Part of the challenge of taking care of a blog involves keeping the archive alive. One way to do that is to link readers to older posts they they might be interested in. We do that, in part, with an automated process called Link Within. When we publish a post, the program searches our archive for similar posts and includes a set of thumbnails at the bottom that readers can click on if they’d like to know more.
At the bottom of a recent post about the role of carrots in World War II, for example, linkwithin offered these options:
There are pitfalls to this type of program that illustrate a bigger problem involved with talking about social inequality. A reader named Sarah C. emailed us the following observation in response the thumbnails that followed a post about the sexual objectification of women:
I wanted to point out the dissonance I feel when I spend time reading a thoughtful article about gender equality and then when I finish the bottom of the page greets me with a line of 100 x 100 px images of sexualized womens’ bodies. They are the same kinds of images I would see browsing Cracked or College Humor, or other mainstream sites. The Huffington Post does it too – sites claiming to be (and often actually are) more or less progressive are using sexist tactics to get people to click, or at least that’s what it seems like…
I think it’s great to include examples of objectification in your posts in order to illustrate your point. But using those images as a thumbnail gets you the wrong attention. It feels hypocritical, or at least incongruous with your blog’s goals.
Since the thumbnails are automatically generated, we don’t actually know what the thumbnails will be until we see the published post on the site. So, upon seeing Sarah’s screenshot of the thumbnails, I was taken aback. I understood immediately why she felt compelled to send us an email.
The phenomenon goes far beyond thumbnails. Even if we did away with Link Within, our posts on the sexual objectification of women would include images that sexually objectified women. We are Sociological Images, after all. So our posts drawing attention to and criticizing the phenomenon also reinforce it. It’s two steps forward and one step back, plus or minus a step.
But even if we weren’t an image-based blog, even if we simply discussed sexual objectification without an accompanying visual, doing so would remind readers that women are objectified, that they need to worry about how their bodies look, and that they’re being judged by their appearance. At least one study has demonstrated that simply being exposed to objectifying words, devoid of imagery, can increase the degree to which women self-objectify.
Talking about sexual objectification always threatens to deepen the degree to which people feel sexually objectified, even if that is the opposite of one’s intention. This phenomenon applies just as well to other forms of oppression. Talking about the way in which state policies help or hinder Mexican immigrants to the U.S., for example, potentially further entrenches the idea that all Latinos are “illegals.” Pointing out under-development in parts of Africa potentially affirms the notion that all of Africa is economically backward or politically corrupt. Referring to women’s lack of representation in math and science may make women even more anxious about pursuing these careers.
This is one of the ways that power works. It co-opts the strategies available for fighting back. Power is flexible and accommodating, it controls and convinces through all possible channels, it finds ways to infiltrate all mediums. This is why it’s so hard, in the first place, to eradicate prejudice and inequality.
Coming to our blog is, for these reasons, a scary proposition. Because we sometimes talk about ugly things, there will be ugly things here. Taking out the thumbnails won’t change that; neither would deleting all of the images we reproduce. Deleting all posts that address inequality would, but then we would be silently complicit with the status quo. So, we keep blogging, and we keep uploading, and we keep trying to engage our readers further… for better or worse.Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Tom Megginson — August 1, 2012
Interesting. I have a similar challenge with Work That Matters (http://workthatmatters.blogspot.ca/).
When you blog critically about issues around sex and sexism in advertising, the posts with the most salacious titles get hit the most. Check out my "Week's Most Popular Posts" sidebar...
LapinMalin — August 1, 2012
You see the thumbnail of the first image. An obvious solution would be to add a 100x100 image at the very beginning of the post if the first image is going to be weird. You can then have a lighter picture.
sarah — August 1, 2012
Could you please add a search option?
Balancing Jane — August 1, 2012
I had a similar issue when I was pinning an article about the use of sexual abuse in advertising (that Belvedere Vodka ad) on Pinterest. I pinned it connected to an article analyzing it and talking about the work we needed to do to move away from this kind of stereotyping. I pinned it to a board called "Problematic Visual Media." Then I saw that it was getting repinned to boards titled things like "Funny" or "Haha."
Writing against inequality requires dealing with the inequality, but when it can be boiled down to a simple one-liner (or image) there's always the risk of spreading the problem.
oldarney — August 1, 2012
I would suggest making the images black and white, or better yet, invert their colors which reduces their impact.
Marianne — August 6, 2012
Thank you for this great article. I agree
with Sarah and I will try to explain it, in English.
I love this website and I'm very
interested in feminism and women's issues but as Sarah says, seeing those
little pics of sexualized women's bodies always makes me feel uncomfortable. It is one thing to analyze and
criticize images with a strong and thoughtful thinking but quite another to use
those images to summarize or illustrate an entire reasoning.
In that case reasoning about various
gender issues, which is quite a tough subject!
In my sense, the excellent articles of Sociological Images shouldn't be simply reduced
to the incriminated pictures they're dealing with. Indeed, the entire website goes far beyond the
superficial aspect of facts and aim to highlight the complex processes
occurring in our societies.
I understand when Lisa Wade explains “So
our posts drawing attention to and criticizing the phenomenon also reinforce
it. It’s two steps forward and one step back, plus or minus a step”. Still from
now on, without totally removing exposure to sexual objectification in its
articles, Sociological Images could make the
effort to avoid inappropriate images in thumbnails. Just like a “Trigger Warning”.
Learned Last Week (31st/32nd of 2012) | All Across Learning — September 13, 2012
[...] “Power and the Paradox of Writing Against Inequality” “Coming to our blog is, for these reasons, a scary proposition. Because we sometimes talk [...]
Stacey — January 10, 2013
Yes. I was actually thinking I could get my 8yr old daughter to read that series of posts until I realised that in doing so I would be exposing her to images I normally protect her from as much as I am able. It's frustrating to be a mother with daughters and yet have so little access to age appropriate resources that discuss these issues, because they are mostly targeted at adult women.
BroadBlogs — August 5, 2014
I agree that it's two steps forward and one step back, yet it's the only way you can go forward as far as I can tell. If we don't stop and critique the images -- and provide the images and discussion so that people know what you're talking about -- it all stays subconscious. It can't come out in the open to be questioned. And stuff that stays in the subconscious is more likely to be taken for granted as normal. The only way you can create social change is to create awareness and criticism around an issue.
William S. Russell — April 27, 2021
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