Selfie culture makes me a bit queasy: they've become an easy tool for anyone to use to get validation from an image-biased society. They exacerbate a myriad of social problems and can often come from a sad place, rather than one of empowerment, posing a real dilemma: should we exploit our looks to promote ourselves? As a consequence, selfies are surfacing in a new way in the work of young digital artists. Selfies are being wilfully dragged into feminist discourse.
A lot of artists are readily applying the term "feminist" to their work—it's one of the most over-used labels flying around at the moment. And because it's so hot right now, feminism is perhaps getting a bit stuck. As Petra Cortright incisively told Sleek magazine in an interview published yesterday, "discussions about women’s work always has to mention femininity." The problem is, attaching a feminist label to self-portraiture can mask a lack of concept. How can selfies really contribute to the progress of a harmonious relationship between men and women?
Back in the 60s in Paris, there were truly radical feminists, writers like Hélène Cixous and Annie Leclerc. They demanded we address "tampaxification" in mass media (the concealment of menstrual blood in tampon advertising) and there was talk of finding a completely new language of artistic expression; Cixous said that the pen was like a penis and therefore we needed to rethink the whole way we write if we really want to be liberated from male domination. If the pen is a penis extension, then the camera is... also a penis. There are unfortunately few apparatuses that really resemble boobs or vaginas.
Nowadays, internet feminism or "digifeminism" is an important art agenda, since the internet is where misogyny can live most freely, and noxiously. Feminists have had some victories within mass media (the most recent success, the dismantling of Page 3 in the UK tabloid The Sun), but the internet is still a sea of sexism.
Betty Hirst by Heide Hatry, 2005
Being the key medium of the internet, photographers are naturally on the frontlines in confronting some of the feminist stereotypes with their art. At this weekend's LA Art Book Fair, Dafy Hagai presented her curatorial project Girlfriends, bringing together a collection of all-girl zines from the photography field. Hagai's most recent zine, No Life, explores the "feminine outlook on 3d, 2d and virtual realities," underlining the importance of the prescence of feminist voices in the infinity of the internet. Meta-selfies merge with manufactured visions of feminity. Next to Hagai are other artists such as Montreal-based Rebecca Storm, whose juxtapositions send-up the objectification and sexualization of all manner of things in today's twisted world.
Dafy Hagai, from her zine "No Life"
Selfies are problematic for feminism. There shouldn't be an inherent problem with the beautification of women, but what about the point at which it becomes harmful? Can we identify that moment, or is it different for everyone? And indeed, is that difference not at the very cornerstones of feminism itself? Body Anxiety, an innovative new online exhibition curated by Leah Schrager and Jennifer Chan, focuses on female artists who use their own image in their art. The resulting photography and video works are a surprising mix of self-deprecating satire, dynamic and diverse in approach—and unravel some of the issues related to selfie culture.
Saoirse Wall, Video still, via Body Anxiety
Faith Holland, via Body Anxiety
But aren't all these images just adding more fodder to the collective "wank bank"? And just as artist Faith Holland (Body Anxiety) uses porn out of its context in her art—these images can be mispropriated and absued as soon as they're released onto the net.
Caitlin Stasey, the Australian actress and founder of a new feminist initiative Herself, told i-D in an interview this week that, on the contrary, producing these kind of images is a way of reclaiming the body:
Women are objectified regardless of their dress or actions, a woman only need be existing for a man to sexualize her, for the world to assume they know her intentions and desires. To state that appearing nude publicly feeds back into systemic oppression is not only incorrect but dangerous, it implies that women are responsible for the actions against them, that women must be mindful of how we are perceived for fear of inciting violence against us. This attitude is called rape culture and it's far more subtle and insidious than we realize.
While Stasey's point is valid, women do have a certain responsibility in how they choose to interact with the sexist systems that exist on the net. Not everyone's intentions are genuine, and a lot of women—consciously or not—are contributing to a system replete with sexism, one that affects our pysche and has multiple repercussions, especially on younger people who might not fully comprehend the context in which images are being made, and used.
Jennifer Chan told me:
"Self-sexualization in a way that appeases men is problematic in my world because it can make the world worse for other women because the internet allows these images to be aggregated and shared to sexist audiences. But beauty-shaming is also a shame... in women seeing other women as beauty enemies I think we forget that there are difficulties every kind of body type and race encounter in lived experiences by dint of being a woman or intersex/transgender. I think some women (and men) enjoy looking/performing feminine and hyperfeminine... let them do that!"
And so in the infinity of internet, the paradox lives on: while artistic platforms like Herself, Girlfriends, and Body Anxiety give a context to these emerging female artists, they are not exempt from the exact problems they're trying to untangle. Somewhere between an individual's free choice and mass-ingrained malevolent forces, the anonymity of the web throws up new contradictions for us all to resolve.
(Image at top: Rebecca Storm, via Girlfriends)