The 1976 film Network is the story of a failing television channel and its scheme to improve ratings by putting a crazy man on television. Howard Beale is driven out of his mind after he’s laid off to shield the bottom line. He is a widower, no real friends – a victim of the economic rearrangement of the 1970s. Promising to blow his brains out on live TV, Beale is suddenly the savior of the network as the ratings are higher than ever as a result of this outburst. He appears on television and delivers emotive appeals to his audience, reasoning that while he doesn’t know what do to fix the situation, he at least encourages everyone to “get mad”. But no mass movement erupts. Once his shares start to dip, the network assassinates him to pull their ratings out of the fire.
This is the usual synopsis you’ll receive. Network’s other story lines, the ones about Faye Dunaway’s sexually aggressive yet sexually vacuous character, the cynical manipulation of Black Power politics, are usually ignored. Everyone loves a story about a maniac street preacher. But Network is also about how the media is manufactured, how our pain and frustrations regarding the state of the world are manipulated for ratings, and how legitimate grievances are monetized under capitalism.
It’s a shame we miss out on that, because the media we consume today is just as cynically manipulated. It’s just as weaponized against the population as the media of a hundred years ago, but has now adopted new marketing techniques to sell, promote, and defend imperialism and capitalism. This is not to say that older techniques are not still used – some corruption is still as blatant as taking money or gifts – but other techniques have not been as examined, as thoroughly condemned. While sex and race are just as common as ever in the media’s worship of imperialism and capitalism, the new neoliberal strategies of atomization and the cult of the individual gives the old tropes of manipulation a fresh coat of paint:
We live in an era of flux. The old model of a creator or creative type—a person who does one thing well, and depends on institutions for support—is falling by the wayside. The creator of the future is a super-connected trans-disciplinary mutant: engaged and intellectually rebellious. Molly Crabapple has created everything from Occupy Wall Street posters and arts journalism of collapsing countries to murals on the walls of the world’s most exclusive nightclubs. On stage, she delivers an energizing, take-no-prisoners talk on how creators—how everyone—can create a life of their own design, without asking permission. (Emphasis mine, from Lanvin Agency)
Atomization is the isolation of a person from their “institutions of support”, meaning, essentially, not just their fellow human being, but also the traditional ways of reading and perceiving knowledge, through history or dialectical reasoning. The atomized individual is “intellectually rebellious”, cut off from the ability to reason correctly and confused by constantly shifting parameters – relying on their own atomized and manipulated environment in order to successfully parse reality. A strategy as old as time is to successfully make the person feel like they came up with the idea to oppress themselves. The fresh coat of paint here is to make everyone relate to their own oppression in an intimate, ego-shaping way. The individual’s decision – once they choose oppression, of course – is a sacred decision; their reasoning and their motivations are private and autonomous. The oppressed are oppressed whether they choose to be or not – but the propaganda encourages the oppressed to accept it anyway, because it makes things easier for domination and atomizes society faster.
Imperialism, too, wants invitations for military advisors, trade agreements, and foreign direct investment. Wars and battles can be disagreeable. Usually it’s preferable both morally and logistically when the oppressed ask for their own subjugation, argue for it themselves. Likewise, patriarchy seeks to subjugate by invitation. Women are told that patriarchy really does have nothing but the best intentions, that she can cleverly twist patriarchy on her own to make it “work for her”. In this way, we can compare the woman who feels violent pornography is empowering to the country which feels monoculture depending on the imperial markets is empowering. Under this paradigm, we the audience, must believe that if they are asking for it, we must respect their agency. Systems of oppression, however, do not simply disappear because they are somehow passively (or actively!) accepted by the oppressed. Indeed, systems prefer the acquiescence of the oppressed to conflict. This is why it is so important for us to be told that women love being prostitutes and how much happier developing countries are under capitalism. In many cases, this functions as a sort of shield for oppression – it’s their choice, after all! And we must respect that. And if not their choice, well then, certainly NATO has their best interests as individuals at heart. An argument about imperialism successfully becomes an argument about agency.
