Selfies Are Art

The outcry about teens photographing themselves misses the fact that—like novels, film, or, yes, self portraits—selfies can express all sorts of things.

AP / Mal Fairclough and Kevin Wolf

When the Oxford Dictionary declared "selfie" the 2013 word of the year, it inadvertently kicked off a familiar argument about the relationship between women—or more precisely girls—and culture.

On Slate, Rachel Simmons took the standard third-wave-feminism, girl-culture-is-good line. She argues that selfies are an example of young women promoting themselves and taking control of their own self-presentation: Think of each one, she says, as "a tiny pulse of girl pride—a shout-out to the self." In response, Erin Gloria Ryan on Jezebel opted for an old-school, second-wave-feminism, culture-is-oppressive argument. Selfies teach girls to obsess over their appearance and judge themselves on the basis of beauty rather than accomplishments, she says: "They're a reflection of the warped way we teach girls to see themselves as decorative."

Both perspectives have their strengths and their drawback. What's interesting, though, is that, beneath Simmons and Ryan’s disagreements lies a broader consensus: that all selfies share an essential selfie-ness. Ryan, for example, acknowledges that a selfie of the first female Marines to finish infantry training (and one who was injured before she could complete the course) is awesome and empowering. But then she brushes it away as irrelevant and not a "typical" selfie. Simmons, meanwhile, says she worries about girls who spend hours editing out the blemishes in their selfies, but concludes by insisting that "The selfie flaunts the restrictions of 'good girl' culture." The selfie may be good or it may be bad, but Simmons and Ryan agree that its essence is all one thing or all the other. Aberrations are to be explained away.

But is there really an essential selfie-ness? You can make a selfie celebrating your achievements as a Marine, or you can make a selfie attempting to turn yourself into the airbrushed models on glossy magazines. They're both selfies, just as 50 Shades of Grey and To The Lighthouse are both books. The selfie is a deliberate, aesthetic expression—it's a self-portrait, which is an artistic genre with an extremely long pedigree. There can be bad self-portraits and good self-portraits, but the self-portrait isn't bad or good in itself. Like any art, it depends on what you do with it.

As one example, consider this:

That's a selfie posted by Zahira Kelly (@bad_dominicana) under #feministselfie—a hashtag reacting to the anti-selfie Jezebel article. In the photo, the bright-pink lipstick battles for attention with the big-frame glasses, the thoughtful stare behind them, and the unapologetic curls. The image is flamboyantly contemplative, or contemplatively flamboyant—and, given the history of white appropriation of black women's bodies (still ongoing, Lily Allen) it's also a quietly defiant declaration of Kelly's ownership of her own image. The accompanying tweet reads "taking time out of my day to admire myself in the midst of constant antiblack misogynist degradation. #feministselfie." That's a pretty explicit statement that for women of color, appreciating, imagining, and portraying the self is a feminist act.

Here's another example.

Again, this is a selfie posted in response to the current controversy. It's from the Facebook account of Caroline Small, a critic who has written on my website, the Hooded Utilitarian. Her message with the picture read, "Since selfies are getting harassed on the internet today, I'll post one in selfie solidarity." You might say that this isn't a pure selfie—there's that boy, after all, snug up against his mom. But you could also argue that, in self-consciously framing this as a selfie, Small is (playfully) including her son as part of who she is. A portrait of the self includes her son as part of that self, just as the Marine selfie pic is a self-portrait, not of one person isolated, but of comrades.

Ryan, and perhaps Simmons as well, might argue that these selfies are atypical. But if you're willing to look at it closely enough, every selfie is atypical to some degree, just as every piece of art (good or bad) is atypical. People use a common form in different ways; that's how art works. The effort to erase individual variation and turn selfies solely into a symptom, for good or ill, recalls the moral panic around other new or marginal art forms, whether the anti-comic hysteria of the 1950s or the more recent hand-wringing and censorship around erotic ebooks. In each case, a medium or genre is associated with, and becomes a stand-in for, anxieties around a marginal group: children for comics, women for erotic ebooks, and teen girls in the case of selfies. In the process, individual voices get flattened out. Each unique teen girl posting a selfie, regardless of why she does it, becomes the generic “teen girl.”

This is not to say that selfies have no common characteristics. Talking about the sociological implications of those characteristics can be fine as long as it's done carefully. For that matter, both Small and Kelly are engaged in a dialog with and about the selfie as genre, just as all artists engage in a dialog with their art form. But recognizing that selfies are a genre is different than saying that selfies have one overarching truth, be it empowerment or degradation. Instead of rushing to put every individual into one box, it would be nice if we could take the time to look at individual selfies as individual selfies—portraits that represent different people, rather than a single, monotonous, multi-headed self.