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.
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.