“Unamused by My Erasure”: Feminist Selfies and the Politics of Representation

Today’s post from Prof. Alison Reiheld puts a decidedly 2014 spin on the question, “How do we see ourselves?”

Reiheld 1[Image Credit: Field and Stream, 2008]

“I want to see more young women holding a fish than holding their camera in front of a bathroom mirror doing a selfie.” –Sarah Palin, January 2014

Whatever you think of Sarah Palin as a politician, she has important social relevance for the perception of women in America. She presents herself as a rural conservative who stands for family values, yet whose version of family values has accommodated working outside the home while her husband served as the primary caregiver for her children. She is a “mama grizzly” who will be aggressive and not back down from a fight, despite the fact that the very term positions her as fighting for a typically feminine domain: the family (as Marilyn Frye argued in “A Note on Anger”, aggression and anger by women gets more “uptake”—is given more credence—when it is on behalf of the private sphere, traditionally a woman’s proper domain). Palin is, thus, a curious figure from a feminist perspective. For a certain portion of the American population, Palin’s utterances have a great deal of rhetorical power. Even people who disagree with her often feel it important to take a public stand against her. So when she critiques young women who take selfies, folks pay attention.

The particular quote which begins my post has been widely panned as fundamentally anti-feminist. And yet for a particular version of feminism which seeks to broaden our notions of femininity beyond the constrained and delicate bodily habits critiqued by Iris Marion Young in “Throwing Like a Girl” and Sandra Bartky in “Skin Deep: Femininity as a Disciplinary Regime”, beyond the demure feminine comportment of long tradition, Palin’s comment need not be seen as anti-feminist. Here is what she is NOT advocating when she says she wants to see more young women in pictures holding fish they presumably caught:

  • Young women should focus on how their bodies are perceived by men, and seek to satisfy the male gaze
  • Being passive and presenting oneself as passive
  • Being shy and retiring about one’s accomplishments
  • Being clean and domestic
  • Being dressed in a way that values form over function
  • Being dependent upon others

 Now it could be argued that it is pretty weak sauce to say she’s simply not advocating gender norms that have traditionally supported the patriarchy and contributed to the normative claim that women are less valuable/competent  than men, and have value only in relation to men.  However, since those gender norms are still widely present in our media and in expectations and self-presentation of young women, this is no small thing.

Indeed, Palin is not so much offering a critique of selfies as a critique of a particular kind of selfie.  She is advocating a particular kind of self-representation instead.  In this, I suggest she is in keeping with the substance, if not the headline—“Selfies aren’t empowering. They’re a cry for help.”—of a November 2013 piece at Jezbel.com in which Erin Gloria Ryan argued that the vast majority of selfies are “a high tech reflection of the [messed] up way society teaches women that their most important quality is their physical attractiveness.”  What Ryan thinks of as the selfie is clearly a particular kind of self-representation, and not the sort that Rachel Simons called a positive self-esteem builder for girls:

“…if selfies were typically jubilant post-achievement photos snapped by women proud of what they’d accomplished, then Simmons’ assertion that selfies are “tiny pulse(s) of girl pride” would be apt. But the typical selfie is not taken by women who have just completed Iron Man Triathlons or finally finished reading Infinite Jest (caption: Me N DFW 4 eva! XOXO #blessed #reading #smart #rip); selfies don’t typically contain job offer letters, successful grant applications, their face in front of a gorgeously rendered still life the woman drew by hand. They’re literally just pictures of a woman’s face not talking. Further, self-taken digital portraits are typically posted on social media, ostensibly with the intent of getting people to respond to them — that’s what social media is. In that respect, selfies aren’t expressions of pride, but rather calls for affirmation…  Young women take selfies because they don’t derive their sense of worth from themselves, they rely on others to bestow their self-worth on them — just as they’ve been taught.

 Palin and Ryan seem to agree that the way self-representation often occurs in selfies is not necessarily good for the women who do it.

In a certain sense, I agree. Selfies can indeed contribute to objectification. It strikes me that one of the things that Palin and Ryan both point to as problematic is the continuation of gender norms that objectify women.  Of course, there can be pictures in which one shows oneself as beautiful, even conventionally beautiful, without objectifying oneself; for instance if one is showing a lovely new piece of clothing one made or picked out or if one is showing mastery of new makeup techniques that really create the aesthetic effect you are going for.

The real problem with objectification, as Linda LeMoncheck points out, is that objectification strips the person in question of their personhood. This is what the classic cat call does: the one who says “ooooh, sexy!  Looking fine tonight!” is objectifying the recipient insofar as he doesn’t care whether she likes this sort of talk, and reacts to being rebuffed with “Geez, can’t take a compliment!” as though his right to comment on her body is the only one that matters.  We can do this to ourselves as easily as others can do this to us. In doing so, we are depersonifying, dehumanizing, instrumentalizing, erasing the woman as a person.  And of course, not all objectification is sexual: the all-too-common images of “headless fatties” convert women and men into objects of derision as much as images of what we might call “headless hotties” convert women into objects of desire.

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This sort of other-directedness in which the self is erased is deeply problematic, and it seems that there really are grounds for complaint with respect to these sorts of self-objectifying self-representations. These are complaints that both Palin and Ryan seem to share, just as both direct us toward ways that self-representation could do good—what is oneself with one’s fish if not an analogue of oneself  with a “gorgeously rendered still life” one drew by hand?

