semi-pornography that pervades our mainstream media) would become a lot less workable as a business model. In its place, sexually explicit (or, indeed, sexually implicit) images would fit into different economic structures, structures which currently exist but in a marginal form. Websites filled with pictures of women and men who love modelling would still exist, but they would be much less sensible as an investment and thus would stop attracting money-makers and start attracting people who love photography. And websites where people posted images of themselves would similarly be unaffected. Naked women would come to hold the power in the pictures-of-naked-women business.
This would I think also change our public spaces. It might, in a sense, move them a bit more towards the Islamic idea of patterns and designs in place of representations, though obviously not all that far. At the moment, our visual memory and awareness of what bodies look like is largely controlled by the media sphere, which is dominated by people who want to sell us something (i.e. who want to create a need in us, a dissatisfaction). Making that not a viable business model would help to return that control to real life – to make our ideas be based on the human beings we see around us. I think this would be enormously beneficial, especially in relation to eating disorders.
That said, it would remove an option from women – if you can’t give away your control over images of your body, then you can’t persuade people to give you money in exchange for doing so. This is regrettable, but inevitable: removing oppression means removing those forms of self-preservation that rely on that oppression.
(Of course, changing the whole economic structure of society might also result in advertising simply disappearing as a phenomenon. And providing unconditional economic security would remove the incentive for people to go into porn because of poverty. But anyway.)