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Your odds of dying while taking a selfie? 1 in 4 billion

A lot of my research lately has centered around trying to gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between feminisms, technology, and the media studies concept of a moral panic (see, Hall, Critcher, Jefferson, Clarke, and Roberts [1978], “Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order). I typically use images as epicenters to understand these things and how they are all interlaced. So naturally, because I don’t live under a rock and basically do live on the internet, I saw this Mashable article and have also been fielding many comments, texts, tweets, and emails from friends/colleagues over the last 24~ish hours.

Mashable claims, in a hyper sensational manner, that more people have been killed by selfies this year than by sharks. Technically, and quantitatively, they’re not wrong. But culturally, and conceptually, they couldn’t be further from the actual circumstances.

The 12th selfie-related death happened recently when an elderly tourist fell down the steps at the Taj Mahal, while trying to snap a self-portrait. So, here’s what Mashable first gets wrong: This man didn’t die from a selfie. He presumably died from something along the lines of blunt force trauma from falling down stairs. But by claiming this man – and 11 other individuals – tragically died while taking selfies, Mashable perpetuates a discourse that’s culturally prominent in today’s media. And, that discourse is one of exclusion, sexism, and policing bodies/actions.

Originally (and in now different ways, still are), selfies were criticized for being narcissistic, as were the (mainly) girls and women who were taking them. It became an inherently cyclical way of thinking: women are narcissistic because they take selfies, and selfies are narcissistic because women take them. Ann Burns has a fantastic Foucauldian analysis of the selfie, in which she argues selfie criticism exists as a means to policing bodies and “teaching” what actions and images are acceptable to post to social media.

My reaction to this Mashable piece was a combination of Burns’s work and my recent work on moral panics. Media use fear to police bodies and actions. And because the general experiences of most media consumers are not the experiences being reported on, media must use certain metaphors and lines of thinking to make the story understood and resonate. In the case of this Mashable article, they use a “stock of meaning” of the shark attack, which prompts one to think of the movie Jaws, hear the iconic music, and consider devastating bloodshed. Ergo, shark –> sharks are dangerous –> compare to selfie –> selfies are dangerous.

“More people have died from selfies this year than shark attacks,” is a sensational headline. It privileges the idea that those who take selfies take unnecessary risks and put themselves in danger. Jill Walker Rettberg posted a fantastic analysis of this piece earlier, using a capitalist/tourism/global economy lens, and it is absolutely worth a read. While the Russian

source: Al Jazeera
source: Al Jazeera

government may have posted a guide to safe selfies earlier this year and tourism agencies actually encourage “daredevil selfies,” there is something oddly perverse happening now in which image-based actions are simultaneously being encouraged, policed, and criticized. There is something I don’t yet have an answer to.

While all these deaths are tragic and could have been prevented, it is also worth remembering that no amount of social media likes is worth a life. Earlier this year, my friend sent me an article that read, “Selfie Causes Colorado Plane Crash.” And I texted back – False. Stupidity Causes Colorado Plane Crash. Be smart, and use “common sense.” My critique here is one that focuses on how media discuss these issues, not on the individual people and their actions. It is upsetting that media can’t – or won’t – disentangle these concepts.

(Added: Forbes actually critiques this piece in a blistering fashion – and reveals your odds of dying from taking a selfie are actually about 1 in 4 billion)

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Why You Should Care about the Nicki Minaj/Taylor Swift Feud

Hint: It’s not just about Bad Blood.

Obligatory song pun aside, a lot is at stake in the issues raised by Nicki Minaj on Twitter last night after Taylor Swift felt personally attacked by the rapper’s tweets.

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TL;DR: Minaj’s “Anaconda” music video was snubbed for the VMA Video of the Year award, which shattered previous YouTube and Vevo records. She was the record holder for the majority of the VMA judging period (7/31/14 to 7/1/2015) until Swift came along and released the “Bad Blood” music video at the end of May 2015.

Minaj was eloquent in her social commentary on the music industry. First, rap has always been considered as lesser than white pop, and nothing demonstrates this more than when Macklemore won Best Rap Album over Kendrick Lamar at the Grammys in 2014. Second, female rappers occupy an even lower music strata. Black women’s bodies are privileged in the music industry (see Miley Cyrus’s cringe-worthy VMA performance with Robin Thicke), but their minds and words are dismissed with a flagrant disregard for their lived experiences.

