Policing the Selfie

I’m surprised I haven’t seen selfie disipline like this before. In a You Tube video by Jena Kingsley, the presenter plays a prank on visitors to Central Park by dressing up as a cop and telling people not to take selfies. A surprising number comply, as if such an order could in any way be rational.

Kingsley starts her video by emoting to camera about the evils of selfies, and the need for someone to step in to stop the madness. Behind her, a sign declares that this is a ‘selfie-free zone’ from 7am to midnight, and that violators are ‘subject to $50 fine’.

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The details are something we are familiar with – directives with time limits and penalties – which goes some of the way to explaining why this prank is possible. Forms of micro-discipline guide our behaviour every day, from no-smoking areas and grass that cannot be walked on, to the no-touching or no-photography rules in art galleries. So we are used to being told what, when, where and how we can do things. But these directives have a limit, and mostly relate to one’s harmonious participation in social spaces. So I would also argue that this stunt relies upon the cultural messages regarding selfies, which problematise the practice as something socially objectionable and worthy of condemnation. As a result of the kind of texts I have been examining on this blog, people’s enjoyment of taking selfies is always tempered with the understanding that they are some way illicit, leaving a space in which ‘no selfie zones’ could possibly be feasible.

Consider the reaction were Kingsley to have started forbidding people to wear hats, or drink water. The looks of confusion that people give her here would soon turn into outright anger, and she would very quickly be revealed to be just someone dressing up issuing strange and arbitrary orders.

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She only lasts as long as she does precisely because her target is selfies. And only selfies – plenty of people are shown to be snapping away in the background whilst she is explaining to someone how problematic selfies are – using some flimsy rationale concerning young women’s self-esteem. Is the answer to young women’s low self-esteem to bring in more regulation concerning their behaviours? Her argument makes no sense, but then I assume it is not meant to.

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At one point, Kingsley asks that people delete their selfies whilst she watches. A few are shown to comply, albeit grudgingly. In the last 15 years, photography has increasingly been problematised in a way that regards it as a potential security threat. One only needs to start taking pictures in a shopping centre or in airport security to see how vigorously ‘no photography’ rules are enforced. But here we see how this regulation has become normalised as a (potential) force enacting upon every type of photography. This is not a question of national security, but rather of enforcing social rules regarding conduct in public spaces – but yet both, at least as far as this prank goes, involve the use of the law to restrict photography.

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Several people are shown to take selfies with Kingsley in the background, an act that demonstrates their understanding of the regulation she espouses as being ridiculous, as well as using selfies as a means to undermine her assumed authority. The young man’s act of selfie-taking, below, is therefore both a confirmation of Kingsley’s understanding of selfies as mischievous and uncontrollable, and an act of resistance to that interpretation.

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Towards the end of the video, Kingsley offers to take photographs of several of her victims, reaffirming that some types of photograph are acceptable in contrast to the selfie. I would love to hear her explanation for this – for why it is so objectionable for a couple to photograph themselves, but yet it is fine for her to take a picture of them? It is at points like this that the ‘logic’ of selfie-taking as devalued starts to break down, and it becomes most apparent that these rules and assessments are purely arbitrary.

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At the end of the video, Kingsley is confronted by a member of the park security and told to leave the area. After all, in his eyes, she is a nuisance to visitors; marching around micro-managing people’s leisure time whilst dressed as a cop (in itself a problematic and possibly illegal behaviour, I would have thought). By asking her to leave, the park guard is not just reasserting the park’s status as a space for personal relaxation, but also confirming that the social rules that ensure every visitor’s safety and enjoyment do not include anything regarding selfies.

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The arm outstretched in a gesture of dismissal is therefore a means for protecting the right to similarly reach out one’s arm and take a selfie.

Selfies and Hatred, Part 2

In an earlier post I discussed how a hatred of selfies acts as a legitimate means for expressing hatred of other people. This may sound a little extreme to anyone who hasn’t been closely following selfie-discourse for the past year. But here are two examples from widely popular blogs to show what I mean:

This first post from the site Sploid discusses a clip of film that shows a woman’s hair catching fire from a candle as she leans towards another friend, to join in with being filmed:

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The article frames the incident as a result of a wider epidemic of needing to document one’s life – a behaviour apparently so problematic, that being burned is somehow merited. This logic depends upon the devalued status of the selfie: selfie-takers are bad, we are constantly told, so they deserve regulation, they deserve to have bad things happen to them. As viewers, we are presented with instances in which selfie-takers come to harm, with the understanding that we will gain satisfaction from seeing these deplorable and abnormal subjects receive their just desserts. This example makes the contrived and divisive positioning of selfie-takers as abject particularly clear, as the woman is question is clearly not taking a selfie – she is being filmed by someone else – but she is labelled as a selfie-taker so that we can enjoy her misfortune.

The entertainment value of this clip, and of selfie-hatred itself, is acknowledged by the post being ‘Filed to HAHA’ – a label directing a certain type of viewing, and of viewer enjoyment. But beyond this expectation of viewer amusement, the post reinforces a disciplinary discourse regarding selfies: that “we should stop being idiots”, and we should self-police our behaviour so that we do not come to harm. This, I would argue, is the real purpose of the disdain for selfies, in that it normalises social regulation, and makes the low-status and misfortune of certain social groups (especially young women) appear merited and natural.

A second example of the legitimation of selfie-hatred appears on the site Jezebel:

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This article discusses a new term, ‘relfie’, and whether it is useful for describing a certain type of image, namely a photograph taken of oneself with one’s partner. But the question is not just ‘what is a relfie?’ but also ‘how much can we hate it?’ As with all things selfie-related, we are assumed to come to the conversation already primed and ready to hate selfies and those who take them. The article states that we need not hate the term, but that disdain for people who take such images is permitted. Happy couples who post “too many” images of themselves are identified as problematic, and worthy of hatred, with the piece quoting research from the journal Personal Relationships to support its views. The research involved looking at social media profiles, grading the level of relationship expression observed and then reporting how much the researcher disliked this person as a result. This kind of left me speechless, as it’s not only one of the most subjective pieces of research I’ve ever seen, it’s also so disciplinary as to defy words. The piece summarises the research findings as:

“If you are in a strong relationship, viewers can pick that up from your Facebook profile. However, there is some danger in getting too schmoopie about your relationship on Facebook; although your friends will think your relationship is going well, they will like you less.” And isn’t that the whole point of social media? To be liked?

So by expressing oneself in one way on social media, and being perceived to be (as the article asserts) “doing happy wrong”, we are violating the assumed prime motivator for being there in the first place: being liked. This assertion relies on several assumptions: that the esteem of one’s peers is to be nurtured with every visible action; that we are all motivated to use social media to achieve similar goals, and that we should accept regulation of our behaviour – especially our photographic behaviour – in order to maintain social harmony.

The selfie, or relfie, is therefore a mask for the assertion of normative social demands, expressed in relation to hatred and the withdrawal of peer approval.


