What if you’re “secretly” sexist, racist, and homophobic?

Sorry for the interruption in the “What if you could buy social justice?” series, but I have had this PostSecret post percolating in my head for awhile. After viewing this week’s “secrets,” I couldn’t wait any longer to brew my discontent into words. (All quotes are taken from the book Blogging Heroes by Michael A. Banks and exact pages numbers are footnoted below.)

PostSecret was born as a community art project in 2004. Frank Warren handed out blank postcards addressed to himself around D.C. and asked random strangers to anonymously post their secrets to him, decorating their cards however they wished.  This initial project was displayed in a DC art gallery for four weeks, but, as Warren kept receiving hundreds of postcards, the website PostSecret was born. In addition to garnering worldwide acclaim, Warren’s concept has spawned 4 real world books.[i]

An “online exhibit” of sorts, PostSecret “hangs” 20 new pieces of postcard art each Sunday, most of which function as “confessional secrets,” or, in other words, revelations people keep secret in the ‘real world.’ While there are many funny, heart-wrenching, erotic, and sentimental secrets, there are also a number of secrets that reveal the sexism, racism, homophobia, and anti-feminism of not only the sender, but the wider culture. While individual postcards might seem to be just that – individual – the fact that Warren admittedly tries to tap into zeitgeists, and the fact that the interactive PostSecret community comments on the secrets in droves, indicates that many of the cards represent cultural, rather than merely individual, ‘secrets.’

Warren, noting that “I really feel as though these new modes of communication, and these new kinds of conversations, can uncover hidden elements of our common humanity,” nods to this cultural narrative function of the secrets.[ii] Worryingly, but not surprisingly, many of the “hidden elements” reveal that our “common humanity” is rife with sexism, racism, and homophobia, not to mention ableism, ageism, anti-feminism and many, many other world views that not-so-secretly act as if only certain bodies matter.

Yet, while Warren argues that, “When I put secrets on the blog, they are living secrets. When you visit the blog and read a secret, you know that somebody is carrying that burden or dealing with that issue in real time,” I think many of the postcards don’t deal with carrying burdens so much as unloading them.[iii] The notion of “carrying a burden” indicates one has some sense of remorse, or some intention to try and change. However, I would argue many of the “secrets” function as confessionals that “erase” or “forgive” the burden once it is confessed.

Taking this analogy further, how fitting that the posts renew each Sunday and offer a weekly clearinghouse of confessions, allowing the site to function as a quasi-Sunday confessional where “sins” can be forgiven. Just at the priest will assign so many Hail Mary’s as penance so that one’s slate can be wiped clean of sin, so to does the cite allow “sinners” the be absolved each Sunday. The penance (that functions more like a reward) is online recognition of their “sin.”

Further, many postcards don’t indicate “dealing” with issues so much as offloading them so they don’t have to be dealt with. Using an “airing dirty laundry” schema, the site allows “secrets” to be purged, making it “ok” to be racist, unfaithful, uncaring, mean, or whatever, as long as one has “dealt” with it via crafty postcard confessional.

While I find the site and the concept fascinating, many recent postcards have led me to question some of the wider messages that the site is sending. In particular, a number of recent postcards indicate that it’s NO SECRET we live in  a society mired in sexism and racism – and, problematically, that this ‘secret’ is part of out “common humanity.”

This postcard, from 12/13/2008,  promotes the idea that females can “makes up for” supposed “abnormal sexual acts” via scrubbing their roomies dishes (and also by being “hot”). In so doing, I would say it doesn’t so much “offload burdens” as perpetuate the idea that only certain sexual behaviors are normal.

In addition to perpetuating sexist stereotypes and objectifying the female body, many post-cards trade in racism. One from this week’s selection links racism to losing one’s virginity, suggesting that virginity is to big a prize to squander away on ‘racial others':

A similar postcard from last week’s selection, frames women as racialized commodities to “choose” from:

Many postcards deal with the control of the female body, especially via secrets about nude pictures. The following postcard, “Pussy Galore,” reads “I have naked images of my ex-girlfriend and am getting more tempted to make them public.”

