OSLO FORM LAB 2018

A Cyborg Manifesto in the age of Instagram and Female Censorship

By Fiepke Sofie van Niel.



“Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves.”[1]



This phrase is the last sentence of Donna Haraway’s influential feminist text A Cyborg Manifesto written in 1985. Although the text is rather complex with many different layers to it, this quote that was drawn from Haraway’s conclusion points towards her stance towards essentialism; the metaphor of the cyborg is operated for the rejection of certain dualisms and essentialism in feminism and gender theories. Haraway describes her concept of the cyborg as "a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction." [2] Considering the fact this text was written in 1985, what would it mean for a cyborg to live in the age of social media? Is a cyborg in our age a hybrid of organism and machine in the sense of internet, technology and social media? Regarding social media, dualisms are still everywhere to be found. Especially when we think of Instagram. The protest of the #freethenipple movement takes a stance towards the dualism between the male and the female nipple that the politics of Instagram operate with. Up until today, the protest against the gender biased politics of the app is still going on and users of Instagram are advocating for more possibilities in what kind of pictures they are allowed to post and what kind of pictures they are not allowed to post. In this text, I would like to adopt the way Donna Haraway looks at gender and technology in order to advocate for a change of the politics of Instagram.


A better understanding of Donna Haraway’s text is necessary before linking it to outings of contemporary culture. Referring back to the definition that Haraway uses for the word cyborg throughout her text, humans are turning into hybrids at the end of the twentieth century. Haraway attributes this transformation to the destruction of three different boundaries. The first boundary that has faded is the one between humans and animals. Haraway connects this mainly to a shift in a scientific paradigm regarding animal rights and evolution theory. The second one is that between organisms and machine; machines become more and more intelligent and organisms become more reliant on these machines. The last boundary that Haraway recognizes as one that is fading is the boundary between the physical and the nonphysical. As an example, this could point to the fact that a lot of machines embody certain data that exists but that we will never be able to touch. In this way, the last boundary that is fading is an extension of the second one. [3] Haraway uses these descriptions of fading boundaries in order to illustrate the hybridization of organisms into cyborgs and thus for providing an account of the fractured identities that our society consists out of nowadays. Thus, our fractured identities are extended outside of our bodies, or, as Haraway questions; why should our bodies end at the end of our skin? [4] The discussing of the fluidity of boundaries and the rejection of certain binaries in identity points towards Haraway’s rejection of essentialism in gender. Or, to put it differently, Haraway uses the cyborg as a metaphor to reject the idea of the existence of an authentic female experience. [5] Another important aspect of the essay is the way Haraway speaks about these cyborgs. On one hand, she views them as being an offspring of patriarchal capitalism. But, as she states after this statement: "illegimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins." [6]

This means for Haraway that there is also another side of looking at cyborgs which focuses on living in harmony with humans, animals and machines. Haraway also uses this positive side to this new postgender and cyborg age for her rejection of essentialism.


After delving slightly deeper into A Cyborg Manifesto and reading about our relationships towards technology and how this is a part of our personal identity, this leads us to the part where we think about what Haraway’s essay means for our existence in contemporary culture. If we think of the existence of human beings as cyborgs in 2018, what can A Cyborg Manifesto tell us about the way social media and smartphones are a part of our identity nowadays?


A big part of the mediation of our identities, or our fractured identities when we see them in the perspective of humans as cyborgs, goes through social media. Instagram operates as one of the bigger social media platforms nowadays and revolves mainly around sharing pictures on a personal account. Posting pictures of ourselves and our ‘interesting’ lives are part of a lot of people’s everyday practice. When we think of Instagram in terms of A Cyborg Manifesto, it relates to the third boundary that Haraway labels as fading; the boundary between the physical and the nonphysical. Our Instagram profiles contain a certain part of our identity that is very important nowadays. It is our online persona that provides information about our physical selves. It is an intangible extension of our fractured identity. In this sense, this resonates with Haraway’s idea of the identity of the cyborg as one that goes beyond the skin that holds our body together. We could almost say that cyborgs in Donna Haraway’s perspective nowadays are hybrids between social media, internet and organisms. Our identities are scattered throughout different media and thus the idea of an authentic identity and therefore one authentic gendered experience does not exist.


