My Own Private Guantanamo

Pranks, Power and Pop Culture


Facebook worries about “too much free speech”

April 22, 2011

Over this past weekend, there was yet another Facebook censorship controversy, this one centering on the apparently arbitrary removal of a photo depicting a gay kiss. Outraged Facebook users mobilized, launching virtual gay kiss-ins on the site. The incident drew media attention, and within three days, an embarrassed Facebook issued an apology, claiming that the photo had been removed in error.

The very next day, the Wall Street Journal reported on the company’s lobbying efforts in Washington and its plans to expand its service to China. How does Facebook intend to confront the problem of Chinese government interference with online political speech? Here’s a trial balloon:

“Maybe we will block content in some countries, but not others,” Adam Conner, a Facebook lobbyist, told the Journal. “We are occasionally held in uncomfortable positions because now we’re allowing too much, maybe, free speech in countries that haven’t experienced it before,” he said.

So far, Mark Zuckerberg, Time’s “Man of the Year” hasn’t weighed in on Conner’s controversial remarks. Admittedly, he had his hands full yesterday with an office visit from President Barack Obama, another leader with an ambivalent relationship to freedom of speech.

Before deciding on a deal with China, Zuckerberg might want to take a long hard look at these images from the streets of Egypt and Tunisia, where Facebook played a key role in coordinating demonstrations. The Jasmine Revolution sweeping through the Arab world has Chinese leaders so spooked that they’ve actually blocked the word “jasmine” on the country’s internet filters.

Meanwhile, Zuckerberg seems intent on cramming the entire world inside his walled garden. While monetizing our friendships and selling our private data, he plays the part of a political power broker, feting war criminals in Palo Alto, and cozying up to dictators in China. Given his track record, I think it’s unlikely he’ll commit to defending the free speech of his users, if there’s big money or political clout at stake.

I know that calls to quit Facebook typically fall on deaf ears. The site has become so central to many peoples’ lives, that they can barely imagine a life without it. This was certainly the case with me, up until I was banned last November.

You might say, so what? Don’t people choose to be on Facebook? If you don’t like it, go somewhere else. The problem with this argument is that, in certain contexts, not having a Facebook account is pretty close to not existing at all. Employers use Facebook to screen job candidates. In some cases, no profile (or a poorly managed one) likely means no job. In industries which demand networking, like Hollywood, not having a Facebook profile, is sort of like not having a business card in Japan. It’s tantamount to being a non-person. Good luck getting work without having a “web presence.” If you run any kind of business, it’s not even an option. You need to have a Facebook page to be competitive. What kind of meaningful choice do we have not to participate when such a monopoly exists?

And what if you want to use Facebook, but don’t play by their arbitrary rules? Just ask  Chinese dissident Zhao Jing who writes under the pen name Michael Anti. He was thrown off the site for violating Facebook’s “real name” policy. Anti wryly noted that even Zuckerberg’s dog has a Facebook fan page. The “real name” policy, as Aaron Bady writes in this brilliant essay, is rooted in a myopic and privileged notion of a singular transparent identity. Bady writes:

“Radical transparency,” as these people put it, means opening everyone up to everyone else’s surveillance, but that’s precisely the opposite of a democratizing move if the underlying power relations remain, as they certainly do.

I think this is the heart of it. Facebook may be a great meeting point for those fighting for democracy, but the company itself is not grounded in democratic values. Like Bahrain or Saudia Arabia, Facebook is more like a privately owned kingdom (if those countries had a population of 600 million people.) Like a kingdom, Facebook’s primary values are the accumulation of wealth and power among an elite group of people. And like a kingdom, it sometimes acts in arbitrary ways, censoring certain kinds of speech without explanation. It changes the rules of citizenship, silently in some cases. In others, with long-winded decrees about changes to its Terms Of Use.

Yes, Facebook is a powerful tool. But, so too is Mark Zuckerberg. And when he’s done giving our cyber selves an enhanced patdown, juiced the social graph for every last dime and brought a dumber, less free version of Facebook to China, we might be left asking why we agreed to play in his walled garden for so long. Sure, we can have our gay kiss-ins and our virtual protests, but the only real threat to this royal nonsense is to deactivate.

Join me?

Exit through the MOCA gift shop, just past the Nike® skate ramp

April 18, 2011

“…if you choose to do art paid for by an institution, you have to play nice.”

