Tag Archives: selfie

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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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.”

From Duck Face to Kylie Jenner: Selfie Standards of Beauty

A few months ago, my best friend sent me a link to an article: “NTSB: Selfies Led to Fatal Colorado Plane Crash.”

And I texted back: False. Stupidity Led to Fatal Colorado Plane Crash.

Framing strikes again.

There is a fine line between the desire to document and sheer stupidity, but there shouldn’t have to be. In theory, common sense should be more common, but it’s as one of my professors once said: Everyone assumes common sense is an equal playing field, where we all have equal and similar stocks of meaning.  And for some, the stock of meaning is apparently one of doing whatever it takes to look like a celebrity.

Lately, the biggest selfie fad blowing up social media is one shrouded in idiocy (along with complex societal constructions): The Kylie Jenner Challenge.

downloadIf you’re not familiar, the Kylie Jenner Challenge involves sucking as hard and long as you can on a shot glass, water bottle, etc., to temporarily augment one’s lips and mimic Kylie Jenner’s recently, permanently plumped, pouty mouth. Jenner’s new look took the internet and tabloid spheres by storm a few weeks ago, and now, the #KylieJennerChallenge has gone viral.

I’m not going to pretend what these teens are doing isn’t idiotic. It is. But the reason that this hashtag has taken off isn’t necessarily because these girls succeed in looking like Kim Kardashian’s little sister. But the medium of the selfie is once again taking the flack with articles saying, “No surprise selfies are causing teens to want to look perfect as well” (ABC Action News). It’s not the selfie causing teens to want to look perfect. It’s unrealistic standards of Western beauty. CC_mbWlUUAAOxeW

American culture is obsessed with celebrities, and with the development of social media we have all become micro-celebrities in our own right. We are the star of our own lives, constantly putting on performances on social media to appear a certain way. We even fuel the fire of rumors and gossip that way – case and point, last weekend, I ran into an old ex from years ago (it did not end well), and later, he posted a FB status that inevitably stirred up interest among old acquaintances. My cell phone immediately started blowing up with texts: “Did you run into So-and-So? What happened?”

Mirco-celebrity. In our own right. Even when we don’t want it.

That’s what the Kylie Jenner Challenge does. Not only does it play on our culture’s obsessions with actual models, actors, rappers, etc., it inspires individuals to be the celebrity at the center of their own network. By mimicking a celebrity, one becomes a (small) celebrity themselves. Young girls are so obsessed with Jenner’s unrealistic standards of beauty that they’re willing to permanently harm their own bodies to temporarily achieve such status. Yes, the selfie is the way they join the conversation, but the selfie is not to blame. I would point the finger at unrealistic body standards, celebrity-obsessed culture, and teenager stupidity (which we’ve all done in high school) before blaming the medium of the selfie.

CDEQlbRUMAAfhZZBut as I mentioned, these teens really aren’t succeeding with emulating Jenner’s look. If anything, the reason the challenge has become such a craze is because of how badly it has gone. Instead of touting their newly inflated lips, teens are posting pictures of their faces and chins covered in bruises. They’ve become micro-celebrities because of their distress – a concept that makes a lot of sense when you think about tabloids and shows like TMZ.

In mirco-celebrity culture, even failures are celebrated. Instead of achieving Jenner’s look, the conversation is really more about how impossible it is to do so. These teens are posting pictures of their bruised and bloodied faces and laughing at themselves. I’m not saying that makes it better; I’m saying it’s a fascinating look into what we value in celebrities and what we value in ourselves. Idealized (and unrealistic) versions of celebrity bodies promote others to try to look that way, even when it’s impossible.

The Kylie Jenner Challenge is just the latest mold of beauty standards in our digital culture. The one that has prevailed the longest is arguably the Duck Face, which has been frequently hailed as “stupid” and “attention seeking.” However, instead of thinking about what Duck Face is, we should think about what Duck Face does (same with the #KylieJennerChallenge). It narrows the face, makes the lips appear fuller, the eyes wider, the cheekbones more prominent. It temporarily molds the face to adhere to American standards of beauty, the standards frequently put forth by celebrities. We fetishize macro-celebrities for that look, but as soon as a micro-celebrity joins in, the sexist discourse surrounding the selfie rears its head once more.duck-face

From the duck face to the #KylieJennerChallenge, all these facial expressions and experiments are the result of feminine control. Girls are constantly bombarded with unrealistic images and told to look a certain way, but as soon as they try to achieve it, they are criticized.

That being said, girls, please stop being stupid and put down the shot glasses. Even Kylie Jenner didn’t achieve that look naturally. Take all the selfies you’d like, but leave the shot glasses alone. I promise you’re beautiful just the way you are.

What People Say To You As a Selfie Researcher

The scene: A small party at my friend’s house. It’s Saturday night, everybody’s drinking a few beers, and she grabs my arm. Hey, everyone this is Jess!

