By Sharon McLeay
The Oxford online dictionary was the first to recognize the images we take of ourselves—most often at arms length with cell phone cameras or webcams—as selfies in 2002. Since then the practice of taking selfies has been both praised and assailed for its impact on our sense of importance, belonging, personal privacy and the business of self-making. In this paper I will argue that selfies posted online through apps, such as Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Snapchat, do not give us the freedom to break with the forces that mold us into normative identities. By forces I mean the institutions, such as schools, churches, governments and social media, that call us to our subject positions, largely a patriarchal construct. When we accept a normative identity, we accept the subject positions constructed by these forces.
We cannot deny that media, such as television/radio/newspapers, have always sought to persuade and control our thoughts and actions, but our role at that time was limited to observer. Not able to take part in these forms of production or distribution, we had little or no control over how we were represented. Then came the Selfie around 2010, a phenomenon everyone hoped would lead to more realistic self representations because we now had control of the entire online experience, from production to curation and posting. At the moment of the selfie’s creation, says Journalism Professor Katie Warfield, “previous lines that had delineated producer from audience, tech from body, celebrity from everyday person…collapsed inward in terms of photography.”
Some experts argue that this participatory aspect enables us to counter normative discourses. Based on the results of a 2015 study of female selfie users, Katrin Tiidenberg and Edgar Gómez Cruz concluded: “For our participants, self-shooting is an engaged, self-affirmative and awareness raising pursuit…Thus, this is a reading of selfies as a practice of freedom.”
This appears to be a tidy argument for selfies as a constructive element, but only if we ignore the fact that our photographic poses are created according to various biases. Warfield sees the various poses and constructs used to compose selfies as biased representations because the self-shooters are copying conventions seen elsewhere that subscribe to existing patriarchal patterns. After years of watching film and photography that supports societal and cultural norms we learn the visual grammar that creates subject positions. Once our minds are programmed with this information it is difficult to separate ourselves from the conventions. Even the typical selfie camera position, above our heads, reinforces our subjected position (Warfield).
According to Jill Walker Rettberg, an Australian-Norwegian digital media researcher, further barriers to original selfies are put up by those who design the software algorithms based on their view of what’s important. The University of Bergen Professor of digital culture contends, “The camera can automatically collect visual information, but lacks the knowledge of the human’s emotions and memories to make those images meaningful or not” (55).
To look for a way around these biases I turn to a philosopher whose major work revolved around the relationship between self formation and the forces of power, truth and subjectivity. The late Michel Foucault claimed that the only way to separate from these patriarchal norms is through self care (Batters 4). Stephanie Batters, who has studied the relationship between Foucault’s ideas and the twenty-first Western world, contends that Foucault’s notion of self care requires us to create and govern ourselves through a continuous practice of introspection that “simultaneously allows for a realistic sense of one’s own surroundings (3).” Yet experts who study the relationship between technology and humans claim that technology, through its ability to scatter and distract thoughts, makes it difficult for us to achieve the self-reflection necessary to escape societal and cultural norms. Sherry Turkle, who has studied our relationship with technology for over 30 years, argues that the very definition of self-reflection has shifted from one of self-examination to one of control over connections (Turkle 85-86).
Even if we were able to achieve Foucault’s level of awareness, we would still have to contend with software and hardware developers’ interpretations of what is important, based on their cultural filters (Rettberg 35). Then there are the filters we apply to guard against over-exposure on the internet. MIT Professor Sherry Turkle argues, “…these days using the web for self-reflection poses the very real question of how truthful to be. For we know it is not a private space (85-87).” For this reason, selfies are often labelled as performative representations of self, a subject too large to attend to in this paper.
The short-lived 2014 ABC TV Series Selfie offers an example of how selfies continue to be influenced by the patriarchal forces that mold us into normative identities. The New Inquiry writer Annie Burns, who studies feminism and photography, claims the series showed “a marked disdain for women and a desire to control them, replacing their inappropriate untutored modes of self-expression with compliance to a system of male-issued rules” (Burns 2).
The argument that we re-appropriate ourselves each time we “take” a selfie, as if we are identity thieves working in the shadows of societal and cultural influences, seems to make less and less sense when we take an honest look at the checks and balances that maintain the patriarchal status quo.
Batters, Stephanie M., "Care of the Self and the Will to Freedom: Michel Foucault, Critique and Ethics" (2011). Senior Honors Projects. Paper 231. Para 10. http://digitalcommons.uri.edu/srhonorsprog/231http://digitalcommons.uri.edu/srhonorsprog/231
Accessed 7 February 2018.
Burns, Annie. “Selfie-Correction.” (2014). The New Inquiry, Para 3. https://thenewinquiry.com/selfie-correction/ Accessed 7 February 2018.
OED Online, Oxford University Press. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/selfie
Accessed 8 February 2018
Rettberg, Jill Walker. Seeing Ourselves Through Technology: How We Use Selfies, Blogs and Wearable Devices to See and Shape Ourselves. Palgrave Macmillan: Bergen, Norway, 2014, pp 55. http://jilltxt.net/books/Seeing-Ourselves-Through-Technology-full-book.pdf Accessed 7 February 2018.
Turkle, Sherry. Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. Penguin Press, New York, 2015, pp 85-87.
Warfield, Katie. “The treachery and the authenticity of images” (November 4, 2014) An independent TEDx production. YouTube. Accessed 7 February 2018.