Media Theory for the 21st Century

February 12, 2008

H Part 1: What are you looking at?

Filed under: Discussion — hbench @ 5:55 pm
Tags: ,

I’m splitting this in two because of it’s length….

Reading White, I immediately thought of Apple’s commercials that pit PC against Mac. PC is portrayed by an older white businessman, while Mac is a young white hipster. Enter the digital camera: an Asian woman who holds Mac’s hand to demonstrate their immediate (sexual) compatibility. Clearly, as White shows and Apple’s commercials bear out, gendered and cultural stereotypes abound in computer advertising. But we are talking about computer ads and marketing campaigns, which White does not seem to differentiate from the Internet in her introduction. Computers, the Internet, and representations of computer and Internet users are indistinguishable in their effects, she seems to argue. They all participate in the construction of the ideal computer user as gendered male and raced as white—even down to the hand icon indicating potential action as it hovers over a clickable object. Of course emoticons, which the author does not address, default to yellow, and if the user/viewer/spectator/subject behind the emoticon is constructed as white, then these little feeling symbols can only be engaged in emotional minstrelsy—the tropes of which Hollywood inherited when it eviscerated vaudeville and absorbed its performers.

In her preference for a cinematic reading of the Internet, White rejects the term “user” because it does not adequately reflect the constructedness of the spectatorial position. She opts instead for the term “spectator,” which allows her to emphasize the more “static” processes of reading and looking and to de-emphasize the rhetoric of empowerment. The term “spectator,” while offering a corrective to the ideology of the active “user,” positions the person who operates a computer as a disturbingly passive viewer. White’s desire to reconfigure the power relations that have been constructed for cinema, especially as articulated in gaze theory, requires that White disempower spectators in order for women and “others” to have control over their own self-representation, for example on web-cams. But the strategy White employs reproduces the very ideology of active white male computer users that she critiques. If the spectatorial position of the computer user was not always already white, male, and invested with a potential for action (a little class privilege wouldn’t hurt either), White would be perpetuating disempowerment and marginalization where it already occurs. It also places all the “power” and agency in the hands of those who create Internet content for consumption by passive spectators with little room to maneuver in White’s theorization.

If White were to suggest that the Internet constructs or “renders and regulates” users as spectators, or that the user-as-spectator is one of many positions that scholars should attend to when theorizing how users engage with Internet or other media content, alongside the user-as-author, -performer, -consumer, etc. I would be much happier. Instead, she replaces other possibilities with a cinematic understanding of the spectator and sets about reducing a field of agency to a field of antagonisms. Women operating web cams won’t “do requests,” fails and frustrates users’ intentions, and programmers suffer the casualties of too many hours in front of a screen.


Blog at