Young Women, Narcissism and the Selfie Phenomenon: Mary McGill (Transcript)

Mary McGill

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.

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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.

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