Month: January 2014

Selfie Bingo!

There was a talk about selfies at the National Portrait Gallery in London a few weeks ago (http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/late-shift-1/panel-discussion-the-curated-ego-16012014.php), and when I was there I talked to Annebella Pollen who was chairing the session. As we were talking, anticipating the evening to come, I mentioned the fact that the same recurring themes seem to come up in discussions about the selfie. The predictability of some of these themes – ‘selfies are not photography’, ‘there are too many selfies’, and so on – interests me, as it demonstrates just how restricted the way of talking about this practice had often become. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, it’s not so much the photographs themselves, or what we even say about them, that I find important – it’s the social structures that support and are supported by such statements.

As a whimsical reaction to this, I have made a bingo card of (mostly critical) statements about selfies. Should you find yourself in a conversation with someone who has very definite ideas about selfies, you might wish to check off each statement, until you can call ‘House!’

Selfie Bingo

Defining the Selfie

I went to a talk this week by Dr Emma Rees, author of The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History.

http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/the-vagina-a-literary-and-cultural-history-9781623568719/

She references many texts, from television, literature, film and advertising, but the source that struck me most was the dictionary.

We assume dictionaries to have at least some semblance of objectivity (which is itself another discussion), but her quotes from dictionaries displayed an alarmingly persistent bias and desire to present certain ideas and things as marginal, and devalued. One quote, from an 18th century dictionary, defined the word ‘c*nt’ as ‘a nasty word for a nasty thing’. This immediately reminded me of something I had noticed a few months back, regarding the inclusion of the word ‘selfie’ into the Oxford Dictionaries Online. Although it was certainly interesting that the word was  included, it was the example of the word’s usage which was most revealing (in italics):

Selfie (noun): A photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.

occasional selfies are acceptable, but posting a new picture of yourself every day isn’t necessary[i]

When even the dictionary definition of ‘selfie’ is prescriptive, we can see how regulation has become naturalised as part of public discourse. Much like the 18th-Century dictionary and its assessment of a ‘nasty thing’, the selfie definition demonstrates a much wider set of assumptions and prejudices, in which problematisation is given a sense of legitimacy.

 

#BeautyIs Selfie-Esteem?

Dove’s new ad campaign uses the hashtag #BeautyIs, and features a video of young women and their mothers taking selfies of themselves, alongside discussion about how they feel about their appearance.

Rather than discuss many of the interesting features of this video, such as the glaring incompatibility between a project promoting self-confidence, and its use as an advert to hock beauty products, I am instead going to consider the choice to feature the selfie, and its construction as a tool for generating self-esteem. The comments I am including here are from my research into the selfies discourse, as evident through user-generated comments on social media.

After some discussion of anxieties and insecurities, and the need to fit in with a certain mold of beauty standards, the selfie is introduced as a means for the young women and their mothers (both of which are identified as having troubled relationships with their looks, suggesting an endemic, long-term problem rather than something that can be so easily fixed as is presented here), to look again at themselves.

Focus on ‘Beauty’

The selfie is here described as being a means for redefining beauty. It is interesting that the conversation never moves away from beauty, to consider what else the photograph can capture, or construct. The young women’s achievements or personalities is not discussed, as an antidote to the corrosive effect of the beauty tyranny. the advert’s construction of these women is one-dimensional, in that only once do we see a glimpse of an interest beyond their looks, when a series of rosettes features on the wall behind a young woman looking at her phone.

Screen Shot 2014-01-26 at 16.06.51

Instead of looking beyond beauty (or even besides beauty as the persistent binary of ‘looks’ vs ‘brains’ is particularly damaging) these young women must be encouraged to join the fold and see themselves as meeting the criteria for social validity. But after all, this is an advert, and it is selling a democratic ideal of universal beauty, so it is not that surprising.

The photographer in the advert suggests that her pupils incorporate things into the image that they might not necessarily like about themselves, prompting a discussion of the worries these young women have about their face shape, colouring and dental braces. There follows a sequence of mother-daughter selfies, with the younger women showing their mothers how to use their camera, and making statements about their mother’s beauty. The selfie here, therefore, is a marker of agency and knowledge, where younger people can be shown to guide their parents through an affective issue.

At a photography exhibition, large prints of selfies serve as a point of interaction, where viewers attach comments and bestow praise. This use of selfies to elicit positive group feedback is significant, and testifies to the importance of social approval in the development of individual identity.

Screen Shot 2014-01-26 at 16.16.54

Reflection on oneself, particularly via a medium which enables control and choice, is shown to be a means for generating confidence. One young woman states that: “I was looking through my selfies last night and I realised that I am beautiful. I’m pretty cute.” The photograph, here, prompts a particular kind of positive self-awareness.

Objective Self Awareness

Objective Self Awareness is a useful theory for exploring the potential for photographic sharing and viewing to be a subjectivity building practice (Duval and Wicklund, 1972). Viewing oneself, whether in the mirror or as depicted in a photograph, adds to a subject’s capacity to reflect on the self as “the object of its own conscious attention”, and in so doing develop reflexivity (Ickes, Wicklund and Ferries, 1973: 202). This theory suggests that stimuli which cause the subject to become self-aware can prompt “a temporarily impaired self-esteem” by highlighting any “real-ideal discrepancies” (Ickes, Wicklund and Ferries, 1973: 203).

Research by Gonzales and Hancock (2011), however, indicates that selfies and social media more widely have forced a rethinking of this theory, as rather than prompting a lowering of self-esteem, viewing one’s online image and profile was found to be of benefit to the subject. The camera, unlike the frank and brutal reflection in the mirror, is within the subject’s control, allowing angle, pose and crop to be altered at will. Subjects frequently reference this sense of power over constructing their positive self-presentations, viewing selfies as:

an empowering tool that grants us a modicum of control (or at least the illusion of it) over our own ephemeral identities.[i]

For young people actively developing and experimenting with their identity, the photograph is a vital tool in gaining a sense of acceptance and even pride in their emergent identities:

i get into a weird headspace where i don’t even want to look at myself in mirrors because i hate how i look. taking selfies helps me work against those feelings. [ii]

By enabling the user to control their self-presentation, and to overcome the otherwise negative aspects of reflexivity, selfies demonstrate the potential for photographs to be used as “a unique source of self-awareness stimuli”, where the degree of control positively affects the subject’s satisfaction with the self (Gonzales and Hancock, 2011: 82). This is particularly important for subjects who otherwise might have a particularly problematic relationship with their appearance:

A large part of my own journey in learning to accept myself and what I look like (as a fat, “unconventionally attractive” woman) came with sharing photos of myself… It’s an experiment in interaction and self-reflection. [iii]

As the commenter above suggests, this self-knowledge does not occur in isolation, as social approval and acceptance are vital components in the development of self-esteem. Sharing one’s images, and the feedback one receives, is therefore both a deeply social and personal experience. Therefore, the use of photographs as part of “a series of performances strategically chosen by an individual” is not evidence of insincerity, but a logical wish for control over the impressions such images convey to others, and our selves (Papacharissi, 2011: 254). As this commenter suggests:

we’re all documented online so relentlessly … why wouldn’t you want to control the narrative of your own image?[iv]

Agency and Confidence

The connection between photography and agency is evident in the joyous uptake of selfies, and in the contrast they make with photographs taken against the subjects’ will:

I grew up having my picture taken all the time without my consent, and/or being cajoled into posing for pictures I didn’t want taken. Selfies feel safe to me in a way that most photographs don’t.[v]

As a guarantee of consent, where the subject has not had their boundaries ignored or transgressed, and as a vehicle for the expression of personal agency, the selfie is the potentially the ultimate expression of feminist goals possible in photography.  A key component of this feminist potential relates to the attainment confidence:

selfies = vanity = confidence = fuck you, patriarchy? [vi]

As a reaction to the negative images of women which populate the public sphere, and as a reframing of one’s own image in contrast to such messages and demands, the selfie acts as a statement of, and conduit for, personal confidence:

I see every proud selfie as an accomplishment and a step in the right direction in the fight for body positivity. [vii]

The positioning of selfies as part of a quest for self-worth directly challenges the understanding that marks low self-esteem as attractive:

What makes us beautiful? When we don’t know we’re beautiful … in a world where women spend decades just learning to like ourselves, I consider succeeding an accomplishment, not an embarrassment. [viii]

‘Not knowing we’re beautiful’ implies a reduction in self-knowledge and agency, where the subject remains ignorant and unable to capitalise on their personal attributes. Emily McCombs, above, angrily challenges this celebration of female ignorance and disempowerment, rejecting the idea that women “liking themselves” be considered anything less than “an accomplishment”. She continues by questioning why women’s quest for self-esteem is so routinely maligned, with cultural norms of the ideal, self-reliant subject acting to penalise those who display vulnerability, or an interest in and care for the self:

I sort of don’t get why it’s worthy of ridicule. “You have low self-esteem and need people to remind you not to hate yourself! HAHAHAHA WHAT A JERK!” [ix]

In contrast to the sense that only certain themes and subjects are ‘worth photographing’, selfies reappropriate the legitimacy that photography conveys. Rather than passively waiting for legitimation, the selfie is an active declaration of worth, taking for itself the power to decide what is beautiful, and directly engaging with cultural notions of value.