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And Minaj was then quick to point out the double standard of a music artist’s rights.

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I don’t think I need to provide any further examples of how the music industry, including the VMAs and the Grammys, are racist.

So now let’s chat about feminism, since Taylor Swift seemed so keen to bring it up last night. This isn’t the first time she’s thrown the female solidarity red card out when she feels like she’s being attacked (see Tina Fey and Amy Poehler). This seems to be her go-to response. Not to mention, it’s incredibly ironic that a woman who earned her way into the nominations for Video of the Year got there with a song and video that’s all about tearing another woman down.

Clearly, Taylor missed the complete point of 2013’s viral hashtag, #solidarityisforwhitewomen.

Feminism is about so much more than all women co-existing in peace and harmony, Taylor. Nicki was speaking her mind about the racism that’s rampant in the music industry. She was making completely valid point about how black women’s bodies are only used for specific purposes and not celebrated. What white women do with black women’s bodies dance moves, however, are always celebrated – once again, see Miley’s VMA performance or the horrific twerking in T.Swift’s own “Shake it Off.” Taylor responded to Minaj’s macro-criticisms by interpreting them on a micro-scale – something white people in general are prone to do when racism enters the conversation. “It’s not me! I love everyone! It’s everybody else!” Or, in Taylor’s case, she adds, “It’s the men!” Swift essentially epitomizes White Girl Feminism.

She swung at the ball and completely missed. White people – and I include myself in this, because years ago, before Women’s Studies classes and being in Mass Media Studies graduate program, I was this way too – go on the defensive when racism is brought up. Why? We are taught racism is bad, and some people feel by acknowledging our white privilege, that makes us bad. On the contrary. Acknowledging white privilege makes you a better, strong ally, as long as you are willing to listen and understand the issues. You’re only “bad” (and that’s such an oversimplication) if you don’t recognize the inequality that persists in the world and still live with colorblinders on.

So if Taylor really wanted to participate in “solidarity,” she could have used the moment as a platform to support Nicki’s points and recognize the problematic industry she is a part of. The fact is, we’re all living in a problematic world. In the case of Taylor, it’s okay to live in a problematic world, like what you do, and still be a supportive ally. Look at the great work Matt McGorry is doing to check his privilege, critique the media industry he is a part of, and use it for the better.

Personally, as a digital culture scholar, my research intersects at the corner of visual culture and feminist theory. So today, in the fallout of the Twitter War, I’ve been intrigued  by the way Nicki and Taylor have been visually represented by the mass media.

A couple of notable examples:

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They proceed to get even more disturbing.

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This particular frame is disconcerting, to say the least. Nicki’s chest-shoulder-head/taken straight-on approach is indicative of a mug shot, while white Taylor gloats and prances on, free.

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This may be the most disturbing one of all. The juxtaposition of Taylor mimicking a gun next to Nicki, who is holding her side like one would keep pressure on a wound is perplexing, to say the least. In the wake of the murders of Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and many, many others, this set up is racist and horrific.

Overall, Nicki is blamed, attributed with crazy eyes, “resting bitch face,” and in a way that is generally concomitant to the stereotypical “angry black woman” archetype. Meanwhile, Taylor emerges as the innocent little doe, the angel of White Girl Feminism. How dare Nicki attack Taylor, who is largely viewed as America’s sweetheart? “A picture is worth a thousand words,” is a cliché, but it’s also a very powerful statement.

There is an image, and then there is what it represents. The quickest way I can explain this is through a powerful quote by a scholar I immensely respect, W.J.T Mitchell. He states, when summing up work done by Roland Barthes, “When people scoff at the idea of a magical relation between a picture and what it represents, ask them to take a photograph of their mother and cut out the eyes” (What do Pictures Want? 2005, p. 9). Essentially, there is a belief that whatever is done to an image is somehow also done to what it stands for.

So by representing Nicki as the “angry black woman,” mass media attempt to re-present her and repackage her as an angry black woman. By representing her with crazy eyes, she is dismissed as crazy. By belittling her through an image, she herself is belittled. By having Taylor Swift point a gun at her…well, you get it.

