Selfies are for Girls (Unless They’re Good)

Here I am going to consider how the critique of selfies acts to gender the practice.

Aside from its own perceived inadequacies – too numerous, not creative enough – the selfie is seen as being devalued by virtue of its associations: with celebrities, young people and especially young women. These connections, made between subjects and practices that are both presented as vapid and insignificant, come to reinforce each other, with criticism of one transferring easily onto the other. By being used as a vehicle for women to present and reflect on their appearance, the selfie bears the taint of being seen as a vain and attention-seeking act of self-promotion. And in turn, when women take selfies, the relationship between woman-as-selfie, and selfie-as-woman, naturalises the accusations of narcissism. Either is held to represent the failings of the other.

But this gendered association of the selfie is not necessarily reflected in practice, as Papacharissi found that both men and women take selfies, and depict themselves in equal measure enacting a range of poses and facial expressions in front of the mirror (2011: 261). The discursive construction of the selfie, in which it is gendered as feminine, serves to legitimise its marginalisation, despite its popularity. This negative association with women, where it is seen as “more socially acceptable for a woman to take [selfies]” [i], does not designate women as specialists within this field, but positions them as devalued subjects in contrast to men:

Dudes weren’t born to pose[ii]

Men simply don’t appear to need the same positive reinforcement that comes from public confirmations of physical desirability[iii]

The connection between women, selfies and narcissism is therefore made a consequence of nature, in which men are “born” without the “need” that such images embody. Discussing selfies in these terms means that women connote lack, insecurity and need, whereas men are conceived of as self-reliant, independent and confident. This gendered characterisation, which acts to generalise both the diversity of people and behaviours, means that even if a practice is engaged in widely, the perceived qualities are those of the subjects, or the assumed subjects. Once these subjects change, the value of the practice itself shifts, as is evident in the occasional articles which praise selfies – by virtue of who has taken them. One such article suggests that participating in taking selfies proves we’re ‘all human’, although the examples listed include the Pope and Michelle Obama[iv].

Furthermore, males’ use of the selfie is frequently presented as not just acceptable but exceptional – the most notable example being the Japanese astronaut Aki Hoshide, who took “what might be the greatest selfie of all time at the International Space Station”[v].

Aki Hoshide Selfie

The image, which dramatically features the sun and Earth as reflected in his visor, demonstrates the degree to which the intervention of technology, spectacle and a male subject can transform a denigrated practice into a work of art. Similarly, the book ‘Leica Myself’ and the ‘Leica M Selfies’ group on Flickr, display a similarly legitimising effect, by virtue of the camera type (and by implication the economic and technical status of the photographer) that is taking the image. The Flickr group is dominated by male photographers, and the use of the Leica reflects a shared dedication to, and belief in, a specific signifier which acts to legitimise photographic consumption and production.

myself

This sense in which the technology, and the subject who uses it, is of a higher calibre than the devalued ‘other’ is evident in that statement that such Leica-enabled selfies “blow your sister’s blurry iPhone creations out of the water”[vi]. This double-standard, in which male self-portraits, especially when bolstered by the authority of technology, are superior to female selfies, demonstrates the degree to which the subject and the photographic practice are interlinked and used as emblematic of each other.

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4 comments

  1. Interesting thoughts. My interpretation of the selfie is much simpler (or perhaps more complex, depending on how you look at it): Photos that are clearly vapid, and are taken by males or females for the obviously express purpose of generating positive feedback about one’s appearance, are not really worth much to anyone except the subject of the photo. But when there is “more” to the selfie—e.g., demonstrating a cool object, place, setting, clever angle, or, indeed, the International Space Station—then it becomes a thing of interest to more than just the person who posted it.

    1. Can you describe what a vapid photograph looks like? I’m actually quite interested to know your thoughts…

      I sometimes wonder about landscape photography, for instance, in that it might depict a lovely view, but it doesn’t really mean anything to me if I haven’t been there – ultimately that photo might be taken just for generating positive feedback too!

      1. sorry it took me a while to reply to you…

        Here’s one I found randomly on Instagram. Not much going on there: http://instagram.com/p/khuoBYqN7f/. I suppose you could argue he’s contributing to society by sharing his own beauty with the world… though I just can’t swallow that.

        And here’s a non-vapid one. She still looks cute, of course, but the point of the photo is to demonstrate the awesomeness of the candy behind her: http://instagram.com/p/jxdPJcNeel/

        I think your point about landscape photography is spot-on!

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