Channel Four Wants You to “Shut Your Facebook”

I watched a Channel 4 programme on Monday called Shut Your Facebook. As I was watching it, I couldn’t sit still for my excitement – here was social media discipline at its absolute zenith.Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 11.04.10The programme looks at the social media habits of young people, considering how each could be problematic in terms of getting a job, damaging the person’s reputation and so on. But it is really nothing more than an excuse to have a good long gawp at the behaviour of young people, and to tut tut at their drinking, their sexual innuendos and their apparent lack of control. And the show’s main message, a lesson solemnly and repeatedly imparted, relates to the importance of control, particularly self-control. Subjects are instructed in how to main a disciplined approach to one’s online persona, rather than ‘let it all hang out’. Thereby, a sublimated rage at young people’s freedom, and a disgust with their bodies and behaviours, is funnelled into a form of benevolent guidance. It’s very similar to other makeover shows, particularly What Not to Wear, in the way that it presents the correction of problematic subjects as a form of entertainment. For a wonderful analysis of What Not to Wear, considering the makeover show as a legitimation of gendered class disdain, I recommend Angela McRobbie’s book The Aftermath of Feminism.

Ok, so back to our undisciplined Facebookers. To truly capture what the show is doing, I’ll describe its main scenes:

The show starts with a montage of some images and video clips, featuring young people passed out, vomiting, bearing their bodies, sitting on the toilet and so on. The voiceover states that:

“we want to find the nation’s worst social media sinners, from online obsessives, to extreme oversharers, from the positively hopeless, to the startlingly stupid. We’re going to show them how their online antics can affect their real life prospects, and see if we can shock, shame or surprise them into thinking again.”

As a statement of intent, this does two things – it describes the techniques it will be using (e.g. shame) and positions the recipients as meriting this intervention, this punishment.

First up is “party-boy Christian”. We see a sequence of shots from his Facebook page, featuring drinking, nudity, blow-up penises and so on. He states that he’s not bothered about being private, or about other people’s perception of him in relation to these images. The voice over tells us that in real life (a statement in itself) Christian is a recruitment consultant, and sets up a bizarre sequence in which Christian sits in a couple of mock interviews. His manner is professional, and he reveals he is good at his job and exceeds the targets set for him. He states that “as long as you’re professional outside of work, what goes on outside of work doesn’t matter” – and who wouldn’t agree that we all have the right to a private life? Well, this show apparently, as it supports the invasion of privacy that is employers looking at online profiles (cue scenes of shock and disgust, and yet another excuse to look at naked bodies). Sure, Christian might be wise to make his profile private, but the shaming he is subjected to by one mock-interviewer left me stunned. “Repulsive… he’s a no-hoper…sic. End of the day, it’s shit… This is terrible, this is really bad”

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The interviewer, above reprimands him saying “that’s not professional Christian, that’s not going to get you a job” – as McRobbie and Foucault argue, contemporary discourses of the self encourage a self-monitoring and regulation which makes the subject fit for work, productive, and able to engage with the demands of global capitalism. Christian’s partying ways clearly prevent him from being able to fulfil this objective, so he must be corrected. Although the message is being delivered in relation to his images, it is clear that he is being shamed for the behaviour itself. The interview concludes with a warning: “carry on doing what you’re doing in your own sweet way, but you won’t go anywhere.” The message is clear: do as we say, or you don’t get the life you want.

Next up is Charlie, a young woman who, again, loves to party with her friends. Cue montage. The problem, we hear, is that her friends like to tag photos of her which she finds ugly or embarrassing. Cue more photos. We are encouraged to see that yes, Charlie does seem to do a lot of embarrassing things, from pulling funny faces, to passing out on the floor. Not entirely unusual for a woman her age. But here such behaviour is presented as problematic, and in need of correction. But rather than ask her friends not to tag her, cue the arrival of a photographer who will take some more flattering snaps of Charlie for her profile.

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“Being camera-ready is clearly a concept Charlie has yet to master” we are told. The photographer will “give her, and you, tips for taking a profile pic to be proud of” – contrasts of pride and shame further the programme’s claimed objective to regulate viewers, as well as the subjects depicted. Also, rather than address anti-social group behaviours (her friends after all know that this tagging distresses her), the message is that she should change herself, and make her profile less embarrassing by being less embarrassing. In essence, she should be the photo she wants to display to the world. “By me telling you to turn away” says the photographer “you’re losing three inches” – the fact that this is ludicrous for someone Charlie’s size is lost beneath a wink shared with the viewer, in which we all want to look smaller, don’t we, eh?

To impart these messages, the programme also sends “fellow photo disaster area” Chelsea Healey to speak to Charlie. This exchange reminds me of a page on the defunct revenge porn website Pink Meth, where victims were encouraged to submit stories of their comeuppance as a warning to other women to “lock down their dirty pics”. In both cases, we have those who have been punished according to society’s rules of photography, imparting the need to be regulated to others. A perfect circle of discipline. Chelsea asks Charlie how she feels in relation to her new photos – “more classy” is the answer. The class-dimensions of this narrative, and the taming of her wild, sexual persona online, are another thesis in themselves… “She now looks more hot stuff, than hot mess” the narrator concludes.

There follows a bizarre section featuring a ‘Naked Nerd’ – a naked man whose role it seems is to impart advice and coerce viewers into agreeing with the show’s edicts, whilst giving the camera something to focus in on. “You can trust him, because he’s naked” we’re told. The connection between any form of ‘oversharing’ and physical nudity is one that’s been made before, such as by Ben Agger. But here it serves merely to up the flesh content of the show, and provide and interestingly hypocritical contrast between good public bodily display (when used by a TV company to prove a point) and bad public bodily display (when done by young people).

The next subject is Brayden, whose social media use conflicts with his boyfriend’s wish to have a conversation. Cue a scene where he is shown to be a “dick @ dinner”, by virtue of texting and snapping throughout a meal at a restaurant.

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Now, there is a big difference, in my mind, between the subjects discussed so far in this programme. Whereas Charlie or Christian’s behaviour is labelled as “sick” or “embarrassing” and in need of correction, Brayden’s use of his phone causes a different problem, in that it distresses his partner, and makes him feel ignored. It’s Brayden’s lack of consideration for his boyfriend’s needs that’s the problem, not his social media use per se. The programme continues by asking if we, the viewers, are “phubbers” – i.e. phone snubbers, people who focus on their phones instead of those around them. We are then asked to report the worst “phubbers” by tweeting to the programme, via #shutyourfacebook.

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Interaction with the programme is doubly disciplinary: either in the form of following a link to read their advice, or through reporting their friends’ transgressions. Peer regulation, through tweeting, is therefore naturalised as a fun accompaniment to watching television.

The next section addresses a problematic selfie-taker, in the form of Dominique, whose sexy selfies, we are told, despite being liked by scores of men, “haven’t helped her find a man in the real world”. The voiceover wonders whether it’s because Dominique in person looks different from her photographic self (mostly because she’s wearing more clothing). There follows a strange conversation between her and Chelsey Healey, in which Chelsea questions what Dominique enjoys doing, and marvels at the answer: extreme sports. Chelsea says “I’d never have guessed”, implying that Dominique’s “sexy” online persona should be read as encompassing the totality of her interests. This ties in with a troubling feature of discourse regarding online identity performance, namely that we should strive to present one ‘authentic’ self. Mark Zuckerberg is a central proponent of this, repeatedly stating that “you have one identity”. Here we see the limitations of this norm, in that identity is never singular, but must be understood as shifting, multiple and unstable. Dominique is a perfect example of this – she enjoys sports and sexualised self-performance, but the coercion towards embodying one coherent self might lead her to favour presenting one aspect of her life over others. Which then, paradoxically, means that people like Chelsea get puzzled when they hear she is actually a more complex person that her pictures imply. The problem is not the pictures – it’s how we interpret them. Assuming that we can know anyone from their pictures, no matter what they look like, is a fallacy.

But the programme persists, and displays Dominique’s images on a wall for the judgement of “the local lads”. One set of images displays her sexy side, one her interest in sports. The interpretations the male critics make of the images is predictably vapid, in that the ‘sexy’ set is “not as natural” and “off-putting”. The fact that they are asked to choose which “girl” depicted they would want for their girlfriend makes a mockery of the whole ‘experiment’, in that they condemn Dominique’s sexy pictures for looking too focused on finding a man, whilst firmly reinforcing the sense in which selecting and presenting these images should be with a male viewer in mind. Presumably Dominique will find such advice more compelling when it’s offered by a male? The voiceover concludes that “Blokes in real life want a girl who covers up online”. Generalisation, tick; slut-shaming, tick; hypocrisy; tick. And the programme cannot resist one last swipe at Dominique, for not following their advice. We are told she continues to upload sexy photos, and concludes that “who needs one boyfriend when you can have thousands of strangers giving you the thumbs up?” Her refusal to play ball and ‘tone down’ thereby places her in a devalued position, where intimacy is foregone in favour of the empty esteem of strangers. That the show delivers such a blatant moral condemnation almost as an afterthought demonstrates the prevailing sense of disgust which motivated its creation. The point is hammered home by the Naked Nerd, who advises with some statistics produced as if from thin air, that men like girls who keep their clothes on. And to unpack that statement would require yet another thesis.

Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 10.35.33The last subject is Caolan, a young man who has become popular on Facebook through producing short videos of himself and his friends acting out dramatic storylines set within a series of hotels and bars. It looks like a young person’s version of Dynasty, so no wonder people watch it. He speaks quite frankly about wanting fame and luxury, is depicted drinking champagne, and reveals that he uses credit cards and loans to fund his tastes. He’s fairly dismissive about his debt, and indeed nothing seems particularly abnormal about his behaviour – young people enjoying life, spending too much money, looking for approval and notoriety. But again this must be turned into a morality tale, and Caolan is given two large bags of pound coins to carry around, a symbolic version of his debt. Caolan expresses dismay at his debt seeming “more real”, his punishment apparently working.

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But again, the voiceover reveals that he went back to his old spending ways. The concluding comment delivered to Caolan, however, is notable for its comparable lack of venom. None of the moral disgust levelled at Dominique, but instead a shake of the head and tsk in the form of “he calls himself a student”. Discipline in relation to online behaviour is therefore highly gendered, and not distributed equally. Economic transgressions are presented as being not as problematic as sexual impropriety.

I feel I should submit this programme instead of my thesis, and just point at it.

Natural with a hint of wings

A while back I wrote about my time spent working as a makeover photographer. Although at the time, the job was a learning curve in many ways, what I ultimately took from it was an awareness of of the interconnection between photography and gender discipline. As my thesis has taken shape, looking at various examples of photographic discipline, I have often thought back to what we called ‘the keycard’ – a quick reference guide for clients to pick their favourite style of photography. This card was a perfect example of discipline, in that it not just shows you the range of options that is open to you, but expects that you choose and inhabit them.

The first side of the card featured a number of categories, and examples of how each style rendered images of femininity, from ‘sexy’ and ‘pretty’ to ‘funky’ (the category of ‘art’ always amused me).


Next came the selection of montage styles, and the optional addition of wings:


Before I worked at the studio, I had no idea that photography would ever be regarded in this way – as a product of cut-and-paste techniques selected from a pre-defined shortlist. But it was not so much the images that were being produced in this way, but our clients. By asking them to choose and recognise themselves in these categories, we were reinforcing the processes that sort and grade individuals according to taste, class and lifestyle.

The choice of what you wanted to be obscured the fact that you must choose.  ‘Be yourself’ is revealed to be a coercive demand, rather than a statement of liberation.

Needless to say, a client ticking all or none of the boxes was an act of rebellion, and meant that we didn’t know what to do with / to them. As with wider discourses of gender presentation, multiplicity or non-conformity renders the subject unreadable, and a problematic target for control. ‘Art mirrors life’ becomes more a case of art reducing life to a limited range of forms and meanings.

No photos please, we’re eating properly

Susan Sontag makes the link between photography and distance, where by taking a picture, we are removing ourselves from whatever it is we are looking at (1977: 9). I’ve never quite agreed with this, as it makes quite problematic distinctions between different types of experience, with some, therefore, being presented as better or more authentic than others. But it’s a view of photography that persists extensively, and which reinforces the denigrated view of photography generally, where taking pictures isn’t ‘really’ living / enjoying something / being in the moment / having a life etc etc. This sentiment is often found in relation to selfies, as I’ve mentioned before, but this week a news story centred on food photography as an example of ‘not doing it right’.

Two French chefs – Alexandre Gauthier and Gilles Goujon – publicly expressed concern at their customers photographing their food, with Gauthier adding a discouraging symbol to his menu, depicting a camera with a line through it. The problem for him was that:

“They used to come and take pictures of themselves and their family…Now they take pictures of the food… And then the food is cold… I would like people to be living in the present”.

This quote is interesting in that he doesn’t seem to have a problem with photography per se, but what is photographed. Pictures of family = fine; pictures of food = not fine. Additionally, his wish for diners to “live in the present” encourages certain behaviours (photography) to be marked as “not living in the present”. Like Sontag, he sees photography as putting oneself at a distance, and an obstruction – but only, presumably, if the subject is food, as after all in his narrative, photographing one’s family is still fine and unproblematic.

As with a lot of the discourse about what constitutes good and bad photography, and what this then implies about the photographer, these distinctions rest on a number of underlying divisions: between social photographic practice, and practice which is viewed as individualistic; between living well, and not living well; and between doing what others expect of you, or not.

The reader comments that appear in response to two articles on this matter, in The Guardian and The Daily Mail, further demonstrate the way in which certain photographic behaviours are curtailed and labelled as devalued. Many of these sentiments are recycled from wider condemnations of contemporary photographic practice, regarding quality and volume:

Taking photographs is just too easy nowadays. People point and click at any old rubbish. Perhaps if there was a threshold for the numbers of pictures you could post on social media before being executed.[1]

The theme of violent prohibition (interestingly, both instances here referring to a judicial sentence passed on exceptionally abhorrent criminals) recurs frequently:

The trouble is that the silly c*&^ts post the effing things everywhere, and even send them to you in emails. restoring the death penalty is the only answer.[2]

Those who take such photos, besides being “silly c*&^ts”, are also found to be living a life with little value, tying in with Gauthier’s assumption that photography is an obstacle to “living in the present”:

People who take photos of their dinner and then post them on facebook have very shallow lifes (sic)[3]

The following commenter makes an interesting distinction between behaviours he can legitimately do – and which do not reflect badly on him – and those which, although identical, indicate a severely impaired mentality for others:

Iv’e been retired almost thirty years – can indulge myself in this nonsense – but the rest of you – nothing better to but photograph food and banter on about it for days – is there no one left with an IQ of over 39?? (sic)[4]

By extension, this devalued subject is not just stupid or unsociable, but also selfish and mean – displaying how a wealth of assumptions can be built up around a certain behaviour:

This is generation [look at] me; far to busy being hipsters to socialise with, yet alone treat their family to a slap-up meal”(sic)[5]

Somewhat surprisingly, besides all these accusations of not enjoying your food properly, or being unsociable, appears the old encouragement to eat up as a sign of respect for those who cannot:

I think that as there are people starving in the world, that the least those people who are lucky enough to be able to enjoy food at the best restaurants in the world can do, is to be appreciative enough to eat it while it’s hot, and forget about taking photos and tweeting.[6]

This adds guilt to an already potent mix of condemnation and derision, implying that enjoying one’s food in a certain way (by photographing it), becomes morally problematic and disrespectful. The implication that a starving person would be affected one way or the other by whether someone else is photographing their food is simply fatuous, as well as curiously egotistical. Shaming others in this way, for overstepping the mark, is a means for regulating behaviour, in which nebulous imagined ‘others’ are used as tools of coercion.

For me, the act of photographing one’s food (like photography generally) is no one single thing, and instead fulfils a number of varying objectives: identity negotiation, taste display, maintaining relationships and so on. But most importantly, it is not an impediment to enjoyment, and must be reframed as a legitimate component of celebrating and appreciating one’s life. I am not, of course, advocating behaviours which limit the freedoms of others – photographing, like talking on one’s phone in public, is a question of etiquette, and needs to be sympathetic to one’s environment. The problem arises when even behaviour conducted discretely is labelled as problematic and objectionable, as such universal attitudes towards photography perpetuate generalisations about people.

Tolerating and perpetuating these views of photography is therefore not harmless, and is certainly not evidence of a concern for others’ enjoyment of their food or life, but is rather a mechanism for ascertaining who is ‘doing it right’ in comparison to maligned and mocked others.


I’ve collected a number of humorous examples of the discourse around photographic behaviours, specifically the selfie. These demonstrate the way in which discipline is enacted through entertainment – we enjoy the joke, and do not realise that this is an instance in which we are being led to accept certain rules. This is the embodiment of Foucault’s conception of power, in which regulation is dissipated laterally, across peers, rather than simply imposed from some sort of controlling authority.

The first example replicates the proscription against duckfaces (from pusheen.com):

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The next example genders selfies, by hailing MEN and giving ‘quick tips’ that instruct the (rather disappointed-looking) male character to ‘stop taking selfies’ (from Adam4d.com):


The next image perpetuates the sense in which selfies are only taken by lonely, friendless people (from donttouchmethere.wordpress.com):

selfiesSelfies are naturalised as problematic behaviour (from outthere-bygeorge.com):

selfies_anonymous_2123865Selfie-taking creates a world full of self-obsessed ogres, where the dog seems to be the only sane creature left (from marsdencartoons.com):

Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 12.47.04Selfies, especially ‘sexy’ selfies, are the product of desperate insecurity (artist unknown):


Selfie taking can be broken down into fairly mundane purposes (by Chinie Diaz, on fabafter40.tumblr.com). This artist also tagged one such image on Twitter with #antiselfieleague, making their regulatory sentiments clear:

tumblr_inline_mooirnL4Uj1qz4rgpAnd lastly, the use of selfies has impaired our appreciation of other artforms (by Jeff Stahler):

51a161448b8e42ff490bdd87d7aecd04(by Corey Pandolph):

Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 13.06.00(by Benjamin Schwartz):

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Discipline and the Duckface

This is a rough plan of one of my thesis chapters – it still needs work doing on it! It looks at how the ‘duckface’ expression has been constructed as something which 1) should be regulated and 2) marks subjects as somehow deviant and devalued.


In this chapter I analyse the discourse surrounding a specific photographic trend that has gained both popularity and notoriety on social media sites: the ‘duckface’. Specifically, I will be exploring the backlash against this trend, in the form of taunts, condemnation, and strongly (even violently) coercive language. I shall be suggesting that this backlash serves to discipline female users of social network sites into acceptable performances of gender, under the guise of ‘common sense’ and lending advice.

The discourse of the duckface reveals the tensions which exist in relation to women’s photographic self-depictions, where ideas of right and wrong serve to discipline subjects and enforce certain notions of acceptable behaviour. Chastisement of errant subjects is naturalised, implying that if only she had performed gender ‘correctly’, striking a ‘normal’ pose, smiling, working on not ‘trying too hard’, then things would have been different. This is perhaps the most uncomfortable aspect of the disdain aimed at the duckface, as the commentary acts to blame the victim for their own abuse. If they had not done the ‘duckface’, their bullies explain, we wouldn’t be doing this.

Features of the ‘duckface’

duckface4The term ‘duckface’ typically relates to the connection between a photograph, and a certain arrangement of body and face, which comprises of a (usually self-) portrait in which the (typically) female subject poses in a manner which emphasises the chest area, pursing her lips, tilting her head and looking up towards the camera.

I include examples here of the condemnation of women for their photographic self-depictions whilst ‘duckfacing’, ranging from the mild to the extreme, which demonstrate the prevalence and nature of some of the disciplinary discourses relating to gender that are applicable in the social network environment. (Note: all images were gathered from sites specifically addressing the ‘duckface’, such as antiduckface.com, rather than from users’ individual profiles.)

* Mutual Performance

The mutual pout aimed at a friend’s face serves to offer explanation for Duckface3some occurrences, denoting affection for the other person, but withholding from engaging in an actual cheek-kiss. This demonstration Duckface1of affection for others depicted within the photograph offers a counterpoint to the assumption that the pout is only performed for the benefit of the (not depicted) viewer. Instead, it is possible to include it alongside hugging and tilting heads together that denote a shared space and intention within a friendship group.

* Significance of Pouting

The mouth is a heavily symbolic part of the body, central to both expressions of sexuality and of agency, through speaking. We watch the mouth as others talk to us, and detect emotion and expression in its contours.

The pout is typically associated with a sassy, self-confident sexuality, and can therefore be viewed as an integral part of a young woman’s repertoire, particularly within post-feminist discourses that encourage the performance of ‘raunch’ through the wearing of revealing clothing, the displaying of bodyparts, and a willingness to engage in an overtly (albeit often faux) sexualised behaviour.

* Striking a Pose

The context is significant in prompting users’ experimentation with, and adoption of, a particular pose, as the coercion to be present and visible on social media requires the user to produce suitable materials that will be found acceptable and attractive by others. Even if done in jest or self-mockery rather than to appear desirable, the pout can be seen as a schema for the production of a posed and therefore to some degree controlled self-depiction. When one does not know what to do in front of the camera, perhaps, one falls back on what others do.

But the notion of posing-as-inauthentic significantly contributes to the scorn levelled at the pout, as it suggests a lack of authenticity and a degree of effort which is regarded as ‘trying too hard’. Of course the ‘natural’ pose, that manages to conceal the artifice behind its construction, is no less contrived than its pouting counterpart. The latter is merely unacceptable because it is too obvious, too outright sexy and unashamed. The pout stands as a symbol for many other numerous unacceptable manifestations of femininity, variously condemned for being unnatural, fake or cheap. ‘Natural’ make-up and effortless chic are valued above heavy make-up and revealing clothing, perpetuating a class-system that enables women to position themselves in relation to each other. Despite the overtly misogynistic undertone to much of the material I found that condemns the pout, a large proportion of those condemning it were women, defining their status and gender performance through distain for those that are seen to be ‘doing it wrong’. Discipline, as manifested in photo comments, picture galleries and websites, is therefore enacted laterally, by women onto other women, as much as by men.

* Widespread

Similarly, the pout is also disdained for its lack of originality, and duckface6for its prevalence. Offenders are grouped together as a problematic mass, without individual features, and chastised for their perceived errors, and for their frustrating refusal to stop in the face of strong condemnation. And it is perhaps this last point that prompts the most ire – that women continue to pout in photographs despite being repeatedly told not to.

