Everyone seems to be taking selfies these days – politicians, celebrities, sporting icons, ordinary Joe Soaps and even academics! However, selfies are not new phenomena. Humans have been making self-portraits for hundreds of years, yet contemporary selfies do represent something new. Having a background within the visual arts, my initial interest in selfies lay within their visual quality and aesthetic value. However, my interest in selfies has begun to shift from their visual merit to the degree to which they function as gender depictions.
Selfies are a treasure trove to the sociologist on so many levels. Selfies are first off an identity depiction, used to by the self-portraitist to capture a moment in time and/or to communicate a specific meaning or message. They reveal something of the growing complexity and intertwining of technology and social media in many people’s lives, and how technology is being used to fulfil various types of social interaction and communication. On another level, selfies are for many individuals a medium for communicating messages about their identity and provide a means of identity construction. In this way selfies are gender displays. Selfies illustrate how gender is socially constructed. For example, an individual might create and publicly display a self-portrait via social media that explicitly adheres to normative gender stereotypes, thus the selfie process becomes a gender performance.
Recently, I carried out a simple experiment using Google Images Search to explore how selfies are used as gender displays. I completed three separate searches (i) Selfies, (ii) Men + Selfies, and (iii) Women + Selfies. Scrolling through the results of the searches reveals many similarities between men and women in how selfies are taken. The majority of the selfies are of lone individuals. Some of the selfies are humorous, some carefully posed and artistic, others gratuitous, some more candid, others attempt to shock, whilst some appear to challenge gender stereotypes. However, the one commonality between the three searches were that many of the images were highly sexualised in nature, suggestively posed and/or focused on the displaying of near naked bodies. This was most evident in the first search for ‘Selfies’.
The ‘Women + Selfies’ search revealed a mixture of images, including close ups of women’s faces, close ups of torsos and women in various poses. Many of these images appear to reinforce common essentialist notions of what Western femininity is supposed to be. The ‘Men + Selfies’ search was for me the most interesting and revealing (yes I am biased, I am a masculinities scholar!). My bias aside, the ‘Men + Selfies’ search revealed similarities to ‘Women + Selfies’ in the compositional structure of the photographs and in the visual content, e.g. facial close-ups and close ups of torsos.
In the same way the ‘Women + Selfies’ search displayed images of women that reinforce common stereotypes of feminity, many of the men’s selfies achieve a similar affect in reinforcing dominant notions of masculinity. A very many of the men’s selfies were of them striking various bodybuilding type poses, displaying their musculature and/or making tough guy poses. There were many images of muscly men wearing nothing but a sock over their genitals! At first my ‘Men + Selfies’ search appeared to reveal something interesting. There were a number men’s selfies that seemed challenge the hegemonic ideal of masculinity. These selfies were of men wearing make-up and/or wigs, whilst there were other selfies of men pouting or looking vulnerable (men lying down, men looking sad or distant).
Closer examination of the images of men in make up revealed that these selfies were taken as part of fund raising campaigns, such as, #manupandmakeup and #meninmakeup. The images of men wearing nothing but socks were similarly sparked by an awareness campaign, in this case to raise awareness about men’s testicular cancer. So it would seem that the selfies I thought on the surface were challenging hegemonic notions of masculinity, were not real, in the sense that these images were not candid. They were made with a purpose that was not solely to challenge hegemonic norms, but to raise awareness of other issues.
Selfies to me are fascinating, and deserve greater sociological enquiry, specifically how they contribute to the performance of gender. They do reveal a great deal about how we present ourselves to others, and how we construct our gender identities. Selfies, it seems to me, serve to perpetuate and reinforce what are commonly perceived to be normative gender constructs – displays, attributes and behaviours that are socially accepted as being masculine or feminine.
The contemporary popularity of selfies is unquestionable. A recent song by The Chainsmokers, entitled “SELFIE” which is displayed on YouTube, had at the time I watched it 168,360,981 views. Many of the messages selfies communicate may be problematic and damaging, such as, those that are overtly sexualised, demeaning or pejorative. Some might argue that selfies are nothing but a vain form of self-gratification. Other selfies in the right context are perhaps just a bit of fun. I must raise my hand and admit I have taken a very many selfies, most with the intent capturing a moment in time, or of making the recipient of my digital creation laugh. Either way selfies have become embedded in the daily social practices of millions of individuals, so if you haven’t yet, I think may be its time … come on a take a selfie!
Clay is a PhD candidate at University College Dublin, School of Sociology. His research interests are Masculinity and Drug Use, in particular, exploring the role of drug use in the construction, maintenance and displaying of young masculine identities. Clay’s other areas of research interest include health, Irish culture and art.