Fuck the mani-cam: It’s time to point the lens at those who police our bodies

Ever woken up in the middle of night and wondered about the state of Jennifer Aniston’s cuticles? What about Reece Witherspoon’s? Maybe you’ve stopped dead in your tracks during your busy schedule to stress about whether Angelina Jolie’s finger-bling will match her dress?

Well, stress no more, ladies! The good folks at E! have all our worries covered.

Awards season is upon us, and like every over-hyped Hollywood event rife with awkward speeches and feigned enthusiasm, the red carpet is a flurry with reporters asking the most talented female actors in the country “who” they’re wearing (sometimes they fill time by asking questions about their acting, too.)

The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) awards was held in Los Angeles this week and — swarming the fringes of the red carpet — reporters and photographers took every opportunity possible to get their voyeur goggles on — scrutinizing the bodies of female celebrities as they walked past.

The “Mani-Cam’” was one of the torture instruments used this year to maximize the creepy surveillance experience. In case you haven’t heard, the Mani-Cam is a camera propped up on a miniature stage with a red carpet. The purpose? To capture close-up pictures of women’s hands, focusing on everything from the quality of their manicures, nail polish, jewellery and (SHOCK HORROR!) the state of their hand-wrinkles.

Joining the ranks of the equally idiotic “Stiletto-Cam” and the controversial “360 Glam Cam” that had Cate Blanchett asking “do you do that to the guys?”, the Mani-Cam caused a stir this year when celebrities such as Julianne Moore, Jennifer Aniston and Reece Witherspoon refused to participate. Responding with uncomfortable giggles and using Sofia Vergara as a distraction, those who refused to strut their fingers down the miniature catwalk left reporter Maria Manounos red-faced and standing on her own, forced to search for the next woman to entrap.

Discussing the Mani-Cam around the water cooler this morning, I was struck by just how blasé people tend to be about the surveillance of women’s bodies in the media (and in general); palming the Mani-Cam off as nothing but “a bit of fun” and “something the actors are used to.” After all, this isn’t the first time they’ve been stalked by reporters at a red-carpet event, right? But the Mani-Cam isn’t an innocuous part of our celebrity-obsessed culture; it is yet another device used to shame women — and it’s making the female celebrities involved, and those watching, really uncomfortable.

What’s next? The nostril-cam for all those nasal enthusiasts out there? Or the anal-cam for those of us who wish to judge the quality of a bleached versus non-bleached anus? When will this relentless surveillance of our bodies end? And what’s driving it?

The Mani-Cam — and practices like it — are born out of a culture that fragments and commodifies women’s bodies. They operate from the perspective of “divide and conquer”; dividing our body parts for individual scrutiny (i.e., our hands, our breasts, our legs) and then conquering our minds — convincing us we’re flawed and in need of “fixing.” Not only is this convenient for the thriving multi-billion dollar beauty industry that profits from our objectification, but it’s also convenient from a political perspective: breasts — without a person attached — don’t fight back.

In Unbearable Weight, Susan Bordo argues that these messages are largely unavoidable. “Like the water in the goldfish bowl [that is] barely noticed by its inhabitants,” fragmented images of women’s bodies “go down so easily, in and out, digested and forgotten.” Resisting these messages is no easy task. In Beauty and Misogyny, Sheila Jeffreys adds to the argument by painting beauty practices as a form of harm. Drawing on the words of radical feminist legal scholar Catherine MacKinnon, Jeffreys refers to how contemporary culture “thingifies” women; turning them into commodified and commodifiable objects rather than human beings; the ultimate distraction tool to keep us from critiquing sexist cultural practices. After all, if you spend all your time obsessing over what hand cream to use, then you’re not going to have as much time focusing on dismantling the patriarchy.

Women have tried revolting against patriarchy and its pernicious surveillance of our bodies. Feminists during the second-wave used the freedom trash can at the 1968 Miss America Pageant as a way of denouncing girdles, make-up, high heels, brassieres and copies of Playboy in the process. This symbolic rejection of patriarchy and its surveillance over our bodies was so powerful that it created intense media hype — prompting misogynists to call us “bra-burners” (even though no bras were burned during the protest) and, simultaneously, leading to questions about the social construction of female beauty. As a historical lesson, the Miss America protest shows us that revolting against the system will lead to stigma — but ignoring it won’t help us either.

The cultural surveillance of our bodies is becoming insidious, and the gaze is now everywhere we turn. We need to be loud when we object to new and increasingly invasive surveillance practices that are thrust upon us from the outside. Let’s stand together on the sidelines — our own cameras pointed as weapons — asking the professional voyeurs a series of uncomfortable questions of our own. “Who are you making money for?” “How do you respond to the young girls who grow up hating themselves because of your photographs?” and “How do you like it when there’s a camera shoved up your nose?” Let’s point the lens so close that we can see their pores breathing and turn the gaze back onto itself.

We need to give the Mani-Cam, and those who watch us and profit from our insecurities, the collective finger.Watch Elizabeth Moss Flip Off E!'s Mani-Cam

Natalie Jovanovski is a PhD Candidate and Feminist Researcher from Melbourne, Australia. Her research interests include the harms of sexual objectification, the cultural reinforcement of eating disorders, and the discursive portrayal of food in contemporary Western media. 

