Rating the Unworthy

Despite the majority of this blog being about selfies, that’s really not all I study! My thesis is about how discourses of photography are used to discipline people. The popular discourse about selfies is just such an excellent example of this, in that it identifies selfie-takers as having certain characteristics, which then is used to excuse a sort of free-for-all of condemnation, criticism and humiliation. But selfie-discourse is far from being the only example which does this.

I recently saw a version of the Top Trumps card game, in which the topic was ‘mingers’.


For anyone not familiar with the term, ‘minger’ is a word used to identify a subject who is regarded by the viewer as excessively, almost comically unattractive. Besides the construction of a product which labelled individuals in this way, and used their (presumably unauthorised) personal photographs, I was struck by the sense in which judging people has been explicitly turned into a game. And as an example I discussed previously demonstrates (in which photographs of women were arranged into a hierarchy and scored from 1-10), photographs are an integral component of this process. The prevalent assumption that the photograph provides access to the ‘truth’ of a person’s nature is here used to excuse a range of insults, relating to the subject’s style and smell.

The purpose of a game of Top Trumps is to deploy the ratings on one’s cards in a way that betters those of your opponent. By encouraging the players to think about strategy and competition, the game normalises the categories it is using, so by using the odour score on the card, players are accepting the legitimacy of a connection made between a series of undesirable characteristics – all linked back to the image itself. 81sG5Yzq+xL._SL1500_Furthermore, the deeply unpleasant prejudices expressed through this game, against certain body types and gender performances, are both obscured and cemeted by the system of numerical scoring. As number values have been assigned to each subject prior to the game commencing, players can assume they are only deploying judgements that have already been made. But through the act of comparing scores, and doing so in a way which depicts one as the ‘winner’, players act to reify wider social processes of hierarchical ordering and marginalisation. The score is also used as a means to convert subjective opinion into objective ‘fact’, in which the assessment and grading of subjects is presented as producing a definitive and truthful valuation. The ‘ugly-o-meter’ in particular references this sense of objective measurement. The final score allotted to each subject, according to their ‘minger power’, reinforces the sense in which people – especially people of low status – can be feasibly assigned numbers.


Whilst we are encouraged to accept that these people, who look like this, are legitimate targets for mockery, through accusations of poor style or bodily hygiene, the viewer is kept safe from similar judgements. By making comparisons, sorting and ordering, players are placed in a viewing position that separates them from the people they are judging. The inequality reinforced by this distinction, between judge and judged, was conceptualised by Tagg, who noted the separation between those who have “the power and privilege of producing and possessing” meaning, and those who were reduced to merely “being meaning” (1988: 6, original emphasis). Through their reproduction on these cards, their valuation, and their use within a game of social ordering, these subjects are in the unempowered position of “being meaning”. Players, in contrast, produce meaning through accepting the assessments made by these cards, and through using them as a form of entertainment.

This last factor – entertainment – is most important, as it is evident across the range of examples of photographic discipline I have been researching, from duckfaces to involuntary pornography. It is not enough to grade subjects, or to share their images against their will – humiliation of others must now constitute a form of leisure, in which we are encouraged to enjoy mocking others through viewing galleries of ‘ugliest selfies’, or visiting sites such as People of Walmart. I am not going to suggest that enjoying laughing at other people is in any way new, but the affordances of social media make the process of collating and sharing images in order to do this much more straightforward. And perhaps most interestingly, is the degree to which the disdain for certain types of people, and certain types of photography, have been normalised online, to the point where the expression of prejudice seems little more than a game.

Zombie Selfies and Data That Won’t Stay Deleted

So a prevalent theme of selfie discourse relates to danger – selfie-takers presented as doing dangerous things in the pursuit of the perfect image or selfie-taking shown to be regulated by chance or by humans in ways that make it dangerous. But this week emerged a new danger, in the form of selfies that won’t stay deleted and can therefore return to haunt the hapless selfie-taker – zombie selfies, if you will.

