Gendering Photography

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A lot of the problems I am researching, about the discipline of subjects in relation to their photographic habits, can be directly traced to the gendering of photography, namely the way in which certain practices are seen as ‘for girls’, and others are perceived as ‘for men’. The image above demonstrates this, being taken from an online quiz that asks ‘What is your true gender mix?’ The assumption is that ‘Snapchat and Selfie’ and ‘Mostly Call’ are behaviours associated with different genders.

I’ve collected a number of examples to demonstrate how the selfie has become discursively associated with women, and how this permits a targeted form of criticism. Many of these examples have already appeared on this blog at some point, but I’ve featured a few more here that were particularly interesting, in terms of this gender split.

This infographic from dating site Zoosk demonstrates that although selfies are deemed acceptable for women, they result in a lower rate of user engagement with men who take them. The implication here is that taking selfies is an unattractive behaviour for men, as it has a perceived connection with women.

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This perceived division between subjects’ smartphone activities or photography usage repeats patterns in society we see all around us, where women’s pens and even women’s beer is offered for sale, and which acts to enforce the broader demarcations between men and women. There’s plenty of examples, in the form of memes or even t-shirts, where selfies have been explicitly demarcated as Not For Men:

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This often features the added coercive dimension of stating that Real Men don’t take selfies, thereby underscoring the spoiled identity of the selfie-taking male.

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But as I’ve identified elsewhere, the gendering of types of photography – such as selfies – goes beyond simple divisions and demarcations, in that once a certain activity is identified as feminine, it becomes delegitimised and subject to numerous prescriptions. The next example, from The Left Fielder, demonstrates this:

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This comic says a number of interesting things. Firstly, we are told that the selfie is not something you can just take, instead you have to follow these steps. Selfie-taking is therefore constructed as being inherently regulated. Secondly, there is a contrast between the instructions in the text and what is depicted in the image – where a woman slaps on make-up and does a duckface – that perpetuates this sense in which selfie-takers are chaotic and misbehaving. Thirdly, the voice of authority expresses disdain, by correcting the  woman who is duckfacing, or by identifying the woman who is shooting from above in order to look ‘like a big googly baby’. Therefore the techniques which women are seen to be employing when taking a selfie are subject to criticism, in that they are either inauthentic (contrasted with a ‘genuine, warm smile’) or make the subject look infantile. Lastly, we move onto the ‘men’s section’, which features a horrified proscription ‘NO STOP THAT WHAT ARE YOU DOING’ in reaction to a handful of males doing the duckface.

This reaction to men adopting behaviours which have been constructed, within the same strip, as not just feminine but abjectly so, demonstrates how the gendering of the selfie is enforced. For the selfie to be used as a technique of discipline (“take selfies here, not here, like this, not this, this many, too many” etc.) that is particularly effective against women, this kind of patrolling of the borders is necessary. But it is not who actually takes selfies that interests me, rather than the discursive limitations which conceive of selfies as feminine, and as a problematic kind of feminine.  Men are discouraged from engaging in behaviours that are not just for women, but somehow emblematic of problematic women. A piece on the website Elite Daily expresses this particularly succinctly, by stating that selfies are not for men because they are “strictly for women”, they are for “shallow people”, and they are for “attention seekers”. Men cannot, therefore, be permitted to take selfies as to do so would devalue them as shallow and attention-seeking: i.e. it would make them a bit like women.

The following article from Jezebel takes this devaluation and proscription against male selfies a step further, labelling them as ‘repellant’ (leaving aside the discussion of the piece’s controversial author):

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This article recycles the same tired old association between selfies, self-obsession and a devalued subject position, asserting that “male vanity, at least the kind made evident by too many smart phone self-portraits, is a major turn-off”. It is not questioned that selfies could do anything other than indicate an unattractive neediness. The author quotes a source: “The more selfies a guy has, the more obvious it is he craves validation…The more validation he needs, the less likely it is that any one woman will be able to give it to him.” This is asserted despite the author referencing an article by Emily McCombs in which she states that, for her, taking selfies is a positive tool for generating self-esteem. McCombs, interestingly, asserts that although selfie-taking serves a valid purpose for her, this option isn’t available for men, as “while I champion vanity in women, I find it kind of off-putting in men…I’d rather a man be thinking about how pretty I am than worrying about how pretty he is. I don’t dislike vain men as people, but I wouldn’t want to date one.”

This is astonishing, and remains unquestioned in the Jezebel piece, as McCombs is accepting that insecurity should be gendered differently for men and women – an acceptable quality for women, but “repulsive” in a man. The idea that a man cannot express insecurity about himself is part of the maintenance of untenable gender norms, which – as we can clearly see here – is damaging for both men and women.

If selfie-taking is to be an accepted and validated practice for women, as McCombs would argue, then it must equally be so for men. The gendering of the selfie doesn’t just constitute a means for criticising women (in terms of ridiculing the duckface, the assumed inauthenticity and the triviality) – it also contains a loathing of the ‘wrong’ type of men: men who do not follow the rules prescribed for them, and who make the mistake of appearing weak, or engaging in activities forbidden to them. Therefore the selfie is emblematic of the discursive regulation and punishment of men, as well as women.

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