Images

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.

Safety and Self-Responsibility: The Game!

I have just been looking at the website Cyber Streetwise. The site describes itself as:

“a cross-government campaign, funded by the National Cyber Security Programme, and delivered in partnership with the private and voluntary sectors. The campaign is led by the Home Office, working closely with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Cabinet Office.”

So what does this UK government initiative say about privacy and social media? It says:

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It struck me that this government-sanctioned advice concerning social media was in fact consolidating the problem. Because the statement “never upload or say anything in social media that you don’t want the world to know” conceives of privacy as binary: you are either private with your thoughts, or you are sharing them with everyone. And this dichotomy – besides missing the point entirely regarding how people use social media in a way that acknowledges different contexts, audiences and identities – is precisely what lies behind the kind of victim-blaming that I have been studying for my thesis. Because if you think of privacy in terms of an on/off switch, then what is to stop someone sharing another’s data – after all, if it’s been shared at all, it might as well have been shared everywhere. So despite the good intentions of this website, the sentiment it expresses here is exactly the same as we see regarding victims of involuntary pornography. Don’t share unless you “want the world to know”. Therefore instead of helping to guard readers against privacy transgressions, this simplistic approach is cementing the right to commit such acts of aggression, by presenting it as to be expected.

Aside from this heavily problematic sentiment, the rest of the site is a bit of a puzzle, as it is laid out like some sort of video game that you scroll through and click on:

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I can’t really think who this is designed for… Who learns about online banking like this?

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And this “Threat Hunter” game… Who is this for?

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The site also has a strange philosophy behind it, encapsulated in the warning “you wouldn’t do it on the street, why do it online?” (on the red bus below).

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Like the warning not to share unless you “want the world to know”, the sentiment seems to present itself as common-sense, but again this misrepresents what people do with social media and computing. After all, there are plenty of things I do online that I wouldn’t do in the street, such as playing games, displaying photos and offering opinions to no-one in particular, such as here.

What this site tells us is that online security advice is still lagging a long way behind where it needs to be, if it is actually to be effective, and if it is to avoid making the problem worse rather than better.

Celebrity Explotation and the Selfie

Kirsten Dunst appears in a recent short film entitled Aspirational:

The film has been reported as being “about selfies”. Vanity Fair even suggests it is “anti-selfie”. And indeed it features selfies, but again they are used as a technique for expressing something else; something – surprise surprise – negative about young women.

Two young women notice Dunst standing by the side of the road and stop their car to take photos with her:

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But despite the story ostensibly revolving around photography, and tangentially social media, it is in fact about rudeness and entitlement. For the women who run up to Dunst and take selfies with her neither ask her permission nor say thank you afterwards. There is no conversation, only the act of taking photographs. The process is made more excruciating by virtue of the young women’s posing, their moody faces in contrast to Dunst’s smile:

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Dunst asks the girls “do you want to talk about anything?” The response is just blank stares and a request for Dunst to tag them, which she mutely refuses to do. An encounter of any kind that is based to this degree on one party’s gratification rather than mutual interaction is of course problematic. But why is the selfie being used to express this? I would argue that it’s because the selfie is culturally understood to be something, and to be somebody – to be the quintessential example of a problem that has long preceded it. After all, autograph hunters presumably have always been a problem for celebrities, with the added dimension that the desired signature could also have a cash value. The predatory, even hostile, stares they give Dunst are therefore not typical of selfies, but of the relationship between celebrities and the public more generally.

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At one point Dunst asks whether one girl taking a selfie wants her friend to take the photo for her – the young woman replies “I don’t trust her”. The selfie is therefore not just representative of selfishness and poor social skills, it also implies inter-personal relationships that are lacking. Presumably they’re not very close because … they take selfies?

A glance of one girl’s phone shows the screen to be cracked: a little touch that reinforces our perception of them as problematic and irresponsible users of technology:

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The girls drive off, enjoying the likes and “random followers” which this encounters has already brought them, blithely unaware of just how awkward and exploitative this social interaction was. And we as viewers are again instructed in what not to be, and how that is specifically expressed through an attitude that maligns and rejects selfies and those who take them.

Dogs and Babies: The Happy Fantasies of Photography

I’m currently writing up my PhD thesis, and am working on a chapter on involuntary pornography. As you can imagine, this is not exactly the most cheery of topics, so this week’s blog post is going to try to be a bit lighter than normal to balance things out.

There’s an advert on UK television at the moment for the Halifax bank, which features a female photographer taking a series of heart-warming shots of dogs, families and babies.