The Politics of Visibility

Aside from enabling subjects to develop a sense of agency and self-confidence, selfies are also a means for considering the politics surrounding acts of looking and making oneself visible. Some subjects simply report that without their selfie-taking, they would not be photographed:

I take my selfies because I am that guy who, unless he takes the picture or suggests it, doesn’t get his picture taken…[x]

The photograph serves as evidence of “that which has been” (Barthes, 1981), making the act of taking images a defense against being absent from this important visual record:

Sometimes I take selfies just so I can remember I existed. I mean, there is nobody else who is taking photographs of me so when I look back on these years, the only photos that will exist will be my stupid selfies. [xi]

On a wider level, selfies have the important effect of promoting a broader representation of society, consisting of “images of real people – with beautiful diversity.”[xii] This process of enabling people to become visible within the public sphere has political implications, in that it allows voices and faces that were previously hidden, and marked as ‘other’, to be brought forward. With these implications, the selfie becomes anything but trivial:

When you belong to a group that’s oppressed or derided, the selfie becomes something else entirely. [xiii]

In normalising diversity, and, as Rutledge suggests, making it ‘beautiful’, selfies challenge the narrow prescriptions on women’s bodies and identities:

I think it’s valuable and important to post photos and be visible online as a fat lady like me. Selfies…help to normalise fat bodies… [xiv]

Negative Constructions of the Selfie

Returning to the Dove advert, the video concludes with one mother stating that her daughters have taught her that social media is “widening the definition of what beauty is”. But despite the positivity, and the encouragement to use selfies in order to see oneself as valued and attractive, the wider discourse concerning selfies discredits this practice of self-validation.

The value of such presentations, however, is often undermined by two key criticisms. Firstly, even within an context that seems designed to promote a shifting, postmodernist conception of the self, there exists a strong rhetorical drive towards the modernist self – stable, reliable, and ‘authentic’. The selfie is presented as embodying a wish to be deceptive, through enabling self-conscious posing and styling, implying that the only way to be ‘really you’ is to be, or at least give the appearance of being, unaware of doing so. Other images appear to imply deception purely based on the clash of incompatible concepts, such as ‘looking good’ and ‘exercising’:

OH PLEASE, no one looks good when they’re actually exercising. Give it a rest. [xv]

Secondly, a concern with one’s appearance, even within an environment where encounters are primarily visual, is still associated with narcissism. The reliance on using one’s appearance to communicate certain values, despite being a necessary and obligatory factor in defining one’s position and identity in society, is held to be typical of the poverty of the social media environment:

Social media has become image/visual based much more than text based. It’s also very much a brag-a-thon. The most accessible thing to brag about in a visual medium is your own appearance… You can’t [as] easily demonstrate how intelligent you are, say, or how funny, or how kind, in a photograph. [xvi]

The use of images is interpreted as subjects communicating in a devalued and crass manner (constituting a “brag-a-thon”), about limited aspects of their person (i.e. appearance) which are of less importance than others (intelligence etc.). Selfies, therefore, are both beneficial and problematic for their subjects – performing important functions in everyday identity work, and useful for generating confidence and a healthy relationship with their body, but also marking them with negative connotations of insecurity and narcissism.

Running counter to the potential for personal and political advancement as exemplified by the selfie, exists a demand that women somehow ignore the significance of their appearance, and instead ‘rise above it’:

Wow, I feel really sorry for you. Imagine all you could get done if you didn’t spend so much of your thoughts and mental energy on how you look. … You can choose to just not think any of these things.[xvii]

Here, the selfie is maligned as reaffirming negative expectations of women, and perpetuating unhealthy expectations. Meghan Murphy suggests that instead of showing approval for women’s sexy selfies, men should seek to support self-presentations which “are witty, interesting, smart, stupid, or that include puppy dogs and donuts”. By encouraging the men to stop ‘liking’ sexy selfies, Murphy suggests that women will begin to shift their self presentations towards those that focus on themselves as rounded, complex people – but people, one supposes, that do not express their sexuality. No matter how well-intentioned this kind of advice, it nevertheless perpetuates the core assumption that certain behaviours are universally ‘bad’, rather than questioning the logic behind such value judgements.

Against this proscriptive advice, which urges young women to present their achievements and personalities instead of their appearances, numerous commenters express a wish to have both:

I still like being told that I’m smart and witty, but sometimes I feel especially cute and I want people to tell me I’m pretty[xviii]

This presents an interest in one’s appearance as being part of a balanced whole, rather than conceptualising it as self-defeating behaviour. In the previous example, this would mean encouraging the male viewer to click ‘like’ on the sexy selfie and the images with dogs and donuts. Rather than prescribe an either/or division of human subjectivity, this approach would encompass a much wider idea of what subjects could, rather than should, be. It also acknowledges the enduring legacy of women’s relationship with their appearance, and the very real effects that this has on their life. The alternative, to just ignore the importance of one’s looks and how they affect others’ perception, creates further problems:

Much as you may raise your children with an ideal, you mustn’t forget the fact that you’re also preparing them for a society which has certain systems…telling girls they’re only good for their looks is shit, but the opposite/never telling them they’re pretty is JUST AS SHIT. [xix]

The comment below demonstrates the degree to which selfie taking can be used to shore up a sense of self that is somehow missing. To dismiss this person’s use of selfies as narcissism or insecurity they should shake off, is to dismiss the complexities of each others’ lives, and to expect that everyone has the same life experience. Here, the selfie fills a lacuna, giving the subject the perspective on herself which her upbringing failed to do:

I was brought up never being praised for either my looks or my achievements… The result has been to make me feel angry, alienated, and not worth very much…I take tens of selfies a day… and spend a lot of time mentally comparing my looks to other women’s. [xx]

The selfie reflects the character of much of the identity work which is carried out both on and off social media, in that it is symbolic of the inter-personal nature of identity, in which a performance of self (the image) requires an audience (such as Instagram). Ultimately, in terms of mediating identity, the selfie-taker is negotiating between the importance of social acceptance, and the resistance of social norms – creating both push and pull factors towards and away from selfie taking. In this way, the selfie is not a simple case of either / or, but demonstrates the complexities of self-expression within a wider social context. The following comment support the selfie-takers right to share, supporting the wider cause for subjects to represent themselves within the public sphere:

It is no one’s place to reply to the selfie-poster, “don’t you think you’re objectifying yourself by sharing this photo?” …It is the poster’s right to put up any content of themselves. [xxi]

It is revealing that the search for self-awareness is subject to repeated criticism and accusations of narcissism. Politically, the reframing of a process which can empower the individual, as evidence of vapidity and weakness, suggests a wish to prevent subjects obtaining knowledge and power.

In using selfies for their advert, the advertisers for Dove have tapped into some of the issues I have discussed here, such as their potential for generating confidence and self-esteem. It is unlikely, however, that their intention relates to the wider political implications of representation and the restrictions around visibility. Nevertheless, this video is an interesting contribution to the discourse of selfies, and demonstrates that as a practice, it is much more complex and important than its critics might maintain.


The Camera as Desirable Prop

My study looks at how photography fits within discourses about society. As I’ve talked about before, photography itself is a site of contestation, where certain people are accorded the ‘right’ to take photographs more readily than others. So because of this, I find it interesting to note where cameras appear within advertising, as they would seem to suggest having a particular subject position.

CameraTo give a subject a camera is to convey certain authorities on them, to look and record, and define reality on their own terms. The woman in the advert above uses her camera to suggest an ability to look back at us.

Camera4The shop display to the right uses the camera as a fashion accessory, desirable for its connotations of creativity and adventure, but also perhaps (call me a cynic) because it fits so well with the colours of the ensemble. But aside from questions of colours, the camera here conveys cool by suggesting the position of flâneur, perpetually about to do something or go somewhere interesting, and who can record and interpret life on their own terms. The camera is therefore a potent signifier of ability – to do, to see, to know, to show.

But it is also emblematic of a desire which reaches beyond the acquisition of personal agency – placed within the fantasy of the advert, photography reiterates the process of looking, and signals the ability to make real that which is observed. This ability to ‘make real’ is the same as that which is promised by the purchase, where the picture and the transaction imply having attained something – whether a product, or a state of being, or both.

The shop display below uses an overtly vintage-esque camera, combined with maps and trunks, to connote a fantasy golden age of travel and leisure, back when both high-end camera equipment and the transatlantic flight were only available to the privileged few. The oversized camera here is therefore inviting us into this special world, a world which is worthy of being photographed (purposely, with difficulty, in contrast to the devalued ubiquity and ease of the camera phone), and that is brought into being by our looking along with the camera and desiring what it sees, and achieved by the purchase of a Fred Perry cardigan.

Camera2The camera, therefore, is anything but incidental when appearing in advertising. In conveying an authoritative look, a look with agency, that can command the possession of that which it sees, the camera is a powerful marker of a desirable subjectivity. And by highlighting attention, or attention-worthiness – whether looking at cardigans or pointed out at you, the customer – the look of the camera indicates (and designates) importance.