Not long after this, the Twitter hashtag #feministselfie began picking up steam, and was often used on Facebook posts in my own social sphere of teenagers through septuagenarians.  It is used to refer to pictures of oneself that show accomplishments, but not only this. It is also used to refer to pictures that seem to break through classical gender norms, or other norms specific to one’s own body.

When a beauty norm is tinged with racial overtones, posting a picture of oneself as unabashedly oneself, confident in one’s own skin and ethnic identity, is a bold and subjectifying act of self-representation. Consider the self-representation in these two images by Twitter user Dulce de Leche, both of which she labels as #feministselfie:

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When a beauty norm is tinged with ageism and promotes making oneself appear young, posting a picture of oneself as unabashedly oneself, comfortable at one’s own actual age and in one’s own actual experienced body, is a bold and subjectifying act of self-representation.

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Reiheld 6When a beauty norm is tinged with fat hatred and requires that we discipline our bodies to the point of changing their size and shape, posting a picture of oneself as unabashedly and joyously oneself, comfortable at one’s size and in one’s own “undisciplined” body, is a bold and subjectifying act of self-representation.

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Discipline schmiscipline. Or as Marilyn Wann, left, says in her book of the same name: “FAT!SO?”

Even when we are not fat, but are conventionally sized, beauty norms demand a certain texture to our skin, a certain shape to trim bodies.  A competitive runner and model recently discussed her hesitation in posting images of herself modeling at New York Fashion Week with a nearly ideal body alongside images of herself a week later slouching with a stomach pouch and visible cellulite.

When a beauty norm is tinged with athletic idealism, posting a picture of oneself as unabashedly non-ideal, comfortable in one’s athletic and imperfect trim body, is a bold and subjectifying act of self-representation.

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Taking control over one’s self-representation is not a new source of empowerment for women.  I wouldn’t be the first to note that Frida Kahlo pretty much locked down the paint-and-canvas version of the feminist selfie some time ago.

Reiheld 9Though empowerment through self-representation is not new, the selfie—taken with an available camera and posted shamelessly online for all to see—is a way for those of us without Kahlo’s artistic skills to self-represent now. And if we take control of our self-representation with care, avoiding self-objectification and exploding gender, race, age, body, and other norms, touting our awesomeness when we have been told to be demure, we can radically subjectify ourselves. What is more feminist than that?

Here I am, getting down with my bad self, subjectifying through self-representing—Math and my beloved TI-81! Building things! I’m fit but I sure ain’t skinny! World traveling for work! My most literal feminist selfie!

I’m me. Who are you?

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13 thoughts on ““Unamused by My Erasure”: Feminist Selfies and the Politics of Representation

  1. I wonder if (American) women aren’t often the source of their own dissatisfaction.

    Who edits –and buys –Cosmopolitan, with its emphasis on bosomy, airbrushed cover art and monthly features on “what HE really wants tonight”? Who laps up the diet articles and makeup hints in every issue of Family Circle? It isn’t the men.

    Who shows up for the Weight Watchers meetings, the Zumba, yoga and aerobics classes, trying to recapture the bodies they had when they were 20?

    Hint: It isn’t the Patriarchy. Most men truly haven’t a clue. We have met the enemy and she is us. I submit we do this to ourselves seeking approval from our sisters.

    Who am I? I am an accumulation of experiences and years. My selfies, photos by others, and my mirror, show me as I am now, (sigh) but I remember the Me from long ago, and can’t help wishing I could stuff my old lady’s confidence and accomplishment in the strong and slender body of that 20-something woman.

    1. Ah, the thing about sexism and feminine gender norms is that they can be bad for women even as women apply them and enforce them, and can be applied and enforced by anyone including on oneself. Sandra Bartky notes that it is not only the external gaze that inflicts discipline according to norms upon us–and that can come from men or women–but also our own gaze. There are many ways we can take back our self-representation, and sometimes we have to take it back from the part of ourselves that is all about enforcing the norms upon ourselves to which others also hold us. To wish one’s body to be more enabling of one’s desires–“wishing I could stuff my old lady’s confidence and accomplishment in the strong… body of a 20-something woman”–is not to embrace those gender norms that are otherwise so pernicious but precisely to say that one has personal and very real goals that could be accomplished better if it were otherwise. One can wish for a body that works a different way, but so much of ageism and fat stigma and beauty norms aren’t about health or function. Let us self-represent against norms which aren’t for us, but are for others, whether those others are men or women, eh?

  2. Alison: I just came across this article from last Sunday’s NYT which seemed really on point with your post:http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/23/fashion/selfies-the-uglier-the-better-technology.html
    It identifies the rise of the “ugly selfie,” in which young women choose to display “close-up shots of double chins, insides of mouths, makeup-less pores, exaggerated toothy growls and duck lips zoomed in so close they looks grotesque” as a way of rebelling again a specific image of female perfection that is associated with the selfie. The form also privileges authentic expression over conventionally “pretty” poses.
    A director at Getty Images is quoted as saying, “In one tap of their iPhone, these girls are participating in a visual couple d’etat.” Fantastic.

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