Delilah Campbell ponders Facebook’s new approach to gender
Heinz comes in 57 varieties, grey comes in fifty shades, and gender, according to Facebook, now comes in 51 different forms. The social media giant announced this month that in future, account-holders (at least, those whose language is English) will be able to choose from a menu of 51 terms describing gender identification. Subscribers in the US can already access the new options, which include ‘androgynous’, ‘bigender’, ‘genderfluid’ and ‘intersex’ as well as the more predictable ‘trans’, ‘trans*’, ‘transsexual’ and ‘man’/‘woman’ prefaced by ‘trans’ or ‘cis’.
This move towards greater diversity and inclusiveness has been hailed as—in the words of one source quoted by the Independent— ‘a milestone step to allow countless people to more honestly and accurately represent themselves’. This speaker, described as a ‘human rights activist’, went on to express the hope that others would emulate the example set by Facebook in ‘supporting individuals’ multifaceted identities’.
I will pass over the question of what ‘supporting individuals’ multifaceted identities’ has to do with human rights, and ask instead if Facebook’s policy, overall, would actually qualify as ‘supporting individuals’ multifaceted identities’. To describe identity as ‘multifaceted’ is to acknowledge that gender is only one element of it, and that others are in principle no less important. But Facebook profiles are not constructed on that principle. Gender is the only personal characteristic that has to be specified explicitly, and displayed publicly, on a Facebook page. You do have to give your birthdate, but you can choose to keep it hidden. You are not asked to select a category from a menu of ethnic labels, or social class labels, though ethnicity and class are also facets of identity; and displaying your educational or relationship status is optional rather than compulsory. So, it’s hard to see the new policy as a sign of Facebook’s commitment to making users’ profiles more fully reflective of their multifaceted identities. It’s more a manifestation of the contemporary obsession with gender identity, gender categories and gender distinctions.
It’s also an illustration of another contemporary phenomenon, the power of the drop-down menu. In a world where we are constantly required to fill in online forms, where you can only proceed to the next screen if you click on one of the options provided (not several, not none, not an alternative of your own devising), there is a tendency to take those options as a map of reality. Like the boundaries marked on an actual map, the lines they draw between this category and that become reified, treated as objective facts to which we must try to fit our own subjective experience.
Facebook’s 51 gender labels are a case in point. There is nothing objective about them: they don’t represent a single conceptual scheme or comprise a scientific taxonomy, they just reproduce as many terms as the designers could think of which are currently used by some subset of English-speakers to describe some kind of non-traditional orientation to the traditional male/female binary. The glossaries which various ‘experts’ have hastily produced to explain them suggest that many of the new categories overlap or duplicate one another: ‘androgynous’, ‘bigender’ and ‘genderfluid’, for instance, all denote an identification with both masculinity and femininity. But once they appear as discrete options in a drop-down menu, there’s a good chance people will treat them as definitive, and if necessary create the semantic distinctions that are needed to make them coherent. Just as having the choice of ‘Miss’ ‘Mrs’ and ‘Ms’ has persuaded many English-speakers that ‘Ms’ must denote a distinct category of ‘others’ (older unmarried women, divorced women and lesbians) rather than subsuming (as it was meant to) the previous, marital status-based categories, so asking people to choose between ‘genderfluid’ and ‘bigender’ will prompt them to invent criteria for distinguishing the two. Meanwhile, some people will inevitably feel that the available options exclude them, or fail to represent them fully, and will lobby for new ones to be added. As if any nomenclature, however many terms it included, could possibly capture all the nuances of our lived and felt experience.
Facebook’s new nomenclature certainly doesn’t work for me, because it presupposes that there must be some form of gender that I feel a positive identification with. In fact, as a radical materialist feminist my position is that gender, like ‘race’ and class, is essentially a system of domination and subordination, and as such I am politically opposed to it. While I acknowledge its existence as a material social fact, and accept that it has shaped my own experience and sense of self, I do not identify positively with any form of gender, either actual or imaginable. Being willing to call myself a woman (again, in recognition of a material social fact) does not mean I have a positive identification with femininity. My relationship to both femininity and masculinity is entirely negative. Facebook doesn’t provide any terminology with which I could ‘honestly and accurately represent’ that position. It allows me to list my gender as ‘neither’, or the more arcane ‘neutrois’ (glossed as ‘people who do not identify within the binary gender system’), but the problem with those terms (also ‘gender non-conforming’ and ‘gender variant’) is that in this scheme they all denote identities: they define you as a certain kind of person, rather than as a person (of any kind) who takes a certain political stance.
Though from my point of view Facebook’s approach to gender is more or less apolitical, the company evidently wants to be seen as a champion of progressive attitudes. The spokesperson quoted in the Independent presented the new policy as part of the company’s commitment to equality and diversity, as well as a sign of its openness to concerns expressed by users (in this case, LGBT groups who campaigned for new terminology). However, anything Facebook does in the area of user profiling is liable to be interpreted in the light of our knowledge that its money is made by selling data to advertisers. I always assumed that the real reason why your profile had to specify whether you were male or female was the importance accorded to that information by Facebook’s real customers, the marketeers. Some commentators have suggested that the new gender nomenclature will serve their purposes even more effectively: by getting people to define themselves in less blandly generic terms (or as one comment put it, ‘finding 50 more ways to violate my privacy’), Facebook can help businesses to target a more specific market niche.