* Self-Parody

duckface8The pose can potentially be seen as a means for enacting a parodic self-performance, that the subject expects the photographer and viewer to understand. The following images feature the pout in conjunction with dollar signs, peace symbols and subcultural gestures, all of which duckface9contribute to a sense of self-aware self-mockery. When viewed as part of a context of parody and fun, the duckface is markedly different from the stereotypical idea of the ‘stupid girl doing a duckface’ that is often associated with it. Perhaps therefore it is not the users’ dogged use of an outdated pose that is ‘the problem’, but rather many observers’ inability to detect any nuance between different instances of it.

duckface10But self-mockery and the wish to appear attractive are not necessarily mutually exclusive.  There are traits that exist within a single image that serve to contradict and confuse a straightforward division into one or the other, resistant or normative. As such, the pout has the potential for women to perform a reflexive and light-hearted sexual persona, which both subverts and references a widely-understood emblem of female sexuality.

Discipline and Punishment

The criticism of the ‘duckface’ pose ranges from mild ridicule to more extreme forms of abuse and threat. A comment on the Cosmopolitan website, when discussing ‘Celebrity Duckfaces’, neatly summarises the breadth of opinion. It begins by assuming a shared culpability with the reader: “Making a duckface is like hooking up with a less-than-amazing guy – everyone has done it at some point, accidentally or otherwise”. But the article’s heading takes a more severe tone, declaring “Death to Celebrity Duckfaces”[1].

I shall discuss some examples of this criticism, as a means for exploring the various ways in which the discourses relating to ‘acceptable’ gender performance are enacted, specifically in relation to photography on social media. My analysis will be divided into smaller sections that address aspects of the discourse separately.Untitled8

* Stupidity

The milder forms of condemnation focus on the pose as being ‘stupid’, which is an effective putdown because it marginalizes the target, devalues everything that is associated with them, and means that their protests or responses to the ‘stupid’ label can be ignored.

Smartness and sexual attractiveness are implicitly pitted against each other, an opposition which enables the expression of a strong sexual identity to be undermined through being thought of as ‘what dumb girls do’.

dumb-poses-that-all-girls-doThe images here create a typology of “dumb girl poses” which implies that such posturing (and being ‘dumb’) is an inescapable part of being a girl. Both sets suggest the desire to show “obvious chest”, even if this is hidden beneath a veil of “’don’t’ look at my boobs”. This perception of girls’ presentation of self is particularly troubling, in that it fosters a connection between a girl’s claimed rejection of sexual attention, and her implied, implicit desire for it.

The female stick figures in the next image contrast with their serious, formal male counterparts. Even in such a simple drawing as this, the stereotypical presentations of appearance and behaviour serve to reinforce wider duckface13assumptions about male and female gender performance. Men are serious, women are not; men prioritise the task at hand, women prioritise their appearance. The act of joking about stereotypes also serves to reinforce them, and turn them into a form of ‘common knowledge’.

* Inferiority relative to other women

As I mentioned earlier, much of the criticism for the pout is leveled by women, at women, as a mutual form of discipline. Disdain for the pout serves to enact distinction, separating the deviants who ‘do’, from the wise who ‘don’t’. The next image exemplifies this, praising the woman who doesn’t ‘duck face’ in photos, and using it as testament to a woman’s duckface15self-confidence. This correlation between attractiveness and not doing the pout raises some interesting issues. Firstly, it suggests that women who pout do not ‘know they’re attractive’, but are yet trying to attain attractiveness through doing so – a double-bind in which being attractive is valued, but apparently not the desire to be attractive. Secondly, knowledge of being attractive is positioned as being empowering, therefore placing women who pout into the category of being disempowered. Thirdly, ‘knowing’ she is attractive implies little or no need for effort – marking those who strive for attractiveness, and through striving connote uncertainty relating to whether they are or not, into a lesser group.

The equating of the pout with not ‘knowing one is attractive’, positioning this in itself as being unattractive, and then using this as a basis for criticizing and mocking the subject’s appearance, reveals much relating to the complex discourses, and contradictions, surrounding femininity. A woman must appear confident, it is suggested, but to do so requires the internalization of a number of rules relating to acceptable gender performance. To put on a convincing performance of confidence therefore, as with appearing suitably ‘natural’ and ‘oneself’, requires a degree of negation of the quality supposedly being presented. The pout, in suggesting that either a) the woman lacks confidence or b) the woman is confident but without having subscribed to the rules forbidding the pout, is therefore doubly problematic in relation to ‘acceptable’ norms of femininity. duckface16

The next image features two similar women who are both doing variations on the pout. But the caption accompanying the image on antiduckface.com notes a difference between them: “here we have a textbook example of the high-maintenance-tart-pout vs the duckface. pay attention, people. this is important.”[2] This distinction is interesting, as it demonstrates that the difference between being perceived to be doing something ‘right’ and something ‘wrong’ can be very small, and almost imperceptible to other observers. The highlighting of minute differences that can equal a loss of status fosters a climate of uncertainty, anxiety and self-doubt, in which the subject is expected to view themselves critically to ascertain whether they have transgressed, or performed gender in an ‘acceptable’ manner.

indexThe image, left, again contrasts the woman doing it ‘right’ with those that are doing it ‘wrong’. The caption of “what you think you look like” / “what you actually look like” underscores the women’s ‘failure’ by accusing them of not only being wrong, but also delusional, emphasizing again (as we saw above) how doing this must mean the subject is in some way ‘stupid’.

The caption underneath the two comparative images, “the ugly truth”, underscores the veracity of its own statement, asserting that to perform this pose expecting it to look ‘attractive’ is a misconception. The fact that it is not just the truth, but the ugly truth, we are being presented with, leads us to the next subsection of criticism, relating to perceptions of unattractiveness.

* Unattractiveness

Criticism of the pout most frequently takes the form of implying, or stating outright, that the pose is somehow unattractive. Of course, this relies on the assumption that criteria for attractiveness, and for its opposite, are universally shared and understood. duckface18

The caption “Trying so hard to look good never made anyone look so bad” reinforces the theme mentioned above, where any perceptible effort towards looking attractive appears to negate those very aims of the subject. This  underscores the ‘necessity’ for women to look attractive by ridiculing those that they feel are missing the mark. Such coercion does not take into account any behaviours which might be outside of, in opposition to, the wish to adhere to an attractive norm, such as the apparently self-mocking examples seen above. On the contrary, the critics creating and circulating such images appear to feel they have every right to assess and mock others, according to whether they provide adequate viewing pleasure.

duckface19The next example takes the form of a four-part monologue, in which the subject begins with a cheery salute and winking emoticon, suggesting friendship and parity. The third image, however, sees her perform an exaggerated re-enactment of the ‘duckface’, as if to emphasise its vulgarity. The last frame concludes with a statement, “it’s NOT cute!” and a knowing smile. The hand gesture progresses from greeting, to contemplative, to mocking, and finally to a prescriptive finger raised discipline1as if giving an order. This tracks the transitions observable in other contexts (women’s magazines and the ‘makeover’ format of reality television, for example), where ‘advice’ for women takes place on a continuum from friendly guidance to mockery and censure. This format of the four-part monologue has been used in a related context to criticise other behaviours which are not deemed acceptable for women, through slut-shaming (see image right). The act of describing and forbidding certain behaviours allows the person speaking to attain a level of agency and status by demonstrating knowledge about such activities and then positioning themselves as being distinct from, and ‘better’ than them. Ringrose and Renold suggest that this also serves as a means for expressing jealousy, which is “sublimated into a socially acceptable form of social critique of girls’ sexual expression” (2012).

