I Lost my Wife to Facebook, and Other Myths that Might be True

by: Michele Byers / Saint Mary’s University

Collective Facebook

Collective Facebook

I first heard about Facebook a few months ago. My cousin, an undergraduate student, was having dinner at my house and mocking my husband mercilessly about his MySpace page. MySpace, she intoned, was over; Facebook was “it.” As a scholar of media, she found me guilty of not keeping up with the times. The Internet isn’t really one of my main research areas, I reasoned; I barely have time to keep up with my email. But I was intrigued. The only way to get into the Facebook system is to sign up and in so doing get a page of one’s own. I did so. A bare bones page… but four hours later I was still “on” Facebook, complaining to my husband about how few old friends I could find.

Facebook is a social networking site or social utility. It has one of those dizzying pedigrees we associate with the Internet age. In 2004, its creator, Mark Zuckerberg, began with the idea of developing an online version of the paper facebook produced for incoming students at Harvard, where he was a student. In less than a year he had dropped out of school and moved to California. Within the next six months, Facebook was made available to students at most universities in the US, soon high school students were invited to join, and networks were expanded to include Britain, Canada, and Australia. Less than two years after it began, Facebook opened its doors to the general public and was estimated to have 12 million users. Today it is said to have as many as 20 million users as rumours circulate that a buyout for as much as 2 billion dollars is in the works.

Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook is a strange place. You can provide an almost unlimited amount of personal information on your page. You can post pictures. You can engage in an ongoing commentary about your life, minute by minute. The system also creates a running mini-feed that lets you know every minute change any one of your “friends” effects on their pages. You can invite people you know and strangers to be your friends, to come to social events, or to join Facebook groups that you start or are merely a member of. A lot of people use Facebook like email. It’s a place to chat and to keep people informed about your life. But for some people — and this is how I, and I suspect many people my age (the over 35s, who are even older than 25–34 year old “oldies” discussed in one recent Globe & Mail article), get hooked on Facebook — it’s a place to find old friends that we weren’t likely to track down anywhere else. And this is where, I suspect, we differ from younger cohorts of Facebookers who probably aren’t as nostalgic as we are… yet.

Nostalgia is a definite key for many of the Facebookers I know — and I can’t quite believe how words like Facebooker and Facebooking flow out of me after just a few short weeks of interface. While quite a few of my “friends” are people I work with, live near, or am related to, the ones I really seek out and the ones I, in a sense, have thus far derived the greatest satisfaction from being connected to, are the old friends I lost touch with along the way. Frederic Jameson says that “an addiction to the photographic image is itself a tangible symptom of an omnipresent, omnivorous, and well-nigh libidinal historicism” (18), one that “cannibalizes” the past into a cacophony of “overstimulating ensembles” (19). This is an apt description of Facebook for many users (and perhaps of many users as well).

An April 23 editorial in the Toronto Star makes the libidinal quality of the Facebook experience explicit by suggesting that social networking sites are now rivaling Internet pornography for sheer number of users. Jen Gerson writes, “though the website du jour may change, the desire to be connected all the time isn’t going to go away among the youth cohort.” I agree, although I think the focus on youth misses the fact that people in their 30s, 40s, 50s (and so on) are increasingly using social networking sites to stay connected with their pasts as well as their presents. Here’s one example: I recently invited one of my best friends from high school, a busy working mom with four kids, to join Facebook. She so rarely responds to her email, I thought she’d just delete it. But, just a week later she sent me a message (on Facebook) saying she just couldn’t keep herself from trolling the system looking for old friends.

Linda Hutcheon makes the important point that a predilection for seeing postmodern culture and its artifacts as inherently nostalgic is something to be cautious of. She’s right of course. Nostalgia often implies the longing for a mythic past, whose doors, always barred to us, make what is behind them infinitely desirable and whose completedness masquerades as simplicity, as authenticity, as a time that was really “real.” We can go home, but we can’t go home. In her recent book, Giving An Account of Oneself, Judith Butler argues that one of the problems of doing so — of giving an account of oneself — is that there is always an originary part that we cannot know. A piece that is beyond language and memory but that is nonetheless foundational to who we are. We are, on some level, aware of this, and search for ways of contacting or connecting with this originary part for which we have no vocabulary of enunciation. This may be part of Facebook’s appeal. Many people are casting around in its multitudes looking for connections to a past they feel cut off from; from parts of themselves they think might be lost; for threads of a narrative that will allow them to give a fuller and more complete account of themselves.

