describe, in your own words: what is a ‘selfie’?


A picture you take of yourself (possibly with friends)

A photo taken of oneself, while holding the camera/device in your own hands (I wouldn't consider a photo of oneself taken using a tripod to be a selfie)

a self taken image that portrays and represents me, and that is shared with others

A photo taken of yourself using the front facing camera on your phone. Other people may be in it. Pouting is encouraged. 

A picture you take of yourself by yourself at a flattering angle pulling an unnatural pose

The epitome of a shallow, narcissistic and soulless society.


An easily identified trope in science fiction is that of the ‘coldly rational and highly sexualised or even fetishized machine’: a sultry gynoid who is usually sophisticated enough to deceive and be a ‘disturbingly lethal threat to the male heroes’. This fictional female stereotype is typically the effect of a coupling of the seductive femme fatale (motif?) with an equally dangerous mode of technology. This coupling is epitomised in the fictive figure of the cyborg, who deceives the male protagonist. For the purpose of this discussion, the definition of a cyborg as provided by Donna Haraway in her Cyborg Manifesto is most prudent – she describes them as ‘a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction’. Ava, as pictured below [Fig. 21], is the most recent example of such a being. In the 2015 film Ex Machina, she is sophisticated enough to both pass the Turing test and, in a Frankenstein-esque turn of events, murder her creator and escape to infiltrate society, blending in completely as ‘human’. 

This stock-character has a historical precedent: from Maria in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to the Replicants of Blade Runner, and its pervasiveness could be said to represent a larger cultural concern, one which arguably has a place in a discussion about the gendered stigmatisation of selfies. There could be said to be a clear link between the ability for women to represent – or misrepresent – themselves sexually, and the ability for gynoids to misrepresent their technological selfhood. It could be suggested that this is why so much of the lexicon surrounding women and sexual representation is grouped into fields of ‘fake’ and ‘realness’, and why shows like Catfish are so popular. I believe that it is this pervasive fear of the deceptive digital female other that lies at the heart of the stigma surrounding selfie-taking, and self-presentation on social media. The more that it is felt we are living in a ‘culture of simulation’ and as the margins between science fiction and reality blend with new technologies, the louder the inflammatory cries of a fake and a ‘real’ woman seem to become; the more likely society is to being collectively inflamed by the basic bitch and her super-normality.

Marisa Olson first coined the term “postinternet” in referring to an art movement. Postinternet is an art born of the condition that no art production is strictly computer or net based any more, in as far as all art production is influenced by the internet and digital media. Olson declared in her essay Art after the Internet that ‘we are now in a postinternet era. Everything is already postinternet.’ In taking selfies, we embody this paradigm. The use of filters, the #, the platforms and the culture of sharing all visually represent the melting of our faces and ultimately our selfhoods into the network. Contemporary Western life is postinternet in that the internet is everywhere, and at the core of selfie-stigmatisation is a fear of what that could mean.

Perhaps in their essence, social media networks - and by extrapolation selfies - clarify that increasingly: ‘the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion’. Selfies are part of a developed and contemporary representation of self, and the stigma around them is part of a level of uncertainty surrounding the future of human life in tandem with technological advancements. Selfies are a visual analogy of the dissolution of the self into the network, which makes them an easy target for those feeling threatened about the future, as life becomes lived in more virtual spaces. 

Mainstream selfie culture is very nuanced, but it is too simplistic to just describe it as a venture in narcissism and call it a day. Undoubtedly selfies and the communities that they are posted within are a force for good for marginalised groups. The word narcissism also has intensely damning associations. If you replace it with “self-love”, especially when talking about vulnerable, under/mis-represented groups, the narrative completely shifts. And when you consider both the demographics of selfie-takers and their media portrayal, selfies do seem to be symbiotically linked to the teen-girl, who are arguably the largest vulnerable group when it comes to mass-media misrepresentation. 


Due to the very technology that they inhabit – screens on screens on screens – selfies by definition cannot embody traditional narcissism. The medium demands an awareness of it’s own mediations: filters, framing, curation – yes, the selfie is a product of an artistically fostered action, but the crucial presence of the audience, whose recognition is at the forefront of selfie taking, makes inherent narcissism impossible. With this consideration of the network at their crux, it’s possible they evidence the opposite: a shift from self-obsession to other-obsession.

Posting to social media is a performance: not one in which a sense of self is invented regularly, as we see in the case of ‘Catfish’, but curated and represented. Those who add their comments, likes and shares are the audience, who contribute in a significant way to the maintenance of the show they so often critique. The more appropriately placed the image, the better the feedback, meaning that comments, likes and shares become a form of social currency, and thus selfie taking is sensitive to it’s audience. As life becomes increasingly digitised and lived virtually, selfies take the part of our digital avatars, and whilst there is a joy in those avatars accurately representing us as we would like to be seen, especially in regard to minority groups, the fear surrounding lives being increasingly played out on virtual and digital platforms is at the heart of the stigmatisation. Selfies visually represent millennials becoming cyborgs in that they are the amalgamation of the self into the network, and there is so much selfie-hatred out there because they represent female autonomy and control, in an uncertain and increasingly technological future. 

- Eilidh Page Morrissey