“I Made That B*tch Famous”: The Media’s Obsession with Female Morality for Virality

July 26, 2021 4:49 pm || By

Information and communication technologies or ICTS are becoming more integrated with our lives. Its accessibility to gather and convey information is now no more a hassle with only a scroll and a tap on the screen. As such, the digital sphere has become a sea of information and data which made the mass media hyper-transparent for the public eye to see.

            Although this certain aspect sure has its benefits, such as the ability to form collectives to voice out oppression and a place where individuals can search for support, the hyper-transparent mass media in the digital sphere instead share a myriad of information that should be private. From news articles to even a single tweet, some or perhaps many are oriented towards exposing one’s “shame” or aib.

            Take the example of Rachel Vennya, an Indonesian influencer who has garnered more than a million subscribers on YouTube.  After decided to no longer wearing hijab, a head covering worn by Muslim women, Vennya received massive backlash from netizens and online news outlets.

Various online news outlets across Indonesia’s digital sphere purposefully turned her story into sensational article headlines. As a result, someone’s belief that should be a private matter became a public matter, in which many instead bashed her for being a “heretic” or merely doing so for “validation”. Essentially, this phenomenon shows that the “commenters” of this news are very centered towards one’s morality, without even contemplating the objectivity of the news itself or even the subject’s feelings in question.

            So, why is the public so focused or perhaps obsessed with one’s, specifically women’s, morality that it became a hit in the digital sphere?

In essence, the media is a theatre of discipline and punishment, digitally displayed through the conveniences of a screen. It controls citizens to internalize the beliefs and values of the norm, leaving no room for objectivity.[1][2] Alternatively, it is also reconfiguring public condemnation where “sensationalism” and “virality” are utilized to demonize those who did not adhere to them.

            The mass media also has a significant role in shaping and expressing public opinion.[3] Essentially, mass media become a room for control as well as an opposition for differing opinions. However, the dominant group tends to be the one with the most influence that can create mediated culture: a culture generated and reflected by the media.[4] The media culture in Indonesia is still heavily predominated by patriarchal beliefs that cornered and devalue women as the stereotypical, inferior subject. This kind of culture paired with the grandstanding of the “religious values” of the major religion molded the assumption that women are supposed to be “pious”, “holy”, and “obedient” when it comes to how they act, speak, and—in the case of Rachel Vennya—dress. As such, if a woman becomes a subject of the mass media’s scrutiny, the actors behind this tend to highlight the “immoral” side of the story for the sake of sensationalism in the name of “upstanding” social norms and values.

            Another element one must consider in this issue is the criminalization of female sexuality by the media. Putting aside the infidelity issue, the leaked sex tape of Gisel is a prime example of this. News outlets and netizens vilified her for her “smuttiness” while the perpetrators, including the male counterpart, were not put into question. Even worse, Gisel was blamed for her victimization.[5] Eventually, Gisel was bound to imprisonment by the state for the infringement of the controversial Pornography Law.[6] In other words, her “uncontrolled sexuality must be contained, and inherent weakness of character exposed.” [7]

The viralization of “controversial” news, such as Rachel Vennya and Gisel, happened due to a number of reasons. Many actors that contribute to the mass media, from journalists to the everyday Twitter users, create narratives that are actually known as moral grandstanding: a moral talk that shows someone as having the ‘best’ moral qualities, such as the impression of promoting justice, being sensitive to existing morals (“on the side of the angels”), or having the power of empathy that is unmatched.[8] In a way, these actors are doing so just to internalize the belief that they are morally “better” than that of the subject in question. Another reason is the commodification of culture. Such a phenomenon occurred because the mass media often takes a number of aspects from everyday culture to be included in the media commodity itself.[9]

The lines between public and private are slowly blurred into nothing as the world becomes more connected than ever before. As social media users, the individuals who constantly rejuvenate the digital sphere, we should be warier of what the media feeds us and be more emphatic concerning emerging issues that might scapegoat the subjects in question. Since the digital world becomes a part of our life, one must remember not to let it control or erase the humanity inside them.

Penulis: Rizka Khairunissa Herdiani (Research Intern CfDS)
Penyunting: Amelinda Pandu Kusumaningtyas (Research Project Officer CfDS)

[1] Druzin, B.H. & Wan, A., 2015. The Theatre of Punishment: Case Studies in the Political Function of Corporal and Capital Punishment. Washington University Global Studies Law Review, 14(3).

[2] Pollard, C., 2020. Explainer: the ideas of Foucault. The Conversation. Available at: https://theconversation.com/explainer-the-ideas-of-foucault-99758 [Accessed June 26, 2021].

[3] Silverstone, R., 2006. Media and Morality: On the Rise of the Mediapolis, Cambridge: Polity.

[4] Cliff Notes, The Role and Influence of Mass Media. Cliff Notes. Available at: https://www.cliffsnotes.com/study-guides/sociology/contemporary-mass-media/the-role-and-influence-of-mass-media [Accessed May 11, 2021].

[5] Garcia, V., 2019. Media and Female Victimization. The Encyclopedia of Women and Crime.

[6] Kistyarini, 2020. Kasus Video Syur, Gisel dan MYD Terancam Hukuman Hingga 12 Tahun Penjara. KOMPAS.com. Available at: https://www.kompas.com/hype/read/2020/12/29/151506766/kasus-video-syur-gisel-dan-myd-terancam-hukuman-hingga-12-tahun-penjara [Accessed June 26, 2021].

[7] King, A., 2004. The Prisoner of Gender: Foucault and the Disciplining of the Female Body. Journal of International Women’s Studies, 5(2), pp.29–39.

[8] Tosi, J. & Warmke, B., 2016. Moral Grandstanding. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 44(3), pp.197–217.

[9] Baran, S.J. & Davis, D.K., 2011. Mass communication theory: foundations, ferment, and future, New York ; Oxford: Oxford University Press.