The selfie is a popular phenomenon where people use their smartphones to take photos of themselves. Even though people of all genders can and regularly do take selfies, selfie culture is culturally dominated by women. The Chainsmoker’s hit song “#Selfie” was voiced by a woman, stock photos of selfies mainly depict women, and the face of selfie culture—the “queen of selfies”—is Kim Kardashian. A study even found that the average 16-25 year old woman spends over five hours a week taking selfies.
However, selfies are also the subject of much ridicule and criticism. Multiple articles have concluded that people who take more selfies are more likely to be narcissistic and psychopathic. Other articles have extrapolated that selfie-takers are vain. And many people seem to agree that selfies are a “manifestation of society’s obsession with looks and its ever-narcissistic embrace.” Selfie culture, according to some people, threatens the very moral fabric of society—destroying marriages and ruining friendships.
It’s not a surprise that selfie culture, which is dominated by women, is also criticized for being shallow and foolish at best, destructive and dangerous at worst. Anything that is popular among women, especially young women, is immediately devalued and ridiculed in society. It is only natural that this misogynistic disapproval of all things feminine would spread to taking selfies as well.
The many derisive articles and social media posts about Snapchat’s dog filter and flower crown filter are a good place to see this disapproval manifest itself. These two extremely popular selfie filters are often referred to as the “hoe filters”—a term that slut-shames women for committing the crime of feeling pretty in a photo with a digital flower crown on their head.
But the antipathy directed toward the Snapchat filters is indicative of something more than just the usual devaluation of femininity. It reflects a deep-rooted discomfort that many people experience when women raise a camera to their face, take a photo of themselves, and appreciate how good they look.
Of course, women are expected to look good at all times. Society demands that prettiness is the “rent you pay for occupying a space marked ‘female’.” But it is deeply unsettling when women actually become aware that they look good. When women don’t know that they’re beautiful, that is, in fact, “what makes you beautiful,” as the popular One Direction song goes. Over and over again, the message is reinforced that women must be breathtakingly beautiful, but they must also be completely unaware of their own beauty.
This message reflects a larger underlying belief in society that women’s beauty is only intended for male consumption. After all, the only reason why women wear makeup and put on short skirts is for male attention—which is why they’re “asking for it” when they get catcalled or sexually assaulted. Why else would a woman go to such efforts to cultivate her appearance, if not for the benefit of men?
Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze explains how, in much of visual arts and literature, the world is depicted from a masculine point of view, and women are portrayed as nothing more than objects for male pleasure. The lingerie-clad women in Victoria’s Secret advertisements, for example, are intended for the male gaze, as they pose sexily and flash “come hither” smiles at passersby, titillating the male viewers with their beauty.
As far as I have noticed, there have been very few complaints from men about these advertisements, nor the women depicted in them. But the moment one of these women raises a smartphone towards herself, dressed in the same lingerie and flashing the same coquettish smile, their attitudes change. The very same men who had lusted after her body now say things like “I’ll never date a girl who posts half naked slutty selfies,” and write long-winded articles about how “chicks that need to affirm their desirability on almost a daily basis with yet another selfie” are such an “incredible turnoff and an enormous red flag,” and some men even threaten to “beat the shit outta my girl” if she were to post scantily-clad selfies on social media.
This hypocrisy, however, is nothing new. Before smartphones were even invented, John Berger made this exact same observation in “Ways of Seeing,” remarking: “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.”
Society condemns women for taking selfies because the act of taking a selfie is deeply unsettling, even subversive. What’s frightening about selfie culture is that it shows that women do not need men to validate their beauty. It reinforces the radical concept that women’s beauty does not, in fact, belong to men; that women do not, in fact, dress themselves or wear makeup solely for men; and that women are actually autonomous individuals who exist outside of the male gaze.
And this is at the heart of the criticism surrounding selfie culture. In one of the many articles about selfie culture, one man says: “I don’t think it has anything to do with guys, which makes it a little pathetic. It’s not like they’re looking for our approval—they’re looking for each others.’”
When women take selfies, they are subverting the male gaze. When women enjoy their own beauty, they are no longer the objects of consumption but rather the subjects. And when women take selfies, they make it abundantly clear that they do not need men, nor the male gaze, in order to feel beautiful.
Nian Hu ’18 is a government concentrator in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.