Internet security firm Avast bought 20 secondhand phones from eBay, and found that even on devices that had been wiped using the factory reset option, there was still an awful lot of data left over. Avast found that:

 “of 40,000 stored photos extracted … more than 750 were of women in various stages of undress, along with 250 selfies of what appears to be the previous owner’s manhood. There was an additional 1,500 family photos of children, 1,000 Google searches, 750 emails and text messages and 250 contact names and email addresses.”

This news story is interesting in that it was repeatedly reported in a way that framed selfies as the most volatile and therefore newsworthy type of data. Headline after headline referenced  the dreaded prospect of “naked selfies” being released, unwittingly, into the public domain:

‘Factory wipe’ on Android phones left naked selfies and worse, study finds – The Guardian 11th July 2014
Naked selfies extracted from ‘factory reset’ phones – BBC News 11th July 2014
‘Wiping’ Android phones does NOT delete your naked selfies – The Daily Mail 9th July 2014

Snapchat has demonstrated in the past the considerable problems that stem from deleted photos being anything but deleted – and, if you ask me, the even greater ‘problem’ of claiming to create a technology that protects people, but that makes them susceptible to victim-blaming and humiliation when it doesn’t work. But this news story takes selfie-panic, and selfie-disgust, in a new direction.

Firstly, the story focuses on the selfies that the researchers found, adding almost as an afterthought all the emails, texts and contacts that were also retrieved in huge quantities. Not to mention the fact that there were photographs of children on the phones, which one might expect would cause considerable alarm. A few years ago, this story would have been reported in terms of the potential for identity theft which these phones represented. But attention has shifted within popular news discourse to focus on the selfie, using it as a kind of modern folk-devil to symbolise a range of social problems and anxieties.

Secondly, the prospect of ‘naked selfies’ that cannot be deleted recalls other, much older forms of social stigma that cannot be removed. Rather than approach digital technologies as offering something liberatory and fun, we are encouraged instead to view every act of photography as a potential burden that can mark us forever, the shame lingering long after we had hoped to eradicate it. This is simple fear-mongering, evident in The Daily Mail‘s assertion that wiping phones does not delete your selfies. The ‘you’ referred to is both assumed to take naked selfies, and chastised for doing so, the fear of shame being used as a means for curbing behaviour.

The not-so-subtle subtext of this story is that the limitations of technology are to result in limitations in our own photographic practice. This recalls Eric Schmidt’s laughable statement that “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place”.  If you don’t want everyone to see your naked selfies, then judging by this story, you must never take them at all. If we, as users, cannot ensure our own safety through doing what we assumed would wipe the phone, then extra preventative steps are needed.  Because if naked selfie-taking is not ‘safe’, or any behaviour one might assume, then presumably it should not be done at all.

Of course this is an absurd limitation on personal freedom, and conceptualises things in simplistic terms of safe / not safe. One cannot stay indoors every day for fear of what might happen outdoors, and the same applies here. Instead of presenting selfie-taking as something to be feared, and as an uncontrollable monster, we need a reframing of the conversation, that conceptualises data breaches such as this without resorting to shaming. But that would require a shift in the perception of selfies, away from corrosive notions of embarrassment or disgrace, towards an acceptance that – gosh!- some people like to take photos of themselves. I’m not going to hold my breath, though.

A Handy Summary of What We Know So Far

This week I came across a video entitled Should You Post A Selfie? It was made by the site College Humor, which gave me an idea of the balanced view of issues it was going to be taking.  But it really was remarkable how many aspects of selfie discipline this video managed to cram into less than three minutes.

A young woman stands in a bathroom, and is confronted by two reflections of herself – one pro-selfie (R1), the other anti- (R2). During this back-and-forth conversation, the cliches about selfies are reiterated, as if to provide a summary of where we are now in terms of selfie discourse.

The selfie is first suggested in the video as if it were an illicit activity, when the reflection (R1) urges her to “do it… take a selfie” to the sound of eerie background music. “Isn’t that a little narcissistic?” (cliche 1 – selfies are narcissistic) chimes in the second reflection (R2). R1 states that “selfies help young girls redefine the standards of beauty” (cliche 2 – selfies need to be resistant to be valid), which is immediately contradicted by her instruction to “stick out your tits and take a picture” (cliche 3 – selfies are inseparable from sexualised body display).

