Leil-Zahra Mortada

making noise, and more noise

The 25 “Funniest” Bullying Photos

Guy DebordOne of the most flaming topics on social media are these photo compilations of the “weirdest” or the “funniest” or the “scariest”… and the list goes on and on. From “best” to “worst”, from “25 reasons why…” to “You won’t believe what…”; the titles vary and compete in who ponders best on the sensationalism of the societies we live in. Thousands of shares and comments in some cases, but few hundreds are almost always guaranteed. People joking, arguing, insulting, discussing, judging, condemning, supporting, and in sometimes fighting and insulting each other. All over a personal moment of some body else’s life, on their wedding day, or in their family portrait, someone who most probably was not asked for permission before one moment, one split second of their life, was put on a public podium and opened up for a barrage of public shaming and lynching.

There is so much wrong with the mass majority of these compilations that the scariest and saddest thing is seeing how widespread they are, and how many websites are sprinting around these kinds of posts. It is becoming quite unnerving to see the increasing amount of people in one’s close social circle who are sharing these albums. They are no longer “tabloid” material that people would skim through secretly as they wait for their dentist appointment or at the hairdresser’s, they are out and about proudly.

All of us have seen photos of ourselves that triggered a certain insecurity, or made us feel uncomfortable. We’ve all seen photos that we simply didn’t like and wished away. It is actually pretty common for people to delete photos of themselves and also ask others to do so. It is pretty common that people would have photos from their past (or present) that they are not comfortable with and keep hidden from the public eye, even from close and intimate circles. The reasons behind feeling uncomfortable towards a certain photo are quite varied and personal. Sometimes a lot of people would love a photo but the person in it would still insist it be deleted; and sometimes it is the other way around. It is not always because the photo is the “scariest” or “weirdest” or whatever. The way we see ourselves and the way we want to be represented is quite complicated. Sometimes photos represent who we really are, or how we see ourselves, and sometimes they are just “another stupid photo” that we took as we were joking with friends. We all consider it our right to ask people to delete photos of us, or to simply not share them publicly. Even those of us who are extreme social-network voyuerists still choose which photos to post and which not to. It is quite common to see people looking at the screens to double check that the photo is to everyone’s liking else they’d re-take it, sometimes over and over, until a desired result is achieved. Digital cameras have made this possible with no extra financial cost. A privilege that was not possible when I was growing up, and I am not that old. Many can remember when we thought twice on where to develop certain photos in fear of the people in the lab seeing them or making copies of them. The societies we live in have very intricate relationship with photos and how people react to them. Photos can make us fly happily or shoot us down. Who hasn’t lied to a friend or an acquaintance about liking a photo so they won’t hurt their feelings or make them uncomfortable?! Photos are quite complex in their intimacy, and scary in their power. In our societies of the spectacle one photo can completely change one person’s self-esteem and their relation to their bodies and their cultures. One photo can end in the wrong hands at the wrong moment and there is no going back. One wrong comment, one wrong interpretation, and there are no undo actions enough to fix it. It is a social (and legal) evidence that is quite hard to refute; and almost always is taken for a fact with no questions asked.

I doubt any of the people reading this text would like to be featured in any of these (not) “funny” compilations, let alone wake up one day to be exposed to such violent social bullying. It is quite fashionable now to talk against bullying in schools, but what about the other forms? What about this legitimized “humor”  and what is socially considered “funny”? Why is one photo considered “funny”? And is humor an absolute universal truth? Does it really get better with age? Or is it just that the bullying is made invisible and rather socially accepted as we grow older? We keep telling kids and teenagers that “it gets better”, that they will grow out of their acne and their bodies to fit the mainstream beauty standards and become successful (mostly white) employees with certain economical and social privileges. But what if they do not? What if we don’t? What about the mass majority of us who do not grow up to fit those standards of social fascism? Or those of us who courageously choose not to fit? For many, the bullying doesn’t stop after school, for many the bullying does not stop on the streets, and in the restaurants, and on the bus no matter how old we are. We are still stared at, laughed at, scrutinized, and sometimes photos are taken of us and posted online for everyone to give their opinion and judgment. We have reached ridiculous levels of social scrutiny. There is even a “funny” compilation of women eating on the subway (!!!!!). Ridiculous?! Yes! Still the amount of shares and “likes” of this compilation is scary, and the grade of social acceptance towards this bullying is alarming. What is wrong with eating on the subway? Why is a woman eating on the subway considered an extraordinary act that deserves the effort of someone taking the photo and posting it? It is not just the compilation that should be questioned, it is the very essence of the socially-constructed definition of humor, and the impositions made norms with this style of “humor”.

