Dystopia is the New Porn: fantasies of domination and questions of power, by Benedetta Crippa

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Questo articolo è disponibile anche in Italiano y Castellano.

Fiction has long been used as escapist landscape by those in power to indulge in fantasies of domination that more often than not reflect their views on reality. Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency has been unpacking this tendency for the past ten years with her profound analysis of the video game industry, exposing how — with disregard for half of its potential pot of users, women — the field mainly publishes products designed by and for men, where (white, straight) male fantasies of violence are implemented as central narrative plots and are often designed as essential components of the gameplay too. Contrary to the common claim that “fiction is just fiction”, the social and political implications of this operation are far-reaching, as Sarkeesian also exposes.

This kind of tradition typically picks up on existing patterns of domination and incorporates them in fictional scenarios in their most archetypical versions, reinforcing reality as it is and presenting it as inescapable. Thanks to the work of Sarkeesian (who travels today under tight security) and other critics of pop culture, this tendency is being duly unpacked, and slowly addressed.

However, a recent trend can be observed that operates the same agenda but uses a different, more subtle approach. Its products, while upholding the very same patterns of oppression, present themselves as operating a critique of them. Their narrative tool of choice is dystopian scenarios, often co-opted from novelists of fiction who painted them first: but rather than being implemented as cautionary tale, dystopia is here used as outlet for nostalgic feelings for declining structures of power.

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It’s May 2018 and giant billboards appear in central London reading misogynist statements like “A woman’s place is at home”, “The only job for a woman is to reproduce” and “The city is no place for a woman”. Metro magazine is published with a blank front page that only recites “Women are not allowed to read this newspaper” alongside the paper’s logo. The graphic design for these headlines is one we have learned to associate with Nazism and oppression, and the only element that reminds us of the present is the quirk typography.

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The headlines are part of an advertising campaign for the second season of Channel 4’s show The Handmaid’s Tale and are direct quotes from the series, which portrays a dystopian world (originally conceived by author Margaret Atwood in her book of the same name) where women are subjugated by men and restricted to their role of child-bearers, lacking any control over their own lives and bodies. For anyone who bothers to keep looking, the animated billboards show a ‘reveal’ (a second image explaining the first one) displaying a slogan of liberation and the title of the series with main actress Elisabeth Moss burning a handmaid’s headdress. No reveal exists for the Metro front page; it is important to note that no reveal exists either whenever the campaign is shared as static picture (usually displaying the misogynist statements), online or elsewhere.

At the sight of the billboards, without even knowing what they were, I froze. I felt scared and was invaded by a sense of urgency — not to watch the show, but to protect myself.
Several layers contributed to this reaction: the words, the physical magnitude of them, their cold design bringing a sense of inevitability, the taste of authority and totalitarianism with which they are presented. Stronger than anything, the feelings were prompted by the knowledge that those statements are painfully part of my reality; they shaped the lives of my grandmothers, only a couple of generations ago; they belong to a history of oppression that has cost the lives of millions of women, deprived of control over their bodies and aspirations; and constitute the everyday reality for most women in the world, today.

On top of that, as someone who works with communication, what created that sense of urgency was the awareness of its power. Once those statements are amplified on national or global scale by being taken out of their context of a dystopian novel of fiction, they become autonomous entities, and the campaign seems to be an instance in which messages of this kind are being brought back for the sake of their shock value with no awareness or concern for the tangible implications on the most vulnerable.

What is in fact inevitable in this kind of operation is threatening the very group it speaks about, whatever the original intent may be. For that language, and visual language in particular, carry a normalising effect where anything that is read and seen reinforces the acceptance of itself. Any message, repeated long enough, sinks in. The normalisation comes before understanding, rationalisation, or “reveal” of what one sees. As repetition is proven to be the most effective tool of persuasion, it is not by chance the one religiously implemented by totalitarian regimes – and advertising’s tool of choice.

I would like to believe that commentators and designers read this campaign enjoying a sense of safety and distance, as if those statements are not part of yesterday’s and today’s reality, and we live in some kind of post-patriarchal utopia where women’s rights are not under constant threat of being re-negotiated by patriarchal ruling, and thus women’s oppression can safely be used as narrative tool to speak about a tv series, with no consequences. But if so, the campaign is both ill-advised and disconnected from the reality in which women live today, and oblivious to the peculiar kind of power that language brings with it.

As history is paved with instances of violent regimes taking control of visual communication to implement ideology, the graphic layout of this campaign seems to speculate in practice on what the future advertising of oppression may look like. It remains unclear how this helps anyone except those already in power.