Gender, race, class, religion, able-bodiedness, etc. etc. coalesce at interstices of media systems. Through today’s portrayal of Nicki Minaj, the mass media continue to Other her and make her less of a person, all because she is female. Furthermore, she is less of a female because she is a black female. This is exactly why intersectionality is crucial when being a critical consumer of media and in understanding systems of oppression.

Personally, I’m just hoping to see Kanye West steal the stage again if Taylor wins.

courtesy of top-img.com
courtesy of top-img.com

Nicki, we see what you were going for. Stay strong, and your fans love you.

courtesy of The Honesty Hour
courtesy of The Honesty Hour

Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?

Yes.

My brilliant fellow Grady grad, Felicia Harris, recently wrote a wonderful post about her academic journey, and she’s inspired me (and I’ve finally given myself permission) to do the same.

My old cubicle. Such great memories at GMOA!
My old cubicle. Such great memories at GMOA!

A year ago at this time, I was in my final days of working as a bus operator/trainer for UGA’s Campus Transit System and working as a PR intern for the Georgia Museum of Art. I had a plan – I was entering my final year of my Master’s program in Mass Media Studies, and I was going to move to Atlanta when I graduated to practice PR. I knew I wanted a Ph.D., but I thought that was still several years away.

But as that Fall semester began, other things began to chip away at that plan. After working on a conference paper with my adviser, the wonderful Elli Lester Roushanzamir, and taking a class that introduced me to WJT Mitchell and image theory, I knew my plans had changed. Then, one week in January 2015 confirmed that – I had been accepted in the PhD program at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, and that conference paper had been accepted for presentation at the 2015 International Communication Association Conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

That spring semester flew by. I wrote, edited, edited, edited some more, and then finally successfully defended my master’s thesis (with the help of my brilliant committee, Elli Lester Roushanzamir, Carolina Acosta-Alzuru, and Valerie Boyd). I came to learn myself just as I came to learn the theories of dramaturgy, digital literacy, and the social media phenomenon I dub “identity bending.” I got a tattoo as my present for these accomplishments. The quote “love the questions themselves” is forever marked on my left wrist as a reminder to the excitement I felt that week in January (those words are from Rainer Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” – be still with all that’s unresolved in your heart, and learn to love the questions themselves).

And then, I was off to Puerto Rico. I had never traveled alone, flown alone, booked a hotel alone, hailed a cab, etc. etc. I didn’t just step out of my comfort zone. I zoomed out of it, 500 mph across on ocean on a Boeing 757.

View from my balcony, San Juan, Puerto Rico
View from my balcony, San Juan, Puerto Rico

There, I presented original research entitled “Fear and Selfie-Loathing in America: Intersections of Image Theory, Feminist Theory, and Arm’s Length Self-Portraits,” and was awarded Top Student Paper, Popular Communication Division. I had the privilege to speak on a panel entitled Theorizing Digital Media’s Visual Imagery: Aesthetics, Abilities, and Motivations with brilliant scholars from Brigham Young, Annenberg Pennsylvania, the Queensland University of Technology, and Hebrew University-Jerusalem.

So what’s next?

In August, I begin my PhD at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, as well as my journey into my becoming a “Triple Dawg” (I’ve earned a Bachelors and a Masters from UGA). Broadly, I call myself a digital imagery scholar, as I’m fascinated by things such as selfies and memes. The paper I’m currently working on to submit to a conference early next year is about Slender Man and the feminization of digital spaces. After that, I already know another selfie paper is in the works. Memes and selfies have already evolved and changed so much just in the year since I began researching them, which makes it such an intriguing field. IMG_1499The way we visually represent society says so much about ideological norms and values. Images are never innocent, and they are never silent. They are screaming a thousand things, demanding to be studied, looked at, revered. They sit amidst a rocky terrain of gender, race, class, politics, religion, history, popular culture, and current events, not just in their content, but in their production.

Those who know me know that I view the academic and the personal as inextricably linked. As I came to learn theories, I came to learn myself. James Carey pushed me into the swimming pool. Stuart Hall encouraged me to think boldly. W.J.T. Mitchell showed me the world. bell hooks inspired me to roar.

