*I started this as a freelance assignment. I wanted to share a version of it here for you guys. Enjoy!*
A lot of contemporary selfie literature is just fodder for feminist arguments and claim that the selfie phenomenon is simply the latest form of the “male gaze”. Such arguments accuse selfies of further de-humanizing women into sex objects. Ben Ager describes the trend as “the male gaze gone viral,” and women’s studies professor and anti-porn activist Gail Dines argues that selfies are vehicles for the normalizing of porn culture in our society. Writer Andrew Kleen thinks this should be of great concern when it comes to girls and women, “unless women don’t care about being transformed into commercial pornography.” All the while insight gathered from selfie studies like these are used to measure the effects on women while claiming men are to blame.
While I do not question conclusions that accuse selfies of pressuring women, I do think that to approach the subject of selfies as though women are the only victims is flawed. In fact I am convinced that selfies are just as bad for men as they are for women. While reading these articles I noticed that the arguments are constructed from one direction and with one purpose in mind: to demonize the contemporary male gaze fueling a porn culture. Andrew Keen, Gail Dines, and Ben Ager have written about how vulnerable women are to feeling pressured to over edit selfies for a socially constructed expectation of perfection. Dines especially has interpreted studies with such a focused agenda— accusing selfies of teaching young women that to be positively received their pictures must meet a man’s expectations— that they overlook the harm selfies could pose to men.
Selfies are not new and have been around since the advent of the camera; even before the social media apps of today made it so easy to snap and share every moment of your day. I was able to find photographs of “selfies” taken by the “mirror” method— posing in front of a mirror and capturing the reflection— as far back as in the early 1900s. The Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia took one of the first teenage selfies using a mirror and a Kodak Brownie camera to send to a friend in 1914, but even less famous people of Edwardian society have left us with photos of their reflections. This shows us just how much people almost instinctively obsess over how to preserve a present moment to document their lives. And these photos show that since the beginning of our media culture both men and women were active “selfie” takers.
So men take selfies just like women and edit them before sharing. In fact the main appeal of selfie sharing is that anyone with a camera on his or her phone is able to participate, not just women with low self-esteem. Sites like Instagram have premade filters that let users quickly edit lighting, quality, and saturation without having to tediously work photo-editing programs. This instant ability to edit a self-portrait to an acceptable perfection gives users a sense of control over their image, and this extends to believing they can control how they are socially perceived. And while celebrities take selfies too, Pamela Rutledge, Ph.D., faculty director of the media psychology program at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, points out because of selfies, “There are many more photographs available now of real people than models”. Selfies enable us to broadcast to hundreds of people a perception of ourselves that transcends into a definition of character and social relevance. For the “normal” person, posting a selfie through social media feels like an empowering act.
Both women and men are likely to alter photos with filters to “improve” their image. The user’s need to edit their image indicates the precarious balance between feeling empowerment and feeling anxiety over selfie sharing. In reality, control over your image reception is an illusion. According to Andrew Keen points, the user loses all control of reception once the photo is made public. Keen tells Straight, “It’s the opposite of controlling your own image.” People post pictures of themselves looking attractive to generate more positive feedback. They become obsessed with accruing “likes” and comments on their photos. As a result, the process of making a selfie attractive has become very precise. In Grisham’s USA article he notes it has been shown that women will place the phone at high angles to make their eyes larger, cheekbones more defined, and we all remember the “duck face” trend in which women pulled their cheeks in and made “kissey” faces. And like women, men set up their pictures in very specific ways. Exploring these differences reveals insight into social pressures men possibly feel, and it is not a stretch to assume that a media driven porn culture would cause men to edit photos because they want the same validation women seek from selfie sharing.
What I have observed is that men are far more likely to take a selfie at eye level showing their chests and arms than women. Typically, men photograph themselves at least from the torso up flexing their arms or abs to show muscle. Often they are shirtless while flexing, there is far less emphasis on their faces and much more so on their bodies which could reveal a desire to appear strong and play up their physical abilities. On a tumblr site titled “Selfie Boys” men, many of whom are gay (another category of selfie takers that has been marginalized), post pictures of their penis or in poses that allude to sexual acts. Looking at photo after photo of a penis with the “#selfie” tag makes it clear that men are suffering from powerful feelings of insecurity. It is evident from these photos that the porn culture we live in puts extreme sexual pressure on men, straight or gay, to the point that they would rather share an image of their a penis than of their face. How is that any less disturbing than a woman filtering her face? These men are hiding behind their “manhood” feeling so insecure and invaluable they chose to identify themselves only as a penis. Perhaps these men are just trying to send images that they believe others want to see?
But thus far no one has thoroughly explored the ill effects of selfies or of porn culture on men. Scholars, especially Gail Dines, have only generated a lot of persuasive buzz blaming men for creating a porn culture, not considering whether they too are victims of it. This could be because of the belief, extolled by Dines, that masturbation and pornography are men’s primary experience viscerally and bodily with the Internet. Dines argument proposes that women and girls only have one way of visibility, and that way is “fuckabilty”. But I am woman and selfie taker myself, I know that when I am framing a pose that I am thinking more about how my friends, both male and female, will receive my photo. I am not thinking about just my male peers and I think the same would apply to most women also. I just want to take a goofy picture and send it to a few friends because I wish they could be there with me. Additionally, this model perpetuates a prejudice that women are less sexual than men. I think it is shocking that many writers still draw their conclusions from gender distinctions founded on assuming that men have an inherently higher desire for sex than women. Biased assumptions like Dine’s lead to more assumptions, particularly that women take selfies only for men, which limit the scope of the selfie problem. After browsing the Selfie Boys website for only a few minutes I am persuaded to argue strongly that there are men who similarly feel that their only way to acceptance is through their fuckabilty.
When we acknowledge that men are also sensitive we can understand that there are some men only feel valuable when they are perceived as sexual, and selfies reveal that. It is a mistake to approach the study of selfies assuming that only half the population would suffer harmful effects of the social phenomenon. We live in a society in which, according to a Samsung survey, selfies account for 30 percent of all photos among people ages 18 to 24. And 91 percent of teenagers admit to posting photos online. And with the staggering popularity of selfies, I ask how could selfies not engender similar abuse on men by pressuring them to take socially acceptable, or sexual pictures as well? Yet, because of gender biases we have assumed that women are more likely to suffer insecurity over their images than men, so thus far selfie criticism only enlightens us to the problems they pose for women. I argue that men do have similar concerns about acceptance and it is worth exploring selfies because these sexualized portraits are equally troublesome. Perhaps cultural scholars will similarly find that men are sharing selfies to satisfy the demands of perceived masculinity, similar to women taking them for perceived femininity.
Bussel, K. Rachel. “Dear Mrs. Hall: Boys and Men Can See Sexy Selfies and Still Respect
Women.” Medium.com https://medium.com/boinkology-101/e775d466b17c
Keen, Andrew. the author of Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Online Social Revolution Is Dividing,
Diminishing, and Disorienting Us, disagrees.
Lang, Ian. “Selfies: Why Taking Selfies is the Least Manly Thing You Can Do.” AskMen.com.
Murphy, Meghan. (April 3, 2013) “Putting the Selfie under a feminist lens.” Straight.com.
Nimrod Kamer. “Thinkfluencer Episode 1: Selfies video.” (August 29, 2013)
Seville, Rachel. (July 23, 2013) “Can Men Take Selfies?” Four-Pins.com http://four-
Walker, Melissa. (August 2013).“The Good, the Bad, and the Unexpected Consequences of
Selfie Obsession.” Teen Vogue http://www.teenvogue.com/advice/2013-08/selfie-obsession