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John Berger and the Selfie

Many of our contemporaries would call the selfie, at best, a narcissistic act. Surely the oh-so accidental candids which inundate our Instagram feeds are a far more worthy, less self-indulgent option when gifting our eager followers with content from our highly active and exciting lives? Last term I read an essay from John Berger, a critical thinker, who won the 1972 booker prize, and is most famous for the work I’ll be looking at: his book Ways Of Seeing. Reading this essay about voyeurism and the confides in which women are allowed to be viewed in art, including how the ‘male gaze’ is privileged over any bodily autonomy of women, it felt obvious to me that the modern day manifestation of this concern is ‘the selfie’. Thus I will be breaking down, and probably be applying some wildly anachronistic ideology to this essay.

I will be writing this from the critical perspective of (white) women, as this is what Berger deals with in his essay, the struggle of women of colour and the LGBT+ community for example of course have a place in this conversation - but not one I feel qualified to speak for.

 “From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.”

I think it is fair to associate the selfie phenomenon most explicitly with younger women and girls. A group who are consistently prettified then thwarted and subdued. Their interests are not taken seriously, despite the fact that it is indeed who society asks them to idolise a small plastic doll who we have recently discovered would scientifically not be able to walk with her proportions - thank you Barbie. It is no wonder then that selfie takers are vilified as self interested and superficial if they are coupled with this group.

“A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself.”

Recent reports from Common Sense Media showed that 80% of 10-year-old girls have been on a diet. So, I think from this we can deduce that young girls are being made hyper-aware of their own image from a tragically early age. However it is not unsettling numbers such as this that are being discussed - but the ‘promiscuity’ of pubescent girls today. As soon as these girls are publicising their self awareness of being objectified (wether this be with wearing makeup or digitally capturing a moment in their days permeated by the shadow of their own image, with a selfie) we shut them down as pseudo-mature and forward. We are living in a world where it is hard to disengage from this. As much as I loathe to unfold my feminist blinkers for the powerhouse that is Ariana Grande - her universally empowering “Thank u, next” video spoofs off “Mean Girls” - a film where girls who are probably no more than fifteen are hyper sexualised in cheerleading outfits on stage - not an uncommon trope.

“The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object - and most particularly an object of vision”

So the obvious answer to this - let’s end the selfie so as to validate and empower girls in ways other than image- right? And this is where the crux of Berger’s argument comes in…

“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.”

In our Capitalist culture now perpetuated by social media - image is all consuming, and this is unlikely to end soon. Let’s look at the “mirror” as the front facing camera on our phones: our issue is not with the image of the woman - but the fact it is perceived as vanity because she is subverting the power structure.

“To acquire some control over this process, women must contain it and interiorise it.”

With the selfie -she is in control, it is in it’s entirety on her terms. And are we really going to say that a picture, taken by an “Instagram boyfriend”, is a less self-centred way of navigating the voyeurism of Instagram?

“If a woman throws a glass on the floor, this is an example of how she treats her own emotion of anger and so of how she would wish it to be treated by others. If a man does the same, his action is only read as an expression of his anger.”

So if a woman takes a selfie - she’s asking to be validated on appearance, sexualised and maybe objectified to depending on the integrity of her following, it’s really a lucky dip. We can micro-analyse the politics of the ego behind this internet trend, but really I think the desired finale is to respect the girl who wants to show the world her perfect eyeliner, her ‘no makeup selfie’,  her purple eye bags and her red wine in the bath.

Milly Randall

Bristol '21

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