I had the chance to interview one of the bloggers from Radfem-ological Images shortly after the project ended. Radfem-ological Images presents itself as “a public, radical feminist group blog dedicated to dissecting and discussing media images through a radical feminist lens.” They demonstrated how commercial ads support men’s power over women, and provided a radfem alternative to the boring “this is inequality” liberal critiques of media. They also created ‘the gears’, a very useful breakdown of the different patriarchal workings they identified in media images. I found it interesting that the project ended on a note that questioned the very practice of exposing women to harmful media, even for the sake of criticising it and demonstrating its harms to women. It was also very honest and rigorous to reflect openly about the effects of the work undertaken and what it meant to women. I thought it deserved a public blog discussion and wanted to expand on this more here.
Witchwind: Thank you for participating in this interview! So radfem-ological images has been suspended and the reasons for this were outlined in the article ‘Media Exposure as Harmful Cultural Practice‘.
Radfem-ological images: Yes that’s true. Actually I haven’t totally written off the idea of using it to post images under the “women’s culture/positive images” category but so far I haven’t.
WW: How did the change of objective come about, and what made you realise that it’s harmful to watch patriarchal propaganda (media) even when the intent is to criticise it?
RI: Well it’s been in the back of my mind the whole time actually. When we were setting up this blog, I was working behind the scenes with several people about the format, “about” pages (etc.) and one woman told me that she did anti-pornography work but refused to show the audience actual pictures of porn. Her group showed tracings of the porn I think, so that the audience could know basically what was going on but wouldn’t actually have to see the penetration and the flesh. So that was in my mind the whole time, and it’s the reason we did the header image the way we did, where there were really no explicitly porny or hateful imagery there.
WW: That’s interesting. What was the rationale for not showing any pornified images? It’s usually argued that to criticise an image, you have to show it, so women know.
RI: Well my understanding was that women who did this work a lot understood that it was triggering for the women in the audience, and that men in the audience (if there were any) got off on the imagery so there was no good reason to include it. This wasn’t my idea, I was building off the acquired knowledge of women who have been doing this work for a long time, and who had made the decision in their own work not to show porn even though previously it was done that way, and other anti-porn groups still do it that way with the full images.
The images blog wasn’t porn-critical, so I wasn’t including porn one way or the other, but the idea that the imagery conveyed it’s message no matter what was always there. And obviously I did include the full images at the blog and did over 100 posts there. But then after a point it seemed that it was getting very repetitive and I started wondering what the point was to keep doing the same thing over and over when there were risks involved. The Fiji study also helped me understand what the risks are for girls and women from just the everyday stuff we see on TV, which was the majority of the content on the images blog – everyday advertising images that are relatively benign compared to other things.
WW: How did it affect you or the team to look for those ads, watch them and then break them down for critical purpose? Did it change your way of reacting to those images, for instance by increasing your tolerance to male propaganda?
RI: Well, I didn’t go seeking them out. I watch television and started seeing patterns in the messages, that is, that the same themes were appearing again and again and I just made a mental note of the patterns and themes. Breaking them all down of course is tiring, but I was doing it anyway so I figured I could use it as a teaching or illustrative tool that others could use. The ones that struck me as particularly egregious or obvious illustrations of these themes or radfem points made it onto the blog. The patterns and themes were compiled into the “gears” page in the beginning of the project.
I think the change for me has been to realize that the woman-hating intent and effect was there and that the propaganda effect was working on me all the time, decades by now of course, and it didn’t stop just because I was looking at them with a critical eye. And I didn’t want to expose women to even more images than they had to look at in a normal day after a certain point.
After the teachable moment had passed in other words, and after (I hoped) they had the tools to deconstruct these images themselves, I thought they were seeing enough on an average day and didn’t need any more images from me, regardless of the reason.
WW: How then would you expose the harms of visual male media without showing the images themselves? What alternatives would you suggest to break it down?
