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Twitter is dying. Policing women’s bodies is keeping it alive.

What Keke Palmer, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Jonah Hill tell us about how we talk about gender online.

A woman in gray suit and a man in a jersey sit courtside at a basketball game.
Actress Keke Palmer and boyfriend Darius Jackson courtside at the 2022 NBA All Star Weekend.
Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images
Jonquilyn Hill is the host of The Weeds, Vox's podcast for politics and policy discussions. Prior to joining Vox she was a senior producer for WAMU and NPR’s 1A.

At this point, Twitter’s death feels imminent. Between expired rate limits, the proliferation of bots, and an app from a rival billionaire dubbed the “Twitter killer,” it appears the end is nigh. But it’s not dead yet. If the micro-blogging platform is a zombie, it’s arguable that policing women’s bodies are the cordyceps keeping it moving.

Recently, there have been three instances throwing the internet into a tizzy. First, on July 3, Tracee Ellis Ross attended the Schiaparelli fashion show in Paris, but what grabbed attention wasn’t what she wore to the runway, but what she didn’t have on beforehand. She shared a topless photo of herself getting ready, and Twitter exploded with discourse about her supposed “desperation.”

Fast forward a few days and Darius Jackson, the father of Keke Palmer’s baby and her likely- ex boyfriend, tweeted criticizing her outfit choice for an Usher concert. He doubled down, they unfollowed each other, Keke responded via dance, and all the while the Twitter gender war continued.

Then, on July 8, professional surfer Sarah Brady came forward with accusations against her ex-boyfriend, Jonah Hill. Screenshots posted to her Instagram Stories allegedly show him telling her to take down photos of herself in bathing suits, and telling her to no longer surf with male clients. From misogynistic comments from strangers, to the breakdown of a relationship and its aftermath, to allegations of emotional abuse, our feeds have become their own version of The Last of Us: a toxic nightmare of our society’s creation.

Conversations about gender and dating have gained traction on Twitter and other social media sites since the internet’s inception. But recently they’ve felt especially ubiquitous. In an effort to find out why we are all so obsessed with these conversations right now, I sat down with Dianne M. Stewart. She’s the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Religion and African American Studies at Emory University and author of Black Women, Black Love: America’s War on African American Marriage. She spends a lot of time thinking about Black women and partnership, and argues that a lot of these current conversations mirror the culture wars of the 1960s.

Have conversations like these — about women’s bodies and what they’re “allowed” to do — always been so prevalent? Did we see this sort of thing before the internet? Or is this a creation of social media?

I think it’s a creation of social media when we think of the widest global public. Because now, whatever we want to convey can be conveyed digitally to millions, even billions, of people at one time. We definitely saw these kinds of conversations, perhaps in institutional spaces, such as religious spaces, or in the family, or between couples. But in terms of the public domain, social media has perhaps even made it attractive to have these discussions publicly, especially because the images also circulate so publicly and so widely.

I’m wondering how this all started — in particular for Black women. It almost feels like culturally, we’re using relationships to police women’s behavior.

Ultimately we’re looking at how gender and womanhood are constructed and conceived in the Euro-Western imagination. And in the wider culture, women historically have been socialized to conduct themselves in a particular way to embrace modesty in order to reflect the virtues of chastity and purity. We’re certainly in another era of culture wars right now, and the stakes have increased because of the powerful role of social media in circulating images. We’re not just in an age where we have to go down to a local store and purchase a magazine to see those images.

[For Black women], our sexuality has been an area, a region of anxiety and a target of attacks since the era of the slave trade and slavery. The Black woman’s womb was, as Alexis Wells-Oghoghomeh likes to say, a capital asset. And Black women’s “masculinization” during slavery and even after set her apart, as the exact opposite of the white feminine archetype of what was considered womanhood. And the same thing happened to Black men. There’s this issue of the “feminization” of Black men. The castration of Black men by the wider, white society. This is the way anti-Black racism functions. It functions in ways that attack our genders [and] that attack our sexuality.

The stakes are always higher when we’re looking at Black people. In this era of culture wars, we have Black women who feel that they should not be limited in how they express their sexuality. They are no longer playing along with the politics of respectability.

Why does there seem to be such a focus on black women and partnership? I look at Keke Palmer. I look at Tracee Ellis Ross. These are accomplished women and it seems like they and other women are only talked about in relation to men and men’s attraction to them.

This is a reflection of what happens in the wider culture, but I think women in this culture and probably in many cultures around the world are socialized to prepare for marriage or to prepare for long-term partnership. And oftentimes part of that socialization is to conduct yourself in such a way that a man will find you attractive and want to choose you as his partner. These are very traditional notions: the man proposes to the woman and they are kind of, in many ways, saturated in romantic ideas of love and marriage, but they also play into very deep ideas about patriarchal marriage. The role of the man and the role of the wife, as a submissive role, as a role that takes instruction from the husband or “head of household.”

