Just recently I was visiting Berry when I walked past a quaint little boutique store featuring, believe it or not, a ‘selfie chair’. I’m the kind of gal who will take a selfie whenever the moment presents itself(ie), and even when it doesn’t – so a SELFIE CHAIR?! I was sold.
Upon reflection, I realised that this marketing ploy really represents the omnipresence of selfies in today’s culture. In fact, the Oxford Dictionary named ‘selfie’ as the 2013 word of the year, and a 2014 Pew Research Centre report found that 68% of millennial women had taken a selfie (Bates, 2016) . To say the phenomenon has permeated pop culture would be an understatement. The practice is ubiquitous on social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr (Murray, 2015, p. 490) – embraced by the Kim Kardashians, Real Housewives of the world, teenage girls and their Nans alike (Baddie Winkle, anybody?).
This raises the question, though – are selfies merely a shallow expression of online narcissism (Murray, 2015, p. 490) and internet obsessed generations, or could they be seen as an important ingredient for modern day feminism? I would certainly argue the latter, with selfies holding the power to convey political messages about the self, the current social fabric and even society at large. They are praised for providing an avenue for creative self-fashioning and recognised as an important means of self-expression (Murray, 2015, p. 490).
Selfies are too often dismissed as trivial and mundane, which ignores their political potential. Much of the dialogue surrounding selfies (and thus also young girls) is judgey; they are seen as “narcissistic, humble-braggy, slutty, too sexy, a ‘cry for help’, or yet another way for girls’ to judge each other…” (Bennett, 2014). This in itself can be seen as an extension of sexist condemnation of the activities of young girls and women.
However, it is essential to consider the history of women’s depiction to understand how and why selfies are so important for feminism. Women were traditionally portrayed by men, for men – in portraits, sculptures, images – just about every avenue of representation was catered to the male gaze. Looking back only half a century, images of women were largely oppressive and completely removed their autonomy.
While we have thankfully moved away from advertising this blatantly sexist, the media at large still (often) showcases women as subservient.
Women in mediated images continue to lack agency, but selfies are able to change this power dynamic completely, almost revolutionising how women are presented. Using selfies, women are able to portray themselves as they are, or how they would like to be, without being filtered through someone else’s lens (Mathew 2015). This type of image brings to to table a vast array of gazes that are usually not seen otherwise (Bennet, 2014). As Mathew (2015) explains, selfies are inherently valuable because they give power back to the person taking, editing, and inevitably Instagramming their image.
“Young women … often characterize the selfie … as a radical act of political empowerment: as a means to resist the male-dominated media culture’s obsession with and oppressive hold over their lives and bodies.” (Mathew, 2015)
Women can now say that they are more than perfume wedged between cleavage, a sexualised extension of Burger King or a fulfilment of sexual appeal dictated through the male gaze. Instead, using selfies, women can now share images being themselves, however they deem appropriate and empowering and say ‘this is still beautiful’. Laci Green describes this brilliantly in the first two minutes of this video:
As Tatum (2014) suggests, selfies tell women they don’t have to apologise for noticing themselves, they can drink themselves in, celebrate themselves and not feel guilty for announcing their presence. This can be seen through the #feministselfie and #365feministselfie movement which trended on Instagram and Twitter. This provided a record of how everyday women look and operate in the world, in a way pioneering self esteem (Yerman, 2015) online.
Such selfies upend notions about who is beautiful or mainstream enough to be seen – they break through media gatekeepers and let the subject decide they are great as they are (Pozner in Bennett, 2014). They may be often dismissed as narcissistic, at times problematic and forever inviting criticism and disdain – but regardless, they are an important ingredient for modern day feminism.
The bottom line is that women posting selfies are able to reclaim their own image in a world saturated with mediated depictions of them, and that is powerful. As Evans (2016) said, selfies are often pushing back against conventional standards offered to women at a commercial level; as such, they are an undeniably political action. Fundamentally, they say: “you deserve to fill up space” (Tatum, 2014) – and that’s an important message for women who are otherwise told they are only valuable if they fit a very specific mould. So I say #selfie on, you beautiful people.
Bennett, J 2014, Our Bodies, Our Selfies: The Feminist Photo Revolution, Time, viewed 18 March 2016, <http://time.com/3099103/feminist-selfies-uglyfeminists-iwokeuplikedis/>
Evans, N 2016, ‘Looking at ourselves’, BCM310, University of Wollongong, Lecture Slides, delivered 9 March
Mathew, M 2015, New research suggests selfies are way more empowering than you think, Hello Giggles, viewed 18 March 2016, <http://hellogiggles.com/selfies-act-of-feminism/2/>
Murray, D. C . 2015, ‘Notes to self: the visual culture of selfies in the age of social media’, Consumption Markets & Culture, vol. 18, no. 6, pp. 490-516
Tatum, E 2014, Selfies and Misogyny: The Importance of Selfies as Self-Love, Everyday Feminism, viewed 18 March 2016, <http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/04/selfies-as-self-love/>
Yerman, M. G. 2015, The #365FeministSelfie: Join the Party!, Ravishly, viewed 18 March 2016, <http://www.ravishly.com/2015/09/02/365feministselfie-join-party>