Life in the FishBowl, Feminist Interrogations of Webcamming
Jane Bailey, "Life in the Fishbowl: Feminist Interrogations of Webcamming", On the Identity Trail: Anonymity, Privacy and Identity in a Networked Society, Ian Kerr, Carole Lucock and Valerie Steeves, eds. (Oxford University Press: 2009) 283-301.
Posted: 19 Jun 2013 Last revised: 21 May 2014
Date Written: 2009
Inspired by, among other things, a coffee pot and a fishbowl, on April 14, 1996, Jennifer Ringley launched Jennicam. In a self-described "social experiment," whose diverse objectives included connecting with family and friends and challenging mainstream media images of women with "perfect hair and perfect friends," regularly refreshed still images of Ringley’s home were uploaded to the web, where they were accessible (at least for some time) to anyone with an Internet-connected computer. Jennicam depicted everything from Ringley’s empty couch to her cat to her working at her computer to her having sex with her boyfriend. It inspired considerable commentary and analysis, including among feminists struggling to understand the depth, breadth, meaning, and potential of voluntary personal exposure in this brave new networked world.
Jennicam is considered by many to represent the first of a growing number of "webcam girls" who are estimated by some to number in the hundreds of thousands. Many of these "webcam girls" are young women determined to harness the power of new communication technologies, such as the Internet, in efforts to oppose socially imposed mainstream definitions of gender and sexuality. They do so within the broader context of a societal turn toward exposure, micro-celebrity and "reality" television, and toward a contemporary flouting of the perceived puritanism of prior feminisms, feminisms that some have argued unnecessarily shamed women in relation to their sexuality and denied them the ability to explore and assert their sexuality as a form of social empowerment. Directly raising long-standing unresolved tensions about identity, privacy, sexuality, and pornography, Jennicam and its ensuing iterations invite further debate and analysis within the feminist community. In this chapter, I will pursue these themes in three parts.
First, I will discuss the evolution of the Jennicam experiment with a focus on Ringley’s own description of her project. Second, I will draw out the interlocking themes of identity, privacy, and pornography resonating within Anita Allen’s 2000 analysis of various webcam experiments by women. Third, I will highlight some of the ways in which Allen’s analysis both raises and invites further exploration of these historically contested themes in feminist work. In conclusion I suggest that technological moments such as these offer feminists fresh space for dialogue on these issues and for an interrogation of the continuing relevance of prior positions taken in relation to them. While remaining open to the idea that past insights may no longer carry the resonance that they once seemed to, we ought not to foreclose the possibility that aspects of them may continue to be relevant to the ongoing struggle for a lived social equality for women.
Keywords: Jennicam, webcam girls, internet, gender, sexuality, feminism, Jennifer Ringley, identity, privacy, pornography, Anita Allen, lived social equality for women
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation