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CHICAGO — Last month in Halmstad, Sweden, two teenage girls took a selfie together in a bathroom while wearing balaclavas and holding a knife. They would go on to rob a fast-food restaurant making off with a mere $400 before getting arrested. The cops found that selfie on one of their smartphones. How stupid can you get, right?
That same week, the Cop Selfies Tumblr began making its way around the Internet. BoingBoing.net labeled it with the appropriate headline “Cop Selfies tumblr everything you imagined.” And it’s true. Here we see traffic controllers with golden stars on their black hats and beige shirts looking hard in front of the mirror, a giggling smiley woman with blue-painted nails in the bathroom snapping a pic while in uniform, and an iPhone-totting cop with a close crew cut and the white letters POLICE reading backwards in the mirror looking tough, maybe even sexy, for the smartphone camera. Both the teen-girl and cop selfies are laughable, but for different reasons. In the case of the teen-girls, the lack of awareness that the selfie they took might be used against them as evidence is baffling; in the case of the cop selfies, the idea of those upholding the law attempting to perfect the performance of their police identities in front of the camera, alone, in a domestic space, brings with it a curious fetishization of the cop identity.
It’s like the laughable prison guards in the new hit TV show Orange is the New Black in which blonde-hair, blue-eyed and seemingly innocent Piper Chapman goes to jail for her participation in an international drug-smuggling ring 10 years before through her then girlfriend, Alex Vause. Based on a true story, we as the viewers follow Piper around as she must learn the rules of the prison system. Navigating with the other prisoners is one thing, presenting unfamiliar social challenges and the quick learning of social codes and cues. And then there’s learning about the prison guards’ world. Says Kerman in an interview with NPR:
“First of all, you have to learn and understand all of the rules of the institution, all of the rules that are enforced by all of the guards and all of the wardens. Those include all the daily counts, when every single person within a unit is counted, and there’s a host of rules, both reasonable and unreasonable. And what’s confusing about that is that they’re selectively enforced and frequently broken by the prison staff themselves.”
It is perhaps quickly catching onto these unwritten rules that makes life in prison more difficult than the outside world, where the space between “right” and “wrong” isn’t quite as gray as the cement of those prison walls. In Paul Chan’s 2009 solo exhibition My laws are my whores at the Renaissance Society of Chicago, the artist spends time thinking about the Marquis de Sade, who spent one-third of his life in the penal system. Sade’s work is influenced by the seemingly contradictory ideas of freedom and pleasure that appear as flawed and as the judicial system by which he was jailed. His exhibition explored the connections between sex and violence, and between Sade, the U.S. Supreme Court Justices, portrayals of the law on Law & Order. The law attracts and repels us, and shapes who we can and cannot be if we want to remain free; or, as the inmates in Orange is the New Black refer to it, “on the outside.” As in, not inside the gray cement walls of a minimum-security prison in upstate New York.
The outside world brings with it plenty of its own challenges, and forces citizens to behave within its confines lest they, too, get carted off to prison. The two teenage girls took those selfies before they robbed a fast-food restaurant, unaware of the potential ramifications of their actions; we’d like to think that the cops took those selfies while they were off-duty, having a moment in which they were able to see themselves as others saw them — as enforcers of the law, even if they were having days that might have been made better by a few more Facebook likes or Instagram hearts or even Tumblr re-blogs. The teen-girls who took those selfies, however, were doing it for the thrill. That image was never uploaded to social networking sites, yet both types of selfies were shot during a moment of freedom and pleasure, much like Sade’s work itself and Piper’s decision to involve herself in an international drug ring. At its best, or at least in the cases of the two teen-girls and Piper, free will remains a selfie-made choice.