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The Visibility Trap: Sexism, Surveillance and Social Media by Mary McGill

Whether we like it or not, social media has become an integral part of our daily lives and social interactions. The technologies have been celebrated and often vilified – they allow for new forms of community! They turn our children into addicts! – and yet most of us continue to use them. In her first book, digital media scholar Mary McGill, researches the relationship between sexism and the surveillance social media facilitates. Some have claimed social media can be empowering for women in particular, who can now take control of their own image and how they present themselves to the world. On female dominated platforms such as Instagram, women can find communities of support they might not be able to access offline and some, a specific selection of people, actually manage to make money off their social media use and thereby gain financial independence. McGill questions this promise of empowerment and asks what we might be paying to ‘take control of our representation.’

In order to find an answer she dives into six key themes, dedicating a chapter to each one: visibility itself and its significance, the selfie and what it does to the self, bodies or rather what types of bodies are visible, influence, a new vitriolic form of misogyny and, finally, change. Along the way, McGill addresses issues of revenge porn, especially and terrifyingly among teenagers, the extreme sexist language we encounter online, politics’ inability to keep up with digital innovations, and public shaming. The book’s focus is on the tension between the idea that taking charge of one’s representation and thereby the (male) gaze one is subjected to can be empowering and the fact that by doing so the act of the gaze is not challenged. This, McGill argues, is the key problem of the visibility trap, a concept dating back to Foucault’s thoughts on the panopticon, creating a sense of internalised surveillance. This becomes obvious when considering which bodies and faces are seen on social media (McGill is primarily concerned with Instagram), whose posts are favoured by that ominous figure of The Algorithm, and the observation that how people present themselves online becomes increasingly uniform and sanitised. Being “different” is punished by lacking engagement, thereby strengthening the desire to conform to contemporary ideals – both of looks and lifestyles. It is therefore plain to see that social media has done nothing to change the dynamics governing beauty standards and role ideals which govern most of our lives, but has rather strengthened them by ensuring that the surveillance is near constant. It might now be women themselves who take their own images and decide when to share what, rather than women being depicted by men (as has been the tradition throughout art history), but the need to do femininity the right way and the governing between who is allowed to been seen remain unchanged.

Most of the issues McGill addresses are not entirely new, they are things you might have instinctively known to be true, but it feels powerful to read them on paper, backed by research and wrapped up in neat and impactful sentences. And flicking through my heavily underlined copy, I would say there are plenty of those in this work. Yet, while reading, I wished McGill would have gone deeper into some questions and the significance of the phenomena she describes. Instead, she tends to repeat the same points, phrased slightly differently again and again in every chapter. I find this to be a common problem with popular non-fiction titles, but do not know if it comes from a desire to really explain an argument or from a need to fill pages. Perhaps a little bit of both. Unfortunately, this often seems to happen at the expense of actually explaining deeper issues and resolving further questions. Nevertheless, the examples the uses to illustrate her arguments and their far reach are eye-opening. I was pleased by McGill allowing for ambiguity and not offering clear-cut solutions in an attempt to wrap everything up nicely. She makes it clear that this book is just the beginning, an introduction into a debate that has to be ongoing and ever-adapting to new circumstances and understandings and that needs to take place both online and offline, in academia and the real world. Despite its flaws, The Visibility Trap is a useful and accessible introduction to the challenges that our new digital public spaces pose for feminism and above all a well-written, engaging read.

Published by New Island Books, 2021

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