Putting selfies under a feminist lens

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Unless you’ve managed to avoid the phenomenon that is social media (in which case, congratulations on your efforts and allow me to introduce you to the future), you’ve likely seen a selfie or two, even if you didn’t know it.

Whether you call it vanity, narcissism, or showing off your new bangs, the camera-phone self-portrait is everywhere, thanks in large part to a culture of sharing every aspect of our lives via the Internet. Some folks just want you to know what kind of salads they’re into; for others, it’s about capturing their good side.

In any case, there’s something that draws girls and women, in particular, to share selfies.

If you Google selfies, you will find hundreds upon hundreds of shots of young women, often in various states of undress or attempting to capture the perfect face-to-cleavage ratio. There’s the odd shot of a teenage boy, looking confused or intentionally stoic, but there’s no doubt that the selfie is a gendered trend.

Gail Dines, a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Boston’s Wheelock College and the author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, doesn’t believe the selfie is about vanity.

“I think it’s the human desire to be visible,” the scholar and activist told the Georgia Straight by phone.

Men, according to Dines, can gain visibility in a variety of ways. “But for us [women and girls] there’s only one way to visibility, and that’s fuckability,” she said. “To call it narcissism is to take an individual, psychological approach as opposed to a sociological one which asks: ‘What is the culture offering girls and women as a way of visibility?’ ”

Ben Agger, the author of Oversharing: Presentations of Self in the Internet Age, told the Straight by phone, “It’s the male gaze gone viral.” According to the professor of sociology and humanities at the University of Texas at Arlington, the selfie trend is about women “trying to stake a claim in the dating and mating market” with the knowledge that, in order to do so, they must objectify themselves. Agger notices this happening, in particular, on dating sites, where “women realize that there is a photographic traffic in bodies.”

Some might say that the selfie is just innocent fun. Others, as New York–based writer Sarah Nicole Prickett argued in a debate on CBC Radio’s The Current in January, think it’s something girls do “for themselves” or that it’s a way to control how we are seen by the world. Andrew Keen, the author of Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us, disagrees.

“Once our image is out there, we no longer have control over it,” Keen told the Straight by phone. “It’s the opposite of controlling your own image.”

Keen thinks this should be of particular concern when it comes to girls and women, “unless women don’t care about being transformed into commercial pornography”.

The fear that our images could become pornography isn’t simply a metaphorical one.

In January, 17 women filed a class-action lawsuit against a site called Texxxan.com and its web host, GoDaddy. The site, now offline, hosted what is called “revenge porn”. The idea behind revenge-porn sites is that jilted lovers (mostly men) can punish their (mostly female) exes by sending in photos of them (without permission) performing sexual acts and/or nude. In this case, the selfie, sent to a partner and intended for private use, literally becomes pornography.

Dines noted part of the problem is that, today, much of men’s experiences online consists of masturbating to pornography. “It’s their key experience viscerally and bodily with the Internet.” Women and girls are simply trying to find a way to fit themselves into that culture.

Even when women are posting photos of themselves publicly that don’t depict overtly sexual acts, the images will often still imitate pornographic ones.

“Because of porn culture, women have internalized that image of themselves,” Dines said. “They self-objectify, which means they’re actually doing to themselves what the male gaze does to them.”

The “male gaze” is a concept developed within feminist film theory. It describes the way in which women’s bodies, whether it be in advertising, pornography, or the real world, are seen as objects to be consumed or as things that exist to be looked at. Even though the gaze is described as a male one, women can internalize it and see themselves through this lens.

So what to do? Our culture is rapidly changing, and it’s unlikely that any parent will simply be able to sit their children down and convince them not to participate in it. Dines argues feminist-based media literacy is key—for boys and for girls.

“If we’re going to get this genie back in the bottle, the only answer is a mass public-health approach. We need to bring in doctors, educators, psychologists, and then go after this just like we went after drinking and driving. There’s no other way,” Dines said.