RI: Well that’s a good question isn’t it? I think that it is useful to use the images, and perhaps especially with media images that women are already seeing: they were a quick illustrative tool that they could relate to, so if they saw the same commercial again they would know what it was “really” about, you know? But I think the issue is really timing, where the usefulness of doing it decreases over time. The teachable moment passes, and we need to do something with that information rather than just doing the same “critical” work over and over. Its called “diminishing returns” where over time, the effort you are putting into it becomes more and more in comparison to the benefit that’s coming out of it. So it eventually fails a cost-benefit analysis. It becomes not worth it, in other words. I think that’s an issue of time and experience, and an issue of evaluating our situation and our effectiveness rather than getting into a rut or becoming particularly enamoured with the work itself for no good reason.
WW: So would you say that focusing on and reacting to what men do (for instance continual hate-propaganda against women through images) on the long run is ineffective as a feminist strategy?
RI: As far as it being an effective or ineffective long term strategy, I think that’s complicated. I think it’s useful for women to have this knowledge, about what men are doing to us and what it means, and specifically the patriarchal intent and effect of various policies and practices like the patriarchal media. But there’s an issue with diminishing returns, so that actually doing it long term is pointless, or perhaps the same people doing it with the same audience becomes pointless over time. I have been thinking for a while about there being a kind of 2-year program for women where we all could to this kind of work for 2 years and then leave it behind, like spend a year learning about it and then a year teaching others, then getting out. So that we don’t get caught up in the diminishing returns aspect of it, and so that individual women don’t become burned out. I don’t know how we would implement that, it’s just a thought I’ve been mulling over. And then after the 2 years, do more woman’s culture kind of stuff.
WW: That’s interesting. What this says to me is that once you realise how violence works, and that it is violence, the next step is to protect yourself from it. I have experienced similar feelings of burn-out, where after the point of understanding how male violence worked, coming back to it was tiring, violent and numbing. But for a long time I felt guilty for not coming back to it.
RI: Yes I know what you mean about the guilt! Like we shouldn’t pull the ladder up behind ourselves, or make others pull themselves up by their bootstraps and that kind of thing. I would also add that I think the capitalistic model tries very hard to take over, where we find something we are good at and want to do that forever, like a trade, and where some of us actually manage to make a living off of “feminism” but I think that precludes us from actually being honest about how effective we are being, or whether we are working towards our own obsolescence, which is really the point. I would also add that I think there’s a difference between the repetitive radfem 101 stuff, that has a limited usefulness over time, and the more “living” work that some women are able to do, where original thought is possible and real leaps are made. The usefulness of that kind of work might never diminish.
WW: So would have maintaining the blog prevented your evolution towards something more positive?
RI: Well I don’t know about my own evolution yet, mostly I have been walking down this road for a while as far as questioning our effectiveness generally and wondering why there is so much repetitiveness and whether women think things are getting better or even staying the same for all our efforts, and if they think that, on what evidence are they basing their opinions that what we are doing is working? I think I identified one area in my own work that fell into that trap perfectly, and I realized I couldn’t do it any more, and that it had likely become harmful and that there was actually evidence beyond my own thoughts and feelings that this was true. Again, I am referencing the Fiji study. But I also had thoughts and feelings, you know, that it was becoming less and less effective over time. I think in the beginning it was a wonderful project and that as an archives perhaps it will be useful, but I also think the women who have already gone through the archives or who viewed it in real time as the work was being done, don’t need to review any of the posts there more than once, or perhaps they can use the posts as reference material and links. Really the most important part of that project is the “gears” page in my opinion, where the themes (which are mechanisms of patriarchy as a working system) are exposed and defined. As far as my own evolution towards something more positive, I haven’t really moved on yet, this is a new development and I don’t know where it will lead me.
WW: I think that’s an important lead though, to listen to our feelings and trust them. And what you say about repetitiveness, it makes me think that only patriarchal modes are repetitive, as opposed to non-patriarchal evolution.
RI: Yes. I think if we get bored or start feeling burned out it’s a signal that we are mucking around in death you know. Patriarchy is death. And there is more than one way to go about this work, change is good you know. Creativity and change have to be feminist principles don’t they? Which makes it impossible to be a feminist for profit, if that is based on the usual model of keeping yourself relevant for as long as possible. I want feminism to become irrelevant, or not mindful at all, like breathing. I have other things I would much rather be doing.
WW: I completely agree about creativity and change, and I would also add joy.
RI: The living work is joyful for me, like the conversations that happen sometimes. They are really magical. Making new projects and working on them for a while and then moving on is good too – as I literally just realized very recently.
WW: Yes projects teach you something and once you’ve learned, you want to move on! It’s difficult to accept this on an everyday basis though. It can be difficult to let go of something if it has organised our life for such a long time, we’re afraid to leave it.
RI: Yes and that is a source of guilt for some reason isn’t it? As you mentioned it would probably be a good idea to examine that one wouldn’t it? It’s like you are shitting on other women if you incorporate what you’ve learned into your own life or even into your own mind. This is all supposed to be abstract apparently, or we are killing women. WE are killing women! We hear that from every side don’t we.
WW: I suppose the conventional modes of activism are very male-centred and it’s taboo to quit them.
RI: That’s a good point about traditional activism (activism, unexamined) is very male centered and reflective of male values. Sonia Johnson said something about that, I don’t remember which book it was, but it’s another tactic of the patriarchy to pit woman against woman, and that’s part of it, it’s making us feel that we are letting women down if we aren’t doing in-your-face activism or reformist stuff to reduce women’s suffering in real time. But who does it serve to fix women up and send them off for more abuse? Who does it serve if women never incorporate what we have learned into our own lives? It’s not women who are killing other women. I don’t have all the answers to this dilemma, I am in the midst of experiencing the conflict myself. And I should also add that it’s entirely possible that all the work that has been done in the last 100 years, and even in the last 10 years was completely worth it. I’m not saying anyone has done anything wrong.
WW: The guilt is also related to the belief that we should project our energy outward, instead on focusing on creating our own reality. That if we stop focusing on men it is an avowal of failure, and that we might as well quit completely.
RI: Quit what, would be my question. Like the women who think that if male violence were innate, we may as well “quit”. You can’t be attached to an outcome, you have to be dedicated to the truth and knowing the truth. I think there are some things we probably should quit. Not quit activating towards women’s liberation from male dominance, just quitting what’s obviously not working and that which is based on wishful thinking or assumptions that are proving to have been wrong. Sonia Johnson suggested that we thank the women who came before for the work they did, and for proving for the world to see that society cannot be reformed, and that legal and other reforms are simply not possible, men won’t allow them to happen.
I wanted to add that in the beginning the images blog was supposed to be a group project, but in the end it turned out that the only collaboration that happened was in the very beginning, with doing the “about” pages and the gears page. The others who had initially come on board to write for the blog never wrote anything, and now I am wondering why that was. There were initially four of us, including myself, and two of us stated in the beginning that they didn’t watch much TV or patriarchal media at all, due to time constraints and lack of interest. Now I am wondering if they somehow knew that the project would be of limited usefulness, or that it would be harmful to themselves or others. It’s been difficult to get women to write much of anything as a matter of fact, and this has been true for years in the blogging community. And now that I know what I know about the diminishing returns of certain kinds of work, I think I can imagine why that is. I think women know what’s likely to work, or perhaps what’s likely not to work. Sonia Johnson mentioned this when she and her group were having a hard time getting huge numbers of women on board with the ERA stuff and legal reformism generally. She wondered if there was a problem with the actions themselves, and she came to understand that there was. The problem was that they were doing liberal reformism and liberal reformism won’t work. It feels wrong and it is wrong. You know?
WW: That’s true about things that feel wrong. I pay very much attention to this in the things I do now. For instance when writing feels like a chore, it’s because I want a snapshot of past thoughts and control what I say – it is not the case when I write as I think. But after having an insight, going back to it feels time-consuming and it never has the same quality as when I discover these ideas through instant discussion with other radfems. But I think there are ways of writing that don’t feel like that. The control-mode is the one I learned at university, the essay-style writing, which is boring and deadening, and it takes a very long time to decolonise from this.
