The Executive Summary
It’s the end of yet another week in the blogosphere, and it went thus:
- Tech blogger posts photo of woman at MacWorld titling it “Saddest Booth Babe In The World”
- For extra credit, said tech blogger draws attention to the breasts of the “booth babe”
- The commentariat and twitterati respond with suitable rage
Tech blogger in question is one Violet Blue of ZDNet. You should first go read her post and view Exhibit A. While you are there you should also take in the comments from Shawn King and TheBreen. In his comment Shawn King questions Blue’s labelling a woman at a display kiosk as a “booth babe”, wondering if the woman, tightly clothed breasts and all, might instead be a developer. TheBreen “confirms” this speculation:
I did some sleuthing, and here’s what I found out.
The woman in the white top appears to be Piroska Szurmai-Palotai, the (sole?) developer for NeoPlay Entertainment.
Except unfortunately the woman is not Piroska Szurmai-Palotai. She does however work for NeoPlay Entertainment and her name is Zsófia Rutkai. And — though the relevance of this is still a mystery — she is not a developer.
Even as the real identity of sad booth babe was being ascertained, a spirited debate took root on Twitter and in the blogistan. Shawn King whom we have already met, followed his quick comment on ZDNet with a post on his own blog, which I will summarise by assuming the voice of King:
- I thought she looked more like a developer.
- One of my Twitter peeps thinks the woman is Piroska Szurmai-Palotai.
- Hence: With “a little bit of sleuthing” the Internet corrected Blue’s misrepresentation of a developer/exhibitor as a “booth babe”.
- It behooved Blue to apologise and move on.
- Anyway, the woman does not even look like a booth babe, who are understood by all to be scantily clad women.
- Female developers reject Blue’s alternate definitions of booth babe.
There’s a lot to talk about with respect to the above, and I will try to do so in some order.
Internet Sluething and Identity
First, on the matter of the sleuthing Internet that did Blue’s work for her: the Internet (as we now know) unfortunately turned out a few elementary points short of Sherlock Holmes in identifying the woman. As Blue correctly claims, not only was the woman misidentified in the comments, but this misidentification was repeated such as in King’s followup post where he writes:
All is not lost. I have a solution for Violet Blue and ZDNet. First, offer a public apology to Piroska Szurmai-Palotai.
It is this much repeated claim – that the “booth babe” is in fact an identified developer – that was picked up by others, and this idea – that a developer had been maligned – that fuelled what Blue calls the “witch hunt” against her. A point that King misses when he quotes Blue and responds:
The witch hunt was based on inaccurate information about Macworld exhibitors that the men had provided to the public.
LMAO Information that we provided?
How hard is it to see that, while I was the first person to make a post about your characterization of the person in the photo, I said nothing about who she was or what company she represented? I said nothing because I knew nothing about the woman in the photo.
Violet, how hard is it to notice the very next post, the one from TheBreen, that does have the information you wrongly attribute to Gruber and myself? Is it really that difficult?
King’s argument misses Blue’s complaint because she is not talking about King’s first comment on her blog, but his subsequent blog post (quoted earlier, above) and tweets from others all of which do assume the veracity of the [mis]identification. As King writes:
Blue claims I was “indignant and offended that a developer would be branded a booth babe.” Yes, yes I was. As were hundreds of other people.
King and others were offended that a developer would be labelled a booth babe, and such resentment on their part is valid only insofar as her identification as a developer by TheBreen (repeated by King and others) is itself valid. That she turns out not to be a developer voids the proffered justification for taking offence and puts under question the criticism of Violet Blue on the basis of such justification. That, at length, is Blue’s complaint: You guys thought she was a developer. One of you misidentified her as one, which others reproduced. Then, on the basis of this misidentification, the Internet went ballistic on me for branding a developer a booth babe. But you were wrong. She is not a developer. Hence, based on your own justification (“offended that a developer would be branded a booth babe”) your anger was misdirected.
All of this leaves wide open the question of why developers alone are exempt from derision. Does not being a developer make the person in the booth fair game for being sexually described and labelled? Ain’t she a woman, too? That we turn to next.
The social status of booth babes
Consider the question of acceptable definitions and ideas of “booth babe”: one defence offered by Violet Blue is that her idea of a booth babe is in fact female hackers. Blue writes:
If you want to know how I really feel about booth babes (though I’m sure you won’t because the drive-by is always better) – get some context for booth babes in my column[.] And you will see that Ms. Szurmai-Palotai is exactly the kind of “booth babe” I am referring to – women devs, women hackers. Not the kind some of you seem to instantly think I mean.
And for such context, she links to her post titled The CES 2012 booth babe problem, in which she starts by describing the presence of booth babes and the harassment they faced, and then goes on to imagine a world where the “brains of booth babes” would be swapped with those of “fierce lady hackers”. These fierce new booth babes would hack into networks, expose the ignorance of the men who harass the real world booth babes, and what not. Blue concludes that it is not the sexuality that’s a problem in itself: we, she writes, “are past the idea that female sexuality on display is inherently a negative thing”; it is the idiocy it encourages that makes lives difficult for all but the oglers and harassers.