“Live without limits in a world where
every
human appetite can be indulged”
— Westworld’s catchline

If we move from advertising to entertainment products to illustrate how fiction is on its way to becoming the ultimate escapist landscape in a world where (way too slowly) oppressive systems are gradually being dismantled, the tv series Westworld (2016—) portrays virtual reality as providing exactly that.

The show presents itself as operating a sophisticated analysis and critique of a future society through the lens of humankind’s relationship with artificial intelligence. Brilliantly photographed and executed, of all possibilities the show chooses to tell us about a virtual world populated by androids where paying customers are allowed (by law) any form of conceivable abuse, and it quickly proves how its narrative is constructed to uphold violence against women. As it gruesomely lingers on endless instances and details of that violence, starting with the choice of repeating the rape of the female protagonist throughout multiple episodes, it is the ending that reveals its true soul: the closure presents male rage as the natural, to-be-expected result of women’s rejection. No lie has been repeated more times, or has had more real consequences on women’s bodies — still today.

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The man in question is rejected by a female robot whose body is reconstructed, and whose memory is wiped out each night — in order to sustain the continuous physical and psychological abuse without consequences — making it effectively impossible for the robot to build any kind of relationship, romantic or not. The robot is guilty of not recognising her supposed lover, or having memories of them together. For this, he punishes her through rape, each day, for decades.

This revelation concludes the first season of the show and is presented as sensible explanation of everything we have witnessed up to that point; and this is as far as the sociological “analysis” of Westworld goes. This torch of enlightenment chooses as central plot a tale of female rejection of men as an unacceptable scenario even when a woman has no control over her own feelings and memories (for a sense of male entitlement that comes when we do, one can look at the statistics of women’s murders at the hands of former partners).
Not only male rejection by women becomes a scenario that is inadmissible, but its punishment is presented as a natural, matter-of-fact outcome; while male rage is portrayed as both inescapable and endless.

Fully aligned with the narrative of patriarchy, the show is also guilty of presenting abuse as trauma-free for abusers. At the end of each day, it is the abused robots’ bodies only that are fixed and reconstructed, it is their memories and feelings that are wiped out and reset. Alongside the immunity from legal or physical repercussions (in Westworld’s virtual environment, guests are invulnerable to bullets and androids cannot harm them), there is no moral or ethical aftermath for the abusers to go through, no hint of the deep emotional and psychological damage that hurting others brings with it. Capped with being given new, untouched bodies and souls to slaughter with each new day, lacking any kind of commentary Westworld serves us the very ultimate utopia of violence against women.

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Screens from the Westworld video game, developed by HBO in collaboration with WBIE. Boiled down through gameplay, it becomes apparent how any dystopian reference is quickly abandoned and actually functional to a narrative centered on sex and violence, packaged for (white) men.

One common critique to the analysis I just made argues that showing violence is an important strategy to expose and talk about the reality of oppression. But a difference exists between sensibly using violence to illustrate oppression as intellectual exercise, speculating on future scenarios, and the gruesome glamorisation of the present masqueraded as cautionary tale. In practice, writing about a dystopian world in order to highlight structures of power and potential threats to freedom, and bringing the same world on screen with nostalgic and glamourising undertones, impacting those who experience oppression every day, are very different operations.
This difference is often subtle and can escape even the most engaged reader.

In 2017, HBO announced that the creators of Game of Thrones (arguably the work with the highest ratio of popularity crossed with violence on women) would go on making a new series titled “Confederate” that imagines a world where slavery has not ended. As with Westworld, this prompts the questions of where does the need to bring back such scenario come from, who is safe enough in their bodies to find this exploration fascinating and apt, and who is left with the emotional burden of this narrative once it is implemented.
Moreover, given the violence people of color have experienced and continue to experience is enough without having to reckon with a hypothetical one too, we may ask, who does this narrative serve?

With her ever poignant writing, Roxane Gay reacted to the news arguing, “It is curious that time and again, when people create alternate histories, they are largely replicating a history we already know, and intimately. They are replicating histories where whiteness thrives and people of color remain oppressed”. And, “Creativity without constraint comes with responsibility. We do not make art in a vacuum isolated from sociopolitical context […] I cannot help worrying that there are people, emboldened by [the Trump] administration, who will watch a show like Confederate and see it as inspiration, rather than a cautionary tale.”

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The privilege of provocation

The Handmaid’s Tale campaign, Westworld and Confederate have been given the common label of “provocative”, a term widely used in the world of communication, advertising and entertainment, and that is usually considered as a positive connotation. Something deemed as “provocative” is seen as pushing the boundaries of our understanding of the world, prompting the deep questions we would not ask otherwise. This is generally a good thing — art has served as capable, and often lonely critic of power throughout history.

