If you grew up in the Nineties and Noughties, prank shows were a cultural touchpoint; Ashton Kutcher’s Punk’d was top viewing and, incidentally, before Punk’d there was ‘Harrassment’, a show Kutcher had been working on that was cancelled due to him being sued for traumatising residents at a Hard Rock Cafe during a stunt.
Jackass took the genre much further, cementing the daredevil bad boy image of the Noughties through a series of wild, dangerous and gruesome stunts and pranks. The reality ‘prank’ genre casts a pretty long shadow, and reactionary-based entertainment has never really died, but shapeshifted. Want to see a dangerous prank? Or watch a normie be confused, nervous, freak out or even explode with anger? Just scroll TikTok!
A culture of institutionalised surveillance combined with the explosion of video-first platforms means voyeurism on social media has become completely normalised. Users can now justify filming whatever they please before posting it online simply because it falls under the umbrella of ‘creating content’, and since there are few agreed moral perimeters when it comes to filming strangers, a sort of society-wide assumed consent has been adopted.
If you were in public, you’re up for public consumption. One scroll through your foryou page and it really feels like everyone is filming whoever the hell they want, doing whatever they’re doing (or whatever they’ve coerced them into doing).
At the start of the year, a Melburnian woman, who was non-consensually filmed for a viral ‘random act of kindness’ Tiktok which condescendingly described her as a “elderly woman” with a “heartbreaking tale,” spoke out about being set up, calling it dehumanising; “it’s the patronising assumption that … older women will be thrilled by some random stranger giving them flowers”, she explained, “I feel like clickbait”.
This year, a mummy Tik Toker came under fire for convincing her sons (for a “prank’! Don’t worry!) that they had a third brother who had tragically died, and if you’ve been online at all recently you know that filming unhoused people has become a morbid trend too. Often these individuals are encouraged to tell their – often traumatic – back stories and are offered an amount of money that will elicit a strong reaction. Is this because someone wants to help, or in the hope that the video does numbers and secures the creator some social media caché? I think we know the answer.
In these instances it really feels like any alleged positive material impact is coming a hard second to the creator’s gain, and it’s sure as hell the case that negative impacts on the subject are rarely considered. In case i’m not being abundantly clear: I think using someone as a prop for content, especially when there is an overt power dynamic, is not just unkind, I think it’s exploitative. It sucks.
As a gender equality activist, one particular theme of Tiktok ‘prank’ has been served to me over and over again; men harassing women for likes. I’ve seen these guys pretending to grope and slap women’s bums (pretending to sexual assault someone! Cool!) which, in one video, resulted in a women accidentally throwing her phone of a bridge in shock, as well as guys hitting on – and trying to kiss – women in the street who look visibly uncomfortable and are either backing away or nervously laughing it off which, if you’re a woman, you’ll know is a muscle memory attempt as deescalation and getting away quickly.
These videos are deeply uncomfortable to watch and they have a consequence that surpasses the impact they have on the female subjects; for decades writers, scholars, activists and advocates have working to forced society to see sexual harassment and assault as what it is; serious. They have been peeling back the patriarchal re-brand that minimises these acts, and continues to do so by labeling them ‘just a joke!”. This is an effective mechanism of patriarchy. Premeditated rebranding of the impacts of misogyny means being able to deny the definition of it when it is levelled at you, or spoken about as a problem in general.