Exactitudes and the Struggle for Individuality

When I began my thesis, I intended to create typologies, to examine how certain photographic practices – such as the selfie – could be defined in terms of their main features. What is the most common crop, for example, and what angles of head and camera were frequently used?

But when I started to assess these images in terms of how they fitted a model, I began to feel uneasy – was this not in some way a repressive practice, arguably acting on the subjects as much as on their image? To me, the typology is the quintessential instance of photography’s disciplinary nature, as it establishes categories, notes difference and similarity, and divides populations. Although such sorting and comparing is beautiful and poignant when applied to the cooling towers and blast furnaces of the Bechers, I felt that when applied to photographs of people, doing so would problematically undermine the individuality of those depicted.

Untitled2The portrait typology series Exactitudes exemplifies this process of deliberately eliding difference. A joint project between photographer Ari Versluis and stylist Ellie Uyttenbroek, Exactitudes started in 1994, with the name (a contraction of ‘exact’ and ‘attitude’) reflecting the intention to filter individual attitude through the photographer’s precise, exacting framework[i].

The typologies place similarly dressed subjects into a three by four framework. The result at first appears humorous, if a little cynical, exaggerating the similarities of those who might otherwise cherish their stylistic individuality. The process appears deeply anthropological, in that it captures the exotic, and makes it visible, and classifiable. The repetition of stylistic details is hypnotic, and fascinating, offering a glimpse into the codes and markers of other communities and subcultures. One observes in these images how limited the repertoire of individual expression ultimately seems to be. And in criticising this, and in entirely mistaking what the purposes are behind such codes, Exactitudes is deeply flawed.

Firstly, the approach is not to show the stylistic range of a certain subculture, it is to artificially reduce it through deliberate selection. The artists have a list of requirements for each look, and scout for people who fit their definition, rejecting those that are not similar enough. As a method, this is biased from the outset, and the work produced in this way cannot be regarded as representative of anything other than the artist’s preconceptions.

Secondly, the styling of the photographs deliberately maximises the similarities between the subjects, with uniform posing and facial expression, shot with identical lighting and background. Wim van Sinderen, Senior Curator at the Museum of Photography, The Hague, assesses their approach by likening it to “an almost scientific, anthropological record of people’s attempts toUntitled1 distinguish themselves from others by assuming a group identity”[ii]. This is unsettling for two reasons: one, it artificially minimises the differences between people and then highlights the lack of individuality in such “attempts” – placing the subjects in a no-win situation. Two, it bears an uncomfortable similarity to practices of anthropological classification, where the scientific gaze was used as a means to identify, sort and draw conclusions from the appearances of certain racial or class groups. Much like the practice of physiognomy, the approach taken in producing Exactitudes relies on the belief that ‘types’ can be discerned, and that a certain person can or should be fitted within such categories. Although these artists are not using these images as a means for directly subduing or repressing those depicted, this is a deliberate practice of ‘othering’ certain groups – achieved through drawing attention to the fact that they can be grouped. Furthermore, the artists’ far from neutral attitude can be discerned in their captions, with the right hand image being labelled ‘Bimbos’.

Thirdly, the artists make claims about their work that justify their approach, and play down the uniformity that they themselves impose. Speaking in The New Statesman, Versluis defends his work from criticism of “putting people into boxes” by claiming that the subjects “box themselves. I just register it in a very simple way”[iii]. His claim to register in a ‘simple’ way ignores the selection and styling process, instead emphasising the subject’s own enactment of similarity with others. Rather than embrace variety, these images speak of a need to control the breadth of styles, practices and ways of life into something that is classifiable. These images speak of a wish to have mastery over the incomprehensible mass and variety of humanity, finding patterns and repetitions not to underscore some sort of commonality, but rather to sabotage the notion of individuality by criticising it for not being total or individual enough. A stereotype that goes unchallenged, or that (like here) is actively created and celebrated, acts to reassure the viewer; firstly, by preventing the stranger in the street from being entirely unknowable, once we have fitted them into a category, and secondly by offering reassurance that it is other people who are alike, not you.

Fourthly, the critique of individuality – by placing it alongside uniformity – becomes problematically simplified in these images, as it is taken to extremes. The wider critique, however, is relevant. As Gil Blank of Influence magazine points out, it is important to overturn the automatic assumption that “photography plus the street equals authenticity”, particularly in an age where “the “cool hunt” [has become] a corporate pursuit”[iv]. This corporate valorising of the individual is of course by nature a cynical fallacy, with the means of production and distribution directly contradicting the message portrayed. Furthermore, the dividing line between individuality and conformity is at times very narrow, and it is socially useful to be able to show affinity with and distinction from one’s peers. As Paul Hodkinson notes, subcultural fashion is precisely predicated on this overlap between personal individuality and readability as belonging to a certain group[v]. To be knowable as a member of group X, innovation needs to be in keeping with the general aesthetic framework of the subculture. This negotiation between ‘same as’ and ‘different from’ is the mechanics of group cohesion, and forms a vital function for members to form their identity. Subjects are therefore well aware of the fact that they look similar to each other – this is the point. Yet when presented here, this process is easily misunderstood as both trivial and self-delusional.

This series of images conceives of a truly valued identity that is in opposition to the repetition and similarity it depicts, as something which is not classifiable and which cannot be rendered into a typology. But in inviting the viewer to consider themselves as the privileged bearers of individuality, in comparison to these deluded carbon copies, Exactitudes is in fact perpetuating the cult of individuality that it claims to be undermining. Desite what these images might suggest, there are not two separate states of being – ‘individual’ or ‘group member’ – these are part of the same identity, with membership of multiple groups and communities co-occurring.

Untitled3Importantly, these subjects only look similar and interchangeable to the outsider. When viewing these images, instead of seeing uniformity, I still see individuality. The differences between different mohawks, or the variations the Gothic style, display different levels of competency, understanding and interpretation of what might be to the outsider ‘the same thing’. The Goths in particular range from vampiric or Victorian to eastern or hippy, and it is in the perception of these differences, rather than the false elision of difference due to similarity, which marks the insider from the baffled outsider. These typologies, whether intentionally or not, in fact present the vast breadth of humanity lying in small, sometimes imperceptible, differences, rather than in ubiquitous vast contrast. Whereas these images encourage a narrow-minded and ill-conceived approach to the social construction of identity – suggesting that similarity is something to be avoided – the subject does not in fact have to be radically different from their peers in order to retain their individuality. The suggestion that they are somehow laughable for being alike displays the photographers’ anxiety around the contemporary question of individuality and authenticity – and it is the picture it creates of them which is arguably the most interesting. After all, the artists are unlikely to position themselves within these frames and these social groups, and are therefore arguably more deluded about their privileged, refined individuality than their subjects.


[iv] Blank, Gill (2005) “Exactitudes”, Influence (New York), vol. 2, pp. 70—73.

[v] Hodkinson, P. (2002) Goth: Identity, Style and Subculture. Oxford: Berg

Selfies and the Numbers Game

This post looks at how discussions about selfies seem to focus specifically on the numbers of selfies taken, and how this feeds into a notion of devalued practice. As an aside, I simply do not understand the hand-wringing that goes on in relation to ‘too many’ selfies. We don’t have this kind of horrified conversation about ‘too many’ books or songs or blog posts – why about selfies? The answer, I feel, lies in what all this discussion expresses, namely an anxiety about the surge in visibility of certain groups, mostly young people and women. The volume of selfies is problematic because of who it represents, and how it embodies an apparently frightening new agency and ability to enter the public domain.

Rules of Sharing Selfies

As I’ve discussed before, selfies are subject to a particularly high degree of regulation, in terms of what should be shown, and where selfies should be taken. But the predominant rule regarding the selfie relates to the regularity with which it is shared:

Once a day? F–k no. Once a week? That’s pushing it. Once a month or so, sure.[i]

Selfies only once a week: for the hoi polloi, this is helpful for encouraging self-restraint. [ii]

The prevalence of selfies is a key feature in their denigration, with their volume standing for a lack of control, an overwhelming demand for attention, and a sense of gratuitous surplus. The sense in which an entire form of photographic practice can be dismissed by virtue of there being just too many demonstrates the culturally divisive nature of such accusations, where notions of ‘the mass’ are used to defend the preservation of an ‘elite’. Genres of photography that are popular amongst young people, and especially young women, are positioned as inferior and gratuitous, differentiating both form and subject from those who favour other types of practice.

In this comment, the perception of ‘too many selfies’ becomes a justification for strict condemnation, the issuing of warnings, and an assessment of the subject’s right to use resources:

The amount of narcissistic women that post hundreds of images of themselves striking the same practiced pose over and over again on my Facebook feed is enough to make me want to verbally abuse them … If those of you that are reading are guilty of this, be aware of the type of man you will attract and please stop consuming valuable internet bandwidth with your extreme vanity. [iii]

The selfie here embodies several aspects of ‘too much’ – in terms of images, repetitions of poses, vanity, and consumption. But besides the condemnation of the women described for their “extreme vanity”, their prevalence and their overconsumption, this critic describes a wish for a physical hierarchy, by suggesting that selfie users should be denied access to the public sphere altogether. Selfie photographers, by virtue of their unrestrained behaviour, should be excluded from the public sphere altogether, and have their resources (e.g. bandwidth) directed elsewhere.

