I like The Oatmeal: a comic that is often as informative as it is funny, featuring pieces on Nikola Tesla and grammar alongside cartoons about cats. So it was a bit of a shame, but hardly surprising, to notice that one of its recent comics featured a rather unflattering portrayal of the selfie-taker:
So of course the idea of being dumped for your Instagram filters is ridiculous, which is what makes this funny. But beneath humour like this is a sense in which the audience is also laughing because it is somehow true – people who take photos of their cats, or who overuse hashtags are annoying, right? And it is interesting that selfie-taking is not mentioned until the penultimate frame, as if to leave the worst crime until last. This comic therefore exemplifies a much wider conversation about photographic practice, and shows how this impacts upon social relations. The selfie-taker is such a maligned figure within popular discourse, that being dumped for taking selfies comes to make sense. Although this example makes a joke of it, as we’ve seen in other cases discussed on this blog, the devaluing of the selfie-taker becomes much more problematic when it normalises stereotypes and permits the expression of hatred.
For the arbitrariness of this discourse to become apparent, we only need to refocus the woman’s complaints in the comic above onto the types of books or television programmes the male character likes. Neither of these would be as funny because they haven’t been established as abject in the same way as selfie-taking, and the joke just wouldn’t make ‘sense’. This demonstrates how photographic practice has attained an unusual position within culture, in that it has become normalised as evidence to support prejudice. Furthermore, the selfie is at the forefront of an interesting shift in how ‘truth’ is deployed in relation to photography, whereby taking certain pictures establishes the ‘truth’ of particular subjects, rather than being solely a question of what the image content depicts. As the comic above asserts, it’s not so much the content of the picture itself that marks certain subjects as laughable (or vain, undesirable, narcissistic, selfish, trivial, vapid and so on), but just the mere act of taking it.