Other postcards deal with rape and sexual assault, sometimes in though-provoking, critical ways. Others, though, subtly send homophobic messages of the “No Entry” variety.

Here, the choice of image and the copy “No Entry” does not so much serve to condemn rape as to condemn certain types of sexual activity as abnormal. As anal sex is coded as gay and wrong, the postcard thus purports to be about rape but nevertheless sends a homophobic message. That the message is not overt in effect makes it all the worse – the viewer is encouraged to condemn rape but NOT encouraged to question the homophobic message of the card itself.

I am certainly not the only one who has noticed that the “common humanity” PostSecret often reflects (and, in doing so, condones) involved a humanity defined by sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. A while back Angry Asian Man alerted readers to this postcard:

Similarly, as this postcard flagged at Racialicious, indicates, it’s ok to “resent black people”:

Or, from another card flagged at Racialicious, we see that one can be a loving racist parent:

And, we wouldn’t want to leave out the anti-feminist messages. With this card, flagged at Feministing, all the MRA’s and feminist haters out there had their dreams fulfilled:

Warren, referring to the thousands of postcards he receives, notes “some are funny, some are haunting, and some are inspirational.”[iv] He does not, I notice, say, “some are sexist, some are hateful, and some are downright horrifically racist.”

Moreover, as he reveals, the postcards to not come out of a vacuum but build upon one another each week, touching into a sort of cultural groupthink…

As Warren reveals, “The secrets I post every Sunday influence the secrets that I receive the next week. For example, if I posted all pornographic secrets, that’s what I’d be getting.” [v] With this quote Warren indicates his publication choices influence what he will have to choose from to publish in the next week in a sort of revolving door fashion. I am wondering what some of these recent choices indicate about what he would like to be getting… Do these postcards not scream “Send me more sexist, racist, homophobic and anti-feminist secrets!”? I think it is no secret that they do.

(The buying social justice series will continue in a day or two…)


[i] Banks, Michael A. Blogging Heroes. Wiley Publishing, Indianapolis, 2008. 63-4

[ii]I 66-7

[iii] 67

[iv] 67

[v] 70

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20 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. hi, this is really interesting. definitely see your point about the postcards being more of a way of absolving or offloading guilt, rather than anything being ‘dealt’ with.

    and as you say, the website then condones these secrets as part of some kind of universal ‘humanity’. because the racist/sexist/homophobic ones are interspersed with the non-offensive postcards without any particular comment (and from what you have written it doesn’t seem like warren has even acknowledged the problematic nature of this) they become normalised.

  2. I think you’re reading waaaaay too much into weak google-fu. Some of these pictures (like the No Entry one) probably came out of someone googling “sex image” or “Sex sign” and that was the first thing that came up.

    And the one with the bikini and the buurqa– YOU read that as a man wondering which he would fuck. I read that as a woman wondering which is more demeaning–to be forced to expose or cover your body.

    Some of these are openly racist, but they key to a Post Secret is the reflective nature of the cards– they tell you more about yourself and how you think than how the poster feels or thinks, or what the poster really means.

  3. I think I disagree with your critique of post secret. Although clearly the individual postcards have racist, sexist, and homophobic messages, they are real. What is valuable about post secret is that although it is partly defined by frank and what he chooses to post each week, it is the individuals who send the cards who define what is a “secret” therefore we cannot treat each postcard the same. I do not think these thoughts should be censored. They are real and are part of our humanity. Cards that you disagree with are valuable for discussion and understanding fellow humans, who are flawed. People have racist thoughts. It is true, and voicing them in a forum like postsecret allows them to be reflected upon by both the sender, and as kara notes, the reader.
    I would not say that all the messages are condoned by the site. Frank has posted secrets from murderers and other people who general society would disagree with.

  4. Interesting post. I agree that there are some very problematic posts at post secret, reflecting the values (of course) of a classist, racist, ableist, heterosexist patriarchy. And that there is definitely an element of “confessing one’s sins” without actually doing anything about one’s oppressive views.

