New research suggests selfies are way more empowering than you think

“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.

Murray cites Vivian Fu, a Taiwanese-American photographer, who noted, “Self-portraiture became a way for me to own my identity as an Asian-American woman. I wasn’t really any of the representations of Asian women that were being shown to me, which were either highly submissive and infantilized or very aggressive femme fatale types, and really, those ideas of Asian women probably only really exist because they are archetypes made up by white dudes. I wanted to show myself as an Asian woman the way that I was that differed greatly from these pre-existing ideas about Asian women.”

Another example: During Tumblr’s “Blackouts,” Black users post selfies on the site in order to celebrate, support, and appreciate Black lives as well as to provide commentary on the lack of representation of African Americans in the media. These selfies are used to empower; they are simple self portraits that collectively speak volumes about race, representation, and solidarity in America.

And then there was the woman who turned a selfie she took in an Old Navy dressing room into a viral salute to body positivity.

Selfies may be criticized for being a white sorority girl’s favorite form of self-expression, but that a) clearly isn’t true and b) even if it were, what of it? Selfies allow women to show themselves as they are or how they want to be without having to be filtered through anyone else’s lens or ideas.

“Maybe the selfie is an instinct of self-preservation” Murray muses, one which insures that girls, “are able to envision themselves anew that to transcend the depreciatory vision hat is so often imposed on them.”

And so perhaps the most poignant take-away from Murray’s paper is that selfies do not have to be intentionally political or radical in order to be valuable. A selfie is inherently valuable because of what it subverts and the power it gives to the person taking, editing, and inevitably Instagramming it.

(Image via Instagram)


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