from paris hilton to politicians: the rise of the selfie

From Thelma and Louise to Kim K, we explore how selfies have changed the landscape of popular culture.

by Emily Manning and i-D Staff
17 April 2015, 10:40pm

Photography Ash Kingston

After Marissa Cooper's death, Paris Hilton's guest appearance on The O.C. was easily the show's next most important moment. In less than two minutes of screen time, the cotton candy pink-clad heiress predicted the advent of the modern selfie. Extending her arm for the ideal angle, Hilton turned her flip phone on herself and served her best "that's hot" face. "That's a…" "camera phone," the heiress informed a stammering Seth. "It's the autograph of the 21st century." Over ten years later (yes, you should feel old), we're just realizing how right she was.

The selfie's origins are just about as clear as the one your mom posted last night at the wine bar with her book club squad. Everyone from Thelma and Louise stars Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis to Paul McCartney have laid claim to inventing the trend. We know what you're thinking: who really gives a shit? Why are we lauding anyone for bringing a new breed of vanity into the world? As Coachella bans selfie sticks, Cannes (attempts) to axe them completely, and Karl Lagerfeld voices his disapproval, it seems as though we're entering a new chapter in the selfie saga: from celebration to backlash. As the chorus of criticism heats up, it becomes even more important to examine the selfie's role in popular culture.

According to art critic Jerry Saltz inNew York Magazine, the burgeoning photographic genre first found its footing in the art world. While Saltz picks up strong selfie vibes from Van Gogh's self portraits, he argues that "the first significant twentieth-century pre-selfie is M. C. Escher's 1935 lithograph Hand With Reflecting Sphere." But while the likes of Andy Warhol and Cindy Sherman pushed the boundaries of self portraiture towards a more meaningful medium, the selfie as we know it didn't take really take shape until the advent of social media.

Image from Amalia Ulman's Instagram performance art piece Excellences and Perfections 

As social media has become more seamlessly integrated into our daily lives, the selfie has evolved from a way of documenting the famous people you meet at Starbucks to a legitimate communication tool used by politicians and artists alike. Sure, many selfies serve to affirm narrow standards of beauty, but they've also become powerful tools to dismantle these paradigms. Selfies are no longer (only) vapid self indulgences - they have real cultural power.

Between 2005 and 2008, MySpace was the most visited website in the world. Powered primarily by tweens, this unprecedented global connectivity ushered in a whole new kind of self expression (or the age of pixelated narcissism, depending on how you see it.) Sure, AIM might have let you trick out your away message with bright blue Comic Sans and a shimmering Fall Out Boy icon, but at the end of the day, you still needed someone to talk to. MySpace saw the first curated, consumable social media stars who took their images into their own hands--literally. These flash-in-the-mirror proto selfies boasted crazy angles (and even crazier hair), but ultimately paved the way for today's selfie empires that followed Apple's 2010 release of the iPhone 4 with a front-facing camera.

These days, it seems selfies are literally powering the fashion world. Instagram has become as much a commercial platform as it is a communicative one. Brands like Marc Jacobs, MAC, and Levis have cast campaigns not from agency development boards, but by directly calling on selfie-savvy nodels. Selfies might be the antithesis of campaigns--lo fi and DIY rather than highly produced and larger-than-life--but they're precisely what's revolutionizing the industry's approach to advertising.

In the modeling world proper, the selfie is a similarly viable currency. Today's ruling class of runway stars, the aptly dubbed Insta-girls, have built up insane legions of followers simply by sharing shots of their strong ass brow games. Models with formidable followings have leveraged their audience as a means of booking real jobs, while brands actively seek girls who they know will keep the like train rolling. Estee Lauder didn't need to launch a massive rebranding campaign to reach a younger audience, the brand simply tapped Kendall Jenner as its new face and within mere days had racked up an additional 50,000 Instagram followers--who knows how she'll impact its actual sales.

Calvin Klein (also Jenner fans) even skipped the middle man and launched its own full-fledged selfie campaign. Last summer's CK One spot saw Edie Campbell and Evian Christ alike flipping the camera on themselves, giving a millennial meaning to nothing coming between them and their Calvins. Kim Kardashian's selfie compendium, Selfish, is already a #1 best seller on Amazon and it isn't even out until May 5. Any way you see it (transitive property or not), simple selfies amount to serious dollars.

Image from DIS #artselfie

But just as selfies can be narcissistic or capitalist, they can also be used towards far more interesting and empowering ends. Back to Saltz's art world: DIS Magazine's #artselfie explores new ways of seeing and processing artworks, Richard Prince appropriates them left and right, and Amalia Ulman even crafted an entire performance art piece primarily through serial selfie uploading. If art is in constant dialogue with popular culture, we can only expect to see more artists challenging, engaging with, and subverting the phenomenon.

Selfies are being constructively used outside of the art world, too. The #nomakeupselfie movement didn't just help Cancer Research UK raise over £1 million through accompanying text donations, it became a tool to dismantle picture perfect beauty standards and created a safe space for women to celebrate flaws and all. Political (or politicized) figures from Obama to Bill Clinton, Pope Frances and Pussy Riot have all used selfies as ways to impact generations that otherwise might not be receptive. And perhaps most importantly, many of the images shared on Tumblr during the recent #BlackOutDay and Transgender Day of Visibility were also selfies. Although solo shots, together, these positive statements of affirmation created collective messages of pride.

As these viral movements have shown, selfies have the ability to transcend Kim K ass worship into something more meaningful that challenges racism, sexism, and bigotry. It's transformed from a hilarious Paris Hilton prediction to an important tool shaping politics, economics, and global culture. 


Text Emily Manning
Photography Ash Kingston

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