The Curious Confusion of #Selfie

A music video entitled #SELFIE by The Chainsmokers is a brilliant illustration of the discipline and marginalisation of the selfie-taker in popular discourse.

It depicts two women in a bathroom at a nightclub, one of which maintains a rapid-fire monologue throughout the whole song. Her topics of discussion are intentionally framed as vapid and insecure: her concerns over a man’s attention, another woman’s dress and what photo filter will make her look tanned. Most importantly, she finishes each section of the song by stating “first, let me take a selfie”.

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And so the connection is cemented, between the devalued character of the vain mean girl and the act of taking a selfie. Of course she takes selfies, the narrative implies – she has these other negative qualities, all of which have been normalised in connection with selfies. We look at her and are encouraged to cringe, to reject, to criticise.

But then the video takes something of a volte-face, in that we then see a compilation of scores of fan-submitted selfies. Smiling faces and funny outfits abound, making an awkward contrast with how selfie-taking has been presented so far.

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Having seen so many ‘regular’ selfies, people just enjoying depicting and seeing themselves, how can we then continue with the original narrative of the song? But apparently unaware, or uninterested, in the contradiction being set up, the song returns to the woman in the bathroom and her complaints and neuroses. Further compilations of user-submitted images appear, elicited by the band themselves as a means for their fans to join in with the fun. This perpetuates the sense of confusion, in that the band are both mocking selfies and selfie-takers, yet also acknowledging their use for subjects as an enjoyable form of participation. At the end of the video a caption suggests watching again if the viewer did not see a selfie they submitted – an outright affirmation of people’s enjoyment of seeing themselves depicted within socially-recognised spaces. The contradiction here, the hypocrisy, is evident in the screenshot below, where fans are encouraged to send in images, whilst a band member wears a t-shirt declaring “Go Fuck Your #Selfie”.

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This statement is an example of the conflation between selfie-taker and image, where a insult directed at one is a thinly-veiled form of attacking the other. It’s OK to tell people to “Go Fuck Your Self”, as long as it’s done with a wink, and via the dismissal of a certain photographic practice. Again, photography becomes a vehicle for expressing outright disdain for others. This disciplinary function of this video is clear, in that it manages to encourage subjects who (presumably) enjoy taking selfies to accept and join in with their own regulation. They therefore take selfies as part of a wider process of undermining selfies, demonstrating how discourse acts to normalise subjects’ disdain for their own practice, let alone that of others.

In contrast, a version of this song has been recorded which shifts the context to Whitby Goth Weekend.

A young Goth woman performs a similar monologue, but with quite a different tone. Here, the mockery is far more gentle, and contains nods to subcultural cliches (she can’t decide between two black eyeliners) and anxieties (“does this corset make me look mainstream?”)

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As someone who has spent many happy years going to Whitby Goth Weekend, I view this character as someone to relate to, not to distance myself from. Her exclamation that “cobbles and stilettos – are they trying to kill me?” will ring true with anyone who has walked those streets in unsuitable shoes. Although she is still a parody, and a cliche, she is not abjected in the same manner as the character she references, and we do not therefore view her selfie-taking quite so negatively (which, in turn, does not act to consolidate her lack of value).

The gender normativity of the original becomes apparent, in that the Goth woman’s interest in a male character does not dominate the narrative to the same extent. Furthermore, other subjects are seen taking selfies within the video, and compilations of images are also featured throughout.

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The Goth selfies included in this video underscore what, to me, such images serve to do more widely, in that they feature an enormous diversity of identities and make them publicly visible. The notion that selfies are all too alike, or all serve the same purpose, seems to be based on prejudice rather than experience, as even a cursory look at feeds of selfies on sites such as Instagram acts to demonstrate the opposite. Furthermore, the Goth version of #SELFIE forms an important counter to its original, as it demonstrates how to make a humorous parody without being vicious or glaringly hypocritical.

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