Still, some would like us to believe that the notion of “provocative” has expanded to include products that do not operate a critique of power, but simply make someone uncomfortable (whoever that may be and why), and that this alone is proof enough of the relevance of their existence. The controversy surrounding Charlie Hebdo and their portrayal of Prophet Muhammad is one amongst countless examples of such narrative, and the very history of advertising is built on this special kind of provocation.
If accepted, this reasoning effectively erases any boundaries of the amount of harm one can do through storytelling, as well as disconnecting it from its socio-political implications, and stripping it of accountability.

If one looks at these examples closely, it is easy to see a pattern where the agency of provocation is not in the hands of the marginalised, but in the ones of those in power. In fact one could argue that, when a critique of power is lacking, the ability to provoke others is directly connected to questions of privilege. Similarly, the ability to speculate with ‘fascination’ on scenarios of domination comes from a privileged position of safety where this kind of exploration leaves one unscathed at the expense of the other. To some, things merely investigate (or more likely, reinforce and confirm) a certain order of things, while others are reminded of a history of domination that is yet ongoing.

In the summer 2018 issue, Monocle magazine publishes an insert titled Time to cool it which advocates for “a reset on all this cultural-appropriation nonsense”, and “in a moment where people are scared of making adverts that hint at sex or are funny, let alone a bit rude”, invites to “be funny, rude and cheeky”.
While the use of humour in combination with rudeness (to both subjugate others and dismiss their reactions) aligns with possibly the oldest narrative of patriarchy, these quotes illustrate a way in which, in a moment where structural oppression is being exposed and questioned, provocation is sold as process of liberation.
The way power advocates for liberation, however, is never for the liberation of others. What in fact power advocates for, is its own liberation from accountability.

In 2017 Google employee James Damore is fired after circulating a memo arguing the long-debunked theory that the reason why fewer women are employed in the tech industry is that they are by nature less good at it than men. Despite being a proper response to both ignorance and entitlement, instead of being praised as an act of protection towards the most vulnerable the firing was condemned as a limitation on “freedom of speech”, sparking a harsh debate. Again, what these narratives are actually proposing is freedom from accountability for spreading ignorance at the expense of others. But in an equal and just society, freedom can never be free of consequences.

*

The Handmaid’s Tale is now at its second season. And while Swedish magazine Plaza Interior publishes images of kitchens inspired by the series’ aesthetics, and Mercedes reports an increase in sales of the same car used by fascists in the fictional world, I hear of several women who could not keep watching the show, distressed by its voyeuristic, glamourising approach to the violence once sensibly described by Atwood. One of them is journalist Fiona Sturges, who writes in The Guardian: “In its second phase, The Handmaid’s Tale has stripped away all hope, swallowed its fury, abandoned Atwood’s social commentary and descended into cynical, pointless cruelty. It has left us as mere rubberneckers, peering stupidly at the carnage.”

In the meantime, in anticipation of Brexit the European Union has recently warned of basic women’s rights being under threat of re-negotiation in the UK — the very same country where The Handmaid’s Tale advertising campaign just took place. Around the world the battle for those basic rights is yet ongoing: in Nepal men still kill women for the simple act of menstruating, Myanmar still lacks a word for vagina, and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is prosecuted for the very first time in Somalia — after decades of the practice being backed by government.

In the few places where collective consciousness and laws are slowly creating boundaries to what dominant groups are allowed, to observe these groups finding in visual storytelling a last stronghold to still enjoy an unlimited sense of supremacy is telling of the danger and persistence of patriarchy. Whenever fiction, virtual or visual landscapes are used as subtle, or explicit facilitators in the re-negotiation of human rights, this trend must be exposed and carefully monitored; and its ongoing analysis in relation to its effects on the most vulnerable is crucial and an essential part of a free future — for all.

 


Further reading
The free speech panic: how the right concocted a crisis, The Guardian
Contentious Memo Strikes Nerve Inside Google and Out, The New York Times
Now You See It: Helvetica, Modernism and the Status Quo of Design, by Jen Wang / Dangerous Objects

Thank you to Johanna Lewengard, Rodriel Tramell and Cecilia Flumé
Images are used for educational purposes only and belong to their respective owners


Benedetta Crippa is graphic designer and communication consultant, MFA in Visual Communication from Konstfack University. She runs her own studio and research practice in Stockholm, Sweden.

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