This would have to be the best analysis of the rise of the ‘selfie’ phenomena I have read. Meghan Murphy, love your work.
Clearly the world is engaged in an elaborate plot to make me LOSE MY MIND. You win, world! You are the dumbest and the worst at everything. I concede.
This morning’s episode of CBC Radio’s The Current featured a debate about ‘the selfie’. Listening was a little agonizing at times, but it provided an excellent portrayal of our culture’s mass confusion about what it means to do something ‘for ourselves’ vs. performing for the (male) gaze.
Self-centered as we are, we like to believe that everything we do is ‘for ourselves’, even it’s it’s clearly for others. It’s comforting, yes. But it’s also bullshit. It’s simply not possible that, if we put images of ourselves, or really, if we put anything at all online, that it’s ‘for ourselves’. If it were just ‘for ourselves’ we wouldn’t put it on the Internet.
Now, doing things for others is not terrible. We live in a world with other people, naturally we are going to care what they think of us, which makes it all the more ridiculous that people are so very committed to this imbecilic idea that everything they do ever is all about them.
Writer, Sarah Nicole Prickett, is given the task of defending the selfie in the debate, along with two others: Andrew Keen and Hal Niedzviecki. I imagine she felt the need to exaggerate her points because debates are often intended to be combative and inflammatory, the fear being that, without going a little over the top, the debate becomes boring. But yeesh. I’m not sure how one could put forth the idea that the selfie is just something women and girls do ‘for themselves’ or that it somehow subverts the objectification we are subjected to throughout their lives with a straight face.
Keen makes the most practical and accurate points in the debate, calling the selfie trend “an extreme form of narcissism” that will contribute to a thoroughly embarrassing legacy. Historians will surely regard our culture as one made up of a bunch of spoiled, disgusting ninnies who have an inexplicable obsession with reconstructing our faces and bodies to look like cartoonish parodies of ourselves and who are so thoroughly engrossed with our own lives that we document every single thing we think/do/put in our mouths (Henceforth to be known as #saladtweets, be sure to follow every one of these posts with ‘LOL’ so everyone knows your engrossing tale of WAITING IN A LINEUP or witnessing your baby acting like a baby is entertaining).
Keen is right that we’re living in a narcissistic time, but Prickett points to the ways in which this ‘narcissism’, if you want to call it that, impacts women and girls in a particular way, pointing out that more ‘girls’ participate in this activity than ‘guys’. Disappointingly, she is unwilling to follow through on her own analysis.
Prickett responds to Keen’s critque by saying “a man has not lived inside the experience of a teenage girl” and therefore, how could he possibly critique this clearly gendered phenomenon? Her response to Keen’s argument that the selfie is pure narcissism is particularly revealing: “You have not spent your life as a girl who is looked at, who is judged by how she is looked at, [and] who might have some interest in showing the world how she thinks she looks because that is preferable to how they think she looks.”
Yes! You might be thinking. But no. No because now is when we pull out all our hair.
While, yes, women and girls are constantly looked at and no, men don’t understand what that’s like and what kind of impact that has on our lives and how it shapes our view of ourselves, Prickett completely misses an opportunity to point to some of the implications of moving through life as an object of the male gaze. Instead of looking at the selfie through this lens she veers off into the well-trod ground of ‘it is what it is’, leading into the self-fulfilling ‘male gaze as opportunity for empowerment’ line.
It’s both disappointing, but also a little telling that a man (Keen) seems to understand the meaning of the selfie in a cultural context as well as in a gendered context much better than Prickett does, pointing out that it isn’t actually ‘empowering’ to perform for the male gaze, simply because this is what our society teaches us to do.
Here’s what I think (you were wondering, weren’t you?): Women are brainwashed! It’s a trick, you guys! If we think we’re being empowered, then we can forget about challenging sexist norms and trends. If we convince ourselves that we’re REALLY just objectifying ourselves and that REALLY these stilettos are for MYPLEASURE (oooooh, rolling my ankle makes me feel sexy and free!) then we don’t really need any feminist movement now, do we? Also, believing we aren’t victims of an unfair and oppressive system it helps us to feel non-shitty.
