Lindsay Mills

Lindsay Mills, “Self-portrait” (all images via

CHICAGO — “Even if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re being watched and recorded,” 29-year-old spy Edward Snowden told the Guardian last Sunday, openly identifying himself as the whistleblower on the NSA PRISM program, which he alleged is gathering communications data not just from foreigners, as officials previous said, but on a vast domestic scale. Nine major internet companies, including Google, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo! and Facebook are all named as offering up data, according to DemocracyNow. We are all being watched, and now we know it.

Amidst all of this, there is a growing phenomenon of people — mostly young white girls and women — voluntarily offering up their bodies, their deeper thoughts and dreams, and most of all their faces (selfies) to the internet in a public way, free of charge and always ready to share. In an age of fearing finding out what others have said about you, these people are fearlessly saying look at me, look at myselfie, and objectify me as you would like to. In fact, I welcome your comments, likes, and potentially your reblogs.

In Sianne Ngai’s book Our Aesthetic Categories, she discusses our visibility on the internet, where the performance-driven world of late capitalism plays out, making us both complicit voyeurs of one another and objects of surveillance by our big brother(s) and Big Brother. Perhaps, the theory goes, the answer here is not to self-censor on the internet but to further expose, to use this constant stream of self-captured images as the last weapon in a surveillance society that sees white women (and, it should be noted, all women, but my focus here is on the former) as objects, as aesthetic categories, and most of all as the embodiment of what capitalism attempts to make of them. Throw it up and then swallow it down again, allowing the cycle of binging and purging to continue. Perhaps the only way to truly “take back the night” nowadays is to publish almost soft-porn-esque images of ourselves on the internet. This voluntary self-exposure is an attempt to take back the images of our bodies, by completely reveavling them on our own time and in our own way.

Lindsay Mills, "go on masked white girl!"

Lindsay Mills, “go on masked white girl!”

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills published hundreds of these types of photographs of herself via her blog; the majority of them show her body, face, and form in poses at once sexy, sexual, and athletic, but most of all, she comes across as a girl having fun and doing whatever she wants, not caring who sees her. After Snowden went public about the NSA leak, Mills took down her blog, essentially self-censoring, although the images — many of them selfies — are still available here.

In Danny Orendorff’s essay “Look at Them, Please,” he discusses the performance of the young-girl online through the videos of  artist Sarah Lynn Kelly, whose reenactments of adolescence are so nauseatingly annoying that they’re kind of amazing — one stays glued to them as if they were viral videos — and very much a part of the Teen-Girl Tumblr Aesthetic*. In this self-aware performance of the young-girl on the internet, Kelly is creating her own magnified version of a selfie, voluntarily layering on the repulsive adolescent charm. Orendorff writes:

This is what capitalism has “made” of her, and Kelly pushes the artificiality to the fore with her use of glitchy visual effects, Tumblr-style graphic overload, and digital-lingo shorthand. She may appear naive or vulnerable to the lechery of the Internet (aka “the void”), but she is not; this is exactly Kelly’s way of luring us in to her own antagonistic form of media mania.

In a New Yorker blog post about Lindsay Mills, writer Sasha Weiss brushes off Mills’ self-portraiture selfies, misreading and dismissing perhaps the most telling photo of this woman’s entire blog and its reflection of how mass media and the internet have shaped the young-girl (who need not necessarily be a young girl — Mills is 28 — but who represents a category of women, like Kelly, performing a fluid adolescence):

In one of the hundreds of self-portraits that Mills posted on her blog, she stands just to the right of the center of the frame, wearing black lace underwear and a black bra, holding herself tight in a gesture of despondency, a bright yellow Forever 21 bag covering her face in a way that unfortunately recalls the infamous photos of prisoners in Abu Ghraib.

As Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl suggests, and as Orendorff’s essay explains, the young-girl, powerless and subsumed by the capitalist empire, has no other tools at her disposal than a smartphone and an internet connection.

Lindsay Mills

Lindsay Mills’s “Forever21 Selfie”

I believe Mills’s posing with the Forever 21 bag covering her face speaks to her involvement in the ongoing objectification of white women on the internet, her own subtle attempt at expressing some sort of political dissent, opinion, or voice through the only means she can — her body. The body, after all, remains a battleground, maybe more so than ever in our current hypernetworked climate, where images speak more than a thousand words and travel even faster, and young girls who want to be seen just need to invest in an iProduct or two.

