’If the sight of my ankles means death to an honest fellow who, no doubt, has a wife and family to support, I must, in all humanity, keep them covered,’ Orlando thought. Yet her legs were among her chieftest beauties. And she fell to thinking what an odd pass we have come to when all a woman’s beauty has to be kept covered lest a sailor fall from a mast-head. ‘A pox on them!’ she said, realizing for the first time what, in other circumstances, she would have been taught as a child, that is to say, the sacred responsibilities of womanhood…”
― Virginia Woolf, Orlando
So I woke up this morning and found an article written by Meghan Murphy, Defense of ‘the selfie’ confirms that this era will forever be known as the stupidest of all eras. I read this pre-coffee so my irritation factor was likely a bit sharper than it might otherwise have been, but Murphy might very well have kicked off her article after listening to to the CBC podcast, Selfies: Narcissistic, Empowering, or Just Fun? pre coffee too. [I encourage you to have a listen to that Podcast, because there is heaps going on in there -- like the slinging around of the term "narcissism" and the discussion of self photography as a mental health, ageist, gendered and morality issue].
As you can probably tell by the title of Murphy’s article, she has issues with self photography… and social media … particularly the way women use social media, especially around the way we women share … well … most anything.
I have thoughts about self-photography, as a woman, as a clinical therapist/social worker, as a writer, as a photographer, as a feminist. I have written about some of these thoughts in posts such as What Are We Looking For From Self-Portraiture? or I Am In Truth Naked, Photography Love: Use of Self In Photography and She Who Takes Photos of Herself and again Intentionality in Self-Portraiture. Suffice it to say, I am not unconscious about the issues of self photography and have spent a fair bit of time thinking about them. Through out the above posts, I have posed questions, such as:
When is it acceptable to notice self? Is self-focus indicative of “attention seeking”? Is it vanity? Is it without purpose or artistic value or merit? Can we experience self in new ways through the process of self portraiture? What is acceptable to focus upon if a woman (or man) is bold enough to take such photographs? For instance, is it okay to take head shots but not body shots? How much clothing is required? When is a line crossed and an image becomes viewed as sexualized? Who does the sexualizing, the photographer or the viewer? Who can such images be shared with? What is the social consequence of sharing such images publicly? What does it mean? Who should be permitted to see such images? When should they be shared and within what context? Who decides?
Let’s look at a couple of Murphy’s comments:
1. “… it’s also bullshit. It’s simply not possible that, if we put images of ourselves, or really, if we put anything at all online, that it’s ‘for ourselves’”.
Exactly right because this “creativity for myself” argument is not just about photography. It could be leveled toward anyone who has any public presence as a result of any creative or communicative endeavour (because photography is creative and communicative). For instance, Murphy’s blog post… who is she writing her post for? Whose gaze/attention is sought? Is it possible to write anything for self? Should we say that the only way it is possible to write for self, is when we never share it? Because it could be equally argued that writing (or any form of creativity/communication) is narcissistic and attention seeking.
So sure, we can argue that a publicly posted selfie is not ” for self” or ” only for self” … so what? Neither is any other form of shared creative self-expression. The only difference is people seem to have a lot of shit happening when that creative expression is a self photo.
Additionally, this argument sidesteps discussing or considering the process of self photography. There is intense intentionality in the process of photography (and we can (but Murphy did not) debate when a picture is a photograph is “art” – as part of this debate (ie. an iPhone snapshot versus a constructed self-portrait). We can also discuss the context and intention of the photo. “Maybe the photograph speaks to an emotional aspect of self, or maybe it speaks to [a] relationship to time and space. Maybe it’s recording an event, or an experience. Maybe it’s demonstrating self in relationship to something … else.“
2. “… so thoroughly engrossed with our own lives that we document every single thing we think/do/put in our mouths …”
This is an interesting feminist observation. How very dare women notice their lives, or share them? How very dare we place a value on activities that have been traditionally margininalized … raising children, cooking a meal, enjoying connection, enjoying our “self”. The fact is, photography is a means of establishing a narrative of life and experience.
I suspect a large part of the outrage surrounding self photography and women’s use of social media in general is because women are busy constructing their own narratives and making them public, whether they are ” famous” or “important”, or “beautiful”, or “young” - in spite of the fact that they are *gasp* female. We don’t have to look at this era as the “stupidest of eras” we could instead choose to see it as the era when women openly constructed personal narratives not because of public scrutiny, but in spite of it. [aka you don't get to render me invisible and silent anymore].
3. ” … this ‘narcissism’, if you want to call it that, impacts women and girls in a particular way, pointing out that more ‘girls’ participate in this activity than ‘guys’. Prickett completely misses an opportunity to point to some of the implications of moving through life as an object of the male gaze. Instead of looking at the selfie through this lens she veers off into the well-trod ground of ‘it is what it is’, leading into the self-fulfilling ‘male gaze as opportunity for empowerment’ line.”
I’d say Murphy is also missing opportunities for posing far more interesting questions and certainly for inviting discussion. Rather than positing social decline and criticizing the moral fibre of women who take photographs of themselves and linking it all back to the male gaze and objectification of women; we could perhaps deconstruct the social and cultural conventions/constructions that prohibit women (and men) from being able to intensively look at and explore self in a visual way (or any way at all really). We’d need to take a look at the history and intention of self portraiture and we’d need to ask how come when men were/are busy with self portraiture, no one accuses/d them of lacking creativity/talent/self-esteem/mental health or credibility?
4. “… a little telling that a man (Keen) seems to understand the meaning of the selfie in a cultural context as well as in a gendered context much better than Prickett does, pointing out that it isn’t actually ‘empowering’ to perform for the male gaze, simply because this is what our society teaches us to do.”
Personally I thought Keen presented like a true blue asshat and I found his arguments utterly lacking in imagination. His comments limited the context for a creative process/narrative and ascribed the narrowest of motivations to it. Sure, some women will take selfies to engage with the male gaze, but I dare say there are lots of women who engage with selfies for a bunch of other reasons, who quite frankly, don’t give a fuck about the male gaze and who aren’t letting the male gaze limit their creativity or self-expression. It’s also hypocritical for Keen to admit that he has developed an active social media profile/following via twitter (or whatever media) and that form of social connection is acceptable and non-narcissistic, whilst visual media is inherently (female) unacceptable and narcissistic. I wonder whose gaze motivates Keen …
I could go on and on with this post, but I will wrap it up about here with a final question. Did this alleged moral and social downward spiral begin when women started showing their ankles? Because at the end of the day, if we want to follow the logic posed by Murphy and other critics of self photos, we’d have to ask, what exactly is acceptable and moral for women to share, when is acceptable for them to share, where are women permitted to share and has has it ever been acceptable for them to share?
Should women not take photos of themselves to prevent men from objectifing and sexualizing them? Women have been objectified and sexualized and will continue to be whether they take self photos or don’t. They will be sexualized whether they are in a swimming suit, or a sweatsuit. They will be sexualized with makeup or without. The only way to hold ourselves above sexualization and objectification is to never leave our beds. The only way to avoid criticism and censure is to not share at all. Not only to not share photos of ourselves, but to also to keep our opinions, creativity and lived experience to ourselves. As the Virginia Wolfe quote above questions, why must women cover themselves to prevent men from being idiots? I’d take it a step further and say it doesn’t matter how covered women are, men will still blame us for their male gaze. Historically, forward to right here, right now, today – society prefers women invisible and silent. Self photos are one way women (and men) say fuck that shit, no way.
It looks like my ankles are showing.