Spectacle and resistance
Spectacular performances in popular culture and beyond have received their fair share of derision from scholars over time. Notable among those criticisms is Guy Debord’s (2001) scathing evaluation of the role of spectacle in modern consumer culture. Not only does he view spectacular performances as ideological tools used by the capitalist elites to maintain the status quo, he also sees them as deceptive tactics used to sow disunity among ordinary citizens:
The spectacle itself presents itself simultaneously as all of society, as part of society, and as instrument of unification. As a part of society it is specifically the sector which concentrates all gazing and all consciousness. Due to the very fact that this sector is separate, it is the common ground of the deceived gaze and of false consciousness, and the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of generalized separation.Is
Debord’s caution has particular implications for visual culture, a domain of popular culture long associated with spectacle and mediated representations. Feminists are especially wary (and rightly so) of the hegemonic propensities of spectacle as it pertains to discourses of gender (Shugart and Waggoner 2005). This concern is not unlike Peggy Phelan’s (2003) critique of contemporary culture’s reliance on image or representation to make visible the “hitherto unseen.”19 This is because, as she argues, representation “fails to reproduce the real exactly,”2" thereby creating gaps and potentially reifying image. However, as other scholars have noted, there have always been disruptions created by spectacular performances of marginalized others that display the transgressive possibilities of spectacle (Doane 1982; Russo 1986; Shugart and Waggoner 2005). It is this rendering of spectacle that the writers draw upon to illustrate the resistive power of the visual protests being examined for this essay. As Debord correctly points out, the spectacle concentrates all gazing and in doing so, we argue, manifests itself as a resistive force given women’s traditional relations to looking. There is evident intent involved in the spectacle created though organized protests designed to grab media attention and capture public viewing. By deliberately making themselves the concentration of all gazing and all consciousness, women display their agency and confront patriarchal powers that assert that they should not look nor become visible by making spectacles of themselves.The spectacular performances rendered through the visual protest movements under examination thus shine a spotlight on misogyny while simultaneously resisting the “imposition of dominant ways of knowing and looking.”21
One of the ways in which the oppositional gaze operates in these visual protest movements is through bodily resistance. That is to say, the body becomes the primary vehicle for the specular in certain events.This corporeal resistance is in line with hooks’ and Foucaults observation that for oppressed groups, the body is a primary site where agency may be located. Our essay is specifically interested in the agency enacted and displayed by the unruly body. When “set loose in the public sphere,”22 the bodies of marginalized groups such as women become unruly and disorderly. They disrupt and threaten the status quo through their spectacular presence.
The second way in which the oppositional gaze functions in these movements is through social media amplification of the specular. Most, if not all, of the visual protest movements being studied utilize social media as part of their arsenal of resistance. In doing so, visual protests manage to create what Hsiao and Yang (2018) describe as an augmented reality “where the power of digitality meets the politics of physicality.”2’ Not only do social media transform the communication of these movements from a network perspective (Poell and van Dijck 2018), they also amplify the spectacle of the unruly body and intensify the oppositional gaze. We now turn to an analysis of how these phenomena unfold in the very different context of China as compared to the United States.
Digital feminist activism: China versus the United States
Information communication technologies, including social media and other digital spaces, have given rise to what scholars such as Julianne Guillard (2016) see as a fourth wave of feminist activities and practices. Human rights movements in general have been growing correlative to the rapid global expansion of the Internet. Digital technologies promise to make such movements more powerful and formidable not only through facilitating protest and political agitation among citizens but also through the rapid exportation of ideas that activate resistance to oppression among people in different parts of the world. Digital platforms such as social media sites also make solidarity for human rights issues accessible and palpable because of their strong networking capabilities, while also giving visibility to traditionally disenfranchised groups. For example, in China, asYalan Huang (2016) writes, “[wjith the fact that feminists are often excluded or demonized by mainstream mass media, the Internet, especially social media, is expected to be a useful medium for feminists to disseminate information, organize activities, and interact with the public.”24 As a result, feminist activists in China (as elsewhere) have taken their political agitation to the “highways” of the Internet, spaces that allow them to “deploy the precarious female body to make visible contradictions of contemporary social reality.”2’ In other words, digital platforms such as social media sites facilitate the spectacle of looking back. This is a particularly dangerous enterprise for feminists in China, where digital spaces are subject to state-sanctioned surveillance and violations can lead to imprisonment.. .or worse. Under such circumstances, the oppositionality of the gaze is heightened given the perils associated with this digital and less-than-subtle medium for resistance. In the United States, while activists may not face jail time, they are subject to misogynist threats of violence and cyberbullying. The message behind such threats is that women, whether they are in China or the United States, do not belong in the public sphere. Women look back nonetheless.
As Turley and Fisher (2018) observe, there has been an explosion of feminists using social media and other digital spaces (such as blogs) to raise awareness and galvanize support for pushback against misogyny, gender-based violence, sexism, and a range of other issues related to patriarchy. In the United States, Twitter has been a central campaign tool for many digital feminist movements. Harnessing the power of the hashtag, many campaigns have exposed misogyny and paved the way for global engagement with such issues. Examples of these include such movements as #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo (perhaps one of the most well-known hashtags), Occupy, #WhyIStayed, #SayHerName, and #PussyHat, among many more. Other important digital feminist activism predates the rise of Twitter. For example, the annual Gladys Ricart & Victims of Domestic Violence Memorial Walk, aka the Brides’ March, relied on Facebook in its early days for much of its digital activism, and more recently has used Instagram. Other movements founded by women, while not being distinctly feminist in nature, have also inspired activism on a global scale. The most prominent of these is the #Occupy movement. For the purposes of this chapter, we focus on the inspiration of the #MeToo, Brides’ March, and #Occupy movements as major catalysts that fed important social movements in China. They seem to have had an especially strong impact in sparking namesake protests in China, such as the “Wounded Brides,” “Occupy Men’s Toilets,” and the “Feminist Five.” These events also starkly illuminate the power of the oppositional gaze in the spectacle they generate both on and offline, through the deployment of disorderly bodies as public sites of resistance.