Much of my interest in the discourse around selfies, and women’s photography more generally, relates to the way in which certain practices are aligned with certain subjects, leading to statements like “if you take selfies / do the duckface / engage in sexting, then you must be …” The naturalization of this connection – between photographic practice and a certain “type” of person – has concrete social effects, in that it enables the maintenance of stereotypes and hierarchies. To exemplify this process, I explore here some of the ways in which selfie taking is characterised as evidence of a devalued subjectivity.
Through circulation and repetition, this association between the selfie and the ‘typical selfie subject’ is rearticulated, and in so doing attains a degree of legitimacy.
Selfies, are taken, liked and commented on by immature people, craving the attention of like-minded fools. …Rather than blame others, take some personal accountability and steer clear of this behaviour. Un-friend repeat offenders and follow ‘I f***ing love science’ instead. [i]
Such comments relating to the selfie demonstrate the means by which subjects are created discursively. Here, they are presented as ‘immature fools’, whose behaviour is so problematic that their abuse is to be expected. That these sentiments are widespread and automatically understood to relate to certain subjects, in ways that perpetuate stereotypes, prejudices and marginalisation, demonstrates how attitudes towards selfies act as part of a mechanism which legitimises oppression. The comment above opposes selfies against a science website, asserting that impersonal science news is an obviously more valid use of one’s attention than the all-too-personal selfie.
Other comments support this sense of the devalued selfie-taker, whilst vigorously distancing themselves from such behaviour:
I don’t know ANYONE who does this. Must be something that only plebs, Americans and people who work in the media and entertainment business do [ii]
This critics’ declaration of knowing no one who does it, followed by an identification of “plebs, Americans” and media workers is overtly prejudiced and generalising, but is able to do so by virtue of the extent to which the selfie is ‘understood’ to be devalued. In addition, this comment demonstrates the degree to which critics are confident to align certain practices with certain subjects, despite openly admitting to knowing nothing about them.
The subject of the selfie is viewed as inferior by virtue of the type of attention associated with such images, which positions such photographs as being unable to communicate anything beyond the visual:
We’re not just talking the type of notoriety you can get from a viral YouTube video, which tends to require at least a sliver of talent… these kids are amassing huge followings just for being attractive.[iii]
A concern with one’s appearance is associated with femininity, and is positioned as being of lesser value than presenting one’s internal qualities. The opposition of talent and attractiveness, above, tacitly references this gendered demarcation of self-presentation, in which certain qualities are held to be ‘obviously’ superior to others. This further genders the selfie, as being an expression of superficial feminine concerns (attractiveness) rather than more significant masculine capabilities (talent). Besides denoting a lack of ‘worthwhile’ skills, selfies are also held as evidence of much wider social problems:
Social media has only added to [a sense of] degeneracy by fostering a society of status-updaters and tweeters. To find examples of real people with backbone, character and class; look to those who are now in their 50’s and 60’s … The more ‘me’ technology gets produced, the more society degenerates into a populous of lazy, socially awkward, selfish people.[iv]
This irate swipe at technology and contemporary society contrasts “lazy, socially awkward, selfish people” with the “character and class” of the older generation. Social media, and those that use it, are held to be deeply anti-social and generally reprehensible by those that set themselves in opposition, as superior, and who seek easy answers to explain a society they no longer understand. Another commenter extends this theme, by asking:
Did all the greatest industry titans that built America use Instagram? Or how about all the CEOs, presidents, leaders in general. Did they need Instragram to be who they have become?[v]
The use of a particular photographic web site is therefore aligned in opposition to success, both at the level of the person, and at a national level. The implication is that Instagram is a distraction from becoming a leader, and prevents the formation of a new generation of great industry titans that America needs: a fatuous connection that again serves to designate certain persons, with certain habits, as being somehow ‘obviously’ inferior, and not leadership material.