These scenes of her hard work are presumably used to connote the bank’s commitment to its customers. As someone who worked as a photographer, shooting portraits and weddings and the like, I can assure you that the work is hard. I often went home exhausted, covered in grime and with a thousand-yard stare. But lots of people work hard – so why choose a photographer for this advert?

I think the answer lies in the public perception of photography – as tricky, maybe, involving a lot of vague notions of ‘creativity’ and technical expertise – but ultimately as something we could imagine ourselves doing. It’s interesting, but not threatening. That’s why mannequins in shops hold cameras and not microscopes.

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Despite the hipster fetishization of film cameras in shops such as Urban Outfitters above, the photography industry has been radically transformed over the last 15 years, with the role of photographer being seen as less of a profession than a demarcation given to someone who is using a camera. But so too has the role of photography itself radically altered, with images incorporated into everyday life and communication in ways difficult to imagine a generation ago. Which is why I think this advert presents an interesting time capsule of what we want photography to be, despite the ever-increasing gap between the warm-and-fuzzy photographer, and the darker figures observable online of the creepshot photographer and revenge porn user.

In this advert, we are reassured about photography on a number of levels. It is friendly and funny:

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It is patient and gentle:

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It is well-prepared and determined to make others look good (although who needs that many lenses to take an indoor portrait of a dog?):

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And it is reassuringly old-school, as conveyed by a medium-format camera on an unnecessarily-huge tripod:

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Two things struck me about all this. Firstly, this list of qualities of the ideal photographer seemed to emulate many of the traditional attributes of femininity, in terms of being welcoming, empathetic, self-sacrificing, and considerate of others. The woman photographer is therefore reassuring to customers because she is the quintessential  figure of feminine warmth (with the exception perhaps of the nurse or teacher). Secondly, the artifice of this construction is obvious not just in terms of its cultural wish-fulfilment, but also in the straightforward way in which it is enacted. As I watched the advert, I wondered why she had studio flash lights but no flash cable or wireless flash trigger on her camera (pedant alert!). Maybe she was just using the modelling lights to take pictures (odd), but in this behind-the-scenes shot, we can see the flash light being simulated off-camera:

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Now, I’m not going to say “it’s an advert and its presentation of life is not realistic, what a shock!” – but rather point out that this provides a handy metaphor for the fabricated nature of cultural assumptions about photography more generally. The view the Halifax advert presents of photography – as a lark, and as a site for developing empathy with others – is very different from the uses I see photography being put to in my own research. There, photography is used as a way of punishing, shaming, and bulling other people, in order to maintain a state of inequality between ‘us’ (those who ‘do it properly’, whether in the form of the photos they take or in terms of identity more generally) and ‘them’ (those who ‘do it wrong’, and who take selfies, or do duckfaces etc).

I don’t want to undermine the more gentle aspects of photography – far from it – but I want to expand the definition, to encompass the bad as well as the good. Because the warm and fuzzy perception of photography maintained by examples such as this advert is ultimately quite damaging, in that it presents images and the people who take or use them as harmless, when they are often, unfortunately, anything but. For society to only think of photography in terms of babies and dogs is to further marginalise the people who suffer as a result of what is said about or done with photographs. Although I have loved photography since I was a child, I am certain that it is important to confront and understand the nature and extent of the darker side to the practice, as much as we might prefer the friendly fantasy that is presented here.

“They Used to Call Me Snow White…But I Drifted”: Selfies and the Body

Snow White stares into the bathroom mirror, her right knee awkwardly placed on the counter-top, and her tongue poking out. She holds up an iPhone, taking a picture of herself with head tilted just so, and a seductive expression.

José Rodolfo Loaiza Ontiveros‘ reworking of Snow White is yet another example of the particular way in which photography is used within the construction of social hierarchies. The gallery hosting his work calls it “a celebration of creative freedom in our time”. I would argue that it is perhaps more a reflection of contemporary anxieties, with none more blatant in its condemnation than the image of Snow White. For she is that most debased of creatures: she is a selfie-taker.

What makes this image particularly interesting is that the artist has made specific changes to the character to – supposedly – fit with what she is doing. Her blue vest and red underwear barely cover her ample body, with the lines around her stomach particularly exaggerated.