    The postcards I have enjoyed have been the ones allowing survivors of sexual violence and women who have experienced abortion (for example) to have a voice.Eg:

    http://www.postsecretarchive.com/2008/12/12/i-was-molested-by-my-cousin-my-entire-childhood/

    One of the most interesting ones I read lately was of a woman who was supported through an abortion by a friend she had condemned previously for having one herself. I thought this was very powerful. (And gave me warm fuzzies for the supportive woman).

    The one you posted, illustrating the woman in the bikini and the woman with the covering is absolutely problematic. However, I also took it to mean that “freedom” is sold to women as “sexual liberation” which is actually commodification/being constantly available as sex objects for men. I don’t know if that is the intent of the author but that is my slant (based upon my own lens!)

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  5. Missing Words,
    Thanks for the comment. Yes — the point that the cards are “more of a way of absolving or offloading guilt, rather than anything being ‘dealt’ with” was a key message I wanted to convey. You make a great point, too, about the website “condoning”these messages and “normalizing” them by posting them on equal footing with all the other secrets.
    Thanks for reading!

    Kara,
    These cards are actual cards, NOT google images, so your first claim doesn’t hold up.
    I can see your reading of the card you mention, but due to the copy, I read the “which would you choose” to be about choosing between the women rather than between which is more demeaning. But, I agree that either interpretation is valid.
    I don’t agree that the cards “tell you more about yourself” than about wider society or the poster her/himself — I think the cards reveal a multitude of things about self, other, AND society. And yes, as a feminist, I am certainly going to read the cards, and everything else in life, via my feminist lens.

    Becky,
    Thanks for commenting.
    I don’t think the cards should be censored either, what I question is Warren’s claim that they function to help people work through issues or deal with burdens. More likely, as I argue in the post, they allow people to “offload burdens,” or guilt, without really doing/changing anything. As such, they function as confession.
    I also agree that the cards are valuable for fomenting discussion.
    And, while I don’t think Warren “condones” all the messages, by publishing them with no comment, and by giving all cards “equal” representation (rather than say having a whole week dedicated to cards that reveal the homophobia of the wider culture), the site equalizes the secrets – as indicated in the comment by missing words.

    Shermanvolvo,
    Thanks for reading and commenting.
    I, like you, enjoy many of the cards and feel the site does offer the possibility of creating empathy and promoting ‘re-thinking’ attitudes on issues such as abortion, violence, monogamy, etc.
    I also find it interesting that readers can interpret the cards in so many different ways — this might be why as a literature and popular culture scholar, I find the site fascinating. Each card offers so many opportunities for close reading, deconstruction, and socio-cultural analysis.
    What I was trying to capture in the post is my sense that lately a number of sexist, racist, and homophobic cards have been posted and, thus, I wanted to reflect on what this might be saying about the nature of the site, the role of “offloading burdens,” and, more generally, the wider culture.

  6. Interesting post, thanks for the work you put into it. A lot to think about. I don’t read Post Secret itself, but as I’ve seen various postcards reproduced on other blogs over time, I’ve always thought that it almost functions as a way for someone to “show off” that they’re racist / sexist / etc. Like they would say it if the world weren’t so “politically correct” so this is their outlet to connect with people who would feel the same way without risking judgment.

    As far as Kara’s comment, I think what she was trying to say was that the person *creating* the card had weak google fu, they grabbed something that caught their eye from the first page of their Google image results and didn’t think much of it. But then the fact that this particular image spoke to them would be something to think about as well.

    For the “If I had a choice, I’m not sure which I’d choose” card, I immediately thought of it as a woman struggling to choose – whether there would be a sense of relief in surrendering the struggle to look like the woman on the beach. You said “due to the copy” which you typed in as “which would you choose” you saw it differently, and I found that interesting because it was the “I” in the language on the card that caused me to identify with it and therefore think of it as being spoken by someone of my same female gender. Was there text on the other side that phrased it differently?

    • Skye,
      Your welcome!
      Your point about people “showing off” is a great one – I agree that in addition to “off-loading,” people could certainly be “secretly bragging” about their racist/sexist beliefs.
      Also, the fact I typed in “you” instead of “I” is telling. I did “otherize” the copy and read it as if it were a male deciding which woman to choose. I suppose I did not identify the “I” with my own femaleness partly because I, as a female, would never put the image on the left on a card as I find rear nearly naked views made for a male hetero gaze very objectifying and objectionable. As far as I can tell, no text from the other side (if there was any) was posted.