Selfies as Distraction from Life
As well as stunting the social growth of a generation, and inhibiting the development of their potential, the taking of selfies is also framed as being a distraction from life itself:
Do not take so many photos that you forget to live in the moment, or your memories will not be so enjoyable, as they will primarily be of the taking of pictures.”[vi]
The opposition between ‘living one’s life’ and engaging with social media or taking photographs demonstrates the degree to which such technologies are conceived of by those that do not use them. In contrast, the users of social media do so as a part of living their life, not despite it, and the taking of photographs is a compliment to enjoyment, rather than an obstacle. But rather than signifying interest and engagement with oneself and one’s environment, taking photographs is often held to be just plain “weird’ and somehow tragic:
Just go about your day-to-day without documenting it, it’s just self-absorbed and weird, imo. [vii]
Such condemnation again demonstrates the way in which certain photographic forms are held to be symbolic of certain subjectivities, primarily by those that do not like or see the point in them.
People aren’t experiencing life these days; they are looking at it through a lens.[viii]
This opposition between living and looking perpetuates the hierarchical division between real and virtual, an increasingly tenuous separation that nevertheless is perpetuated because it serves to devalue those behaviours and subjects that are associated with the deficient ‘non real’. Nothing can make this bias against certain forms of cultural consumption more overt than the exhortation to ‘get a life’, a taunt levelled at all those who do not share similar interests to their critics:
What a waste of time. Get a life, already. Hint: life is not an app.[ix]
The devaluing of everyday photography makes an important distinction between photography as practiced by professionals or serious-amateurs, and that enjoyed by amateurs and those that would never think to class their practice in relation to other forms of photography. Namely, that taking photographs, when done in a way that is deemed ‘serious’, is an addition to life, a practice which allows subjects to develop their ways of seeing and to creatively express their own perspective and personality. However, when photographs are taken in a manner that is ‘not serious’, it is somehow held to be degrading their engagement with life and with other people, demonstrating nothing more than their self-obsession, rather than their personal point of view.
Perceptions of Narcissism and Insecurity
The dominant criticism of the selfie is that it is emblematic of a problematic subjectivity, typically characterised as insecure and narcissistic:
Selfies are pure narcissism and represent everything that is wrong with kids these days[x]
As I argue throughout this thesis, by regarding certain photographic practices as ‘evidence’ which supports their prejudices, critics use the selfie as a tool for social dominance, enacted through censure and the creation of hierarchies. In a Telegraph article lamenting the ‘loss’ of the family album, a connection is made between an interest in oneself and a disengagement with others[xi]. The family album, it alleges, is disappearing due to young people’s narcissistic obsession with pictures of themselves, despite the more obvious explanation being that web photo hosting makes printed albums a comparatively costly and unnecessary expense. The habits of a certain demographic – such as young people’s use of selfies – can therefore be misleadingly reappropriated to account for a perceived ‘decline’ or ‘loss’. Distinctions made between different, and better, forms of practice, further mark off selfie-taking and sharing as problematic:
Taking selfies = self-expploration. Sharing selfies = narcissism (sic)[xii]
Contrary to the prevalent sense in which selfie-taking is inherently self-obsessed, this comment conceives of narcissism as a relation one has with oneself in public. The public nature of selfies is seen to be a crucial factor in what makes them objectionable, suggesting a degree of anger at certain aspects of the private realm being made public. In high volumes, the personal images of others are held to be frustratingly useless for the spectator, supposedly asking for more than they give. Selfie critics conflate offense with uninteresting, which then legitimises an attack on ‘others’ who seem to be taking up improper amounts of space, in a manner which is viewed as tastelessly self-aggrandising.