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Given that selfie-taking is simply the practice of photographing oneself, it is telling to see in what ways Snow White has been physically altered in this image. The problematic connotations of the selfie are here written onto her very body, implying that in order to ‘be’ a selfie-taker, Snow White must also be made into whatever that type of person is: depicted here as considerably heavier and with clothing and pose that are unflattering. She is not like this unintentionally – the artist has chosen to specifically make her overweight and over-sexualised, as that is what selfies mean to him and to wider culture.

This kind of stereotyping should not be surprising to me, having collected so many examples that depict a connection between low-valued photographic behaviours and low-valued subjectivities, yet there is an added dimension to this specific condemnation of the selfie-taker.

Other Disney characters are depicted in controversial ways within this series, with same-sex couples kissing and getting married, Cinderella daubing graffiti and Mickey having apparently turned into Christ. But what I find most interesting is that two of the images, that show characters taking drugs and getting drunk, do so without these activities having changed their bodies at all. Belle and Sleeping Beauty can drink bottles of wine, and Goofy and Donald can skin up, but none of these activities affect them – they do not actually mark and distort them – in the way that selfie-taking is constructed as doing.

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This depiction of the body of the selfie-taker is fascinating, as it demonstrates the cultural values associated with certain practices. Drinking and taking drugs is here something that the characters do, whereas selfie-taking impacts upon – and is telling of – the character’s very self.

Although these images are humorous, the warning here is clear: you can’t take selfies without being a selfie-taker, and selfie-takers cannot help but be devalued, cheapened and rendered physically different from their former selves.

 

Selfies, The National Gallery and The Right Way of Appreciating Art

This week The National Gallery in London lifted its ban on photography, as the use of mobile phones within galleries meant that the rule was becoming too difficult to enforce. I won’t discuss the pros and cons of this shift here, except to say that this move brings it in line with other major art galleries such as the Louvre. Instead, I’m going to look at how the story was reported in The Guardian, by Zoe Williams.

For this article, Williams goes to the gallery and takes number of photographs of paintings. Her aim is not to explore the use or experience of taking photographs, but rather to criticise the ‘type of people’ who take pictures of art, by using the abject spectre of the selfie.

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Williams admits that she was the only person in the gallery taking selfies, and that others were either discretely taking photographs of “obscure tiny portraits of princesses” or the more famous images by Van Gogh. This information is far more interesting than Williams’ tirade against selfies, as it demonstrates that gallery visitors are not the thugs with cameras she assumes, but are rather engaging with works they find personally or culturally relevant.

Nevertheless, she perseveres in taking selfies, as if determined to prove how awful they are. She documents one person telling her off, as well as the shame she encounters whilst photographing herself with a Rembrandt self-portrait (incidentally, if I hear Rembrandt’s work referred to as a selfie one more time I might scream):

The disapproval in the room flooded towards me. I thought I heard someone hiss.

But despite agreeing with these critics, this disapproval does not discourage her, as she has a point to prove. In the next room she endeavours to frame a portrait of a male “so that it looked like he was my boyfriend”, and thereby depicting the act of selfie-taking as something a lovestruck teenage girl might do.

Her distaste for photographs being taken in this context is not so much about the potential damage to artworks caused by camera flashes (which is what concerns me), but relates rather to:

 the sheer sorry state of human nature. Nobody’s just going to take a picture of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, are they? They’re going to take a selfie, standing in front of it.

Such a statement is not only ridiculous – why should selfie-taking indicate “the sorry state of human nature” rather than, say, the bombing of civilians in Gaza? – it also demonstrates the cultural divisiveness of selfie criticism. Because if taking selfies in general is seen as bad practice, then taking them in an art gallery is the very epitome of vulgarity. Taking selfies denotes that you are not appreciating the art properly:

What’s this going to do to art? What’s it going to do to a generation? Even taking a picture of a painting itself changes the way you look at it – documenting rather than experiencing, thinking of posterity rather than the present. But then once you stick your big face in the foreground, the experience is different again, less like art and more like going to the seaside and putting your head above the body of a wrestler in a swimming costume.

Her simplistic conception of artistic appreciation opposes ‘experiencing’ with ‘documenting’, denying the possibility that the two practices could co-exist. “If you’re taking pictures you’re not appreciating it properly” is a warning that has been expressed for decades, with Susan Sontag asserting that the act of photographing places the viewer at one remove from their subject. Although I would not contest this shift in looking, who is to say this is negative, or more over, to prescribe how anyone should experience the world, with or without photography? For Williams, this process of photographing artworks extends beyond the aesthetic, to pose (unspecified) problems for an entire generation. This kind of hand-wringing over photographic practice has nothing to do with encouraging others to adopt positive techniques for enjoying art, but rather is a question of fostering social order. The figure of the selfie-taker – especially as it has been conceived of in the press – disrupts the art gallery as a space for a certain type of practice, and by implication a certain type of person. The anguish over selfie-taking is therefore akin to the hand-wringing over the new neighbours ‘bringing down the area’.