This is a complex position which will need independent analysis on its consistency (for instance, has there been a claim, outside of puritanical circles, that female sexuality on display is inherently a negative thing?), rehashing all those debates on waves of feminism. That’s all beyond the scope of this post. More pertinent, does this complex view of booth babes, female sexuality and lady hackers back up Blue’s claim that when she used “booth babe” she did so to mean fierce lady hackers?
And you will see that [the woman] is exactly the kind of “booth babe” I am referring to [in her “booth babe problem” post] – women devs, women hackers. Not the kind some of you seem to instantly think I mean.
I am afraid this doesn’t compute, because of Blue’s own words in the midst of the debate:
I put the woman in a social category based on the environment she was in. I was not the only one to do so.
This category cannot be the emancipated one that Blue imagined in her earlier blog post. How can it be so, if others put the woman in the same category? After all, these others do not have access to the worlds in Blue’s mind. For them the social category of “booth babe” is the one outlined by King when he describes the term as pejoratively used to refer to “scantily clad women used to lure people”.
Here it would have been far more consistent of Blue to point not to the section of her blog post where she talks about fierce lady hackers, but to the section where she makes it clear that she has no problem with sexuality used to lure people.
The matter of responsible journalism
Throughout his posts on the issue, King questions Blue’s journalistic skills and commitment. At a moment when he still trusted the misidentification of the “booth babe”, he asks:
[E]xplain how one of my Twitter peeps, who wasn’t even at the show, managed to find out so much information about her? Could Blue explain how he managed to do her job when she couldn’t or wouldn’t do it?
At another point, he writes:
And Violet Blue did what she does – instead of apologizing for insulting the developer and for not doing her job as a reporter and finding out more about the woman, she doubled down on the offensiveness with her own response to the comments on the picture.
This line however assumes that misidentification is the central issue. It is for King and friends, but Blue’s own highly ambiguous (“nuanced” if you buy her story) idea of booth babes means that the real identity of the woman is peripheral to her commentary. Blue did not as a journalist set out to describe accurately the details of individuals manning booths, but rather provide an impression, a feel of the exhibition floor. I think she crossed some lines in doing so, but those do not relate to journalistic accuracy. And on that…
Some tentative lessons
I do presume to think that there might be some lessons here for Violet Blue. They pertain to issues of feminism and sexuality which I earlier declined to include in the scope of this post, but will touch on here at risk of hypocrisy.
Blue’s positions at first reading throw up a lot of warning flags to minds seeking consistency. They smack of attempts to have it both ways. She is all for sexuality including the use of it to lure people into booths, while also lamenting: “Present an inappropriate female stereotype and – no surprise – you’ll create an environment of inappropriate and stereotypical behavior”. The casual reader, who might have revised his opinion on “she was asking for it” after Jodi Foster’s brilliant performance in The Accused, will find this tough to process. Perhaps realising that such laments and her complaints about the utterances of booth babes (“I don’t know any women [interested in technology].”) reduce to the common divisiveness over kinds of people (dumb booth babes vs fierce lady hackers), she immediately adds the disclaimer “It’s not the booth babes, it’s the reductive booth babe mentality that’s the real problem here.”. How and why all of her utterances hang together seems to be left as an exercise for the reader. A requirement that is beyond what can be demanded on a tech blog (not an advanced feminist or sexuality course or reading circle).
The reality as Blue well understands is that we live in the world where booth babes exist, that they run around saying stuff that insults other women, that in turn they are insulted by the men who assume they are “asking for it”, and that describing any woman in this real world in terms of how her t-shirt clings to her breasts while using the term “booth babe” might be edgy but also open to misunderstanding and resentment. Making additional demands of her — that she be smiling and welcoming — compounds the error in judgement. These, and not the details of whether she is a developer or not, are I think what agitates King and his fellow bloggers.
If Blue thinks that sex-positive third-wave feminism has a place in tech blogging (sure, why not?), then it might be a good idea to provide more context than a previous post that outlines positions that are ambiguous and appear self-contradictory. Otherwise it merely looks like she used a sexualised description of a tired female worker to sound clever. Which backfired.
Postscript: The world’s best female chess player
In documenting all the diligent research into the unfortunate young lady at the centre of the debate, King writes:
The company, Neo-play Inc is developing a very interesting looking instructional chess game designed for children called “Judit Polgar – ChessPlayground” and taught by Judit Polgar, the world’s best female chess player.
This deserves a small correction (which I think King would find agreeable). Polgar is not the “world’s best female chess player” (emphasis mine). She is one of the world’s best chess players. I strongly recommend that everyone read her Wikipedia page, where they will learn not just that “Polgár has rarely played in women’s-specific tournaments or divisions and has never competed for the Women’s World Championship” but other details of what qualifies her for the ranks of sex-independent chess greatness. Here is a sample:
- At the time she qualified as a Grandmaster at age 15 she was the youngest to do so, beating Bobby Fischer’s record by one month.
- In 1992 she tied for second place behind Anatoly Karpov at the Madrid International.
- She followed that up with a win against Boris Spassky.
- Polgar arguably defeated Kasparov, world champion at the time, who escaped with a victory due to not being penalised for retracting a move. Polgar did eventual defeat Kasparov at speed chess in 2002.
Reading these and the rest of the Wikipedia article will bring a tear or two of joy or pride, I am sure, to Blue and King (as well as their supporters) alike.