A resounding, tipsy chorus follows: Hi Jess!

My friend nudges me forward. Jess is in grad school. She studies selfies.

 Wait, what? Seflies? SELFIES?

Yes, selfies. My paper, “Fear and Selfie-Loathing in America: Intersections of Image Theory, Feminist Theory, and Arm’s Length Self-Portraits” will be presented this May at the 2015 International Communication Association conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I think selfies are an excellent way to study interstices of inequalities and fears of the digital era.

Okay. What can you tell me about selfies?

Everybody needs to calm down. The Guardian just recently published this article claiming the death of the selfie, which is disturbing for a lot of reasons. My research presents, and supports previous research and articles (Huffington Post), which states that typically, the most common groups of people to take selfies are women, minorities, and homosexual men. If images do in fact stand for what they represent, clamoring for the death or destruction of the image essentially argues for the death or destruction of the person depicted.

 Huh. My ex-boyfriend used to take a lot of selfies. *grabs my arm* DOES THAT MEAN HE’S GAY? I KNEW IT!

I don’t know. My research was not about your ex-boyfriend. Just because a man takes a selfie does not mean he’s gay or bisexual or asexual or polyamorous anything or the like.  My research suggests that criticisms about selfies abound because of the demographics who were the initial adopters of the movement (women, racial minorities, and homosexual men). These are groups who have historically been misrepresented in the mass media through narrow-minded stereotypes, ridiculous tropes, and unrealistic standards. The selfie is a way for these groups to talk back and say, “Hey, this is me.”

 But isn’t it narcissistic?

Everything is fine in moderation.  If someone is blowing up your social media feeds every hour with selfies, that might be narcissism. I’m not going to pretend that people don’t do some stupid things with selfies. But people also do stupid things with cars, phones, bikes, toaster ovens, etc. But there’s nothing wrong with someone posting the occasional selfie. If anything, it’s empowering. They’re taking control of their own image production instead of relying on someone or something else. Three hundred years ago, if you were a noble, you would pay someone oodles of gold and jewels to paint you surrounded by your possessions. Variations of the selfie have been around for centuries.

The media likes to over sensationalize this. Some of my favorites include: “What did Narcissus Say to Instagram? Selfie Time!” (The USA Today 2013); “Selfie Addiction is No Laughing Matter” (The Huffington Post, 2014); “Get Over Your Selfie” (The Wall Street Journal, 2014) . These are all blistering critiques in some of the nation’s biggest agenda-setting newspapers – because meaning comes from how something is represented through language, it is no wonder the selfie is largely considered to be a digital era joke.

 Oh. Well, yeah, I guess. What about duckface?

If someone thinks they look good doing that, let them be.  In the meantime, read this. It explains it better than I could.

 Selfie sticks…?

Are excellent for reaching that spider that’s crawled up into the corner of your ceiling that you can’t get to on your own. On a personal note, I’m not a fan. On a scholarly note, I’m perplexed by them. Based on the Oxford English Dictionary definition of a selfie, if you use a selfie stick, it is no longer a selfie. The dictionary definition explicitly states it is an “arm’s –length photo.” Not a stick’s-length photo.

 What do you think of that God-awful song?

You mean that God-amazing song? Just kidding (sort of). It’s fascinating. I don’t believe any song sums up the millennial generation more so than The Chainsmoker’s ballad. The backlash against it, like the selfie, says more about society than the song. It’s like society doesn’t want to be reminded of their own habits and culture.

 Well what do you intend to do with this privileged book learning of yours? (this courtesy of a nice gentlemen I went on one, and only one, date with recently).

I’m working on my PhD, and I intend to keep studying selfies. A paper of mine that’s up next is a twenty-first century take on Lessing’s Laocoon, selfies, and hashtags, arguing that a crucial component to understanding the selfie and looking past narcissism is the hashtag that accompanies the image. I hope to encourage my students to think critically about the issues at play in our digital culture, and hopefully look at them with a trained eye. As I said earlier, selfies are a great way to look at these issues. They’re great to look at in terms of activism, empowerment, social movements, agency, and what matters to various cultures across the world.

 My friend and I are currently having a fight on whether the word selfie can be a verb. What do you think?

I think in our postmodern, poststructuralist world, anything can be anything. But no, seriously. “To selfie” is totally a verb. It’s shorthand for “taking a selfie.” We as a society seem to like shortening words and phrases these days, tbh.

 Why do you care so much? Isn’t it just a picture?

Nothing is ever what it initially seems, which is why I love my career path. If a picture is a worth a thousand words, the selfie is worth however many words you want to ascribe to it. In our participatory culture, individuals have more agency than ever before. It’s your world. Do with it – and document it – what you like.

Cool. Want another beer?

An IPA would be just fine, thanks.