Humor is in most cases culture specific, just like beauty. What is considered funny in one culture might be considered offensive in another, or simply no funny. It is not humor that these photos are playing on, it is the different, the unusual, the bodies that decided not to conform, or those who didn’t conform for whatever reason. It is the spectacle built on the corpses of diversity and privacy, on the pyramids of insecurities and the destruction of self confidence.

 It is not only those in the photos who should be defended, and it is not them alone who are on stake. It is all of us, it is our diversity and our right to personal (and collective) expression, it is the future generations of both young and old. The old that we are all going to grow into. It is our social dynamics and social relations in and out of the private and public spaces. The privacy of these individuals is violated beyond control, and in extremely violent ways. The same way that the very essence of our behavior in public (whether on the street or online) is subjected to indoctrination and strict roles of representation;  mostly in a chase after Facebook likes or in fear of users’ comments.

These compilations tend to focus on a certain set of beauty standards. Certain haircuts are considered funny, certain ways of wearing make-up, certain types of clothes, certain body types, certain age groups wearing certain outfits, certain poses…etc. It is the violent mainstreaming of a set of beauty standards ignoring the fact that what is considered beautiful in one culture is not necessarily beautiful in another. That what is considered beautiful in a certain socio-economical class is not necessarily the same in another more or less privileged one. What some consider “funny”, others might consider “beautiful”…. until of course they are struck with the social uproar criticizing and ridiculing them. The world is full of cultures, urban groups, rural tribes, social classes, identities…in all their colors and varieties, and with their own beauty standards, and their own interpretation and expression of the “beautiful”. These compilations discredit and attack the foundations of this diversity.  None of us grows up from nowhere, we all come from and belong (whether we like it or not) to certain socially constructed groups. And it is not only us that are put on stake in these photos, it is everyone who share our body weight, our haircut, our culture, our age, our gender. It is not the people in the photos who are being judged, it is all of us and all of our bodies and our expressions in their endless and essential variety. It is the legitimization of certain bodies, certain age groups, certain socio-economical classes, and certain cultures;  and  strictly these alone, usually on the expense of everyone else. On a daily basis people are considered “too old”, or “too fat”, or “too thin”, or “too ugly”, or “too beautiful”, or “too slutty”; or “too scary” to wear or do something. A process that is setting rules and regulations, social norms and impositions. Certain ages have their movements and self-expressions restricted, certain bodies are made invisible or “out of the norm”. In a strange twist of technology, many feel entitled to discuss and debate the bodies and lives of others. If they have the right to wear whatever they see fit, to pose in whatever way they like, and their right to record PERSONAL moments in their own lives. People are denied this right, questioned and slammed by complete strangers who objectify them over and over; protected by the anonymity of the internet. The social networks have given space to certain legitimacy of judging people without the slightest questioning if we are even entitled to do so. It is perfectly ok now for a complete stranger to tell us what they think of our body or our haircut or our culture with absolute disregard to feelings, respect, and diversity… let alone if their opinion is called for or not.

To approach this topic from a victimizing position would be a grave error. To put the people in these photos in the position of the helpless preys of the fashion police would be an injustice. None of them should be defended out of pity for how they look, or how they looked, or what they are wearing. The same way that none of them should be questioned and asked to justify that “this photo was taken when I was drunk”, or “on the worst day of my life”, or that “it was just for fun”. Even it wasn’t for fun, even if this person does look like that, with that haircut, and that outfit, and in that pose all the time. It is their body, their right, and their choice that should be respected. Few of them are thankfully taking the time to speak up and share how the sharing of these photos and the subsequent comments impacted their lives. Unfortunatly, most of these brave and important texts do not get the exposure the photos get.

Ageism, sexism, misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, classicism… are what these photo compilations are all about. They are the modern-day racist jokes that are now given one face and one address and one life, but nevertheless still affect everyone. Just because we do not know the names of those in the photos does not make it ok to inflict such immense injustice on them and on everyone who shares the aspect in question. Our jokes are now masqueraded behind the criticism of that single photo, detaching the photo of its context, of the person in it, and the lives it represents. It is the delusion of ridiculing the photo and not the race, or the gender, or the age; while we all know that what is being judged is the race, or the gender, or the age, or the body…etc.

 Technology is changing quite fast and as always it is changing us in the course. Over the past few years, “the funniest 25” became a trend, and it is setting a new bar of social hegemony. It takes a collective stand to put an end to this mold. It takes a “pose” of not clicking on the link, and not sharing it, and speaking up whenever it is spotted. There is no one set of beauty standards, and if there is it should be challenged and destroyed. For it is us, all of us, who are being put on stake. It is us today, or yesterday, or tomorrow.

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