Written and posted for new blog, Fanny Pack, on 19th November 2014. Please head over there and follow them for more of the same Feminist articles written by myself and others!
Today’s technological advances have made it possible for us to make as many self-portraits as many times a day, hour, or even minute, in any place, and then exhibit them instantly for public exhibition and judgement on the Internet. For women, who have long been models on which to project fantasies of the ideal rather than the real, the significance of this has perhaps been undervalued. Gaining full control over the capturing and displaying of one’s own image today – especially in an image-obsessed digitalised culture – is no small achievement or freedom. Prior to this, the portrayal of the female form as a passive image rather than active participant has been an enduring cultural tradition. Instead of being directed, caught, degraded, positioned, posed, or manipulated by someone else with or without your own permission, the Selfie truly reclaims the autonomy to take a picture on your own terms and decide who your audience is.
“Electronic masturbation” – Karl Lagerfeld’s provocative dubbing of the Selfie – was clearly intended as a slur. After all, the solitary act of masturbation is for self-gratification only, and there is nothing more self-gratifying than a self-portrait, right? Of course it makes perfect sense that an icon of the fashion industry – an industry that makes it’s money telling us what to wear and how to look – would disapprove of a medium that undermines this power. Lagerfeld is right – the Selfie is “electronic masturbation” – and just what’s so wrong with a little self-gratification?
The backlash against Selfie ‘culture’ boils down to this:
We question why the taker of the portrait has chosen to take a flattering picture of themselves. We question why their self-gratification has to be acknowledged in a public forum. We question why women continue to present an image of themselves that they have been culturally conditioned to present – idealised, sexualised, and for the viewing pleasure of others.
If all women went against this idealism in their Selfies, would we applaud their honesty, though? In a culture we have constructed for ourselves that continually over-values physical appearance, why are we so irritated and surprised that the majority of women are still more comfortable covering their faces in layers of foundation and mascara, taking a self-portrait from a flattering angle, and then distorting it with an Instagram filter rather than share a brutally honest one and risk attracting negative judgement?
Idealising beauty is certainly damaging, but that doesn’t mean we should always demonise vanity. In every image we create or capture there is an automatic disconnect between the person and the portrait of the person. In a sense, we create an alter ego of ourselves in every one of these portraits. Every time we digitally adjust these portraits – even as little as a change in brightness – we are confirming that this alter ego not only exists, but that it is the ‘better’ version of us. This is not vanity, but wish-fulfillment. Yet, for women in particular, vanity is a dirty word. The cultural twinning of vanity and sin can be traced back to the artistic tradition of depicting women with mirrors in classical portraiture, which itself can be traced back to Biblical lore. This is vanity punishment; a concept that teaches us that a woman is supposed to be effortlessly and naturally beautiful for the pleasure of others, but not for her own pleasure. It has helped mold our definition of feminine beauty in art and pop culture as one idealised through the eyes of male heterosexuality, and conversely both elevating and condemning female vanity.
If we change our perception of vanity, then perhaps we can change the way we perceive Selfie culture – as wish-fulfillment, as self-gratification, self-definition, and ultimately self-empowerment. Take pride in your own unique image, beauty, and sexuality, and feel empowered by the autonomy to capture, share, and immortalise it. If digitalism has made us the photojournalists of our own lives, why should we feel ashamed in being a bit vain about it?