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  • derrington

    This is one of the cornerstones of maintaining male supremacy. If women are constantly subjected to negative social comment about everything about them – I mean everything – from everyone, male and female – then how do we and our daughters ever get off our knees? Women are as toxic as men in the constant negative scrutiny as this stupid fucking mani cam shows – and the sexism positive females need to take some responsibility in keeping their sisters in chains as a way of gaining extra privelege in a sexist society. You cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.

    • Sabine

      I agree it is thoroughly depressing to witness the degree to which so many women have internalized the male gaze and seem utterly incapable of recognizing their own enslavement. Any privileges gained from “playing the game” will not last long for the average woman. Even the most powerful Hollywood stars will fade into obscurity if they happen to be women who dare to grow older with each passing year. Once those wrinkles can no longer be disguised it’s game over. (And before I get mansplained by the man-trolls Meryl Streep is AN EXCEPTION!!!!!)

    • “Sexism positive” is a new one – please define.

      On a more general note, yay to Aniston, Moore, Witherspoon and presumably others for politely refusing to go along with this. Ms Aniston for one must get heartily fed up with constant media focus on her hair and whether she’s pregnant.

      • Natalie Jovanovski

        Every after-dinner bloat is considered a “new baby” *sigh* I’d walk around wearing a t-shirt saying, “IT’S A POO BABY, YOU ARSEHOLES!”

        • Morag

          Poo Baby! Haha!

  • Ellesar

    At the very least this is invasive, but I also see it in some ways like ‘gonzo’ porn – up close, leave nothing to the imagination sort of stuff. To me the subtext is: ‘you have no secrets, and we all know that without their secrets women look like shit’. It is OBVIOUSLY denigrating, because it is primarily used to denigrate. No one really believes that it is because we want to see some stupid piece of jewelry or something equally fatuous.

    As make up, excessive jewelry and ostentatious clothing are ways to keep certain women occupied and preoccupied unfortunately we will lose young women to this ‘distraction’, and worse, it will often harm them. I have known many women who cannot leave the house without make up, or not do certain activities because of make up and hair. This kind of scrutiny will only go to make self concious and insecure women feel even more like they are on display.

    I also do spare a thought for the women who have spoken out against it. Just because Blanchett, Aniston, Witherspoon et al have chosen a career that focuses excessively on appearance does not mean that their every detail should be laid bare. It is the same kind of attitude that believes that ‘celebrities’ deserve no privacy at all, simply because they are in a certain kind of profession.

    • Meh

      “No one really believes that it is because we want to see some stupid piece of jewelry or something equally fatuous.”

      I know at least a handful of women who think that it is. And those are the same women who are affected really badly by beauty standards (i.e., having eating disorders, etc). Not everybody is as “aware” of this stuff. It’s important to talk openly about it.

      • Ellesar

        Maybe I should have said ‘no one who reads feminist blogs’, which was really what I meant.

    • Meh

      Very interesting comparison to Gonzo though… I hadn’t really thought about it like that.

  • Ugh, it’s SO gross that “mani-cam” is a thing!

  • susan
    • Natalie Jovanovski

      OOOOOOOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMMMGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG

    • Sabine

      But of course. I’m surprised I hadn’t heard of this already. The next thing will be that ageing has been totally outlawed and anybody seen to be flouting this will be executed on the spot. Of course, this will only be enforced upon women!

      • Natalie Jovanovski

        “anybody seen to be flouting this will be executed on the spot”

        Hahahahaha!

        It’s totally unfeminine to have blood circulating through our limbs… HOW DARE WE ALLOW THAT TO HAPPEN.

  • Missfit

    I love the idea of turning the gaze back onto itself. It’s depressing though to think that in the 60s, women were protesting beauty contest, in the 80s-90s we had ‘The Beauty Myth’, and where are we today? Cosmetic surgeries skyrocketing, women’s pubic hair are gross and mani-cam. I’m wondering when enough will be enough, I’m waiting for the collective finger. Mine is right up. Cate Blanchett had the most pertinent question and who is this cool celebrity at the end?

    • Meghan Murphy

      Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, eh?

    • Meghan Murphy

      Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, eh

      • Morag

        Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to … oops!

        • Meghan Murphy

          Exactly. (Oh hi didn’t see you there third wave!)

    • Natalie Jovanovski

      It does seem to be skyrocketing, doesn’t it?

      I got the idea of attacking the gaze from Susie Orbach. She is tackling the diet industry at the moment (and has been for a while), and I thought, “What better way to attack the gaze than to give them a taste of their own medicine?” lol

      And the woman at the end is Elizabeth Moss (she did what we were all thinking!)

    • It’s-A-Me

      Hi Missfit – the cool celebrity is Elizabeth Moss!

      • Meghan Murphy

        I LOVE her. Everybody watch Top of the Lake.

  • human bean
    • Natalie Jovanovski

      Thanks for the article!

      The very idea of removing my cuticles makes my stomach churn. I get horror movie scenes in my head of my entire nail falling off lol.

    • Ellesar

      I still don’t really know what cuticles are. Do men have them?!

      • Natalie Jovanovski

        I’m not 100% sure what they are, but I’m pretty sure that – whatever they are – mine are not up to scratch lol.