The teen-girl tumblr aesthetic is decidedly white; according to the NSA PRISM program, however, the real threat stems from the bodies of women of color, from non-normative bodies and genders that diverge from Lindsay Mills’s pure ciswoman pure whiteness. When it comes down to it, the NSA and its online surveillance are after people of color, telling them to “get online already” and perform for the rest of the internet world. As Seeta Peña Gangadharan writes in New America Media:

Despite the Obama Administration’s attempts to define PRISM’s consequences narrowly, it is fair to speculate that the burden will fall unfairly on communities of color. Like domestic surveillance under Ashcroft, PRISM collects electronic communications and also stores information indefinitely, a process which again risks wrongly classifying and targeting communities of color.

The exposure of white girls’ bodies on the internet is perhaps the least of the government’s concerns; the body of Edward Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills is a tool, occupying a performative space in our internet-addled age of late capitalism, but it can never be a weapon.

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED Magazine and the Chicago...

5 replies on “White Womens’ Bodies as Selfie-Objectified Tools of Dissent”

  1. Thanks for raising this issue. I think the argument here gets a little muddled when connected to the PRISM program. I think it’s a tremendous problem that the government is sucking up such a vast amount of data without any constraints, but the truth is that most of it will never be seen by human eyes at NSA. Also, I think it’s wrong to suggest there is any indication that the focus of PRISM is on people of color as with the notorious 1950s program mentioned in the article you cite. The greater issue for me is society’s continued complicity with objectifying women’s bodies, right out in the open, in full capitalist mode. To see thousands of images of women taking images of themselves, NSA agents need only search Google. It’s not just a problem that the government is storing all this data in vast servers. I am also super uncomfortable with the idea that Google and Facebook are holding on to all these images of ourselves as they also track our movements and sell the data to the highest bidder.

  2. I reject the notion that Lindsay Mills’ selfies are anything but pure narcissism. And thus, pretty boring.

    Anyone (male, female, gay, straight, white, of color) posting pics of themselves in underwear all over the internet is only vying for attention and recognition. It’s pathetic. If it’s politically motivated (which I very much doubt) then DO something, don’t just give out free masturbation material.

    1. what if robert mapplethorpe took these photos? they don’t strike me even as ‘selfies’, more like ‘art photos’. she poses dramatically, making sure to accentuate the shape and musculature of her body. how does she being in underwear make a difference? what if she were [classically] nude instead? self portraiture–nude, in underwear, clothed–has been ‘art’ a long time.

  3. The conversation is very divided for sure and ripe for more research.

    Personally, my experience with performance and the self image is schooled thoroughly by people like Guillermo Gómez-Peña and groups such as la Pocha Nostra. This helps to localize performance and self-representation to the physical world where people can create tableau’s of radical and non-normative values to arrest the viewer and shift perceived cultural norms.

    Furthermore, recently asking a dominatrix about how objectification can be interpreted as feminism and empowering, she said that it’s because this is the way that the bottom’s desires no longer stay bottled up and isolated to the part of the mind that labels them as wrong, antisocial or negative. Many such individuals say that being a bottom or a sub for them means that they can be who they want to be safely, securely and not have to put a negative value set on their dreams and they can live out who they want to be.

    The act of photographic documentation and social media sharing seems like the logical next consequence to this form of self-actualization. So, while I feel mixed if the white-female self-objectifying selfie is a true means to self-empowerment I think it is possible, but it is a thin line to walk. Often I think it such media production is merely subsumed into conventional hetero-male consumption systems. For example, a local SF video artist I know made a video of herself peeing her pants which then got grabbed by piss porn websites as a porn film, when it was supposed to be an art video about the abject, power and the feminine. She took the video down because it became porn at her expense and without her approval, wishes or even knowledge. She only realized it because she looked at her metrics and saw which sites were linking viewers to that video. On the other hand people like Annie Sprinkle are geniuses in this regard.

    I curated a screening called Girls on Film a few years ago in China and it was interesting. I’m looking to create a second screening along the same lines. Anyone out there think they’d have a video, or other artwork to feature in this regard, or anyone who wants to be a collaborative curator with media they have in mind to display, let me know.

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