I used to never believe I could be here. This was one of the best things I ever gave myself permission to do.

The Most Important Part of a Selfie? The Face

Take your belfies (butt selfies), feet-at-the-beach-selfies, and back of the head selfies and move over. Those pictures are valid and worth documentation of course, but they’re not selfies.

While the Oxford English Dictionary defines a selfie as “an image that one has taken of oneself…etc.” It doesn’t specifically say it has to be a picture of one’s face, but I still think the face is a crucial part of the selfie. Why? Because of a concept in media studies called face-ism.

Face-ism came from a 1980s study that found in media images, men are more frequently portrayed from the shoulders up, while full-body shots of women are almost always used. But the implications of that were more striking. In a headshot, the individual shown is described as being more dominant, assertive, and intelligent, while the full-body shot was viewed as passive, less intelligent, submissive.

Subsequent studies found that when even the same individual was depicted in a head shot and a full-body shot, viewers rated the head shot as “better.” Because media frequently use head shots for men and full-body shots for women, it’s no wonder these gender stereotypes and inherent misogyny persist. In other words (as said in a study by Konrath et al., 2012): “It is not surprising that two groups of people who are conceptually seen as different would be literally seen (visually) as different.”

My desire to study selfies came out of this concept – because what does a selfie show? A head shot, from the shoulders up, but selfies (and those who take them) are deemed silly, aimless, dumb, and narcissistic. Why the chasm? Why, when the picture is taken by someone else, is it respectable, but when it is taken by oneself, it isn’t? Why does face-ism not apply to the selfie?

In a previous post, I said I used the selfie as the intersection to study media, culture, and society. How the selfie (and those who take) them are represented through language says a lot about what we value as a society, and what we’re afraid of. In that same earlier post, I mentioned that the early adopters of the selfie were women, minorities, and homosexual men, and this set the tone for how the selfie would be talked about in culture. These are three groups that have historically been stereotypes, marginalized, and misrepresented in the mass media, and selfies are a way for them to talk back to the status quo and say, “No, that’s wrong, this is actually me.”

Face-ism doesn’t apply to the selfie because society does not want it to. The finding inherently privileges men and “masculine” qualities. When a group that has historically been marginalized is featured in the exact same style, rejection of it says more about society’s feelings towards that group than it does the level of facial prominence in a picture. The backlash suggests that historically marginalized groups shouldn’t be viewed in an empowering light. They need to remain subordinate, even in images. This is a classic “Othering” move – make the subordinate group feel like second class citizens through any means possible.

The selfie adheres to all concepts of the head shot except for one – the removal of the outside photographer. And while this is quickly labeled as narcissistic, it is actually empowering and an act of protest. It says “if you value the norm for taking a picture like this, you will value me, too.” Selfographers (my term for those who take selfies) are saying, “Look me in the eye. I am worth more than my body, which has typically been viewed as an object to be consumed by the dominant class. Look me in the eye. I’m important, too.”

Why I Dropped Everything And Started Teaching Kendrick Lamar’s New Album

“Literacy in the 21st century means bringing all different kinds of “text” into the classroom – including hip-hop.”

Brian Mooney

When Kendrick Lamar released his sophomore album, To Pimp A Butterfly (2015), I was in the middle of teaching a unit on Toni Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye (1970). My freshmen students were grappling with some big ideas and some really complex language. Framing the unit as an “Anti-Oppression” study, we took special efforts to define and explore the kinds of institutional and internalized racism that manifest in the lives of Morrison’s African-American characters, particularly the 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove and her mother, Pauline. We posed questions about oppression and the media – and after looking at the Dick & Jane primers that serve as precursors to each chapter, considered the influence of a “master narrative” that always privileges whiteness.

Set in the 1940s, the Breedlove family lives in poverty. Their only escape is the silver screen, a place where they idolize the glamorous stars of the film industry. Given the historical context…

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Your Facebook Self and “Real” Self Are the Same

Forget my cup of exceptionally strong coffee. Nothing riles me up on Monday morning quite like the chance to debate the internet life, “real” life (or as I call it, physical life), and the convergence of the two. Thank you, Wired and Jessi Hempel.

