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Taking Selfies Seriously
by Mary McGill
Stupid. Narcissistic. Annoying. Typing ‘selfies are …’ into Google leaves no doubt as to how the phenomenon is generally regarded. It’s evident in the wry eyebrow arch when people hear about my research, that sniff of judgement suggesting in no uncertain terms that taking selfie culture seriously is a suspicious and fanciful activity.
In Western societies were atomisation is endemic, selfie culture is often used to symbolise our current malaise, typified by rising levels of anxiety, loneliness and intolerance. Young women’s fascination with the phenomenon can be particularly worrying, as sociologist Ben Agger underscored when he described the selfie as ‘the male gaze gone viral’. Concern in these contexts is understandable. Dismissing selfie culture, however, and disparaging those who partake in it, brings us no closer to understanding its appeal. And if aspects of that appeal are unsettling or at worst harmful, dismissal brings us no closer to solutions.
As a researcher, I am drawn to the ‘why’ of the selfie’s popularity. My work explores young women’s (aged 18-30) subjective views on the phenomenon and the ways in which they position themselves in relation to it. It pays close attention to the following questions: if we say that selfie practices are indicative of a ‘culture’, what does that mean? And if this culture holds an appeal for women (as is indicated by research, not just opinion), why is this the case? Key to this is taking culture – specifically popular culture, the soup we swim in every day – seriously.
We use the term ‘culture’ in a variety of ways but it usually refers to popular entertainment, and issues of identity, community, and difference. Cultural studies, in the British tradition, understands culture as political, a site where meaning is made and power is challenged, negotiated and exercised. Central to this is subjectivity, how us human beings, as subjects, come to understand ourselves and the world through culture. As John Hartley succinctly puts it, ‘culture is the sphere of reproduction not of goods but of life.’
Feminist cultural studies, the tradition I work within, began, as so often is the case, to redress an imbalance, namely the absence of women in cultural analysis, both as participants and as a focus. Its arrival on the academic scene contributed to the cultural studies’ axis tilting from arguments concerned with ‘ideology and hegemony to those concerning identity and subjectivity’. While the melding of feminism and cultural studies is sometimes difficult, they do share some key concerns, most notably how power and oppression function, and how knowledge is created and naturalised.
In studying selfie culture, I am interested in how our impressions of this new phenomenon have been formed, especially in popular commentary. Such commentary often draws on disparaging tropes of female vanity and narcissism to explain why it is young women are drawn to the selfie. The more these conversations are had, the more these conclusions are reiterated and the more this perspective becomes accepted ‘common sense’, a process that is often as unhelpful as it is lacking in significant insight.
Now, there is no doubt that narcissism and vanity are critical factors. But failure to ask more complex questions of selfie culture (or to reflect on the social and historical relationship between narcissism and femininity) risks developing understandings of it that are at best superficial and at worst, woefully insufficient for unpacking its appeal. As landmarks of early feminist cultural scholarship showed, the ways in which women and girls engage with culture (specifically in these cases, popular culture like the romance novel and girls’ magazines) are nuanced, complicated and sometimes contradictory. To write such engagement off as frivolous perpetuates sexist attitudes regarding women as consumers and producers of culture. It fails to consider why and how aspects of culture become gendered. It also ignores the richness of women’s experiences and the potential for knowledge distilled from these experiences to challenge injustice.
As landmarks of early feminist cultural scholarship showed, the ways in which women and girls engage with culture (specifically in these cases, popular culture like the romance novel and girls’ magazines) are nuanced, complicated and sometimes contradictory. To write such engagement off as frivolous perpetuates sexist attitudes regarding women as consumers and producers of culture.
So, what does all this mean for how women engage with selfie culture? To begin, we need to situate the selfie as part of Western visual culture in which images of women created by men dominate advertising, film, photography, classical art and so on. Since the Second Wave, feminist scholars have sought to denaturalise these images, drawing attention to the power dynamics inherent in their construction and the function of such images as commodity objects in capitalist societies. These scholars also explored women’s personal relationships to visual and popular culture. For example, in The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan showed how iconographies of wifely domesticity differed from women’s subjective experiences of their lives in Fifties and Sixties suburbia. This dissonance led Friedan to remark, ‘A geiger counter clicked in my own inner ear when I could not fit the quiet desperation of so many women into the picture of the modern American housewife.’ Images of women then, characteristically represent idealised notions of femininity which girls and women relate to in complex ways.
Digital technologies have enabled women and other minorities to self-represent online, a welcome disruption to the traditional regime of image production, circulation and reception. While the ability to self-represent in a world were representation for all is still a work in progress is a positive, it is not without issue. As French philosopher Michel Foucault puts it, ‘Visibility is a trap.’ Foucault refers to the ways in which the process of being seen, whether real or imagined, can be used to instil discipline. Sensing that they are being watched, human beings monitor their behaviour and the behaviour of others. This dynamic influences the kind of behaviour which is deemed socially acceptable and which must be punished.
In representing ourselves on social media using artefacts like the selfie, we claim space through visibility. In doing so, we simultaneously open ourselves up to new, more intense forms of judgement and surveillance. If you have ever posted a tweet that went wrong or a selfie that got no likes, you will know exactly the kinds of feelings that this digital system of ‘being seen’ can inspire. In this climate, I find myself considering whether selfie culture alleviates the kind of dissonance Friedan describes or presents fresh and potentially even more invasive iterations of the same old dynamics. For instance, images of women have long been used to fuel consumer dreams. Thus, in the age of an internet that is designed and dominated by corporations, we need to remain cognizant of how images of women, even those taken by women themselves, can be utilised as commodities by a system that is as patriarchal as it is neoliberal.
Just as ‘the personal is political’ shapes feminist activism, it also informs feminist scholarship. I am regularly struck by how rarely young women’s perspectives feature in mainstream discussions on their relationship to selfie culture. This is exclusionary and short-sighted. In collecting and analysing data from women themselves, feminist scholars have succeeded in challenging flimsy presumptions while providing nuanced understandings of social phenomena. The young women I interview are no dupes; they are well-aware of how the selfie is regarded because they navigate those assumptions every day. Their relationship to selfie culture is complicated and illuminating, but you would never appreciate that if you wrote it off as narcissistic or frivolous, refusing to take the time to listen.
For better or for worse, be it on Instagram or Snapchat or some new-fangled app, the selfie is here to stay. Taking the phenomenon and its enthusiasts seriously is the first step to unpacking its appeal and learning how best to tackle its challenges. If visibility is a trap as Foucault suggests, it is only through attentive, open-minded research that we will be able to identify selfie culture’s worst effects while also gaining useful insights into that which makes it so compelling.
 Agger, B. (2013) Quoted in ‘Putting Selfies Under a Feminist Lens’ by Meghan Murphy, Georgia Straight. 3 April 2013. Online at: https://www.straight.com/life/368086/putting-selfies-under-feminist-lens
 Hartley, J. (2004) Communication, Cultural and Media Studies: The Key Concepts, Routledge, p.51
 Franklin, S., Lury, C. and Stacey, J. (1991) Off-Centre: Feminism and Cultural Studies, p.6
 Shiach, M. (1991) ‘Feminism and Popular Culture’, Critical Quarterly, 33(2), pp. 37–46.
 Friedan, B. (1963) The Feminine Mystique, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, p. 29.
 Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Pantheon, p.197.