On that point, I’m slightly sceptical: it’s hard to see how this confusing set of labels could be mapped onto the consumer preferences that are of interest to the niche-marketers. Are there products which appeal more to the ‘gender variant’ than the ‘gender non-conforming’, or services for the ‘androgynous’ as opposed to the ‘bigendered’? If you identify as bigendered, will that just mean you get a double helping of spam?
Yet at a deeper level I do think the revamping of Facebook’s gender options shows the influence of consumerism on what is now thought of as ‘political’ action—the idea is that people are empowered by having as much choice as possible, and that minorities in particular are empowered by the public validation of their choices. ‘Put my preferred gender identity label on your drop-down menu so that I can display it in my profile’ is the kind of political language that Facebook understands, but in the real world, arguably, the effect is pretty trivial. (How often does anyone even look at what genders their Facebook friends have specified?) Other political demands, for instance that Facebook should stop hosting pages which promote violence against women, have not been so easily accommodated (though they have sometimes been successful when accompanied by actions that threatened the site’s advertising revenue).
If Facebook had wanted to do something really radical, it could surely have gone for the simpler option of taking gender off the menu altogether. Instead of requiring every user to select a label from a predefined set of options, it could have said it was going to let individuals make their own decisions about how to define and present themselves—permitting them not only to use their own preferred terms, but also to decide how far to foreground their gender in their profiles.
I’d just as soon leave it in the background myself; but since that is apparently unthinkable, I’m considering setting up a Facebook group to lobby for some additional menu options—some boxes a radical feminist could tick, like ‘gender indifferent’, ‘gender resistant’, ‘gender hostile’ and ‘nowadays when I hear the word “gender” I reach for my medication’. Anyone want to join?
© Cath Jackson
Can mobile phone apps help to protect women from domestic and sexual violence? A recent study suggests that they might do more harm than good, as Nicole Westmarland explains.
At Durham University’s Centre for research into violence and abuse, one of our recent research projects looked at the use of ‘apps’ in relation to domestic and sexual violence (a link to the full report is at the end of this post). When we present this research or talk about it with students, it’s often the more ‘extreme’ rather than the more mundane, everyday examples that get the audience’s attention and the gasps of disbelief. The biggest gasps come when we talk about apps that have been developed specifically to track and harass women, most notably the ‘Track Your Wife’ app which has over 10,000 downloads and enables men to add a tracking device to their partner’s phone and track them in real time anywhere in the world. But, horrible as the existence of this app is, it is not the focus of my blog post or even the focus of our research. We were more concerned about apps that claimed to be helping to keep women safe.
An ‘app’ is a small, specialised software program, downloadable and installable onto mobile devices such as smartphones or tablet computers. This research consisted of a systematic app search plus 10 interviews with app developers and 17 with domestic and/or sexual violence practitioners.
We found that the most common app function was a panic alarm/danger alert – when coded by main function this accounted for nearly half the apps (49%). Some of these apps were basic ‘panic buttons’ which — similar to non electronic panic or rape alarms —emitted a very loud noise designed to attract attention and thereby scaring the potential offender away through fear of being caught (e.g. Attack Alarm, Scream Alarm, iPhone Panic Alarm). Most, however, offered additional functions. ‘Red Panic Button’ costs $2.99 (with the option to buy extras within the app), was developed by a UK based company, and has won an ‘app of the day’ award. It offers an SMS, email, Twitter, and/or Facebook panic message to be sent at the press of the Red Panic Button, which sends the user’s current location coordinates. It also offers an emergency dial function that can be customised. In its description it describes itself as an ‘Early Warning and Vulnerability Alert System’ and makes grand claims such as ‘The one call that can make a difference!’, ‘Get out of harm’s way with just one touch!’, ‘In an emergency, information means survival’, and even ‘Red Panic Button is your lifeline!’.
Practitioners from violence support services were largely critical of panic alarm/danger alert style apps, thinking that they did not really ‘add’ anything —a quick text to the same effect could easily be sent or information quickly searched for online. They were also concerned that apps may reinforce ‘victim blaming’ attitudes that excuse perpetrators’ actions.
We agreed with these criticisms. Apps like these require women to do what Liz Kelly calls ‘safety work’, by which she means we are expected to invest time, energy, and (sometimes) money into ‘keeping ourselves safe’. Some may also perpetuate ‘stranger danger’ myths that mask the prevalence of violence within ongoing relationships. Though these new apps are more sophisticated than ‘old style’ panic alarms, we argue that there is little evidence to support their bold claims. They are part of the commodification of women’s safety.
Read the full research findings at: https://www.dur.ac.uk/resources/sass/research/briefings/ResearchBriefing12-ProtectingWomensSafety.pdf
The fabulous Cath Jackson is back – with her iconic illustrations! Here she turns her pen to the subject of the Sochi Olympics.