Selfie Addiction?

Perpetuating the sense that there can be ‘too many’ selfies, and that this constitutes a problem, Pamela Rutledge considers the possible signs of selfie addiction[iv]. Such symptoms might be uncontrollable urges to take selfies, their use as a distraction and a means to feel more important, and which have a negative impact on the subject’s “relationships, job or studies”. To avoid the dependency on “short-term gratification” embodied within the selfie, and instead concentrate on “more important goals”, Rutledge recommends that subjects follow her guidelines that she promises will “keep selfies fun and keep you real”. Notions of what constitutes ‘important goals’ and ‘realness’ aside, this degree of intervention into the lives of others, based on a photographic practice, perpetuates the sense in which both selfies, and selfie-takers, embody unrestrained excess, and are somehow inferior to others.

Such advice includes reminding her readers that they are “package” and “not a single picture”. This wrongly assumes that taking selfies is somehow a subjectivity destroying practice, and supposes that such activities can override the embodied experience of self. Perhaps this advice should instead be directed at the critical viewer, as the simplistic association between subject and image can be far more harmful when it is used as a legitimation for insult and abuse. Rutledge also cautions against oversharing, as this creates “interpersonal distance” and is either “boring…or annoying”. The degree to which sharing becomes oversharing is heavily subjective, as some critics feel that even one selfie is too many, just on the basis of what it is.

These guidelines, whilst appearing to offer friendly advice, are instead imposing a set of standards relating to what women should aspire to be, and how they should represent themselves in the public sphere. The selfie, as a moment of temporary gratification, is viewed as a threat to achieving long-term goals and in opposition to the contemporary norm for subjects to be self-regulating. But this notion, in which selfie-taking negates the attainment of status, serves as a regulatory practice, and can be contested by a more positive view in which such images are part of a process of testing and acquiring a respected social identity.

Devalued Cultural Practice

Discussions of selfies that focus on the volume in which they are taken frame the conversation in terms of (at best) a mass cultural practice or (at worst) an epidemic. Certainly, selfies are widely shared; 140 million images on Instagram alone are tagged #me, as of October 2013. But by foregrounding the number of selfies, the individual works and the subjects who take them are homogenised, with their differences elided. This sense of perceived uniformity, in which every selfie is tacitly equated with certain a set of qualities, is necessary for the discourse’s power as a tool for social definition and organisation. Such generalisations characterise the selfie as the quintessentially ‘common’ photograph, accessible and replicable by anyone with a simple camera phone, yet vigorously scorned and devalued for its ubiquity.

We live in an age now where photography rains down on us like sewage from above.[v]

The popularity of the form is for many its key failing, with people’s frequent taking of selfies being seen as problematic, and the sheer number of such images accessible online described as overwhelming. The sense in which there can be ‘too many’ selfies is discussed with a confidence that others will acknowledge and agree with the connection made between high volume and low worth:

In their scarcity, photographs can age like wine, with grace and importance. In their abundance, photos can sometimes curdle, spoil, and rot.[vi]

The photograph went from a rare prized possession to common keepsake to a nuisance that clutters our visual memories.[vii]

For Ben Agger, there is “simply too much information [online], much of it misleading, and precious little real knowledge” (2012: 25). Here, knowledge, including the photographic realm, is seen as a zero-sum game, in which a plethora of ‘bad’ material displaces the ‘good’. Equally, behaviours of sharing and looking are pitted against each other, where one is presumed to prevent the other. Angela Mollard summarises this by asking “if everyone is posting, who is looking?”[viii]. Her binary opposition forms a hierarchy, in which looking (and discernment) is positioned above posting (and the lack of quality control or interest in others, which this conveys).

The volume of selfies, their most salient feature, is consistently read as being evidence of their creative poverty[ix]. Also, the use of the quotidian to mark subjects as being problematic is particularly effective as it attains a sort of logic based on mass-participation, in which the more people do something, the less valued it is held to be, resulting in a devaluation of the photographic economy:

Having an Instagram account is like having an abundance of money in a dead currency[x]

In addition, the dismissal of the selfie bears similarities to the devalued attitude taken towards many other forms of popular youth culture, in which a disapproval of or disconnection from younger generations is expressed in relation to their tastes and habits[xi].

But the enormous popularity of the form suggests that it is serving an important function for its users, and that, rather than being a trivial fad, the selfie has emerged to become a valued means of self-representation. Furthermore, the volume of selfies is what gives them meaning, as an aggregate of individual and collective photographic behaviours. As a personal expression which depends on its visibility for meaning, the selfie transcends the binary between the individual and society, complicating Mollard’s anxious divisions in order to conceive of a practice which is explicitly both ‘them and us’, viewer and viewed.

Beneath Mollard and Agger’s expressions of concern lies a desire to promote certain online practices – and the people who perform them – and to limit others. I argue that such divisions constitute a form of oppression, in that they perpetuate stereotypes, prejudices and enable the formation of hierarchies. This drive towards social organisation and exclusion is evident in Agger’s conception of the Internet as both “great” and “troubling” in that it enables everyone to “join the conversation”, which he concludes by asking “does everyone have a right to an opinion?” (2012: 22/23). As an internet practice, and an expression of opinion, he might therefore question whether everyone has a ‘right’ to take and share selfies? Or is the ‘right’ to photography, and to representation within the public sphere more generally, only accorded to those who practice it in a certain way? Therefore, ideas relating to selfies’ creative poverty demonstrate the degree to which discussions about everyday habits of self-expression are underpinned by principles that serve to legitimise the exclusion and silencing of certain groups.

Agger, B. (2012) Oversharing: Presentations of Self in the Internet Age. New York: Routledge.


[v] Grayson Perry, Beating the Bounds, BBC Reith Lectures, Radio 4, 22nd October 2013

Selfie-evident

I’ve collected a number of humorous examples of the discourse around photographic behaviours, specifically the selfie. These demonstrate the way in which discipline is enacted through entertainment – we enjoy the joke, and do not realise that this is an instance in which we are being led to accept certain rules. This is the embodiment of Foucault’s conception of power, in which regulation is dissipated laterally, across peers, rather than simply imposed from some sort of controlling authority.

The first example replicates the proscription against duckfaces (from pusheen.com):

photo copy

The next example genders selfies, by hailing MEN and giving ‘quick tips’ that instruct the (rather disappointed-looking) male character to ‘stop taking selfies’ (from Adam4d.com):

Men+4+quick+tips+for+better+selfies.+Credit+to+Adam4d_f7d060_4856781

The next image perpetuates the sense in which selfies are only taken by lonely, friendless people (from donttouchmethere.wordpress.com):

selfiesSelfies are naturalised as problematic behaviour (from outthere-bygeorge.com):

selfies_anonymous_2123865Selfie-taking creates a world full of self-obsessed ogres, where the dog seems to be the only sane creature left (from marsdencartoons.com):

Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 12.47.04Selfies, especially ‘sexy’ selfies, are the product of desperate insecurity (artist unknown):

stupid-firls-facebook-selfies-funny

Selfie taking can be broken down into fairly mundane purposes (by Chinie Diaz, on fabafter40.tumblr.com). This artist also tagged one such image on Twitter with #antiselfieleague, making their regulatory sentiments clear:

tumblr_inline_mooirnL4Uj1qz4rgpAnd lastly, the use of selfies has impaired our appreciation of other artforms (by Jeff Stahler):

51a161448b8e42ff490bdd87d7aecd04(by Corey Pandolph):

Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 13.06.00(by Benjamin Schwartz):

Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 13.09.34

Discipline and the Duckface

This is a rough plan of one of my thesis chapters – it still needs work doing on it! It looks at how the ‘duckface’ expression has been constructed as something which 1) should be regulated and 2) marks subjects as somehow deviant and devalued.

Introduction

In this chapter I analyse the discourse surrounding a specific photographic trend that has gained both popularity and notoriety on social media sites: the ‘duckface’. Specifically, I will be exploring the backlash against this trend, in the form of taunts, condemnation, and strongly (even violently) coercive language. I shall be suggesting that this backlash serves to discipline female users of social network sites into acceptable performances of gender, under the guise of ‘common sense’ and lending advice.

The discourse of the duckface reveals the tensions which exist in relation to women’s photographic self-depictions, where ideas of right and wrong serve to discipline subjects and enforce certain notions of acceptable behaviour. Chastisement of errant subjects is naturalised, implying that if only she had performed gender ‘correctly’, striking a ‘normal’ pose, smiling, working on not ‘trying too hard’, then things would have been different. This is perhaps the most uncomfortable aspect of the disdain aimed at the duckface, as the commentary acts to blame the victim for their own abuse. If they had not done the ‘duckface’, their bullies explain, we wouldn’t be doing this.

