Coturnix, of A Blog Around The Clock, was puzzled to find that one of his blog posts … How to use a Squat Toilet … was receiving a record amount of attention from the internet, after languishing for nearly a year on his blog. His post consists of a photograph of a squat toilet of the kind used in China, and a helpful link to a site that explains how to use a squat toilet.
He quickly figured out that the photograph in his post was being hit by Google Images because of an emerging interest in Squat Toilets. This interest is growing in conjunction with widespread plans to visit China for the Olympics. Apparently these are standard toilets in China.
This is a very nice squat toilet. Most of my experience with squat toilets is in rural or remote-urban Africa, where you don’t get the porcelain and the tiles. You get a gap between some slippery logs. And there is no light.
There are supposed to be a lot of these in Japan as well, but my experience there is that many people have installed extraordinarily high tech toilets, or interesting western-style (but not quite) toilets.
Now, I want to ask this question: Is this a good thing or a bad thing, or is it neutral, that Coturnix is getting mondo internet attention owing to a chance juxtaposition in his interest in squat toilets and the coming Olympics in China?
Well, it’s a good thing. For one, people seeking information about squat toilets will eventually get to the information they are seeking. Randomly, yes, but they’ll get there. The bigger, more important reason, is that people who otherwise would have never bumped into the excellent blog “A Blog Around the Clock” are, well, bumping into it. Maybe some of them will stay. Maybe the community of readers for his site will grow a little. That can only be good.
But isn’t this exploitation? Isn’t the humble squat toilet being exploited? Objectified?
No, of course not, thinking that would be stupid. But there is a parallel case … sexy people … that I’d like to bring up.
A very long time ago (before I even knew blogs existed) a science blogger happened to post a picture of Britney Spears, naked and pregnant. Not completely naked, but very, very pregnant. Now, I suppose he had a reason for that. I myself am interested in the shift a few years ago from models never being shown as pregnant, or identified as pregnant, to the widespread obsession with pictures of pregnant stars and actors.
Several years ago, I had an odd experience. I was engaged at the time with developing a course on gender, sexuality and race (yes, they are connected topics), a course which I later taught on a regular basis, to widespread acclaim, for several years. So I was reading about, and thinking about, certain topics. One day on the way to campus, I stopped for something at a local convenience store. There was a newly minted edition of sports illustrated, swimsuit edition, on display on the counter, and the people in front of me were discussing it. Thus, my attention was drawn to it. (There was an ongoing boycott of Sports Illustrated on the Harvard Campus because of their famous swimsuit issue: That was the topic of discussion.)
I glanced at the cover and my inner voice said, “That one is pregnant…” referring to one of the three models displayed, swimsuit-clad, on the front cover. It was an oddly strong voice, and since I don’t usually hear voices in my head, I remembered this event when a few days later I heard on the radio that there was a big controversy because a particular famous model, who had posed on the front cover of the Sports Illustrated Swim Suit edition was actually pregnant at the time of the shoot. Some people seemed aghast, offended by this.
I thought, “maybe I have a mental module in my brain that tells me when a female is pregnant.” (These were also the days when Evolutionary Psychology was just being born, and there was much talk of mental modules, a concept that I have since rejected.)
Anyway, that post, of Britney Spears very pregnant and mostly naked, is to this day a very popular post, because it gets picked up, like Coturnix’s Toilet (wow, great name for a novel) by Google Image Search. So, Pure Pedantry probably picks up a few extra readers a month who would otherwise never have bumped into that excellent blog.
But wait, is this a case of exploitation and objectification?
First hand, it may well be. The picture itself and its original distribution is part of the financially powerful and generally exploitative modeling industry. One can argue about this. If one compares the modeling industry to the acting industry, other performance industries, and then compares these to the sex slavery trade, institutionalized rape, and the full range of inequities and inequalities based on sex bias, then there is an argument for an effective role of what may be termed soft porn in supporting exploitative and biased practices. There is also an argument that this is no big deal. There is a range of opinion, some of these opinions reasonable. Others not so much.