However, as mentioned before, Instagram’s politics on what is allowed to post and what is not are still considerably rigid. It is prohibited to share pictures of female nipples, genitals, sexual intercourse and so on. Paradoxically, Instagram’s community guidelines states it’s most important goal as keeping Instagram a place for expression and inspiration. [7] Regarding the way Instagram allows its users to only portray an one-sided image of gendered identities, Instagram’s community guidelines rest on the concept of essentialism. The fact that female nipples are not allowed to be shown on the social media platform reflects a way of thinking that rests on binaries and gender stereotypes. Female nipples are supposed to be sexual and are therefore regarded as graphic content, while male nipples are considered to be appropriate. But, as can be read in Gretchen Faust’s research on Instagram’s female censorship, also pubic hair and menstruation blood were a reason for Instagram to delete pictures by users.[8] The same research by Gretchen Faust mentions the deletion of a picture of the artist Petra Collins, which shows her own pubic hair. Faust points towards a text written by Collins on this topic, in which she says:

I guess I was trying to combat feelings of the male gaze through my images. I wanted to create images that represented my own sexuality, not a sexuality that was dictated by someone else (…) [9]

The goal that Collins wanted to achieve by posting these pictures tells us something in the way that Instagram could represent gender and identity; one can make its own personal decisions on what kind of pictures they want to post and what these can tell the audience about the identity and gender of the person who is in charge of the Instagram account. Therefore, Instagram as a social media platform gives the possibilities to give diversity in gender a stage. Every person with his or her own account can construct its own identity through posting pictures. Faust also points out a quote of an article Jessica Valenti on Instagram’s female censorship where she states that the nature of social media makes it possible to project a more diverse image of what women or the female form can look like.[10] But, obviously Instagram has not reached this point yet and it only enables women to represent their bodies in a way that is sexy but not natural. Images of women in bikini that are sometimes extremely objectifying and sexualized are appropriate correlate with Instagram’s community guidelines, but images that show our natural beings do not. Rupi Kaur, the artist who posted a picture of a woman with a stain of menstruation blood on her pants which was subsequently deleted, put it this way:

I will not apologize for not feeding the ego and pride of misogynist society that will have my body in an underwear but not be okay with a small leak. When your pages are filled with countless photos/accounts where women (so many who are underage) are objectified, pornified. and treated less than human.[11]

Concludingly, if we look back at A Cyborg Manifesto and the way this correlates with the usage of Instagram as a social media platform, Haraway’s text can be used to get a different understanding of the meaning of social media and technology in our lives and therefore advocate for a change in Instagram’s gender biased community guidelines. Our gendered identities as cyborgs are hybrid and stretched out over many different disciplines. The importance of social media nowadays points to the way Instagram forms a big part of the expression of our identity and, especially in the case of the discussed artists, our gender. It is part of the fiction that the cyborg as a creature consists of nowadays. Therefore, Instagram could mediate the reality of fractured identities and the diversity of gender. But only if there is a change in the community guidelines and if the goal of #freethenipple is to be fulfilled. This would result in a more open space that does not operate along the lines of gender stereotypes and that works towards a world were thinking in binaries is more and more rejected. A more free and open policy operated by Instagram matches our cyborg identities and is able to present a diverse range of personal experiences with gender and sex.


Notes

[1] Haraway, A Cyborg Manifesto, 67.

[2] Ibid., 5.

[3] Ibid., 8-12.

[4] Ibid., 23.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] Ibid., 9-10.

[7] ‘Community Guidelines’. Website Instagram.

[8] Faust, Hair, Blood and the Nipple, 159-160.

[9] Collins, ‘Why Instagram Censored My Body’. Website Huffington Post.

[10] Faust, Hair, Blood and the Nipple, 167.

[11] ‘Instagram deletes women’s period photos’. Website The Telegraph.


References


Collins, Petra. ‘Why Instagram Censored My Body’. Huffington Post. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/petra-collins/why-instagram-censored-my-body_b_4118416.html?guccounter=1 (consulted September 29, 2018).


‘Community guidelines’. Instagram. https://help.instagram.com/477434105621119 (consulted September 29, 2018).


Faust, Gretchen. Hair, Blood and the Nipple: Instagram Censorship and the Female Body. In: Frömming, Köhn and Fox (ed.). Digital Environments: Ethnographic Perspectives Across Global Online and Offline Spaces. Bielefeld: Transcript-Verlag, 2017.


Haraway, Donna. A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. In: Manifestly Haraway. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.


Sanghami, Radhika. ‘Instagram deletes woman's period photos - but her response is amazing’. The Telegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/life/instagram-deletes-womans-period-photos-but-her-response-is-amazing/ (consulted September 29, 2018).