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We value youth. There is greater currency in youth, far greater than wisdom, despite most people when they are looking back wishing they had more wisdom in life. Modernity brought us the era of the picture and since then we have become captivated with images. Pictures, first black and white, then replaced by moving images, and further replaced by colour became an antidote to a verbose society that now didn’t need to talk about it…it simply became a case of look and don’t talk!
The image became even more important when people turned the cameras on themselves. The selfie, originally a self-portrait of reclusive artists evolved into a statement, a visual signature for millions of people using it every day on social media. Enter youth! The engagement with social media is regarded the gift of computer scientists to the youth of today. I wonder how many people know that one of the first images sent as a jpeg was that of a Swedish Playboy playmate the ‘lady with the feathers’. This “captivating” image was the start of the virtual exchange of pictures that led to billions of downloads every day and social media storing an ever-expanding array of images.
The selfie, brought with it a series of challenges. How many times can you take a picture, even of the most beautiful person, before you become accustomed to it. Before you say, well yes that is nice, but I have seen it before. To resolve the continuous exposure the introduction of filters, backgrounds and themes seems to add a sense of variety. The selfie stick (banned from many museums the world over) became the equipment, along with the tripod, the lamp and the must have camera, with the better lens in the pursue of the better selfie. Vanity never had so many accessories!
The stick is an interesting tool. It tells the individual nature of the selfie. The voyage that youthful representation takes across social media is not easy, it is quite a solitary one. In the representation of the image, youth seem to prefer. The top “influencers” are young, who mostly like to pose and sometimes even offer some advice to their followers. Their followers, their contemporaries or even older individuals consume their images like their ‘daily (visual) bread’. This seems to be a continuous routine, where the influencer produces images, and the followers watch them and comment. What, if anything, is peculiar about that? Nothing! We live in a society build on consumption and the industry of youth is growing. So, this is a perfect marriage of supply and demand. Period!
Or is it? In the last 30 years in the UK alone the law on protecting children and their naivety from exploitation has been centre stage of several successive governments. Even when discussing civil partnerships for same sex couples, Baroness Young, argued against the proposed act, citing the protection of children. Youth became a precious age that needed protection and nurturing. The law created a layer of support for children, particularly those regarded vulnerable. and social services were drafted in to keep them safe and away from harm. In instances when the system failed, there has been public outrage only to reinforce the original notion that children and young people are to be protected in our society.
That is exactly the issue here! In the Criminology of the selfie! Governments introducing policies to generate a social insulation of moral righteousness that is predicated on individual – mostly parental – responsibility. The years of protective services and we do not seem to move passed them. In fact, their need is greater than ever. Are we creating bad parents through bad parenting or are people confronted with social forces that they cannot cope with? The reality is that youth is more exposed than ever before. The images produced, unlike the black and white photos of the past, will never fade away. Those who regret the image they posted, can delete it from their account, but the image is not gone. It shall hover over them for the eternity of the internet. There is little to console and even less to help. During the lockdown, I read the story of the social carer who left their job and opened an OnlyFans account. These are private images provided to those who are willing to pay. The reason this experience became a story, was the claim that the carer earned in one month of OnlyFans, more than their previous annual income. I saw the story being shared by many young people, tagging each other as if saying, look at this. The image that captures their youth that can become a trap to contain them in a circle of youth. Because in life, before the certainty of death there is another one, that of aging and in a society that values youth so much, can anyone be ready to age?
As for the declared care for the young, would a society that cares have been closing the doors to HE, to quality apprenticeships, a living wage and a place to live? The same society that stirs emotions about protection, wants young people to stay young so that they cannot ask for their share in their future. The social outrage about paedophiles is countered with high exposure to a particular genre in the movies and literature that promotes it. The vampire that has been fashioned as young adult literature is the proverbial story of an (considerably) older man who deflowers a young innocent girl until she becomes infatuated with him. The movies can be visually stunning because it involves the images of young beautiful people but there is hardly any mention of consent or care!
