Encountering celebrity e-bile: challenges in feminist research encounters in the digital world

Written by Heather. Posted in News

In this first of three blog posts covering the team’s report of their contribution to the BSA first ever Digital Sociology event, Kim discusses some of the ways in which the project has engaged with the digital within the data collection, and the challenges inherent in this as a feminist scholar encountering celebrity e-bile – violent and sexualised comments directed at female celebrities.

This project views celebrity as a collective social practice, where the meaning of celebrity is created and contested across different spaces. Within this, digital technologies are increasingly central. Indeed, as David Beer and Ruth Penfold-Mounce brilliantly illuminate, the fragmentation and digitization of the contemporary mediascape has created ‘denser circuits of celebrity gossip’. Furthermore, as recent work on audience engagement in celebrity culture and reality TV shows (such as that by Imogen Tyler, and Tracey Jensen and Jessica Ringrose shows), these online spaces not only operate as sites of classed, gendered and racialised stigmatization, they can play host to practices of contestation and resistance.

With this in mind we have been exploring the discursive construction of our 12 celebrity case studies within online spaces – including Twitter. Tracking how these celebrities are constructed (and construct themselves) across a range of media platforms is proving to be fascinating, giving us an insight into the active, participatory on-going construction of celebrity. However, for some of our celebrities collecting such data is not an easy task. Searching for and collecting the top tweets (and memes) which get retweeted and recirculated about these celebrities involves engaging regularly with toxic vitriol. As I’ve referred to in an earlier blog, I’ve found Emma A. Jane’s definition of ‘e-bile’ useful in making sense of these ‘sexualised threats of violence, and recreational nastiness’.

We have been overwhelmed by the pervasiveness of these kinds of hostile, toxic speech acts. For example, tweets about Kim Kardashian are saturated with a litany of markedly misogynistic, sexualized, racially charged statements and often, hyperbolic violent imagery. We had our own dilemma in deciding whether it was right to show these tweets and images to the delegates on the day and decided that doing so, while important to raise awareness and ‘break the silence’ about the enormity of these performances, also risks further perpetuating their violence.

One of the priorities for Digital Sociology, as an emerging field, is to attend to the gender (and race and class) politics at play as more aspects of our social life become digitized. Our first task must be to unpick what is uniquely ‘digital’ about these. We would refrain from a view that locates these speech acts as wholly and simply determined by the technology. Rather, the speech acts performed within digital spaces are situated in and informed by wider cultures and discursive resources but which people mobilize in particular ways within these online worlds. These expressions can be understood as ‘micro-discursive’ displays (to borrow a phrase from Kristyn Gorton and Joanne Garde-Hansen) of long-held ideologies and anxieties which police femininity. There appears to be something specific about the often anonymised and impersonal nature of these online spaces that enables this kind of normalised vitriol – as opposed to what is deemed acceptable in everyday face-to-face interactions.

The field of digital sociology must lend an ‘attentiveness’ (in Les Back’s terms) to the broader significance of these kinds of speech acts. Celebrity e-bile needs to be approached not as a ‘dark underbelly’ of abuse in isolated pockets of cyperspace, sent by a minority of ‘trolls’, and seen only by their targets. As we witnessed recently with the online abuse targeted at Wimbledon player Marion Bartoli following BBC presenter John Inverdale’s sexist comments (collected by the Everyday Sexism campaign), or the threats of violence received by Cambridge Professor Mary Beard after her appearance on the BBC’s Newsnight, the abuse escalates rapidly and spreads widely.

In respect to our data, these ways of talking about certain celebrities receive high visibility as they get recirculated and seen by millions. Tweeting and retweeting is a way to build consensus. E-bile can thus serve to legitimate particular ways of talking about women more broadly. In our research we have seen how these online discourses intersect with offline discursive modes and practices taken up by young people as they perform and police their own – and others’ – ways of being in the world.

Relatedly, a further priority for Digital Sociology, certainly from a feminist perspective, is to attend to the e/affects of these kinds of encounters on researchers as we enter digital worlds. While scholars have begun to explore ethical issues, such as anonymity and the private / public nature of these online spaces, there are other pertinent ethical dilemmas to be addressed. We have found this part of the data collection especially troubling and oppressive. At regular points we have offloaded on each other about our feelings – of rage, anger, sadness – about the ways in which, in these online spaces, women’s bodies are consumed, criticised and abused.

As these tweets get pushed out into the world as ‘harmless jokes’ and ‘not real’, feminist researchers who challenge these risk being accused of ‘being unable to take a joke’. We might be told to ‘lighten up’ and stop being what Sara Ahmed calls the ‘Feminist Kill Joy’. But ‘getting over it’ is simply not possible and, further, would be irresponsible. Such online hostility can contribute to a (further) silencing of women, encouraging them to retreat from the public sphere. Thus, problematizing these performances is a political act, one that is crucial if we are to challenge their pervasiveness.

This kind of critical attentiveness is also central to realising Deborah Lupton’s assertion that sociologists can lend to the study of digital worlds the theoretical, methodological and ethical traditions in sociology of social and cultural critique and analysis. Further, I would argue that feminist scholarship and critique must hold a central place as Digital Sociology develops its tools, methods and objects of analysis.

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