Features of the ‘duckface’

duckface4The term ‘duckface’ typically relates to the connection between a photograph, and a certain arrangement of body and face, which comprises of a (usually self-) portrait in which the (typically) female subject poses in a manner which emphasises the chest area, pursing her lips, tilting her head and looking up towards the camera.

I include examples here of the condemnation of women for their photographic self-depictions whilst ‘duckfacing’, ranging from the mild to the extreme, which demonstrate the prevalence and nature of some of the disciplinary discourses relating to gender that are applicable in the social network environment. (Note: all images were gathered from sites specifically addressing the ‘duckface’, such as antiduckface.com, rather than from users’ individual profiles.)

* Mutual Performance

The mutual pout aimed at a friend’s face serves to offer explanation for Duckface3some occurrences, denoting affection for the other person, but withholding from engaging in an actual cheek-kiss. This demonstration Duckface1of affection for others depicted within the photograph offers a counterpoint to the assumption that the pout is only performed for the benefit of the (not depicted) viewer. Instead, it is possible to include it alongside hugging and tilting heads together that denote a shared space and intention within a friendship group.

* Significance of Pouting

The mouth is a heavily symbolic part of the body, central to both expressions of sexuality and of agency, through speaking. We watch the mouth as others talk to us, and detect emotion and expression in its contours.

The pout is typically associated with a sassy, self-confident sexuality, and can therefore be viewed as an integral part of a young woman’s repertoire, particularly within post-feminist discourses that encourage the performance of ‘raunch’ through the wearing of revealing clothing, the displaying of bodyparts, and a willingness to engage in an overtly (albeit often faux) sexualised behaviour.

* Striking a Pose

The context is significant in prompting users’ experimentation with, and adoption of, a particular pose, as the coercion to be present and visible on social media requires the user to produce suitable materials that will be found acceptable and attractive by others. Even if done in jest or self-mockery rather than to appear desirable, the pout can be seen as a schema for the production of a posed and therefore to some degree controlled self-depiction. When one does not know what to do in front of the camera, perhaps, one falls back on what others do.

But the notion of posing-as-inauthentic significantly contributes to the scorn levelled at the pout, as it suggests a lack of authenticity and a degree of effort which is regarded as ‘trying too hard’. Of course the ‘natural’ pose, that manages to conceal the artifice behind its construction, is no less contrived than its pouting counterpart. The latter is merely unacceptable because it is too obvious, too outright sexy and unashamed. The pout stands as a symbol for many other numerous unacceptable manifestations of femininity, variously condemned for being unnatural, fake or cheap. ‘Natural’ make-up and effortless chic are valued above heavy make-up and revealing clothing, perpetuating a class-system that enables women to position themselves in relation to each other. Despite the overtly misogynistic undertone to much of the material I found that condemns the pout, a large proportion of those condemning it were women, defining their status and gender performance through distain for those that are seen to be ‘doing it wrong’. Discipline, as manifested in photo comments, picture galleries and websites, is therefore enacted laterally, by women onto other women, as much as by men.

* Widespread

Similarly, the pout is also disdained for its lack of originality, and duckface6for its prevalence. Offenders are grouped together as a problematic mass, without individual features, and chastised for their perceived errors, and for their frustrating refusal to stop in the face of strong condemnation. And it is perhaps this last point that prompts the most ire – that women continue to pout in photographs despite being repeatedly told not to.

* Self-Parody

duckface8The pose can potentially be seen as a means for enacting a parodic self-performance, that the subject expects the photographer and viewer to understand. The following images feature the pout in conjunction with dollar signs, peace symbols and subcultural gestures, all of which duckface9contribute to a sense of self-aware self-mockery. When viewed as part of a context of parody and fun, the duckface is markedly different from the stereotypical idea of the ‘stupid girl doing a duckface’ that is often associated with it. Perhaps therefore it is not the users’ dogged use of an outdated pose that is ‘the problem’, but rather many observers’ inability to detect any nuance between different instances of it.

duckface10But self-mockery and the wish to appear attractive are not necessarily mutually exclusive.  There are traits that exist within a single image that serve to contradict and confuse a straightforward division into one or the other, resistant or normative. As such, the pout has the potential for women to perform a reflexive and light-hearted sexual persona, which both subverts and references a widely-understood emblem of female sexuality.

Discipline and Punishment

The criticism of the ‘duckface’ pose ranges from mild ridicule to more extreme forms of abuse and threat. A comment on the Cosmopolitan website, when discussing ‘Celebrity Duckfaces’, neatly summarises the breadth of opinion. It begins by assuming a shared culpability with the reader: “Making a duckface is like hooking up with a less-than-amazing guy – everyone has done it at some point, accidentally or otherwise”. But the article’s heading takes a more severe tone, declaring “Death to Celebrity Duckfaces”[1].

I shall discuss some examples of this criticism, as a means for exploring the various ways in which the discourses relating to ‘acceptable’ gender performance are enacted, specifically in relation to photography on social media. My analysis will be divided into smaller sections that address aspects of the discourse separately.Untitled8

* Stupidity

The milder forms of condemnation focus on the pose as being ‘stupid’, which is an effective putdown because it marginalizes the target, devalues everything that is associated with them, and means that their protests or responses to the ‘stupid’ label can be ignored.

Smartness and sexual attractiveness are implicitly pitted against each other, an opposition which enables the expression of a strong sexual identity to be undermined through being thought of as ‘what dumb girls do’.

dumb-poses-that-all-girls-doThe images here create a typology of “dumb girl poses” which implies that such posturing (and being ‘dumb’) is an inescapable part of being a girl. Both sets suggest the desire to show “obvious chest”, even if this is hidden beneath a veil of “’don’t’ look at my boobs”. This perception of girls’ presentation of self is particularly troubling, in that it fosters a connection between a girl’s claimed rejection of sexual attention, and her implied, implicit desire for it.

The female stick figures in the next image contrast with their serious, formal male counterparts. Even in such a simple drawing as this, the stereotypical presentations of appearance and behaviour serve to reinforce wider duckface13assumptions about male and female gender performance. Men are serious, women are not; men prioritise the task at hand, women prioritise their appearance. The act of joking about stereotypes also serves to reinforce them, and turn them into a form of ‘common knowledge’.

* Inferiority relative to other women

As I mentioned earlier, much of the criticism for the pout is leveled by women, at women, as a mutual form of discipline. Disdain for the pout serves to enact distinction, separating the deviants who ‘do’, from the wise who ‘don’t’. The next image exemplifies this, praising the woman who doesn’t ‘duck face’ in photos, and using it as testament to a woman’s duckface15self-confidence. This correlation between attractiveness and not doing the pout raises some interesting issues. Firstly, it suggests that women who pout do not ‘know they’re attractive’, but are yet trying to attain attractiveness through doing so – a double-bind in which being attractive is valued, but apparently not the desire to be attractive. Secondly, knowledge of being attractive is positioned as being empowering, therefore placing women who pout into the category of being disempowered. Thirdly, ‘knowing’ she is attractive implies little or no need for effort – marking those who strive for attractiveness, and through striving connote uncertainty relating to whether they are or not, into a lesser group.

The equating of the pout with not ‘knowing one is attractive’, positioning this in itself as being unattractive, and then using this as a basis for criticizing and mocking the subject’s appearance, reveals much relating to the complex discourses, and contradictions, surrounding femininity. A woman must appear confident, it is suggested, but to do so requires the internalization of a number of rules relating to acceptable gender performance. To put on a convincing performance of confidence therefore, as with appearing suitably ‘natural’ and ‘oneself’, requires a degree of negation of the quality supposedly being presented. The pout, in suggesting that either a) the woman lacks confidence or b) the woman is confident but without having subscribed to the rules forbidding the pout, is therefore doubly problematic in relation to ‘acceptable’ norms of femininity. duckface16

The next image features two similar women who are both doing variations on the pout. But the caption accompanying the image on antiduckface.com notes a difference between them: “here we have a textbook example of the high-maintenance-tart-pout vs the duckface. pay attention, people. this is important.”[2] This distinction is interesting, as it demonstrates that the difference between being perceived to be doing something ‘right’ and something ‘wrong’ can be very small, and almost imperceptible to other observers. The highlighting of minute differences that can equal a loss of status fosters a climate of uncertainty, anxiety and self-doubt, in which the subject is expected to view themselves critically to ascertain whether they have transgressed, or performed gender in an ‘acceptable’ manner.

indexThe image, left, again contrasts the woman doing it ‘right’ with those that are doing it ‘wrong’. The caption of “what you think you look like” / “what you actually look like” underscores the women’s ‘failure’ by accusing them of not only being wrong, but also delusional, emphasizing again (as we saw above) how doing this must mean the subject is in some way ‘stupid’.

The caption underneath the two comparative images, “the ugly truth”, underscores the veracity of its own statement, asserting that to perform this pose expecting it to look ‘attractive’ is a misconception. The fact that it is not just the truth, but the ugly truth, we are being presented with, leads us to the next subsection of criticism, relating to perceptions of unattractiveness.

