The Hidden Self(ie)
Examining the power and history of selfie culture
We’ve experimented in recent years with seeing how we look if the camera looks down on us, or can see up our noses. In 2013, Oxford Dictionary named “selfie” the word of the year, and revealed that within just one year from November 2012, the word increased in usage by 17,000%. Basically, if one person talked about the selfie, 17,000 more people caught on and spread the word like it was Gospel.
But three years later, what do we really know about the selfie? We know that “selfie” is a shortened form of “self-portrait.” We know that companies like Dove tried to capitalize on it with a beauty campaign. We know that cell phone companies have been improving the quality of front-facing cameras so we can all take selfies with crisper definition. We know that we have long metal sticks to hold our phones so we can take selfies while we travel and get kicked out of famous museums. But why do we take selfies and should they be considered art?
Selfie culture seems to have adopted a connection to the famous Narcissus of the Greek myth — a tale of a man who falls in love with his own reflection while staring into a pool of water until he eventually perishes staring at his beautiful self. This sounds like a problem we could only ever imagine the Kardashians having. However, this idea of narcissism being inherently tied to selfie-taking has a long history in Western culture.
Sigmund Freud characterized Narcissistic Personality Disorder in 1914, and it was considered a medical condition diagnosed by psychologists. Some of the criteria of the disorder are fragile self- esteem, boastfulness, grandiose sense of self-importance, fantasies of success, and lack of empathy. Today, we hear this word being used as your average insult. You look at yourself in store windows as you walk by? You look in the mirror before leaving the house for longer than half a second? You’re obviously obsessed with yourself. You must be a narcissist!
Cultural theorist Imogen Tyler discusses how we can thank the 1970s for the major cultural shift in our understanding of what is no longer considered to be a personality disorder. According to Tyler, identity politics and gender politics — feminist movements, LGBTQ movements — became an excuse to call someone narcissistic. Being concerned with patriarchal views of individuals somehow made one self-entitled and patronizing, by this logic. Or, more likely, people were disturbed by this rupture in the status quo and the fact that women started buying more pants.
A myriad of blog posts and news articles strengthen this link between selfies, self-portraiture, and narcissism. Dr. Pamela Rutledge’s blog post for Psychology Today mentions narcissism in “#Selfies: Narcissism or Self-Exploration?” CNN published a video in 2015 asking “Are selfies causing people to go under the knife?” Here, some go so far as to blame selfies for a rise in narcissism, mistakenly linking the selfie for its ability to encourage plastic surgery. Despite their argument, psychologists have noted that the world does not contain more narcissists simply because we say the word more often.
According to Women’s Studies scholar Catherine Montfort, women have been exploring the art of self-portraiture since the 18th century, but are often overlooked in most art history texts because their work is taken less seriously than the work of their male counterparts. Female self-portraiture is of special importance because of this lack of representation prior to the 20th century.
Contemporary photographer Ina Loewenberg argues that, for women in particular, engaging in “self-portraiture is a way to keep control of their own representation.” It is apparent that women have struggled with combatting patriarchal representations of female identity for hundreds of years. Arguably, the concept of the ideal, perfect women emerged out of what men found attractive, and that has dictated beauty standards and controlled the fashion industry. The 1970s saw a major feminist wave fighting to break free of ideal beauty standards, one unshaved armpit at a time.
Let’s think back to the work of iconic self-portrait artist Cindy Sherman. She captured photographs of herself as characters — glamorous movie stars, a safari trekker, a young woman in the big city. Sherman’s work is foundational in the feminist art movement of the 1970s; an example of how photographic self-portraiture allows for identity play, playing with one’s self-representation, how we want others to see us, and even how we want to see ourselves.
Generally speaking, the camera replaced the painting, the digital camera replaced film, and the front-facing smart phone camera replaced outstretching an arm and desperately attempting to hang on to a camera as you direct your finger toward the shutter. Technologies like the camera and the front-facing camera are invented when they are seen to have purpose. However, as Lisa Gitelman theorizes as a media historian, individuals in a society determine how to use such technologies. Technologies, in general, are seen as methods of making particular tasks easier or more simple. For example, forks help us put food into our mouths while making less of a mess. The computer was supposed to simplify and organize our lives, among its many other functions. (Whether or not that happened is up for debate.)
