How selfies allow women to take control of their image
Published 20/08/2014 | 02:30
The selfie reminds me a lot of how Andy Warhol described Coca Cola.
Presidents drink it. Celebrities drink it. Normal people drink it. There is no such thing as 'luxury Coca Cola'. Similarly, a celebrity takes a selfie with the same technology as anyone else, the idea being to bypass how the media presents them. More candid than paparazzi shots, the selfie is a diary entry in photographic form, showing the subject at their most honest and personal. Kim Kardashian, who at over 17 million followers is Instagram's reigning selfie queen, has signed a deal to release a book in early 2015. No words, just 352 pages of selfies, fittingly entitled Selfish.
Kardashian rose to fame through a homemade sex tape, the selfie form at its most explicit, and the torrents of 'likes' to her Instagram have sustained her career ever since. It would be easy to call her book another sign of cultural apocalypse, or at least a low point for the publishing industry, but I'm not about to condemn it. There's something oddly brave about a selfie-ing celebrity: Kardashian might put time and money into her 'personal' shots, she might even, if rumours are to be believed, take advantage of Photoshop, but by presenting the results as selfies she is honest about how she perceives herself.
The selfie is a defining visual medium of our time, unique to the internet (has anyone ever seen a selfie developed and printed on paper? Kardashian's book will be a first). We use them to record our own histories: I can't help but think that in the future we will all have those time-lapse YouTube videos in which our daily selfies span the years.
September will see the debut of a TV show called Selfie, a social media-themed reworking of Pygmalion. The show looks to be cheerfully misogynistic: Karen Gillan's Eliza Dooley is punished for her narcissistic selfie habit with a 're-education' by bookish Henry Higgins, a genius of the PR department. The premise is a timely one, because the selfie is a uniquely female medium and has become a magnet for feminist discourse.
But I see the selfie as more than a cry for attention. In her book Unspeakable Things, Laurie Penny opens a chapter on cyberbullying with a tongue-in-cheek quote: "There are no girls on the internet". In the past this appeared to be true: the girls who were online remained invisible, fearing threats from chauvinist trolls. But through social media, and in large part the selfie, girls are more visible than ever.
At worst, the selfie internalises the male gaze by encouraging us to perform, even in private. Women, and in particular young girls, are warned about the consequences of showing the internet too much skin, with 'revenge porn', for example, used for blackmail and humiliation.
Even by participating in Facebook we uphold the mechanic it was originally built on, because what is Facebook for if not comparing ourselves to others?
To control the camera oneself becomes a small but significant political gesture, the kind young women are habitually denied.
Perhaps the reason we are uncomfortable looking at other people's selfies is that we are seeing the subject as they see themselves.
Selfies smile in the face of surveillance society.
They are the lip-glossed, pouting opposite to the famous Guy Fawkes mask.
Of course, they aren't always honest: with a selfie, "I woke up like this" can never be taken literally. But suspension of disbelief is part of the fun: the selfie marks a reconciliation of offline and online selves.
I envy teenage selfie-takers who negotiate the internet on their own terms: when I was in school I was too afraid. That said, perhaps I'm making headway: this article was the first which has called for an accompanying headshot. I sent a selfie, naturally.