In the classroom: Selfies, empowerment, and feminism.

In a second year media unit I was teaching at Deakin University in 2016 one of our weekly topics was on “Celebrity, Performativity, and the Age of the Selfie”. What an awesome topic right? (Thanks Adam Brown). While some readers may consider this to be an odd thing to do in a university class, it’s all tied in to the broader idea of how we portray ourselves online – that is – what kind of visual(s) we choose to accompany our online persona(s).

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‘Posing for selfies at the Girls’ Education Forum, London, 7 July 2016′ by DFID – UK Department for International Development (CC BY 2.0)

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-to-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 the stigma may be that selfies seem ‘to accent a culture obsessed with itself’ (2015, p.1629). Further, I’d suggest that part of the stigma attached to selfie culture is the common assumption that selfies are only taken by young women – something which the 2017 sensis social media report demonstrates is not correct. A more productive way to think about selfies is through the 2014 work of Hunt, Lin & Atkin who argue that the selfie is a modern and complex form of self-expression and self presentation. Selfies aren’t a new thing, people have been preoccupied with the self for centuries, it is just the technology that has changed and afforded new and faster ways to capture the self visually.

 

In my class, I asked my students to look beyond the stigma attached to the selfie and to think more critically and creatively about it, as among many things, it ‘ invites a different consideration about the complex nature of networked society’ (Hess 2015, p.1629). Selfies can be used in professional, personal, and interpersonal ways – they can reveal much about a person, and offer a visual way to communicate various aspects of the self.

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‘Selfie’ by Sarah Vandenbroucke (CC BY 2.0)

One of the first things I encouraged my students to do was to really unpack what the selfie actually is. How do we define it? What do we use them for? Are we embarrassed to take a selfie in public? Who do we commonly associate the selfie with? Are we judgemental about people taking selfies? When aren’t they acceptable? 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 was quite remarkable and was 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 bring people together in a way not to dissimilar to a community group, they have the potential to make people feel like they apart of something. That might be a friendship, a social movement, an event, an experience (music or art), celebrity culture (meeting and taking a selfie with a famous person), or even a university unit (as exemplified here in Dylan’s tweet).

Undeniably they are a large part of how we interact today.

Can selfies = empowerment?

Where things got a little more interesting is when I moved the seminars into discussions surrounding female agency and selfies – namely, can selfies, particularly nude, or semi-nude selfies, be empowering? Can a nude selfie be a feminist act? I shared this article where Hannah Meyer compares Kim Kardashian’s recent nude selfies with the performative acts of feminists such as Amanda Palmer and the #freethenipple movement, which uses the nude female body as a political weapon. She argues that while Kardashian’s nude selfies may look good, they work to only serve the Kardashian brand, and not ‘by selling talent or personality, but by selling her own beautiful skin as advertising space’ (Meyer, 2016). Now, this wasn’t a tactic to enable me to sprout my own opinions on neoliberal feminism, but rather, to open up the discussion for students to work through their responses to just one of the complexities of the online world. The results astounded me – the breadth of conversation that we had and the intense nature of engagement was magnificent.  While I could talk through the complex discussions that followed, it’s more ethical for me to just use this space to showcase some of the media that came directly after this class.

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

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 that we work through topics like selfies, regardless of the stigma or perceived insignificance that might surround them. We need to offer students the opportunity to critically engage with topics that are important and relevant to them so that they can continue to think critically about topics like self presentation or empowerment, and the role digital media plays in this.

**Thank you to the students from ALC203 that allowed me to use their tweets in this post! Also, thank you to Adam Brown for creating such a wonderful unit, and for allowing me to be a part of it.

References:

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

Hunt, D.S, Lin C.A & Atkin, D.J 2014, ‘Photo-messaging: adopter attributes, technology factors and use motives’, Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 40, pp.171-179

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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