All of this is not just a successful tool for atomization, it is also a savvy marketing strategy for oppression. For this essay, I am going to write mainly on how imperialist-marketing techniques specifically corrupts feminism. While women who stand against oppression and imperialism are often excluded from public platform, or labeled as “crazy” otherwise, when standing for imperialism, misogyny, racism, and capitalism, women are seen as strong and independent-minded. When their representations of the aforementioned are attacked, these otherwise “modern” women simply melt back into stereotypical gender roles, and are posited as victims. I will present three case studies for this phenomenon that will seek to make this connection between feminism, traditional gender roles, agency and imperial aggression.
For the first case study, let’s take a look at a so-called feminist, modern group of women: FEMEN. The marketing strategy of this Ukrainian group is pretty simple to grasp. A photo of any FEMEN action usually includes a half naked blonde woman, political slogans scrawled across her breasts, her face contorted in pain and fear as a police officer or soldier, generally a man, attempts to tackle and arrest her. Here we have a twofold approach: one strategy is that instead of holding placards, these women use their bare breasts as “weapons” (their word, not mine) to trick an otherwise apathetic and disinterested male population into buying whatever it is they’re selling, while courageously doing this as wielders of their own agency, allegedly wielding it in the name of atomized feminism (what I call elsewhere “postfeminism“). This is greatly analogous to marketing strategies which seek to utilize female sexuality – we can see examples of this on any convention showroom floor. They are simultaneously empowered by using their sexuality to sell their politics, while at the same time cynically bowing to traditional gender roles. The second part of the marketing strategy is to usually include the police. Their groping hands put these lovely blonde ladies in danger. They roughly claw at their exposed flesh. Like King Kong, these women are generally presented as helpless against their attackers, suspended in midair by the ruddy paws of the enemy who seeks to destroy us all. We are winked at by the titillating vision of half-naked attractive white women, offering their politics on their breasts as a way of appealing to the so-called essential nature of of piggish men, appreciative of their strong choices, angry that a man would stand in their way.
For sure, while I have lived both in worlds where women wear very little and quite a lot to promote their sexuality, I take no offense to either approach. But I am critical to an extreme when I see this sexuality weaponized, used to beat not just Russia over the head, but all of us, to crush discussion and promote unquestioning acquiescence in the name of agency, feminism and sexual liberation. The image of white breasts crumpled roughly in the dark hands of state violence – what’s there to safely discuss without stepping in a minefield?
Odessa: FEMEN spokeswoman Ievgeniia Kraizma throwing a salute while 40 people are lynched and burned behind her in May 2014.
It didn’t surprise me to discover that FEMEN is represented by a smarmy Ukrainian neo-fascist, or that FEMEN has connections to Svoboda and dirty US money. It didn’t surprise me to see FEMEN photographed posing near the burning House of Labor in Odessa during a brutal lynching of red and left activists. What did surprise me was how successfully the FEMEN brand and their tactics have so far avoided a total exposure as fascist frauds. I suppose that many of my male comrades, and some of the female ones, feel uncomfortable discussing this, as many of us (as good Leftists) have been inoculated against discussing how a woman should display her sexuality. The dominant discussion about a woman’s choice simply forbids me from approaching a half-naked woman and calling her out on reactionary posturing. It will melt into my being a prude or jealous of her beauty. I cannot say if these women were expressing their honest-to-God sexuality while participating in these actions. I’ve never been to bed with them, I don’t know their hearts. I can just clearly see how their bodies, their bare skin, are weaponized towards reaction. As a woman, the marketing scheme disgusts me – a scheme to sell imperialism, patriarchy and racism. It’s a marketing scheme that results in the uncritical nodding along of so many while reds burn in Odessa.
In a way, FEMEN’s schtick is much like Nazi pornography: the woman simultaneously representing sexual availability, traditional values, and also under threat by the dark barbarian other. The main difference here is that the woman herself is now an individual. It’s not just her body that must be protected from the barbarian horde; it is also her choice to portray herself thus that must be defended. Her reasons for being presented in this way are hers and hers alone – if she believes she is being counter-culture when being anything but, we cannot argue with this or else we are little worse than the cops clawing at her body. The defense is thus sealed against all criticism of tactics and ideology.
