Defining the Selfie

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

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.



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