This line, offered in support of MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch nicely summarizes why the MOCA’s new “landmark” exhibition of street art has a Nike-sponsored skate ramp, but no anti-war mural.

It also sums up a bit of received wisdom (call it “career advice”) that the LA Weekly seems all too comfortable regurgitating. If you want to read about Deitch’s street cred, his “handmade suits” and his famous friends, then, by all means, click through to the LA Weekly’s cover story on Art in the Streets.

But you won’t find any serious questions raised about Deitch’s censorship of Blu’s mural. Deitch still claims it was all about respecting the neighbors– in this case, a veteran’s building. (He famously compared the unfinished mural depicting coffins draped in dollar signs, to chain smoking in front of a person suffering from lung cancer.)

I know it seems like I’m picking on the Weekly lately, but the underlying tone of this article is more insulting to the spirit of street art, than anything Mr. Brainwash ever splashed onto a canvass.

The author allows Deitch to assert that Blu, by creating a piece of controversial political art was “undermining the whole project.” The artist, he claims was “not interested in the unspoken rules of participating in a group art exhibition.” Unspoken rules? Sounds like the beating heart of the street art movement!

Shorter Deitch: to have a successful art career, you must be a team player. Careerism trumps free expression. A good artist knows how to play ball.

Unfortunately, the LA Weekly was unable to find anyone critical of this stance. And sadly, Blu was unavailable for comment. Fortunately, we have this statement from his blog:

a very interesting debate is happening on internet
and, wonders of rhetoric, the word “censorship” magically disappears
now you can call it a “curatorial choice”
I almost totally agree with this interpretation
it is, in fact, a CURATORIAL CHOICE that involves the CENSORSHIP of a mural.

Does this mean I am boycotting Art in the Streets? Hell no. There’s a lot of work I want to see, and perhaps some stickering to be done. But I think the absence of Blu’s mural provides an important context for the show. Ironically, Deitch’s hasty act of censorship, and the careerist bromides he uses to justify it, reminds us why art that doesn’t play by “unspoken rules” can be so powerful, and so threatening. The ironies of this exhibition are certainly not lost on the LAPD.



T&A? The LA Weekly Has Got it Covered!

April 5, 2011


Despite its claims to being an “alternative” publication, the LA Weekly traffics in some of the most conventional tropes of mainstream media. Rather than presenting a true alternative to the Hollywood image factory, with its endlessly objectified female bodies, and rigid beauty standards, the Weekly offers a hipper, edgier mirror image of that same value system.

An average issue of the LA Weekly typically features a cover design with an image of a sexy woman (often unrelated to the topic of the cover story), and a back page ad from American Apparel’s notoriously skeezy ad department. Inside, one finds dozens of ads for plastic surgery, liposuction and related services. Much of the ad revenue, judging from the paper’s back pages, also seems to come from the sex industry. In short, your average issue of the LA Weekly is a soft-core sandwich, with some local politics, arts and culture coverage tucked in between the surgically-modified (and ‘shopped) tits and ass.

Above: The front & back cover of the July 29, 2010 issue.

“Sex Sells”

This phenomenon is often justified with the axiom that “sex sells,” a statement that combines biological determinism with free market tautology. Even if you accept this explanation at face value, there’s another question: Yes, but whose sex gets sold? The answer is almost always women’s. Just as in mainstream media, men are rarely sexualized on the cover of the LA Weekly.

This doublestandard is not just confined to print media. It’s actually enforced and codified at every level of the entertainment industry. In my history of performing in Los Angeles, I have been explicitly told by bookers from two different “alternative” venues, that female nudity is welcome (encouraged even) onstage, while male nudity is forbidden. That’s right. Men aren’t allowed to get naked on their stages, even when audiences will pay to see it. So much for the free market.

We see this same hypocrisy in the way the MPAA doles out ratings for movies– full frontal female nudity can safely pass with an R, while a visible penis often means the NC-17 kiss of death. In fact, the MPAA now goes out of its way to warn parents about the special risk of exposing their children to “male nudity.” Many Americans like to mock Muslims for the prevalence of the hijab. One might ask why Hollywood is so demure when it comes to male nudity.

99 Essentialist Covers of the LA Weekly

Rather than generalize about this state of affairs, I decided to gather some actual data. So, I looked at the 99 most recent covers of the LA Weekly. You can too! They’re all archived here. These issues were published from April 23, 2009 to May 31, 2011. What follows are my findings and some subjective impressions.

