In case your twitter was broken yesterday or you live in a cave I would like to bring your attention to an article published on the website, Jezebel. The article called, Selfies Aren’t Empowering. They’re a Cry for Help was by far one of the most shallow posts I’ve read since I last looked at the pages of TMZ. The article starts out by mentioning that the Oxford Dictionary recently recognized the word, “selfie” as the 2013 word of the year. That is true. Selfie is now officially a word and that is pretty much where I stopped agreeing with the article. For anyone unfamiliar with the definition, a selfie is a photo one takes of oneself, usually with a phone or other hand held digital device. Society and particularly the younger generation of tech-savy internet users have been quite fond of the selfie for many years now, as it gives an immediate way to show the world how you feel at any particular moment in time via social media outlets or texting devises. It also gives the selfie taker control of how they are perceived. Feeling happy? Feeling sad? Feeling sexy? Post a selfie on Facebook and let the world know! This has been going on for a while.
But Erin Gloria Ryan from Jezebel says,
“Selfies aren’t empowering; they’re a high tech reflection of the fucked up way society teaches women that their most important quality is their physical attractiveness.”
Uhhhh, whoah. What now? First of all let’s back up for a moment and remember what “selfie” is actually slang for. The self-portrait has had a long and very important history in the art world. Painters have painted self-portraits or selfies if you will, for hundreds upon hundreds of years and one could even argue that cave drawings were representative of those very humans drawing on those very walls. “Look at me! I was here and this is how I looked and how I lived!” Since then, artists like Frida Kahlo have used paintings of themselves to express the myriad of human emotions. Yes, Frida wanted you to gaze upon her. She also wanted you to understand her joy and her severe physical and sometimes emotional pain
and she did this by representing herself.
And when photography was invented the self-portrait shifted primarily to that new medium. Since then, artists have, over the years, made careers out of the selfie. I highly encourage you to take a look at the work of photographer and artist Cindy Sherman as an example.
If anything, Sherman took the selfie to the mountaintop and dismantled Ryan’s thoughts on the, “fucked up way society teaches women that their most important quality is their physical attractiveness.” Long before the word “selfie” was coined. Self-portraits can be feminist as fuck.
Another issue that seems ignored in the vilification of the selfie is the socio-economic issues surrounding it. It used to be that only the wealthy could afford portraits. Rich families would pay artisans a lot of money to paint regal paintings of them that would proudly hang above the fire as a status symbol. Then, for may years after as we moved into the modern era, the only “good” photos one would have were the professionally taken wedding photos that sometimes took months to process. Images were painstakingly chosen and any retouching had to be done by hand with tiny brushes. OH, you blinked in that otherwise perfect photo? Too bad and so sad for you! You didn’t get a second chance on saving that moment the way you wanted to remember it. Film was expensive and good photographers were hard to come by and moments passed you by. But now one can take a hundred selfies in mere moments, see the results in seconds and discard the ones not desired.
You can even photoshop out that inconvenient zit on your nose or that ridiculous red eye. You can direct the gaze of others. You can be remembered the way you want to be remembered and often, it’s free.
So here we sit firmly planted in the digital age. We have been raised with cameras embedded into every aspect of our life. We are monitored in one way or another, constantly. Most of the time we have very little say in how we are captured on “film” or otherwise depicted. Selfies are one of the very few avenues in which we have control over how we are portrayed. This is extremely important for women. Many of us are taught that we are not good enough, not tall enough, not thin enough or not pretty enough. The not enoughs go on and on. There is constant pressure from outside sources to look a certain way and act a certain way and then when photos of us are posted online, often without our consent, we are shown through the lens or the eyes of someone else and often it’s not flattering or at the very least not in anyway in our control. Selfies give us a chance to show the world how we see ourselves. And that is giving us back the control that is often stripped away from us. Self taken images are another way we can discuss and express our place in the world from our own perspective. It may not always be beautiful or eloquent, but it’s our self-curated choices that we share. It’s our personal narrative.
Can someone take the selfie to an extreme? Oh yeah, sure. Anyone can take almost anything to an extreme and then use it to try to get negative attention but to generalize and call all selfies posted on social media a “cry for help” is an unwarranted generalization that strips away our power to show the world how we want to be seen.