© Cath Jackson 2014
The T&S archive makes clear that fat was a feminist issue in the 1980s and 1990s, and that issue hasn’t gone away; on the contrary, the so-called ‘obesity crisis’ of the 21st century has prompted a new wave of moral panic and some worrying new forms of fat oppression. In Slim Pickings Debbie Cameron asks how feminists have responded to these developments, and argues that we need to get more radical.
Video of the event celebrating the creation of the archive of 30 years of Trouble & Strife.
The event was held at London Metropolitan University on December 2nd, 2013.
All issues of Trouble & Strife are now available.
T&S first appeared in print in 1983, and by the end of 2013 we plan to have all print issues of the magazine available on this site. To launch our online archive, we’re holding an event in London on December 2.
What did and does radical feminism have to say? Celebrating 30 years of Trouble and Strife
Monday 2 Dec 6 – 8.30pm Room GC1-08: The Graduate Centre, London Metropolitan University, 166-20 Holloway Road, London N7 8DB. (Nearest tube: Holloway Road.)
There will be a panel of speakers (including Purna Sen, Liz Kelly, Cath Jackson, Debbie Cameron), discussion and refreshments. All welcome: register and get tickets here
Scans of issues 1 through 5 are now available for download!
Issue 1, Winter 1983
Issue 2, Spring 1984
Issue 3, Summer 1984
Issue 4, Winter 1984
Issue 5, Spring 1985
We’ve left comments open on these pages, or comment on the T&S Facebook page
When the sex industry came up with a new way to get around Iceland’s ban on strip clubs, feminists fought back with their own original contribution to Reykjavik’s nightlife. Guðrún Jónsdóttir explains.
Buying women’s sexual services has been criminalized in Iceland, and we have also banned strip clubs, which were actually brothels and in some cases involved in trafficking. But of course we knew that they would find other ways to sell women. We have suddenly got three so-called ‘Champagne Clubs’ in the heart of Reykjavik: one of them is located in the same house where the largest strip club used to be. The women are not naked, but wear ‘sexy underwear’; men can buy a bottle of champagne for 20.000 krona and then get ten minutes of privacy to ‘talk to’ the women who work there.
A journalist visited the clubs and one of the staff members of the feminist organization Stigamot was asked what she thought of the new trend. She compared it to the strip clubs, and mentioned prostitution and trafficking. The club-owners immediately sued her, and also a member of the City Council who made similar comments. We are supposed to pay two clubs two million krona and withdraw the statement—though because the journalist didn’t quote it correctly, I think we are off the hook.
I wrote a statement about the clubs and it sent to the media, pointing out that in fact we are back to the same situation as before: the clubs have just changed their name from strip clubs to champagne clubs. In reality it is prostitution and they are selling access to foreign women—many come from Slovenia and don’t speak either English or Icelandic. But as has often happened in the past, the statement didn’t change anything: it was met with total silence. We could have given up at that point; or we could have gone on repeating what we had already said; or we could have organized a demonstration, without any success. Instead, I decided to use a different strategy: ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’.
I sent out invitations to the Mayor of Reykjavik, to all members of Parliament, to all members of the City Council and to the Chief of Police in the Capital area, and of course I sent a copy to the media. Stigamot had found a modern way to raise money for our work and at the same time take part in the cultural life of Reykjavik.
We invited the authorities to a reception at Stigamot last Thursday, August 15th, to mark the opening of our own Glamorous Champagne Club. Guests were invited to buy interesting women at a charge of 20.000 krona for ten minutes, and during those ten minutes they could drink all the champagne they wanted for free.
The women had all kinds of skills. Our guests could, for instance, buy Dr. Guðrún Jónsdóttir (82), the founder of Stigamot, and hear the story of our work; she was also willing to dance to please the customers if they preferred it. Thorunn, who sings in a choir, was willing to sing the old rhymes. Anna Bentina would tell a personal and interesting story about rape. Anna Thora, our psychologist, would sing, ABBA-style, about our self-help groups for women exiting prostitution and trafficking. Teddy was ready to teach people to knit a wool shawl, if they weren’t too drunk. Margret would rock and read the Declaration of Human Rights. We offered many more interesting and pleasing women.
Last Thursday we ran advertisements: ‘Women for sale at Stigamot’. You can imagine the debate we got. It was all over the media: the national TV News Channel came with their car, and they broadcast directly from the opening of the club. I never left the role of a serious Champagne Club owner, and my husband took the role of a doorman, dressed up like a gangster. The Mayor of Reykjavik accepted our invitation and so did some members of both the Parliament and the City Council. Now every Icelander knows what the Champagne Clubs are all about, and we will continue our work from there.
When you work every day with serious violations of human rights, it is so empowering to have some fun and make the criminals of Iceland look ridiculous. We have got enormous applause and support from everywhere. The task now is to get the authorities to ban the selling of private time with women for enormous amounts of money. There are many ways this could be done, but it certainly needs to be done.
Just wanted to share this with you, and maybe encourage you to do something similar in your own countries.