While I freely admit that the word “selfie” makes me cringe, this article made me cringe even more.
According to Erin Gloria Ryan, “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.” And “Young women take selfies because they don’t derive their sense of worth from themselves, they rely on others to bestow their self-worth on them — just as they’ve been taught.”
Now, I also disagree with Rachel Simmons at Slate, who defends the selfie by saying: “If you write off the endless stream of posts as image-conscious narcissism, you’ll miss the chance to watch girls practice promoting themselves—a skill that boys are otherwise given more permission to develop, and which serves them later on when they negotiate for raises and promotions.”
Selfies have nothing to do with self-promotion, at least not in the way Simmons is referencing. Selfies have to do with self-creation.
I’m going to do something crazy here. I’m going to stop calling them “selfies,” and I’m going to start calling them “self-portraits.” Because that is what they are. We may not all be Nan Goldins or Cindy Shermans, but we are turning the camera around on our face, and that is where it gets interesting.
The ubiquity now of cell-phone cameras and, in turn, sites like Facebook and Instagram where we can share the photos we take, the snapshots of the detritus of our ordinary lives, may have resulted in too much of a good thing. That is a valid argument that I can get behind. It’s one of the reasons I hesitated before starting a blog. There’s a lot of white noise out there already.
But the excess of self-portraits, much like the excess of pictures of food, does not make the concept behind those photos any less interesting. It just means that there is a lot out there to plow through before you find the ones that really stand out. But couldn’t you say the same thing about movies on Netflix, or videos on YouTube, or music on iTunes?
We live in a culture of excessive available content, but let’s not take it out on our selfies.
For me, selfies are a natural progression from the works of Cindy Sherman or Claude Cahun or Eleanor Antin or Nan Goldin. They are an effort to document the ephemeral while also celebrating the performative nature that is identity. Postmodernism has reveled in the performative nature of identity, and for women, especially, identity has been closely tied to “putting on one’s face.” Lipstick and mascara are a women’s warpaint. Makeup does not just define a woman as a woman: it defines what kind of woman she is. Is she a red lipstick kind of girl? Or a sparkly lip gloss type? Is she the kind of woman who wears a lot of makeup, or the kind of woman who favors a bare face? It is not as simple as saying that a woman wears makeup to look good: a woman wears makeup to tell the world who she is.
So why not celebrate the performative nature of femininity, the fluidity of identity, with some selfies?
As Simone de Beauvoir said, one is not born but rather becomes a woman.
Nowadays, we can be so many different kinds of women. And isn’t that great?
I can be a sexy secretary in the morning, a downtown diva in the afternoon, and a cocktail party socialite in the evening–and then I can put on sweatpants and watch tv with my dog.
When I was an undergrad, I started an art project that never really got finished, at least not in its original form. I took polaroids of myself with all my different hairstyles, playing all kinds of different personas.
The “polaroid experiment” actually led directly to my senior thesis art show, which was a specific exploration of identity and all the different versions of “womanhood” we see on television.
It was that tension between the real and the performative, the truth and the masquerade, that drew me to the world of adult entertainment and its combination of erotic spectacle and constructed identity, an interest that led to my book Lovergirl.
And in many ways, that project led directly to the work I did in Berlin, since the stage is a literal reflection of the postmodern premise that we are all composites of various personas performed based on the specific reality of the moment.
So maybe instead of critiquing “selfies,” we should celebrate that women, these days, have so many “identities” at their disposal and that so many women are inspired to pose and capture all the different facets of their identity.
You better work
Work it, girl
(Give a twirl )
Do your thing on the runway
You better work it, girl
(Of the world )
Wet your lips and make love to the camera