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On the Parental Gaze

by Amy Fusselman
July 25th, 2017

I have three beautiful children and I love to look at them, but in terms of posting their pictures on social media, I have decided to opt out.

It took me a while to get to this. I have never been a rabid social media user but I started using Instagram regularly three-plus years ago. When I did, I occasionally posted pictures of my kids. My feed included lots of pictures of kids, many of them alone in the frame, doing some kid-thing, unconscious of the camera. Particularly when the kid in the picture appeared to have no idea that his/her picture was being taken, let alone posted, I would look at the pictures and feel unsettled. I love kids, but I couldn’t like these images.

Eventually I gave this type of post a name: the parental gaze. This was a riff on the similarly power-imbalanced male gaze, and also shorthand I used to complain about these images to my husband, a film editor. Often when we would chat about something we saw on Instagram, I would take a moment to bemoan the parental gaze.

The parental gaze returned me to a quote I had read a few years earlier, by British child psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, in his 1971 book Playing and Reality, in a chapter on adolescent development. Although my kids weren’t yet adolescents when I first read it—two of the three of them are now—it has remained one of the most significant things I have read in my parenting life:

If you do all you can to promote personal growth in your offspring, you will need to be able to deal with startling results. If your children find themselves at all they will not be contented to find anything but the whole of themselves, and that will include the aggression and destructive elements in themselves as well as the elements that can be labelled loving. There will be this long tussle which you will need to survive.

In all my parental discussions up to that moment—with teachers, principals, pediatricians, and other significant figures in my parenting work—I had never before heard a peep about the desirability of dealing with “startling results” such as these. The parenting canon as I had seen it seemed rife with experts whose sole aim—I am thinking now of the brightly-titled mega-bestseller 1-2-3 Magic—was to keep the parent secure in his/her domain of wizard-y control. That as brilliant a psychoanalyst as Winnicott should have stated that a death-defying “tussle” is an essential aspect of parenting whole children—and serves as a sign that one has parented well rather than poorly—is a concept I have held onto tightly in part because I have heard it expressed so seldom.

Winncott’s quote made me think about the parental gaze and cameras. Cameras are our contemporary answer to conflict; cameras in our pubic spaces keep us “safe.” The common prophylactic for bad behavior, today, is a camera. By parental gazing our children day in and day out on social media, parents are a part of this construct: we demonstrate our authority over our children at the same time that we may soothe our perhaps unconscious anxiety about our kids’ potential power.

Parents are also participating in a system that undeniably rewards us. Instagram works like a publishing company: I post content via the platform; I earn followers, hearts and likes. My kids don’t get a cut. My content, when it contains their likeness, can’t help but be exploitative.

Let me turn the camera on myself now: I am an author, and my kids have appeared in my writing, and in my most recent book, in photographs. How is this any different than a social media post, you might ask?

Well, I am not sure that it is that different. I could argue, however, that in making art, I have used images of my children to express something greater than can be communicated otherwise; a similar defense was successfully mounted by a lawyer for photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia in 2006 after he and his gallery, Pace, were sued by a subject of one of his street photographs.

I believe this argument, but I also think that books can—alas—be trivial and soulless, while social media can be vital and moving. What social media does reliably offer that book publishing does not, however, is speed. Some parents publish multiple photos of their kids online everyday. So far, I have published a book every five or so years. I have a book coming out next year that features a few quotes from my 13-year-old. Did I run them by him? Yes. Did he consent to them? Yes. Does it matter that he consented? Yes, but not as much as if he were an adult. I am keeping the lines in because I think they make the book better, but I am also aware that I am subjecting my kid to a system in which he will have little agency. I make this choice as carefully as I can.

In “Hansel and Gretel,” a new installation piece at the Park Avenue Armory by the artist Ai Weiwei along with Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, this issue of giving up privacy for entertainment is addressed. In the piece, the artists use overhead surveillance cameras to capture visitors’ images, which are then projected onto the floor. Viewers can play with posing for their captured likenesses—and naturally, post them to social media—and visitors to the show tend to do just that. Chris Ip, writing for Engadget, quotes Herzog’s take on the surveillance/entertainment conundrum at a panel at the show’s opening: “We also are actively involved in this,” he said. “It’s not just that we are victims.”