R2 expresses concern that “this is going to come across as some kind of pathetic plea for attention” (cliche 4 – selfies are attention-seeking). R1 counters this by likening the selfie to a self-portrait, created by artists, “like Van Gogh” (cliche 5 – selfies exist in relation to Proper Art). Furthermore, she adds, astronauts take selfies, to which R2 responds that this is justified because they’re in outer space, and this achievement therefore makes their selfies acceptable (cliche 6 – selfies are valid if taken by special people). R1 continues by reassuring the heroine that “no first draft ever made it to Instagram” (cliche 7 – selfies connote inauthenticity). R1′s advice to “let your body just fall the way it naturally does” results in a contorted pose (cliche 8 – selfies feature forced and bizarre presentations of self):

Screen Shot 2014-07-11 at 18.10.08

Again, R2 expresses concern about the image, suggesting it makes her look like “a raging narcissist” (just one image, really?). R1 angrily retorts that everyone does this, and that tagging it #nomakeup and sending money to a cancer charity would protect her from accusations of narcissism (cliche 9 – selfie-takers seek to validate themselves and escape criticism, making even donation a cynical act). R2 questions this practice of “paying money to be relieved of guilt” (cliche 10 – selfie-takers are guilty of doing something that requires forgiveness). Both R1 and R2 then state they “don’t give a fuck what other people think” and use their selfie-taking / non-selfie-taking as evidence of that (cliche 4 again – selfies are taken to generate positive peer attention).

R1 suggests that the heroine take a silly photo to connote not-giving-a-fuck, but proceeds to stage manage the process, suggesting “cute weird”, with “beautiful eyes” (cliche 11 – selfies are contrived and lack anything approaching spontaneity). This should involve looking as if she is unaware of having the photo taken (cliche 7 again). Lastly, she states “now hold up a sign about feminism, but still with great cleavage” (cliche 12 – even political statements are compromised by the selfie’s principle of sexual display. Selfie-takers are therefore excluded from feminist practice).

The heroine takes her picture and uploads it, captioning it by stating that she doesn’t “normally take selfies, but I’m just being goofy and living life, LOL, #cancerresearch” (cliche 12 again – the contrast between LOL and #cancerresearch implies that selfie-takers are unable to approach serious issues in an appropriate manner).

Cut to the photograph’s reception by two of her friends:

Screen Shot 2014-07-11 at 18.29.57

“She is such an attention whore” one states, adding “stop shoving your face in my feed”, before they both click ‘like’ and add positive comments (cliche 13 – selfies are part of an online culture of deception, where no-one says what they mean, but engage in activities which maintain their social position).

So there we have it – selfie-discipline approached from both the individual and social perspective, in which both the sub-conscious and the peer group combine forces to urge young women to stop taking selfies.


Sweetie, No-One Likes Selfies

I like The Oatmeal: a comic that is often as informative as it is funny, featuring pieces on Nikola Tesla and grammar alongside cartoons about cats. So it was a bit of a shame, but hardly surprising, to notice that one of its recent comics featured a rather unflattering portrayal of the selfie-taker:

1 234


So of course the idea of being dumped for your Instagram filters is ridiculous, which is what makes this funny. But beneath humour like this is a sense in which the audience is also laughing because it is somehow true – people who take photos of their cats, or who overuse hashtags are annoying, right? And it is interesting that selfie-taking is not mentioned until the penultimate frame, as if to leave the worst crime until last. This comic therefore exemplifies a much wider conversation about photographic practice, and shows how this impacts upon social relations. The selfie-taker is such a maligned figure within popular discourse, that being dumped for taking selfies comes to make sense. Although this example makes a joke of it, as we’ve seen in other cases discussed on this blog, the devaluing of the selfie-taker becomes much more problematic when it normalises stereotypes and permits the expression of hatred.

