The Selfie and the Self

At the end of June, millions of Facebook users changed their profile pictures to rainbows to show support for same-sex marriage—rooting themselves in a portraiture tradition that’s long used symbols to define and express identity.

Jacopo di Paolo, L'Annunciazione, 1390-1400 (Bologna, Collezioni Comunali d'Arte)

In her 1967 film Kusama’s Self-Obliteration, the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama covered animals, people, and plants with polka dots—her trademark. Kusama said that the tablecloth-esque pattern, which she saw as covering not only a room but the entire universe, made her feel that she’d begun to “self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space, and be reduced to nothingness.”

The 86-year-old artist, who’s voluntarily lived in a psychiatric hospital since 1977, doesn’t appear to be on Facebook. But her aesthetic conception of self-obliteration provides a telling template with which to examine many Facebook users’ decisions to superimpose rainbow filters on their profile pictures in solidarity with the recent Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage.

Like their predecessors who swapped profile pictures for the Human Rights Campaign’s logo or shared the color of their underwear to promote breast cancer awareness, a large number of the site’s users obscured their faces with the rainbow flag that’s become synonymous with the gay-rights cause. This identification with a larger community at the expense of individual identities comes with a particular contemporary digital flavor, but it also builds upon a long history, which dates back at least to the Middle Ages. Just as social media users today are performing for the public and posturing themselves in a variety of ways—whether they’re aware of it or not— portraiture has long incorporated symbols and other design elements to help define and express identity, while also associating its subjects with particular causes or traditions.

Medieval households, for example, sometimes “branded” themselves with family colors in portraits and coats of arms. Jeffrey Cohen, a George Washington University English professor and director of the university’s Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute, cites a picture from the so-called Luttrell Psalter, an early 14th-century manuscript in the British Library’s collection, in which the nobleman Sir Geoffrey Luttrell is depicted upon his warhorse. Everything in the illumination, from Luttrell’s horse, armor, weapons, and shield to his daughter’s dress, bears the family shade of blue.

“Vividly coloring everything becomes a way of making everything—various humans, animals, objects—belong, declaring their communal identity in a way that’s loud to the point of being deafening,” Cohen says. “Maybe that’s how such moments work: Use as much vibrant color as possible to create the visual equivalent of a shout. It's like a crowd screaming, ‘We belong.’”

Cohen points out that there’s also a “corporate” aspect to both medieval and Facebook branding. “Facebook offers the service through a website that lives and dies via audience engagement,” he says. “Facebook users rainbowed themselves to signal their belonging to a special group, but it’s a sponsored community rather than an organic one.” That’s pretty similar to what Luttrell aimed for in his own branding: To prove that his family and belongings are all part of a larger entity. The difference, Cohen says, lies in what both stand to gain; Luttrell gets social capital, while Facebook earns real capital, in the form of clicks, and user information that can then be used to sell targeted advertisements.

Sam Redman, an assistant professor of history and culture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, points out that Facebook’s rainbow filters are part of a strong tradition of associating social movements with colors and symbols. Historically, yellow was used in ribbons and flag trimmings to symbolize the suffrage movement. “In many parts of the country it was a very contentious issue and something that might have divided families on one side or another, not unlike the gay-marriage debate today,” he says.

The same, he says, became true of buttons and pins during the 20th century, as those items became easier to mass produce and thus more affordable. “We think of pins as something associated with political elections,” Redman says. “You might go into an antiques store and find pins for Nixon or ‘I like Ike,’ or things like that. But they’re also heavily associated with social movements.” But where one would have had to seek out an actual suffrage or AIDS ribbon, the decision to click on a single button—without even knowing how to use Photoshop—to add a rainbow filter to one’s Facebook profile picture is comparatively easy.

“The cynic could say it brings in all of the people who aren’t truly passionate,” Redman says. But he chooses to look at things a bit differently. First, the phenomenon of something being trendy is in no way unique to modern society, he says. “It isn’t until social movements make something really mainstream that they’re sort of a tipping point in American society.”

