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But just how far is Facebook removed from its misogynist roots? In the past, it has removed pictures of breastfeeding mothers because exposed nipples and areolas violate the site's nudity policy. It has proven an effective tool for the kind of "slut shaming" that drives vulnerable teenagers to despair and self-harm. And it has routinely deleted the work of artists who dare to depict the human form in various states of undress. A couple weeks back, I wrote about Chicago artist Julia Haw, whose work Power Pussy inspired a spirited Facebook thread that was deleted by moderators for reasons that were never explained. Facebook also censored images of her work as it was in violation of their seemingly nebulous policies. Just a few days later, the same fate befell Chicago artist Ellen Greene when she was suddenly locked out of her Facebook account for violating the company's policy against vulgarity.
The vulgar piece in question was a drawing depicting Greene's experience of childbirth.
Greene's work deals heavily with the recontextualization of imagery. She manipulates traditional motifs in an effort to examine the modern female existence, largely by tying elements of the present to practices of the past. In her 2012 solo show at Packer-Schopf Gallery, "Invisible Mother's Milk," Greene prodded the notion of a feminine ideal, specifically as it relates to motherhood. The show featured a series of ladies' gloves, once a necessity in achieving the kind of modesty that society demanded of women, covered in classic tattoo imagery. Classic tattoos—anchors, mermaids, eagles, skulls—are generally associated with traditionally masculine cultures, like those of sailors or bikers. In Greene's work, these images become a representation of female strength. Her mermaids appear to be lactating and a pinup girl proudly sports a pregnant belly. By painting these images onto demure little ladies' gloves—and connecting present to past—Greene is both subverting and updating the idea of what it means to be a woman.
The drawing removed by Facebook is very much in line with Greene's work with the gloves. Except here, she takes it one step further, tying the female form not only to tattoo culture, but to ancient images of fertility, and to sheela na gigs, figurative carvings of women with exaggerated genitals that can be found on churches throughout Europe. The image was removed because someone—Greene does not know who due to the blessed anonymity of the virtual world—was offended by it. My guess is what the person found offensive wasn't the nudity, it was the strength. Greene is inclined to agree. "If I'd drawn that image with legs closed, tits up, and pouty lips, the reaction would've been totally different."
Like Haw's Power Pussy, there's something threatening embodied by the work of Ellen Greene. Greene herself is an affront to our expectations of a woman. She's a heavily tattooed mother of two who traffics in the language of rebellion. She's assimilated into a suburban existence while refusing to subjugate her outré identity. She's a badass and a mommy, all at the same time. And she proves that a woman doesn't have to give up an essential part of herself in order to raise children—that becoming a mother means expanding your conception of self rather than editing it down. Strong women scare people. They fuck with our concept of gender norms, which—despite the progress of decades past—are still very much alive and well. The strongest thing a woman can do is to take control of her own image—to present herself as she sees herself, rather than the way the world thinks she should be seen. And the quickest way to take a strong woman down is the same now as it was millennia ago: shame her, make her feel dirty, make her feel like a whore.
The irony here is that Facebook, for all the attention it pays to breastfeeding mothers and nudity no-no's, plays a huge role in the kind of cyber-bullying that has lead to a spate of recent suicides. If you want your heart broken, watch the YouTube video uploaded by Amanda Todd, the Canadian teenage who took her own life after being bullied on Facebook for years. It's something that Ellen Greene, as a mother of two daughters, is highly conscious of, citing a society that embraces and encourages "high-heeled sneakers and a kind of saccharine sexuality."
"We live in a world where it's like 'We're going to give you all the tools to be a mega-slut and then we will destroy you for it,'" she says.
This feels like a particularly dangerous time for women. A time when, by most accounts, the playing fields have been leveled and we're all considered equal. But while it may no longer be socially acceptable to slap your secretary on the ass and call her 'sugar,' sexism still exists. We still expect women to act a certain way and we punish them when they don't conform. Just ask Julia Haw or Ellen Greene. Look into the stories of Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons. Or just ask yourself how many times a day you log on to a site that began when a drunken guy wanted to take out his anger by embarrassing girls.