For the arbitrariness of this discourse to become apparent, we only need to refocus the woman’s complaints in the comic above onto the types of books or television programmes the male character likes. Neither of these would be as funny because they haven’t been established as abject in the same way as selfie-taking, and the joke just wouldn’t make ‘sense’. This demonstrates how photographic practice has attained an unusual position within culture, in that it has become normalised as evidence to support prejudice.  Furthermore, the selfie is at the forefront of an interesting shift in how ‘truth’ is deployed in relation to photography, whereby taking certain pictures establishes the ‘truth’ of particular subjects, rather than being solely a question of what the image content depicts. As the comic above asserts, it’s not so much the content of the picture itself that marks certain subjects as laughable (or vain, undesirable, narcissistic, selfish, trivial, vapid and so on), but just the mere act of taking it.

Selfies and Hatred, Part 2

In an earlier post I discussed how a hatred of selfies acts as a legitimate means for expressing hatred of other people. This may sound a little extreme to anyone who hasn’t been closely following selfie-discourse for the past year. But here are two examples from widely popular blogs to show what I mean:

This first post from the site Sploid discusses a clip of film that shows a woman’s hair catching fire from a candle as she leans towards another friend, to join in with being filmed:

Screen Shot 2014-06-30 at 11.02.42

The article frames the incident as a result of a wider epidemic of needing to document one’s life – a behaviour apparently so problematic, that being burned is somehow merited. This logic depends upon the devalued status of the selfie: selfie-takers are bad, we are constantly told, so they deserve regulation, they deserve to have bad things happen to them. As viewers, we are presented with instances in which selfie-takers come to harm, with the understanding that we will gain satisfaction from seeing these deplorable and abnormal subjects receive their just desserts. This example makes the contrived and divisive positioning of selfie-takers as abject particularly clear, as the woman is question is clearly not taking a selfie – she is being filmed by someone else – but she is labelled as a selfie-taker so that we can enjoy her misfortune.

The entertainment value of this clip, and of selfie-hatred itself, is acknowledged by the post being ‘Filed to HAHA’ – a label directing a certain type of viewing, and of viewer enjoyment. But beyond this expectation of viewer amusement, the post reinforces a disciplinary discourse regarding selfies: that “we should stop being idiots”, and we should self-police our behaviour so that we do not come to harm. This, I would argue, is the real purpose of the disdain for selfies, in that it normalises social regulation, and makes the low-status and misfortune of certain social groups (especially young women) appear merited and natural.

A second example of the legitimation of selfie-hatred appears on the site Jezebel:

Screen Shot 2014-06-30 at 11.15.45

This article discusses a new term, ‘relfie’, and whether it is useful for describing a certain type of image, namely a photograph taken of oneself with one’s partner. But the question is not just ‘what is a relfie?’ but also ‘how much can we hate it?’ As with all things selfie-related, we are assumed to come to the conversation already primed and ready to hate selfies and those who take them. The article states that we need not hate the term, but that disdain for people who take such images is permitted. Happy couples who post “too many” images of themselves are identified as problematic, and worthy of hatred, with the piece quoting research from the journal Personal Relationships to support its views. The research involved looking at social media profiles, grading the level of relationship expression observed and then reporting how much the researcher disliked this person as a result. This kind of left me speechless, as it’s not only one of the most subjective pieces of research I’ve ever seen, it’s also so disciplinary as to defy words. The piece summarises the research findings as:

“If you are in a strong relationship, viewers can pick that up from your Facebook profile. However, there is some danger in getting too schmoopie about your relationship on Facebook; although your friends will think your relationship is going well, they will like you less.” And isn’t that the whole point of social media? To be liked?

So by expressing oneself in one way on social media, and being perceived to be (as the article asserts) “doing happy wrong”, we are violating the assumed prime motivator for being there in the first place: being liked. This assertion relies on several assumptions: that the esteem of one’s peers is to be nurtured with every visible action; that we are all motivated to use social media to achieve similar goals, and that we should accept regulation of our behaviour – especially our photographic behaviour – in order to maintain social harmony.

The selfie, or relfie, is therefore a mask for the assertion of normative social demands, expressed in relation to hatred and the withdrawal of peer approval.