This position—of being conscious of one’s actions in relation to a system that is harmful even as it rewards us—seems to me to be one of the greatest navigational challenges for some parents today. The parental gaze is a particularly good example of where these issues intersect, because, of course, the parental gaze is not just something that parents create; it is also something we are subject to.

There are some 9,000 surveillance cameras that anti-terror police monitor in New York City, my hometown. Cameras record me regularly, and not for hearts and likes. The question of whether or not this surveillance is benevolent may well be one of the most significant political issues of my kids’—and maybe my—adulthood. As I considered social media’s relation to surveillance, I began to think of taking and posting my kids’ pictures, for an audience they didn’t fully know, and whose comments they weren’t privy to, as an action that I didn’t want to model as benign.

In the time I was thinking about all this, a friend told me a story: an employee in her office was asked to go to her boss’s house to pick something up. The young woman, unaware that her boss was watching her via the home security app on her phone, did not just pick up the item and return. She hung around, she opened a cupboard, she sat on a bed. She didn’t steal anything or do anything illegal. But when she got back to work, she was fired.

When I heard this, I thought of my oldest, who has begun interning in an office this summer. We have had a lot of conversations, but one we haven’t yet had is the one in which I tell him that he should assume that he is under surveillance. That my son should be a high schooler before we’ve discussed this is perhaps in part a marker of my race (I am white). Underscoring the discriminatory targeting that is a risk of public video surveillance, the ACLU cites a British sociological study revealing that “Black people were between one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half times more likely to be surveilled than one would expect from their presence in the population.” In the US, the ACLU notes an independent study in Lansing, Michigan, where an Oakland researcher found that “African American residents of Lansing are twice as likely to be under constant surveillance in their neighborhoods as white Lansing residents.”

“We sleepwalked into the surveillance society, one minute degree of privacy at a time,” the journalist and science-fiction author Cory Doctorow wrote, in an interesting article from 2014 called “How To Talk to Your Children About Mass Surveillance.” If not thinking much about surveillance has been a privilege I have been unconscious of, this is surely a good time to wake up to it. I want to help my kids be aware of, and to make good decisions in this environment, not contribute to the problem myself, which is why, for me, the issue of my kids’ control of their images is important. This is a fact I am reminded of each time I am required to sign a waiver to permit or decline my kids’ pictures being taken at a school, class or camp. The issue of “controlling one’s image” is not just for celebrities anymore.

These consent forms may be a pain, but lack of consent has its problems: a child whose picture has been posted repeatedly by a parent on social media has already been taught that it’s okay for her image to be taken and shared among a community of not just “friends,” but likely mere acquaintances and strangers, too. Why should a tween or teen’s less-than-thoughtful behavior when wielding his or her own camera phone then surprise us?

The issue of consent is also why I don’t see a parent’s Instagram account set to “private” as a solution. While a private account may help me feel that my posts of my kids are protected against a stranger’s glare, it doesn’t do much to change the predatory nature of the posts themselves. After all, if the situation were reversed—if my kids were taking pictures of me, particularly unguarded and unconsented-to pictures, and posting them for likes and comments by other children— would I be bothered by it? Yes.

I want to help my kids be aware of, and to feel capable of pushing back, at a powerful system—even if it may benefit them. Winnicott’s vision of the teenager was that he or she is in a similarly fraught position. Further along in the chapter on adolescence, he writes:

“…growing up means taking the parents place. It really does. In the unconscious fantasy, growing up is inherently aggressive act.”

Pushing back at the people and things one loves in order to grow: this is the adolescent’s dilemma. And parents, I think, have found a brilliant way to shore up their power in anticipation of this.

By examining the role of surveillance in our lives, talking about it with our kids, and wielding our cameras with sensitivity, I think parents can change this dynamic. And in doing so, I think we can welcome the fact that parenting—especially good parenting— may require moments we may not want recorded, let alone posted. This is surely a more challenging view of parenting than what I am likely to see posted on social media. But I, for one, am following it.


 

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