Their biggest applause line was “Be Pussy Riot! Anyone can be Pussy Riot!”
Another example of this paradigm in action is the Russian group Pussy Riot. What started as an anarchist-type art collective in Russia, with public fucking, sexual battery against women, and desecration of sacred spaces, soon became a cause célèbre for spook organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Their combined sexiness and intellectual rebelliousness were worshiped by unofficial Occupy spokespersons, their pouting faces immortalized as they were hauled off to a dreaded work camp. After their early release, as part of a general amnesty for mothers (my goodness – what a concept!) they went on tour of American prisons, grimly meeting with Bill DeBlasio and speaking on how much the prisons in Russia could be improved, perhaps to become more like the prisons in the US, where the rate of incarceration is historically unprecedented.
Of course, while Pussy Riot enjoys a rockstar reception in the United States, the same is not true for the Russian Federation, where the majority of the population regards the beautiful young women of Pussy Riot as deserving of punishment. In fact, a rarely-reported twist to the story is that the two women seen most as representing Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tollokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, were in fact expelled from their group. But this is irrelevant to the media in the United States, who are basically the managers and promoters of the group in the West, who seek instead to paint these women as dissidents who redeem our bad qualities (Rikers, etc) through their earnest, qualified eyes. We cannot get the same redemption from Chelsea Manning, rotting in prison now for four years with no general amnesty coming for her, as her acts did not exist to propagate empire, but rather to expose and destroy empire. Chelsea Manning’s inhumane imprisonment is not viewed with the same comradely concern as Pussy Riot, who pose for Vanity Fair once free and clear in New York City. Despite their strength of character and bravery in risking their lives (!) to tell the truth about Putin’s Russia, Pussy Riot remain fragile, petite girls who are in need of saving.
And here, generally, is where female sexuality is most successfully deployed against critical thought. In reading the objections as being about the bodies themselves, as opposed to the systems of power they represent in tension with one another, we are effectively silenced. We read critique of Pussy Riot and FEMEN as being attacks against their bodies themselves. Even their agency is pushed aside in moments of crisis. This is misogyny. Despite their right-wing stances, their cheering for imperialism, these women have successfully infiltrated modern protest movements such as Occupy Wall Street and piggy-backed onto a variety of causes, such as that of prison reform, refugee crises, LGBT liberation, and Cecily McMillan’s trial. They have entered these movements seamlessly, propagating disinfo and sowing division among actual activists, while going relatively unchallenged. The critics of their positions become “haters” or “stalkers”, or send them rape threats.
Laurie Penny and friends
Our new young female pundit class is the final example of this phenomenon of weaponized naked girls. Writers such as Molly Crabapple, Laurie Penny, and Natasha Lennard have become new icons for a “counterculture” feminist-journalist ideal. But a quick look at the CVs of these women reveal them not as actual politically minded activists, but rather as ambitious pop-culture icons. Laurie Penny frames herself as a Harvard fellow and feminist voice for the “underclass” while cheering on the NATO attacks on Libya in 2011, Natasha Lennard smears anti-war activism as useless and boring, and Molly Crabapple now regularly reports dispatches from the Middle East, arguing for NATO intervention in Syria and the arming of foreign mercenaries there while chiding the Left for being against these things. Proving that naked photos of oneself are no barrier to success in the mainstream, Crabapple in particular has successfully turned her burlesque franchise into a platform to broadcast political propaganda, and is regularly printed in VICE, the New York Times, and invited on news channels such as MSNBC to opine on MENA foreign policy issues.
I asked the question, why is a young woman like Molly Crabapple chosen to write about Syria, and not a young woman like Eva Bartlett? We could say it’s as simple as the fact that Crabapple supports NATO intervention in Syria, weaving a case for the need for intervention by bravely “risking her life” going 100 meters into Syria to report on the need for the Syrian government to be overthrown by foreign forces. Bartlett does not agree with this, but let’s also look deeper at what disqualifies her: she has worked as a regional organizer for ISM in Gaza, speaks Arabic, and has a firm grounding in the region. She has worked as a human shield for the Palestinian people against imperialist bombs. While this first-hand knowledge might qualify her to some, it would probably disqualify her from taking a job in professional journalism, as this would require a level of “objectivity” she clearly no longer possesses.