* Unattractiveness

Criticism of the pout most frequently takes the form of implying, or stating outright, that the pose is somehow unattractive. Of course, this relies on the assumption that criteria for attractiveness, and for its opposite, are universally shared and understood. duckface18

The caption “Trying so hard to look good never made anyone look so bad” reinforces the theme mentioned above, where any perceptible effort towards looking attractive appears to negate those very aims of the subject. This  underscores the ‘necessity’ for women to look attractive by ridiculing those that they feel are missing the mark. Such coercion does not take into account any behaviours which might be outside of, in opposition to, the wish to adhere to an attractive norm, such as the apparently self-mocking examples seen above. On the contrary, the critics creating and circulating such images appear to feel they have every right to assess and mock others, according to whether they provide adequate viewing pleasure.

duckface19The next example takes the form of a four-part monologue, in which the subject begins with a cheery salute and winking emoticon, suggesting friendship and parity. The third image, however, sees her perform an exaggerated re-enactment of the ‘duckface’, as if to emphasise its vulgarity. The last frame concludes with a statement, “it’s NOT cute!” and a knowing smile. The hand gesture progresses from greeting, to contemplative, to mocking, and finally to a prescriptive finger raised discipline1as if giving an order. This tracks the transitions observable in other contexts (women’s magazines and the ‘makeover’ format of reality television, for example), where ‘advice’ for women takes place on a continuum from friendly guidance to mockery and censure. This format of the four-part monologue has been used in a related context to criticise other behaviours which are not deemed acceptable for women, through slut-shaming (see image right). The act of describing and forbidding certain behaviours allows the person speaking to attain a level of agency and status by demonstrating knowledge about such activities and then positioning themselves as being distinct from, and ‘better’ than them. Ringrose and Renold suggest that this also serves as a means for expressing jealousy, which is “sublimated into a socially acceptable form of social critique of girls’ sexual expression” (2012).

Untitled1Numerous examples from the blog antiduckface.com feature images combined with a disparaging comment. Many of these focus on the perceived ‘unattractiveness’ of the women, their pose, or both. The first example, left, is captioned “oh yeah. that’s fucking HOT”[3] The sarcastic tone positions the commentator in a position of power, identifying the subject’s supposed aim (to look ‘hot’) whilst undercutting it. This perpetuates the idea of women striving, misguidedly, to attain attractiveness, and feeds into a wider discourse that serves to undercut women’s efforts and goals in general.duckface20

The caption alongside the second image, right, declares that “it’s an alien invasion, we tell you. it’s the only possible explanation for this sort of nonsense. fucking aliens, man. like, from mars or florida or some shit.”[4] The equating of an ‘undesirable’ gender performance with alien life might seem extreme, but it serves to firmly position the subject outside of the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. It also labels the subject as having a spoiled or undesirable identity, where actually being wrong is a consequence of merely doing something wrong. This demonstrates how a perceived transgression, however brief, can impact upon the subject’s socially-constructed identity.

* Spoiled Identity

Untitled2In the next example, we can see that as well as being ‘unattractive’, the pout is supposedly an extreme enough signifier of disturbance of what is ‘normal’ to be an indicator of mental illness. The linking of one minor action with something as severe as mental illness is not just ridiculous, it is also emblematic of the distorted significance given to the ‘transgressive’ actions of women. A minor misdemeanor is overplayed to the point of almost parody, but this still contributes a significant weight to the discourses of feminine behaviour. Not only is the pouting woman positioned as being stupid, unattractive and inferior to her peers, she is also supposedly mentally ill, and therefore subject to the numerous penalties and stigmas that such a negative combination of identities attracts.

This image also asserts that “sometimes, the victims gender become hard to determine” (sic). This emphasizes the ‘problem’ that lies at the heart of the ‘duckface’ trend – namely that it causes distress to the viewer of some kind or another. It might be that the viewer cannot enjoy a picture of an attractive woman, or that they are distracted by the subject not taking the viewer’s gaze and requirements seriously enough – or here, that the viewer might be uncomfortable if gender is not performed in accordance with social norms. The perceived lack of a clear gender identity is a problem for the viewer, not the subject, but it is a problem that is firmly leveled at the subject as being ‘their fault’. As with the other examples in this essay, the subject is positioned as being entirely responsible for making themselves attractive or in other ways acceptable to others.duckface22

The next image, right, again asserts the pouter has a spoiled identity by implying that they could only be attractive to a duck, perpetuating the link between the pout and the non-human. This image also states that “you got the attention you wanted”, suggesting that the pout is both a shameless grab for attention, and a marker of misplaced or even ‘perverted’, bestial desires.

* Framed within Context of Male Desire

A female with a marginalised, devalued identity is identified as someone who continues to do something that has not been sanctioned by her male viewers. The importance of satisfying the male gaze is implied by the coercion to appear ‘attractive’, but is made explicit in duckface23numerous references to the ‘duckface’. The Morpheus meme (where that character from The Matrix dramatically reveals a piece of information relating to popular culture) here states that “duckfaces are extremely unattractive to men”. Not just unattractive, but unattractive to men, presumably a significant deterrent in its creator’s eyes, and by implication, the reader’s. The fact that this is presented as a revelation – “what if I told you” – emphasizes the prevalent point in these examples that women are viewed as lacking self-knowledge, and require the guidance of a benevolent male adviser.Untitled3

The next image places a type of everyman figure in the context of a nightclub where women (and only women) are shown to be posing and gurning for the camera. This behaviour, whilst not directly impacting or reflecting upon him, is nevertheless enough to prompt the statement “I fucking hate clubs”. Perhaps here the problem is precisely that this behaviour, looking at and performing for the camera, is excluding the male viewer, both at the time of capture, as well as afterwards in not producing an image which suits his ‘needs’ (i.e. taste). The group of women depicted in this cartoon are highly visible, and engaging in being so, but in a way that contravenes the normative assumptions governing how a woman should appear in public. The pout, once it is photographed and shared, can be added to the category of misdemeanors that contains public drunkenness and overt displays of sexuality, all of which position transgressive women as being outside of the bounds of acceptability and normality – and therefore ‘fair game’ for abusive comments and exclusion.

duckface25The third image addresses “all girls out there”, and explains to them what is (presumably in their eyes, ‘objectively’) “fucking HOT” and what is “SHIT”. This kind of simplistic binary division acts a coercive device, where if you are not one thing, you are by implication the other. What makes this distinction all the more arbitrary is the fact that the images have much in common with each other. Both are deliberately posed, horizontal self-shots, in which the subject stares out at the viewer and contorts their mouth in a deliberately ‘sexy’ manner. The acceptability of the lip bite relative to the pout is similar to the preference for ‘natural’ beauty, where women enacting one type of behaviour are arbitrarily positioned as being superior to another, in a way that is then presented as being ‘common sense’ or the ‘obvious’ choice.

duckface26The disdain for the pout shown by the male, heterosexual voice is stronger in the next two examples, where it is seen as being an obstacle to the fulfillment of male sexual desire. In the first example, it is ruining “a perfectly good set of boobs”, thereby reducing a woman to just her (now flawed) breasts. The second example dramatically states that “duck lips kills Untitled4erections!” The irritated or horrified tone expressed in these examples not only underscores the function of women to service male desire, but also the warning that trying to be desirable and failing is as unacceptable as not trying at all, if not more so. Being desirable is therefore a dangerous and difficult undertaking – apparently obligatory, but also loaded with responsibilities and the threat of censure. The imperative to accept that male desire is the priority for women’s actions prioritizes men and their needs over women’s, and positions women’s behaviour in relation to numerous minute regulations.

duckface28The next example makes the connection between the ‘duckface’ and male desire by suggesting that the origin of the pout lies in fellatio. There is a strong sense of injustice when it becomes feasible for men to chastise women for their lack of desirability, when at the same time accusing them of emulating the archetypical figure who services male desire, namely the porn actress. The latent misogyny that lies behind much of the derisive comments about the pout becomes more visible here, as well as the double standard relating to female sexuality. Whereas the porn actress serves as an example of the woman who attains and satisfies male desire, she is also a figure to be spurned, rather than emulated, even though the dividing point between ‘sexually attractive’ and ‘slutty’ can be very small indeed.

Alongside galleries of ‘duckface’ photos, several sites I looked at also hosted galleries of women’s self-shot portraits, which were presented as featuring women the viewers would find sexually attractive. The difference between these and the dreaded ‘duckface’ images seemed to be very narrow at times, with a high instance of pouting and posing still occurring. The difference is of degree rather than of type, and the cherished cultural knowledge appears duckface29to relate to knowing when one has reached ‘the limit’ of acceptability. The image, right, is from one such gallery, where this dividing line has been ‘successfully’ negotiated, and the result is duckface30perceived to be ‘hot’. The next image  also serves to show how the pout can still be observed in contexts of approval, such as the gallery “Jaime Laycock: Your New Internet Crush” [5]. The inconsistent manner in which the ‘rules’ are applied fosters a climate of uncertainty, in which a female viewer receives conflicting messages regarding how she ‘must’ behave and appear. Uncertainty, as Foucault (1977) described, is a tool for enacting power, through encouraging self-monitoring and self-regulation.