In many ways, there are strong connections between people trumpeting their political views over Facebook and the practice of doing the same via a bumper sticker or a t-shirt. Both are highly visual and symbolic ways of both expressing personal opinions and affiliating oneself with a particular ideology or group. “All of it goes to show how much we humans operate symbolically,” says S. Brent Plate, a visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College. “Symbols are intimately tied to our individual and collective identities. They aren’t merely some second order of identity—that is, an external dress for an interior reality—but they actually construct the very identities of people.”

Sometimes, individuals construct their identities by situating themselves in close proximity to a symbol, or a symbol-bearer. Medieval patrons often commissioned works in which they were depicted alongside saints or biblical figures. Some even insisted on being inserted into tableaux of saints who are being tortured, says Elizabeth Losh, the director of the culture, art, and technology program at University of California, San Diego. The Renaissance ushered in a different sort of representation, however. Self-representation, as in Parmigianino’s Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1523/24), began to emphasize “the combination of seeing and being seen,” according to Losh.

“The selfie is never entirely about the self,” she says. “It’s a performance for those in one’s social networks, and it’s also a performance in relationship to structures of power around gender, race, class, and sexuality.”

That performance often occurs with an instinctive click, which may not be the product of deep investigation or introspection on what it means to filter one’s Facebook profile picture. But just because a click is easy, doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a superficial decision without meaning.

“In my circle of friends, I see it play it out. Every once in a while someone will change their profile picture. And someone will say, ‘Your auntie is proud to be an American today.’ And someone will say, ‘Well your grandfather is not,’” says Redman. “You’re denoting amongst your wider circle of friends that you’re connected with on social media … which side you’re on of this debate.”

That, according to Redman, isn’t that far off from the ways that one would have declared oneself either a prohibitionist or an anti-prohibitionist, a supporter of suffrage or anti-suffrage. “It’s political relations making social relations uncomfortable,” he says. “I think the speed at which this happens is pretty remarkable. It’s new, but it echoes a lot of similar debates about social movements in American history.”

Clicking on a tool to instantly alter one’s Facebook profile picture is certainly a good deal safer and easier than any number of other activist efforts, symbolic or otherwise. But to focus too much on the ease of the decision to identify with one community, or to distance oneself from another group, misses the broader significance of what it means to identify with a certain social or political cause.

The history of portraiture almost inevitably involves a study of all sorts of layering. Just as people are multidimensional, portraits—and certainly self-portraits—are often very complex. Dismissing a blue palette as mere decoration, or just a favorite color of Sir Geoffrey Luttrell’s, misses a vital layer of the manuscript illumination. Details in portraits throughout the ages have suggested patrons’ wealth, religious views, political allegiances, family ties, or a variety of other positions that identified them with larger communities. (There is, however, the important caveat that for much of history only the wealthiest could afford to commission artists to represent them.)

In her Self-Portrait (c. 1630), now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, Dutch painter Judith Leyster represented herself facing the viewer, as a smiling violinist appears poised to leap off a canvas on her easel. (Infrared studies have revealed that Leyster initially intended to show herself painting a self-portrait, but later covered the painting-within-a-painting with the musician.) The abundance of brushes in her hand underscores her confidence as an artist, and she’s dressed in attire that appears impractically costly for a painting session. But the work broadcasted to the public that her practice was open for business, and, as the National Gallery puts it, distinguished her “from less sophisticated artisans.”

Particularly given the cost of blue pigment in the Middle Ages, it would quite literally have cost Luttrell more to make his political statement than it does a Facebook user today who adds a rainbow filter. The same goes for Leyster, who surely spent considerable time building the painting up layer by layer. But the human desire, or need, to construct multi-layered identities that simultaneously obstruct the self while relating it within broader contexts, is the same.  Sometimes it occurs with many dabs of the brush over several months, and at others with an instantaneous click on a social-media app. But don’t let the pace fool you; there’s a lot of history irrevocably tied up in that social-media moment.