And yet, is there an ironic aspect of Facebook? Is this type of postmodern cultural production/immersion (as we are both in it and, in a sense, co-producers of it) simply a reification of a mythic past, a giving in to longing for something unrecoverable, or do we engage with Facebook via an “ironic distance,” or both (Hutcheon)? Hutcheon argues that irony and nostalgia are both responses to things, rather than things in and of themselves. Facebook can be read as a space where irony and nostalgia co-exist, especially for those who use it to seek out the past. The pages and groups people create are genuine but evidence a type of ironic distancing that comes from a recognition that the people reading are, in some sense, at a temporal distance. These groups play a bit like the newest ad in the Diet Pepsi “Forever Young” campaign. Called “Make-Out,” the ad features a couple in their thirties who wish they could make-out like they did when they were teens… flash to them making out in the grocery store and at parent-teacher interviews to the 1983 Bonnie Tyler power-ballad “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Happily, they return to their present, but with the recognition that Diet Pepsi keeps them young, connected to their youth… like Facebook.

Facebook T-shirt

Facebook T-shirt

Ironic, nostalgic, Facebook does have a high school quality. One friend told me she had resisted joining because of an experience on an earlier social utility: she kept looking for ex-boyfriends and their new girlfriends, comparing the “coolness” of their sites and hers, comparing the numbers of friends each had. It was, she finally explained, like being back in high school. Alyssa Schwartz, in the Globe & Mail, discovered similar invocations of a “high school mentality,” finding Facebook guilty of “bring[ing] back behavior that went out with plaid shirts, Tuff boots and Nirvana.” Note how Schwartz’s invocation of high school, here coded through fashion and music, marks the ironic nostalgia of Facebook participation, but also locates “old” Facebookers as people who were teens in the 1990s, not the 1980s (shoulder pads, doc martens, and Madonna), 1970s (hot pants, platform shoes, and Led Zepplin), or 1960s (mini skirts, saddle shoes, and The Beatles).

There is clearly much to be studied in the worlds of Facebook. The desire to network the past in the present, the availability and massive usage of this technology, certainly warrants closer examination.

Works Cited
Jen Gerson. “Social Networking rivals porn on Web.” The Toronto Star. April 23, 2007.
Linda Hutcheon. “Irony, Nostalgia, and the Postmodern.”
Fredric Jameson. Postmodernism or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP: 1991.
Alyssa Schwartz. “Grownups get their Facebook fix.” Globe & Mail. March 31, 2007.

Image Credits:
1. Collective Facebook
2. Mark Zuckerberg
3. Facebook T-shirt

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Playboy Feminism? Hugh Hefner and The Girls Next Door

The Girls of Girls Next Door

The girls of Girls Next Door

Right-wing websites have condemned E!’s reality show, The Girls Next Door, for “normalizing pornography,” destroying marriage and seducing children. Other likeminded forums (such as Free Republic) present a variety of marginally different viewpoints condemning the show, mocking Hugh Hefner as alternately the worst kind of libertine or assailing him as asexual and his magazine as insufficiently erotic.

These screeds hardly mesh with the show, which centers not on male sexual potency but female friendships, desires and the minutiae of Hefner’s girlfriends’ everyday life. Despite its success in winning over female viewers, Girls plays with significant ideological contradictions as it tries to address the prevailing popularity of the Playboy bunny image with a new generation of women while trying to remove any taint of sexual exploitation from its girls.