Her conclusion states that there is “nothing to fear, for either the art crowd or the custodians of the human spirit”: this is not because selfie-taking is not actually the dangerous threat to the social order that we have come to believe, but rather because the practice will be prevented by human decency:

The National Gallery will not be overrun by people taking selfies for the same reason it is not full of people in bikinis; we humans have a keen sense of humiliation, exposure, pride, vulnerability. That’s what makes us worth painting in the first place.

Selfie-taking is therefore positioned in contrast to virtue and to a sense of social propriety. But this ludicrous hyperbole – about what is after all a way of taking pictures – is really nothing to do with photography; rather it is concerned with establishing certain groups of people and their tastes as wrong, as bad, and as worthy of being disdained. The selfie-taker, this article would have us believe, is so problematic and shameful that it has no place in this gallery, and should be excluded from other culturally valued spaces and even, one might assume, positions of power. Because if selfie-taking is conceptualised as a threat a generation, and indicative of the “sorry state of human nature”, then it becomes a means for devaluing and excluding whole sectors of society.

I’d like to conclude by reproducing a picture Eminem took of himself in front of the Mona Lisa:

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Interestingly The Guardian did not critique this image using Williams’ approach, but instead cited it as part of a “selfie sub-genre” and one of the “dos” of selfie-taking. Evidently taking pictures of yourself in art galleries is only problematic and repellant if you’re not famous, rich or male…

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.

Sweetie, No-One Likes Selfies

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:

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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.

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.

 

Show Us Your SELL-fies

As part of my study of selfie discourse (i.e. the discourse about selfies, rather than whatever people choose to express through selfies), I’ve seen an awful lot of commentary on how selfies should be stopped / regulated and so on. As a counter to this, it’s interesting to note occasions when selfies are discussed without this pressure to impose some sort of limit.

Whereas there are many commentators who are presenting a positive view of the selfie – promoting its use in building self-esteem and in addressing questions of visibility – in some ways the most open support of the practice comes from companies wishing to engage with their customers on social media.

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The ability of the selfie to suggest affinity, usually between two or more people, is here used by customers to demonstrate approval of a certain product, be it make-up or a burger. The Body Shop’s #NoReTouch campaign on Twitter is particularly interesting, as it makes specific reference to the products’ use in preparing the face for selfie-taking:

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On a less positive note, French Connection is both urging customers to take selfies, and yet implying that doing so is problematic, by using the hashtag #canthelpmyselfie

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This conflicting message – do something, yet understand that you will be devalued for doing so – is typical of the discourses directed at young women’s behaviour. This ad reiterates the prevailing assumptions regarding the selfie as a product of compulsive and narcissistic behaviour, compounded by the model’s duckfacing expression.

Similarly, the advert below for travel assistance company Medicus also displays a degree of contempt for its own customers, by referencing the narcissistic selfie-taker that obscures the landmark in the background. Again, taking photographs in a way that is seen as aesthetically bad is used to denote an almost comic sense of self-centredness – confirmed by the caption “when you travel there’s nothing more important than yourself”. This text, although implying that their medical cover puts the customer first, also suggests a kind of pointlessness to travel for certain people – people who take bad selfies, who seem to be unaware of anything besides themselves, and who are therefore not doing travel ‘right’.

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The band The Chainsmokers have similar objective, using the idea of the selfie to market products. But whereas The Body Shop, and even MacDonalds, were asking customers to share their approval of something via the selfie, here, the product being sold is selfie hatred itself. The T-shirt worn below features in the band’s music video (a confused and hypocritical mess which I’ve written about previously) and their online store also features a range of other designs.

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National Geographic similarly uses the selfie, and the understanding of the selfie as bad, to advertise its magazine. The caption “there are lots of terrible animal pictures out there” disdains the image we are seeing – an animal selfie – and asserts that purchasing National Geographic is part of rejecting the “terrible” selfie.

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These ads reflect the selfie’s status as a ‘cultural moment’, capable of either denoting allegiance, or of evoking a strongly conditioned response in the viewer. And it’s this response which is particularly important, as it naturalises the connection between selfie-takers and a certain sets of qualities and values.