Mary McGill is a Hardiman Scholar at NUI Galway. Her PhD research explores young women’s relationship to the selfie phenomenon. She lectures in feminist and gender theory at the Centre for Global Women’s Studies.
Here is the full text of Mary’s talk titled “Young Women, Narcissism and the Selfie Phenomenon” at TEDxGalway conference.
Mary McGill – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT
Whenever I tell people that I am researching the selfie phenomenon, two things happen.
First of all, they’re not impressed. “Why would anyone research the selfie?” they say ,”Surely it’s just a digital cesspool of narcissism and shallowness, a damning indictment of the image-obsessed culture in which we now live.”
But once I manage to convince them that this isn’t either case, that I am studying the selfie, and that it is worthy of academic research, then something changes. People want to talk. Because a lot of us these days have strong opinions about the selfie, particularly when it comes to those who are seen as the phenomenon’s most enthusiastic users: young women.
This is a screengrab of footage from a baseball game in the U.S. last year. And you’ll note the young women here, a group of sorority sisters, in the act of taking selfies. Many, many selfies, it has to be said.
Well, the girls’ behavior was picked up by the stadium’s cameras, which led the two male match commentators to turn their attention away from the game and begin discussing the young women’s behavior for the best part of two minutes, growing progressively more bemused and judgmental. And it’s interesting to note that at no point during those two minutes did the match commentators realize they could simply look away themselves.
The clip subsequently went viral, and many of the comments online echoed those made by the match commentators, which in turn echoed the wider public conversation we’ve been having about the selfie since the phenomenon rose to public prominence just a few short years ago.
The inspiration for the endless think pieces, young women’s engagement with the selfie is regularly dismissed and derided in mainstream media: “What is wrong with young women today?” seems to be the undertone to many of these conversations. Conversations, it should be noted, which rarely include the perspectives of young women themselves.
As a researcher working in the field of cultural studies, I am well aware that when it comes to representation in our culture, the female subject has rarely had it easy. From soap operas to fashion, cultural products coded as feminine are generally regarded as inherently less-than, when compared to their male counterparts.
Nobody bats an eyelid at the sports buttons, for example, that – well, I don’t want to say clog up, but that feature heavily with every news bulletin and across programming in the evenings and at the weekends on radio and television.
But can you imagine if, let’s say, headlines from the fashion world were given the same gravitas? It’s hard to do, isn’t it? And would probably never happen.
And yet, we wear clothes every day. Even now in the West, after three waves of feminism and a possible fourth blossoming at this point in time, women still struggle for representation in key cultural, political, and social institutions, still have to fight to find the spaces and the means to tell their own stories.
And all too often, when we do see women represented in the culture, it’s through what’s known as “the male gaze.” And this gaze casts women as a passive, erotic other, denying them the depth and complexity afforded to male representations.
Unsurprisingly, this has major repercussions for how girls and women view themselves and the world.
So, in light of the cultural context I’ve just outlined, dismissing young women’s use of the selfie shuts down any attempt at a deeper analysis, even when all the indicators are that a deeper analysis is exactly what is required. It stops short of asking the all-important question, a question that strikes at the beating heart of research: why?
Why, at this particular point in time, are some young women choosing to self-represent in the selfie? Why do they photograph themselves in the way that they do? And if their behavior can be construed as narcissistic and self-objectifying, why is this the case? In many ways, these questions raise the issue of gender and specifically femininity.
Today, traditional notions of gender are being challenged on many fronts. And by traditional notions, I mean the heteronormative assumption that every single human being on the face of this Earth, by virtue of their biological characteristics, fits neatly into one of two categories, either male or female.
And that consequentially, throughout their lives, they will then exhibit either masculine traits or feminine traits, masculinity or femininity. Whether we are aware of it or not, how we are gendered has major implications for our lives.
And perhaps, on an instinctive level, we’re more aware of this than we would care to admit because we have all, at one point or another, whether wittingly or unwittingly, violated the boundaries of gender.
Walking into the wrong public bathroom. Never fun, getting angry if you’re a woman. Scary, crying if you’re a man.
As a researcher, I proceed from the work of the great many theorists, campaigners, and sociologists who have argued so persuasively that gender, as distinct from biological sex, is largely socially constructed, and that many of the things we presume to be innate and natural are, in fact, policed and coerced.
To paraphrase the philosopher Judith Butler, whose ideas have revolutionized what we think about what it means to be a man or a woman, gender is a phenomenon, not a fact. It creates what it names.
So, if we want to gain a deeper appreciation, then, for why it is young women are drawn to the selfie, and if we want to get better at unpacking what it is is going on in these images, an excellent place to start is with gender, specifically femininity, looking at how we do femininity in a modern context, keeping in mind that how we do femininity and how we do masculinity has always varied across race, across class, across culture, across history.
Conveniently enough, this brings us back to one of those buzzwords so beloved by commentators when it comes to discussing young women’s engagement with the selfie. And that word is narcissism.
This is Time Magazine cover story from 2012, which some of you may be familiar with because it was the source of much debate at the time. The title of the story, in case you can’t make it out, is “The Me, Me, Me Generation.” And there’s text below there that I’ve enlarged so you can read it. It says, “Millennials are lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents.”
Tell us how you really feel, Time Magazine. And look at the image they have chosen to illustrate this sweeping statement with. We’ve got young, white, likely middle-class woman in the act of taking a selfie. She, or what she embodies, is taken to represent everything that is wrong with her generation. And although the article goes on to ultimately debunk this idea that Millennials are without hope, the implication that they make here nevertheless lingers.
Now, I am going to presume that most of us are in agreement that narcissism is bad, and that there are many aspects of the modern world, particularly online and particularly in social media, which seem to exacerbate and even reward narcissistic behavior.
Let’s not forget that in the Greek myth Narcissus became so enamored with his own image that he lost the will to live. However, young women are not the only demographic taking and posting selfies, not by a long shot.