X.Pose and the Regulation of Women in Public Space

X.pose is “a wearable data-driven sculpture that exposes a person’s skin as a real-time reflection of the data that the wearer is producing”.

I read that sentence the other day regarding a recent art project by Xuedi Chen working in collaboration with Pedro G. C. Oliveira, and a number of lights turn on in my head. (Also, Whitney Erin Boesel wrote an excellent piece on this artwork which I urge you read!) The x.pose ticked all the boxes of social media discipline – the proscription against ‘oversharing’, the governance of women’s entry into the public sphere, and the shaming of women in relation to their exposure, whether bodily or through information.

That this garment becomes transparent according to the information the wearer shares online is not as worthy of note as the fact that the artists chose to reveal a woman’s body to make their point. The equation between sharing on social media sharing and sexual impropriety persists as a means for controlling the online behaviours of women. A particularly vehement example of this discourse is Ben Agger’s Oversharing: Presentations of Self in the Internet Age. Agger’s rules for technological usage relate primarily to limitation and the ability to rein in one’s “penchant for texting, tweeting, and Facebooking” (2012: 48). This prohibition against certain activities becomes especially problematic when it takes on a gendered dimension, in that Agger’s devalued and oversharing subject is exclusively discussed using female pronouns. For him ‘oversharing’ “has a distinctly sexual dimension” (Agger, 2012: 7), in which the lack of a boundary between private and public creates a “pornographic public sphere” (2012: 9). Texting too frequently is labelled as “an orgy of sharing” (2012: 14), and online participation is likened to shaved genitalia in that “there are no more private parts; everything is on view (2012: 34). We should at least be thankful that the x.pose creators did not use Agger’s genital analogy in their work.

Discourses of online privacy are a thinly-veiled means for regulating the behaviours of ‘others’, and are often used to victim-blame individuals who have entered the public sphere in ways that made them vulnerable to criticism and attack (but who hasn’t?). A major theme of the online privacy discourse is that privacy no longer exists, because sharing any information with anyone contravenes the “secrecy paradigm” (Solove, 2012: 20). Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems, displays the lack of industry sympathy regarding Internet users privacy, by stating that “you have zero privacy anyway. Get over it” (quoted in Sprenger, 1999). Similarly Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, stated that “if you have something you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place” (in a clip which I never tire of watching):

What these opinions serve to do is promote a sense in which individuals should enter public space assuming that they can neither control it, nor complain once their (apparently non-existent) privacy has been compromised by others. Public space is therefore marked as being for those who ‘have nothing to hide’, and unsafe for those whose identity, lifestyle and so on might be subject to criticism. Turkle proposes that perhaps the best way to deal with being monitored “is to just be good” (2011: 263), demonstrating the panoptic characteristic of the online environment, where subjects internalise their supervisor.

The gendered quality of this privacy discourse becomes apparent in discussions that share the bourgeois public sphere’s stance in assuming all subjects are equal. Rodrigues describes a situation of mutual disincentives to share private information, in which “any given user is generally just as vulnerable to abuse as any other (2010: 238). He neglects to consider how subjects might be placed within unequal power relations, with consequences of privacy violations resulting in very different outcomes, depending on their gender, sexuality and so on. This false sense of equality, and the accusation that users themselves let the “genie out of a bottle” when they share information, both act to support the victim-blaming logic which I am currently researching in relation to involuntary pornography (Stone, 2010). Furthermore, these warnings are similar to those given to young women prior to the availability of contraception and legal abortion, in that “your sins will never be forgiven” and that every action can have grave consequences (Penny, 2013).

Particularly salient here is the association of women with the private sphere, in that the demarcations of public and private are used to “delegitimize some interests, views, and topics and to valorize others” (Fraser, 1990: 73). The naturalisation of women as private (Dillon, 2004: 5) also serves to legitimise the punishment of women who seek to make their voices public, as a “woman who wants attention, never mind respect, cannot be tolerated” (Penny, 2013). Fillipovic identifies the blame attributed to victims of harassment or violence as correcting women who have made themselves public, as “public space has traditionally been reserved for men, and women are supposed to be quiet” (quoted in Valenti, 2010: 159).