  7. To some extent, I can see how the “not sure which I’d choose” could be seen as a man being faced with a choice of who would offer the best sexual experience. But as a woman, and one that had seen that postcard on the first go-around, my first impression and the one I maintain is that it was from the perspective of a woman who wonders if covering herself up really is a better way to exist if one’s goal is to avoid the judgment cast upon women for their bodies. This is something I myself have pondered.

    As for the others, and after much self-imposed torment on the subject, I believe that tolerating the intolerant is simply the wrong approach. Allowing a means for the intolerant to voice their hatred, ESPECIALLY when they’re given impunity via anonymity, gives credence to the message, ipso facto positive reinforcement to the sender of that message, and perpetuates the ignorance and the hate.

    • April,
      Seems like most people (at leas that read this blog) go with your interpretation of the card. I suppose part of the reason I didn’t read it in this way is because I feel that both choices are still governed by a patriarchal/male gaze and thus neither really “avoid judgment.” I think, as others have argued on the subject, that these “choices” CAN be equally oppressive and the key to making them less so is to CHOOSE for oneself and ones own pleasure/comfort etc, rather than to play to the male gaze or to “fit in” with patriarchal/belief norms.

      Your point about posters being given “impunity via anonymity” is excellent. I think the site, as you argue, does give the posters “positive reinforcement” that their sexism, racism, etc is normal and allows them NOT to change but to feel absolved…

  8. I have never read PS’s expressed mission, though I have always read the cards as a confessional unloading that they are seeking validation or forgiveness for… something akin to talking to a priest. (And I don’t even want to go into all of the implications for what that may mean about Frank Warren, who appointed himself into this position.) I must admit that I don’t make a habit of reading the site because so much of what does up makes me sad for the people sending the cards and because I feel like the site is mildly exploitative. I say mildly because I recognize that it is the sender’s choice whether or not to send the card knowing that it will be publicly displayed. Do they post every card they receive or is there a screening process?

    • FR,
      Great point about Warren’s appointing himself to this task. It does smack of artistic hubris, although it can also be read more altruistically. I imagine there must be both of these impulses at work. From the interview I read with him, he does seem to be trying to create a communal space that allows for humans to connect through art and the sharing of secrets. Moreover, as he refuses ads on the site and funds it through donations and selling PS books, it seems it is not a “get rich” endeavor.
      He does not post every card. In the interview cited in the post, he claims to receive thousands a week. The screening process is described as a three hour session where he lays the week’s cards out and picks 20 — sometimes by a them or linking to a holiday (for example, father’s day), others not.

  9. [...] What if you’re “secretly” sexist, racist, and homophobic? [...]

  10. What if you’re “secretly” sexist, racist, and homophobic?

    What if it’s none of anyones business???

  11. Hmm.

    Well, you can’t make everyone think the same way. Even if some people are wrong as hell. And I’m at least glad, for example, that the racist parent of children of color can admit to themself that they are racist.

    Also, I read the bikini babe vs. burqa thing as an actually pretty sophisticated (for a Western understanding of life as a Muslimah, anyways) commentary on impossible norms. The woman in the swimsuit has been photoshopped by the magazine she appears in until no woman resembles her, but real women are still supposed to look like that. Her socially inflicted gender damage is insidious and psychological, although she doesn’t face the physical harm a woman living in an extremely sexist dictatorship would.