Untitled1Numerous examples from the blog antiduckface.com feature images combined with a disparaging comment. Many of these focus on the perceived ‘unattractiveness’ of the women, their pose, or both. The first example, left, is captioned “oh yeah. that’s fucking HOT”[3] The sarcastic tone positions the commentator in a position of power, identifying the subject’s supposed aim (to look ‘hot’) whilst undercutting it. This perpetuates the idea of women striving, misguidedly, to attain attractiveness, and feeds into a wider discourse that serves to undercut women’s efforts and goals in general.duckface20

The caption alongside the second image, right, declares that “it’s an alien invasion, we tell you. it’s the only possible explanation for this sort of nonsense. fucking aliens, man. like, from mars or florida or some shit.”[4] The equating of an ‘undesirable’ gender performance with alien life might seem extreme, but it serves to firmly position the subject outside of the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. It also labels the subject as having a spoiled or undesirable identity, where actually being wrong is a consequence of merely doing something wrong. This demonstrates how a perceived transgression, however brief, can impact upon the subject’s socially-constructed identity.

* Spoiled Identity

Untitled2In the next example, we can see that as well as being ‘unattractive’, the pout is supposedly an extreme enough signifier of disturbance of what is ‘normal’ to be an indicator of mental illness. The linking of one minor action with something as severe as mental illness is not just ridiculous, it is also emblematic of the distorted significance given to the ‘transgressive’ actions of women. A minor misdemeanor is overplayed to the point of almost parody, but this still contributes a significant weight to the discourses of feminine behaviour. Not only is the pouting woman positioned as being stupid, unattractive and inferior to her peers, she is also supposedly mentally ill, and therefore subject to the numerous penalties and stigmas that such a negative combination of identities attracts.

This image also asserts that “sometimes, the victims gender become hard to determine” (sic). This emphasizes the ‘problem’ that lies at the heart of the ‘duckface’ trend – namely that it causes distress to the viewer of some kind or another. It might be that the viewer cannot enjoy a picture of an attractive woman, or that they are distracted by the subject not taking the viewer’s gaze and requirements seriously enough – or here, that the viewer might be uncomfortable if gender is not performed in accordance with social norms. The perceived lack of a clear gender identity is a problem for the viewer, not the subject, but it is a problem that is firmly leveled at the subject as being ‘their fault’. As with the other examples in this essay, the subject is positioned as being entirely responsible for making themselves attractive or in other ways acceptable to others.duckface22

The next image, right, again asserts the pouter has a spoiled identity by implying that they could only be attractive to a duck, perpetuating the link between the pout and the non-human. This image also states that “you got the attention you wanted”, suggesting that the pout is both a shameless grab for attention, and a marker of misplaced or even ‘perverted’, bestial desires.

* Framed within Context of Male Desire

A female with a marginalised, devalued identity is identified as someone who continues to do something that has not been sanctioned by her male viewers. The importance of satisfying the male gaze is implied by the coercion to appear ‘attractive’, but is made explicit in duckface23numerous references to the ‘duckface’. The Morpheus meme (where that character from The Matrix dramatically reveals a piece of information relating to popular culture) here states that “duckfaces are extremely unattractive to men”. Not just unattractive, but unattractive to men, presumably a significant deterrent in its creator’s eyes, and by implication, the reader’s. The fact that this is presented as a revelation – “what if I told you” – emphasizes the prevalent point in these examples that women are viewed as lacking self-knowledge, and require the guidance of a benevolent male adviser.Untitled3

The next image places a type of everyman figure in the context of a nightclub where women (and only women) are shown to be posing and gurning for the camera. This behaviour, whilst not directly impacting or reflecting upon him, is nevertheless enough to prompt the statement “I fucking hate clubs”. Perhaps here the problem is precisely that this behaviour, looking at and performing for the camera, is excluding the male viewer, both at the time of capture, as well as afterwards in not producing an image which suits his ‘needs’ (i.e. taste). The group of women depicted in this cartoon are highly visible, and engaging in being so, but in a way that contravenes the normative assumptions governing how a woman should appear in public. The pout, once it is photographed and shared, can be added to the category of misdemeanors that contains public drunkenness and overt displays of sexuality, all of which position transgressive women as being outside of the bounds of acceptability and normality – and therefore ‘fair game’ for abusive comments and exclusion.

duckface25The third image addresses “all girls out there”, and explains to them what is (presumably in their eyes, ‘objectively’) “fucking HOT” and what is “SHIT”. This kind of simplistic binary division acts a coercive device, where if you are not one thing, you are by implication the other. What makes this distinction all the more arbitrary is the fact that the images have much in common with each other. Both are deliberately posed, horizontal self-shots, in which the subject stares out at the viewer and contorts their mouth in a deliberately ‘sexy’ manner. The acceptability of the lip bite relative to the pout is similar to the preference for ‘natural’ beauty, where women enacting one type of behaviour are arbitrarily positioned as being superior to another, in a way that is then presented as being ‘common sense’ or the ‘obvious’ choice.

duckface26The disdain for the pout shown by the male, heterosexual voice is stronger in the next two examples, where it is seen as being an obstacle to the fulfillment of male sexual desire. In the first example, it is ruining “a perfectly good set of boobs”, thereby reducing a woman to just her (now flawed) breasts. The second example dramatically states that “duck lips kills Untitled4erections!” The irritated or horrified tone expressed in these examples not only underscores the function of women to service male desire, but also the warning that trying to be desirable and failing is as unacceptable as not trying at all, if not more so. Being desirable is therefore a dangerous and difficult undertaking – apparently obligatory, but also loaded with responsibilities and the threat of censure. The imperative to accept that male desire is the priority for women’s actions prioritizes men and their needs over women’s, and positions women’s behaviour in relation to numerous minute regulations.

duckface28The next example makes the connection between the ‘duckface’ and male desire by suggesting that the origin of the pout lies in fellatio. There is a strong sense of injustice when it becomes feasible for men to chastise women for their lack of desirability, when at the same time accusing them of emulating the archetypical figure who services male desire, namely the porn actress. The latent misogyny that lies behind much of the derisive comments about the pout becomes more visible here, as well as the double standard relating to female sexuality. Whereas the porn actress serves as an example of the woman who attains and satisfies male desire, she is also a figure to be spurned, rather than emulated, even though the dividing point between ‘sexually attractive’ and ‘slutty’ can be very small indeed.

Alongside galleries of ‘duckface’ photos, several sites I looked at also hosted galleries of women’s self-shot portraits, which were presented as featuring women the viewers would find sexually attractive. The difference between these and the dreaded ‘duckface’ images seemed to be very narrow at times, with a high instance of pouting and posing still occurring. The difference is of degree rather than of type, and the cherished cultural knowledge appears duckface29to relate to knowing when one has reached ‘the limit’ of acceptability. The image, right, is from one such gallery, where this dividing line has been ‘successfully’ negotiated, and the result is duckface30perceived to be ‘hot’. The next image  also serves to show how the pout can still be observed in contexts of approval, such as the gallery “Jaime Laycock: Your New Internet Crush” [5]. The inconsistent manner in which the ‘rules’ are applied fosters a climate of uncertainty, in which a female viewer receives conflicting messages regarding how she ‘must’ behave and appear. Uncertainty, as Foucault (1977) described, is a tool for enacting power, through encouraging self-monitoring and self-regulation.

