can your selfie really change the world?

A new wave of feminists are harnessing social media as a vehicle for change, but can a hashtag really be a tool for female liberation?

by Bertie Brandes
27 September 2016, 11:25pm

"Your start-up disk is almost full. You need to make more space available by deleting files." I see this message so often it might live to define me, etched in to my digital tombstone on a graveyard hard drive of the future. I take so many pictures. We take so many pictures. Last year, between me and a few other snap-happy inhabitants of this groaning planet, it's estimated that upwards of one trillion photographs were taken. In this frenzy of image-making and sharing, everyone is scrambling to adapt to smartphones. Politicians have teams of Ivy League graduates churning out memes, your follower count could determine whether or not you swing that second interview and social movements are adapting to iOS. A study in 2013 found that when you photograph something your brain is less likely to remember specific details about it. Human memory is literally being transposed onto Dropbox. But I wonder if there's something other than memory under threat as we clamour to fit everything on to a 4.7 inch display?

When I was told the theme of this issue was 'the Female Gaze' my thoughts immediately turned to my phone. I gaze at other women through it and through it other women gaze back at me. But the me presented bears little resemblance to the one reflected in the dark phone screen as it snaps to lock. How is what we understand as self-representation affecting our relationship with ourselves and our understanding of other women? When it comes to progress, is this a tool to help us build a sharper future or are we in danger of losing sight of the one we need somewhere among the endless images?

Exploring female visibility in visual culture requires a brief history lesson. Very brief, I promise. In 1975 Laura Mulvey's essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema identified the male gaze. This was fundamental in acknowledging the gratuitous use of women and women's bodies as props, heterosexual male power signifiers and erotic light relief in media. It was key to second-wave feminism, refusing the idea that patriarchy could be combatted in legislation alone and questioning the representation of women across the creative spheres. In 2016, the male gaze remains firmly in place. Through the lens of sex, for example, we see lesbianism eroticised and packaged as titillation for male viewers in online porn. Gaming too overwhelmingly prioritises a male protagonist, with games like Grand Theft Auto relying on the ritual humiliation and assault of female sex workers to develop storylines and characters. In the last episode of this season's Game of Thrones, violent rape was used against a particularly nasty female character as a form of punishment. These are all examples of the hugely exploitative, consumerist patriarchal culture we've grown up thinking of as normal. But is social media different? When we post a picture we like of ourselves online, it's hard to figure out if that image is in some way legitimising the exploitative visual culture surrounding it, or is instead threatening to break the mould.

When it comes to progress, is this a tool to help us build a sharper future or are we in danger of losing sight of the one we need somewhere among the endless images?

So we come to Instagram. Apparently sitting apart from stuffy publishers, advertising teams and - let's be frank - some deeply racist, sexist power structures, social media was sold under the premise that it allows anyone with a phone camera to represent themselves exactly as they choose. For feminism, this provides a welcome upheaval of the social status quo in the form of increased visibility for women of colour, disabled women and women whose bodies don't fit a 'perfect 10'. Where Tumblr housed the online feminists of the mid-00s, Instagram seems to offer the space required for this generation's far more visual disruption. The image-based platform allows women to enjoy the immediacy of self-representation and to claim and celebrate their existence from anywhere in the world. Social movements, particularly feminism, have grasped the democratic nature of these user-led platforms. Now with millions of contributions, tags like #Iwokeuplikethis and #freethenipple tumbled forth fighting for the acceptance of (arguably) ungroomed, non-sexualised women - a form of dissent distributed freely through an interconnecting web of global youth. Non-white, non-heterosexual and trans women are finally beginning to be granted the visibility they've so long been denied and the celebration of all women's bodies has become ubiquitous not only with these platforms but also with the media that takes inspiration from them. Now it seems I can look to my phone as a personal weapon against the decades of media violence waged against women's bodies.

