“Selfie” technically stands for “self-portrait,” but there is now an academic paper which argues that it stands for so much more.
Derek Conrad Murray is an art theorist and Assistant Professor of History of Art and Visual Culture at the University of California at Santa Cruz who is arguing that selfies are not some form of “narcissism” but a powerful way for people to express control over how they are perceived. In his new paper, Murray writes that a selfie is a “means for self-expression” which lets people—especially women, whose views on how they are supposed to look are heavily shaped by societal standards—engage in “self-fashioning.”
We cannot have a conversation about the selfie without having a conversation about women. As Murray explains, “most talk of selfies is focused (unfairly) on young women, forming into a critique of their apparent narcissism as a kind of regressive personality trait. The young women themselves often characterize the selfie (on social media sites) as a radical act of political empowerment: as a means to resist the male-dominated media culture’s obsession with and oppressive hold over their lives and bodies.”
Women have been struggling with the male gaze even before art’s conception, but literature, paintings, and film have only served to make it more evident. In his book Ways of Seeing, John Berger writes, “You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “Vanity,” thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.” In a way, selfies are a perfect example of this. It isn’t permissible for a young woman to take control over how she is depicted; a faction of the world celebrates Sports Illustrated’s annual Swimsuit Issue, but god forbid a woman post a photo of herself in a bikini.
Critics who deride selfies as nothing more than narcissistic showmanship often miss the complex reasoning behind the photographs as well as the radical ways they are being used.