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.
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.
But articles like this one, in aligning young women’s selfies with narcissism, are actually evoking a long-standing charge against women. Namely, that we are obsessed with image-centered trivialities, like hair, and clothing, and makeup, and that this obsession is somehow evidence of our inferiority.
But what’s missing from that narrative? It’s the all-important question of why. Why is femininity so aligned with narcissism? To find one possible answer, I’m going to ask you in joining me in jumping into a time machine and heading back to France in 1949, for the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir published “The Second Sex.”
Some of you may be familiar with it. The Second Sex remains one of the most important works in the feminist Western canon. And de Beauvoir’s famous assertion that one is not born but rather becomes a woman speaks to this idea that women are socialized to act a certain way rather than that certain way being something that occurs naturally.
So, given the stature of The Second Sex, then, it’s not surprising that in the course of my own research, I cracked it open. And what did I find? Only an entire chapter devoted to the issue of women and narcissism, entitled “The Narcissist.”
Funnily enough, de Beauvoir notes that narcissism is sometimes seen as the fundamental attitude of all women. “The problem with this,” she says, “is that it makes a charge without taking into account the way that women, much more so than men, are socialized from birth to turn their attention towards the self, towards the body.”
And although de Beauvoir was writing in the 1940s, this observation remains as true today as it was then because we still see this all the time: little girls being praised, not for what they do, but for how they look; a global beauty industry that’s set to reach a valuation of almost 300 billion dollars by 2017 — high-profile, accomplished, powerful women being reduced to their appearance again and again in ways in which their male counterparts would rarely, if ever, have to contend with.
de Beauvoir notes that in a world where a woman’s agency is limited by forces beyond her control, where she must struggle to assert her individuality and her independence, by turning her attention towards the self, she gains a terrain where she does have control.
de Beauvoir notes what she calls the solitary pleasure of this arrangement, echoing something I’ve been struck by in my own research: how often it is that selfies taken by young women are in spaces like bedrooms and bathrooms? This chimes, too, with the theory of Bedroom Culture, as developed by Angela McRobbie, which explores the ways young women are socialized within the home, hanging out in spaces like bedrooms, learning the skills associated with femininity, while their male peers brave the public sphere.
de Beauvoir’s use of the term “pleasure” is also very interesting because what the selfie allows us to see as never before is how women enjoy looking at themselves and indeed other women, exchanges that have always occurred but have been rarely articulated and certainly not on the scale that we see now.
In “The Narcissist,” de Beauvoir muses that a woman, so adept at maneuvering through a man’s world, can, when admiring her reflection, psychologically split her identification, becoming at once the active, desiring force, the bearer of the gaze, and the object or the focus of that gaze, giving rise to a kind of complicated notion of pleasure.
What de Beauvoir shows in “The Narcissist” is although women are cast into narcissism, they nevertheless managed to find agency, pleasure, and power within it. The problem, however, is that extreme narcissism destroys those who it consumes, turning the attention ever more towards the self and away from the external source of the problem.
de Beauvoir notes that a woman, when admiring, or she puts it: “when drowning in her image, reigns over space and time, alone, sovereign; she has total rights over men, fortune, glory, and sensual pleasure.”
Now, what women in her right mind wouldn’t want that? Could this fleeting, delicious moment of freedom that de Beauvoir so beautifully describes be at least part of the reason why some young women are so drawn to the selfie?
Because here we have for the first time, thanks to technology, a way for them to hold on to and keep their reflection, a way for them to share that reflection with other people in the hope that those people can see what it is that they see in themselves.
And if that is the case, isn’t that actually very moving and a strong indicator of how far we still need to go to build equal societies?
Now, while the focus of my talk today has been narcissism, it would be remiss of me as a researcher to not point out that when it comes to young women’s engagement with the selfie, there are many aspects at play, of which narcissism is just one.
These very smiley, happy pictures are selfies posted by young Turkish women in 2014. And these are four of thousands that were uploaded to the Internet. “Why?” you ask, and that’s a great question. They were uploaded in response to remarks made by the Deputy Turkish Prime Minister, who called on women to be chaste and not laugh in public.
And given the worldwide attention that this protest received and, indeed, the levels of joyful laughing and smiling on display, I think it’s fair to say that his remarks didn’t have a desired effect and that the joke was very much on him. And I don’t know about you, but I love the idea of laughing as a radical act.
And so, dismissing young women’s engagement with the selfie, then, is not just intellectually lazy; it denies the myriad of ways that young women have used the phenomenon with political intent, to speak back to power, to give themselves communities and role models where there are none, striving for visibility in a world where female representation remains, unfortunately, very much a work in progress.
And this is particularly true for women in minorities. Even the charge of narcissism becomes so much more complex when considered in relation to be what it means to be a woman in this world.
So, the next time you see somebody rolling their eyes or complaining about young women’s use of the selfie, I sincerely hope that you stop, that you think, and that you realize: When it comes to young women’s engagement with the selfie, there is so much more going on than meets the eye.