This essay was written before the occurrence of the Mpeketoni Attack. We as Brainstorm extend our deepest condolences to all those affected by the attack, and to Kenya as a whole.
Outrage Pornography: Memes, news articles, TV segments, email forwards, or other forms of media that are designed to invoke outrage. This is especially true for political-related topics. Viewers of outrage porn often become addicted and spend many hours per day trying to seek new outrage highs.
Many Kenyan citizens of the internet seem to constantly be on the lookout for things to be outraged by. We are professionally furious. Media outlets, which are in it for the pageviews, are only too eager to give it to us. Outrage sells. We live in an attention economy where eyeballs on articles are the main currency online. Nothing is easier than putting up a post that will shock people, make them feel sad/disgusted/pray for whomever is concerned then share it on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.
On Friday 6th June, I was at NTV studios to comment on Vera Sidika’s skin lightening and lifestyle, as well as the campus diva, Catherine Aluoch. As Murphy’s Law would have it, my microphone and camera both failed, and the only thing I managed to get out was that “Society has been forced to look at itself in the mirror” before I got tuned out. What I did not get to say was that I feel that we are great fans of outrage porn – addicted to feeling morally superior and righteously indignant – and that we are very hypocritical.
At the heart of the criticism directed towards both was a sense of both being right, and wronged. Catherine Aluoch spoke on being a “kept woman” – maintained by old men (conflated with married men, as if old men are definitely married, and vice versa) in exchange for sexual favours. She is a student at the University of Nairobi’s Medical School, and she lives in a large three-bedroomed apartment in an upmarket area – a feat apparently unachievable by any other means.
Many Kenyan commenters felt that it was wrong for this girl to live this way – the men were married, and old enough to be her father. Her lack of shame also grated many – it was shocking that she could show her face on live television and admit to her using men for their money, and not caring about their marital status. People also wondered how/why such a smart girl (she could not have made it into medical school if she were daft, apparently) would be a “gold digger”. Vera Sidika, on the other hand, has spoken of her rich Nigerian boyfriend who “treats her like a queen”, buys her gifts and affords her a fine life. Even then, she says, she still makes her own money and invests it wisely. This also seems to grate many Kenyans.
However, what happens when we set our sense of moral superiority aside and revisit the situation? We see a man expressing interest in a woman because of her body, and a woman expressing interest in a man because of his money. Why are we seemingly okay with the men in question (I saw very few comments shaming the man) but angry about the women? Is it that biological determinism trumps economics? It is fallacious to say that “men are predisposed to such behavior” since we know that we are a product of both our genetics and our surroundings. We have learned to be this way. Why are men forgiven for wanting women based on a single characteristic (their bodies) while women are maligned for wanting men for their money? Why is there a word for women who only want men for their money (gold-digger), but no word for rich men who only want women for their bodies/beauty?
When it comes to the issue of extra-marital affairs, it is extremely hypocritical of us to act shocked and offended by this young woman, yet this is the very same society where we have advertisements running on TV asking us to use condoms in our extra marital affairs, since the famous Jimmy Gathu advertisements asking us to “wacha mpango wa kando” clearly did not work. The rate of HIV/AIDS infections among married people is the highest in the country, so pray do tell, what makes us morally superior to Catherine? Let us remember that she is not the one in a covenant of marriage, the man is, so I wonder why she is the one we are outraged at.
When it comes to criticism on gold digging (regardless of marital status), we have to remember the roots of the marriage institution: marriage was, and in some parts of the world still is, about the exchange of property and power between two men (the father of the bride and the father of the groom). The women are the chattels, and in exchange, the father of the bride receives gifts, sometimes in form of dowry. Marriage as an institution was created solely to allow wealth to pass directly outside the patriarch’s lineage. Marriage for love is a relatively new concept. We still view women largely as chattels, so it may be argued that gold diggers are doing relationships/marriage right: they are merely playing the system, which is slightly more progressive but still outdated at its core, to their advantage.
We are still telling women that finding good men who can take care of them should be their top priority. Why are we angry when these women listen? We sneer at the idea of women who provide for themselves, and fault them for being “too independent” and looking for companions out of a desire to be with someone rather than need. Is it so hard to do away with the notion that women should rely on men? In our rush to shame people and feel superior to them, can we please pick one thing to be outraged about? Is it the fact that women are becoming more independent, or the fact that some are openly relying on men for their financial security? We can’t have it both ways.
Vera Sidika was also criticized for “bleaching her skin”, though she later informed us that it was skin lightening, not bleaching. She was accused of having low self-esteem, having a colonial mindset, not appreciating her black beauty among many other things. There is more to skin bleaching than self-hate/low self-esteem, this paper by Dr. Christopher A.D. Charles shows that. Humans are extremely complex, there cannot possibly be a one size fits all explanation as to why (black) people bleach.
Vera spoke of having done it to improve her business, seeing as her body is her business. She reports having been able to get more business and charge more money, and people all over have been telling her how great she looks. She even has people cursing at her on public fora, then messaging her privately to ask her how she did it since they would like to do it too. To make matters worse, many people online were taken aback by her openness on the matter, since they expected her to be ashamed, or to lie about it.
The idea of beauty in many countries has been conflated with whiteness. White is beautiful. Black, not so much. This image is both overtly and covertly reinforced by the media we consume, and can be seen in the endless “lightskin-darkskin” wars on Kenyan Twitter. Why, then, are we outraged when people succumb to our immense pressure to be “lightskins” and lighten themselves? Is this when it suddenly becomes a joke and we shake our heads and say that they should have known better?
Why is it that Vera’s earnings power has increased, rather than decreased? If it were true that we hate the act of skin bleaching, her earnings power would have reduced. She would not have made money off it, and perhaps others would not do it after learning from her experience, but that is not the case. It is so easy to label this low self-esteem or colonial mentality. However, we are part of a society that has, and continues to offer more privilege to whiteness.
Why do we penalize people like Vera for merely acknowledging this and acting accordingly? Why do we take away her agency, with which she decided that she wanted to change her reality, and instead make her an object which should “know better”? Why is it that only the bleaching of women is reported, making it a gendered issue, yet it is known that some men participate in the process as well? Why do we ignore the part we play in laughing at dark women and preferring light ones? Instead of asking women why they bleach, why can’t we ask the men who proudly declare so why they “prefer light women”? We make these women out to be crazy and naïve, and as having betrayed their culture, yet we continue to project images of female beauty everywhere we turn that look nothing like Kenyan/most African women. Who is the fool here?
This cycle of outrage needs to end. Outrage pornography is an outlet for us, it allows us to feel smug/good about ourselves, while making others look and feel bad. There is a large element of self-gratification in it – the outrage is not for others, it is for us. We feel good after having lashed out. We feel that we have done our bit, and can move on to the next one. We are brought together by a common cause – righteous indignation – and it feels great. Don’t get me wrong, there are many times when outrage is justifiable, but not in such times. Outrage at non-performing leaders is perfectly fine, in fact, it should be a must. However, outrage at people we have created and elevated to glory is not, so why are we outraged?
When Kenyan society looks at Vera Sidika and Catherine Aluoch it hates what it sees, and thinks it is ugly, yet what it sees is itself.