This appears to be a triumph for feminism, but as lots of us know from curating our online personas, appearances aren't always what they seem. To critics, there are some serious problems with this snappy, individualist social media feminism. Crucially, some argue, it's a movement operating on the unspoken agreement that participants demonstrate complicity with exactly that violent media culture which continues to cash in on the distribution of images of women. According to Dr Angela McRobbie, who wrote about this subject in her 2015 essay Notes on the Perfect, many feminist movements on social media require women to willingly "surrender themselves to visibility and thus to modes of public inspection". Basically, it doesn't work if you don't want to post a photo of yourself on the internet, and unsurprisingly lots of women don't. McRobbie understands much of this hashtag led feminism as inherently compromised, usefully distilling the contradiction into Cara Delevingne (Sorry, Cara). Here, McRobbie explains, is a young, white, rich woman who is both open about her bisexuality yet is happy to star alongside Kate Moss in adverts that pedal a conventionally exploitative, erotic depiction of two blonde thin women as a form of consumerist aspiration. Delevingne is celebrated by the press for her bisexuality and touted as a role model because she continues to simultaneously bolster the rigid patriarchal visual stereotypes that her bisexuality threatens to undermine. When we post an image of our body on social media it's kind of the same compromise. We're flexing our political muscles while standing in line at a beauty pageant. We're protesting objectification in the boundaries of a media that has absolutely no inclination to cease understanding of women's bodies as currency. This pressure to perform radical visibility in a deeply exploitative culture is uncomfortable. It's important to remember that the sharing of selfies and the widening of representation on social media does not necessarily signify progressiveness on that platform. Nor does it prove that the women engaging with it are safe from racism or discrimination. As we know, the reception to self-taken images of women online is often incredibly hostile. Without wanting to dismiss the enormous impact that visibility is having for previously totally unrepresented groups of women, it still remains only one facet of a movement which must be supported in all its attempts to decry the systematic repression, racism, dismissal and contempt of those less privileged by our culture.

It's important to recognise that the prioritising of the self-reflective or female gaze here may in fact end up being as exclusive and conservative as the gender stereotypes it set out to break down.

There are other problems with identifying self-representation as a revolutionary tool of liberation. In some ways it places the weight of previous invisibility and past injustice onto the shoulders of women (particularly non-white women) instead of their oppressors. It categorises feminism as a women's issue and therefore one which can be solved by women, not a structural issue which must be acknowledged by all. The highjacking of feminism as a marketing tool by women's only products like tampons or body lotion reinforces this same assertion that men are absolutely not implicated. Here, McRobbie writes of a reluctance on the behalf of contemporary feminists and gender theorists to "resurrect and reinstate 'old' categories such as masculine dominance, patriarchy or male power" as they believe them "too crude" or "possibly essentialist". It's very easy to feel a vacuum of actual anger in the feminist selfies of Instagram with their long 'empowering' captions. Unlike the increasingly vocal online movement of, say, Black Lives Matter, social media feminism often feels trend-led and lacking in concrete demands. It's not that we shouldn't post a selfie and join in, but that was never meant to be the end of the conversation. #freethenipple is a good example of how complex the conversation is. The online movement, which has encouraged millions of women to share images of themselves topless to protest Instagram's gendered nudity restrictions, at once argues for that concrete change while simultaneously refusing to engage with the surrounding culture that objectifies and sexualises women's bodies. It argues against sexism as definite legislative inequality but it fails to acknowledge how removing that legislation might potentially have further negative effects given the recurring exploitation of women's bodies in visual media. In a way the re-claiming of nipples and pubic hair actually feels more like a comment on the slickification of mainstream sexism over the last 20 years than a critique of structural inequality. It's also a movement which has shown the propensity to ignore the violence of misogyny by continuing to distribute only the culturally acceptable visual tropes of ethereal, 'liberated' young white women. It's important to recognise that the prioritising of the self-reflective or female gaze here may in fact end up being as exclusive and conservative as the gender stereotypes it set out to break down.

Related: Free The Nipple is about gender equality, nothing more, nothing less

So what do we do, selfie in solidarity or focus the lens back on our culture? Luckily, unlike Instagram filters, you can pick more than one option. Dr. Christina Scharff, senior lecturer at King's College, is crystal clear on the need to embrace protest in its many forms, emphasising that "in order to resist something you have to be in relation to it." She stresses the importance of avoiding the temptation to understand resistance "as something that comes from the outside" stating instead that it's almost always something that "comes from within" and is "probably quite messy." Messy is a nice way of putting it; while social media might remain unforgivably exclusionary and exploitative in some ways, its ability to spread ideas and share information mustn't be overlooked. We can't afford to have our voices silenced by an explosion of visual culture and we won't. The emerging picture of women across the world, made up from snapshots steadily streaming through our feeds, speaks of a latent anger waiting to be unleashed. And believe me they're not angry about their start-up disks being full. Well, actually they are a bit angry about that too.

Related: The revolution will not be televised, it will be tweeted


Text Bertie Brandes
Image via Pexels