Commie-chic: all the chic, none of the commie
Crabapple, on the other hand, runs a burlesque franchise (“Dr. Sketchy’s”) that features imperialist, racialized shows for the entertainment of a mainly-white male audience. Instead of this disqualifying her from a platform, it endears her to publications such as VICE, an imperialist, racialized burlesque show in its own right. She is a self-described mercenary entrepreneur and former naked girl who seemed to earn her credentials on reporting the topic of Syrian “revolution” by way of her being an unofficial spokeswoman and artist for Occupy Wall Street.
This position also offered her the opportunity to visit the prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, where hundreds of prisoners are denied basic rights as human beings and are currently on mass hunger strike. The stories of torture and mistreatment out of Guantanamo are not hard to find, including reports of a CIA murder cover up, but these are conspicuously absent from Crabapple’s reporting. She instead spends most of her time with the guards and wardens of the prison camp, drawing pictures of the idyllic scenery and the equipment they use to torture the prisoners. She draws Guantanamo as overgrown and mysterious, lush and abandoned, a sort of Tim Burton set. It is no longer threatening, merely an uncomfortable afterthought. When questioning the purpose of this visit, I was asked “What could someone REALLY dig up on such a trip?” What indeed. So then the question becomes: why was this woman who did no journalism of note, who left out actual journalism of note from her report, allowed to visit such a blight on humanity if not to present an acceptable and non-threatening version of it to her audience?
It’s clear then, that a woman such as this is not qualified to be considered a journalist, much less a “leftist” by any serious standards. She is simply a pop-culture propagandist, marketed to young leftists as an acceptable and attractive alternative to Thomas Friedman. Yet, when confronted with criticism on her position or credentials, Crabapple retreats into a victim’s shell. Her critics are “haters”, “jealous”, or “obsessed with her [sexually]”. Refugee Palestinian children become her sexual molesters while she simultaneously and bravely calls for their betterment – not through BDS or armed resistance, but *some*how. Likewise, the “left” pelts her with alleged rape threats while she is only trying to help them win broader exposure. Her sexuality as a woman simultaneously promotes and shields her. She even went as far as to paint a portrait of herself with various criticisms painted over her face – few of them were threats to her body, most of them to her politics, but certainly all one and the same in her artistic representation.
The racialized clarification to this scam is Crabapple answering for her profiting off imperialist burlesque by bringing out a performer from the show, to argue that what was seen – women dressed in “traditional” savage garb with tampons in their ears, killing one another for the sexual pleasure of the audience, was actually highly-developed satire or criticism of racism and imperialism in its own right. While Crabapple herself would not answer my questions regarding this show, how this sort of thing developed her brand, and its contribution to her views on imperialism, the performer she featured thanked her profusely for the opportunity to reinforce stereotypes next to racist copy written by a white man, implying that if she did not, this would be censoring women of color. This was a disclaimer added five years after the fact and only after I raised the issue. Again: we have racist, imperialist, misogynist discourse that is justified by agency, implying that to disagree with profiting off of these representations would in fact be racism or misogyny in its own right. This is neoliberalism at fever pitch.
Racism and female sexuality have long been utilized to sell imperialist war. The Spanish American war, the mobilization of the KKK to protect white females from rape, the hijab-wearing beauties constrained by “Islamofascism” – these are all examples. For any case imperialist warmongering, I will show you a pretty young woman in danger. Not as if these women are in danger because of imperialist war, of course. They are almost always in argument of imperialist war. The brutal gang rape of young teenage girls by American soldiers in Iraq is simply not covered in the same way as Ghadaffi’s alleged Viagra-fueled rape squads. The gruesome blackmail used against females and LGBT people by Mossad is simply not news compared to honor killings.