Photographer, Elena, comments that the selfie is simply about self-expression or self-love, going on to argue that we can’t judge a person or assume they are simply ‘vain’ because we have no idea what the selfie-taker’s motive is. Well OK. So it’s perhaps true that not every person who takes a selfie is being ‘vain’. I mean, at this point the selfie is a pretty common and unremarkable part of our culture. I’ve done it, we’ve all done it. THAT SAID, just because we DO THINGS doesn’t make those things universally ‘OK’ or neutral.
Can we create some kind of mantra? Like, “Just because you like something doesn’t make it ‘good’!” “Just because you ‘feel good’ doesn’t make something ‘right’!” “Just because you have a feeling doesn’t make your feeling an unexaminable truth!” Didn’t our parents drill this into our heads when we were kids? “If everyone else jumped off a bridge… blah blah blah.” Just because people do things doesn’t mean you have to do them or that those things are ‘OK’.
Prickett understands that women and girls are treated as commodities and learn to navigate their lives as commodified objects BUT STILL she is unwilling to use her powers of critical analysis to move past the ‘this-is-happening-so-it’s-happening’ analysis.
She even goes so far as to compare critique of the gendered popularity of selfies to some kind of hysterical “Victorian bullshit where we don’t want girls to get pleasure from themselves alone because it upsets the whole order” (like masturbation!). UUUUUUGGGGGGGGGGGH. Do people even KNOW WHAT WORDS MEAN ANYMORE???
Clearly if we are taking photos of our faces and bodies and sharing them on the Internet, we are not doing this ‘for ourselves’. Just as boob jobs and wearing makeup and making porn isn’t ‘for ourselves’. While other panelists seem to understand this concept, Prickett continues along her merry way, trying to convince us that the selfie is about TAKING BACK OUR POWER AS WOMEN, or something. See, by learning to love and perform for the male gaze, we are empowered! It’s classic burlesque-brain logic. I’m doing this, therefore it’s for ME.
Just because you grow up in a culture that turns you into an object against your will, it does not mean that, somehow, if you ‘choose’ to further objectify yourself it is somehow subverting the enforced objectification.
Prickett says she “doesn’t want to revert to [the] first year university, ‘it’s the male gaze’ [thing]” but feels she has no other choice. And OH how I wish she’d paid attention during male gaze class (Quick plug: Learning about the male gaze is great incentive for taking Women’s Studies in college and university!).
When we internalize the male gaze, we see ourselves through that lens. So we turn the camera on ourselves, or we objectify other women, or we objectify ourselves — because that’s how we have learned to see women and to see ourselves. Simply because a man is not literally looking at us at the very moment we ‘choose’ to objectify ourselves or simply because our audience may be comprised of some women, does not erase the male gaze from our psyche.
Keen says, near the end of the debate: “If we can’t judge our culture, what can we judge.” And I wish feminists would take that into consideration before repeating the horrid and useless (yet, ever-popular) “don’t judge me!!!” mantra that pops up when anyone tries to critique any social phenomenon or behaviour.
As Keen notes, in response to Prickett’s attempt to compare critique of the selfie to ‘Victorian’ hysteria around masturbation, public masturbation is different than private masturbation. Posting photos of ourselves on the internet makes those photos public, therefore not ‘for ourselves’ (i.e. private).
The selfie is narcissistic, yes. And of course I’m not saying that people who take selfies are terrible people. It’s just kind of how things are these days. It’s a thing we all do. THAT SAID. Many girls do the selfie because they see themselves as objects of the male gaze and their selfies reflect his. PARTICULARLY (yes, I’m going to say it), when we’re posting photos of ourselves posing in porny ways, in underwear and/or bikinis, focusing on sexualized body parts, etc. It isn’t ‘taking anything back’, it’s just part of the game.