Joan Rivers

Blaming Selfies When Things Go Wrong

I was reading an article on the site Psychology Today, that was a response to the show Selfie (see my article on Selfie here. I would have written a follow-up on the series as a whole, but after watching the first episode, I don’t believe I could put myself through any more of that. It was quite spectacularly objectionable).

The Psychology Today article aimed to present quite a balanced view of selfie-taking, explaining the practice as something that exemplified the importance of social relations and esteem to our wellbeing. It seeks to mitigate the negative effects of selfie discourse by challenging the generalisations and gender bias, importantly highlighting the contradiction in the demands on young women, to be seen as attractive and yet not to be perceived as ‘vain’.  But the article is problematic in that it explains the importance of society in forming and experiencing identities, and then asks whether it is a ‘good thing’ that selfies have become part of this – this seems like a loaded question. Surely social motivation can neither be universally good nor bad, but entirely dependent on context, outcome etc. And why does the incorporation of photography into a pre-existing social process pose such an enormous threat? The piece concludes by reinstating a problematic and excessive view of selfies and social media use more generally, as something that needs to be modified and controlled. To understand how specific this kind of discourse is, consider the number of articles that problematise books, music videos or films in this way, as something to be limited and as a target for continual outrage and concern. But then they do not constitute unruly entries into the public sphere, in that way that selfies do, and it is that participation, rather than what they ‘do’ for selfie-takers, that is the real ‘problem’.

But the real surprise was yet to come. There was only one comment underneath the article. I had to click on it to read it, and I was amazed:

Joan Rivers got killed during a simple proceedure because her “vain” Dr. took a “selfie.”

When it was suggested in the press that Rivers’ personal ENT doctor, Dr Gwen Korovin, took a selfie with her unconscious patient, there was outrage. Underneath one article, a commenter suggested:

What a complete breach of trust and professionalism. This doctor should lose his medical license permanently, in the very least, and possibly even face criminal charges for the selfie alone. Can doctors no longer be trusted with their unconscious patients?

This outrage entirely eclipsed the accompanying suggestion that alongside taking a photo, the doctor concerned had also performed an unathorised biopsy on Rivers. Taking photographs in this context would indeed be deeply unprofessional, but moreso than conducting procedures which the patient had not agreed to? Both accusations – of selfie and of biopsy – were heavily denied, as the product of hearsay at the clinic. The New York medical examiner ruled that Rivers died from oxygen starvation after she stopped breathing. It was reported that negligence was not found to be a contributing cause in her death, and that there was no biopsy. But this comment demonstrates the degree to which selfie-taking has been catastrophised within popular discourse – here, it is the selfie that killed Rivers. Not the use of anaesthetic at her age (81), not the fact that she wasn’t in a hospital and that treatment for her cardiac arrest was, as a result, delayed. It was the selfie – the quintessentially abject example of human depravity – that was to blame, for the popular understanding of selfies is that they do not have merely the capacity to annoy or engrage, they can also be lethal. Never mind any other contributing factors – it was the selfie. I only wish we could have heard what Rivers’ witty and acerbic reaction to this would have been.