In addition, there is a tendency in yellow journalism to present female sexuality as a way to sell papers. It works so well for nearly every other facet of capitalist consumerism. And there is a tendency in journalists of all stripes and shapes to be connected to intelligence services, also in service of imperialist intervention and war. From a desire to access to simple laziness, journalists play into the hands of the government on nearly all fronts, but particularly when it comes to imperialism. Why keep a foreign bureau open when you can get information from the government and send pundits along embedded with soldiers and State Department coordinators? All of this together creates a situation ripe for exploiting the entire public, but throw in the parts about feminism, and now reds and other sorts of anti-imperialists will be lured by this siren’s call. It’s not hard to conjure up desired personalities to deliver your message in this system, not hard to produce the actors needed to play all the parts of the media narrative. It’s not just spooks sneaking around recruiting people for their schemes, it’s a whole society that’s been primed to loathe communism and national liberation.
Women with guns in their hands fighting against imperialism are mostly absent from this kind of imperial discourse, except to mock, pity or belittle them. I mean, look at that last link. It’s to an article about FARC’s female soldiers and it’s titled “Jungle Fever”. In this discourse, all women are victims and silly dupes – wandering children, looking for someone to help them. The ones with a voice are loud and proud about their imperialist message, and then it is their bodies under attack if their message is objected to – not imperialism, not capitalism.
But I reject this. These expressions of female sexuality are not earnest, and are just as false as any other patriarchal representation of women, not because the women and their actions are themselves false necessarily, but because these presentations have been weaponized by third parties to serve imperialist and patriarchal ends. They are mediated expressions. I cannot speculate on whether or not these individual women are knowingly complicit in this. I can only struggle against the broader tendency to use female bodies in this grotesque manner.
Today’s young female journalist-pundits have created the perfect storm for this sort of discourse, and it is their presence that introduces groups like Pussy Riot and FEMEN to the rest of us, helpfully putting it all in context. Their support of imperialism, combined with their self-promotion as empowered savvy “burlesque dancers” or “naked girls”, combined with their self-portrayal as frightened women under attack, is effective in triggering silence from the left. Professionally donning the sheep’s wool of just-another-activist-chick while quite literally endorsing capitalism and its products, they fold criticism of their work and their marketing strategy into criticisms of themselves, and as they have been crafted to appeal mainly to a certain demographic, the attack is not just on themselves, but also on their fans and their sense of taste. These women are not just sexy, hinting at their sexual availability, but also vulnerable to attack. Like Clemencia Arango, they are young, innocent, beautiful, naked and must be saved.
So, the nakedness, while making these women appealing yet vulnerable, also shields them – their openness and frankness alluding that their presentation of themselves as coy young ladies is of their own agency, that it was their decision to market themselves thus. Therefore, it would be anti-women, certainly anti-female sexuality, to attack the media as using the nakedness as a screen for pro-NATO positions. No consideration is given, perhaps, that their rising to the top is a result of imperialism and patriarchy, a deeply integrated media propaganda machine.
They are, in a strange way, much like the young, innocent, beautiful and naked women who NATO must intervene to “protect” – at least, they are both supported and promoted by the same paradigm of patriarchal imperialism and capitalism. And since the marketing appeal is clearly not just their excellent reporting, but also their packaged sexuality and so-called “girlfriend experience” complete with Instagram photos and voyeuristic members-only performances, this means that an attack on them is not just an alleged attack on their sexuality, but on their male audience as well.
And I must stress here, before I receive backlash, that I have no idea who any of the above women are on an individual level. I don’t know what drives them. I cannot say for one way or the other that they are aware of how they are being weaponized against the world’s oppressed majority; I can only say that they are. Neoliberalism lays out its demands in a simple way for white women who want to make it in this world: we are to be subservient, our consent made available for public sale, and for our hearts to go out to our men and women in uniform as they fight to keep the barbarians at bay who would throw a hijab over our nakedness. As for fighting women of color and women battling on imperial fronts – if they do not exist to arouse or be laughed at, they simply do not exist at all. And while we wrestle with our deeper questions of identity, atomization, feminism and racism, imperialist bombs quicken their pace, spreading their destruction over the rest of the world.