* Direct Orders

The next category of images sees the viewer’s voice move on from stating that the subject looks ‘unattractive’ or ‘stupid’, to issue a direct order to cease behaving a certain way. The earlier examples implied (albeit heavily) that women should stop pouting; these examples duckface31take that a step further and make the coercion explicit. The first example does this in a fairly humorous way, addressing the subjects as “Dear all women” and using slang to request that they “stop this shit”. The accompanying caricature underscores the perceived unattractive nature of the pout, emphasizing the huge lips and Untitled5chin. The second example also addresses the subjects as “Dear” and refers to the pout as “this shit”, but takes a more abusive stance by labeling those who pout as “whores of the internet”. The capitalization and exaggerated size of the text, as well as the double exclamation marks underscore the urgency and apparent severity of the statement. The red circle around the woman’s mouth is feature shared with some gossip magazines, in which the offending item is identified, as if providing evidence for their condemnation.

The next example takes the form of a text box, appearing on one of the numerous Facebook sites dedicated to ridiculing the ‘duckface’duckface33 [6]. The order to stop doing the ‘duckface’ is part of a longer list of instructions, relating to performing a more acceptable, “beautiful” version of femininity, and the avoidance of looking “easy”. The promised result of obeying such orders is that the subject will now be able to enjoy the attention of “RESPECTABLE” guys. The implied aim here remains to attract the attention of men, but the ‘right’ kind of men, and it is down to the subject to ensure she behaves in a manner which will get her the ‘right’ result. This makes a connection between women’s behaviour and appearance, and men’s behaviour in response to it, which although appears innocuous in this context, becomes more dangerous when extremes of male desire in the form of sexual assault are also taken to be the responsibility of the woman. In this way we can see how discourses relating to women’s depiction in photographs fits into a much wider, and more serious, context of female sexuality and gender equality.

* Threats of violence

The last category of images contains those which either imply or directly illustrate acts of violence being carried out on women who ‘do the duckface’ in photographs. The prevalence of comments describing such acts illustrates the extent to which violence against women is still widely accepted and expressed online.

The first example features a woman with a piece of tape covering her mouth, accompanied duckface34by the caption “She pulled a duck face, I gave her a duct face. Duct tape: Fixes everything”. The (presumably) male speaker presents his actions as logical and warranted: she did this, so I did that. He explains that he has ‘fixed’ the problem that she represented by intervening and forcibly modifying her body so that she cannot transgress any further. The fact that this intervention also takes the form of silencing the woman reinforces the difference between the speaking, problem-solving male and the silent, problematic female. The female body is again shown to be a domain where the male has not only the right to express opinion, but also the ability to physically intervene.

This description on Buzzfeed of the ‘duckface’ takes a faux-serious tone, making the link between the pose and other markers of unacceptable femininity, such as heavy make-up:

Symptoms of Duck Face include lips thrust forward in an imitation of water fowl, usually accented with heavy eyeliner, glowing orange skin, and occasionally strange Emo hair-dos…if you see the warning signs of the dreaded Duck Face happening to a friend or loved one, slap the shit out of them. You too, can help prevent this horrible disease from spreading. Educate yourself so that you and your friends won’t fall victim.[7]

The suggestion that the mere act of making a certain expression warrants these women having ‘the shit’ slapped out of them is of course alarming, but especially given the instructional tone within which this is presented. Violence here is not just presented as being a solution to a problem, but also as a positive act that can prevent not only undesirable behaviours, but also stop “this horrible disease from spreading”. Forum user Fitzgerald77 agrees with this approach, making the connection between the pout and a spoiled feminine identity that somehow merits a violent response: “anytime I see that face I must fight the urge to slap a ho”[8]. Another commenter, Curly, sees the pout as an invitation to sexual assault, suggesting that “as far as I’m concerned, if they’re making a duck face they’re really just asking for dick in there”[9].

A song about hating duckfaces on You Tube features the lyrics “thanks to you I threw up”, “take your lips and put them back to normal” and “all you dumb bitches look fucking retarded”[10], which combines themes we’ve already looked at such as disgust, ‘normality’ and perceived stupidity. The tone of the comments underneath the video continue the theme of mocking, referring to ‘stupid’ and ‘ugly bitches’. User MegaMushface, suggests that “all them girls deserve to die”, and BlackBombBird adds “KILL THEM ALL!!!!!!!! ALL WITH FIRE!!!!!!!!!!!!!” demonstrating how contexts such as this which normalize derogatory behaviour, also serve to normalize more extreme attitudes and expressions of hatred. One user who voices active distaste, Cupcakes Girl09, is hounded and insulted by other users. Her comment “how would you feel if people were rude to YOU just because of a facial expression???” is flagged as spam by multiple users and hidden from view, with replies ranging from “Go make me a sandwich bitch”, “GO AWAY responsible person STFU get off the internet” and “go blow a platypus with your stupid duck lips. cunt.” The ferocity of these comments demonstrates that coercive force of the discourse, where women are given the choice of either joining in with the ridicule, or become subject to it themselves. The imperative to “go away“ and “get off the internet” demarcates this space as being for people who share the opinions of the commentator, rather than an open forum for all. Dissenting voices are to be undermined, attacked and silenced.

The final three images are those which take the duckface35condemnation of the ‘duckface’ to an extreme, picturing the female offenders as valid targets for being shot in the head. The first image is part of an online game that references the 1984 Nintendo game “Duck Hunt”. In this new version, the faces of pouting women have been superimposed onto the ducks, so that the gamer can shoot at them and earn points [11].

Untitled6

The second image depicts a man who “takes it serious” (implying admiration) in the form of aiming a rifle at the back of a woman’s head as she photographs herself pouting in the mirror.Untitled7

The last example depicts Elmer Fudd frowning at a woman who pouts into a camera, before shooting her in the face. Fortunately, the woman remains unscathed, apart from having her pouting mouth moved to the back of her head, underscoring the ridiculous and unnatural qualities of the transgressive woman’s appearance.

* Acceptable Duckfaces

Interestingly, I did find examples where some exceptions to the rule were found, declaring certain ‘duckfaces’ to be acceptable. Unsurprisingly, however, they were examples where men were pouting, not women.

duckfacemen4duckfacemen2

duckfacemenduckfacemen3

Conclusion

With these examples, I have tried to show how something as seemingly innocuous as pouting in photographs, and the comments that they generate, feeds into a wider discourse that restricts and punishes particular performances of female identity and sexuality. Rather than being harmless fun, the discourse regarding duckfaces, and those who do them, disciplines women into adhering to certain prescribed gender norms, realigns their priorities to match those of the (male) viewer, and promotes mockery and threat as legitimate forms of leisure. The discussion of women’s photographs on social media is therefore intricately linked with wider issues regarding social organisation, and gender equality.

Bibliography

Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. London: Allen Lane.

Shields Dobson, A. (2011) “Hetero-sexy Representation by Young Women on MySpace: The Politics of Performing an ‘Objectified’ Self”, Outskirts, Vol 25.

Ringrose, Jessica (2012). “Sexual regulation and embodied resistance”. Postfeminist Education?: Girls and the Sexual Politics of Schooling. Foundations and Futures of Education. Routledge. p. 93-94

[1] http://www.cosmopolitan.com/celebrity/news/death-to-celebrity-duckfaces, accessed 4th January 2013.

[2] www.antiduckface.com accessed 4th January 2013

[3] www.antiduckface.com

[4] www.antiduckface.com

[5] http://www.bromygod.com/2012/04/05/jaime-laycock-your-new-internet-crush/ accessed 8th January 2013.

[6] www.facebook.com/antiduckcoalition accessed 4th January 2013.

[7] http://www.buzzfeed.com/brandib6/duck-face-the-race-for-the-cure-53mh

[8] Duckface pictures Hot or Not, discussion on http://www.mmo-champion.com/threads/1197423-Duckface-pictures-HOT-or-NOT accessed 4th January 2013.

[9] Duckface pictures Hot or Not, discussion on http://www.mmo-champion.com/threads/1197423-Duckface-pictures-HOT-or-NOT

[10] http://youtu.be/itjHUM5B9uM accessed 8th January 2013.

[11] http://jozogames.com/action/duck-face-hunter accessed 8th January 2013.

The Photographic Factory, part 1

This post, and the one following, is a summary of my experiences working at a high street photography studio.

In early 2008 I saw an advert asking for photographers posted up in the hallway at university, where I was studying for an MA. As my study topic was concerned with developing approaches to portraiture, I thought some experience of working ‘in the field’ at a portrait studio would be useful, and so was very pleased to be offered a job after a short interview and a look at my portfolio.

An Overview of Working Practices

The studio operated over two floors in a period office conversion, the basement floor consisting of reception, hair and make-up, photography and the retouchers, with the sales department 3 floors above. This separation between production and sales struck me as awkward at first, but I soon began to understand the gap between the hot and busy studio and the cool, quiet sales suite.