    • Ms. Liberty,
      Thanks for your comment.
      Good point about the fact that at least the racist parent recognizes s/he is racist.
      I also enjoyed your analysis of the bikini vs burqa. I do think both women face “physical harm” albeit different types/levels. I consider extreme diet regimens and plastic surgery harmful physically (and psychologically) but these are far different than physical violence/rape/assault/honor killing — although wherever a woman lives, and whatever she looks like, she faces the threat of physical assault…

  12. Though I agree that posting the secrets with anonymity does give a sense of an unburdening, I don’t think that posting the secrets among “normal” or more personal secrets makes them okay. I think it would be worse if Frank decided to “classify” the secrets based on his own personal preferences, making the reader see them through his lens. There are often more comments on the racist/sexist/homophobic postcards in the chat than others, so I haven’t lost hope yet that not everyone is willing to accept these biases.
    I didn’t think of the picture as a hidden message about anal sex or homosexuality, but having to do with the rape itself (though I can see why you might think of it as you do). As for the choosing postcard, I interpreted it as a presentation of two extremes of subjugation (can’t think of the word I want): being viewed as a sexual object or having to give up your sexuality all together. The connotation is that neither one is a desirable choice.

    • Leslie,
      Good point about the fact that Warren allows readers to interpret the cards by not classifying them. And, I am glad to hear there are lots of critical comments about the “troubling” cards.
      Thanks for reading!

  13. “YOU read that as a man wondering which he would fuck. I read that as a woman wondering which is more demeaning–to be forced to expose or cover your body.”

    I couldn’t agree more. It took me a minute to see what you found wrong with that one until I realized you read it all wrong.

    The “no entry” one, I took to be a woman’s work, too.

    I agree there is a lot of sexism and racism and certainly anti-feminist stuff on there, though. No doubt.

  14. RachelRaquel,
    Hmmm, well, I wouldn’t say I “read it all wrong,” rather, I read it DIFFERENTLY to you. I still see the validity in my reading — especially as both females are framed in a “male gaze” sort of way. It is as if a man is looking at each and choosing which he prefers… But I can see the validity of the other reading, too.
    As for the “no entry,” yes, I agree a woman was the author. Nevertheless, the “no entry” image has homophobic undertones.
    Thanks for reading and commenting.

  15. This is a very old post, but I thought I’d comment none-the-less, I would be fascinated to see your take on my views, and where your journey has taken you in the 3 years since this post.
    I value the opportunity to discuss the points you raise. It’s an interesting discussion, and like some others have suggested I would personally suggest there is a very significant ‘ink-blot’ introspection required here, as the reactions to the cards often reveals as much about the one reacting as the original creator..
    More novel than the recognition that there are racist and sexist attitudes out there (I personally didn’t see the homophobic in your example, but obviously it’s rampant out there as well) is the fascinating issue of how each of us views a range of opinions as either within or outside of a “correct” opinion.
    It’s no secret that a majority of people who very strongly hold any opinion see that opinion as not just their interpretation, but actually see it as the “right” view, typically based on the implied superiority of their moral, spiritual or intellectual insight.
    For example, your view is dramatically outnumbered on the “not sure which I’d choose” card by other seemingly-feminist-leaning women, so one would have to conclude that your view isn’t “feminist” as you suggest, but simply your personal deviation from what these other feminist women see as “typical”.
    The ‘male gaze’ issue would seem to fall into the same category. Not only do portions of the female population (lesbian and straight) find themselves attracted to and/or disturbed by every type of representation of women, but segments of the gay and straight male population are both attracted to, and disturbed by, various representations of both sexes. Your condemning “male gaze” repeatedly as if it is some sort of universal absolute, with sinister undertones implied, but no explanation of what it represents to you, is troubling to me personally, a significant deviation from my view of the truth, and no more universally valid than any other racial, gender or other stereotype.
    Same for the postcard confession of the person who has not been believed about an ongoing sexual assault. I would suggest that No Entry can represent both men and women that can and do choose to decline anal sex for a number of reasons, and if taken in the context of a female victim, this image could represent vaginal sex. I assumed that that image spoke to this victim because it was the position favoured by this victim’s attacker and/or perhaps the message of “no entry” spoke to them as a cry of defiance by someone who has been made to feel weak and victimized.
    In the end, discussion of attitudes and sharing of differing views is the first step in open dialogue and enlightenment. Seeing where one differs from others and looking inward for causes and motivation and self-healing, rather than outward to blame, regardless if one is racist, homophobic, sexist, or harbouring other anger and resentments, is the healthy road to personal happiness and a more enlightened and empathetic world.
    Just my opinion, of course :-)


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