When you have an entire generation who think the world revolves around them… of course they’re going to flood the net with selfies.[xiii]
The sense of there being ‘too many’ selfies (discussed previously) here becomes an outright flood, and acquires both a physical and catastrophic dimension. Critics make divisions between themselves and others – in this case, an entire generation – by describing their ‘proper’ use of selfies, which predominantly involves keeping them private. The retaining of such images is held to signify a degree of personal control and self-reliance, in contrast to the “self-obsessed hags” who choose to share their images:
I admit to the occasional selfie, but on my camera roll they stay. Because…in the long term, my soul would erode and I would become a self-obsessed hag, living from one excuse to take a selfie to the next. [xiv]
The act of taking selfies takes on an addictive quality, in which subjects are seen as moving continually one selfie to the next. The enjoyment of sharing selfies is characterised as a ‘high’, in which the “feedback loop of positive reinforcement…could be giving us more reason to act out online, for better or for worse” [xv] (Wortham, New York Times, June 2013). Seeking social approval in this way is presented as characteristic of those who lack self-esteem[xvi], as well as a catalyst for wider problematic and attention-seeking behaviours:
Selfies are fine for profile pictures and advice on new looks, etc. but anything rude, ‘chavvy’ or saying “I look awful” just to get nice or sympathetic comments is just stupid – have some self-respect! [xvii]
Presented as open and cynical demands for praise, selfies are linked with being “rude” and “chavvy”, bringing a moral and class dimension to the discourse. The selfie-taker is therefore not just a devalued individual, but also part of a marginalised social group. In this way, through repetition and association, the connection between photographic practice and devalued subjectivity – whether in the form of narcissism or “chavvy” sexuality – is naturalised and made logical. The notion of the narcissistic selfie-taker acts as a regime of truth, which critics can cite in order to position themselves as superior to the selfie demographic – namely, young women. Narcissism and femininity are repeatedly presented within the logic of the selfie as being inter-linked:
The western female is the most narcissistic demographic on earth. It’s no surprise that they would flood the internet with inconsequential pictures of themselves. It is simply an evolved form of attention whoring. It gives these women access to endless flattery and narcissistic supply. [xviii]
Psychologist Jill Weber makes a demarcation between the “healthy” seeking of validation, and the “problematic” basis of this approval in one’s appearance, which is positioned as separate from “who you are” [xix]. She describes this as particularly significant for young women, who are both “socialized toward seeing themselves as lovable and worthwhile only if others value them” and encouraged to foreground one’s appearance as a marker of their worth.
The selfie therefore becomes emblematic of the often limited resources and skills women have at their disposal, which prompts some critics to express their social advantage and personal strength by not having to rely on such positive feedback concerning their appearance:
I have one friend who often post pictures of herself with her butt pushed out in totally unnatural poses. I just feel sorry for her. She’s beautiful and amazing without having to cry out for that type of attention. [xx]
Women are therefore placed in a double-bind, where the selfie appears as a rational vehicle for attaining approval, through an accepted means for young women, but nevertheless penalises the subjects as attention-seeking and shallow. This equating of visibility with “crying out” for attention ignores the degree to which the approval of others influences one’s social status and relationship with the self. Taken to a ludicrous degree, one critic asks whether there was any point being you in the first place, if there’s no-one about to like one’s image:
If you look hot in the forest and no one takes a photo and puts it on the internet and calls you a #babe, is there any point in looking hot?[xxi]
This extreme vision of dependence on the praise of others acts as a deterrent, and cautions the reader not to seek the approval of others, lest they eventually feel they do not even exist without it. A desire for the approval and esteem of others, although a factor in social interaction and identity performance beyond the taking and sharing of selfies, is here presented as typical of subjects who are insecure:
Were it simply narcissism we could laugh it off …But this faux empowerment is bedded in a neediness to be seen, validated, “liked”.[xxii]
Additionally, the quest for social status, which users are held to be claiming through their sharing of themselves, is framed as part of a trivial popularity contest, in which selfies are:
about social status [and] group pressure – jumping on the safe bandwagon…So basically pathetic crap. 😉 [xxiii]
These critics position themselves as somehow above such concerns, forging their own path, independent of what others may think. But this is a problematic stance, especially when used to chastise women, who are socialised to be very aware of the importance of the perception of others, despite the prevalent encouragement to pretend it does not exist. The comment below asserts that the selfie user has the ability to “just not think any of these things”, displaying a strikingly callous lack of empathy or understanding of identity, concealed beneath a veneer of concern and helpful advice. The selfie user, like any recipient of unsolicited advice, is therefore automatically positioned beneath the one who advises, and who ‘knows better’.