At least superficially, the girls are what one might expect — buxom, scantily clad platinum blondes. Each is carefully distinguished in several ways, most crudely by her rank that combines her longevity with the seriousness of her relationship with Hef. Girlfriend number one, Holly, is the most serious and maternal, fond of strangely retro pearls and argyle sweaters or micro miniskirts and revealing cocktail dresses. Bridget, girlfriend number two, is an ersatz 1960s sex-kitten who is studying for her second M.A. Like Holly, she knows Playboy’s history, the rules of the bunny dress, stance, and bunny dip and hopes to embody the soft retro-femininity and self-reliant, public womanhood incarnated in either the older Playboy bunnies, or, possibly, in later reworkings of these images. Kendra rounds out the trio, presenting a more contemporary incarnation of the Playboy pin-up. She is all surface, an embodiment of the most standardized male fantasies, the girl we are supposed to laugh at, not identify with.

Kendra’s superficiality and her lack of interest in Playboy’s past helps foreground the show’s own historical discourse around women which sees these earlier bunnies as a contested but noteworthy advance in feminine life. The show plays with the possibilities inherent in this older Playboy image where women are at the center of a glamorous world and men are accessories, playing with it as a locus of both feminist and feminine empowerment in contrast to today’s more superficial sex objects. In contrast, current centerfolds are presented as synthetic, easily substitutable and banal (like Kendra). Holly and Bridget’s oddly mannered and costumed presence speaks to their efforts to forge their own identities through nostalgic reappropriations of Playboy’s latent nuggets of feminine possibility, and significantly, both girls also have degrees and career goals beyond life in the Mansion. Following in the steps of Helen Gurley Brown and later post-feminist appropriations of beauty and fashion, they strive to stage and take control of the feminine self in public, in the process displacing the masculine gaze. Holly and Bridget also intervene in the centerfold’s avowed address to men, placing themselves as both Playboy’s subjects and objects, with Bridget repeatedly stating that she read her father’s Playboy as a child.

This kind of feminine nostalgia and utopianism structures the show, suggesting both its debt to 1960’s culture and marking its inscriptions of feminine possibility. Its innocent vision of friends harmoniously living together in what seems like a sorority house gestures towards both true love and idealized female friendship. In what might be an image carefully crafted for a (female) TV audience, Hef appears to be monogamous: he shares his room only with Holly and they discuss having a child. While she cannot hide her distaste for former long-time girlfriend, Barbi Benton, Holly is not jealous of Bridget or Kendra, who have their own rooms and appear to see Hef as a father figure and mentor, not a lover.

Indeed, this show is structured as a quintessentially feminine text. Like other such fictional archetypes (such as Sex and the City, Valley of the Dolls, The Group), it features collective female protagonists, focuses on female friendship, plays with the inherent sense of possibility and diversity within feminine identity and offers its own self-analytical discourse. It thus invites not a male gaze but feminine conversation and empathy, positioning the leads not as (Hef’s) girlfriends but as girl friends, who are there for each other, with Bridget and Kendra providing company for Holly, relieving the pressure on an aging Hef.

Kendra, Holly, and Bridget support each other

Kendra, Holly, and Bridget support each other

It is perhaps not surprising that most of the show’s viewers seem to be women. The Playboy website even sells non-erotic tie-in cotton underwear to girls (one pair is printed with “Beauty and Brains”). Sex seems beside the point — even the online Playboyphotos of the girls are strategically (if bizarrely) airbrushed to remove sexual characteristics that address a more prurient male gaze. While at one level, this returns us to the kind of feminine reworking of the Playboy centerfold exemplified in Bridget’s childhood desires, it also highlights the show’s conflicted and ultimately problematic vision of female sexuality. In disarticulating the girls from their sexual desire and yet maintaining their physical status as voluptuous pin-ups, the show presents another somewhat regressive image of feminine sexuality, even as it strives to present a feminine voice.

Source
James L. Lambert, “TV Porn Alert” Girls Next Door,” printed in both
Agape Press, November 23, 2005, and WorldNetDaily, Friday, November 25, 2005.

Image Credits

1. The Girls of Girls Next Door

2. Kendra, Holly, and Bridget support each other

Links
E-Online, Girls Next Door
Playboy, Girls Next Door

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