Of the 99 covers, 12 do not depict people. In another 7, it is hard to determine the gender. 2 covers depict children. In total, 21 covers were exempted from this analysis.

That leaves 78 covers in which the gender of the adult subject or subjects is identifiable.

Who is sexy?

Of 78 covers, 30 depict a sexualized woman. Just 4 of those women are also the subject of the cover story.

Of 78 covers, 12 depict a non-sexualized woman, including one trans woman. 8 of those women are also the subject of the cover story.

From this, we can conclude that a woman is most likely to end up on the cover of the LA Weekly if she is (a) “sexy” and (b) not being written about inside the paper. Those rare women who both landed the cover and the cover story were most often musicians, though in two cases, they were prostitutes. This is the exceptional case, where a sexy woman on the cover is also the subject. 

Are men sexy?

Men are pictured on 48 covers, usually as the subject of the article, or related to the article in some way.

Out of all the covers, just 5 depict a sexualized man. 4 of them represent gay sexuality. (Straight men are now so oppressed that they can’t even be sex objects on the cover of a newsweekly!) Here they are:

The Boxer is shirtless, as boxers usually are. But I’ll give this round to the Weekly. Sexy boxer is sexy.

These gay men are generically sexy. Sorta.

These cartoon renderings of man on man action both depict female voyeurs. I think the woman’s presence acts as a beard, negating gay anxiety for the spectator. Not coincidentally, one of the articles is about slashfic. In any case, the message here is more funny ha-ha than sexy.

And now a missed opportunity…

You might think that the Weekly’s “Sex in this City” issue would be a good chance to depict a sexy dude. After all, more than half of LA’s population (and presumably the Weekly’s readers) are women. Wouldn’t they want to see a hunky guy grace the cover? Isn’t it their pocketbooks that those vaginoplasty ads are targeting? Regrettably, while this woman is seen stripping off her stockings, the man is disguised head to toe in a rabbit costume. A carrot for the furry demographic? Or is the bunny burqa enforcing a showbiz fatwa against depictions of male nudity?

What is sexy?

Damn near everything. The LA Weekly can sex up any story.

Murder is sexy! The subjects of these stories were men who killed and/or raped women, so surely we need sexy victims, to see the stories through the killer’s eyes.

Ibogaine– the experimental treatment for heroin addiction– is apparently sexy! This woman is not in the article, nor is there any description of naked people. Or, regrettably, monkeys.

Overpopulation is sexy! Why not?

The music site Buddyhead is sexy. That’s the site’s founder, Travis Keller with the spray can. But whose crack is he looking at?

Food is Sexy! Jonathan Gold’s restaurant reviews are very sensual. But you’ll never see this Pulitzer Prize winning hedonist on the cover.

Art is sexy. Hey, this buxom beauty with the come hither gaze is already in the canon!

Books are sexy. Yep.

And somehow related: Afros are sexy. Well, Afro wigs.

Sometimes, the Weekly finds a clever way to put a sexy woman on the cover. This article about a bogus child sex trafficking panic, which mistook adults for children, gives the paper all the justification it needs for a cleverly sexy cover.

The word “objectification” may not be precise enough. In many cases, it would be better to call women’s bodies a design element, as they frequently make a convenient spot for text. The Weekly has a particular fondness for slapping a headline along a woman’s exposed back, as in this bizarre toxic mold cover art from 2008, or on the chest as in this cover story about The Hills.

Judging from the Weekly’s track record, indeed anything can be sexy. I would not be surprised to see subjects like earthquake preparedness, school overcrowding, or the 99 essential food trucks sexed up on a future cover.

What About Diversity?

The imagery on the cover of the LA Weekly isn’t just female, it’s also heteronormative, white and reflects a set of rigid notions of beauty (this cover story on Beth Ditto is the rare exception.) The lack of diverse images  is especially disappointing when one considers the incredible diversity of Los Angeles. Nearly half of the City’s residents identify as Latino or Hispanic. More than 11% are black. There is a huge gay, lesbian and trans population. People from these demographic groups rarely find themselves represented on the cover of the Weekly, and when they do, it’s in very specific contexts.

Of 78 covers, 18 pictured at least one person of color. In 12 of these, this person is also the subject of the story. Of these, 9 are profiles of musicians. Only one is a woman.