It is one of the greatest ironies to revive the vampire image in youth culture. A cultural representation of a male prototype that is manipulative, intruding into the lives of seemingly innocent young people who become his prey. There is something incredibly unsettling to explore the semiology of an immortal that is made through a blood ritual. A reverse Peter Pan who consumes the youth of his victims. The popularity of this Victorian literary character, originally conceived in the era of industrial advancement,at a time when modernity challenged tradition, resurfaces with other monsters at times of great uncertainty. The era of the picture has not made everyday life easier, and modernity did not improve quality of life to the degree it proclaimed. Instead, whilst people are becoming captivated by ephemera they are focused on the appearance and missing substance. An old experience man, dark, mysterious with white skin may be an appealing character in literature but in real life a someone who feeds on young people’s blood is hardly an exciting proposition.
The blood sacrifice demanded by a vampire is a metaphor of what our society requires for those who wish to retain youth and save their image into the ether of the cyberworld as a permanent Portrait of Dorian Gray. In this context, the vampire is not only a man in power, using his privilege to dominate, but a social representation of what a consumer society places as the highest value. It is life’s greatest irony that the devouring power of a vampire is becoming a representation of how little value we place on both youth and life! A society focused on appearance, ignoring the substance. Youth looking but not youth caring!
Recently we saw the sentencing of Sarah Everard’s kidnapper, rapist and murderer. He has received a whole life sentence. As a woman within society I welcome this sentence. As a criminologist I am at a loss. There is a lot to unpick here in terms of ‘justice’ and whether this has been served. It is pertinent to question the use of a whole life order on a violent, misogynistic, kidnapper, rapist and murderer; who cooperated after arrest, who pleaded guilty and expected the full force of the law. But I shall leave that to another day, as the media’s portrayal of the sentencing and aftermath is what is currently fuelling my anger. The message remains the same, women can and should do more to prevent their victimisation.
The sentence given is at odds with the coverage which has followed. Handing down the most severe sentence available in England and Wales represents the seriousness of the offence, and the damage it has caused to those directly involved and those further afield. The possibility that the offender was in a position of trust, has violated this trust and committed abhorrent acts appears to justify the whole life order. The comparison to terrorism, something which violence against women has been linked to before within academia, is also very telling. But what is the focus? The focus is on how women can go about feeling safe in society and make lines of inquiry if they have doubts about a police officer’s conduct! Here the onus is on women acting in a manner of keeping themselves safe. The message remains the same: women should prevent their victimisation. Excellent I’ll add this nugget of information to my bag of ‘top tips for walking alone at night’.
Why aren’t the media building on this platform to challenge misogynist attitudes? Why are they not raising awareness of violence against women? Sarah’s kidnapping, rape and murder is horrific: but what about the women who undergo daily violence at the hands of their partners, family, friends? These individuals are also in a position of trust and abuse this position to cause harm to women! Here the media could raise awareness about how deep-rooted the issue of violence against women is, but instead they reinforce the idea that women can prevent their victimisation, and that violence occurs at night, by a stranger, and will have the offender brought to justice. This is not the reality for the vast majority of women. It is an extreme and exceptional case (no doubt something True Crime will encapsulate in years to come) and this is further reinforced by the sentence given. Yet violence against women is not exceptional, or rare: it is an everyday reality! Something the media has failed to draw attention to. And by failing to cement Sarah’s kidnapping, rape and murder in the wider context of violence against women, it raises the potential to set a standard of violence against women. Those everyday cases which do not fit the same circumstances are not considered an issue.
My intentions are in no way to take away from the abhorrent crimes committed against Sarah. The crimes sit in the context of violence against women which is still a fundament issue overlooked within society, and has been overlooked once again. And the rhetoric which has followed, yet again, is around how women can protect themselves in the future. The message remains the same…