A central component to the discourses which identify women as private relate to the avoidance of shame. As a mark of being not respectable, and without “little social value or legitimacy” (Skeggs, 1997: 3), shame is “symbolically encoded with established meanings of femininity” (Cornell, 1990: 12). Women are particularly vulnerable to the destructive effects of shame, in relation to the perceived transgressions of their bodies, their sexualities and their identities as a whole (Spence, 1995). As a tool for perpetuating unequal power relations, shame is “profoundly disempowering” (Bartky 1990: 85) and isolating, in that it prompts the subject to retreat and conceal the source of their stigma (Goffman, 1959; Beloff, 2001). Penny identifies how the use and avoidance of shame persists in relation to women’s use of the Internet, as an example of a long-standing device for social control being transferred to a new technology (2013). Theories of shame explain how a threat, in relation to social media practice,  and that is especially pertinent to women, is used to discipline the subject’s behaviour.

So, in a way, the x.pose tells us nothing new about how public discourse conceives of women’s use of social media, as it is merely a rehash of pre-existing assumptions regarding women’s public visibility more generally. But it is interesting how is makes these discourses so very visible (pun intended).

Show Us Your SELL-fies

As part of my study of selfie discourse (i.e. the discourse about selfies, rather than whatever people choose to express through selfies), I’ve seen an awful lot of commentary on how selfies should be stopped / regulated and so on. As a counter to this, it’s interesting to note occasions when selfies are discussed without this pressure to impose some sort of limit.

Whereas there are many commentators who are presenting a positive view of the selfie – promoting its use in building self-esteem and in addressing questions of visibility – in some ways the most open support of the practice comes from companies wishing to engage with their customers on social media.



The ability of the selfie to suggest affinity, usually between two or more people, is here used by customers to demonstrate approval of a certain product, be it make-up or a burger. The Body Shop’s #NoReTouch campaign on Twitter is particularly interesting, as it makes specific reference to the products’ use in preparing the face for selfie-taking:


On a less positive note, French Connection is both urging customers to take selfies, and yet implying that doing so is problematic, by using the hashtag #canthelpmyselfie


This conflicting message – do something, yet understand that you will be devalued for doing so – is typical of the discourses directed at young women’s behaviour. This ad reiterates the prevailing assumptions regarding the selfie as a product of compulsive and narcissistic behaviour, compounded by the model’s duckfacing expression.

Similarly, the advert below for travel assistance company Medicus also displays a degree of contempt for its own customers, by referencing the narcissistic selfie-taker that obscures the landmark in the background. Again, taking photographs in a way that is seen as aesthetically bad is used to denote an almost comic sense of self-centredness – confirmed by the caption “when you travel there’s nothing more important than yourself”. This text, although implying that their medical cover puts the customer first, also suggests a kind of pointlessness to travel for certain people – people who take bad selfies, who seem to be unaware of anything besides themselves, and who are therefore not doing travel ‘right’.


The band The Chainsmokers have similar objective, using the idea of the selfie to market products. But whereas The Body Shop, and even MacDonalds, were asking customers to share their approval of something via the selfie, here, the product being sold is selfie hatred itself. The T-shirt worn below features in the band’s music video (a confused and hypocritical mess which I’ve written about previously) and their online store also features a range of other designs.



National Geographic similarly uses the selfie, and the understanding of the selfie as bad, to advertise its magazine. The caption “there are lots of terrible animal pictures out there” disdains the image we are seeing – an animal selfie – and asserts that purchasing National Geographic is part of rejecting the “terrible” selfie.


These ads reflect the selfie’s status as a ‘cultural moment’, capable of either denoting allegiance, or of evoking a strongly conditioned response in the viewer. And it’s this response which is particularly important, as it naturalises the connection between selfie-takers and a certain sets of qualities and values.

My Fair Selfie

Every time I see a new instance of selfies being used as a justification for curbing the freedoms of young people, and young women in particular, I think that maybe now I have found the perfect example of photographic-discourse-as-discipline. But then I finally got round to watching the trailer for the new ABC show Selfie, and everything else just pales into comparison. Selfie-discipline, in the form of mainstream entertainment, cannot be any more overt than this.