This profile of funk legend Georgia Ann Muldrow is the sole instance out of all 99 covers, in which a woman of color appears on the cover and is also the subject of the story. Note that they found a convenient spot for the headline too– the recurring exotic Afro.

Though many African American, Latino and a few Asian men appear on these covers, none, with the previously noted exception of boxer/politician Manny Pacquiao is sexualized. Sexy women of color, however, appear often, though rarely with any direct connection to the subject.

This expose about the murder of a woman at a “south of the border style” speakeasy in Los Angeles is a good example. The sexy woman on the cover is not an artist’s rendition of the murder victim, nor a photo of anyone profiled in the piece. She’s just a sexy hook for a rather grim story of murder and underworld corruption.

Another victim. This story about corruption in Los Angeles high schools depicts model Charita Mertz reflected in the sunglasses of a predatory cop. The article itself is about a police officer who attempted to assault “an attractive blonde senior.” (As we learned in the case of Lara Logan, it’s always important to note when victims of sexual assault are attractive.)

Middle Eastern, South Asian and Arab women are not depicted on any of the covers. Yet, for this profile of Jillian Lauren, a white American author who wrote a memoir about her stint in the harem of the Sultan of Brunei, the LA Weekly appears to have darkened her skin and styled her in Orientalist drag.

So, what’s wrong with being sexy?

That’s the usual response to critiques like mine. Of course, nothing is wrong with being sexy, when the subject has something to do with sex. Some porn is lovely. Pornographic advertising, not so lovely. A sexy cover story about a sexy someone? Fine. A sexy cover story about toxic mold or serial murder? Just plain stupid. And why is it only women (and sometimes) gay men who are chosen to signify sexy?

I don’t claim to know how design decisions get made at the LA Weekly. I have noticed that ever since the Phoenix-based New Times media chain gobbled up the Weekly and numerous other regional papers, their covers have gotten considerably trashier. What’s the idea behind this? Here’s a clue.

On February 8th, the Seattle Weekly ran this cover to tout an article about their new medical marijuana column. Diane Sosne, a registered nurse and union leader wrote to the paper to complain about the “sexy nurse” imagery, which she said was disrespectful to her profession. Staff writer Curtis Cartier published the letter and then replied with a condescending rebuttal which began by paying lip service to his respect for nurses and then continued with this lame apologia:

“So with that same spirit of professional understanding, I’m hoping that you can respect us and others in our profession, who know that picking a good cover image is crucial in getting people to, well, read our publication.

As Mr. Elliott writes and you point out: ‘Seattle’s lively medical-marijuana scene can be quite entertaining.’ It can indeed. And Steve’s gripping prose and wealth of insight explains that point beautifully. But putting an image of a middle-aged white guy on the cover, or a generic pot-leaf graphic, or something else lame, runs the risk of failing to inspire anyone to actually pick up the paper and enjoy said prose and insight.

That’s not to mention that the whole sexy-nurse thing is a cat that was let out of the bag a long time ago. Sure, it’s mildly degrading to the nursing profession, but…”

I have a hunch Cartier’s rebuttal sums up the general attitude at these publications. His readers don’t want to see middle-aged white guys on the cover. His readers are middle aged white guys. And to get them to read his publication, instead of say Maxim or something, he’s gotta deliver the T&A. Sure, the covers might be degrading, stupid or even bizarre non-sequitirs. But he didn’t invent the sexy nurse stereotype and besides, didn’t you hear that print media is dying? What are you bugging him for?

This is, no doubt, the same calculus which informs Arianna Huffington’s decision to fill the right column of her political news site with sexist linkbait, while chastising critics for actually clicking on it.

Maybe they’re right. Perhaps their publications will go belly up without all this T&A. But somehow I doubt it. Instead, I think it suggests that these editors are worried that their content alone simply isn’t good enough to attract readers.

But beneath the economic anxiety and the creative laziness lies something deeper– an unwillingness to confront privilege. It’s so much easier to believe that women are meant to be sex objects, and that the routine use of sexualized images of women is driven by market forces or ancient biological drives and not by a patriarchal society, which extends even to the hallowed hipster hallways of our alternative press.

UPDATE: A reader notes that I should clarify that the LA Weekly & Seattle Weekly are actually owned by Village Voice Media. New Times merged with VVM in 2006. As this article notes: “The merged company, which will continue to use the name Village Voice Media, is effectively an acquisition by New Times, whose current shareholders will own 62 percent of the new company and hold five of nine board seats.”