A conversation between two generations of women is sparked about what it means to create a self portrait in the age of social media. How are the borders between self expression, empowerment and vanity now navigated?
written by Shane Bly Killoran and Sophie Bergquist
graphic by Brian Helms
Dearest Niece aka Sophie aka Editor,
Personally, because I had known I wanted to be an actress from a super young age and because of the fact that I did some modeling as a kid, I have a long, rather complex relationship with the camera. As a feminist, it becomes more complicated. As a woman, I have to double-down on the complication. Certainly love-hate with a dash of respect, a hint of envy and a large serving of fascination. My graduate studies, while in the context of theatre, centered around the representation of women on stage from the late - Victorian era until the 1997 opening of the play, Closer on Broadway. I’ve spent a lot of time studying images, how they’re ordered and thus, analyzing and assessing from all points of view; that of woman, actress, model, student and photography/art fan.
So, my take on the Selfie is rather visceral and mercurial. On any given day, I change my mind about it or at least shift a perception. But I suppose the notion I always come back to, is intent. What is any given person’s motivation behind taking and posting the Selfie? And, why as a culture do we even care? I’m endlessly fascinated by the need to, for example, see yet another picture of Kim Kardashian pouting her lips or featuring her ass on social media. She and her celeb contemporaries participate in the Selfie because we keep looking at it and subsequently celebrating it. It’s confusing and largely boring, to me anyway.
In this #metoo moment, a moment that I hope will be a ‘forever after,’ I champion women of all ages taking control of their ‘image.’ I love that women of every age & walk of life have embraced this form of self-expression and self-acceptance. I cheer the confidence and prowess the Selfie can capture. I love the idea of women across the globe discovering themselves through the lens, learning what they want to celebrate about their bodies and their journey. It’s truly a fantastic time, specifically for women and the beginnings of shifting the lens of that pesky male gaze.
The male gaze isn’t fantasy and you don’t even need to consider yourself a feminist to recognize it. The fact is, men have dominated the visual arts, period. It then stands to reason that we have been looking at art (in any form) from that gender perspective. Film, photography and the advertising industry have historically been dominated and determined by men. So it stands to reason that our collective eye is drawn to the imagery and messaging that we’ve been conditioned to seek and how we deem certain women or products ‘attractive.’ It’s a fact that packaging is the largest single factor in the decision to purchase any given product. Therefore, when it comes to how women have been and are represented in an image, the bottom line is, they need to sell.
Which brings me back to the Selfie and my questions surrounding the intent behind posting. I’m all for capturing a joyful moment in life. Or an empowered or proud or even sad one. By all means, capture and claim your own experience. But I suppose as I scroll through social media on any given day, I look at image after image and have to wonder, is this ‘you’ or is this the ‘you’ that you want to be seen? Are you trying to be sexy? And if the answer is ‘yes,’ fine. But at the same time, I see women and men falling into a zone that is all about lips, breasts, pecks and ass. Basically, I see people recreating the idea of what we’ve been taught is sexy rather than what we, in our authentic selves, think, know or feel is sexy or charming or cute.
Are we selling or sharing? Are we proving or living? What is the ego seeking? And who are we in the midst of that pose, moment, pout, side-eye or smile? Is it us or is it a prototype of the self, seeking external validation to make the internal feel valued?
Take ownership of your image, redefine the concept behind what that image means, make the gaze yours, invite us into your world and gaze but first, I ask, how can that be done differently than what came before? And, will we know the difference? I wonder.
Shane aka Aunt aka Writer
To me, this conversation of self-representation is one that is particularly interesting to have with you, as we are women of different generations. It goes without saying that we have come of age under different circumstances. The years in which I was beginning to understand what it means to be a woman have very much been dominated by the presence of social media and the constant exposure to images that reinforce the contemporary beauty ideals that you have introduced in your opening letter.
It is a relatively new phenomenon that women have the opportunity and power to create their own image. As you have so keenly pointed out, the visual arts (film, photography, even advertising) have long been determined by the male gaze. With the introduction of the smart phone’s front camera, the masses suddenly were given the power to create self-portraits. Given this, shouldn’t it be understood that a moment of adjustment is necessary? Adjustment to understanding that the self-portrait is no longer a medium reserved for artists, male artists in particular. The technology that makes the modern Selfie possible is intuitive and now accessible to many people around the world. Should we not be celebrating this monumental modern achievement?
In order to adjust to understanding the modern self-portrait, your discussion of intent becomes interesting to me. As I see it, social media, Instagram in particular, is a valuable virtual space where inspiration and a daily opportunity to express oneself can be found. It has become a way for me to keep a visual journal of memories, experiences and places. I share things that I find aesthetically pleasing, I like things that catch my attention, I follow people and accounts that interest me. To me, posting is more than self-promotion. And so, posting a picture of myself is part of how I use this space to express myself creatively. However, not everyone sees it the same way. To many, women posting pictures of themselves is purely an act of vanity.
It is much easier to categorize someone’s Selfie as vain rather than creative, narcissistic rather than expressive. And so, I argue that recognizing the intention behind the capturing and posting of a Selfie is both important and difficult. In the same breath, I note that for every thoughtfully and creatively produced self-portrait on Instagram, there are hundreds more that are vain, self-promotional, etc. Interestingly, these might also be the photos that are more closely aligned with an aesthetic that caters to the male gaze and the beauty ideals that we are so used to seeing heavily reinforced on social media.
Idealized forms have always existed. However, the technologies with which we now achieve them are seamless. Perhaps this is what makes the modern self-portrait so controversial. While artists have been interpreting and representing ‘flawless’ beauty since the very beginning, the ability to do so in such a realistic way through digital means is relatively recent. It’s this new and all-encompassing power of editing, paired with an over-exposure to unrealistic beauty ideals on social media that has led our current media environment to be an interesting site to observe the Selfie.
When the boundaries between the real and hyper-real can so easily be blurred, posted, and internalized through the porous borders of social media – how can the self-portrait in the digital age be seen as an authentic representation of individuality and creativity? Is it in vain to argue that the Selfie holds the creative power of self-expression?