What the Slutwalk, Marshall McLuhan and Rebecca Black Have in Common

How famous are you?

The speed at which information is translated into ideas, intentions and actions is now global and nearly instantaneous, which has consequences for collective action.

In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes. – Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol‘s oft-quoted phrase from 1968 hinted at a future that Marshall McLuhan saw encaptulated in his famous concept of the global village and the idea that the medium is the message:

The medium is the message – Marshall McLuhan

UK artist Banksy has gone so far to proclaim that in this new social media, always connected, perpetually broadcast media world we will all be anonymous for 15 minutes (see above photo). If true, this has implications that go beyond simply getting ready for fame, but more deeply into the way in which media messages are constructed and construed within a social media landscape. Some cases of how the quick-release created by media this week got me to thinking more about what this might mean for health and creating better communities.

One case is the Internet sensation-of-the-moment Rebecca Black and her widely viewed (which was up to more than 80 million hits as of the time of this writing), parodied, and celebrated video “Friday” . Within the span of two weeks, a 13-year old girl who was largely unknown outside her classmates, friends and family was portrayed as everything from a new talent to a no talent in social and mainstream media circles by pundits, the public and journalists as a whole. One small, yet intricate, act of creating a video and publishing it set off the most talked about musical event since Susan Boyle.

On a matter far more serious, Torontonians — women and men — came out in the thousands to voice their concern over insensitive, negative stereotyping of women in the first ever slutwalk. The website for the organizing team described the instigating issue like this:

As the city’s major protective service, the Toronto Police have perpetuated the myth and stereotype of ‘the slut’, and in doing so have failed us. With sexual assault already a significantly under-reported crime, survivors have now been given even less of a reason to go to the Police, for fear that they could be blamed. Being assaulted isn’t about what you wear; it’s not even about sex; but using a pejorative term to rationalize inexcusable behaviour creates an environment in which it’s okay to blame the victim.

What Marshall McLuhan (add Warhol and Banksy here too), Rebecca Black’s “Friday” (and Susan Boyle’s “I have a dream”), and Slutwalk have in common is that they all gained, retained, and explained themselves through widespread media, intense emotion, and great misunderstanding resulting from the media form.

With McLuhan, the emotion is less (unless confusion counts), but there is still much resonance with his work and celebration of his theories aimed at helping people understand the relationship between media, the messages conveyed, and the cultural reproductions created through them all. While McLuhan’s words are well known, his theories are not, nor has there been much effort to get to know them. I know few who have read his original texts, slightly more who have read secondary accounts of his work in scholarly manuscripts, and most who have done neither or, at best, caught him in his movie cameo in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall.

Rebecca Black has the (mis)fortune to be one of Worhol’s famous people, albiet for more than just 15 minutes. Just as Susan Boyle no longer graces our aural landscape as she did, I suspect Rebecca Black will move closer to what Banksy speaks of within the span of a few weeks with her work to join Double Rainbow and Steven Slater (the JetBlue flight attendent who jumped out of the plane with two beer) as memes that have come and gone.

Slutwalk, I hope, finds a more generous fate. At present it is tied between something of substance (like McLuhan) and celebrity (Black), and is as misunderstood as both. Whereas McLuhan’s work is often overlooked in detail because it is rather dense and challenging, applied without consideration of the manifest ways in which media and messaging intersect, Black’s video is taken up without any thought at all, yet not critically analyzed. (For music fans, I suggest spending an hour with Lady Gaga on her recent visit to Google to see someone who walks the line between McLuhan and Black well, taking the highest art form from both and addresses Black’s fame in answering an audience member’s question).

Reading through the Twitter feeds with #swto and #slutwalk found some cheers, and some questions about what Slutwalk is. Sadly, some of the comments were the (to be expected, I suppose) sexist comments that represent the take-without-thinking approach (Black) from misinformed or misogynist (or both) tweeters. Yet at the same time, there were some who thought about the issue a lot, yet may have been overly analytical about certain aspects of the situation (McLuhan) to the point of making small things into bigger ones. In the latter, there were over-generalized attacks on the police officer who initiated the walk in the first place (and has apologized – the sincerity of which is unknown by me) and the establishment of the police service as a whole.

Neither of these perspectives tell the whole story, but when viewed through the lens of social media, safe ground is harder to find. Nuance is not something that Twitter posts do well. A post by the Toronto Sun shows what would have to be the most stereotypical picture of the “sluts” on its cover (which I see as intentional), with no hint at the diversity of women (and men) who joined the march to specifically highlight that it doesn’t matter what you wear, all women have rights to be who they are and be free from violence. The immediacy of social media and online media, makes this a more complex argument when either the overly simple is favoured and the overly complex is posed as a counter. It is easier to attack someone or to mock them, but harder to understand that person. If we are to design better social systems, understanding is key.

Why write about this here? Because these are the issues we face in health promotion all the time. Poverty, racism, access to health services, mental health and wellness, and education are all issues that are complex. They cannot or will not allow themselves to be understood in simple terms, yet are issues that speak to the wellbeing of society. Slutwalk was about rights and freedoms for more than one half of our population. It was about respecting people for who they are, honouring their sexuality, and educating everyone about the prevalence, consequences and risks associated with unwanted sexual advancement and assault. When it becomes a Rebecca Black Friday issue, it is about things like the salacious use of risque’ language and when it is a McLuhan issue, it takes a library to understand it.

Surely with our amazing tools we can find some middle ground to make the complex accessible, and the simple more sophisticated.

** Photo by fstutzman used under a Creative Commons License from Flickr.

3 Comments on “What the Slutwalk, Marshall McLuhan and Rebecca Black Have in Common

  1. Pingback: Failure Fetishism and the Language of Success « Censemaking

    • Jeanette,

      You did a wonderful job! I was quite pleased with the reaction in the social media world (the rest of the world too). I think it hit the right note with people and it seemed to find a way into that difficult middle ground where people mix genuine concern with level-headed (but persistent) activism against injustice. These things can fly off in so many directions and slutwalk hit the right note.

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