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Is it Time to Rethink the Selfie as a Feminist Political Statement?

A new academic paper examines the debate around selfies and asks us to look at them as a form of powerful self-expression.

image via (cc) flickr user Ashraf Siddiqui

Selfies are, by name, if not in practice, a relatively new phenomenon. In the few short years since selfies became “a thing,” they’ve gone on to spawn (and facilitate) countless memes, jokes, and even a lucrative peripherals industry. They are a bona-fide sensation, albeit one that’s been derisively linked to narcissism and even psychopathy. But now, as selfies settle into part of the regular ebb and flow of everyday activity, researchers and academics have started to look at what makes simply taking pictures of one’s self such a unique—and perhaps even powerful—act.


Among those examining the underlying meaning of selfies is University of California-Santa Cruz Art and Visual Culture professor Derek Conrad Murray. Professor Murray is the author of “Notes to self: the visual culture of selfies in the age of social media,” a paper published this month in Consumption, Markets & Culture. There he examines the many manifestations and iterations of selfies through what he calls a “critical engagement with a history of feminist representational politics.” While the general sentiment toward selfies is that they are acts of online narcissism, Murray believes they may, in fact, be also understood as “a politically oppositional and aesthetic form of resistance” for many of the young women who take them.

Murray argues that while an individual selfie may, in and of itself, not be an overtly political act:

“[t]aken en masse, it feels like a revolutionary political movement – like a radical colonization of the visual realm and an aggressive reclaiming of the female body. Even if there is no overt political intent, they are indeed contending with the manner in which capitalism is enacted upon their lives.”

As much as the selfie phenomenon has been denigrated and belittled, Murray points to the fact that as an unfiltered form of self-expression, selfies afford people—particularly young women—“an opportunity for political engagement, radical forms of community building, and most importantly, a forum to produce counter-images that resist erasure and misrepresentation.”

While the selfie is often vilified as at best benign, and at worst, vapid and narcissistic, we’ve seen evidence of its positive power, as well. Medical Daily points to the recent #SmearForSmear campaign, in which women were encouraged to share selfies featuring themselves with smeared lipstick, to prompt women to undergo routine pap smears. Conversely, comedian Amy Schumer has encouraged a #GirlYouDontNeedMakeup selfie-movement, in which she urges her female followers to snap empowering pictures of themselves sans facial adornment.

Both selfie movements seem to point to the potential inherent in the form—an unimpeded way for the selfie taker to express themselves. In that sense, when it comes to selfies, the medium may truly be the message. Whether done as an explicitly political statement, or simply as a lighthearted form of portraiture, the selfie’s significance may ultimately lie in its ability to provide the picture-taker with the power to present themselves to the world as they see fit, on their own terms.

As Murray writes in his paper’s conclusion:

“...perhaps it is in the young woman's representational contending with the most dehumanizing conditions of late capitalism, that they are able to envision themselves anew and to transcend the depreciatory vision that is so often imposed upon them.”

[via medical daily]

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