It’s a shame the series itself doesn’t start until later in the year, but this trailer gives us plenty to be getting on with. The show is based on Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, the social commentary of the original being ignored in favour of a kind of My Fair Lady with iPhones. As in the film, the series presents a fantasy of male domination, in that the woman of one’s dreams is the male subject’s own creation. Without him, she is a mess – undesirable, and without social station. ‘Eliza Dooley’ is presented as abject (she vomits in public) and flawed (she is crass and socially isolated). She makes poor decisions in her love life, uses her body to get what she wants, and treats her contemporaries with disrespect. She is the archetypical representation of chaotic, debased femininity. Along comes Henry Higgins, a whizz at repairing tarnished public reputations, who can do the same for Eliza – treating her as a faulty product rather than a person in her own right. “Do anything and everything I say” he instructs, “even if it seems unorthodox”. “Totally” is her response.

The show is openly instructional, in that Eliza’s voiceover states that “the moral of the story is that being friended isn’t the same as having friends”. Additionally, parallels are drawn between Eliza’s troubled youth and her current predicament – in both situations she was lonely and lost. The message here – do what society tells you will get you happiness (make yourself beautiful, sexually attractive and available) and you will still fail – is hardly supportive of women’s efforts at self-betterment.

Rather than perfect the subject’s diction and comportment, as in previous incarnations of this tale, this modern version focuses on the contemporary equivalent – communication through social media. The aim is to reprocess this “vapid social media-obsessed narcissist” as a “woman of stature”. The confidently social media-using woman is therefore characterised as devalued and in opposition to her more worthwhile and palatable counterpart. Higgins corrects her selfie-taking at one point, instructing her that “you think that you’re getting it, but you are in fact missing it”. His caution against selfie-taking is representative of his more general correction of her character. She has much to learn from him, and living an ‘authentic’ life in the moment, as opposed to the ‘fake’ one online and through selfies (*eye roll*) is a major component of this.

Screen Shot 2014-05-30 at 13.24.05

The trailer concludes with Eliza, having undergone much of her process of correction, shown to be laughing with co-workers, and receiving praise for her beauty from her mentor. The show’s message – do as you’re told and reap the rewards – uses the selfie as a symbol of social discipline. The selfie-taker here and in countless other instances littered throughout public discourse is understood as automatically requiring correction – but look what benefits accepting such regulation can bring!

I certainly look forward to watching the show when it finally airs.



Selfies and Hatred

A video made by the PBS Idea Channel on You Tube addresses the question “Why do we hate selfies?”

The title of the video itself is interesting, in that it starts from a point at which hating selfies appears to be an accepted part of life, a fact. Rather than actually question the hatred, the video is normalising it. Even the description of the video calls selfie-taking “the lowest common denominator of the art of photography”. So this stance is hardly going to be neutral.

The explanation for selfie hatred follows a familiar enough path, arguing that the main problem relates to the low status of the selfie as a ‘bad photo’. These ‘bad photos’ are taken too easily by too many people, meaning that photography has “devolved into a skillless visual art…blergh”. But there is no critique about what this perception of selfies reflects, about why this kind of criticism suggests that photography (and by extension public participation) be reserved for those who are ‘good’ at it, and who are approved.

The presenter suggests that “a selfie isn’t exactly a photo and maybe that’s why so many people hate them”, before asserting that “the selfie isn’t a photo, but a block of text communicated in photographic form”, and should instead be viewed as a speech act. Firstly, the selfie does not have the monopoly on communicating meaning visually, so it can hardly be separated off for that reason. Secondly, these divisions between what is and isn’t A Photograph use exclusion as a means for preserving the value of other types of photography (and I would argue, other categories of photographer), in contrast. By maintaining that the selfie isn’t a photograph, this video contributes to the accepted marginalisation of selfies, and selfie-takers. This is compounded by the video’s final point: “don’t hate the selfie, hate the…selfie-taker”.