Hempel begins posing a scenario she had previously posted to her Facebook friends: How do you handle running into an online friend in “real” life?  What’s the etiquette in regards to bringing up something you saw on their Facebook page? The answers Hempel’s friends provided her are actually chuckle-worthy: Wallflowering. Facial(book) recognition. Friendenfreude. A Facebookship. And stalking.

But Hempel, who struggles with coming to terms with these digital relationships, continues to call them awkward. She taps into our inner Foucaultian tendencies with terms to like “surveillance” and “watching.” She talks about liking posts from old acquaintances who are doing arguably really interesting things with their lives, such as working on reindeer villages in the arctic tundra and celebrating and supporting their endeavors. But then, she says “What I’m describing is the digital equivalent of looking into your windows on a dark night. You’re the one who left the curtains open. You live on a busy street. But if we happen to make eye contact…we both feel slightly violated.”

Oh, I love nothing more than writers pretend to be liberal with their ideas about the digital era when really, it’s just a frayed tourniquet on the phobias and disgust that are bleeding through. She negotiates this disgust with all things social-digital by saying “she is not friends with the woman she saw on the street; She is friends with her digital avatar.”

I couldn’t disagree more with Hempel. The digital avatar and the person behind it are the same person.

In my master’s thesis on this very subject, I coined the term “identity bending,” which I defined as this: The online person and the offline person are facets of the same individual. Online presentation is a highly selected, highly thought out version of one’s life. We may not present ourselves as the same person online as we are offline, but we are also not the same people across online platforms. This has to do with the audience of that site, performance norms that date back to sociologist Erving Goffman’s first ever discussion of dramaturgy in 1959 (The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life). Online and offline, public and private, we are always two sides of the same coin. You wouldn’t consider the tails side of a coin any less real or valid than the head’s side. You need both sides for the coin to be worth anything, to mean anything. Our digital lives and “real” lives are the same.

Facebook (and social media in general) have redefined relationships, specifically friendships.  Hempel’s repeated use of “surveillance” and similar words invoke the idea of the panopticon, and that we are always on display, even when we don’t want to be.

But that’s just the thing –we want to be. People are free to post to social media what they want. They can post how much, and whatever, they would like to. It’s not creeping. It’s not stalking. It’s viewing information and updates that have been made readily available, fueled by that poster’s individual agency.

Agency is something I think that gets incredibly overlooked in digital media studies, and especially in the way digital and social media are talked about by the news media and blogospheres. Someone made the choice to post that selfie, that link, that video. No one forced them. Social media aren’t holding guns to our heads, forcing us, and we are not trapped.

If someone posts something interesting online, and I see them later that day, or within the next couple of days, I may mention it, especially if it’s something noteworthy. Hey, I saw on Facebook you got that promotion! Congratulations! Oh my goodness, that picture of your dog you posted was adorable. How’s she doing? Our dogs should have a play date!

Hempel worries too much about something that frankly, doesn’t warrant much worrying. It’s thought-provoking, sure. But I think her article reveals more about how we as a technology-fueled society still don’t quite know what to do with everything digital. It shows that we still privilege “real,” physical interaction over anything that happens online when they’re both equally valid, equally legitimate circumstances. The binaries strike again.

I’m saying that if someone posts something online, they did so out of their own free will, and out of their desire to have that information publicly known. Don’t feel bad about acknowledging something someone else willingly put out there. Honestly, they might actually be glad you did.

Cultural Appropriation and White Icons

seraphictruth

Amandla Stenberg’s viral tumblr video has lately been a hot topic online. Stenberg went on to explain cultural appropriation and did a brilliant job for sure. The young Hunger Games actress identified Black hair and it’s link to Black identity which she then linked to Hip Hop and rap culture. Stenberg expressed, how more and more White musicians have been adopting Black culture in an attempt to remain “edgy and gaining attention” . The actress gave example of Miley Cyrus’s latest twerking trend and using Black women on stage and in videos as props. Furthermore, the famous White female rapper Iggy Azalea despite being from Australia uses a Southern American accent whilst rapping once again implying connections to Black Culture and Hip Hop. Cryus and Azalea are not the only White icons who have been adopting Black Culture, the list really does go on and Stenberg did an applaudable job…

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