“This is what feminism should be doing,” Dines added, lamenting what she sees as the individualistic, faux-empowerment rhetoric emanating from some of today’s feminist factions. “In many ways feminism has completely capitulated. It’s like Cosmopolitan for the thinking girl.”

So the next time you pull out your phone for that bathroom selfie, you may want to consider why it is you want to be seen.

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A. Burqa

Apr 3, 2013 at 6:38pm

Yes, you westerners have far too much freedom to objectify yourselves with pictures. At least some of your academics realize that there is no such thing as a girl doing anything of her own free will, she must have internalized the male culture. It can never be the fault of the girl, who after all is only a girl, right? Now cover up your shame.

A Male

Apr 4, 2013 at 4:31pm

Do feminists think women are not sexual beings? The whole "objectify" thing isn't a random fleeting thing. It's called desire. Women posses this as well. Why else would they show their cleavage in public pre-internet? This isn't new, its human nature. Plus, stop saying "women" and "men", you're grouping everyone together and that tends to continue the snowball effect of disillusion.

p.s.

Apr 4, 2013 at 4:38pm

It's called biology. It's an endless loop of predictable behavior. Women are sexual, but considered innocent. Men are sexual, but considered evil. This will never change...

A.K.

Apr 4, 2013 at 5:15pm

I take selfies when I feel good about myself, or pretty. It's about having confidence in yourself, not objectifying yourself. Yeesh!

G.

Apr 4, 2013 at 9:34pm

Nowhere in this piece do we hear how women conduct themselves outside of their photographs. Even if we accept this writer's argument that women are subjecting themselves to some sort of 'male standard,' we have no idea if/how this may or may not carry through to real, everyday life.

Puff piece/hugely lacking.

RUK

Apr 5, 2013 at 3:34pm

@p.s.

Right, but consider whether biology is the imperative principle in modern times. Sure, men are stronger on average, and sure women have had to rely on male protection and therefore male approval and standards - the patriarchy and whatnot.

But times change. Nowadays people with bad eyesight, allergies, paralysis and whatnot aren't expected to just die, as 'nature' would otherwise have it.

Similarly there is every reason to consider new thinking about just what it is that men and women ought to expect from one another.

A radfem critique is meant to provoke us, get us thinking about things; in this case, why is it that so many women are still trying to look "f-able" instead of, I dunno, smart and accomplished?

As a het male, I am not immune to their charms and such, at all. But as a person, and more specifically as a dad of a wonderfully smart daughter, I have great appreciation for the radfem perspective which demands better of a rich society in which women are still second class citizens by many rubrics.

Shameless Lee

Apr 7, 2013 at 9:17pm

Sorry but I'm so tired of the idea that women couldn't possibly enjoy being objectified. All day long I'm respected for my brain so trust me a little objectification is a welcomed flirtation. One day I'll be a wrinkly old lady just like everyone else and I will look back fondly on those days when I turned the boys on. PULLEASE stop this foolish idea that men control their own gaze. It's WOMEN who control a man's gaze always have always will.

Shameless Lee

Apr 7, 2013 at 9:51pm

The idea that women can only be perceived through the eyes of men is the opposite of feminism. We exist as beings all on our own and if we like to express our desire through the act of seducing a potential lover male or female with a hot pic it's not because we have internalized the "male gaze". We are all voyeurs and exhibitionists, women objectify men using our own "female gaze" and no one seems bothered by that. especially not the guys ; )

Shameless Lee

Apr 8, 2013 at 11:19am

Has this woman seen Magic Mike?? Those poor hot men objectifying themselves! If only they knew the error of their ways, allowing women to treat them as sex objects!! Oh my! I'll have to watch it again for research.

Shameless Lee

Apr 8, 2013 at 12:18pm

It's misguided to think that women should keep covering themselves up because of how patriarchy perceives us. ANY photo posted online can be manipulated and misused. If we all followed this authors advice we'd be wearing berkas to keep our sexuality hidden from the wretched male gaze.

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