What is really interesting about the front-facing camera, though, is that it seems to have been installed on smart phones after selfies were already being taken. This type of camera also only exists on the smart phone platform, discounting cameras that have moveable screens as they are not true front-facing cameras. Unlike some other technologies, uses of which seem to have shifted over time, the front-facing camera has only really had this singular purpose.
The smart phone platform is perfect for the front-facing camera for a number of reasons: it’s compact and portable, but most importantly, it’s connected to the internet and allows for instantaneous connection to social media. This resonates with the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of selfie as well, which considers an upload to social media a caveat of what makes a selfie. Why are selfies, according to the technology itself and the popular definition, intended to be shared? Are those selfies we hide in the camera roll fake selfies because they never see a social media profile?
Women have been exploring the art of self-portraiture since the 18th century, but are often overlooked in most art history texts because their work is taken less seriously than the work of their male counterparts. Female self-portraiture is of special importance because of this lack of representation prior to the 20th century.
Obviously, there is no such thing as a “real” selfie, and the definition of selfie will shift as we continue to take them, just as we shifted from calling them self-portraits to selfies. Why did this term change occur? There is no definitive answer to the question, but we can say that society collectively assists in these shifts. We can also speculate about why we take selfies, and hopefully in time, that answer will become clearer as well.
While data is still being collected, most studies suggest that more women than men take selfies. Of course, this is dependent on the culture and geographic location being studied, but researchers tend to agree that in the Western world, more women take selfies, and those women tend to be under the age of 30. The selfie is not inherently gendered, though — it is no more for women than it is for men. So why do more women take selfies?
One possible answer we should consider is that women need the technology of the selfie more. Perhaps women are using it to explore identity representations which may have been stifled due to patriarchal definitions of the ideal woman. If we look at some recent selfie movements that trended on Instagram and Twitter, it becomes obvious that the selfie is not just self-indulgent. It can be, but so is eating a full box of cookies, and that never stops me or makes them any less delicious.
Summer 2014 saw some important selfie movements, as we can refer to them. One of the most notable movements in selfie culture was in response to Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc stating in a speech that women “should know what is decent and what is not decent. She should not laugh loudly in front of all the world and should preserve her decency at all times.” The response was a barrage of selfies of women of various cultures laughing posted to social media websites.
The Montreal Gazette published a story on March 7, 2015 about Canadian Brae Carnes, a trans woman who has begun taking bathroom selfies in men’s washrooms. Why would a trans woman use the men’s washrooms? Well, Senator Donald Plett and the Conservative government decided to amend a bill that proposed changes to the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code by saying that for “safety,” trans individuals must use bathrooms that suit biological sex organs rather than gender identity. Perhaps Mr. Plett has never noticed that men’s washrooms have toilets next to the urinals — or perhaps he is simply transphobic and Ms. Carnes was brave enough to call him out on it.
So many more selfie movements of this sort are emerging — armpit hair selfies, hairy leg selfies, sexy selfies that show women taking control of how they might be objectified. It would be ignorant and naïve to say that selfies are purely self-indulgent and narcissistic. They can serve an important political purpose, and that begs a discussion of selfies as art. If the images have political intent, should they be considered art? Again, there is no definitive answer to the question, even in art history, but certainly something to think about.
Now, major media outlets like TIME and The Guardian are announcing the imminent death of the selfie: 2012-2015. In reality, the selfie was born much earlier than 2012, harking back to painstakingly painted self-portraits, self-portraits of the 20th century and the work of Cindy Sherman (among many other artists). In fact, as early as the 1920s, photographers Joseph Byron and Ben Falk held an outstretch camera to snap a selfie. Arguably, the only significant difference between 1920s selfies and contemporary selfies is the camera they’re captured with. Selfies will live on well beyond 2015 because if history counts for anything, humans are way too interested in exploring identity — the way we look, the way others see us, the way we look in mirrors, the way we look on digital screens.
It’s not a perversion of portraiture. It’s a progression, a portrait in social media form. And we should get used to it, because selfies are here to stay.