If you’re an Instagram user, you’ve probably noticed a hashtag called #2017bestnine circulating in your feed during the past few weeks. It’s from the Top Nine app, first launched in 2015, on which users enter their Instagram handle into a field and an algorithm forms a collage of the nine most popular photos from their accounts in that calendar year; people then post the montage on their Instagram pages. In 2017 my top nine included five selfies, four more than in 2016; no selfies were in my top nine in 2015. This change is indicative of why Chicago native Alicia Eler’s debut book, The Selfie Generation: How Our Self-Images Are Changing Our Notions of Privacy, Sex, Consent, and Culture, is a timely addition to growing research on selfie culture. Weaving first-person narrative and conversations with tech and social media experts, the Minnesota Star Tribune journalist offers a wide-ranging exploration of the effects of the selfie on our cultural relationship to technology, privacy, and gender.
In the opening chapter Eler points to Kim Kardashian as the first person to capitalize on the selfie by using it as a commodity. Kardashian built a brand off her identity and lifestyle through selfies that, as Eler puts it, “offer fans a voyeuristic look into her life, curated by her.” As social media has become more popular, so has Kardashian’s celebrity, which has led to brand endorsements, product lines, personal appearances, and even a best-selling book. Still, Kardashian remains a target of criticism, a lot of which is directed at her body. Eler uses this example to lay the framework for the book’s most compelling topic: How America’s deeply rooted misogyny and the boundaries of consent are embedded in selfie culture.
“The selfie is a way to be seen,” Eler states early on, identifying how the selfie is shifting what was once private into public spheres. The desire to be seen and connect results in what Eler refers to as an “attention economy” where personal value is based on “likes.” Is it any wonder that selfies would be embraced by women, who’ve been systemically invisible for most of history? Though Eler never explicitly addresses how gender norms are enacted via selfies, she dedicates a significant portion of the book to examining how girls participate in selfie culture and the consequences they face when they do.
In a gratifyingly sex-positive voice, Eler delves into the subjects of shame and the stigma women may encounter when they reveal their erotic selves through sexting and selfies. The third chapter opens with the author’s memory of her first experience taking a “clit pic” to send to her girlfriend. “I recall one time I was deep into some heavy texting and it quickly turned to sexting,” Eler writes. “Then she asked for a pic of my pussy. It seemed like a normal par for the course sexting request but it was something I had never done.” Eler describes what she calls “a mix of fear and lust” that also turned her on. But this anecdote also signals vulnerability, as Eler wonders “Who’s to say it would only be for her eyes?”
That question pervades conversations around privacy and consent. Selfies can skew gendered power dynamics by allowing women to commodify what they’ve been taught is their only value—their appearance. Perhaps more significant is how selfies present a way for women to claim space, to prove they exist. Selfies enable a feeling of control over an image that has historically been defined by men. The male gaze is inescapable, however, which leads Eler to ruminate on the inevitable sexualization of women and what this means for culture in general.
“[The selfie] is empowering as a way to capture attention and to connect quickly, but it comes with the reality of literally releasing one’s selfie as data to the network,” Eler writes. “This becomes even more complicated within the realm of selfie culture, because while the image is of her and for her, it becomes something that is also consumed by others who see her as a sexualized object. It’s impossible to escape the gaze or the commodification of bodies under patriarchy.”
So maybe selfies aren’t going to dismantle the patriarchy, but giving women more power and autonomy to make choices about their bodies will. You’ve got to start somewhere. Why not on Instagram?