Lauren Cornell's selfie. Image courtesy of Lauren Cornell for Hyperallergic.

New Museum Curator Lauren Cornell in her partner-as-mirror selfie via Facebook

CHICAGO — recently announced that ‘selfie’ is their new Word of the Year, moving it beyond sanctified slang in the Urban Dictionary. Defining it as a “photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website,” Oxford Dictionaries notes that usage of the term ‘selfie’ increased by 17,000 percent in the last year. The Selfie Theory posits that as we increasingly live in public, our selfies are our networked identities, connected, refracted, and devoid of context — and those who see us are our mirrors, reflecting how we look back to ourselves, and out to the internet world.

The selfie is preceded by the self-portrait, a regular practice for artists and anyone who is perpetually “adolescent” in the sense that they recognize identity and the self as one that is always in the process of becoming. In an attempt to broaden the selfie definition in, I consider selfies as self-portraits that appear on social networking sites either on one’s own accord, or through another person who becomes their mirror. Selfies are about connecting with others through mirroring processes, not about being alone in front of a static one-way mirror.

Beyonce's new haircut selfie via

Beyonce’s new haircut selfie via

This culture of looking and being seen stems from our obsession with celebrity. As such, celebrity selfies are the most paradoxical of all selfie types. Paparazzi snap photographs of celebrities doing ordinary things like grocery shopping or hanging out with friends and family, offering glimpses of not-screenworthy moments that both normalize stars and intrude on their privacy. Celebrity selfies make celebrities their own controlled versions of paparazzi, or awkwardly adolescent public relations machines. The celebrity selfie features Beyonce snapping a “new haircut” selfie, Eminem posing in front of the Mona Lisa (which is not a self-portrait), FLOTUS Michelle Obama on the White House lawn smiling with the family dog Bo, Bieber’s performative adolescence and freshly minted selfie-only social networkThen there’s the celebrity group selfie snapped by fans with celebrities such as a group of young people with the Pope, or the notorious girl-running-onto-a-soccer-field and snapping a selfie with soccer players before being removed by security. These suggest that any super fan can achieve amateur-paparazzi status, much like a viral sensation on YouTube sends one into the stratosphere of fame temporarily. Celebrity rules the selfie theory. 

Pope group selfie via Twitter

Pope group selfie via Twitter

Yet the uncomfortable nature of the public gaze, depending on who is writing the listicle posts such as “The 16 Worst Types of Selfies,” make it possible to shame bodies and faces without recognizing the person on the other side of the mirror as a person. The opposite of celebrity selfies, these listicles judge people as objects for visual consumption, and typically target ordinary people. Trey Humphreys, the author of the aforementioned post, declares that some selfies are “the worst” mostly because of the people in them. He shames a mother who is a woman of color — and may be both single and working-class — for including her kid in the photo of her trying on a bikini; Humphreys does not consider that perhaps she doesn’t have a nanny or babysitter at her disposal, and so her child comes with her everywhere. This type of motherhood deserves visibility.

White womens’ bodies are also subject to scrutiny here, particularly the pregnant woman and the young lady who’s most likely taking a sexy pic for her boyfriend, and probably didn’t intend for this photo to appear in such a public format. The majority of white men included in Humphrey’s post are shamed not for being unattractive in their seatbelt selfie, shirtless selfies, on drugs selfie, flying on an airplane selfie, or gym selfie, but because they aren’t doing anything aggressive and action-oriented to assert their masculinity or male privilege. Selfie listicles like this litter the web, reinforcing outdated cultural standards of beauty, and refusing to at all question institutionalized racism or systematic forms of oppression that are targeted at those who are not white, straight, male, and the author of the post.

Mom shaming selfie via

Mother with child selfie via

Other selfies that the internet typically dislikes are those that cause visible feelings of discomfort, especially if they are shot by teenagers who are growing up on the web. They are using Instagram to visually communicate with their friends, like older generations did through note-passing and phone calls.

A story on the New York Post entitled “Worst Selfies Ever shows disapproval over adolescents’ funeral selfies, selfies at sites of mass murders such as Chernobyl or Auschwitz, at Anne Frank’s house, adolescents either getting pulled over or watching other peoples’ car accidents, selfies shot while driving a car, at the hospital or en route to it, or just plain posting vulnerable moments that express a look of terror or fear. Cover up your selfie tears and toughen up, they seem to say, because no one wants to watch you cry. Unless, of course, you’re famous. Tears are beautiful on the big screen, but not in the little smartphone mirror.

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...

2 replies on “Theory of the Selfie”

  1. Wonderful article. The selfie really deserves further analysis like this. It’s constantly characterized as simple vanity but there is something deeper going on which requires further study to truly understand. I particularly appreciate your thoughts on selfies as a form of mirroring.

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