* Direct Orders

The next category of images sees the viewer’s voice move on from stating that the subject looks ‘unattractive’ or ‘stupid’, to issue a direct order to cease behaving a certain way. The earlier examples implied (albeit heavily) that women should stop pouting; these examples duckface31take that a step further and make the coercion explicit. The first example does this in a fairly humorous way, addressing the subjects as “Dear all women” and using slang to request that they “stop this shit”. The accompanying caricature underscores the perceived unattractive nature of the pout, emphasizing the huge lips and Untitled5chin. The second example also addresses the subjects as “Dear” and refers to the pout as “this shit”, but takes a more abusive stance by labeling those who pout as “whores of the internet”. The capitalization and exaggerated size of the text, as well as the double exclamation marks underscore the urgency and apparent severity of the statement. The red circle around the woman’s mouth is feature shared with some gossip magazines, in which the offending item is identified, as if providing evidence for their condemnation.

The next example takes the form of a text box, appearing on one of the numerous Facebook sites dedicated to ridiculing the ‘duckface’duckface33 [6]. The order to stop doing the ‘duckface’ is part of a longer list of instructions, relating to performing a more acceptable, “beautiful” version of femininity, and the avoidance of looking “easy”. The promised result of obeying such orders is that the subject will now be able to enjoy the attention of “RESPECTABLE” guys. The implied aim here remains to attract the attention of men, but the ‘right’ kind of men, and it is down to the subject to ensure she behaves in a manner which will get her the ‘right’ result. This makes a connection between women’s behaviour and appearance, and men’s behaviour in response to it, which although appears innocuous in this context, becomes more dangerous when extremes of male desire in the form of sexual assault are also taken to be the responsibility of the woman. In this way we can see how discourses relating to women’s depiction in photographs fits into a much wider, and more serious, context of female sexuality and gender equality.

* Threats of violence

The last category of images contains those which either imply or directly illustrate acts of violence being carried out on women who ‘do the duckface’ in photographs. The prevalence of comments describing such acts illustrates the extent to which violence against women is still widely accepted and expressed online.

The first example features a woman with a piece of tape covering her mouth, accompanied duckface34by the caption “She pulled a duck face, I gave her a duct face. Duct tape: Fixes everything”. The (presumably) male speaker presents his actions as logical and warranted: she did this, so I did that. He explains that he has ‘fixed’ the problem that she represented by intervening and forcibly modifying her body so that she cannot transgress any further. The fact that this intervention also takes the form of silencing the woman reinforces the difference between the speaking, problem-solving male and the silent, problematic female. The female body is again shown to be a domain where the male has not only the right to express opinion, but also the ability to physically intervene.

This description on Buzzfeed of the ‘duckface’ takes a faux-serious tone, making the link between the pose and other markers of unacceptable femininity, such as heavy make-up:

Symptoms of Duck Face include lips thrust forward in an imitation of water fowl, usually accented with heavy eyeliner, glowing orange skin, and occasionally strange Emo hair-dos…if you see the warning signs of the dreaded Duck Face happening to a friend or loved one, slap the shit out of them. You too, can help prevent this horrible disease from spreading. Educate yourself so that you and your friends won’t fall victim.[7]

The suggestion that the mere act of making a certain expression warrants these women having ‘the shit’ slapped out of them is of course alarming, but especially given the instructional tone within which this is presented. Violence here is not just presented as being a solution to a problem, but also as a positive act that can prevent not only undesirable behaviours, but also stop “this horrible disease from spreading”. Forum user Fitzgerald77 agrees with this approach, making the connection between the pout and a spoiled feminine identity that somehow merits a violent response: “anytime I see that face I must fight the urge to slap a ho”[8]. Another commenter, Curly, sees the pout as an invitation to sexual assault, suggesting that “as far as I’m concerned, if they’re making a duck face they’re really just asking for dick in there”[9].

A song about hating duckfaces on You Tube features the lyrics “thanks to you I threw up”, “take your lips and put them back to normal” and “all you dumb bitches look fucking retarded”[10], which combines themes we’ve already looked at such as disgust, ‘normality’ and perceived stupidity. The tone of the comments underneath the video continue the theme of mocking, referring to ‘stupid’ and ‘ugly bitches’. User MegaMushface, suggests that “all them girls deserve to die”, and BlackBombBird adds “KILL THEM ALL!!!!!!!! ALL WITH FIRE!!!!!!!!!!!!!” demonstrating how contexts such as this which normalize derogatory behaviour, also serve to normalize more extreme attitudes and expressions of hatred. One user who voices active distaste, Cupcakes Girl09, is hounded and insulted by other users. Her comment “how would you feel if people were rude to YOU just because of a facial expression???” is flagged as spam by multiple users and hidden from view, with replies ranging from “Go make me a sandwich bitch”, “GO AWAY responsible person STFU get off the internet” and “go blow a platypus with your stupid duck lips. cunt.” The ferocity of these comments demonstrates that coercive force of the discourse, where women are given the choice of either joining in with the ridicule, or become subject to it themselves. The imperative to “go away“ and “get off the internet” demarcates this space as being for people who share the opinions of the commentator, rather than an open forum for all. Dissenting voices are to be undermined, attacked and silenced.

The final three images are those which take the duckface35condemnation of the ‘duckface’ to an extreme, picturing the female offenders as valid targets for being shot in the head. The first image is part of an online game that references the 1984 Nintendo game “Duck Hunt”. In this new version, the faces of pouting women have been superimposed onto the ducks, so that the gamer can shoot at them and earn points [11].


The second image depicts a man who “takes it serious” (implying admiration) in the form of aiming a rifle at the back of a woman’s head as she photographs herself pouting in the mirror.Untitled7

The last example depicts Elmer Fudd frowning at a woman who pouts into a camera, before shooting her in the face. Fortunately, the woman remains unscathed, apart from having her pouting mouth moved to the back of her head, underscoring the ridiculous and unnatural qualities of the transgressive woman’s appearance.

* Acceptable Duckfaces

Interestingly, I did find examples where some exceptions to the rule were found, declaring certain ‘duckfaces’ to be acceptable. Unsurprisingly, however, they were examples where men were pouting, not women.




With these examples, I have tried to show how something as seemingly innocuous as pouting in photographs, and the comments that they generate, feeds into a wider discourse that restricts and punishes particular performances of female identity and sexuality. Rather than being harmless fun, the discourse regarding duckfaces, and those who do them, disciplines women into adhering to certain prescribed gender norms, realigns their priorities to match those of the (male) viewer, and promotes mockery and threat as legitimate forms of leisure. The discussion of women’s photographs on social media is therefore intricately linked with wider issues regarding social organisation, and gender equality.


Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. London: Allen Lane.

Shields Dobson, A. (2011) “Hetero-sexy Representation by Young Women on MySpace: The Politics of Performing an ‘Objectified’ Self”, Outskirts, Vol 25.

Ringrose, Jessica (2012). “Sexual regulation and embodied resistance”. Postfeminist Education?: Girls and the Sexual Politics of Schooling. Foundations and Futures of Education. Routledge. p. 93-94

[1] http://www.cosmopolitan.com/celebrity/news/death-to-celebrity-duckfaces, accessed 4th January 2013.

[2] www.antiduckface.com accessed 4th January 2013

[3] www.antiduckface.com

[4] www.antiduckface.com

[5] http://www.bromygod.com/2012/04/05/jaime-laycock-your-new-internet-crush/ accessed 8th January 2013.

[6] www.facebook.com/antiduckcoalition accessed 4th January 2013.

