Putting selfies under a feminist lens

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.

Comments (35) Add New Comment
A. Burqa
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.
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A Male
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.
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p.s.
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...
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A.K.
I take selfies when I feel good about myself, or pretty. It's about having confidence in yourself, not objectifying yourself. Yeesh!
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G.
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.
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RUK
@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.
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Shameless Lee
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.
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Shameless Lee
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 ; )
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Shameless Lee
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.
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Shameless Lee
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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RUK
@Shameless Lee (I see what you did there, LOL)

I do not purport to be an authority on strippers but I did see Magic Mike with my wife and we both thought it was great. It is my observation that the gyrations and writhing cause women to laugh and clap their hands, while the men in gyno row sit sombrely, mute, intent, focused - the mood utterly different. That is one difference.

Another, of course, is that my gender is the one that is on average physically stronger, richer, better represented in authority roles, and doing most of the violent crime including all of the raping.

Consequently I have come to accept, if not enjoy, the fact that women unknown to me treat me with wary caution, as I treat them with respectful distance.

I wish it were different! That we could be jocular, informal, and gaze cheerfully at one another quite openly (and indeed that happens from time to time - life is not uniformly sterile existence). But there are good reasons why we don't, and to blame feminists for this - when, as I understand it, feminism is 'merely' seeking equivalent perks of personhood - is unnecessary and I think not right.
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RUK
As for enjoying objectification, I don't doubt that it happens. Some people like being looked at - have had my own moments of laughable vanity, sure.

But the article, if I am understanding it, is questioning why girls might be objectifying themseves. Could there be something darker in it? I don't think it is a useless question.
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Poms
Dear Ms. Lea:

In the name of all that is holy, please stop using the term "male gaze" until you understand what it means. And while you're at it, please stop doing similar violence to the terms "objectification," "voyeur," "exhibitionist," and "feminism."

Also, please refrain from bringing the "berka" (sic) into this; it's hyperbole that could raise even Godwin's jaded eyebrow.

Yours in struggle,
The Laura Mulvey Liberation Front
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P.Daddy
I'm sorry... Did the author just straight up take the arguments and examples featured podcasts from the CBC and mash them together??

http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/episode/2013/02/06/battling-revenge-porn-wi...

http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/episode/2013/01/30/selfies-narcissistic-emp...
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Shameless Lee
Dear Poms, your assumption that you understand the terms and I do not only perpetuates the idea that female exhibitionists are stupid and couldn't possibly understand such academic terms. I've studied Laura Mulvey and Foucault. I have two degrees in art and film studies with many years of feminist theory. I understand the terms, I just don't agree with the theory. And I think condescending feminists, like yourself, who judge other women for their choices are just as oppressive as patriarchy.
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Shameless Lee
Dear Poms, "Scopophilia: the basis for pleasure in the act of looking at other people as erotic objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze. At the extreme it can become an obsession, fixated into a perversion of peeping toms...In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive /female. The male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact." - Laura Mulvey. The problem I have with this theory is that it leaves no room for active/females who are not passive victims, but instead, enjoy erotic seduction as a healthy creative expression of their sexuality.
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Koko
This is quite common for gay men of all ages. Go on Grindr, an online "dating" app, and you'll see hundreds of men showing off their pecs and abs. Are we victims too?
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Shameless Lee
Exactly, Lesbians and gays objectify themselves just like heterosexuals do. If being an exhibitionist can only be defined in terms of "internalizing the male gaze" then to use this logic, academic language and analytical theory, which has its basis in patriarchy, could also be defined as "internalized patriarchy". Maybe that's why I find these theories so oppressive? When everything is reduced to internalized patriarchy it negates the validity of our own experience. I believe we can function outside the oppression, without internalizing it.
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VF
1) The concept of the male gaze is controversial and flawed at best. And reductive. And offensive. It strips me of my agency under the guise of 'feminism' in ways that perpetuates the whole patriarchal system.
2) The definition of pornography here is so broad that it starts to lose all referential usefulness.
3) the principles of gaze flow both ways and it's inappropriate to assume that only females can be the object of the gaze, or that it's inherently male - again it's a reductive (and essentialist, and binary) theory.
4) Since when does putting something in the public domain automatically mean you're ok with becoming commercial pornography? Kiss my fucking ass this makes me so angry I can't even formulate a rational response.
5) I don't even need to broach my personal engagement with portraits to identify that this is a straw-man argument. It's so poorly written that there's no attempt to address any potential defenses.
5) I don't even think this is the best defense, but here's an article saying how self-portraits have their place: http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/385126/Facebook-self-soothing-beneficial
The concept of the male gaze only holds water for a particular wave of feminism and while I appreciate the work that those who came before us did, the dialogue does go on without them. The dismantling of essentialism and the male/female binary should be enough to put that fucker to bed already. It no longer helps us because the rhetoric has progressed beyond the parameters of what was previously thought to be foundational.
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C L
I'm very concerned about the comment made by A.Burqua "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." - sounds a lot like the idea that women who dress provocatively are just asking to be raped. The fact that this comment exists and the person feels that "academics" support their view, shows that this article is clearly dis-empowering women under the guise of Feminism. Shame on the author.
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