Actually, that’s so important I’m going to repeat it on its very own line:

“don’t hate the selfie, hate the…selfie-taker”

That this video, purporting to be defending selfies, makes such a statement is unbelievable, primarily because it doesn’t follow up on it. For me, this is the crux of the ‘problem’ of selfies – that they are a very thinly-veiled means for criticising other people – particularly young women. So I was disappointed that a video claiming to address this very issue misses the point entirely.

Conversely, for me, selfie-hate rests on making a connection between the devalued image, and a maligned subject, whereby a cultural norm of ridiculing selfies enables the free and open expression of hatred that extends well beyond photography. Therefore, the answer to “why do we hate selfies?” is another set of questions, concerning “why do we hate selfie-takers?” and “why do we hate young people, or women, or anyone that isn’t doing something which I specifically find interesting…?







The Ur-Selfie

I’ve held off writing about Ellen DeGeneres’ Oscar selfie for a while now. Partly because I like to consider things for a while before I write about them, but also because there’s just too much else going on in selfie-land to be up-to-date all the time (could people stop doing new stuff just for a moment and let me catch up? No? Ah well.)

Oscars selfie

But something I read about Ellen’s selfie shortly after it was taken stuck with me. It was just one line of comment, on the website Jezebel:

Selfies: officially over, now that this one has been taken. Everyone go home, no more selfies. (2nd March 2014)

And it just struck me as interesting, that this gathering of celebrities, crowding in to take a picture together, was being used in this way – to tell readers, albeit informally, to stop taking selfies. The implication being that once a group of film stars does something, we can’t hope to do any ‘better’, and therefore should stop. The Ur-Selfie had been made, and all we could do now was just look at it. This sense of selfie-taking being a competition is unique within photography – who, for instance, would say that since Ansel Adams photographed Yosemite, no-one else should do so? But of course it’s not a question of quality, it’s a matter of accessibility to the public sphere – something selfies seem to override with infuriating pervasiveness. Telling people to stop taking selfies because celebrities have done so, is tantamount to reserving public life for only those who are famous. The rest of us should presumably know our place… This reflects an interesting correlation between cultural practice and interest – because a lot of people globally were interested in the Ellen selfie, it is received as a valid instance of an otherwise maligned photographic form. But because few people are interested in the selfies taken by someone they do not know, then this becomes something abject and marginal. The accusation of selfies being narcissistic has always struck me as odd, seeing as outrage at something which one doesn’t find interesting is perhaps more suggestive of self-interest, in that it suggests a wish for the world to be tailored to you, and you alone.

The comment above, however, does not reflect what intrigues me most about Ellen’s selfie, which is that when watching the actors assemble to take their picture, we can see the excitement that photography brings extends even to those who might well be relentlessly over-documented otherwise.

What this relates to most is choice – these stars here have the choice to be included, and are falling over themselves to do so. Whereas any one of these stars is probably all-too-aware of the relentless scrutiny of photographers following their daily lives, in this context, when they are asked and when they can decide for themselves and have agency, photography becomes fun again. Because taking photographs with other famous people is probably still exciting, even if you’re famous yourself (we can see Liza Minelli, for instance, in the background – also wanting to join in). And because capturing the moment, especially one that feels silly and frivolous, is immensely enjoyable, just because. Kevin Spacey waves two fingers behind Julia Robers’ head, who herself goes pink with laughter. It’s certainly messy, and a few of them look far from their best, but unlike with a paparazzi shot which seeks to capture the off-moment, to make a story about it, here that isn’t the point. They were joining in with something, and clearly relishing it. Meryl Streep’s excited “I’ve never tweeted before!” testifies to the fun one can have doing something widely regarded (and maligned) as trivial, and ephemeral.


Academy Awards selfie



Apart from this agentive quality of this image, and of selfies generally (you can hardly force yourself to take your own picture), I enjoyed watching how the Ellen selfie became re-appropriated. Their referencing of a common cultural moment, in itself became a cultural moment. A few of my favourite re-imaginings are here:





oOWJKUmaQkKyMBt4XxGy_Oscar Selfie Muppets