Don’t you realize that our bodies are just a vessel and not who we truly are? And that what someone thinks or doesn’t think of you makes absolutley no difference? (sic)[xxiv]
But despite what these comments might assert, identity is nevertheless a social construct, and is fostered in relation to others. The criticism that selfie takers should just have confidence and self-knowledge, without interacting with or being influenced by others, is deeply obtuse, as well as hypocritical. These comments are, after all, just as much a vehicle for a shared identity as selfies, embodying a similar wish for recognition and social connectedness (Van House, 2011: 426). A counter-critique expands on this notion of hypocrisy, labelling the detractors of the selfie as the true narcissists:
The delusion that “kids these days” are more narcissistic is narcissistic. [xxv]
Selfie criticism therefore becomes reframed as a way of deflecting one’s insecurities and anger onto the cultural habits of younger people:
“Selfies” aren’t half as narcassisitc as the sorts of people who who feel the need to constantly, loudly declare themselves above selfies… especially if they overanalyse it to the point of concluding it’s the downfall of civilisation itself (sic)[xxvi]
The following comment details a sublimation of rage and dissatisfaction with a loss of power and personal status, onto younger users of social media:
There is an outlying element that is furious about people’s usage of social media. …[These people] who may have once had more control over the social lives of young people are seeing that control slip away as the youth, family members, friends can now befriend other like-minded people using social media connections. Nobody likes the loss of power. [xxvii]
These assessments highlight the arbitrariness of the focus of the critics’ target (photographs, and social media) as well as the underlying hierarchies which they express, in terms of youth vs age, as well as women vs men. Potentially, this rage could be an expression of insecurity and the fear of obsolescence in in a world that is changing so rapidly, with technology they no longer understand, that threatens to undermine their authority and experience with automation and sheer volume – none of which, incidentally, is the fault of those that they blame.
Perceptions of Loneliness
Besides being a marker of self-obsession, the selfie is also emblematic of a sense of loneliness and social isolation:
‘Selfies’ are what I name the ‘loner photo’, as it’s pretty sad that one cannot get a friend to take a photo for you…[xxviii]
Selfie-taking can be held to entail a distance from oneself as well as one’s peers. Esquire writer Stephen Marche quotes Susan Sontag in his article Sorry, Your Selfie Isn’t Art, stating that such images are a “disengagement from the self as much as … a promotion of the self.” [xxix] The sense of distance between oneself and one’s image – important for a sense of critical self-reflection, and useful for the development and negotiation of identity – is reconceived as problematic, as if seeing oneself as an image entails losing one’s ability to live in and enjoy one’s own body.
Besides implying a lack of friends, the selfie is also held to be obstructive to obtaining a sense of genuine friendship – summarised in Angela Mollard’s article Real Friends Don’t Take Selfies. This heavily proscriptive article describes a perfect friendship of the author’s, which is “built on words, not images; on how things feel, not how they look”[xxx]. This hierarchy of how one achieves and maintains a friendship displays an arbitrary disdain for images in favour of the spoken word. The image here is held to be nothing more than a vapid vehicle for personal self-aggrandisement, whereas a message “carefully crafted and lovingly sent, is about them” [xxxi]. This distinction is nonsensical, in that a message can be as self-obsessed as any photograph, but it perpetuates a sense in which some people’s photographic habits – and by association, their lives, their friendships, their selves – are somehow just better than others.
Although Mollard and Marche are adamant that the selfie connotes an isolated and self-interested subject, the commonly-expressed enjoyment for viewing selfies taken by others overturns their theory. Here, instead of alienating, the selfie becomes a tool for knowing others, in which sharing and viewing are reciprocal processes and signify an interest in, and engagement with, a wider social world:
I love selfies! I love seeing what other people look like or are wearing, and heaven knows I post plenty of them myself. [xxxii]
This enjoyment of seeing others, no matter how banal or how numerous, suggests the true value of selfies lies in simply that – seeing and being seen, and fostering an interest in others. It is those who disdain selfies, and who do not take an interest in the faces and lives and others, who are perhaps the most solipsistic in this respect. Furthermore, since selfies are usually seen either by searching for them (using a hashtag such as #me) or by having friends who take selfies, this suggests the ‘problem’ is perhaps in fact the critic’s – where they should either stop searching for selfies, or admit that they just don’t like their friends very much.