RI: Yes I agree. There are kinds of writing that are fun and invigorating. Perhaps this is what we should be looking for – if it’s not fun and invigorating, it’s not going to work. Or that there’s something patriarchal about it, and therefore self-defeating. And I think that if a woman is involved in a project she doesn’t feel invigorated over, she might as well leave because what’s the point?
WW: Yes! if it bores me to the core, I don’t see how it can begin invigorating other women.
RI: Women assume there is a point to doing this work, and the point is that it’s likely to work no matter how it feels. But I think there is plenty of evidence by now that that’s not necessarily true. I don’t think much has “worked” at all and that the proof of this is that things are getting worse. But we don’t have to continue down that road.
WW: I agree. The fact that it’s not likely to work if it feels destructive is something that took time for me to sink in, I didn’t want to admit it at first, but it’s true, I can see the effects of it my own work.
RI: I did start feeling bombarded by the hateful imagery once I understood it’s purpose and effect. It feels very raw to me now, and the hatred is so obvious it makes me very angry that it’s passed off so easily as something benign, or just background noise. Almost every media image out there is just a big, tangible “fuck you” to women. And it sickens me now. It really does.
WW: I think it’s healthy if it sickens you, it means you can then stop doing it. It’s when you get numbed by these images that the messages take even more power over you. As said in the article, the best we can do is switch off the tv.
RI: Yes. And understanding the intent and effect helped me see how repetitive the “fuck you’s” really were. Yes, turn it off and do something else, or at the very least ponder how god awful men’s reality really is for women, if we use politicized torture to “relax” at the end of the day, and why it seems as if we do this “voluntarily” is a good question too. I think things are worse than even we know most of the time. I mean imagine this playing out among any other oppressed group. Getting home after a long day of XYZ and then bringing XYZ into your own home at night to unwind… Maybe for us, just being in out of the male gaze is better, that being humiliated and degraded in private is an improvement. Or, that we simply don’t have enough time to engage in truly positive or even value-neutral recreation, like crafts or something. So a half an hour in front of the TV, where we are humiliated and degraded in private is the best we can do to recharge our batteries and go out for more the next day. It’s overwhelming to think about how awful things must really be, if this is our reality, but I think it is.
WW: We often don’t have any alternative – family members or people we live with will just switch on the TV whether we like it or not, and the TV always takes precedence over you not wanting to watch it. TVs are always in the centre of living rooms.
RI: Yes there’s that too. We have no privacy and no time or space. The lack of alternatives make it seem voluntary when it’s not in any legitimate sense of having meaningful options. And the part about being humiliated and degraded in private being an improvement over what we experience every day when we are “out” I think is an important part of it too. These are interesting topics that we could explore (or others too) instead of wasting our time doing repetitive media criticism. Now that we know how they work, after the benefit to doing the work has been achieved, you know?
WW: The violent images on TV may also be addictive. Because violence followed by dissociation has the same effects as drugs, it does give the impression of relaxing, or of a release: these effects are intended. It’s a PTSD process: it triggers overwhelming emotions such as fear, tension, stress, or suspense, so our brain produces drugs in the neuronal system to dissociate, which causes a high.
RI: Again that is more interesting and useful than dissecting another Geico commercial.
WW: In general a shot lasts no longer than 3 seconds. The speed of the shots and moving images is a deliberate media-strategy, so our eyes are captivated, glued to the screen. The more movement and action there is, the more difficult it is to take your eyes off. This is just one of plenty visual manipulation techniques.
RI: I didn’t know that.
Me: Because if shots were longer it would leave us time to think about what we’re watching and process it. The constant flow of image is overwhelming.
RI: That’s interesting. So there’s a deliberate science to it which we can articulate and learn about.
WW: I learned that at school, I assume it must be 101 for media companies.
Radfem-ological images: Yes probably! And it’s media critical work (or could be used critically) where you don’t necessarily have to expose your audience to the images themselves.