Brand Intimacy, Female Friendship and Digital Surveillance Networks
This article examines the way that digital media harness, mine and infiltrate social networks and private relationships. More specifically it looks at online homosocial groups that primarily target, interpellate and mould a heteronormative demographic of women and girls. It examines digital platforms that are hosted or penetrated by corporations and their brands, such as Dove (owned by Unilever), babycentre.co.uk (owned by Johnson & Johnson) and Mumsnet (independently owned and funded by advertising). These sites are re-organised disciplinary industries whose instrumental apparatuses are devolved and spread among ‘disaggregated sets of mechanisms and processes’. I argue that these websites harness the affectivity of female friendship conjoined with what Lauren Berlant terms ‘intimate publics’ in order to monitor women’s sexualities. Rather than being a top-down form of governance and discipline such as in the panopticon, control is devolved, shared and internalised among modalities of the policing gaze. Moreover, this policing is permeated by market values and the privileging of self-management in service to competitive subjectivities. Bodies are surveyed and controlled by groups of women, or what I call a gynaeopticon - a gendered, neoliberal variation on Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon - where the many women watch the many women. The feminine individual, who accrues value through the correct maintenance of sexuality, is captured by the interest of corporations and their shareholders. These branded spaces disseminate, perpetuate and realise their ideal of the entrepreneurial individual through, by, and on the bodies of women. Patriarchy is obfuscated in an affective popular culture where neoliberal logics configure the intimate lives of women, and where women are complicit in the regulation of normative femininities. Effective branding strategies form intimate relationships between the brand and consumers. Significantly, they often harness the assemblage of friendship in order to create networks around, with and through brands. Friendship is assembled out of different affects, as well as other elements. This assemblage includes empathy, sympathy, generosity, thoughtfulness, attentiveness. As commercial texts selling the signifiers of friendship, they are an antidote to, as well as a symptom of, what Zygmunt Bauman calls ‘liquid loving’.
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