ALC203

In the classroom: Empowerment, nude selfies and feminism.

[I’ll be honest, this blog post has been sitting in my drafts for almost two months – when the teaching and marking get crazily busy, my own writing is the first thing to fly out the window. Today I took a much needed day off; I read a book, did a whole hour of Yoga and cleaned my house. I’m now on the couch with a giant cup of my favourite chai tea and the resolve to write this post]:

A few weeks back in the second year media unit I teach at Deakin University, our focus was on “Celebrity, Performativity, and the Age of the Selfie”. What a topic right? A number of readers may consider this to be an odd thing to do in a second year university class, or university context. However it’s all tied in to the broader idea of how we portray ourselves online – that is – what kind of visual we choose to provide for our online persona. Selfies, as outlined by Aaron Hess are ‘a form of self-portraiture typically created using smartphones or webcams and shared on social networks’ (2015, p.1629). I asked my students in week 1 who had taken a selfie and almost every hand in the class shot straight up, and with a little coaxing (namely raising my own hand) the other members in the class also raised their hands. For something so much a part of our day-day digital landscape, there is still a narcissistic stigma attached to the selfie. Hess suggests that while selfies are now ‘common visual vernacular’ a reason for this may be that they seem ‘to accent a culture obsessed with itself’ (2015, p.1629). I believe it essential to look past this, and so I asked my students to look past this in order to think critically and creatively about the selfie, because ultimately it ‘ invites a different consideration about the complex nature of networked society’ (Hess 2015, p.1629). While studying the selfie may appear to be a insubstantial, it in fact offers so much potential. Selfies can be used in professional, personal, and interpersonal ways – they can reveal so much about a person, about a culture and about a wide range of topics.

So back to the week on ‘The Age of Selfie’: In class that week, one of the first things I encouraged my students to do was to think about what a selfie actually is. How do we define it? Can they be empowering? I then asked them (if they were comfortable) to take some selfies together and share them under our unit hashtag on twitter (#ALC203 if you’d like to check it out). The response from students was wonderful and quite effective in practice as it demonstrated one of the key points I was hoping to make. Beyond the surface understanding of selfies as narcissistic, they tell us quite complex things about ourselves, about each other, and about how we interact with other people or in groups. Selfies can unite and/or bring people together, they have the potential to make people feel like they apart of something. Whether that be a friendship, an event, a university unit (as exemplified here in Dylan’s tweet),

an experience (music or art), celebrity culture (meeting and taking a selfie with a famous person) or as a statement. Undeniably they are a large part of how we interact today.

Where things got interesting is when I moved the seminars into discussions surrounding female agency and selfies – namely, can selfies, particularly naked, or semi-naked selfies, be empowering? Can a nude selfie be a feminist act? I shared this article here as a starting point; Hannah Meyer compares Kim Kardashian’s recent nude selfies and media hyper with the ideas and acts of feminists (think Amanda Palmer) who use the nude female body as a political weapon in order to argue:

‘Like Kardashian, nude selfies look good, but are capable of little more than quietly playing to a public that has always preferred its women silent. If feminism is to have any chance of seeing women truly empowered, it will need us to use the kind of tactics that rock, picket and shake this world until it is forced to listen’ (Meyer, 2016).

Now, I was cautious not to reveal my own (quite vocal mind you) opinion on the subject, the seminars aren’t about what I think – they’re about students working through the potential (and sometimes limitations) of contemporary digital media. I wanted to open up the discussion for students to work through their responses to this well publicized issue. The results astounded me – the breadth of conversation that we had, the intense nature of engagement was magnificent. As such, rather than me talk through the complex discussions that happened within my four classes, I thought it’s more practical (and perhaps ethical) to allow for some of the media and students to speak for itself as they deserve the recognition for their engagement.

Juanita wrote a strong blog post that I highly recommend, and the following tweets by Rachel, Lucy, Andrew, and Daniel really demonstrate some of the things students were thinking (and debating), and encapsulate the kind of discussions we had in seminars:

As you might have gathered by now, the purpose of this particular blog post isn’t to discuss my personal opinion on selfies, or feminism and empowerment, but rather to demonstrate why it’s important and worthwhile to talk about these things at the university level. From Rachel thinking through context, empowerment and progressive feminism, to Lucy revealing her thoughts about double standards, to Daniel thinking about sexualisation and popular culture, and Andrew revealing the exact point I wish to make – it’s essential to talk about these things. These brief examples show only a small (but strong) number of reasons as to why we should discuss these topics in the classroom – we need to offer students the opportunity to critically engage with topics that are important and relevant so that they can begin to think through topics such as empowerment, feminism, sexism, patriarchy – and the role digital media plays in this. I chose to take a specific path that allowed for a discussion of feminism as it’s an area close to my passions and research, but there are so many other ways that I could have addressed the topic in order to engage students with a number of other critical issues. In other weeks, there were weekly topics on online activism, sexting, online dating, young people and digital media, and crowdfunding, to name just a few – which all allowed for students to work through a number of really essential topics such as death, racism and discrimination, animal rights, medical intervention, education, sexual assault, intimacy, etc etc, the list goes on. This is important, this is how change starts. To finish, I’m going to leave the following tweets here: I think Andrew’s response speaks for itself.

**Thank you to students from ALC203 for allowing me to use their tweets in this post! Also, thanks to Adam Brown for creating such an amazing unit, and letting me be a part of it.

References:

Hess, A 2015, ‘The Selfie Assemblage’, International Journal of Communication, Vol. 9, pp.1629-1646

Meyer, H 2016, ‘Kim Kardashian’s nude selfies might break the internet, but are they empowering?’ ABC News, <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-04-11/kim-kardashian-nude-selfies-and-empowerment/7310348&gt;

 

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