Numbers

On my first day, I was to shadow the head photographer and watch everything she did, taking notes and asking her to clarify what she was doing. The working day was explained to me through numbers – we would shoot 8 clients in a day, each client had three outfits, each outfit needed to be shot on 3 backgrounds, with each background requiring a close-up, mid-length and full length shot. There was flexibility in this framework, but I stuck fairly close to it, for fear of being asked “why is there no close-up here?” We needed to submit a minimum of 40 images for each client, which over an 8 client day, meant that we shot enough images to make our day rate amount to about 15p for each photo. Photos which could then we whisked upstairs and sold for hundreds of pounds. The most expensive package was several thousand pounds.

My First Client

After watching the head photographer for a few hours, she asked me to take the next client: a mature lady with a number of quite glamorous outfits. I was very nervous, and felt hot and flustered as I asked her to do a series of poses. My nerves meant that I found it hard to operate the camera even though it was the same model I owned myself. I stared blankly at the camera and at the lights, waiting for them to indicate what I should do with the client. My mind had emptied of everything I had learned: the critical approaches to portraiture, along with my technical skills and familiarity with the equipment.

This sense of panic would recur throughout my job, and sometimes I would find myself trying pose after pose with a client, each one looking awkward or unflattering. The client would look at me with confusion, expecting to be led and directed. But underneath it all, I found it inexplicably difficult – the reason being, I now realise, was that I was profoundly uncomfortable with the process of discipline which constituted every photoshoot. Both me, and the client, were being controlled – me, by the framework of shots and the demand for high sales; the client, by my directing hand, firmly guiding them into performing ‘desirability’ in line with culturally defined gender norms.

Sales

The sales floor and team were an enigma to me. In contrast to the crumpled, sweaty workers who produced the photographs, sales staff wore ironed clothes and high heels. Their sales suites had natural light and air conditioning, all drawing a line for the client under their rather undignified physical ordeal, and instead focusing on business. This is where the point of the company resided, in a room with a big couch and an equally big screen. Sit the client down with photographs of themselves and a trained, sympathetic salesperson and the transaction seemed almost inevitable – people would want to buy their own photos, surely? Except that clients would often be shocked at the price and walk out, or hate their photographs and refuse to buy anything. But through a difficult, drawn-out process a sale could be extracted, the total of which being written in heavy black pen across the contact sheet and returned to the photographer, along with a grade. I often sold nothing, a big black zero indicating another personal failure to understand what was wanted, and to interpret the enigmatic rules of depicting another human correctly.

The Stats Board

At the end of each month, our sales were tabulated, compared to the ‘expected’ output, and ranked. The highest performing photographers would get a bonus, the poorly performing photographers would have their names highlighted in red, with the threat of not receiving more work. Being freelancers, the manager could simply decide not to allocate shifts to photographers whose sales were low, so the stats board was an indicator of who might be about to lose work. Aside from that, there was the sheer humiliation of having your name highlighted as being ‘poor’, and then pinned to the wall for all to see. The stats board created an unspoken hierarchy amongst the photographers: we all knew who the best performers were, along with who was struggling. I found my appearance at the bottom of the list uniquely demotivating, and suggested to the manager that an alternative way of displaying information be found. The practice remained, however, and I learned to just accept that in their eyes I was a bad photographer.

Over the next two years I found the job increasingly difficult. It wasn’t the technical aspects, which I mastered fairly quickly – it was the unpredictable nature of the clients, and the complete guesswork involved in trying to manufacture images which they would like. Some photographers were much better at doing this, largely due to being at ease with the clients and giving them a more enjoyable experience. I, meanwhile, fretted away behind the camera, veering from trying to make everything perfect to utter confusion and apathy.

Clients

The studio shot between 40 and 50 clients a day. I would usually forget the client’s name the instant I had learned it, and forgot the morning clients entirely by mid-afternoon. The speed of working, as well as the similarity of the shoots, meant that individuals merged into each other, losing their distinction even whilst you were working with them.

Awkward Clients

Clients could be awkward in any number of ways. They could start the shoot by saying to you “I don’t want to do this, I’m only here with my friend, I hate having my photos done.” This would inevitably make my heart sink, and despite brightly responding “hey, you never know, you might have fun!” inside I’d be bemoaning getting a client that would be difficult to work with, and ultimately unlikely to buy anything. More than this, they would make me feel like I was making them act against their will, blaming me somehow for being there.

In a way, I was making them do it – being the person directly making them feel awkward, posing them in ways they did not feel natural doing, and hovering over them with a camera, issuing instructions. People’s responses to this would vary from the quiet and sullen, to the openly hostile and critical – “why are you making me do this? I don’t want to do that.” The irony is, of course, I didn’t feel comfortable doing my side of it either, but it would have come across as very strange to start complaining to a client “I really don’t want to do any of this, I feel like a bully.”

The in-house handbook for photographers deals with this issue in the following, unintentionally humorous, way:

“ask them why they ended up here and say something like ’well you’re here now, and I’m here to take photos of you, so we might as well try to have fun’… Try to have a laugh with them about it.”

Time

Clients might be happy to do a shoot, but otherwise awkward in terms of not really understanding the fact that I have more people than them to see in a day. The shoot timings would be very tight – around 40 minutes for each client – and seeing as that includes 3 changes of outfit, it’s not surprising that I often (if not always) went over that. Sometimes that would be down to me wasting time, unsure what to do next. But more often than not I would be hanging around the changing rooms waiting for clients to finish dressing, gently urging them to hurry up. One memorable client took 15 minutes just to choose bangles – she’d brought a whole sportsbag full of them. I was so surprised that I forgot to be angry at how much this would eat into my lunch break.

A client that disappeared into the dressing rooms and then failed to emerge again was called a Narnia. Secretly we wanted them to never come back out again, as it only meant heavily rising back up to our tired feet and leading them off to again make them do something they didn’t really want to.

Physical Awareness

I was surprised at the lack of body awareness of many clients. In an unfamiliar situation it’s only natural to become awkward and a bit disorientated, but sometimes the client would seem entirely disconnected from their body.

A request to put their hand under their chin would result in a heavy lean on a fist, and a crumpled face, which I would have to delicately put right (verbally of course, as were strongly discouraged from ever touching the client). Another request to lean forward with hands crossed over the knee might result in a hunched back and crossed fists. I found it very difficult to explain to clients why a hunched back, or a fist, or folded arms, were to be avoided. Sometimes I found myself trying to explain to a client what I meant by “shin” or “elbow”, even demonstrating on myself, as the client moved or covered some other body part instead.

The most difficult of these situations would be when the client had an idea of a pose or facial expression that they wanted to do, but which didn’t particularly suit them. I couldn’t very well say “stop doing that face please, it really doesn’t work for you” so would delicately ask that “we try a range of expressions.”

It was only in retrospect that I realised such acts of controlling another person’s body and facial expressions constituted an outright act of discipline, ‘fixing’ and ‘correcting’ the minute details to make each client look ‘their very best’. Best, of course, meant normalised, and as much like everyone else as possible. At the time, I really thought I was doing the right thing. Now, I look back with sadness and shame, unhappy that I was part of a process of regulating women, for profit.

Managing Client Expectations

There were ways in which we could hope to predict and manage the client’s expectations, and we would garner information from a person’s appearance and demeanor about what we could do with them. This cynical process rested on making snap decisions based on stereotypes.

The framework for shooting people according to type assigned each client a certain range of poses and shots designed to make them look ‘their best’. People who were more heavily-built, for instance, had a certain type of shoot designed for them, namely a series of well-lit close-ups and mid-length shots, styled to conceal and reveal in the right amounts. To conceal a large stomach, I would sit the client sideways in an armchair, and have them twist round and lean forward onto the chair’s arm. The chair would hide the body, and the focus would stay on the face and chest. I would often ask a client to move their head forward a little, to stretch their underchin. A hand placed lightly under the chin could achieve a similar effect. I often worried that the client knew exactly what I was doing by posing them like this.

The studio handbook says of larger clients:

“Larger clients will often buy more photos than pretty clients if you can make them look good because they will never have seen themselves in that way”

“Black clothes on black background will make their body disappear”

The guidance for older clients is equally clear:

“Older women suit more traditional sets”

“Older women tend to like the more traditional poses”

“Be careful with moody lighting on older clients. Use bright uplifting colours and very soft lighting”

This direct linking of age / size with a certain style of photograph shows how rigidly compartmentalised the attitude towards the client was. Stereotypes were unavoidable, and practically compulsory. The question in my mind was why these stereotypes produced photographs the clients preferred – what lay underneath our notions of  being “flattering”?

A Good Client

To be easy to work with, a client would need to engage with the process. Ideally, they would have an idea of the kind of look they wanted, but be able to adapt and take direction. Unfortunately, and again I am ashamed to admit this, often the best clients would be those that asked little of you, and ultimately enabled you to work quickly without too much interruption. It was this attitude towards the clients that the process fostered, as well as the underlying fact of deception (‘this shoot is unique to you!’) and stereotype reproduction (women must be shot like this) that ultimately led to my decision to leave. My relationship towards photography had been irrevocably altered, and it had become symbolic of social and economic forces that I did not wish to engage with.