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.