Performing monkeys 🐵 🙊

aspiration and objectification in Black Mirror, Old Masters and social media

I hadn’t heard of art critic John Berger before news of his death broke a few days ago.

Today I happened upon this interesting article about his critical legacy in the field of the artistic treatment of women.

What hooked me in was the initial quotation:

A woman is always accompanied, except when quite alone, and perhaps even then, by her own image of herself. While she is walking across a room or weeping at the death of her father, she cannot avoid envisioning herself walking or weeping

This struck me because I remember a few occasions during my teenage years where, in the middle of a mundane activity (e.g. brushing my teeth) it would suddenly occur to me: Am I acting acceptably or weirdly? What if I were being watched? Would I act differently?

I can’t possibly say whether this was due to the expectations put upon women (as Berger would have it) or more general growing-up fears: the teen condition of becoming an adult, becoming self-aware, is partly becoming aware that you are present in the minds of others and that others will observe and judge you.

a semi-aside…

Embedded in this article is an episode of Berger’s TV series Ways of Seeing. I wasn’t intending to watch all of it, but it also hooked me in. Worth the whole 30 mins:

Last year I blogged about a visit to the National Gallery where we saw an exhibition that riffed on the Old Masters’ voyeuristic tendencies. At the time I thought the painting below was a particularly egregious example of half-male, half-animal lechery next to female passivity and objectification – not just by the satyrs but implicitly by the painting’s viewers too (and the artist):


But if you do watch the video, the barrage of similarly helpless, supine, “languid” (as Berger puts it), vulnerable and inactive female nudes from old paintings will not fail to make you wonder whether there is in fact a conspiracy at work. 🤔

back to the point

Today I also happened to watch the episode of Black Mirror called “Nosedive“, in which people rate each other on their everyday interactions: every phone call, every back-and-forth with a barista is assessed and graded. (One can’t help but think of the dating profiles that jokily include Uber ratings (or height!) as markers of success.) People with higher ratings have access to better car hires, flight upgrades and discounted rent. People with low ratings are social pariahs.

After a few minutes the penny drops: everyone is performing, all the time. What else would you do if you were constantly being watched, assessed, judged? When the consequence of watching is not better acquaintance or reciprocal relationship-building but objectification, whether of the sexual kind (as in the tradition of the female nude according to Berger) or of the kind that reduces people to the boxes they tick and the pleasure or affirmation they give you?

Rae Langton writes the following in her article “Sexual Solipsism”:

Perhaps someone could take […] the objectifying attitude towards herself: view herself as being nothing more than how she appears to someone else, nothing more than her body, nothing more than a thing […] The self‐objectifying attitude will be a matter of both seeing, and doing. Someone who has it may actually turn herself into an object—so far as that is possible. She may bring it about that she is in fact less free, more tool‐like, more thing‐like. She may become passive, she may become submissive, she may become a slave.

So objectification is a vicious cycle: if you are objectified, you perform and then become what you are seen to be. A woman seen as passive will just become passive. Similarly, a person constantly assessed for their “value” (smileyness good, stroppiness bad) will act up to it, will become their “disguise” (as Berger has it in the video) and lose the ability to … be a normal human, stroppiness included. (At least only temporarily. But I won’t spoil the ending for you). Then, presumably, it becomes impossible to work out which layer belongs to the performance and which layer belongs to the real self. (Hence the title of this post: it implies both something acting as a monkey, and being a monkey that acts – but one engenders the other.)

Maybe performance is just what we do. Adopting certain physical poses affects our confidence and thus self-assessment of our abilities and performance (see this Ted talk!). That is, acting something brings it about. The tendency to prettify everything we post on social media (‘Great night with the girls!’, ‘Amazing sunset over Waterloo Bridge’ – guilty) might be deeply anxious and dishonest, or it might be aspirational.

But it seems impossible to know which it is. The point of dystopias like those of Black Mirror (famously) is that they reflect not the future but the present. I’m sure that for some people, the need to perform (for others and in fear of judgement rather than as a confidence boost) does have the kind of grip that it has in Black Mirror, with even friendships and marriages scripted for the camera. It’s a bit frightening, but to the extent we’re aware this is happening, and if we value reality, “authenticity” and non-anxiety, we should resist these performances at all costs. The show must not go on!


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