[7] http://www.buzzfeed.com/brandib6/duck-face-the-race-for-the-cure-53mh

[8] Duckface pictures Hot or Not, discussion on http://www.mmo-champion.com/threads/1197423-Duckface-pictures-HOT-or-NOT accessed 4th January 2013.

[9] Duckface pictures Hot or Not, discussion on http://www.mmo-champion.com/threads/1197423-Duckface-pictures-HOT-or-NOT

[10] http://youtu.be/itjHUM5B9uM accessed 8th January 2013.

[11] http://jozogames.com/action/duck-face-hunter accessed 8th January 2013.

Bad Selfie Practice

An interesting aspect of discipline in relation to photography is that it is not necessarily a shameful body or appearance that need be depicted (as seen on People of Walmart, for example) in order for the subject to be devalued. Instead, the act of photographing in itself can be the grounds for shaming the photographer. This complicates the notion of selfie-taking as empowering and democratic (perhaps deliberately so) as it reinstates the authority of the external, social voice over personal photographic acts. Rather than digital technologies offering the possibility of photographing oneself in any way desired, this type of discourse constrains the realm of what is legitimately photographable.

The selfie is frequently identified as connoting undesirable qualities in the subject, from narcissism and insecurity, to arrogance and a detachment from the ‘realities’ of life. This concept of the selfie is primarily based on a set of assumptions regarding the individual’s participation within social life and social spaces, relating to where interest in and concern for the self should end, and attention instead be directed towards others. Whether or not taking selfies indicates a genuine lack of concern for others is, of course, not something which can be firmly established or contested here. But it is the manner in which they are assumed to be indicative of selfish behaviour that is significant, in that it enables certain photographic behaviours to be regarded as legitimate grounds for criticising the subject.

Worst SelfieThe following examples demonstrate this discourse of the selfish selfie, linking selfie-taking with inappropriate behaviour within a specific context. The first image, taken by New York Post photographer Paul Martinka in December 2013, depicts a woman taking a photograph with the Brooklyn Bridge in the background, on which a man is being persuaded by emergency services personnel not to jump. The assumed event depicted by the photograph is that the woman is taking a selfie of herself with the suicidal man. The outrage prompted by this image led it to be called The Worst Selfie Ever, as it was seen to depict a quintessential instance of the selfish urge to be the centre of attention, even during a life-or-death situation. That photography can be interpreted in this way, as not just a breach of etiquette, but also indicative of some sort of pathological need for visibility at the expense of others, illustrates its use as a basis for evaluating and disciplining others.

The alternative explanation for the image received little coverage in comparison with the ‘selfie-ish’ interpretation, presumably because it does not fit the wider narrative where a) selfies are equated with selfish behaviour, and b) women’s photographic practice requires regulation. Nevertheless, examination of the image suggests that the angle her phone is pointing at could not capture the scene on the bridge behind her. Her phone would need to be where the newspaper photographer is standing, in order to frame the shot she is assumed to be taking. It should also be noted that she is standing at a popular spot for taking tourist images, and might well be snapping herself with the bridge’s famous towers. The photograph we see, taken by the reporter, has likely been framed in order to suggest a selfish selfie, knowing that this references wider discourses of photography and propriety, and therefore constitutes a story.

No Selfie RespectThe next image, taken at the Nelson Mandela memorial in Soweto on the 10th December 2013 by Roberto Schmidt, shows three world leaders leaning in to take a picture of themselves on a mobile phone. The Sun’s headline sums up the hysterical reaction to the image in the media, stating that it shows “No Selfie Respect”. Condemnation of the image suggested that, like the previous example, it exemplified a problematic lack of decorum, made worse by the authority of the figures involved, and the assumed lack of respect such behaviour showed to the deceased. Referred to as ‘Selfie-gate’ and as sparking an ‘international incident’, both the pun here and the wider criticism rely on the public discourse of selfies – that they are acts of self-centred glorification, whose triviality and frivolousness does not prevent them from profoundly conflicting with and undermining the solemnity of the occasion.

Funeral1The conflict between what selfies are perceived to connote, and the socially-required behaviours of certain events and contexts, is the subject of two related sites: Selfies at Funerals[i] and Selfies at Serious Places [ii]. Here, the symbolic clash between the connotations of the vapid, self-aggrandising selfie, and the expectation of solemnity prompted by certain contexts, provides ample fuel for viewers’ condemnation, and much hand-wringing about the state of today’s youth. The first site features images taken at funerals, such as that shown left, in which the subject has tagged the image “#boyfriend #gorgeous #funeral #grandad #wake #hipster #tags for likes #photo of the day #like #follow”. This incongruous list of concerns, regarding “likes” and “photo of the day” does suggest an apparent lack of comprehension of the event they are attending.

The second website mentioned, Selfies at Serious Places, features selfies at Auschwitz, Anne Frank’s house, the Berlin Holocaust memorial, the Twin Towers site, Pearl Harbour, Iwo Jima and the Vietnam memorial. As with the funeral selfies, a conflict arises between the depiction of self-interest, as represented by the selfie, and the contextual requirement for contemplation of and compassion for others. This rather tasteless and touristic view of humanity is extended through other images, which feature selfies in front of accidents, fires and the homeless. These sites have an explicit disciplinary effect, by publicly shaming subjects who have used photography in a way that is presented as unsociable, and by making statements about appropriate behaviour. An apology, from a young man who took a selfie, complete with thumbs-up, in front of the Holocaust memorial, makes this discipline apparent:

I know you probably think I’m just an idiot who is willing to put pictures like that on the internet, and you’re not too wrong. You’ve really made me think about it, and I’d like to thank you for that.[iii]

Discussions relating to such selfies call for a revised approach to intergenerational discipline, with comments strongly advocating physical punishment counterbalanced by those who promote educating children about the social implications of photography, particularly during such a sensitive occasion. Although the focus on the needs of the self, to be amused and to be visible even at such a time of mourning or contemplation, will likely strike most as inappropriate, it is unlikely that this indicative of some kind of generational degradation. Rather, it is more a case of young people having yet to acquire an understanding of the social mores that apply in different contexts, particularly with respect to the use of mobile phones. It is not surprising that a teen who cannot help but text and tweet during their lessons, also continues such behaviour during a funeral. Without adequate guidance and understanding of how photography acquires social meaning, both young (and old) will continue to incorporate photography into contexts not usually sanctioned. Learning how to use these new technologies courteously is a learning process for everyone, not least of all those who are still familiarising themselves with social expectations.

These examples show that the rules relating to selfie-taking are vigorously enforced, and that perceived mistakes are used within a much wider conversation about how certain groups – particularly young people and women – should behave. Although I do not support the use of photography for disciplining subjects’ identity, I would also find it hard to defend selfies taken at funerals. Whereas I argue that the disciplinary discourse regarding selfies in general is deeply problematic, in that is supports generalised social control, the funeral selfie constitutes problems of its own. By displaying a specific contextual inattention, where the positive functions of taking such an image (as identity negotiation etc.) have been prioritised within the unique circumstances of mourning and loss, and which remove the subject’s claims for legitimacy. Selfie-taking is therefore neither universally positive or negative, but like any other creative practice, is context-dependent. To address this specific problem requires a greater sensitivity, both when using one’s camera, and when assessing the images, and identities, of others. Shaming, on the other hand, bypasses the fostering of understanding, in favour of simply repressing certain behaviours – which is what makes shame, in relation to photography, such an effective and prevalent tool for discipline.