There is increased awareness of the fact that Black women are disproportionately unmarried relative to other American women, and that there are serious structural and systemic barriers to their opportunities for marriage. Although in the public domain, many people still think it’s the fault of Black women. There is an anxiety about that.

There is an exaggerated hyperbolic anxiety about, “My goodness. You can’t afford to play these games. You truly have to make yourself a marriageable woman if you want to be married.” Marriage is an ideal in American society, no matter how free we think we are and how many people are not choosing marriage. If we look across a lifetime, most people do get married. The odds are very different for Black women, but most people do get married. There are benefits associated with it. Our society still loves marriage.

I feel like when I see these conversations online, I often see people pathologizing themselves. People discuss these things like only Black people have this type of conflict. But I know from personal experience talking with friends, dating is kind of trash right now for everybody.

I doubt that these conversations have ever stopped. Now our norms are permissive of women exposing their bodies. That is the culture in which we live, but I’m not sure that individuals have caught up to that culture. These kinds of issues and conversations have been going on for couples since the explosion of the first set of culture wars. It’s just that the conversations are being taken out of the private domain; out of the bedroom and onto social media. And it’s because these pictures and videos are on social media in the first place. So it makes people feel that they have to put the conversation out there so that they can counter those images.

[And Hill’s] girlfriend perhaps wants to put it out there because she knows that there’s a community of supporters. That’s the other thing that social media does. It can situate people within communities that support one’s ideological stance or personal stance on a particular issue and it can be incredibly empowering. And that is also part of the attraction; that people are seeking support. People want to get a sense of where the broader public is on these issues and they know that people will come to their aid in the public domains.

There are so many things that can start conversations, but sometimes it seems like to a degree having opinions about women is what’s keeping Twitter and platforms like it alive. Why do these conversations get so much traction?

The societies in which many of us are socialized give people permission to police women’s bodies and choices. It has happened and continues to happen in arenas beyond entertainment. One good example was when Hillary Clinton was running for president. We couldn’t stop hearing comments about how she dressed and what she looked like.

Our society is still emerging from a culture that placed women in the home as either sexual trophies or submissive wives that are supposed to be under the control, the domain, and the authority of men. And in some ways we are still grappling with that.

It seems like these discussions are not going anywhere. How do we make these conversations productive?

Yeah, no, it’s a great point. I would love to have a more productive conversation about the capitalist marketing and selling of women’s sexuality. Is that sexual freedom? Is it a form of feminism? Because how do we situate that relative to our intentions as Black women, or women, period, and the reception of audiences? I think all of these issues matter.

While I agree that the shaming of women in the public domain is absolutely a problem, I do think that these incidents give us the opportunity to ask what’s at stake for everyone involved. It allows us to try to understand the foundations of the ideological commitments of celebrities and others who are assessing relationship issues in the public domain. It allows us to expose those foundations and raise questions about what I call partnership over patriarchy. Part of the problem with patriarchy is that it saturates these relationships and we don’t see authentic partnership. I also have questions about the manner in which entertainment culture plays into the demands and norms of patriarchy, because all of the attention that the display of sexuality in the entertainment industry receives generates more money and more visibility — for all these entertainers as well, both the women at the center of such controversies and their male partners — while reinforcing the patriarchal objectification of women’s sexuality and women’s bodies.

We have not had substantive conversations in social media about what the nuanced and multilayered dimensions of these controversies mean for American culture, and particularly Black American culture.

It’s this idea that patriarchy and capitalism are so ingrained you ask yourself: how do I know what I want? But asking that also kind of takes away agency, implying “I don’t know what I want, because the patriarchy is at work here.” And that doesn’t feel quite right either.

What you just articulated becomes a starting point for a deeper conversation. What I do think is promulgated and disseminated and what worries me most are surface understandings and superficial approaches to love, coupling, and marriage. Why do we focus so much on the body and appearance when those elements will diminish over time in relationships? When in all relationships, the most enduring elements that matter to the health and viability of the couple pertain to the beauty and quality of each person’s character? Why is it that there’s no focus on that? We do have to admit that Black women are trapped in a long legacy of sexual harm. Let’s be honest: Darius Jackson brings up an entire set of complicated issues that we need to address. I do worry about how neoliberalism — which operates from the premise that everything can be marketed, including Black women’s sexuality — impacts us as a community.

At the end of the day, everything gets commodified. There’s no escape. Eventually everything gets sold because everything is for sale.

There’s so much to ponder in terms of our historical experiences as people of African descent in this country with a long legacy of sexual abuse and exploitation.