This article previously appeared in the Spring 2018 edition of Noted and was written at the end of January 2018.
I used to take selfies for granted. I used to think that their value as tools of self-empowerment was obvious. But then I came to think of how many of our supposedly universally-acknowledged truths are just products of a liberal cultural bubble. We may consider all gender identities to be valid, that Black Lives Matter, that sexual assault victims are to be taken seriously, and that feminism is not feminism unless it is intersectional; but, in the present world, we’re challenged every day. Every day, Donald Trump is President of the United States. Every day a middle-aged white man tweets “#notallmen” and mutters “all lives matter.” Every day, an older feminist falls further from grace as she makes trans-exclusive comments or turns on younger women. Only last week, Germaine Greer accused actresses of “spreading their legs” for Harvey Weinstein and Margaret Atwood promoted a piece criticizing #MeToo for having gone too far. Only last week, a hoard of middle-aged women came after me on Twitter for daring to ask women to support each other. I wasn’t allowed to have an opinion on feminism, they said, because I hadn’t lived through the struggles of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. Our generation of women aren’t feminists, they said, because we’re too vain and privileged. If the past generation of feminists was fighting to make life better for the women who followed in their wake (and they were), then why are they aiming at us the generalized and simplistic criticism that was once leveled at them?
When the most obvious of truths are challenged, why would I then think that one so small – claiming that selfies are empowered acts rather than narcissistic ones – would not be? How often have I heard men and, yes, women call out selfie-takers for being “vain,” “idiotic,” and “vapid” for staring at their faces in their phones and snapping pictures? Do I not feel shame every time I snap my own image, even though I’ve seemingly internalized the rhetoric of inclusiveness? Do I not recoil a little bit in fear every time I share a selfie on my blog, waiting for at least one person to fling insults at me? I do. And so, I know selfie empowerment has a long way to go.
Cultural critic Rachel Syme wrote a definitive piece on selfies in 2015 for Medium.com, entitled “SELFIE: The Revolutionary Potential of Your Own Face, in Seven Chapters,” in which she captures perfectly everything that we supposedly take for granted about selfies. She talks about its critics, about the power it gives women, about self-portraiture in the past with photographers like Julia Margaret Cameron, Marian Hooper Adams, and Francesca Woodman. She talks about the reasoning behind selfies, about people who take photos, not because they think they “look hot,” but because they’re struggling with depression or eating disorders or chronic illness and want to document their recoveries or give a material reality to their existences. She talks about women of color who want to make themselves visible in a world of media that doesn’t include them. She talks about transgender individuals publicly sharing their journeys so that more people won’t grow up in a world thinking that people like them don’t exist, that they’re doomed to be Other. She talks about the joy of framing your own image, of – as she paraphrases and adapts Frida Kahlo – giving birth to yourself.
Everything Syme addresses is true for the selfie world I see online. Every day, I log on to Instagram and Twitter and I see dozens of selfies of people bravely going about their days, putting a face to their struggles. Often, selfie denouncers will say that selfies are acts of unrestrained egotism and vanity, but so often that isn’t the case. Instead, I see people who aren’t usually visible in traditional media putting themselves out there – in my case, mostly women dealing with chronic illness and students battling depression and overwhelming pressure. I see people redefining beauty and joy as aesthetic beings in and of themselves. Instead of cringing as I’ve been taught to do whenever I take a selfie, I’m inspired by the people I’m lucky enough to follow. I’m reminded that we get to shape the world that we live in, that we get to control our own images.
What, though, would be the big deal if the women whom selfie denouncers love to criticize were doing exactly what they said: delighting in their own images? Academic and film theorist Laura Mulvey coined the term “the male gaze” in her 1973 article, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” to explain the way in which women are seen and objectified in popular media. The term was quickly popularized, and we all know what it means when it’s mentioned, even if we don’t know its source. We all know that women are perpetually seen through men’s eyes, not only in the media that defines our modern culture but in the everyday world that it influences. As John Berger so memorably points out in Ways of Seeing, written just one year before Mulvey’s essay, women are so constantly observed that when they see themselves, they do so not only through their own eyes but through men’s eyes as well. “Men act and women appear,” he writes.
Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. is determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus, she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight. (46)
It’s nice to think that things have changed in the forty-five years since Mulvey and Berger’s publications, but the selfie debate proves that it really hasn’t. Still, in Ways of Seeing, Berger – first and foremost an art critic – turns to art to prove his point. He shares a series of paintings of women holding mirrors and staring at themselves in the nude:
The mirror was often used as a symbol of the vanity of woman. The moralizing, however, was mostly hypocritical. You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure. (51)
Does this not clearly fit the same model that we see in play today: middle-aged men condemning young women who take pleasure in their own images as vain narcissists, bringing about the end of society, while they themselves are more responsible for the way women are sexualized and objectified?
With female artists being marginalized and silenced, not only on canvases but in the pages of books and, recently, on the screen, images of women have been shaped by men for centuries. They, and the organizations they’ve created, rule cosmetics companies and advertising firms and fashion magazines, as well as films and television series. Only in the past decades – with the emergence of “influencer” culture, with women broadcasting their own images through the internet, through blogs and Instagram – has this started to change. Many of these women still have advertisers shaping their images, but many are on their own, defining their own personas and putting forth the images they want seen. Instead of having their photos airbrushed to fit the requirements of the male gaze, they style and shape their own. They have the freedom to define the angles of the photographic lens. They have the freedom to edit photos to suit their own aesthetic tastes and preferences. When they take selfies, they are both in front of and behind the camera themselves. They pose for themselves. They portray themselves the way they want to be seen, and that is through their gaze, not the ubiquitous, anonymous, and objectifying male gaze.
These self-portraits are mostly known through, but not limited to, selfies. Photographer Jamie Beck (@annstreetstudio on Instagram) turns away from selfies and specializes in self-portraiture, often inspired by classical painting. Virtually every photograph she posts of herself is composed and taken by herself, with the help of tripods, cameras, and remote controls. She posts elaborate Instagram stories detailing the work that goes behind every shot, and there is no denying that what she does is no more a work of narcissism than that of any artist who dared to paint a self-portrait in the past – it is, rather, labored, beautiful artistry. Every element of her image is in her control, and that, in this day and age, is still controversial. Just as young women are criticized for taking selfies, she, an adult woman and a professional photographer, is criticized for her work. Much like the women in the paintings Berger turns to in Ways of Seeing, Beck channels paintings like Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” in her nude photographs and is then – according to Instagram stories of the past – reported to Instagram for having posted “harmful” material, as if a woman expressing herself in anything but the patriarchally dictated ways is harmful to society.
What is more, in the eyes of many people, Beck absolutely is harmful to society because she is in charge of her own image. She has, so to speak, placed the mirror in her own hands and then used her creations to comment on the world. She even sometimes goes far beyond the common practices of the daily-criticized selfie takers in that she not only posts images of herself but often composes elaborate shots where she appears multiple times. In a photo published on her website and on Instagram called “The Last Supper,” she stages a new interpretation of Da Vinci’s painting and appears thirteen times in the single composition, playing every single role in the biblical supper. Instead, however, of using the image religiously, she does so biographically to explore the multiple aspects of her personality and her femininity. If a woman delighting in a single image of herself is threatening to the male gaze, then what is a woman who not only embraces herself, but also positions herself in the place of the Holy and dares to multiply herself on screen in order to do so? It is no surprise that she upsets some viewers.
Though the self-portrait technically differs from the selfie – selfies are, according to the OED “photograph[s] that one has taken of oneself, esp. one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media” whereas self-portraits are not necessarily taken with a smartphone or front-facing camera – their functions are the same. They allow individuals to see themselves the way they want to be seen and to curate their own identities. In a world where the external tries to dictate your behavior and appearance, that is radical. You may think it’s trivial or narcissistic, but that’s exactly what you’re meant to believe.
Beck, Jamie. www.instagram.com/annstreetstudio. Accessed 4 February 2018.
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. 1973. London: Penguin, 2008.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. 833-44.
"selfie, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press. January 2018. Web. Accessed 4 February 2018.
Syme, Rachel. “SELFIE: The Revolutionary Potential of Your Own Face, in Seven Chapters.” Medium.com. 19 November 2015. Web. Accessed 4 February 2018.