Pure pedantry’s blog post was about the picture, not of the picture. Therefore, one can possibly argue that this is second hand exploitation at best. The fact that the blogger is a white male makes us suspect his role in a broader patriarchal conspiracy, or more likely, a passive role, a dumb cog in an ever turning gear of a massive oppressive machine. Or maybe he was just having fun. I’m certain that the range of opinions on this would be great.
More recently, but still some time ago, another fellow scienceblogs.com blogger, Afarensis, posted a photograph of some famous sexy female (I never remember these names) on a post about movies.
Again, this post was suddenly, recently picked up by Google Images, and again, I would hope that a few more people have bumped into this excellent blog (Afarensis) and are now regularly reading it.
Yet another fellow scienceblogs.com blogger, Zuska of Thus Spake Zuska, took note of this post and blogged on it. Her post, “Selling Your Blog with Cheesecake“, has almost no information whatsoever about actual Cheesecake. Rather, she provides a feminist critique of the practice of using pictures of sexy women, and states:
Afarensis, I puke upon your pseudonymous shoes.
That makes me laugh, because Zuska is at least as pseudonymous as Afarensis.
Unlike Pure Pedantry, who has probably been puked upon by various critics for keeping the pregnant, naked Britney Spears photo up, Afarensis took the sexy lady picture off his blog. I don’t actually know the reasoning behind either decision.
A while back, more recently than these posts by my fellow white male bloggers, I had the opportunity to answer an “Ask the Scince Blogger” question: Why is there no birth control pill for men? These posts (ask the science blogger) are special. We give them extra attention, they are promoted on the front page of scienceblogs.com, and so on. So I figured I’d illustrate the post somehow because that is what I do with some posts (I’d like to illustrate all my posts, actually, but it is a lot of extra work to do so).
Now, you will remember that I have this question in the back of my mind about the interest in pregnant female bodies. There is more to this than I mention above that I won’t go into now. For instance, there is research that suggests that people (regardless of sex) have interesting things happening with their memories when a learning experience is linked to a picture of a pregnant female (nakedness is not necessary, nor is star status). And so on.
As I remember it, I considered writing about this in the ask the science blogger post, but found that too hard to work in, so I dropped it. But when I did a search for images, I used keywords like “pregnant” and so on. I came up with the photograph shown here. This is Elle McPherson, who is apparently some kind of model or actress. She is pregnant, and some of her internal anatomy is painted semi-realistically on her. I saw this picture and said … “That’s perfect!” … Perfect for illustrating a post about my answer to the question “Why is there no male birth control pill?” You should go read that post to find out the answer!
Was this exploitative and objectifying of me? I can tell you, since I was there, that if it was, I was acting as a dumb cog on a gear running in a massive machine of patriarchal oppression. Indeed, McPherson would presumably also have been a dumb cog on one of these gears as well, because she probably did not do this shoot at gunpoint.
Indeed, I think this particular photograph may be an example of being very near the line of art vs. soft porn. I was thinking of it as art, but with the prospect of Zuska puking on my shoes, which are not pseudonymous by the way, I’m willing to consider alternatives.
There is a web site called “Sociological images: Seeing is believing” This site is pointed to by Zuska in her critique of Afarensis. I think she is pointing her readers there because the site contextualizes imagery such as what we are discussing here (and more broadly) in a very strict feminist critique. This image of Britney Spears naked and pregnant (that is Britney Spears, yes? I’m not sure) can be found on that site. Indeed, it is quite possible that any of the dozens of “sexy” images on that site, some way beyond the “soft porn” category, are available for being picked up on Google Image Search. This is an interesting site, worth a careful look (no, don’t just look at the pictures, pukey shoes, read the text as well!).
So, I hope it is picked up by Google Image Search. Sociological Images could use the extra traffic, it has an important message.